An Advent Wilderness: A sermon for the second Sunday of Advent, 2016


Well, it’s certainly good to be back at Grace and in Madison after being away from here for six Sundays. I’ll be sharing some of what I saw and experienced later at our annual meeting which I hope many of you will attend. As is so often the case, the things we set out to do, the goals we make for ourselves, don’t always materialize in quite the way we anticipated or hoped, but such opportunities often lead to quite unexpected things—discoveries about oneself and the world that are powerful and transformative.

That certainly happened to me. The time I spent at the monastery of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge was one of the most powerful spiritual experiences I’ve ever had. Arriving there on Election Day, spending four days mostly in silence, the days punctuated by the rhythms of the Daily Office offered a wonderful respite from the noise, anger, and anxiety of the world beyond the monastery’s walls, and an opportunity for me to encounter God more deeply and be a part of a praying community.

At the monastery and as I traveled up the East Coast and in the Pacific Northwest, I re-discovered another important truth. I mentioned before leaving that this time away would be the longest period I would be away from Grace and Madison since coming here in 2009, that it would be the longest period I would be away from an altar since my ordination more than ten years ago. Time away is important. It can be refreshing. It can also help to provide perspective; to give us the opportunity to reflect on where we’ve been, what we’ve been doing, and to plan for the next season of our lives.

But it’s not just the time away. It’s also the distance. I’ve not traveled much since coming to Madison. Indeed, although I was blessed to be able to live abroad for two years, apart from weekends in Chicago, visits to my mother, or a few days spent up north, I’ve not traveled much at all recently.

I discovered in these weeks of travel as I visited cities that were mostly unfamiliar to me, and visited churches I’d never been at, talking with clergy from very different backgrounds and working in very different contexts, that all of this can provide important perspective on my ministry and on our shared mission at Grace Church. We will talk much more about this in the weeks to come—you’ll have an opportunity to hear some of what I learned later at our Annual Meeting. But for now, I want to highlight simply the clarity of vision, the new perspective I’ve gained on our work together here in Madison.

And this may be where what I’ve been about these last two months connects with our gospel reading. As I was beginning to reflect on this text, Matthew’s depiction of John the Baptizer’s ministry, the opening words grabbed my attention.

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea.” John is a wild, crazy figure. He wears camel skins and eats locusts and wild honey. He shouts, “Repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He prophesies doom and destruction, painting images of unfruitful trees being hewn down and useless chaff being burnt in an unquenchable fire. It’s dramatic, powerful, and frankly, somewhat scary.

But all of this takes place in the wilderness, far from the center of power, away from the settled existence of Jerusalem and the towns and villages of Judea. And I wonder whether his message would have had the same impact if he had proclaimed it in the streets, public squares, or the temple mount of Jerusalem. I wonder whether he would even have been able to preach those words if he hadn’t come out into the wilderness.

The wilderness is a place of great symbolic power in the biblical tradition. The Israelites wandered for forty years in the wilderness after their miraculous exodus from Egypt. In the wilderness, they grumbled at their plight; the text repeatedly calls them “a stiff-necked people.” Because of their grumbling and their sins; God condemned that first generation who had come out of Egypt to die in the wilderness, they would not live to possess the land promised to them. Even their leader Moses would only see it from a mountaintop just before his death.

For the Israelites, the wilderness was a place of struggle and disappointment; but nevertheless, God was present there with them. It was in the wilderness, at Sinai, that God appeared to Moses and gave the Israelites the Torah, the commandments by which they were to live and order their common life. Throughout their time in the wilderness, God was present with the Israelites as a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night, and dwelt with them in the tabernacle.

In the gospels, the wilderness is where Jesus encounters John, is baptized by him, and then goes away by himself for forty days, where he’s tempted by Satan. In Matthew’s telling of this story, one could imagine that through this time in the wilderness Jesus comes to understand better who he is and what his ministry will be. Rejecting the temptations Satan offers him, Jesus chooses a different way, a different model of Messiahship, a different sort of Kingdom.

The wilderness is a desolate place but in the biblical tradition it can also be a place of personal and communal transformation, a time of preparation for the next stage of life. Time in the wilderness built the foundation for the Israelites’ conquest and occupation of the promised land. Time in the wilderness helped prepare Jesus for his ministry. Time in the wilderness gave John the Baptist the perspective he needed from which to judge the religious and political life of Jerusalem.

