A Thanksgiving Prayer by Howard Thurman

Howard Thurman’s Thanksgiving Prayer

Today, I make my Sacrament of Thanksgiving.
I begin with the simple things of my days:
Fresh air to breathe,
Cool water to drink,
The taste of food,
The protection of houses and clothes,
The comforts of home.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day!

I bring to mind all the warmth of humankind that I have known:
My mother’s arms,
The strength of my father
The playmates of my childhood,
The wonderful stories brought to me from the lives
Of many who talked of days gone by when fairies
And giants and all kinds of magic held sway;
The tears I have shed, the tears I have seen;
The excitement of laughter and the twinkle in the
Eye with its reminder that life is good.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day

I finger one by one the messages of hope that awaited me at the crossroads:
The smile of approval from those who held in their hands the reins of my security;
The tightening of the grip in a simple handshake when I
Feared the step before me in darkness;
The whisper in my heart when the temptation was fiercest
And the claims of appetite were not to be denied;
The crucial word said, the simple sentence from an open
Page when my decision hung in the balance.
For all these I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I pass before me the main springs of my heritage:
The fruits of labors of countless generations who lived before me,
Without whom my own life would have no meaning;
The seers who saw visions and dreamed dreams;
The prophets who sensed a truth greater than the mind could grasp
And whose words would only find fulfillment
In the years which they would never see;
The workers whose sweat has watered the trees,
The leaves of which are for the healing of the nations;
The pilgrims who set their sails for lands beyond all horizons,
Whose courage made paths into new worlds and far off places;
The saviors whose blood was shed with a recklessness that only a dream
Could inspire and God could command.
For all this I make an act of Thanksgiving this day.

I linger over the meaning of my own life and the commitment
To which I give the loyalty of my heart and mind:
The little purposes in which I have shared my loves,
My desires, my gifts;
The restlessness which bottoms all I do with its stark insistence
That I have never done my best, I have never dared
To reach for the highest;

The big hope that never quite deserts me, that I and my kind
Will study war no more, that love and tenderness and all the
inner graces of Almighty affection will cover the life of the
children of God as the waters cover the sea.

All these and more than mind can think and heart can feel,
I make as my sacrament of Thanksgiving to Thee,
Our Father, in humbleness of mind and simplicity of heart. (source: http://blogs.bu.edu/sermons/2008/11/23/a-thanksgiving-prayer/comment-page-1/)

Howard Thurman (1899-1981) was an African-American theologian, preacher, and activist.  Author of Jesus and the Disinherited, he mentored Martin Luther King, Jr., and many other civil rights leaders.

Humiliated, Reigning, Reconciling: A sermon for the Reign of Christ, 2019

Today, the last Sunday of our liturgical year, is Christ the King or the Reign of Christ. It’s a recent addition to the church’s calendar, authorized by Pope Pius XI in 1925, only eight years after the end of World War I. It was a time when the church was on the defensive from the forces of modernity and secularism and coincided with the rise of Fascism in Italy.  Whatever political or theological statement was originally intended, The Reign of Christ invites us to pause and reflect on all of the themes that emerge as we make our way from Advent, through Lent and Easter, and now as the season after Pentecost draws to an end. We are asked to reflect on what it means to follow Jesus, to proclaim our faith in him, to confess that he is King of King and Lord of Lords. Continue reading

What salsa dancing has taught me about church in the 21st Century: Annual Report 2019

Another year of growth, with exciting new developments in our common life and ministry as we were reminded by the lovely slide show prepared by Arianna. Before going further, I would like to thank the staff—Christina, Ari, Pat, the folks in the kitchen, Berkley and Mark, Vikki, and especially Deacon Carol. And the outgoing wardens John and Greg, and vestry members Paula, Kabura, and John, who agreed to fill out the balance of Jarrod Irwin’s term.

It’s great that we are growing, especially because we are going against the trend of decline in the diocese, the Episcopal Church, and Christianity in the US. Growth brings challenges. As new members join us, and as visitors continue to explore connecting with us, we are reaching the limits of what we can do with our current staff and volunteer base. We began talking about the possibility of calling an Associate Rector, the budget that is being presented to the congregation today includes funding for such a position beginning on July 1, but our conversation should be driven not by financial worry but by our desires to deepen our relationships with each other, to reach out more effectively and creatively into our city and to respond faithfully and courageously to God’s call.

