Thanksgiving

Hodu l’Adonai ki tov, ki la’olam chasdo, “Give thanks to Adonai for He is good, for His mercy is everlasting.”

On behalf of the staff, vestry, and finance committee, thank you for your faithful support of this parish and the work of God in the world, both nearby and far away. Your pledge of time, talent, and treasure is vital to the vision of our parish to boldly engage the world as God’s shepherds, to share our blessings, and to work with God toward creating Heaven on Earth one person at a time. As we look toward the Thanksgiving Holiday, we should be reminded of the many reasons we have for giving thanks to God and we should be mindful of how we should respond to show our gratitude.

The scriptures provide plenty of examples of the people of God offering their thanksgiving—in response to being blessed Abraham gave one-tenth of all his possessions to the priest Melchizedek; in response to his salvation Zacchaeus gave half of what he owned to the poor; the blind man restored followed Jesus and praised God — and the Psalms tell us that thanksgiving has been a central part of worship from ancient times. For Episcopalians, thanksgiving is also a central part of our worship, not only in our use of the psalms and the offering of our gifts, but in the celebration of Eucharistic, a Greek word meaning thanksgiving.

In Luke’s telling of the Last Supper we read that Jesus gave thanks involving two cups with a thanksgiving involving bread in the middle: cup-bread-cup. This is in the manner of Jewish meal prayers where it is neither the contents of the cup nor the bread, but it is God who is blessed. Words like these may have been used, “Blessed are You, LORD our God, King of the universe, Who brings forth bread from the earth.” “Blessed are You, LORD, our God, King of the universe, Who creates the fruit of the vine.” You might try this at your Thanksgiving table this year.

Just for fun — The Hebrew word above translated as “Give thanks” is “hodu.” That is also found in the Hebrew word for the bird we call a turkey. “Hag Hahodaya,” literally the “the chicken of India” and you probably recall, India is where Columbus thought he was headed when he sailed west and started the chain of events that led to the Pilgrim’s first Thanksgiving celebration in 1621.

I thank God for you and for God’s faithfulness working through you. Give thanks to the Lord.

Fr Bill+

Stewardship

Each of you should use whatever gift you have received to serve others, as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. - 1 Peter 4:10

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Peter, the first leader of the post-Ascension church, offers a word of exhortation to his community that echoes across time and space. Use whatever gift you have received in service of others. In this way we are counted as faithful stewards of God’s grace in its various forms. Grace is gift and gift is grace, all from God and taking a variety of forms, and meant not just for ourselves but for the benefit of others.

Stewards are not owners, but servants and managers of the property of another, and Peter tells us that proper management of God’s property means that we deploy those graces for God’s purpose which here is identified as serving others. It may have been harvest time and time for the first stewardship campaign of the early church.

For almost 2000 years, the faithful have been exhorted to share whatever gift they have received for the work of the church in serving others. Those others are fellow church members, those not yet in the church, and those who may not come to know the Lord in this lifetime.

I am grateful that we have a highly faithful congregation. All in their own way, as circumstances some times dictate, are using the gifts entrusted to them by God for serving others. For some, it is their time that they generously give to the church. For others, a special gift of talent is used to bless the church’s mission. And for others still, it is through generous financial gifts that they express their faithfulness. These forms of stewardship are, of course, not exclusive and those who are faithful stewards are typically generous with their time, talent, and treasure. Is there anything more Christlike than that? God, through Christ, gave his very best and gave his all to serve others.

Thank you for being Good Shepherds of the gifts you have received and for the gift of time, talent, and treasure you will pledge to the church for its mission in 2020. Please know that your generosity is being matched by the generosity of many, many others who make this a special place in which to serve and to worship. You make St Peter smile. May you know his joy and the joy of our Lord who says to you, “Well done, good and faithful servant.”

Grace and peace, Fr Bill+

The Stewardship of Life

The story is told of an American tourist who visited the 19th century Polish rabbi, Hofetz Chaim. Astonished to see that the rabbi's home was only a simple room filled with books, plus a table and a bench, the tourist asked, "Rabbi, where is your furniture?"