Yes, the wilderness can be a desolate, forbidding place. But it can also be a place that helps prepare us for the work we are called to do. In December each year, we are surrounded by the all of the hustle and bustle of the season; the round of parties, the preparations that we make for family and friends, even the typical year-end and semester-end tasks that confront us. It’s hard to find time for ourselves; it’s even harder to find time for God in our over-scheduled lives. I wonder whether it might be helpful simply to carve out a few minutes here or there, to step away from it all, to enter silence, or to create a wilderness for ourselves where we might open ourselves to encounter with God. This Advent, look for, make way for, a place or time of wilderness.

There’s something else about the wilderness that might be helpful. I’m thinking of John, out there, proclaiming his message of repentance, challenging the political and religious leaders of his day. Many of us might be inclined to feel, at this time in our national life, that we are in a wilderness, that we have lost our way, that our hopes for a better future, a more just society have been deferred indefinitely, perhaps even utterly destroyed.

John did not lose hope. Alongside his prophesies of doom and destruction, he saw the coming of God’s reign, its very nearness. Our hope dare not rest in the political process or in the vagaries of history. Our hope rests in God. Our hope lives in the one whose coming we await even now; the one whose coming promises and proclaims the reign of God; the one whose coming in weakness and humility challenges all of the world’s power; the one whose coming in love shows us the way of love and peace. Thanks be to God.







Silence, prayer, and listening. Sabbatical update

I arrived at the Guesthouse of the Society of St. John the Evangelist mid-afternoon on Election Day. When I was planning my sabbatical last summer, I had no inkling that I would be traveling from New York City to Boston on November 8 and that I would be on retreat in the monastery as the election results began to roll in. My schedule was dictated by meetings I had in New York on Monday and by tentative plans I had made for the Boston area.

Thanks to Amtrak, I spent the trip from Penn Station to South Station following Twitter. Like so many others, I was both anxious and hopeful during the course of the day. My first worship in the monastery was the Tuesday evening community Eucharist. It was wonderful to be together with the brothers and their larger worshiping community as polls began to close. Dinner immediately followed in the refectory. All of the guests join the brothers for meals. Tuesday’s supper was a talking meal, the only one I attended during my stay. It was an opportunity to exchange pleasantries with other guests and with the brothers but the conversation naturally turned to the election.

After supper, I returned to my room and to my twitter feed (my retreat didn’t include the suggested “technology fast”) and by the time the bell rang for Compline at 8:20, it was clear that things weren’t going quite as everyone had expected.

As we gathered for silence before compline and then as the chanting began, my anxiety and fear were enveloped by the sacred beauty of the space and by the ancient words of the service. The chanting, the stone walls, the candlelight brought us into the sacred presence of God, in a place beyond and above the worries and noise of the world around us. But it wasn’t escape—we could still hear traffic from the streets, the sirens of ambulances on their way to Mt. Auburn Hospital, and the heaviness of our own hearts.

All of those feelings, the inner tranquility created by the Nunc Dimittis, were gone as soon as I returned to my room and to Twitter. The outcome became clear but I turned off my phone and went to bed before final results were in. A restless followed, ended by the sound of the alarm clock for Morning Prayer at 6:00 am.

It was as we prayed the Angelus and then moved into the familiar words of the Office, “Lord, open our lips. And our mouth shall proclaim your praise,” that I began to experience what a blessing it would be to be on retreat in the first days after the election. Worshiping in a chapel that was almost 100 years old, its thick stone walls suggesting permanence and timelessness, spending most of my time in silence, broken only by our common worship 4 times a day, offered space and time to reflect on the election and to reflect on what it means to be a Christian and an Episcopal priest in this nation that turns out to be very different than I had imagined it to be.

The psalms appointed for Morning Prayer in the Ordo of the SSJE were Psalms 36 and 37 (I think). We chanted these words (Psalm 37:6-7)

Be still before the LORD *

and wait patiently for him.

Do not fret yourself over the one who prospers, *

the one who succeeds in evil schemes.

I thought of the Psalter, the Daily Office, the brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, and the chapel in which we worshiped. All of these things are evidence of the durability of the Christian tradition. The SSJE was founded 150 years ago; its rhythm of the Daily Office, silence, work, and hospitality has its roots in the western monastic tradition going back 1500 years. Its chapel draws on millennial-old architectural styles. All of it symbolizes the tradition’s strength and permanence.


