The One About Relocation, Relocation, Relocation

The Rector’s Digest 2022:02
17 March 2022
Patrick of Ireland (461)

As of this writing, Renee and I have been married almost 22 years. And over the last few weeks we made our 14th move. So our lives these days are again about relocation, relocation, relocation (interestingly, the title of an Australian TV show, but I digress).

Today as I type in my reconstructed home office, we’re finally (almost) out of boxes in the Rectory of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in New York’s Times Square. I’m now about a month into my new job as the Interim Rector for this iconic old parish, and it’s pretty surreal, moving to the bustling center of the biggest city in America to work and to live.

But we already love NYC and the faithful family at St. Mary’s, and I’ve learned a ton about the parish and the neighborhood in my first month here. It’s exciting to lean into the next chapter of work here and prepare to help the people of St. Mary’s discern who God is forming them to be in the next 3 years, 7 years, 25 years.

It’s not lost on me, though, that as my family relocated to New York to follow Jesus, other folks are on the move. More than three million refugees have fled Ukraine under the Russian onslaught, while an unknown number are displaced within the country’s borders. The saddest part is the children — UNICEF estimates 55 children per minute have become refugees since the Russian invasion: “That is, a Ukrainian child has become a refugee almost every single second since the start of the war,” a spokesperson said. We at St. Mary’s pray for peace every day; we hear the cries of protesters every weekend in Times Square; we follow the reports in the newspaper and on TV every night. But that all seems so small. And not just to me.

One thing I miss most about Nashville is a little group of guys that met at the Frothy Monkey in 12-South most Tuesday mornings to drink coffee, eat a bagel (or a huge waffle, according to our respective metabolisms), and talk about books. This week, Aaron, one of our members, sent around a newsletter written by pastor and author David Swanson, and it resonated with me. It reads, in part:

I want the act of watching a war unfold on the other side of the world to feel stranger than it does. It should feel stranger than it does . . . . [But t]elevised and streaming war is normal now . . . .

There was a story on our local public radio station this week about some high rises in Chicago which are being illuminated in the blue and yellow of the Ukrainian flag. It’s a way of standing in solidarity, according to a couple of the building managers who were interviewed for the report. They didn’t sound all that convinced that their lit-up support makes much of a difference.

What else is there to do with another war on?

Neil Postman introduced me to the “Information-Action-Ratio” in Amusing Ourselves to Death. If my daughter is sick in the next room (which she actually happens to be right this moment, the poor thing), I can bring her ice chips. I can take her temperature, respond to her cries, even transport her to hospital if necessary (albeit in an Uber now that we’re officially car-less as a family). That’s a “high” information-action-ratio, and it’s what we all experienced prior to the age of telegraphy. Here’s Postman about back in the day when:

the information-action ratio was sufficiently close so that most people had a sense of being able to control some of the contingencies in their lives. What people knew about had action-value. In the information world created by telegraphy, this sense of potency was lost, precisely because the whole world became context for news. Everything became everyone’s business. For the first time, we were sent information which answered no question we had asked, and which, in any case, did not permit the right of reply.

Now we are constantly bombarded with information from places we cannot access, and our information-access-ratio has diminished drastically. We’re paralyzed by news reports, unable to act more meaningfully than to pray, illuminate our buildings, perhaps donate to relief efforts via text. That’s a pretty “low information-action-ratio” — and the acronym isn’t an unintended pun: I say I care about Ukraine, but I honestly feel like a L.I.A.R.

I think that’s why I was so taken with Pastor Swanson’s words. Read the whole piece — he goes through Fanny Lou Hamer and Wendell Berry to ponder how we are to “shake lose of the fragmented malaise of technocracy which has us adding wars and rumors of war to the rest of our media queue,” but he doesn’t leave us despairing. He concludes:

Perhaps we might begin by plunging our hands into the nearest bit of soil we can find, feeling for the reverberations of this created world of which we are but a small part. Any fruitful response to the old predictable destruction will not come from some technological miracle. It will reveal itself to those who can see the whole, who understand we belong to the whole and can imagine that wholeness in the stories and suffering of our kin.

Neighborly love cannot be mitigated through our technology, no matter what the technocratic saviors from Silicon Valley and Washington DC believe. Love is always an embodied sacrifice. It makes particular demands on limited and interdependent creatures such as ourselves, namely that we care for the diverse places and people closest to us. Only then, from the creative confines of our creatureliness, can we love our faraway neighbors.

https://buttondown.email/david.w.swanson/archive/accepting-our-creatureliness/

So — Pray for Peace in Ukraine, to be sure. And while you’re at it, remember South Sudan. And Syria. And Afghanistan and Ethiopia and Myanmar and Eritrea. Pray for the conversion of Vladimir Putin. Even pray for God to take him out (David French, Curtis Chang, and Tish Harrison Warren recently had quite a conversation about that very thing). But maybe more important — dig into something outside your door, and care for the diverse people and places closest to you. If you’re in New York, stop by St. Mary’s to volunteer at our Neighbors In Need drop-by day tomorrow, or maybe join our AIDS Walk team. Find some way to act on the information right in front of your eyes about the needs right there in your backyard. For whatever reason, God relocated us to Times Square, and that means he’s tethered us to every neighbor we pass on the street.

In the meantime — in between unpacking and learning a new subway system, here’s some of what I’m up to:

  • Listening: Missing Nashville, to be sure, so almost every night finds us in our little family room in the Rectory with Chris Stapleton on the turntable. Current fave: 2020’s Starting Over. I still re-watch his live performance of “Arkansas” from the ’21 CMT Music Awards about once a week.
  • Reading: Yeesh — mainly I’m reading to keep my head above water as I learn to be an interim. Joanna, my coach, recommended I pick up Michael Watkins’ The First 90 Days: Proven Strategies for Getting Up to Speed Faster and Smarter, and gosh it’s terrific! And on the train I carry my old dogeared copy of Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain, the story of a guy discovering God in New York City.
  • Watching: Got RedeemTV a while back to watch “The Chosen” (promptly watched 1 episode, then totally forgot about it). But since today’s my son’s Saint’s Day, I re-watched the documentary “St. Patrick: Pilgrimage to Peace.” Given our recent relocation to Manhattan, I gotta love this line from it: “The imperial world is gone, but nonetheless there’s somebody here in Gaul saying: ‘Patrick, there’s a big island out there. It’s full of pagans. It needs to be Christianized — that’s your life’s mission.” (Plese pardon any visions of grandeur; I just remark on the parallels)
  • Practicing: It’s Lent again. Years ago I borrowed (stole) an idea from a friend’s church in Boston and created a little Lenten Guide for our parish when I was Associate Rector at the Advent. We called it “The Shape of Lent at the Church of the Advent,” and upon arriving in Nashville, we adapted the idea for St. Bartholomew’s. Haven’t brought it to St. Mary’s yet (this year was a little ambitious for me, but just wait’ll next year!), but here are links to this year’s guides from the Advent and St. B’s for your perusal. At the Woodhouse we’re doing sort of a modified version of both.