Bishop Search.

In the coming year, we will say good bye to Bishop Miller as he retires after 17 years as the Bishop of the Diocese of Milwaukee. We will also begin to make plans for our next bishop. Even now, that search process is taking shape. The Standing Committee of the Diocese, the entity with the responsibility for overseeing episcopal transitions, is in the process of selecting a search committee. It’s likely that the members of that body will be made public before the end of the year.

The search consultant, the Rev’d Dr. Anne Hallisey, will be in the Diocese in January, leading the clergy retreat from January 20-22, and then holding a retreat with the Search Committee January 24-25. It’s been a long time since we’ve had an episcopal search, so it’s worth reminding you of the process. There will be intensive study of the current state of the diocese. Members of the search committee will visit parishes, interview clergy and lay people. There will be a survey distributed that will solicit opinions about the state of the diocese, perceived needs, and what we might like to see in the next bishop. Eventually, a diocesan profile will be prepared, and the names of nominees solicited. The search committee will hold a retreat with select candidates, visit them in their contexts, do the necessary vetting process, and eventually publish the list of nominees. But even after that, there will be the possibility of additional nominees being brought forward. An election date will be set; the candidates will tour the diocese giving us the opportunity for us to get to know them. Finally, there will be an electing convention. The candidate who receives a majority of votes from both the clergy and the delegates elected by parishes, will be elected bishop; but their ordination will not take place until they receive a majority of consents from bishops and standing committees of the dioceses of the Episcopal Church. We don’t know the timeline for any of this, but it’s likely that the process of election will take most of the next year, and we won’t have a new bishop until some time in 2021.

Many of you may wonder what any of this has to Grace Church. We see the bishop only rarely; few of us are involved in any diocesan ministries or commissions, beyond the Haiti Project, Deacon Carol’s work with the Commission on Global Reconciliation, and our delegates’ attendance at diocesan convention. Still, we are not a stand-alone congregation. The search for a new bishop provides us an opportunity to intensify our engagement with the diocese, help shape its future, and allow other congregations and clergy learn from our experience in downtown Madison over the last decade.

I am completing my second term as a member of Diocesan Executive Council. In the last year, I was asked by the Bishop to participate in a subcommittee of that body whose task was to look at the relationship of the Diocesan Haiti Project with the diocese as a whole. As we worked, it became clear that the future viability of the Haiti Project would depend on a period of intense diocesan engagement with the Project, helping to develop new leadership, bring transparency and stability to its finances, and raise its visibility in the diocese. I volunteered to co-chair the Haiti Project Steering Committee for at least a year as we sought to build on its strengths and address some of its vulnerabilities. Our work is made more challenging by the difficult situation on the ground in Haiti. I expect to continue involvement in that work for the immediate future but hope that by the end of 2020, new leadership will be in place to work with a new bishop to shape the future relationship between the diocese and this crucial outreach ministry.

New Homeless Shelter.

As most of you know, for a number of years a group from Grace Church have been exploring a bundle of issues around the possible redevelopment of the West Wing and the future of the Men’s Drop-In Shelter that Grace has hosted since 1984. In addition, there have been questions about the impact of the proposed new historical museum on our property. Over the last year, we have taken a number of significant steps. As we continue to research future possibilities for the West Wing, we worked with a developer on the economic feasibility of a limited project that would add a floor and create a roofline that would match the nave. Unfortunately, that possibility while aesthetically pleasing is not feasible economically. We have not had significant conversations with the Museum project developers in the last year.

Much of our work has focused on exploring whether there is interest and energy in the wider community for a new, purpose-built shelter adequate to the needs of our unhoused neighbors. We contracted with Ms. Susan Schmitz, retired president of Downtown Madison, Inc, to help us discern whether a new shelter project might be welcomed by both the private and public sectors. Her initial contract is concluding and with her help we have decided to move forward with the formation of a steering committee that will continue our work and build coalitions with the ultimate goal of a purpose-built shelter. Along with her, we have met with city and county elected officials and staff, service providers, and other stakeholders. There seems to be significant interest and momentum building that over time could result in a new facility for people experiencing homelessness.