"Where is yours?" Replied the rabbi.

"Mine?" Asked the puzzled American. "But I'm a visitor here. I'm only passing through."

"So am I," said Hofetz Chaim.

Passing through happens in so many ways. We are visitors to each day the Lord has given us. We pass through places where we live and call home. We pass through friends, losing some and gaining others. Our families change. Youth turns to adulthood and then to old age.

Our life on this side of eternity is a passing through. You have likely noticed that Jesus traveled and did a lot of passing through. You may have also noticed that he did it unencumbered by home and wealth, things we feel we must have and things that can become a cause for us to worry. The felt need for the security of a place and our things is shaped by the world we live in and cannot escape, but the same was true for people in Jesus’ day. Yet, Jesus tells us that we are passing through. To the rich man, who to his credit had kept all the commandments but who was also encumbered by his wealth, Jesus said to “sell it all and give it to the poor. Then come follow me.” He taught that entering the kingdom was through a small door and that holding onto wealth and things could be a problem (Matthew 19:24). To others he spoke of the necessity of setting our hearts on building up treasure in the place we would eventually arrive when the passing through has ended. Like Jesus, in this life we are just passing through.

Likewise with our accomplishments and our failures. These, too, are passing. Most will never have monuments built to their memory and those few who do will also eventually be forgotten by this world. However, earthly accomplishments can provide an opportunity for recognizing our good fortune, our giftedness, and expressing our gratitude. They can lift our eyes off the approval of the world and to the approval of God. Our faith tells us that heaven is our home and the only accomplishment with eternal significance is receiving our family membership through Christ. As with accomplishments, failures are a passing part of this life. Learn from them, let them also be a source of sanctification, and then let them pass. I imagine that it can take much courage and grace to accept the impermanence of our lives and to receive and let go of what each day brings.

In this passing through, know that you are loved and already heirs of a kingdom beyond all you can ask or imagine. It is a place where all that needs to be accomplished already has been accomplished for you and where failures will neither be recalled nor known. Blessings of courage and grace be upon you as you pass through this life to your eternal life in the household of our God.

Fr. Bill+

Clarity

Years ago I heard something that I shared with my students to see if what I heard was true. The point was not to mislead or embarrass anyone, but to point out that clarity of communication matters.

You may have heard about the potential problem of a dihydrogen oxide build up in the environment. It was a rainy day in Charleston when I spoke with my students about the current dihydrogen oxide spill. Scientists say that this dangerous chemical goes largely unregulated although it has incredible destructive potential. It is found in large concentrations in the atmosphere, in lakes, rivers, and oceans, and in the ground, yet the public seems not to be overly concerned or even aware of its dangers. This hydric acid can corrode metals and dissolve rock. It can create sink holes and mud slides. It is a major cause of destruction to our bridges, roadways, communication systems, and sewer lines. Meteorologists say it plays a key role in blizzards and hurricanes, tsunamis and floods. To humans, prolonged exposure can damage skin tissue and ingestion of large amounts of hydric acid can cause gastric distress, diarrhea, or even death. Having shared this news, a good number of students were understandably concerned that there had been a recent heavy spill of hydric acid in Charleston. Bad stuff, this hydric acid, this dihydrogen oxide, this H2O.

“Oh, that is what you are talking about.” Clarity of communication matters. I appreciate that the different professions have their necessary technical language. That language is helpful toward the precision required in those professions and must be learned by those practitioners. It is meant for a limited field and is helpful in the clarity of their internal communication. With my students, I engaged in obfuscation. I intentionally made something simple hard to understand.

One thing I think Jesus tried to do was to be clear and straightforward in his communication. Yes, I get that he spoke in parables and said things about people not understanding because he spoke in parables, but I think that was a clever way of inviting the curious, brilliant, ordinary and lazy to think for themselves rather than obfuscation.

The prophet Micah tells us what God requires - “To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” Jesus amplifies that in the life he models for us by showing us just, merciful, and humble living, and in the words he left us that summarize the whole purpose of our lives - “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength. Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.”