I do wish you a blessed Lent and a glorious Easter. As my friend Mother Beth says: “Lent works if you work it.  (And [she adds]: Easter works if you’ve worked Lent.)” Pray for me this season as I pray for you. Come see us in the City.

Thanks for reading, and Happy St. Pat’s! ☘️

P.S. Our 2022 pilgrimage to the Holy Land was postponed late last year as Covid numbers rose around the world and Israel closed its borders for a bit. But we’re getting the gang back together and planning to travel early next year! We got pilgrims from Boston, Nashville, other places across the US — and there’s a spot for you, if you’re interested (email me for more info). And just to entice you, here’s a picture of me floating in the Dead Sea on my first trip with pilgrims the Church of the Advent, Boston. I promise I’m wearing shorts.

The One About the Grey Havens and Goodbye

The Rector’s Digest 2022:01
4 February 2022
Cornelius the Centurion (1c)

Happy snow day (?!?), St. B’s Family —

Yesterday at mass we blessed throats.

February 3 is the Feast of St. Blaise (also called Blasius), a wildly popular saint in middle-ages Europe, but about whom we actually know very little. We know he existed — he’s named in an ancient medical journal, he served as bishop of Sabaste in modern-day Turkey more than 1700 years ago, and Marco Polo visited his shrines. He’s also the patron saint of veterinarians. Holy Blaise was martyred under Licinius around 316 A.D., but we remember him today because of the legends that grew up around him.

St. Blaise and His Beasts

According to one legend, Licinius’ soldiers were marching Blaise to prison when a woman approached the caravan distressed that her pig was being attacked by a wolf. At Blaise’s command, the wolf released the pig, and the woman later brought candles to Blaise’s cell so he would have light to read. The most famous legend has the imprisoned bishop miraculously curing a young boy choking on a fish bone, thus his fame as the patron saint of throat ailments and yesterday’s little liturgy. Even the woman’s candles find their way back into the story, because in time the custom arose of blessing the throats of the faithful by holding two tapered candles (called a “candelabrum”) against the throat while invoking the intercession of St. Blaise against any illness, particularly ailments of the throat.

The Church has blessed and prayed for the sick since its earliest days. In chapter 5 of his epistle, St. James wrote: “14Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. 15The prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise them up; and anyone who has committed sins will be forgiven16Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.”

The annual blessing of the throats is an old sacramental practice, a sign of the struggle against illness and of praying for healing. I learned the practice as curate at the Church of the Ascension & St. Agnes in Washington, DC, where my mentor, Fr. Ron Conner, would bless almost anything that moved — taxi cabs, firetrucks, animals of any kind, water, plants, rosaries, and — of course — throats. And I’ve taken the practice with me to the Advent in Boston and, now, to our parish church here in Nashville.

Even before arriving at St. Bartholomew’s, I’d heard of the emphasis on healing here. From the old weekend retreats on healing to the prayer stations in the nave every Sunday (thanks, Phyllis!), healing has long been part of this parish’s ministry. I’ve heard story after story of folks who arrived at St. B’s beaten and bloody, only to find healing and wholeness in the Sacraments and through the love of this community.

Looking back on my time here, I’m happy to say I’ve found healing here, too, and in ways I hadn’t expected. Part of healing is becoming aware of the particular shape of one’s brokenness, and that comes through self-awareness. Thanks to the relationships I’ve built here — with the staff, vestry, and members of our parish — I’ve come to understand myself so much better, which helped me find particular patterns of sinfulness to carry to my confessor, and the coaching the vestry procured for me and the staff over the past two years gave me tools I didn’t even know I needed to be a better husband, father, priest and friend. I’m leaving a different man to the one I arrived as, and I’ll forever be grateful for that.

So I wanted to write one last short Digest just to say thank you — for everything. In less than a week I fly to NY to take a new post, but I leave Nashville with a St.B’s-shaped hole in my heart. I’m sad, to be sure, but if grief is but the other side of love, then my sadness is an indicator of the love I have for this place and for you.

In the closing pages of Tolkien’s famous trilogy, Gandalf the Wizard rides with Sam and Frodo and Bilbo out of the Shire, to the Far Downs and the Towers, and to Mithlond, the Grey Havens (always sounded like the saddest place imaginable) in the long firth of Lune, where they meet Merry and Pippin. In the shadow of the great white ship that will carry Gandalf across the High Sea and into the West, Sam is “sorrowful at heart” at this parting of friends. And typing today my heart’s sorrowful, too. But I’m reminded of the parting words of Gandalf the Wise:

“Well, here at last, dear friends, on the shores of the Sea comes the end of our fellowship in Middle-earth. Go in peace! I will not say: do not weep; for not all tears are an evil.”

J. R. R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (London: HarperCollins, 1995): 1007.

And lastly, for one more time, the latest —

If you find yourself by a fire this weekend, here’s what I’ve been up to of late:

  • Reading: I’ve been so tired at night lately that I’ve honestly not read much of anything. But one thing I want to read is a little book Meredith Flynn told me about yesterday — Dennis Linn’s Sleeping With Bread: Holding What Gives You Life. If one of the questions at the book’s heart is “For what am I most grateful?” then a handful of wonderful years at St. B’s is at the top of my answers list.
  • Listening: Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours turns 45 today. My eldest, Elizabeth, says Stevie, Mick, and the gang are her favorite band, so my parenting can’t be all bad, right?
  • Watching: Our own Tony Morreale recommended this one earlier in the week — Captain Irving Johnson’s Around Cape Horn, stunning video and commentary of his voyage to the bottom of the world in 1929. That led me to the Ghosts of Cape Horn documentary. Maybe I’m got barques on the brain, or perhaps it’s just anticipation of a journey, but both had me riveted. And if you just can’t get enough, revisit Gordon Lightfoot’s classic, and I defy you not to hum it for the next 2 days.

As always, thanks for reading all my meandering posts. Hope to see you for the Bonfire and BBQ on Sunday! I’ll treasure all the memories, and pray God blesses you —

The One About Hazelnuts | 5 November 2021

The Rector’s Digest 2021:11
5 November 2021
Saints Zechariah and Elizabeth (1c)

Happy November, St. B’s Family —

Years ago, when I was first ordained a deacon and then a priest, I was the curate of an old Anglo-catholic Episcopal church in Washington, DC, named the Church of the Ascension & St. Agnes. I loved working at ASA — it’s where I learned to celebrate the Eucharist (my boss, Fr. Lane Davenport, and I would have “mass practice” every couple days in the weeks leading up to my ordination, and I assure you I learned more at his elbow than I did in any liturgics class in seminary). Renee and the kids and I actually lived upstairs in the parish house above the second-floor choir room for about a year in an apartment with a kitchen so tiny the refrigerator was in the living room. But that same living room hosted a group of young adults in their 20s and 30s on Wednesday nights, a group that sometimes numbered upwards of thirty souls, learning together about common prayer, the Way of Jesus, and craft cocktails.

