We have worked through our core values and mission in workshops and have compiled survey results; now the real work is around the corner. Our last preparation step before we really get cooking is the Vision Validation Survey. If you are an Ascensionite, please take 5 mins to fill out the survey. This survey gives us crucial feedback that we will use to “knead the dough.” We are going to bake your hopes and dreams for Ascension into all of our ministries.
But I skipped the first survey, you say! Nuu-uh. Much of the results of the first survey are embedded in the Validation Survey. However, I will tell you that there are several layers to the survey. Some of the desires of the community - like improved facilities, will take a long time to produce fruit. It will take collaboration among the property and finance committees and will require the cooperation of the vestry, staff, and volunteers. However, some stuff is easy to implement and is already in play.
You may have noticed something is already different - our kid’s dismissal is sung at 10am instead of being shouted, there are intentional pauses at the prayers and confession, and yes I am trying to slow down my talking pace. The last one is the hardest,because I am an excitable dude.
My wife has a laminated card with the word “slow” on it. She sits in the first or second row, so I doubt you will see it if she attempts to hit the brakes on me. Last week she forgot the card, and at about minute eight she was make the strangest combination of raised eyebrows and flared nostrils. Being dim witted, all I could think about was my imaginary booger.
I can assure you that my speed is not commentary on “wanting to get the service over with.” It is just something have to constantly work on; if am I going to be in the south, I need to continue to pump the brakes. Pray for me, not primarily to slow down, but that my words may give glory to God in a way that is clear, meaningful and soaked in scripture.
Now, I am going to be a bit of snowflake - one who wears their heart too close to their sleeve. A sliver of the feedback was extremely personal and some of it hurt me in a way that seemed unnecessary at best. However, I learned a valuable lesson. Facebook is not your friend. Because some of the criticism was directed at the behaviors of my family, I have decided to create strong privacy restrictions on my Facebook account. I will not be talked out of it and my family is not part of the social media conversation.
So, if you loved seeing my family’s latest adventure, I am sorry that it is no longer available. You can ask me to email you some pictures and I would be happy to do so. As a semi-public figure, I have chosen to leave my family out of the ‘limelight’. I will continue to blog in much the same vein as before and use Facebook as a ministry tool on Ascension’s page. Finally, I received feedback that I overshare on my blog. If I annoy you, I am sorry - it will remain personal at times. If you choose to read, consider this your trigger warning.
Back to the future
I am blown away by your positive feedback about our new Sunday schedule, the changes to worship, and even how much you appreciate my sermons lately. It is all grace and I feel extremely blessed to have the privilege to be your priest.
After we hear from you in the validation survey, we are going to get busy. Your vision team, headed by Mike Black, is diligently at work setting up the framework to implement the vision. We do have one need: Do you like demographic research, geeking out over population trends and neighborhood compositions? We need you to join the team. Part of implementing the vision is really knowing who are our neighbors are and you can empower us to really engage beyond the walls of Ascension. Would you email email@example.com for more info and to say “yes”!
Every year, episcopal clergy and lay leaders gather in their respective dioceses to pray for and deliberate over the future of the church. At nearly 900 people, the Diocese of Texas is one of the largest. I’ll tell you that I often feel a mixture of introvert overwhelm and boredom. This year was really, really excellent. We seemed as a group to put our priorities in the right place.
The church is not here to have cleaner parliamentary procedure or even efficient meetings. We gather to dream about God’s dream for the world. Our chief dreamers were a laundry list of great preachers and teachers. Supported by this group, we still accomplished the business of the church. We left with a sense that the great commission is actually for each of us – now.
Friday, Bishop Doyle started us off by helping us reach across the ditches of our lives to make new neighbors. The Rev. Francene Young - were do I start? My apologies to Bp. Doyle and others, but she delivered the best sermon I have heard from an Episcopalian clergy, ever. I don’t want to sully it with my words, take a Listen. I took me a few minutes to get over my professional jealousy to really let her words sink, but I will never think of the book of Ruth the same way again.
The big surprise for me was the Friday plenary of the wellness ministry of the Diocese. I thought it was going to be a guilt fest for people to do more cardio, but what I saw was clergy and lay people doing super cool work to integrate faith and our bodies. There has been many “canoecharists” in the Diocese already! This is where family lash a bunch of canoes together and literally have Eucharist on a lake. A priest in Austin joked that she had to worry about rocking the boat when she read the gospel out of fear that she would have sunk three canoes.
I am dreaming about this summer for Ascension. How can we just hang out together and celebrate our faith? It will be hot but I can’t wait to sweat like a Body of Christ. We are working on “Summerfest” where after church we get together just to play.