Can it be more clear than this? To act justly is to fulfil our responsibilities to God and neighbor. To act mercifully is to extend grace to others where it is not merited, knowing that we, too, require mercy. To walk humbly is to understand that all that we have is the gift of God. To love God is to love your neighbor and to love your neighbor is to love God. These are the measure for our Christian progress and the measure by which all our decisions should be made. Is this clear?

Grace and peace, Fr Bill+

Spiritual Growth in Ordinary Times

Trust in the Lord with all your heart
and lean not on your own understanding;
in all your ways submit to him,
and he will make your paths straight. - Proverbs 3:5-6

Following the long season of Holy Days and special devotional practices that stretches from the first day of Advent through Trinity Sunday, we now enter that other long season of the church called ordinary time. It is a time when the seeds of worship and devotion sown during the earlier season sprout, take root, and grow. This very much matches the world around us, where nature has fully come alive, the fields and forests have returned to green, and we witness the process of birth and growth which will lead to the fall harvest. Appropriately, our liturgical color for the season is green.

For Christians, this is our growth period and the time for continuing to be mindful of our spiritual lives, adding some water and fertilizer where needed and pulling those weeds that seek to choke off growth. All this is done faithfully so that we might bear fruit individually and as a faith community come harvest time.

So, here is a growth area - trust in the Lord with all your heart. In this season of growth, what is going on with your trust in God with all that you are and all that you have, even to include your thoughts, your hopes, and your aspirations?

In my reading of this piece of wisdom, I understand the goal not as becoming a mindless Christian zombie without my own thoughts or understanding. For the Hebrew people, the heart was the seat of understanding, and not as we might think, a place of the emotions. That was the gut. The goal of trusting God is not mindless obedience. I have seen a bumper sticker that says “God said it. I believe it. That settles it.” I do hope there is more thought than seems implied by those words. God gave us the gift of reason so that we might use it to know the will of God and how to apply it in all the varied situations where humans find themselves. Rather than mindlessness, I see this a call to increased mindfulness such that my seeing, my perceiving, my knowing, and my acting increasingly correspond to the mind and will of God. Being mindful, I think about what God thinks about something I am facing and I trust in following that wisdom even when that may be the hard, the unpopular, and the lonely way.

The writer of Proverbs exhorts the person who would be wise to submit, but maybe we can think of this not as self-abasement or humiliation, not as denying our thoughts and intellect, but as becoming more thoughtful, more mindful, and increasingly making God’s way our way in all things and situations so that there is less and less distinction between the two. The faithful promise of God, and God is always faithful, is that this kind of growing mindfulness will direct us in the path we should go.

Here is a discipline that some seeking mindfulness of God may find helpful in this ordinary time. Theologian Karl Barth is said to have once told some young theologians not to isolate themselves from the world, but to read the newspapers and the Bible, and then to interpret the news from the view of the Bible. As a practice in mindfulness, this might be a good start. When you review the news of the day, ask: How does God feel about the events and the people I have encountered in the news? How do I feel toward them and how should I feel toward them? Pray for the grace to have the mind and heart of God.

Grace and peace,
Bill

Happy Tenth Anniversary

Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever. - Psalm 118:1

It has been ten years now that I have served as an ordained minister in the Episcopal Church. Some anniversaries, like tenth and fiftieth, and maybe all those in increments of ten, seem to hold a special place in our mental calendars. They seem to be more important milestones than say, the eighth or eleventh anniversary.