And cheese. I remember there being quite a lot of cheese.

I’ve been thinking about Fr. Lane and ASA a good deal lately, maybe because of a conversation I remember he and I had some time before he died much too young in the summer of 2015. We were reflecting on one of my homilies, as I recall, which we did every Monday after a Sunday I’d preached. He’d give me tips, say what was good and what could be better. On this particular day Father commended me for emphasizing the love of God from the pulpit, then he said something like: “People don’t believe that, you know? People don’t really believe God loves them.” Which is why he made sure to remind our little parish family of that fact in every single sermon. To the degree I do that today, you can thank him for it, as well as for most of what I do that’s good in my role as one of your priests.

See, I believe Fr. Lane was right — people don’t believe God loves them. Know how I know? Because I don’t believe it. Not all the time, not completely, or at least my behavior would suggest as much. So when I say “God loves you” in a sermon, you can bet the words are aimed right at myself. The preacher is petitioner before she is preacher. Before he preaches, St. Augustine said, the preacher should “raise his thirsty soul to God in order that he may give forth what he drinks, that he may pour out what fills him.” So I need to really believe God loves me first if I am to bring that message to you.

That’s what I think our lives are really for, when I’m honest. All the circumstances of our lives, the most mundane little details, are all there to teach us to love. William Blake said it the way only a poet could:

And we are put on earth a little space,
That we may learn to bear the beams of love.

And you only really learn to love by example, by having been loved first. So may I share some examples I’ve picked up that have helped me along the way? Here are three I’ve found useful as lenses onto the love of God for me:

The first is kind of a trope, I know, but I still love it. It’s the parent assuring their child that they never had to accomplish anything to get the parent’s love. It’s President Bartlet telling Ellie, the daughter who thought he preferred his other two daughters to her, that “the only thing you ever had to do to make me happy is come home at the end of the day.” Or if you find WW quotes a little outdated (and if that’s the case, then how dare you?!), check out Denis Villeneuve’s lavish adaptation of Frank Herbert’s sci-fi classic Dune. The story focuses on House Atreides, a noble family led by Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac) who is fiercely devoted to his son, Paul (Timothée Chalamet). The scene I’m talking about shows up in the trailer for the movie, as well. At about the 2:24 mark, Paul says:

“Dad, what if I’m not the future of House Atreides?” Dad’s reply: “A great man doesn’t seek to lead. He’s called to it. But if your answer is ‘no,’ you’ll still be the only thing I ever needed you to be: my son.”

That’s how a father loves his child well.

A second example — I first heard this one in a sermon Tim Keller preached years ago. The phrase I remember is “the applause of heaven,” which is what Dr. Keller said our souls are made for. He said it’s like the roar of a huge crowd right at the end of a transcendent musical performance. The artist stops playing, there’s the slightest silent pause . . . then the audience just erupts in adulation. We crave that roar deep in our souls — to be fully known, and yet fully loved by God. The other day I found a recorded example — it’s the last 30 seconds of this recording of pianist Yuja Wang’s performance of Sergei Rachmaninoff’s “Piano Concerto No. 3” with Gustavo Dudamel and the Simón Bolívar Symphony Orchestra of Venezuala. Rachmaninoff intended the Rach 3, as it’s called, to be a way to “show-off” and dazzle audiences on his first American tour in 1909. Ask most classical pianists what the hardest song is to play, and if the Rach 3 isn’t at number 1, it’s probably in the top 5. So when Wang sticks the landing in the Finale, you can just hear the crowd exploding to its feet to roar with applause.

That’s the sound I think of when I read Zephaniah 3, when the prophet tells Israel just how God feels about them:

The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.
(Zeph. 3.17-18a)

The last example is maybe my favorite. It’s St. Julian’s hazelnut. Dame Julian of Norwich was an English mystic in the Middle Ages when the whole world seemed to be coming apart at the seams. As a child she lived through the Black Death as it burned through Europe. She saw the One Hundred Years War and the Peasants’ Revolt. The church she knew was in shambles. And Dame Julian almost died from her own illness. Yet we remember her today as the author of the earliest work of English literature we know of written by a woman. Her Revelations of Divine Love is the account of a series of mystical visions, or “shewings,” she received in 1373 as a young woman only in her thirties. In chapter five, she gets to the one I’m talking about — the one about the hazel nut:

And in this [God] showed me a little thing, the quantity of a hazel nut, lying in the palm of my hand, as it seemed. And it was as round as any ball. I looked upon it with the eye of my understanding, and thought, ‘What may this be?’ And it was answered generally thus, ‘It is all that is made.’ I marveled how it might last, for I thought it might suddenly have fallen to nothing for littleness. And I was answered in my understanding: It lasts and ever shall, for God loves it. And so have all things their beginning by the love of God. 
In this little thing I saw three properties. The first is that God made it. The second that God loves it. And the third, that God keeps it. 

Julian’s vision (described well in this blog reflection) is about contingency. It tells us something about us, something about God. Julian understood that it is we who “because of littleness” might “suddenly have fallen into nothing.” I know God loves me because he made me, sure. That’s Psalm 139. But Hebrews, which we’ve been reading in worship of late, says creation isn’t just a one time thing. God “sustains all things by his powerful word” (Heb. 1.3). That means God continues to make me, second after second, moment by moment. God loves me and you that much! We last and ever shall because of the love of God.

Remember — You’re a daughter, you’re a son.
You’re a hazel nut.
God’s crazy about you and heaven applauds you every day.

I think St. Julian got that, and it’s why she could confidently say “All manner of thing shall be well.” That confidence, that trust in the sustaining love of God, changes everything. When you’ve got it in your pocket, you can be wrong. You can lose with grace. And one day you can even die with great dignity (as my friend Fr. Lane did with courage and hope).

So smile — God loves you (and me)!

And lastly — the latest

If you find yourself by a fire this weekend, let me tell you what I’ve been up to of late:

  • Reading: It’s not what I’m reading now (that’s the first volume William Gibson’s “Jackpot Trilogy,” The Peripheral, about a slow-motion “mundane cataclysm of modernity itself”) but two books I’m getting ready to start. The first is Philip Yancey’s “What’s So Amazing About Grace.” Renee’s and my LifeGroup is revisiting this old favorite in anticipation of Yancey’s visit to St. B’s for a weekend next February! And the second I plan to start at the turn of the year. In 2017, Gail Pitt (friend-of-the-parish) published a little book called “First We Were Loved” that has been sitting on my desk for months now. Gail says St. Ignatius of Loyola recommended everyone spend at least two years — sometimes three — contemplating sacred scripture’s account of God’s love for us. First We Were Loved includes scriptures for every day of the year along with instructions for prayer and inspirational quotes. I’ll be starting it Jan. 1, and you can find a copy of the book (laid out by our very own Director of Community Life, Sally Chambers-Rhea!) on the Dovehouse Ministries website.
  • Watching: Been down a YouTube hole lately. There’s so much cool obscure stuff on there! I’ve long been fascinated with Mt. Athos, but the closest I’ll ever get (because of the lack of hot water and the rumors of bedbugs and mosquitoes) is likely a clip like this one from a trip 60 Minutes took to the peninsula in 2011. Also take a second to watch this clip about Rev. Becca Steven’s new book and Thistle Farms on GMA — there’s a little shot of St. Bartholomew’s in the B roll.
  • Listening: Really just one band. In anticipation of the release of “Kid A Mnesia” today (the 5th of November ain’t just for “gunpowder, treason and plot” anymore), it’s pretty much a constant rotation of “Kid A” and (what’s maybe my favorite album) “Amnesiac” in my office this week.
  • And practicing: Fr. Mark the Confessor has me experimenting this week in prayer. I set an alarm on my phone (in airplane mode, of course), then just pray. My only prompt: “Jesus, where do you want me to go in prayer today? Holy Spirit, guide me.” I’ll let you know how that goes. What’s the worst that can happen?

