mainestewards

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?

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August 3, 2013

Hiatus

Filed under: Children and Families,Lectionary,Social Gospel,Stewardship of the Environment — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 8:48 pm

I can’t put it off any longer. It’s Saturday night. I have to face this week’s readings.

I’ve put off writing for so long because I really enjoyed my hiatus, my month away from my desk, my month of getting out of my head and into Martha time. It started with the fulfillment of a cherished fantasy: I rented a dumpster. The family thought I was joking. I had been threatening since winter that our vacation this year would consist of a week at home with a dumpster. It turned out to be a month. And it was great.

First went the obvious stuff: The broken down sofa, the vacuum cleaner that made scary smoke smells, the off-cuts of plywood and random chunks of insulation from walling-in the upstairs of the barn. We were having fun, and feeling very freed.

As we moved into the finer layers of our various rooms, the pace slowed. It wasn’t that our energy was waning, far from it. It was our engagement in the process. We began to offer one another quiet gifts of time and presence. I first noticed it when I pulled out two big boxes of old photographs. I began to sort through them, tossing some into a trash box and others into a keep pile. Before long Robert started reaching into the trash box, retrieving things, asking questions, encouraging me to keep more than I really wanted. Mallory curled herself up beside me. She wanted to hear about pieces of my life so far removed in time and space; she drew out stories of people long dead or estranged.

One was a picture of my great-aunt Elsie, the patron whose voice had been my constant companion through the purge, her wise and gentle voice saying, “We keep things for a certain amount of time.” I remember her saying that to my mother, and I take comfort in its permission, both permission to keep and permission to toss. In one simple phrase, Aunt Elsie taught me the essence of stewardship.

Last Monday the dumpster was rolled off. Four cubic yards of junk…three packed carloads to the thrift shop…four trips to the recycling center…and priceless time with my family and its artifacts. It felt good.

It was in that lighter state of mind that I returned to my desk this week. After a month of sorting, tossing, donating, scrubbing, clearing, shop-vaccing, and power-washing, I returned to life inside my head. As I moved back into the more familiar Mary mode, I was greeted by a lectionary reading from Ecclesiastes:

Pointless. It’s all a pointless waste of time. Whoever buys your house is just going to change everything any way. Your paint job might help you sell the house, but after that, who cares? And when you die? She’s never going to remember which stories go with which heirlooms; she probably won’t even keep most of them. No matter how carefully you provide for her, at some point she’s going to cash out her trust fund and live her own life. It’s all pointless.

You can understand why I’ve put off writing….

How do I reconcile the words of Ecclesiastes with the stewardship of abundance? Where’s the good news? I followed Jesus’ advice to the rich young ruler—I got rid of all the clutter, all the stuff that was clogging my life and getting in the way of my family’s wholeness. I gave anything usable to a thrift shop ministry that serves an impoverished rural area, with the proceeds supporting the vicar’s care for individuals in crisis. I recycled the materials that can be reused to tread a bit more gently on the resources of creation. How could it all have been in vain?

The answer, of course and as always, lies in our baptism. Through baptism, we are called to live not just as stewards of our stuff, but as stewards of one another. We are called to care for one another’s hopes, and dreams, and prayers…and memories, and stories, and artifacts.

The fellowship of family time and the passing of wisdom and memory across generations is just as spiritually formative at home as it is at church. The early church, after, broke its bread in homes, around the tables of its members. And what better way to live out Christ’s teachings by word and example than to sit with my child while she sorts her own belongings for donation, nurturing her love of neighbor and care for those in need?

In the end, it’s a both/and: The new homeowners will undo a fair chunk of my work. Mallory will consign a fair chunk of my belongings when they pass into her care. In the meantime, however, I am the steward of so many good gifts—tangible and intangible—in this time, and in this place. That’s where I find the good news this week: Whether it matters or not, it matters to me.

For that I am truly thankful.

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]

Amen.