Of course, the strength and permanence are illusory. My sabbatical has focused on the enormous changes taking place in American culture today, the changing demographics for religion; the catastrophic decline in mainline Christianity, the very uncertain future that lies ahead. To put our trust in thick stone walls, or in a worship style and practice that have their roots 1500, 2000, or 2500 years ago are false hopes.

Nevertheless, I found hope and inspiration in those stone walls, in the chanting of the Daily Office, in the community created in silence and in the brothers’ hospitality. The silence of last week gave me space to pray and to think. As the week went on, the importance of prayer, the centrality of prayer, became more obvious. To reach not for my own words but for the church’s words; to say and chant psalms that were written 2500 years ago; for the doubts and fears, the faith and trust of an author so unlike myself, who lived in a world imaginably different from, for his words to speak for and to me, to speak of and to God; was comfort and consolation in this difficult and anxious. To rediscover the power of prayer, and especially of a community at prayer, was just what I needed. It may be what Christians across the country need in this time.

Putting our trust in the permanence and strength of institutions and walls of stone may be misguided, even idolatrous, but I learned something else from my retreat among the brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.

As I listened to their chanting, and as I raised my voice to join theirs, I thought about all of the monks across all of the centuries, who had raised their voices for the Daily Office. I thought of how monastic life had changed and adapted over the centuries. I thought of those times when it seemed like monasticism would come to an end—the turbulence of the 1960s, the violence of the French Revolution, the Protestant Reformation, those centuries when monasticism continued to carry Christianity and the classical tradition in the midst of the turmoil of the early Middle Ages, and even earlier, as the order and structure of the Roman Empire collapsed in the West. Through all of those centuries, monks continued to pray, and chant, and work. Their lives, the institutions in which they lived, the world around them, all changed dramatically in those times. Their faith was shaken, but their prayer continued.

For many of us, the world has changed. Our hopes have been shattered. We are full of anger, fear, and grief. When I return to Madison, I will engage with members of our congregation, clergy and other leaders as we continue to work for justice and peace, for reconciliation, and to create a community where people of all races, national background, religious commitment, and gender can flourish. I’m sure I will have more to say about that in the days and weeks to come.

I hope that all of this work will emerge from and be grounded by prayer—my own prayer and that of my congregation and others.

As I reemerged from silent retreat and traveled to Seattle, Portland, and now San Antonio, I have been overwhelmed by the noise of our media, news cycle, and social media. I have found it difficult to read the news, to follow closely on social media, to witness the anger, fear, the outrage left and right. For all the immediacy and connectedness of the internet, there is also something profoundly disturbing about the way it invades and obsesses us. I am learning that for my own spiritual and emotional health, I will need to keep much of it at arm’s length.

At the same time, as I seek to ground myself in prayer and silence, I also want to commit myself to holy listening—to finding ways of hearing the hurt, anger, and fear of all those who feel threatened by this new reality, and to find ways of hearing the hurt, fear, and anger of all those who thought their only recourse was to vote for Trump.

We are in a new world. We are citizens of a nation that has revealed itself for what it truly is and always has been, deeply racist and deeply committed to the project of white supremacy. How we, how I, will negotiate this present context remains to be seen but hopefully my way will be guided by prayer, silence, and holy listening.

Whited sepulchers or living stones: Sabbatical update

I don’t know how many times I’ve heard it. Whenever I open Grace’s doors during the week or on Saturdays and people wander in, someone will say, “I’ve walked past this church for years and have never been inside.”

Such statements don’t surprise me anymore. Most Madison residents who walk the sidewalks of Capitol Square are on their way somewhere, to work, to a restaurant or concert, to the Farmer’s Market or a demonstration, or back home. When we walk like that, with a destination in mind, we rarely take time to notice our surroundings. Our attention is diverted from our journey’s goal or our iphone screen only if something in our peripheral vision distracts us, something new or different, a door that’s opened, beckoning us into unfamiliar space, when every other time we’ve passed by, its been closed.

Even so, if the door is open and we notice it, will we take the opportunity to walk in, to encounter the space hidden behind those heavy, wooden doors? Likely not, after all, we’re not just out for a stroll. We’re on our somewhere, to work or home, to the Farmer’s Market, or returning from the market, carrying heavy bags full of vegetables. We don’t have time or the inclination. We might even think that the invitation of an open door is not meant for me.