As always, thank you for reading. Hope you enjoy the extra hour of sleep we get tomorrow night and that you’ll join us at St. B’s to celebrate All Saints Sunday! God bless you —

Fr. Sammy
Rector

The One About that Podcast | 1 October 2021

Weekend Digest 2021:10
1 October 2021
Remigius of Rheims, Bishop, Apostle of the Franks (530)

No doubt about it — 2021 will be remembered as “the year of the Mars Hill podcast.” At least in some of the circles I run in, it seems.

Allow me to explain.

As I write this, I’m on Mt. Desert Island in Maine. For the past 15 years, a group of pastors who came through the same little church I attended in seminary have gathered annually as a “covenant” group — when we first formed, we made a covenant with each other to share our lives together, praying for each other, meeting annually, exhorting each other in our various ministries from New England to Michigan to Tennessee. And this year, among the conversations about preaching and ministry and families and baseball and everything else under the sun, the topic we find ourselves talking about is “the podcast.”

I’ve long been a Christianity Today reader and subscriber to their “Quick to Listen” podcast. But this summer producer Mike Cosper rolled out a podcast called “The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill,” a long-form journalistic examination of the spectacular growth and similarly spectacular implosion of Mars Hill Church, Seattle, and its senior pastor Mark Driscoll. I started listening to it Week One, but as the episodes have rolled out, more and more of the folks in my circles have asked “Are you listening to the Podcast?” And I know exactly what they’re talking about.

Now, in one way this story may be completely opaque and incomprehensible to those of us in the Episcopal Church — if you didn’t grow up in an evangelical church (I did), or maybe even within a group of churches in the Neo-Calvinist stream who came to be called “Young, Restless and Reformed” (think of pastors like John Piper or Mark Dever), this story may be fascinating but completely foreign to your experience. And yet it’s compelling content, impossible to resist.

My friend, Fr. Patrick Gray at Christ Church of Hamilton & Wenham in Massachusetts, recently said the podcast is “must-listen” fare for church folks today. What drew him (and me) is the fascinating viewpoint we’re given into a situation where a leader’s charisma “outpaces his character.” And here in Maine we’ve been thinking about that as we’ve shared our stories of the past year — how our parishes have fared in Covid, what programs are working and what aren’t, who’s visiting our churches and who’s missing, and the inevitable comparisons that just so happens among pastors when we get together (or, with me, whenever I’m awake).

Fr. Patrick mentioned the podcast in a sermon recently (around the 9 minute mark), pointing out that “success obviously points to God’s blessing, and lack of success — not enough success — that points to, well, God’s disappointment. And we love success. We’re addicted to it.” Mars Hill and Driscoll were “successful,” massively so, with baptisms, professions of faith, and changed lives proliferating. But what’s so dangerous about that is — if we’re looking for numerical success, programmatic success, financial success, and the like, are we using the right metrics for evaluating our ministries in our parishes? Is it actually that “we, as leaders, are addicted to success, and we are addicted to successful leaders”?

Good question, Fr. Patrick.

I mention it today because I want our church to be “successful,” but I’m defining that term in a particular way. I pray our work together, our project, our mission epitomized in the Barque of St. Bartholomew, may find God’s favor and contribute to the flourishing of our parish family, our city, and the world around us. But that’s a different metric than Average Sunday Attendance or annual giving. It’s measuring success by our repentance rather than our reputation, by how well we love not how well-off we live, by our own conversions not our convenience, by . . . well, you get my point.

So I listen to the Podcast and hear a cautionary tale. And I thank God we’re not that kind of church at St. B’s. I’m chastened to constantly reevaluate whether you are following God’s leadership and not just mine.

But I’m also aware of a the second-hand-smoke damage a story like Mars Hill’s can do to my own soul. Because it’s so tempting to listen and judge, to feel just a tad bit superior to “those guys over there” who are obviously doing it wrong. Some folks, like Brad Hambrick at the Intersect Project, ask whether CT has inadvertently created “failure porn.” Dr. Rory Shiner, pastor of Providence City Church in Perth, Australia, reviewed the podcast and reflected:

Beware the therapy of an outrageously bad example. The temptation is to adopt a posture of incredulous outrage, of secretly hoping that juicier and more jaw-dropping revelations are still to come. The worse, in a sense, the better. The worse they are, the more distance I can establish between what is within me and what went down over there. But there but for the grace of God, go I. Sin gets in everywhere. It got into Mars Hill. And no doubt it can get into my response to Mars Hill. 

Just a thought.

And here’s a picture of New England:

  • Listening: Wendell Kimbrough (friend of the parish) just dropped a new song, with Sandra McCracken, called “See How Good It Is (Psalm 133).” And the Lone Bellow’s Zachary Williams has released the first two tracks of his solo record, Dirty Camaro. This is my favorite so far.
  • Reading: Finally finishing Jean-Pierre de Caussade’s Abandonment to Divine Providence, and re-reading Nouwen’s Life of the Beloved in advance of studying it with the Nashville Fellows next week.
  • Watching: Vera, season 11, baby! Thank you, BritBox.
  • Practicing: You may not know your rector has a Confessor, and I go to him once a month. The old Anglican trope regarding sacramental confession is: All may; some should; none must. I’m definitely in the “some should” category. The work of preparing to make my monthly confession throws into relief sinful patterns in my life, and I’m absolutely addicted to hearing a human voice tell me out loud: “The Lord has put away all your sins.” If you’re ever curious about making your own confession, let’s have a conversation.

Thanks for reading and for allowing me time to get away to Acadia every fall to rest, refresh, and allow myself to be recreated with my covenant group. I love it here — but I’m so happy to be hopping a flight back home to Nashville to be with you. See you on Sunday!

God bless —

Fr. Sammy
Rector

The One About Summer’s End | 3 September 2021

Weekend Digest 2021:09
3 September 2021
Phoebe, Deaconess at Cenchreae (1c.)