As that work proceeds, Grace Church will continue to be involved with representation on the steering committee and shepherding the process. It will undoubtedly take several years to reach completion and as we have watched the progress of the proposed Salvation Army redevelopment, we know that it will take a great deal of effort, political will, and careful listening.

With the new museum project and the potential shelter move, we will have to engage in simultaneous conversations about the future of our physical plant, especially the west wing, and how our ministry and mission might adapt to the changing needs of our neighborhood, and the changing built environment. As I have said many times over the years, the questions driving our conversations should begin with our careful attention to the movement of the Holy Spirit, and our faithfulness to Jesus’ call to us to share the good news. How can we be a blessing to our neighborhood, and how can our buildings be an agent of the church’s mission to reconcile humans with God?

I want to close with a story; it’s one I told the vestry a couple of months ago but I hope it will get you thinking as well. Corrie and I are ballroom dancers, and the demographics of ballroom dancing are pretty much like the demographics of the Episcopal Church; the vast majority of people at ballroom dances are over 50; except that is, for the young couples learning their wedding dance (sound familiar?). This summer, we decided to try something new—salsa and we went to a venue downtown that has an hour-long bachata or salsa lesson followed by live music. The demographics there were quite different—of the 100 or so who usually attend, no more than a handful were over 50, and in the group classes the same teacher offers at a studio, the difference is even more stark. We were usually more than 20 years older than anyone else in the room. But it’s not just about learning moves; the teacher has created community, making use of social media. They have regular social gatherings, they become friends and hang out together. My point is not that we need to start salsa classes or a jazz mass; my point is that community is being created in completely new ways now and often outside of traditional institutions like the church.

We have to take risks; we have to experiment; we have to continue to ask new questions and explore new approaches as we seek to deepen our relationships with each other and make connections with our neighbors who work and live in downtown Madison. In the last ten years, we have done that time and again, and while sometimes our efforts have faltered, we have also seen new life. My prayer for us as a congregation is that as we continue to discern God’s call, we have the courage to experiment, to take risks and to follow Jesus into the heart of the city, and into the heart of his love.

 

 

Abandoned Treasures and Marvelous Things: A Sermon for Proper29C, 2019

I follow an Italian social media account called Tesori Abbandonati(Abandoned Treasures). It posts photos of abandoned buildings, mostly churches, palaces, and the like from across Italy. There are similar projects in the US—for example a few years ago, photos of abandoned churches and theatres in Detroit were making the rounds.

Seeing such photos bring up all sorts of emotions. In the case of Italy, when many of the buildings are centuries old, I’m inclined to marvel at the passing of time, the fact that a church or palace from the seventeenth century lacks the architectural or historical significance that would warrant its preservation. In the case of cities like Detroit, different emotions come to the fore—sadness about the decline of a once-great American city, the loss of manufacturing, the racial inequalities that contributed and continue to contribute to the economic despair in many urban centers. Continue reading

The Future of the Diocese of Milwaukee: Looking back on strategic planning

I have been thinking a great deal about the future of the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin and specifically in the Diocese of Milwaukee. As we begin the search for a new bishop, I am concerned that we ask the right questions and honestly assess our current situation. I hope that we can imagine a future that remains faithful to our past, recognizes our failures, and celebrates our successes, and allows us to move freely forward under the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Having been here since 2009 and serving on the Diocesan Executive Council for the last six years, I know something of the challenges facing our diocese. But there is also a great deal I don’t know. I’ve never visited all of our congregations; I’ve not had substantive conversations with many of my fellow clergy, and the number of lay people beyond Grace Church who I recognize, is quite small. I have little idea what it’s like to be Episcopalian in Racine, Kenosha, Milwaukee, let alone Beaver Dam or Dousman. In fact, I wonder whether we really have a sense of ourselves as a single body of Christ in this area, the Diocese of Milwaukee. We come together once a year for Diocesan Convention. The last several years it’s been a single day, with Eucharist, business meeting, and lunch. There’s no time to get to know each other. Much of this assessment be unique to my situation but I wonder how a successful search can be accomplished if a diocese doesn’t know itself well. Perhaps gaining such knowledge is the important initial phase of a search process.