I was walking down 14th St. in Washington, DC, enjoying the unseasonably warm weather on a November day, awash in the various sights and sounds of an unfamiliar city. As I walked, I passed by several Protestant churches in various states of repair—United Church of Christ, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist. They were all imposing edifices, reminders of a time when mainline Christianity was at the center of American culture. All of them showed in their fabric the transformation of America and of Christianity in the decades since they were built. There was evidence of the crisis of homelessness in urban America, both in the services that these churches were providing and in measures the churches took to restrict homeless people from sections of the property where they were unwelcome.

Most, if not all of the churches announced somewhere in some similar language: “God welcomes all” or “All are welcome.” One of those signs hung on the side of a church behind a high iron fence with padlocked gates. On weekdays, except for the homeless congregating around them, all of these churches looked forbidding and foreboding. Just as commuters and tourists passed by quickly without a glance, these churches were further evidence that American culture had passed them by without a backward glance.

The same was true in other cities I visited—Richmond, New York City, Boston. Boston (or Cambridge) fascinated me in that respect. It’s a city I once knew well, having lived there from 1982 to 1991 and having walked the streets of Cambridge, Somerville, and Boston countless times and for hours on end. I remembered many of the churches I walked past this week, in Harvard Square, down Mass Ave to Porter Square. It occurred to me that I could have made the same exclamation had I entered any of them this week. I remembered walking past them but had never entered any of them. The number of churches I actually had visited in my decade or more in Boston was relatively small, the number I had worshiped in was even smaller.

What I did remember was the response I had in the 80s while walking past many of these churches. It was the same response I had in 2016 while walking past churches on 14th St. in Washington. I assumed the condition of the exterior was evidence of the vitality and vibrancy of the congregation that worshiped there. Certainly, disrepair is clear evidence of the financial resources available. I know all too well how expensive maintenance and upkeep of large, historic buildings can be, how demanding of congregational time and energy, as well as money.

Often, we look at such buildings with sadness and regret, mourning the passing of an era when the buildings were full of life and built to provide space and programming for large and growing congregations. We assume that the buildings were created of that magnitude in order to accommodate present congregations and anticipated future growth.

That’s not always the case. When I was studying for my M.Div at Harvard Divinity School in the mid 1980s, I did my Field Education at a mainline Protestant Church in Boston’s Back Bay. The building was on the National Historical Register. Its architect was H.H Richardson (no, it wasn’t Trinity Church, Copley Square); the friezes on its tower created by Bartholdi, the sculptor of the Statue of Liberty. It was proud of its Tiffany windows, its long history, its architectural pedigree. When I was there, Sunday attendance averaged in the 40s and it was easy to imagine Sundays decades before when the sanctuary seating around 800 was packed full.

In fact, its history was very different. In fact, the building was built by an already established Unitarian congregation that wanted to relocate in the newly developed and very fashionable Back Bay after the Civil War. But the design and construction were far beyond the congregation’s financial resources and it went bankrupt during construction. Completed in 1872, the architectural landmark stood empty and unused for a decade, until a Protestant congregation purchased it and moved in. In subsequent decades, other congregations from that denomination merged into this congregation as demographic patterns shifted. Certainly, it had thrived over the decades but it had never fully occupied the space it had purchased in 1882.

Likely similar stories could be told of mainline congregations across the country, large, beautiful buildings constructed in a time of optimism and growth, built to attract people moving into nearby neighborhoods. Boston’s Back Bay is a prime example of this. Within a few blocks are two Episcopal churches in addition to Unitarian, UCC, Presbyterian, and American Baptist. In a few blocks, the status, wealth, and marketing efforts of 19th century mainline Christianity is on full display.

Whether such buildings and the congregations that inhabit them will survive is an open question. But it’s also important to recognize that buildings in relative states of disrepair do not necessarily tell the whole story or reflect the vitality of the congregation that worships there. I was reminded of this when I visited St. James Episcopal Church in Porter Square, Cambridge. It was one of those churches I was thinking about earlier when I wrote about passing them by. I leaved near Porter Square for most of the time I was in Boston. For about a year, my commute took me more or less directly past St. James. I never entered it or worshiped there. That same year, one of my roommates did attend regularly. He loved the worship and the warm community. St. James has considerable architectural interest. From the outside it seems to be in considerable disrepair. Certainly, its parish house is rundown, and it is surrounded by an overgrown and unwelcoming garden.