I love almost everything about the end of summer. I’m an “anticipator” (for instance, I dig Christmas Eve more than Christmas, the run-up more than the pay-off, if that makes sense), so I love thinking about all that crisp air and fall foliage out there in front of us in time. I love school — shopping for supplies, getting the syllabus, buying books, first day of classes. I look forward to an annual retreat I’ve been making for over a decade with my clergy covenant group on Mt. Desert Island in Maine every Sept/Oct (that’s when the beard begins to grow back, by the way). I like kickoffs (both the program year kind and the football kind), Halloween and standard time, apple picking and winter gear, woodpiles and fire pits. Don’t get me wrong — summer’s good, too, but I love fall and winter even more. So turning the calendar to the 9th month as we do this week always makes my heart beat just a little faster.

Summer’s end means things are starting up again in earnest around here at St. B’s, as well, including — hopefully! — a more regular Rector’s Digest. It’s been so long since I’ve posted here, I feel like I should have something really important to say, but instead may I just share some pieces of thought still kicking around my head from the summer? Like my own, way-less-smart version of the Pensées (“Thoughts”), a collection of fragments written by 17c French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal. Eliot thought we should regard Pascal’s work as “merely the first notes for a work which he left far from completion; we have, in Sainte-Beuve’s words, a tower of which the stones have been laid on each other, but not cemented, and the structure unfinished.”

In no particular order, here are some stones, just a smattering of what’s been filling up my imagination these summer months:

  • Listening: Two things jump out at me —
    • First, Renee and I saw live music for the first time in like a year and half when my favorite band, the Lone Bellow, played the Ryman a couple weeks ago — and it was glorious! Whenever we see them live, I like to watch all 3 members of the trio — Zach, Kanene, and Brian — for different reasons. Zach Williams is like a smaller, more energetic, more charismatic version of Johnny Cash. What Johnny would’ve been like on stage if his hair had been on fire. Kanene Pipkin is a multi-instrumentalist (her husband, Jason, plays in the band) and has one of the most soulful voices you’ll ever hear. But this time we sat closest to Brian Elmquist’s guitar, and it was a joy to watch him wail away. Brian and producer Justin Glasco collaborate on a side project, too, and it’s captured my attention this week. It’s called Joyclub, and you can watch Brian play “Take Care” on Instagram or listen to a totally different version here. Not sure which is my favorite!
    • And this week I got to spend an hour on the phone with an old friend named Isaac Wardell. Isaac is studying abroad in Belgium at the moment, but we met years ago when he came to my parish in Washington, DC, with some other musicians from Bifrost Arts, a worship collective Isaac co-founded with a seminary chum of mine named Joseph Pensak. More recently Isaac and his wife, Megan, founded another music collective called the Porter’s Gate — I think they were actually the last live music I saw here in Nashville before the world shut down! All four of their records — Neighbor Songs, Work Songs, Lament Songs and Justice Songs — are available to stream. I’m particularly taken with the whole first record, as well as “The Zaccheus Song” with Sandra McCracken and Paul Zach from the most recent release. (If you remember our inimitable worship team performing “Among Us (For the Least of These)” last November, well that’s a Porter’s Gate song — I just happen to think our guys do it a little better!).
  • Watching: Jonathan Myrick Daniels is remembered in the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church every August 14. A native of New Hampshire, Daniels was converted during an Easter service at the Church of the Advent in Boston, my old parish, while a student at Harvard. His love of Jesus compelled him to join the struggle for civil rights and drove him to the Deep South where, in 1965, he died from a shotgun blast when he placed his body between a white gunman and a young Black girl. That young girl was Ruby Sales, and recently she traveled to Boston to speak at the Advent. In conversation with my friend, the gifted artist Carolyn Shadid Lewis, Ruby tells her remarkable story during the event called “My Soul Magnifies the Lord: An Evening with Ruby Sales.” It’s well worth your time.
  • Reading: Over the summer I relaxed with some great books — James McBride’s Deacon King Kong came highly recommended and was reviewed in the New Yorker; Gary Moon’s Becoming Dallas Willard: The Formation of a Philosopher, Teacher, and Christ Follower had been on my shelf for a while, tantalizing me with learning more about a hero of mine; and I was deeply moved by He Leadeth Me, the story of Fr. Walter Ciszek, a Jesuit priest captured by the Russian army during World War II, convicted of being a “Vatican spy,” and sentenced to 23 years in Soviet prisons and the labor camps of Siberia. But more recently I picked up Katie Haseltine’s All the Things: A 30 Day Guide to Experiencing God’s Presence in the Prayer of Examen (Morgan James: 2021). Actually, Renee and I picked it up together and have been reading through a chapter a night on the porch as we experiment with praying the Examen together. Katie, a Nashvillian and friend-of-the-parish, is our guest at the next Theology on Tap on October 3, so mark your calendars and pick up a copy of the book in the Gallery!
  • Practicing: During our Covid year, a small group of clergy from the diocese started meeting virtually to discuss pastoral ministry. During the course of our conversations, we all mentioned how tired we were going into the summer, and one priest remarked that we’d all better find time just to be with Jesus to recharge our batteries. St. B’s had actually started a practice called “Holy Hour” just before lockdown last year, so at my friend’s suggestion, I quietly rebooted the practice a few weeks ago just before the Eucharist on Thursdays and just for myself. The practice is simple — the Sacrament is exposed on the altar and I just sit there with Jesus. In the words of St. John Vianney, the patron saint of priests, it’s a time when “I look at Him and he looks at me” and we’re happy together. Having suspended the practice last year, I thought we’d best restart slowly, so for now it’s a “Holy Half Hour” every Thursday from 11.30-noon. You can read more about it here and here and a thousand other places on the internet, but it’s really a practice best learned about via experience, and the little Thursday group (it’s not just me now!) would love to have you join us any Thursday when you have the time!  

One last point — and this may be for stronger hearts than mine. If you love John Prine, like I do, you probably know his “Summer’s End.” Beautiful song; and just a devastating video. I leave it to you to decide which might be more your speed. Or maybe you’re more of a Foo Fighters fan. Whatever the case may be, as the temps get cooler and the days get shorter, know my heart for you grows warmer and my love for our little parish church grows ever longer. Nobody I’d rather be at summer’s end with than you.

God bless —

Fr. Sammy
Rector

The One About Dandelions | 16 April 2021

Weekend Digest 2021:08
16 April 2021
Eastertide Feria

Happy Easter, St. B’s Family —

This was the week the dandelions came back!

It’s like one day they weren’t there, the next — bang, there they were. Renee and I watched them pop up almost overnight from our place on the rectory porch. I pray out there when the weather’s right, so it’s often where St. B’s is on my heart the most. 

Dandelions. And church. They go together in my mind because of something I read a while back. I can’t remember the first person to share the image with me, but a quick Google search turned up this post quoting Lutheran Bishop Claire Burkat that says it well: 

“Just one bright yellow flower, when it’s done blooming, yields hundreds of tiny seeds that parachute through the air and land to take root, starting get process all over again
. . . .” The religious authorities of Jesus’ time thought they had dug out the roots of our faith, but the resurrection changed everything and hundreds of seeds were carried by the wind and planted everywhere. “Ecclesia Plantanda — the church [must be] planted.”