[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] Amazon.com, Flat Stanley: His Original Adventure

[iii] Membermission.org

June 5, 2013

Word Gets Around

Filed under: Congregational Development,Financial Commitment,Leadership,Lectionary,Social Gospel — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 11:48 am

This week’s readings present two very similar scenes—Jesus comes upon a burial procession. The deceased is the only son of a widow, leaving her among the most vulnerable in her society. Like Elijah, Jesus calls upon God to revive the son, and returns him to his mother.

As he does in so many of the familiar Gospel stories, Jesus extends the words of the prophet that would have been familiar to those around him.

But there is one key difference: In the reading from Kings, we know a great deal about the widow, her son, and her relationship with Elijah. We know that there is a long history of faith and trust between them. In fact, the raising of the widow’s son is the third in a quick succession of events that give us a sense of the big picture: First, having spoken truth to power, Elijah found himself on the run. When hiding out and letting big scary birds bring him food proved to be unsustainable, God gave him Plan B: Walk straight into Jezebel’s home town and introduce yourself to a random widow. Trust me; it’s fine. And things are, indeed, fine…for a while. But then the son dies. Now Elijah is stuck: The widow trusted him and his god, choosing Elijah’s words over what would likely have been her own trust in Baal. And where did it get them? She ends up just as vulnerable as she was when the reading began. Elijah needed this miracle as much for his own credibility as she needed it to ensure her social and economic safety.

In the Gospel reading, however, we don’t know anything about the widow, or about the son, or about any prior encounters they might have had with Jesus. We are permitted to assume that the widow has done nothing to “earn” Jesus’ favor. Jesus doesn’t owe her a good turn, nor does he have anything at stake. He simply “looks on her with compassion.” And in addressing the immediate grief of her loss, he also meets the deeper need of her circumstances. Jesus  models mercy and justice.

….and word gets around.

As Jesus’ ministry spreads, people hear of him; they are drawn to him. And they come not just because his miracles of feeding and healing meet a practical need, but because he feeds a deeper hunger, heals a more profound kind of hurt.

I believe that in these passages from Kings and from the ministry of Jesus, we are offered a model for our congregations and our communities in our lives together.

In this long green season, the visions we develop for mission and ministry that will later be expressed as a budget proposal will probably not include raising the dead and returning them to their families. It is likely, however, that such vision will call each of us to look more deeply into our own baptismal ministries.

It will call us to bring fresh energy and resources to renewing ourselves as a community that proclaims by word and example the Good New of God in Christ; seeks and serves Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves; and strives for justice and peace among all people, respecting the dignity of every human being….

It will call us to find the joy in giving, offering a proportional gift or tithe as a symbol of God’s abundance in our lives…

It will call us to see our congregation as a place where people look with compassion not just on one another, but on those beyond our walls, beyond our community, and even beyond our understanding….

…and word will get around.

People who may be more inclined to place their trust in other things, or who may know themselves to be vaguely seeking something that they can’t quite put their finger on will see that we don’t just worship on the surface of our Sunday morning lives. Word will get around that we gather in a place where deeper hungers are fed and more profound hurts are healed. Word will get around We follow Jesus’ example, building on Elijah’s model of speaking mercy to those who grieve and restoring justice to the most vulnerable.

Word will get around.

Thanks be to God. Alleluia, Alleluia!

May 21, 2013

Carrying the News

Filed under: Leadership,Lectionary,Social Gospel — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 1:00 am

Poet Laureate Billy Collins writes:

It has been calculated that each copy of the Gutenberg Bible required the skins of 300 sheep.

I can see them

squeezed into the holding pen

behind the stone building

where the printing press is  housed.

All of them squirming around

to find a little room

and looking so much alike

it would be nearly impossible to count them.

And there is no telling which one of them

will carry the news

that the Lord is a Shepherd,

one of the few things

they already know.

I am drawn to this poem certainly because of its imagery, but more so because it compels me to think about the nature of God as we approach this Trinity Sunday, and to consider my response as one who loves and seeks to serve the Lord.

In the readings from Isaiah and from Revelation, we have this incredible imagery of the God of splendor, the Holy One seated on the throne, worthy of unending praise. I love this image of the magnificent God that I was taught to worship as a child. I learned to read from the United Methodist hymnal. And I still know by heart so many of those “big hymns” that we sing to the immortal, invisible, God only wise.