We got down to more business on Saturday and the voting must have been rigged because I did not win election to standing committee! The woman who won, Rev. Hannah, is a gifted clergy with mad skills, so maybe I never had a chance. She is great and will bless the church. Losing stinks no matter how you slice it, but all the people nominated for various positions, bring their own mad skills for helping the diocese live into the great commission.
In other business, we approved the hiring of an assistant bishop; continued the work of updating constitutions and canons; and celebrated new churches and clergy.
Throughout council, last year’s senior warden and I talked for hours about ministry. A nice scotch helped fuel the conversation after leaving the council floor. All of the clergy and delegates, despite the many hours of work left light and airy with a sense of God’s plan growing in each of us.
The Horse Parable
There once was a poor old man who owned a beautiful white horse.
Whenever noblemen passed through the village, they always noticed the horse and offered handsome sums of money for the stallion. But the old man always declined their offers, saying, "This horse is my friend. How can I sell my friend?"
One morning the old man awoke to find the horse was gone. The village people gathered and said, "Old man you were a fool not to sell the horse. You could have been wealthy! Now it has been stolen, and you have nothing. It is a great misfortune!" But the old man replied, "Don't go so far as to say that. Whether the horse was stolen or not, or whether it is a misfortune or a blessing, is unknown. All we know is that the horse is not in the stable."
Some days later the horse returned, bringing with it several beautiful wild mares. Again the village people gathered, and they said, "Old man you were right! The horse was not stolen, and it was not a misfortune. It was a blessing, and now you have many fine horses!" But the old man replied, "Again you go too far. Don't say it's a good thing, don't say it's a bad thing. Just say the horse is back. Whether it is a blessing or a misfortune is unknown."
Some days later the old man's only son began to train the wild mares, but he was thrown and trampled, and one of his legs was badly broken. Again the village people gathered. "Oh old man, you were right! It was not a blessing but a great misfortune, and now your only son is lame! With a sigh the old man replied, "Don't say it's a good thing, don't say it's a bad thing, just say my son has broken his leg. Whether it is a blessing or a misfortune is unknown."
It happened that a few weeks later the country went to war, and all the able bodied young men were forcibly taken for the military. Only the old man's son was passed over, because he was crippled. The whole village was crying and weeping, for they believed their sons would probably be killed and never come home to them. In their grief they came to the old man and said, "You were right old man, your son's injury has proven to be a blessing. Your son may be crippled, but he is with you, while our sons are gone forever! The old man simply shook his head and said, "Will you never learn? Only say that your sons have been forced into the military and my son has not. More than that is not known."
-- attributed to Catherine Marie Heath
I love this parable. It highlights how we create so much misery for ourselves by attaching value to a particular experience. Poor me, I have to go to the doctor. Poor me, my family is in a shambles. Poor me, I didn’t get the promotion. I am so lucky to get that parking spot. Jesus loves me because I got the job, etc.
I think the American church could learn from this parable. We have been up and down, but the only worthwhile thing has always been cultivating the love of God. That may sound trite, but I think it really is the only thing the church has going for it. It is our raison d’être.
Throughout our history we have been pushed and shoved around with no voice in the public square. But at certain points in history we got a bit of power. Once we had a sense of agency we decided to do the pushing around. As far as I can tell the church has the clearest witness in history when it is not entangled with power, money and prestige. That is not a reason to avoid politics. It is a warning not to curry favor from politicians. MLK turned down a government appointment because he knew his ministry would be over on his first day in that office.
Like in the Horse Parable, I don’t know much about the trajectory of my life. I am working to resist labeling an experience as good or bad. I would do well to remember what my kid’s teacher in PreK said, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.“ Back to the horse parable from the beginning - the only issue I would take with it is a theological one. I don’t think stoicism is heroism. The only way I can detach from my judgmental attitude is not through force of will but through remembering, ”Jesus loves me this I know ‘cause the bible tells me so.” My guy, Jesus, is watching my back and that is enough.
Labeling and worrying about the future is literally killing all of us. What will happen, might happen, won’t happen, and should happen are like the four horsemen of the apocalypse against our peace. However; maybe they can also be our friend. Worry reminds us that we need to repent. Freaking out, watching cable news, staring at your newsfeed on your phone at 5am (guilty as charged), pontificating about the decline of Christianity in the marketplace won’t serve the purposes of the Kingdom of God and don’t bring us closer to the lord of life.
In a paradoxical way – I believe worry and freaking out is a form of irresponsibility. We have no “right” to freak out. If we think of ourselves as anything but grateful beggars before Jesus, we start flailing around and pierce ourselves with many sorrows. Worry is the poor relation to responsibility.
Responsibility is different. It is like worry, but it is engaged and non-judgemental. Working to make things better is far different from throwing our hands in the air about the decline of western civilization. The next time you start fretting, or hear someone fretting around the dinner table, I am almost certain they are not taking any actual steps to fix the problem they are bemoaning.