So that’s the link in my brain between dandelions and church. If you’ve heard me talk about the Barque of St. Bartholomew, you probably heard me crib Tim Keller’s line to an interviewer: “After the pandemic, we’re all church plants.” Ecclesia Plantanda — the church must be planted — was the motto of Henry Melchior Mühlenberg, the patriarch of American Lutheranism. And for us to grow, our best chance is follow Mühlenberg’s lead — to plant, to scatter as many seeds to the wind as we can. 

We need to be dandelions. 

As life normalizes for our parish, we’re taking the Barque of St. Bartholomew out of its slip in earnest for the first time, and remember — our first sail is evangelism. The impetus for this is our baptismal covenant — Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ? I will, with God’s help. So with God’s help, we are appointed to take the gospel — the euangelion or “good news” of Jesus — to the world around us. As Episcopalians, we are guided by the example and encouragement of our church’s Evangelism Initiative set up by the Presiding Bishop. The initiative defines evangelism as “the spiritual practice for seeking, naming, and celebrating Jesus’ loving presence in the stories of all people, and then inviting them to more.” As Fr. Titus Pressler says in this Covenant blog post: “Evangelism is seen as a spiritual practice, a prayerful orientation to God and the world, rather than as an aggressive program.”

So how do we orient ourselves prayerfully toward the world like that? Well, there are as many different ways to evangelize are there are evangelists (and God calls us all to be evangelists!) and those who have yet to come to know the love of God in Christ. For instance, we can make it a part of our daily spiritual practice to try to be as gentle and amiable in the world as we can be. Be winsome. Meet cynicism with encouragement; counter fear with hope. Resist the temptation to speak ill of others. Bless, always. Do that long enough, and people start to get curious. So when they inquire (and probably not before) into what makes you tick, give an honest answer: It’s because you’ve been loved by Jesus. “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect.” (1 Pet. 3.15)

That’s a seed.

Or be “guerrillas of charity” (I love that phrase from this post). Charity, or caritas, shouldn’t be a bad word — I say we reclaim it! Charity is simply the love that God has for the world. And, in turn, it’s our love of God for God’s sake, and our neighbor as ourself for love of God. Add to that the fact that a “guerrilla” is a member of a small independent group taking part in irregular fighting, typically against larger regular forces. See where I’m going? The forces arrayed against God’s people in the world are ominous and immense — poverty, shame, addiction, violence, racism, fear. What if at St. B’s we all trained to be combatants — to ambush poverty with generosity, to sabotage oppression by thrusting a spoke in the wheel that grinds down the outcast, to mount an insurgency of love for the least, the lost, the lonely, the left behind? As Nikki Toyama-Szeto and Abraham George wrote in 2017

We can tend to think of the work of justice as secondary or an add-on. But the Bible makes it clear that evangelism can be carried out through the work of justice. When we respond to the deep needs of others, we are demonstrating to them that God is good and loving. We should seek to do the work of God as Jesus did, seeing justice and evangelism as complementary to one another. As God’s “hands and feet,” the church is continuing the work of justice that Jesus started.

Justice. That’s a seed.

Just brainstorm, and you’ll come up with ways to share the good news of Jesus that I could never think of!

Offer to pray for someone who’s hurting.
Invite a neighbor to a backyard picnic.
Cook a meal for a new mom.
Drive someone to the clinic.
Pick up the phone when the ID says the call’s coming from the neediest person you know.
Invest in the flourishing of your community, tether your wellbeing to that of your neighbors.
Apologize.
Forgive.
Any selfless act, done for Jesus’ sake . . .

Seeds. Every single one.


It’s been a while since I’ve written, so I should share a little of what I’m up to this Eastertide: 

  • Listening: Musically, I’m into Eric Whitacre this week. In 1999, Northern Arizona University commissioned Whitacre to compose a set of choral works to commemorate the centennial of the school. Whitacre chose three poems by E. E. Cummings and set to work. He took eight words from one of the poems, and out came an astonishingly gorgeous canticle. The lyrics are simply:

    Hope, faith, life, love
    Dream, joy, truth, soul

    Full of dissonance and resolution, yearning and anticipation, tension and release, the song both surprised and blew me away the first time I heard it (I’m convinced the choir at the Advent in Boston intentionally inserted songs like that at certain points in the mass just to watch me fall apart). Listen to it here on Spotify, and even watch the composer direct the Eric Whitacre Singers’ performance of the piece on YouTube here. One reviewer said “The design of the song has no true function, meaning it holds no inherent purpose. It simply exists to be beautiful . . . .” And that is precisely what it is — beautiful.
  • Reading: Did you know we ring the “Nine Tailors” at St. B’s on Good Friday at 3 o’clock? According to Radford’s Encyclopædia of Supersitions, the word “tailors” is a corruption of “tellers,” the full title meaning the nine tellers or strokes of the bell that indicate a man has died in an English village. “The living are notified that someone had died, first by the tolling of the bell, then by nine strokes for a man, six for a woman, and three for a child, and finally by a single note for every year of the dead person’s age.” So on Good Friday we toll nine times — three rings and a pause, three more and a pause, a final three and a pause — then the bell peals 33 times, once for every year of our Lord’s earthly life. This year, I happened to remember Dorothy Sayers wrote a Lord Peter Wimsey mystery called The Nine Tailors, so I picked it up at the library and am loving it. Nice to get a break to read a little fiction now and again! If you’re a fan of Sayers’, or even if you just like a good mystery, check it out (but don’t tell me the ending).
  • Watching: I’m still not entirely sure whether we moved to Nashville because God called us here or because of country music — I love it, probably more than is reasonable. I’m fascinated with songwriters, too — how they grind away, how they move us with such simple melodies and lyrics. I had exhausted almost every music documentary (rockumentary?) I could find when I came across It All Begins with a Song on Amazon Prime. Don’t like country music? That’s cool. But I defy you not to be moved by the story behind “I Drive Your Truck” written by Jessi Alexander, Connie Harrington, and Jimmy Yeary, and recorded by Lee Brice. Cue it up at the 1:06.46 mark if you’ve got 10 minutes to spare. You’re welcome.
  • Practicing: You know I’m a champion of the “Three-fold Regula” (or “rule”) — Holy Eucharist, praying the Daily Office, and “private prayer” (or “habitual recollection of Christ’s presence”) — what Martin Thornton calls the essential shape of English/Anglican spirituality. We’ve grown as a parish in those ways — praying Morning Prayer together, first in person and then, during the pandemic, going online; and also by celebrating the Eucharist every weekday in addition to our Sunday worship. From time to time, I run across a tool to recommend to you, and the most recent find that has intrigued me is the Venite App from Forward Movement. I still love to pray with the heft of my prayer book in hand, but if I don’t have one with me, Venite is elegant, easy to use, adaptable, self-explanatory — everything I’d want in a prayer app (you can pray through an app on your phone or on your laptop). If you aren’t praying the Daily Office (Morning and Evening Prayer) already, maybe this is a chance to get acquainted with the practice via Venite!