For some reason, I was looking back over some past pieces I’d written about the future of the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Milwaukee. In the course of that, I came across a post I had written back in 2013 in conjunction with the Strategic Planning document I had helped work on for the previous year and a half. Like so many similar projects, it’s often the case that such work is filed away and largely ignored. I don’t know whether that happened in this case. Still it’s worth reading to get a sense of the challenges we were facing in 2013, and to reflect on what has changed since then.

The document talks about decline. Between 2001 and 2011, membership in the diocese fell from 14000 to 10000; average Sunday attendance from 6000 to 4000. That decline has continued. Most recent figures show membership around 8000 and average Sunday attendance closer to 3000. Reference is made in the document to the need to think strategically about parishes and congregations–whether the congregations we have are well-positioned for future growth and sustainability, whether we might need to close a number that are unlikely to survive, and whether we have too many congregations in some places.

All is not negative. The documents reminds us of our history:

Our tendency is to interpret these trends as a narrative of decline from a glorious past. But the history of our diocese teaches a different lesson. The Episcopal Church in Wisconsin began with the heroic efforts of Bishop Kemper to plant churches on the frontier. Lay people shared his vision and sacrificed time, energy, and financial resources that built many of the churches and institutions that now make up the Diocese of Milwaukee. Along the way, many other churches and institutions (schools, mission efforts, and the like) were founded. Some thrived for a time and died; others were transformed to meet the needs of new situations and communities. Our history is a story of innovation, creativity, and mission. It is a story of success and failure.

Is it a case of a lost opportunity? I’m not sure. As we begin our search for a new bishop, I’m struck that some of those recommendations continue to be relevant, and some of the hopes we expressed in 2013, specifically for deeper relationships among the congregations, the clergy and lay people, seem not to have been realized.

You can read the whole document here: taskforcereport_revised

The Future of the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin

Bishop Miller announced his retirement effective in November 2020. It wasn’t a surprise. He had pointed out a few years ago that he was entering the fourth quarter of his episcopacy and we were all waiting for the final decision. Still, it marks an enormous change in the life of the Diocese of Milwaukee. Almost all of the active clergy in the diocese have arrived since Bishop Miller became bishop and when I ask long-time Grace members, their memories of previous bishops are fleeting at best. There have also been enormous changes in society and the church since 2003. The debate over the full inclusion of LGBT people in the life of the church, a debate that was intensified by the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire. From time to time, Bishop Miller reminds us that consents to his election were voted on at the same General Convention that voted on Bishop Robinson. Since then, we have seen the legalization of same-sex marriage in the US and the approval by General Convention of rites for the celebration and blessing of same-sex marriage.

While the battles over sexuality and gender have waged hotly in the church and culture, there have been other seismic shifts in our culture. The precipitous decline in religious affiliation among Americans, the overall decline in institutions, and the deep polarization in our society presents significant challenges for the church across the country and in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Wisconsin’s role as a bellwether of political division and as a cultural and political battleground affects the church as well. The divide between rural and urban, the deep racial inequities that make Wisconsin the worst of the 50 states on many measures of African-American achievement mean that our state’s divisions are felt not only in our communities but in our congregations and diocesan life as well.

With the hollowing out of civic life that has been unchecked both in our urban centers and in the towns and villages of our rural communities, the challenges of developing a vision for diocesan life and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ becomes both more urgent and more difficult. The divisions in our culture are reflected in the life of our congregations and our diocese, even if we avoid confronting them.

A quick look at the statistics makes clear the crisis facing the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Attendance and membership have declined over the last decade at a rate greater than in the Church as a whole. We have been closing approximately one parish per year over the last decade and there are probably a half-dozen that are not currently viable. At the same time, population growth has occurred in places where there is no Episcopal presence and no plans to plant new congregations or ministries.