I have been thinking around this anniversary of the reasons why I said yes to the call and the occasion of my ordination. That ordination was on the Feast Day of Saint Augustine of Canterbury. Canterbury, not the more famous Augustine of Hippo. This Augustine, not of Hippo, was a monk at a monastery in Rome when Pope Gregory the Great chose him to lead a mission to England in 595. This mission was to re-establish the church in England following an almost two hundred year period when the British Isles were cut off from Rome and the Roman Empire. Augustine was a reluctant missionary and for good reason. His destination was an unknown land, ruled by Saxon heathens who were always fighting and selling the defeated into slavery. The Saxons spoke a strange language that no one knew and whatever authority the Pope had elsewhere did not hold sway here. What good could forty unarmed monks do if they even managed to survive first contact with these fierce barbarians? Augustine stopped before he reached his destination and made an appeal to the Pope to reconsider the mission. Gregory sent him a second time and he arrived in 597 to find a receptive King Aethelbert of Kent. As it turned out, the king’s wife Bertha was a Christian. The king soon converted, gave land for churches, and Augustine became the first Archbishop of Canterbury. Who saw that coming for Augustine the reluctant monk, Augustine the fortunate, Augustine now forever the saint, and first Archbishop and head of our Anglican tradition?

In the aftermath, I wonder what Augustine had to say to God about his doubts and his hesitation. I wonder what Augustine had to say to God about his good fortune in finding a receptive king and something of a church still remaining in that forgotten land. “Give thanks to the LORD, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

It seems proper that I was ordained on the Feast Day of Saint Augustine. There have been many times that I have been like him. Like him, I can find myself with doubts and reluctant to take chances on the unknown. In those moments, I want to arm myself with data and probabilities for success before setting out to a reasonable end. Like him, my doubts can lead me to stop short of greater goals. And like him, I can find myself delighted by outcomes that were much better than anticipated. I have lots of old family photos and no one is smiling. They seem to have their doubts and their faces seem to show their reservation. Maybe that is a family trait or a larger German trait. A couple DNA tests say that I am 50-60 percent Britain. Maybe Augustine, with his doubts, is a distant relative.

It is important that doubts and reluctance are not confused with an absence of faith. My ancestors’ faith carried them through hard times and I am sure Augustine’s doubts were not about the core of his faith. Perhaps like you, the unknown gives me reason to pause and to question, but that is because we have faith and are in those moments grappling with our faith. Doubt and faith are not opposites. I would like to think that Augustine shares with me another trait - gratitude. I would like to think that he too experienced over and over that God is good and his love endures forever. I said yes to the call to ordained ministry out of gratitude for so many unforeseen blessings. God has been exceedingly good to me. One might think all those unforeseen blessings would cause me to be less doubting and less questioning. Those remain, but gratitude is really what has grown.

On this tenth anniversary, I am grateful for the places I have gone, often reluctantly, and have been blessed to find something greater than I could have asked or imagined. I am grateful that going through those places has brought me here. I give thanks to the LORD and my witness is that he is good and that his love endures forever.

Grace and peace, Fr Bill+

Founders Day

“The history of the Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd is your story as well as it is mine. It is the story of God’s people, created by Him to live according to His will and purpose. It is the memory and story of times and events we share, that made us the family that we are.” - Eleanor Wilson, 2005

By now you have likely noticed that I like to share stories. Stories are the vessels of our collective wisdom and truths. When memorable, they are usually more effective in communicating wisdom and truth than are speeches or lectures, or least they seem to have more lasting power. My guess is that many more people can remember and share the basic outline and morals taught by childhood fables than they can of any Presidential speech.

The quote above is from a small book written by Ellie Wilson for the fiftieth anniversary of this parish. If you can find a copy, it is well worth reading again or for the first time. It tells a story of the founders of this parish, how they came to establish this church, and the story of its life since then. In the early 1950's, four couples from Clay County, each with their own local faith community, would occasionally attend the Episcopal Church of the Messiah in Murphy. In each couple, one person was a lifelong Episcopalian and the other had strong ties to these Western North Carolina mountains. It was those four - Rufus and Dorothy Vick, Ruth and Quintin Moore, Eva and Jim Ledford, and Ellie and Monroe Wilson - who started a monthly fellowship and study group that became the Church of the Good Shepherd.