And one last thing — A quick appeal from me:

St. Bartholomew’s is a going concern. We’ve remained a vibrant parish this whole last year, despite the difficulties faced. The staff are running throttle-open, populating the parish calendar with events — more chances to worship together, a range of classes, newcomers’ events, LifeGroups (old ones and newly-formed ones), youth QuranTeams and zip-lining, Pentecost Picnics around the city. What we need now . . . is you!

The coming months will no doubt be a crossroads for our parish — Who’s still here? Who will come back? Who’s new here that we haven’t met yet? Who will God add to our number? And what will the level of parish giving allow us to do together in the world?

My appeal to you is to come back as soon you feel safe to come back. And tell your friends about what we’re building here at St. B’s. I can’t imagine St. B’s without you.


I’ll end with a couple more words from Bishop Burkat — 

“We are called to spread the Gospel,” Said Burkat. “Everyone is a potential dandelion seed who believes that the power of God through Jesus Christ springs eternal—anywhere, anytime, anyplace.”

So be dandelions. 

Consider that an invitation.

Fr. Sammy
Rector

The One About Leisure | March 12, 2021

Weekend Digest 2021:07
12 March 2021
St. Gregory the Great, Bishop of Rome (604)

Happy Friday, St. B’s —

Ok, I’ll admit it.

There are some things I’ll actually miss about the pandemic lockdown.

Wait — that’s not exactly the right way to say what I mean. I should say the lockdown did create some new horizons of possibility in the world, did make possible some things that weren’t before, did produce some good results in a way. Like how Leigh Stein wrote in the New York Times: “I have hardly prayed to God since I was a teenager, but the pandemic has cracked open inside me a profound yearning for reverence, humility and awe.” That’s a good craving. Puzzles are back, strong. And board games. That’s good. Our pets all seem happier. Good. We have a deeper appreciation of how important health care workers and restaurant workers are. Also good! And for me personally, some habits of home and heart developed during the pandemic that I hope have set deep enough in my muscle memory to survive the inevitable return of the normal.

For instance — the front porch.

Renee and the kids and I love #RectoryLife, and I’ve often thought how much freer lockdown has been for us in Nashville (where we have a yard, pool, softball field, jogging track, basketball court) than it would’ve been for our family in Boston (where we had none of those things — our yard was basically Boston Common). But one thing that really got activated for us last March was the porch. Most days last spring, R and I would work outside (I know, I can’t believe I did that voluntarily, either), then when the sun was over the yardarm, we’d head porch-ward with cold drinks and our Celtic Prayer Book. Thus was born a habit we’d been struggling to form over two decades of marriage — regular prayer together. Now I look forward almost every day to that time together when the sun goes down, to our simple rhythm of prayer, and now that the temps are rising, I look forward to our porch.

Fr. Sammy and Renee on the Rectory porch

This piece from Front Porch Republic trumpets a front-porch “renaissance” brought on by the coronavirus. 

The front porch has been a locus of American culture precisely because of the way it forms our “attitude of mind” and “condition of the soul.” The front porch is the place where we step out into “the whole of creation” and participate in the waltz of life: from plants to animals to humans, from the created to the social . . . .
The front porch is the pillar of our communal presence and a doorway into the joys of filial love and comfort. It is on the front porch that we meet and greet our friends and family and become acquainted with new friends and neighbors. The front porch gives shape to the love and happiness that comes with such a life. Flowers adorn the front porch and turn it into a mini-Eden, inviting, welcoming, and serene. The bird feeder invites nature to our window, to become part of our life instead of distant from it. Yes, the front porch offers a microcosm of “the whole of creation” and our place in it.

While I increasingly question the very idea of an “American Dream” that the article assumes, and I say a hearty tsk to the author for calling Bauhaus architecture “repellent and repulsive” (I happen to love it — although I wouldn’t necessarily want to live or worship in it), something about that piece resonates. In the pandemic, the porch became for us a place of reflection. A place of prayer. A place of leisure.

That’s where the “attitude of mind” and “condition of the soul” lines come from — fromLeisure, the Basis of Culture, a 1948 manifesto by Joseph Pieper, the German Catholic philosopher, and professor at universities in Berlin and Münster. The very meaning of the word “leisure” eludes us today. We know it has something to do with free time, but in a culture like ours — a culture of “total work” Pieper calls it — industry too often bleeds into leisure time (thence, I suppose, the leisure suit). We work hard, and we play hard, leaving little time for the leisure that’s foundational to culture. The Greeks understood the value of leisure. So did medieval Europeans. In fact, Pieper says we wouldn’t have religion without leisure — from time for contemplation on the nature of God. He counsels us to recover something of “leisure as ‘non-activity’ — an inner absence of preoccupation, a calm, an ability to let things go, to be quiet.” He touts the “serenity of ‘not-being-able-to-grasp,’ of the recognition of the mysterious character of the world.” And he says “leisure is the condition of considering things in a celebrating spirit — the inner joyfulness of the person who is celebrating belongs to the very core of what we mean by leisure.” (Read Maria Popova’s thoughts on Pieper).

Flannery and Fenway enjoy the swing on the Rectory’s porch.

I think the pandemic created just the slightest space in my life for the pressure of work to lift and for the light of leisure to creep in. And in the months since, I’ve been hungry for a deeper theological understanding of my longing for it, which led me to John Mark Comer’s The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry. John Allen assigns it as required reading for his Nashville Fellows, and I recently shared portions of it with the church staff and the vestry. Comer is writing about Sabbath, but using the concept of “hurry” to do it — quoting Dallas Willard saying “Hurry is the great enemy of spiritual life in our day.” Or Corrie Ten Boom saying “If the devil can’t make you sin, he’ll make you busy.” Or in his own words: “Hurry is a form of violence on the soul.” 

Sabbath is one tool to eliminate hurry from life, to re-order our priorities around our truest identity — we are hidden in Christ with God. It is not (I repeat, not) a “rest to store up energy” so we’re more productive on day Sabbath+1. It is much more than an afternoon off. It’s more mystical than that. Here’s how Lauren Winner describes it (quoting Nan Fink) in Mudhouse Sabbath: An Invitation to a Life of Spiritual Discipline:

Time as we know it does not exist for these twenty-four hours, and the worries of the week soon fall away. A feeling of joy appears. The smallest object, a leaf or a spoon, shimmers in a soft light, and the heart opens. Shabbat is a meditation of unbelievable beauty.

Or Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel in my favorite of this genre of books, The Sabbath:

The seventh day is a mine where spirit’s precious metal can be found with which to construct the palace in time, a dimension in which the human is at home with the divine; a dimension in which man aspires to approach the likeness of the divine.

Some days lately, I’ve sensed a little of the old, pre-pandemic hurry sneaking back into my life. I want to say “You’re not welcome here!”, to banish hurry to outer darkness, but I’m not sure I’m strong enough for that. So I need the Sabbath. I need a palace in time. I need prayer and quiet and leisure. 