But we are not alone. There are three dioceses in Wisconsin and it’s not obvious that there is any rationale for the continuing existence of all three. The Bishop Miller announced his retirement effective in November 2020. It wasn’t a surprise. He had pointed out a few years ago that he was entering the fourth quarter of his episcopacy and we were all waiting for the final decision. Still, it marks an enormous change in the life of the Diocese of Milwaukee. Almost all of the active clergy in the diocese have arrived since Bishop Miller became bishop and when I ask long-time Grace members, their memories of previous bishops are fleeting at best.

While the battles over sexuality and gender have waged hotly in the church and culture, there have been other seismic shifts in our culture. The precipitous decline in religious affiliation among Americans, the overall decline in institutions, and the deep polarization in our society presents significant challenges for the church across the country and in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Wisconsin’s role as a bellwether of political division and as a cultural and political battleground affects the church as well. The divide between rural and urban, the deep racial inequities that make Wisconsin the worst of the 50 states on many measures of African-American … mean that our state’s divisions are felt not only in our communities but in our congregations and diocesan life as well.

With the hollowing out of civic life that has been unchecked both in our urban centers and in the towns and villages of our rural communities, the challenges of developing a vision for diocesan life and to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ becomes both more urgent and more difficult. The divisions in our culture are reflected in the life of our congregations and our diocese, even if we avoid confronting them.

A quick look at the statistics makes clear the crisis facing the Episcopal Church in the Diocese of Milwaukee. Attendance and membership have declined over the last decade at a rate greater than in the Church as a whole. We have been closing approximately one parish per year over the last decade and there are probably a half-dozen that are not currently viable. At the same time, population growth has occurred in places where there is no Episcopal presence and no plans to plant new congregations or ministries.

But we are not alone. There are three dioceses in Wisconsin and it’s not obvious that there is any rationale for the continuing existence of all three. I’m told that the Diocese of Eau Claire currently has 3 self-sustaining parishes with full-time clergy. An effort some years ago to merge with the Diocese of Fond du Lac failed when it was voted down by a single vote in the Diocese of Eau Claire. Its current bishop, retired from a previous diocese, and serving part-time, is facing mandatory retirement in 2021. At its convention last weekend, the diocese was unable to commit itself to a plan moving forward; instead it will continue to study its options.

With the mandatory retirement of Bishop Lambert of the Diocese of Eau Claire, and Bishop Miller’s announced retirement in 2020, it seems to me that now is the perfect time for Wisconsin Episcopalians to ask some difficult questions and move courageously and creatively into the future. Unfortunately, it seems no one is interested in addressing these questions.

I have no idea who could facilitate or even compel the conversations that we need to have across the state and in the Diocese of Milwaukee. I am about to step down after six years on our Diocesan Executive Council. I am not sure whether I can offer any leadership on the diocesan level. My energies are focused locally—on building relationships with our neighboring congregations and with their clergy, and ecumenically—on helping our declining mainline denominations strategize about how we might work together toward a new future for our ministries.

Sometimes, I wish there would be someone from the denomination who could come in and compel us to have the difficult conversations. More importantly, someone to help us imagine a new future for the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin. I feel like we are about to squander an incredible opportunity to do something quite new and something that might give us new energy and new spirit to face the future.

If I were able to shape matters, I would require conversations among the Dioceses of Milwaukee, Eau Claire, and Fond du Lac before allowing the Diocese of Milwaukee to begin its search process for a successor to Bishop Miller. Such conversations might help us all to discern a vision for a future for the Episcopal Church in Wisconsin.

I pray that in the months to come Episcopalians in Wisconsin have the courage and faith to think boldly and to invite the Holy Spirit to lead us in new directions.

Communion of all the saints: A Sermon for All Saints’ Sunday, 2019

The Episcopal Church I first attended regularly was St. Paul’s, Newburyport, Massachusetts. It was constructed in the early 20th century, on the site of an earlier building that had been destroyed by fire. As was the custom in England, and in many colonial towns, St. Paul’s churchyard was also a graveyard. To enter the building, you walked along a sidewalk that cut through a jumble of old headstones, some of which dated back to the late 18th century. It was a reminder of the church’s history, of all those who had worshiped there over the centuries. Continue reading