From the very beginning, this church has been about fellowship and welcoming. Perhaps that is why we find those so important to our parish character and why we continue to do those so well. We also see that from our beginning this parish has been a meeting place for people drawn to a liturgical form of worship and for those drawn to live in the natural beauty of this area. This is our God-given genesis DNA. Ask your fellow parishioners why they are members of Good Shepherd and you will probably hear something about welcome and fellowship, worship, and the attraction of the mountains. This is in our DNA and it makes us a special place. Ellie’s book is full of stories that may help us all more appreciate just how very special is this church community and its various ministries. For example, do we not all appreciate our wonderful Chancel Choir and our music director, Keith Christensen? Do you know its history? In 1993 “the choir had five members, Mary Anne Koos, Bob Gaunt, Doris Etler, Joe and Evie Green. Every Sunday we pleaded with the congregation to come join the choir. One night this cute little blonde showed up and asked if it was all right if she could sing with us. We nearly fell off our seats! ... That was the first time any of us had met Bev Larson. Then she said she sang alto and she has a sister who sang soprano and a husband who sang tenor. We had more than doubled the choir.” I am grateful to that group of five and that they expressed the welcome and fellowship that mark us as a parish.

This year we have moved our Founder’s Day celebration to Sunday, May 19 in honor of Ellie Wilson’s one hundredth birthday. Ellie and Monroe’s children will be with us that day. Eva and Jim Ledford’s children will be here too. Two of those children are current members of the parish. Can you identify them? I ask that you please save the date for this special occasion when we will celebrate the story of us.

Grace and peace, Fr. Bill+

Resurrection

“Don’t you know that all of us who were baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? We were therefore buried with him through baptism into death in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we will certainly also be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Romans 6:3-5

Have you ever been told that you should learn something because you will need to know it later on? How often has that been true or not true? Trigonometry, Beowulf, the periodic table, folding that bottom sheet. I realize that much of education is about learning to think and learning how to find and process information, and not just collecting data. Surprisingly, although I did not find it fun and my ability to read the text quickly left me, my two years of studying the biblical languages have continually proven to be helpful. “Boker tov, y’all!”

It is not that I remember and use the few hundred words of Hebrew and Greek that I learned, but that I know those words have more meaning than just that suggested by the typical English translation. And I know how to find that information. Getting into the biblical languages, the original Hebrew and Greek, can open up the English text of the Bible to new insights. Bible veterans in particular may appreciate this, but newcomers can do this too. Fortunately, there are now on -line resources that make this an easier thing to do.

Consider an important word for this Easter season - resurrection. There are likely few words equal to and maybe none greater to our faith than resurrection. Easter is about the resurrection and without the resurrection there would be no Easter. Further, without the resurrection there would be no resurrection for any of us. Without resurrection we would have no future, no hope. Most Christians associate resurrection with coming back from the dead.

When we look at the Greek text, we find for resurrection the word ἀνάστασις or anastasis which is a compound of ana + stasis meaning to up + stand. Resurrection is literally to stand up. Going deeper we find that the root of the word stand is ἵστημι or histemi meaning not just to stand, but also to be in balance and to be steadfast. Resurrection is a returning from the dead, but it also is a standing up, a being in balance or what we might call true, and it is being steadfast.

Since none of those require one to be dead, I wonder about the possibility of practicing resurrection among us not yet dead. Is resurrection something we can practice before the grave? Standing up for justice, peace, and mercy is resurrection life. Living a balanced life of work, study, prayer, and rest might be resurrection too. Remaining steadfast in loving your neighbor regardless of their worthiness, could that be resurrection too?

Alleluia, Christ is risen. May you know resurrection too.

Fr Bill+

To All the World

A borrowed story: “One Sunday evening, William Booth was walking in London with his son, Bramwell, who was then 12 or 13 years old. The father surprised the son by taking him into a saloon! The place was crowded with men and women, many of them bearing on their faces the marks of vice and crime; some were drunk. The fumes of alcohol and tobacco were poisonous. ‘Willie,’ Booth said to his son, ‘These are our people; these are the people I want you to live for and bring to Christ.’ Years later, Bramwell Booth wrote, ‘The impression never left me.’”