In contrast to the uninviting aspects of its buildings and garden, St. James also shows signs of vitality to the community. A permanent Black Lives Matter sign stands as witness on the Massachusetts Ave side of the property and near the main entrance to the church. Around the side and back of the property construction is underway. After talks that began in 2007, construction has begun on a condominium development in which St. James is a partner. In additional to market-rate and some affordable units, St. James will have a new parish hall and a significant start on an endowment for ongoing building maintenance. . A newly configured garden will welcome passersby into space that is inviting and offers respite from the busy streets of the neighborhood.

I have no doubt that when I walk past St. James five years from now, I will see a building and property that are welcoming and inviting to passers-by; that the vitality of the congregation will be on full display seven days a week and that its property will be a spiritual haven in the midst of a busy city.

Sabbatical as Liturgical Tourism

In my last sermon before departing on sabbatical, I mentioned to the congregation that the six Sundays I would be away from Grace would constitute the longest break from presiding at the Eucharist since my ordination in 2006. Indeed, I could probably count on the fingers of one hand the number of Sundays since my ordination on which I had attended church services in which I was not participating in some leadership capacity. 

But it’s not just been Sunday mornings. During my sabbatical, I have been something of a liturgical tourist. I’ve worshiped in a number of different cities and settings, experienced different worship styles and worshiping communities within the same congregation. This week, I have been immersed in the prayer and worship of the Brothers of the Society of St. John the Evangelist.

I have enjoyed the variety of worship styles and the diverse worshiping communities. There was the familiar—the Eucharistic liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer, the Daily Office, hymns from the Hymnal 1982. There was the new and different—services based on the New Zealand Book of Common Prayer, from the Community of Iona, new and powerful hymn texts. There were also memories from my past—the first time I’ve sung “How Great Thou Art” in many, many years. And there was the surprising—baptisms in which the presider sat babies down in the font to baptize them and then raised them above his head in exuberant celebration.

In a way, all of it was strange. To sit in a pew, to open a service bulletin wondering what I might find, to look around the congregation and see only unfamiliar faces; to pay attention to the new space in which I found myself; to ask, “what were the architects and people thinking, why did they choose this style and how has this style, this space, shaped the congregation? How has the changing historical context, the changing neighborhood, the changing congregation, adapted and transformed this space for their spiritual needs?”

For “Street Church” with its lack of defined space, other questions. With no boundaries defining the space, and little demarcation between Eucharist and lunch, how does that openness invite participation, welcome the marginal, the unknown, the stranger?

It’s been a great gift to worship in so many contexts with so many people. To let go, to not worry about what was going to happen next or whether everyone who was scheduled would be there, whether the details were in place; to sit, and stand, sing, and pray, to receive bread and wine as a stranger, surrounded by strangers, and yet, in spite of it, to be welcomed at the table and with these strangers, as we eat Christ’s body and blood, we are, we become the Body of Christ.

As the weeks have passed and as the number and variety of my worship experiences has increased, I’ve deepened my appreciation for the flexibility and power of Episcopal worship. To worship in all those different contexts with thousands of people coming from very different places and living very different lives, is to experience one of the great strengths of the Episcopal Church. Our worship brings us into the presence of God and brings us into relationship with Jesus Christ. In worship, we experience the love of Christ and become the Body of Christ. The miracle is that this happens whenever, wherever we worship. The wonder is that all of those people who worship among and with us, can experience all of that, come to experience all of that. It can happen with beautiful music sung by professional choirs; it can happen when a few people sing “Amazing Grace” haltingly and off-key in a Washington Park. It can happen in glorious vestments and beautiful churches. But we can also experience God’s presence, the love of Christ, and become the Body of Christ in a warm smile or a hand tenderly placed on the shoulder of a sobbing woman at the altar rail.

Grace at Epiphany

The Episcopal Church of the Epiphany is located on G St. between 13th and 14th NW. My interest in Epiphany’s work was piqued by several of their programs. On Sunday mornings they have something called The Welcome Table. Oriented toward members of the homeless community, it begins with optional Bible Study or 12-Step programs at 7:00 am. A worship service in which members of the community take active roles follows at 8:00 am and breakfast is served at 9:00. I would have loved the opportunity to be a part of that experience on Sunday morning, and my regret was even deeper when I learned that former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams would be preaching at Epiphany’s main Sunday service on November 6. Unfortunately, my travel plans were already fixed when I learned of this.

On Tuesdays, Epiphany with the help of volunteers from other neighboring congregations, organizes “Street Church” at nearby Franklin Park. I was able to be a part of that experience and to talk with Interim Associate Rector the Rev. Dr. Catriona Laing.