How might we respond to this image of God in our lives?

This is where I start to get a little silly and let my mind wander into the world of the poem.

If sheep were a little smarter, a little higher order, would some be eager? “Ooh! Ooh! Print it on me! I want one of the good pages.” How many of them—how many of us—would be like Isaiah: humbled by our acknowledgement of sin and eager to carry the Word of the Lord among the people?

But sheep are rather docile, so maybe another response would be “yeah, whatever, I’ll take a page.” Though I do not doubt for a moment that the revelation to John was a deeply spiritual experience for him, there is a part of me that sees something rather passive in his role—dutifully recording the vision he is given, then mailing it out in seven directions and letting the readers take it from there. I’m ashamed to admit that there have certainly been times when I’ve settled for delivering a message when I could have witnessed to the Word in my life.

The poet reminds us, however, that the Lord is a Shepherd, and that the sheep are secure in knowing this. And it is from that image that I find the example of the disciples to be the most comfortable, and indeed the most compelling, response.

I like the disciples. They give me hope. The Gospels aren’t particularly kind to them and Jesus himself gets impatient with their lack of understanding on a fairly regular basis. Sometimes when I read the Gospels I can’t help but think, “Bless their hearts, they’re just not very bright.”

But they do have one thing that gets me excited—they are the ones called to be the messengers and witnesses of the triune God we worship and celebrate this day.

As practicing Jews, the disciples were of course familiar with God the Father, maker of heaven and earth. They were faithful companions of his only son our Lord. And as we heard last week, it was through them that the Holy Spirit revealed itself on the Day of Pentecost.

It was only when all three pieces of the puzzle came together in their experience of the one true and living God that they really understood how they were called to be in the world. It was only then that they became the apostles whose teaching and fellowship we commit to continuing in our baptismal covenant, in the breaking of the bread and in the prayers.

And don’t you love the way this comes full circle?

When we proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, when we seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves…isn’t that just another way of saying, with the prophet Isaiah, “Here am I, send me?”

When we commit to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being, aren’t we too sharing a vision of a new heaven and a new earth, as surely as John saw all things new in the revelation on Patmos?

There’s no telling which one of us will carry the news that the Lord is a Shepherd. That’s not ours to decide, or even to know. It is for us to decide, however, that we will embrace the call to discipleship—discipleship infused with the fullness of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

Amen

May 14, 2013

Do You Hear What I Hear?

Filed under: Financial Commitment,Lectionary — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 1:00 am

No matter how many times I experience the practice of reading the Day of Pentecost passage from Acts in many languages simultaneously, I never get used to it.

The second voice takes me by surprise.

The third voice unsettles me.

And as the cacophonous chatter builds, I ride an arc of feelings from surprise, through anxiety, and finally to a place not of hearing words and languages, but of knowing the presence of the Holy Spirit in the rush of it all.

However, in my close reading of this familiar passage over the past week, I was struck not by the many languages that the apostles were given to speak, but by the writer’s emphasis on the crowd’s ability to hear. Listen to their reaction:

Are not all these who are speaking Galileans?

And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?

In our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.

In this reading, the crowd seems to assume not that the apostles were speaking in many languages, but that somehow a common language was being heard by each person in a way that he or she could receive.

That shift in emphasis, that change in perspective, is powerful. It raises some very exciting possibilities for me as one who strives to live fully into a life of stewardship.

My first reaction is to jump back to our reading from Genesis.

I realize, of course, that in this passage from Genesis the Lord was speaking to a very different situation. But for me as a post-Acts Christian, if you will, I take great hope from the notion that nothing we propose to do will be impossible if we are able to understand one another.

Note that the focus here, as in Acts, is not on speaking, but on hearing. We don’t actually have to speak the same language; our strength comes from the much harder work of hearing one another. If we can manage that, we can achieve anything.