Ascension’s Annual Meeting
We had our annual meeting on February 5. I asked the congregation not to worry about budgets and Sunday attendance. I challenged them to seek the renewal of their minds and the renewal of Ascension as their first priority. If we repent of worry and focus on Christ we are going to be a happier people, a renewed people. I really do think God will help Ascension accomplish more than we can ask or imagine. If we let God be in charge by casting our worries on Her, we’re on the right track. I pray that our community will rediscover our responsibility and privilege to be agents of peace and joy.
Ssh don’t tell anyone, but happy churches grow regardless of their current size. When new people come and see that Ascension is grounded in the joy of Jesus, they will stick. We don’t make a great community by fussing over the funding level of various ministries. We don’t make a great community by scaring newcomers with our grousing. We don’t make a great community even through strategic planning, without the secret sauce of joy.
Joy is so life giving for newcomers and old-timers that it is hard to overstate. Worried churches freak out people and they don’t come back. Joyful churches invite other to join in the work of Jesus. As more people join in the mission of the church, the problems of stewardship and attendance sort of fix themselves.
Maybe I am Pollyanna. We are lucky that we live where we do, and lucky we have Episcopal churches focused on the grace and mercy of Jesus. We are ideally situated at Ascension to get back to the basics - love God and don’t be a jerk. I really have a sense that 2017 is going to be special, because we will choose joy and renewal over worry and decay.
I want to leave you with my favorite band from the college days -The Verve. They are not to be confused with the The Verve Pipe - those guys are bad hombre losers – sad. Not really, both bands are good, but I love the song “Lucky Man” from The Verve. I think it expresses well what I have tried to say over this blog post and last - the sense of joy and wonder that we are alive.
More or less
It's just a change in me
Something in my liberty
But how many corners do I have to turn?
How many times do I have to learn
All the love I have is in my mind?
Well, I'm a lucky man
With fire in my hands
I hope you understand
I hope you understand
Gotta love that'll never die
We are lucky my friends. Who knows what arrangements God has in store for us? Regardless if we are blessed with a life of sweet luxury or brutal grind, we have a love in Christ that will never die. No worries “mon”. Christians - let’s worry a little less about our future, and enjoy the present presence of God. If we get a thriving church thrown on top of all that - great, but it ain’t never been the point
As the man in the horse parable says -Whether it is a blessing or a misfortune is unknown. The only thing we can know for sure is that God has our back.
Last weekend in politics and immigration sort of threw me. It has made me think about what it means to be an American and more importantly a Christian. On both counts I feel lucky. You may already object because you would say that it is grace not luck. And you would be right. It certainly has been grace that has brought me to today, but as I review my life - it often feels a lot like luck.
The luck of grace let me be born in middle America. The luck of grace opened doors for me that are shut to so many others. The luck of grace brought me to a woman far more kind, dedicated and skilled than I have a right to be married to. I remember the lucky grace of my three children who are healthy, when I have a hard privilege to go to a children's hospital.
Sometimes I feel that when we Christians speak about grace, we somehow think we made it happen. It stops feeling like grace, and more like a right. What if we knew that God was in charge, but acted like we are lucky? Maybe then we could walk with Christ in humility? We are lucky that we are children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God. John1:13. This is a gift not to be lessened by our pride of place.
Last weekend made me think of all those aren't so lucky. If you're waiting for me to give you my political views in a sound bite, I'm sorry, but I think you can figure it out by reading the following story. It comes from the last half of a podcast called "reply all".
Nazanin Rafsanjani works behind the scenes at a podcast company. And the story picks up with her telling a little bit about her life and her reaction to last week's ban. "Struthi" is the interviewer. I deeply resonanted with Nazanin's sense of patriotism and confusion, even though I have never been driven from country.
The following is part of the transcript from reply all's website. I will leave you with this story, my beloved lucky ones.
--- warning - third to last paragraph drops an fbomb, but I left it because it highlights what I am trying to say----
SRUTHI: ...And I remembered that her (nazanin's) family, she came from Iran when she was young and Iran is on that list of countries that were banned. And I also remember that this other show at Gimlet, Twice Removed, had done this giant story that centered around Nazanin and her family. And i listened and the whole thing just felt so relevant to everything that was happening, and i wanted to ask her about it — but first let me just play you a short clip from that episode.
You’re gonna hear Nazanin’s mom and her sister, … talking about the year they decided to leave Iran, 1979 …
Mina: The year that I got pregnant by Nazanin, was the year that they forbidden everything, alcohol and western movie… and they put the hijab in the woman’s head.
Nilu: my least favorite part which I absolutely hated, was the, um, this thing they called a man na’eh… which is like a lycra almost… fabric that would cover your hair. I hated that… and I just didn’t understand why the boys didn’t have to wear that and I did. And I would get in trouble.