When I arrived at Epiphany, I was greeted on the street by a man who talked with me about the Street Sense newspaper, produced by members of the homeless community. It operates at Epiphany as well. He proudly pointed out the articles in the current edition that he had written and directed me to a woman nearby who was selling them. Street Sense operates on the same model as Madison’s own Street Pulse but the presence of its offices at Epiphany means that there is a constant stream of traffic, vendors, volunteers, staff.

In the kitchen, volunteers from Epiphany and the community were preparing sandwiches for the Street Church lunch. While they worked, Catriona and I chatted about Epiphany’s ministries and future. They are currently in the search process for a new rector, so it’s likely that there will be changes in the coming years. The physical plant clearly suffers from deferred maintenance. In fact, replacement of the Parish House’s slate roof, funded by a grant from the DC Preservation Society, is currently underway.

As we walked through the building, I could hear music. Epiphany has a weekly concert series at noon on Tuesdays and the Washington Bach Consort was rehearsing its program—Bach’s Cantata: Lobe den Herrn, meine Seele, BWV 69. Also on the program was Bach’s Prelude and Fugue in A Minor, BWV 543 with organist Julie Vidrick Evans. My sympathies were torn. I would have loved to take in the free performance but had already committed to being with Street Church.

Eventually, we made the several blocks’ walk over to Franklin Park. Supplies for the Eucharist, tables, and the food were transported in shopping carts. As we walked, I chatted with one of the volunteers pushing a cart. He told me that he had been volunteering with Street Church for several years. He had heard about it at his church and thought that it was something he could easily do. His office was nearby.

It was a warm afternoon. Around the park are several food trucks and there are tables with folding chairs at various places. Many of the tables and park benches were taken by office workers eating their lunch and enjoying the balmy weather but the area that Street Church staked out seemed to be something of a boundary area that separated the lunching office workers from the homeless people who were occupying many benches with their belongings.

When the service started, the volunteers and visitors seemed to outnumber the homeless, but as we continued, people began to gather. The liturgy is adapted from the Book of Common Prayer. On this occasion, one of Epiphany’s seminarians offered the homily. Several familiar hymns were sung. After communion, the lunch was laid out for all.

Street Church was a powerful experience for me. To hear the gospel preached out in a park at mid-day, to see the body and blood of Jesus Christ shared with people whose lives have brought them to this place, where they are generally perceived by passers-by (and politicians) as nuisances, disgraces, and eyesores, but to see their dignity, and the community created around the Lord’s Table, is a profound witness to the grace and love of Jesus Christ. The Eucharist and the shared meal created community and it was obvious that there were deep bonds of love, care, and trust among the volunteers and the people who came to the table.

Catriona and I had talked about how easy it is for churches’ social justice ministries to function as and become social service agencies. Street Church provides its meal in the context of the Eucharist. The proclamation of the Word of God and the sharing of Christ’s body and blood offer nourishment for the soul, place the distribution of food in the context of the Sacrament of the Eucharist and shatter the barrier between service provider and guest (client?). As we come to the table we are all one body—Jew and Gentile, male and female, homeless and housed.

It’s also powerful symbolically that at the same time as preparations for Street Church took place, the Washington Bach Consort was rehearsing for its noon concert. Clearly there are tensions—musicians and volunteers share the same space in the last few minutes before they go their separate ways. But still, I was deeply touched by the presence of both of those groups and the way they were sharing their gifts and their passion. The church can be many things to many people. It can connect spiritually in many ways—through the beauty of music or the beauty, grace, and love of communion with pita bread and grape juice in a park.



Proclaiming Christ in the Heart of the City–St. Paul’s Richmond

Sabbatical Update

St. Paul’s has a rich and challenging history and has an interesting vision for ministry in its context. Like Grace, the choice of location opposite the State Capitol was strategic. There, the similarities between the two congregations end. St. Paul’s was built in the Greek Revival style. Grace, constructed 15 years later, is Neo-Gothic.

The built environment surrounding the two churches is also radically different. Compared to Richmond’s Capitol Square, Madison’s is both more intimate and more vibrant. Richmond’s Capitol Square is much more expansive than Madison’s. The Capitol itself is set back much further from the street giving the square more of a park-like feeling. Perhaps it was only because I visited on a fairly warm day but there were relatively few people in view. A few were eating there lunch on benches on a tree-lined sidewalk inside the high iron fences but the sidewalks surrounding the Capitol were largely empty. I didn’t take a full inventory but my impression was that St. Paul’s was the only non-governmental building around the square. There were no restaurants, retail, banks as there are on Madison’s Capitol Square. Moreover, St. Paul’s is oriented away from the square. Its main entrance is on Grace St. which forms the (roughly) northern axis of the square. Its walls on the side facing the Capitol are monumental and unfriendly.