Some years ago, on a visit to Honduras, I asked to go out with Honduran missionary students to see how they do street level evangelism. I was joined with a young man and a young woman whose English was as limited as my Spanish. That did not seem to matter as we walked the neighborhood near their missionary training school and visited with anyone who cared to talk. There were middle-aged women making tortillas, older women watching over children, men transporting wheel barrows and working on homes, and young people just hanging out. Some conversations were simple exchanges of pleasant greetings, but occasionally someone would engage us in a longer conversation. I learned that they talked about how things were going for that person, what their concerns were, and what they might want prayer for along with a reassurance of God’s love. And that is it. Really simple, right? Just walking around, meeting people where they are, talking with them about their concerns, and offering them prayer and reassurance.

Later, a ministry leader shared with me that bars are common places where they do this kind of work. That sounded odd to me, but they explained that many people are often busy and in a hurry to get somewhere when you meet them on the street. People in bars have time on their hands and are often willing to have a conversation. So, they do bar evangelism. They talk to people about their lives and their concerns and about what help they need. They also go out onto the streets where the women are selling themselves. That is risky, but they are going where there is need, to the people who are in need.

At the end of his ministry, Jesus says to his followers “Go.” I think the church has made the going into all the world too “churchy.” By that I mean, we have made it too much of asking “Do you know Jesus” and “Have you been saved?” or “Do you have a church?” and “Would you please come to mine?”

By that I mean, we have made it too much about bringing people into the church instead of getting church people out of the church and into meeting, being present with, and maybe even serving others. What I have seen and what I believe is Christ-like evangelism, is to simply go and be with people where they are and to show them the love and support of Christ by helping them accomplish their dreams. Evangelism is just that. You and your family can do that in your neighborhood. You and a friend can do that around your town square. You can do it at the café area of Ingles. I have March 30 marked on my calendar for going out. Maybe I’ll check out the town square. I hope to see you around.

Grace and peace,

Spiritual Gifts

Now concerning spiritual gifts, brothers and sisters, I do not want you to be uninformed. - I Corinthians 12:1

Saint Paul is writing to the church he planted at Corinth because he does not want them to be uninformed. I take it that he is writing this because they are in fact uninformed. If you read the full letter, you will find that they appear to be uninformed on a number of matters. Thank God for teachers like Paul who come along side us and help us. I find it good news to know I am not the only one in the dark and trying to figure things out. The church has a very long history of learning and often relearning who it is and what it is meant to . In this portion of Paul’s letter he instructs the church about spiritual gifts.

Some at Corinth were puffed up because of the spiritual gift they had. Holier than thou were they because in their eyes the spiritual gift given them was obviously more Godly, more powerful, more mysterious, and more significant to the mission of the church, therefore making them more worthy of honor than their brothers and sisters. Paul the teacher tells them and us that all spiritual gifts are from the same Spirit and all have the same purpose which is toward the common good of the community. He says that this is the Spirit’s doing, not ours, and so we have no personal claim either to more or less honor because of the gift we have been granted.

Our 1979 Book of Common Prayer communicates this in our baptismal covenant. In baptism, we are reborn by the Holy Spirit (p.306) and called to now confess the faith, proclaim the resurrection, and share with the church in the priesthood of all believers (p. 308). This is an important corrective to an otherwise clergy-centric church that would see the ordained ministry, but not lay ministries, as inspired by the Holy Spirit. We believe that all who have been called through the waters of baptism have been reborn and gifted for service to the church, within and outside its walls. The question is not if we are gifted, but do we know our gift or gifts and are we using them for God’s purposes.

Years ago, as a lay person, I participated in a spiritual gifts workshop. I recall that it helped me discern how I could best serve the church at that time with the gifts of mercy, faith, and teaching that I had at that time. It helped me find my place of ministry where I could use those gifts. Maybe you have participated in a similar workshop some years ago, or maybe this is all new to you. Regardless, I invite you to join me on Saturday, March 9 at 10:00am for a time for discerning our present gifts and conversation about where those gifts can best serve the mission of God in our time and place. Please see the sign up sheet in the hallway.

May God’s holiness be yours,
Fr Bill+