The second thing that excites me about this emphasis on hearing of God’s deeds of power in my own language is recognizing that this moment of Pentecost is something that any one of us can experience firsthand, at any time. It is not confined to a moment in the history of the early church, nor to a single Sunday in the liturgical year.

Sometimes we experience it in those “big moments” of hearing the Holy Spirit and knowing how we are called to be God’s people in the world. Perhaps more often we feel the Holy Spirit moving in those little, every-day moments as we live into our baptismal covenant, seeking and serving Christ in others and loving our neighbors as ourselves.

This Spirit-led way of life is precisely what we mean by “stewardship,” defined broadly as “all that we do, with all that we have.”

When we understand ourselves to be stewards of all our many kinds of abundance, we grow into the truth that we are, first and foremost, stewards of the Gospel. Before we talk about time and talent, and certainly before we bring money into the conversation, we are called to be stewards of the Good News of God in Christ.

We are stewards of the hopes, and dreams, and prayers of our brothers and sisters in Christ, called to minister not just to one another, but to those beyond our walls, beyond our borders, even beyond our understanding. The church budget is but one of the ways we express this common ministry. It is a living document of our faith. It expresses our values; it explains how we will act out our commitment to live as stewards of the Gospel.

Take a fresh look at the church budget as a source of insight into who we are and what we do, a source of hearing the word of the Lord in action through worship, program, and outreach. Think about the invitation to support that budget as a Pentecost moment—a moment when the Holy Spirit moves through you and among you, inspiring you to give generously and joyfully.

Nothing we propose to do will be impossible if we understand one another, and hear the Holy Spirit at work in our midst.

Amen

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.

May 3, 2013

Seeking, Finding, and Being Found

Filed under: Congregational Development,Leadership,Lectionary,Social Gospel — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 9:57 pm

Acts 16: 9-15

I was sitting at the breakfast table on the first Sunday morning of my first trip to South Africa. It was a gorgeous summer day, just between the summer solstice and Christmas. Lots of fresh air and sunlight. Out of nowhere came the most unearthly sound. A high, strong, human sound. I had never heard, or even imagined, such a sound before.

It was a modern-day Lydia, making her way up the street toward the park where she would meet with the women who gathered there to sing, to pray, and to worship God. As she walked, her ululating came not from the back of her throat, but from the depth of her soul.

Ululating is a deep tradition among African women. Physiologically, men can ululate, but culturally it belongs to the women. It is brought forth in times of deep emotion—joy and sorrow, grief and celebration, despair and fulfillment. In his memoir[i], Nelson Mandela talks at length about the Rivonia Trial and the 1964 court ruling that ultimately sent him to Robbin Island. At the moment when he was led from the courtroom following the verdict, he writes simply, “and in the gallery, the women ululated.” It was that sound beyond words that he carried with him into the unknown.

On this particular Sunday, however, my Lydia ululated for joy and in fellowship.

In those days it was still common for household workers to live on-site, a carry-over from their apartheid days when restricted travel made it impractical to go home at the end of a day. And so as she made her way up the street, women would come out from the various houses to join her. My in-laws happen to live almost at the top of the street, very close to the park. By the time I heard them, it was a party…and they were just getting started.

We meet a very different Lydia in the gathering by the river, just outside the gates of Philippi. This Lydia is not merely a businesswoman, but a dealer in purple cloth. Her trade is with the wealthy and the ruling classes. She has connections. She is the head of her own household, accustomed to being in charge and to getting her way.

Yet for all her success, she can’t quite shake that inner sense that something is missing. She can’t put her finger on it exactly; the only thing she can name is the yearning. Even though she has an established worship life, she remains a Seeker.

Like most Seekers, Lydia didn’t actually know what she was looking for. She could not have described it, but she knew it when she heard it. Her response was one of faith—in worship and in the baptism of her entire household—as well as one of radical stewardship. The Seeker was found by her Lord, and on hearing the Word she went all in…in all that she did…with all that she had.

But there’s another story of radical response to the word of the Lord in this reading: Paul took a pretty bold step outside his comfort zone, don’t you think?