But once you turn down Grace St., there’s a very different feel.Just beyond the main entrance to the nave is a courtyard and a few feet within that courtyard a covered passageway that connects the nave to the rest of the church’s facilities. There is access to  the garden within the courtyard during the day.

Inside, the church seems to be bustling with activity. I visited on Wednesday evening and again on Thursday. On Wednesday evenings, they present an alternative, contemplative worship service at 6:00, followed by a simple supper. Other groups (bible studies, book groups) eat at the same time and then convene separately for their discussions.

The contemplative service, “Center,” combines communal worship with opportunities for private devotion. There’s a labyrinth on the floor, stations with icons and other prompts for spiritual reflection, and opportunities for creative expression. It’s a lovely, intimate, spirit-filled time. Leaders and participants were somewhat self-conscious about the low attendance the week I was there. I was moved as I watched worshipers engage with the various opportunities for spiritual enrichment.

On Thursday, I had lunching conversation with St. Paul’s clergy. When I arrived around 12:30 pm, the Parish Hall was full of people participating in St. Paul’s weekly lunch for the homeless. Many years ago, Richmond’s downtown churches collaborated on the effort to provide weekday lunches for the homeless. A healthy and hearty meal is prepared and I could hear occasional singing accompanied by a piano.

I came to St. Paul’s largely to get a first-hand look at their downtown ministries. In 2012, they created a position of “Downtown Missioner” with the express goal of connecting St. Paul’s with the downtown community. Melanie Mullen has held the position for four years now and talked about all of the expectations and ideas that were brought together in the original position description and how it has evolved over the years as she has lived into the position. Now, she focuses on several areas. One is worship–she is responsible for developing and leading Center. She is also involved in community organizing and the Laundry Love effort which is a monthly activity at a downtown laundry.

In addition to all of that, St. Paul’s hosts a weekly lecture series on Friday noons entitled “Eyes on Richmond” with speakers and lunch catered by local restaurants. The week before I was there, they had hosted a mayoral forum that focused on the criminal justice system.

St. Paul’s is a vibrant and remarkable church. They conversations they have begun about their history and legacy are important and can serve as a model for other such conversations that need to take place, not only around slavery and the confederacy, but around other issues where the Episcopal Church has been complicit in and profited from oppression. St. Paul’s is also creating innovative ministries and missions to connect with their neighbors and wider community. The questions they are asking are questions we all should be asking, or reflecting on how our particular contexts might give rise to different questions and different opportunities for mission.


Reflections on Richmond and Madison, Sabbatical Update 2

The first stop on my sabbatical was Richmond, VA. I chose it because I had to be in Richmond for a conference from October 24-31. and because I was interested in learning more about the ministry and vision of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church which, like my own church, is located opposite the State Capitol. I had visited Richmond around 25 years ago and as I’ve pointed out to several people here, both Richmond and I have changed a great deal over that period of time.

In a second post, I will focus more narrowly on my experience and conversations at St.Paul’s. Here, I’d like to offer some first impressions as I walked the city. The second will focus on how Richmond and St. Paul’s are addressing the history of slavery, the Confederacy, and the Lost Cause. The third will look specifically in St. Paul’s ministry in the city.

It’s interesting to compare Madison, WI and Richmond, VA. They are both state capitals and they have roughly the same population (Madison is around 240,000; Richmond roughly 220,000) but the comparisons end there. Richmond’s metro area is roughly twice the size of Madison’s (1.2 million to 600000) and the city of Richmond has a majority minority population with African-Americans making up around 51% of the population (compared to Madison’s 7.3%0.

Walking around Richmond, I was struck by the deep divisions and boundaries that fragment the city. There are important geographical ones like the James River. More important perhaps are the man-made ones, especially the railroads and interstates that divide the city now and once destroyed neighborhoods and communities. The downtown is dominated by the state capitol, other state office buildings and highrise office buildings that most often serve as headquarters for banks and other service industries. Richmond is a commuter city, more than 100,000 people come into the downtown to work from Monday to Friday and when they leave, the downtown shuts down except for a few pockets of restaurants and entertainment. As I walked the half-mile from my hotel to church services on a beautiful Sunday morning, I encountered no more than a half-dozen people on the sidewalks.