Mina: She would get so mad. And she would, she would argue yeah, yeah And the head covering was just one new requirement under the Ayatollah. There were restrictions on where women could travel, what jobs they could do… The way your mom tells it, Nazanin – it was overwhelming…
Mina: Everything was tighter and tighter and harder to breathe for woman. It was horrible horrible. They take your identity. They take everything. Who you are. What you think. (exhales) It feels like you’re trapped. You’re in a wheel that you just keep – just keep uh screaming and nobody hears you.
And on top of all that, there’s a war between Iran and Iraq. Nazanin’s neigborhood in Tehran is getting regularly bombed.
I had a bunch of questions for Nanzinin like how you know does like how is this different, Syrian refugees who are trying to leave Syria … so I asked her. …
SRUTHI: I don’t even know anything about what it means to apply — how does a refugee become a refugee.
SRUTHI: I only know that the like, you know, student visa, the H-1B visa. Like that whole track, which is totally different.
NAZANIN: Yeah. So the way my family came here they actually applied for asylum, which is a completely different track than a refugee.
A refugee is somebody who they are outside the country–
NAZANIN: And from outside the country they’re making the case that they need to be somewhere else from where they are because their life is in such grave danger. So that’s what the Syrian refugees are facing now. My family, completely, like we lucked out. And we, we got, we got visas.
NAZANIN: So we, we left Iran.
SRUTHI: Like a tra – like a tourist visa?
NAZANIN: A tourist visa.
NAZANIN: We got a tourist visa. And we left Iran-
SRUTHI: Which must have been hard, like was it hard back there?
NAZANIN: It was very hard.
NAZANIN: There was no American embassy in Iran at the time there still is no embassy in Iran.So we went to Turkey.
NAZANIN: We applied for tourist visas. And we got them. And we, it was just, it was literally just, I mean it was just luck. Dumb luck.
SRUTHI: Sorry, you’re just totally blowing my mind right now. Just like, in the 1980s, so I was a kid in India. And I just remember like if you drove by the US embassy you’d just be like, you’d see these lines of people who had spent, you know, people who’d slept there.
SRUTHI: But even to get a tourist visa you have to show you had a lot of money in your bank account, like you had reason to stay in the country that you’re coming from.
NAZANIN: Yeah. Yeah.
SRUTHI: And so, okay. So you, you arrive in the States.
SRUTHI: How do you get asylum status.
NAZANIN: You need a lawyer. …
NAZANIN: No. It definitely wasn’t something I thought about on a daily basis, you know, ever. Or like growing up, or. I only, I only ever felt like everyone else here. Until, honestly, until now. Like, really until now. From last Friday until now. Like I mean it’s like 4 days. That’s how, that’s what I mean.
SRUTHI: Yeah — so i actually wanted to ask you about this one tweet of yours that for me was like totally a punch in the gut was, you had this picture of the Syrian man, I think? Yeah, it was a Syrian refugee holding a boy, of course, it’s like we see these pictures all the time. But you wrote, “Does America feel great again? It’s just a lack of imagination that separates you and your children from these people.”
NAZANIN: Yeah. That, I think that picture and that tweet. It, it just, like for me, it goes back to like, um…I don’t. I don’t know exactly how to answer this question, except that someone responded to that tweet being like, “So, everybody has a, so what you’re saying is like everyone has a right to be, being a US citizen is a human right.”
NAZANIN: And what I was trying to say was that it’s actually the opposite. It’s not actually anyone’s right. So, if you, it’s just like dumb luck. And I think that that’s, I think that that’s all I was trying to say, is that like it’s my dumb luck that I got to move here and it’s like your dumb luck that you were born here. And neither of us really did anything to deserve it. And so, and so like, saying that some people don’t deserve it and others do is…just makes no sense to me?
NAZANIN: And, like, like you, it’s like my most, I think like that kind of patriotism, I guess is the right word for it about the United States, is like, it’s really like my most earnest feeling.
NAZANIN: Like, it’s always been my most earnest feeling. Like I’m embar – I feel like a little embarrassed about it. Like, it’s not, it’s never been cynical. Like, I really have always felt like, yeah. Like it’s [laughs] it’s like you’re lucky if you live here and it’s fuckin’ awesome to live here. And like, and it’s, it’s like just by virtue of being here you’re like one of the luckiest people on earth. I really feel that way.
NAZANIN: And it’s, and I think that that felt and feels like threatened. And that’s why I think I was reacting that way.
SRUTHI: You can follow Nazanin on Twitter @nazraf. And also, definitely check out the episode of, of Twice Removed that features her and her family. It is incredibly moving and the ending … just wait for the ending.