Working from little more than a vision, and a sketchy one at that, Paul pulled up stakes, made some fairly complicated travel arrangements into a completely unknown part of the world, and pretty much trusted that things would make sense when he got there. And even when he got there, he still wasn’t “there”! No—he had to leave the safety of the city gates and go to a place where he suspected their might be a gathering place for prayer and worship.

But he went. He kept going until he found that place where he was called to be.

All of this begs some pretty uncomfortable questions for us, the 118th generation to live into the covenant of Holy Baptism in a time when the media would have us believe that faith is fading, that churches are in decline, that we may as well cut our losses.

Yet, as we all know, there’s always another way to look at statistics.

In this case, if half of our neighbors consider themselves to be spiritual, but only 18% name their faith as important to them and a slightly smaller15% value the time they spend in worship…it’s safe to say that we know a lot of Lydias.

So the question becomes, how will we engage our own radical stewardship of the Gospel?

How will we open our hearts to listen…and to say yes to transformation and renewal?

How will we step outside our comfort zones? How far are we willing to go to reach the Seekers in our midst?

How will our congregations, with their deep heritage of living into the Gospel in the daily life and work of their members, move from the defensive posture of scarcity to the invitational attitude of discernment and faith, creating a vision of vitality as a faith community?

These are not easy questions. They don’t have easy answers. Nevertheless, I do not doubt that when we get there, God’s people will be glad…and sing for joy…joy beyond words.

Let us pray:

Gracious God,
through a vision you sent forth Paul to preach the gospel
and called the women to the place of prayer on the Sabbath.
Grant that we may be like Paul
and be found like Lydia,
our hearts responsive to your word
and open to go where you lead us. Amen.[ii]


[i] Mandela, Nelson. A Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela. Abacus Publishing, 1995.

April 18, 2013

Trivial Pursuit

Filed under: Uncategorized — by Lisa Meeder Turnbull @ 5:36 pm

My day was not off to a good start.

I had taken my car in for a routine oil change and tune-up. Something unrelated had gone wrong in the process and now it refused to let the mechanic make it happy. It was entirely possible that I would be shopping for a new car before the week was out.

I needed to clear my head and do something positive, so I jumped in my loaner car and headed for the gym. I checked in, headed for the locker room, started to change…there were no socks in my bag. Seriously? No socks.

I’ll walk the dog instead. That will be good for both of us.

By the time I got home it had started to rain.

Now I’m really feeling sorry for myself.

And guilty.

I’m feeling guilty about every stupid little thing that’s going wrong because this particular bad day happens to be Tuesday, the morning after the Boston Marathon.

In the midst of it a wise friend said, “The relatively small problems of our lives don’t pause when there are these big tragedies going on.”

She reminded me that the very fact that I had these little inconveniences was a sign that life goes on. Life is always, on some level, still normal, even in the storms that rage.

This brings to mind a recent editorial in the Los Angeles Time in which the writers lay out a method, complete with diagram, on How Not to Say the Wrong Thing. It turns out that not saying something stupid around the ill, the aggrieved, the bereaved, and others who rely on us for offerings of presence comes down to one simple rule: comfort in, dump out.

Here is how clinical psychologist Susan Silk describes what she calls her “ring theory,” which, she points out, works for any kind of crisis: medical, legal, financial, romantic, you name it. [i]

Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma….Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order….

Here are the rules. The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens…. That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.

Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings.

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours,…listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it….

If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are,…that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

Comfort in, dump out.

My friend and I were able to talk about my anxiety and frustration because we were in the same ring—we both live at a distance from Boston, and we had both quickly confirmed that the Marathon runners and volunteers we knew were safe. Kvetching about something else, something that was trivial in the grand scheme of things yet a real and present stress to me, didn’t take away from our equally real and present concern for those in closer rings. This was where we were; it was OK to meet each other there.

In her gift of just a few supportive words, my friend freed me to unapologetically pray to St. Eligius, the patron saint of car mechanics, and to pray for those in any kind of sorrow or danger, for victims of terrorism, for first responders, and for those who do great harm.[ii] She freed me to appreciate the trivial inconvenience of everyday life.


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