Just west of downtown is Virginia Commonwealth University which is making inroads east into the traditionally African-American neighborhood of Jackson Ward. It’s remarkable that one side of Broad St has a number of high-end galleries, boutiques, and hotels and VCU has undertaken major construction on two blocks. On the opposite side of Broad Street `(apparently the southern border of the Jackson Ward) are boarded up storefronts, hookah parlors and pawn shops.

I ate at Mama J’s (soul food) on N. First St. I had the best fried catfish I’ve ever tasted, macaroni and cheese that was as good as my own, and a divine slice of hummingbird cake. I ate at the bar. To my left was a white guy in his thirties, like me, reading from an apple device. To my right sat several African-American men. The clientele was mixed although most of the take out orders were picked up by were well-dressed African Americans who seemed to be picking up large orders of food for parties or dinners at home.

After leaving Mama J’s and walking back to Broad Street, I noticed a barbershop on the corner. It was packed. There were probably 6 or 8 chairs all of them full; and patrons filled all of seating spaces in the waiting area; others were standing around, and even the sidewalk had groups of men standing around and talking. Some old neighborhood institutions seem to be surviving and even thriving.

In reading about Richmond, it’s clear that there’s considerable discussion in the city around gentrification. There are signs of it on the north side of Broad St; but even more in the areas of Shockoe Bottom and Church Hill. What is most striking to me is the sheer amount of real estate that is underused and seems derelict. One wonders what cultural and economic change would be necessary for all of those buildings and vacant land to be occupied and utilized. Richmond saw a significant decline in population, largely driven by white flight from 1970-2000. In 1970, its population was almost 250000; by 2000 it had fallen to 197,000.

I’d be fascinated to hear from urban planners about what sort of a future they envision for Richmond. Clearly, if they were able to attract more residents to the city, they might be able to revitalize more of the housing and commercial stock. But to attract more downtown residents would require enormous investment in institutions like the schools and transportation. In our current political climate, would that even be possible? The Library of Virginia has an online exhibition called “Mapping Inequality” that uses maps to show the changing demographic patterns in Richmond over the last two centuries.

Evangelism and Sacred Space: Sabbatical Update 1

I’m a week into my sabbatical and have a few minutes to reflect on what I’m doing and where I’ve been. I’m calling my sabbatical project “Evangelism and Sacred Space,” which may sound exciting or off-putting, or both. Briefly put, I’m interested in how churches can respond to the rapidly changing religious scene in twenty-first century America, with growing numbers of people no longer identifying themselves as religious or as belonging to a particular religious tradition. In addition, people who do self-identify as religious or Christian are practicing their Christianity very differently than previous generations, with much lower regular attendance and institutional commitment. These trends have radical implications for congregations and denominations.

But those demographics are only part of what intrigues me. In Madison, for example, there is significant population growth downtown with millennials and retirees drawn to the restaurants, entertainment, and lifestyle of a vibrant downtown. So a second piece of my interest is in city planning and urbanism, specifically how can churches participate in creating vital neighborhoods and communities. Many city planners talk about “third places,” spaces in addition to home and workplace where people can find community and connection. Churches are often cited as examples of third places but it’s rare that churches actively think about how they can create such spaces for people besides their own members.

It seems to me that some churches have something to offer, namely sacred space. To enter a space like the neo-Gothic Grace Church, for many people is to enter a space unlike any other they experience regularly. The beauty and transcendence of such spaces call out to the deep yearning in our souls for God, even if we have no vocabulary to describe that yearning. Opening our doors, truly becoming a “third space” for Madison, is not just about creating community, it is about inviting people into a spiritual journey, the goal of which is God.

Finally, I am interested in finding ways to deepen and broaden community across the divides of race, class, and religion. At Grace, we have been exploring for several years how we might address the deep racial inequities and divisions in Madison. We have also sought to be a witness to the positive value of interfaith work. I hope to learn from others who are doing similar work.

My travels will take me up the East Coast from Richmond to Boston, to Seattle and Portland, and finally to San Antonio, where I will join my wife at the American Academy of Religion meeting and hopefully find time for a quick trip to Austin.

At the end of it all, I hope to be able to share with Grace and with anyone else who is interested some of my reflections on what I’ve learned, and some questions that might spur our own future work.