I need my front porch. 

Fr. Sammy’s front porch.

If you’re looking for distraction this weekend, here are a few bullets about what I’m consuming:

  • Two words: Ted. Lasso. My favorite new TV show in recent memory. It’s not for everybody — it ain’t necessarily G-rated family-friendly entertainment. And you have to have Apple TV+ to watch it, I think. But Ted Lasso has brought so much joy to our house! Jason Sudeikis, who created and stars in the show, is Ted Lasso, a character described as “almost too kind to be believed.” He’s an American football coach at Division-II Wichita State (a school from Sudeikis’ IRL home state of Kansas, but whose football program has actually been defunct since 1986), and he’s hired, for nefarious reasons (no spoilers), to coach the other kind of football team — the English Premier League kind. Sudeikis won a best actor Golden Globe playing the titular character, a coach who cares more about his players’ joy and growth than he does wins and losses. Calling it “the most unwittingly Christian program on air today,” the National Catholic Reporter says its brilliance is that “overarching lessons are shown rather than told, lived rather than preached, and often lighthearted and humorous rather than stuffy, dry, condemnatory or moralizing . . . . It invites viewers to imagine another way of being in the world, another set of values to prioritize, another approach to decision-making and relationship-building.” What’s that sound like to you? Sounds like a parable to me! You come to the show for the funny, but you stay for some of the best depictions of selflessness, forgiveness, and “the upside-down kingdom of God” (from David French’s review of the show🙂 I’ve ever seen on TV. 
  • But maybe don’t rush off and watch it until Eastertide! Here’s a quick quote from one of the books I picked up this Lent: We have a “need, in Lent or at any other time, for the quest of solitude and silence; for the spiritual efficacy of doing nothing for Lent; of watching the snowdrops instead of the telly.” (From a sermon by Martin Thornton, in A Joyful Heart: Meditations for Lent, p. 15; you can read the whole sermon, “The Thomist Football League,” here.)
  • My typing music today is the minimalist piano of Goldmund, alias Keith Kenniff, the Berklee-trained force behind the ambient/electronic project Helios and one-half (alongside his wife, Hollie) of indie band Mint Julep. Can’t remember how I found him, but no modern music sounds more “Lent” to me than this — quiet, plaintive, hopeful, and most of all attentive, even to the sounds of the pedals lifting and falling and Kenniff’s fingers brushing the keys. And my favorite part is how absolutely unhurried it is — thus, its inclusion in this Digest about leisure. In this article, Kenniff says his music as Goldmund is “almost all improvised and I leave mistakes in without the compulsion to correct them,” which I’d say is a pretty good description of the aim of a grace-filled life. 
  • One last thing: I grew up the son of a pharmacist who owned one drugstore in a two-drugstore small town. My dad ran Moore Drug Company, and the competition up the street (every store was basically on the same street in my town) was called Rester’s. Turns out the son of that druggist became a really good friend of mine, and he’s now the pastor of the big United Methodist Church in Oxford, Mississippi, the building where Renee and I were actually married (our candles spilled on their carpet; we paid for new carpet; I don’t like to talk about it). Anyway — my friend, Eddie Rester, is killing it with a great new podcast called The Weight — for the “topics that are too heavy for a 20-minute sermon. There are issues that need conversation, not just explanation.” His most recent one considered “Healing the Imagination” with James K. A. Smith, and what a great conversation! Check it out if you have 45 minutes. And if you ever run into Pastor Eddie — tell him you would have been discerning enough to shop at Moore’s.

Thanks, as always, for reading. I’ve been ending these missives with quotations of late, so here’s one more for us — maybe it’s a little too on the nose: 

Come to me all you who are weary and I will give you rest.

Jesus of Nazareth

Consider that an invitation —

Fr. Sammy
Rector

The One About Food | February 26, 2021

Weekend Digest 2021:06
26 February 2021

My fellow Lenten pilgrims —

I ate lunch at my desk on Wednesday. Right after mass, I had a call with the wardens followed by a Zoom call with diocesan clergy, so I didn’t have time to run up the hill to eat at the Rectory. But that’s actually good for me — 

Because home is where the Girl Scout cookies are.

If you’re following along in our St. B’s at Home: A Lighter Lent booklet, you’ll know each week of Lent, we practice some form of abstinence together. We call it a common “fast,” although technically to “fast” is to refrain from eating food, while to “abstain” is to do without or avoid something, like chocolate or alcohol, for instance. (The more you know).

Or without my kids’ Girl Scout cookies.

This week’s “fast” is from sweets. Our guide reminds us this week to “resolve to avoid any type of sweets or dessert . . . no latte in the morning or no chocolate in the evening. Notice what happens inside when you are denied something you’ve become accustomed to or something you really want.” It’s actually not a particularly difficult week for me because I don’t like sweets much anyway (except for some forms of the aforementioned GSCs). But it did get me to thinking about food, which does come up again and again in Lent, so — this week’s Di·gest is the One about Food.

First, though, a note about not eating — about fasting. I practice two types of “fasting” in my normal life — the “Eucharistic fast,” which is an old catholic practice purportedly dating to the earliest centuries of the church. Pope Pius XII gave some history in his 1953 apostolic constitution, Christus Dominus:

From the very earliest time, the custom was observed of administering the Eucharist to the faithful who were fasting. Toward the end of the fourth-century fasting was prescribed by many Councils for those who were going to celebrate the Eucharistic Sacrifice. So it was that the Council of Hippo in the year 393 issued this decree: ‘The Sacrament of the altar shall be offered only by those who are fasting’ . . . . At the beginning of the fifth century this custom can be called quite common and immemorial . . . . Abstinence from food and drink is in accord with that supreme reverence we owe to the supreme majesty of Jesus Christ when we are going to receive Him hidden under the veils of the Eucharist. And moreover, when we receive His precious Body and Blood before we take any food, we show clearly that this is the first and loftiest nourishment by which our soul is fed and its holiness increased. Hence St. Augustine gives this warning: ‘It has pleased the Holy Ghost that, to honor so great a Sacrament, the Lord’s Body should enter the mouth of the Christian before other food.’

So I don’t consume anything except water or medicine (and I broadly define “water” to include “coffee” — he says, embarrassed) for at least an hour (usually three) before going to mass. It’s not for everybody, but I’ve been doing it so long I couldn’t stop now if I wanted.

The second fast I practice regularly is fasting from meat on Fridays in Lent. I sometimes dream of bringing the old-fashioned Friday Fish Fry to St. B’s! (Check out my man at around the 1-minute mark of this clip pondering “I thought, like, man, I’m gonna have to live forever in Wisconsin now?”) In fasting, abstinence from food and sometimes from drink, as Dallas Willard says, “will certainly demonstrate how powerful and clever our body is in getting its own way against our strongest resolves.” Willard in The Spirit of the Disciplines:

Fasting confirms our utter dependence upon God by finding in him a source of sustenance beyond food. Through it, we learn by experience that God’s word to us is a life substance, that it is not food (“bread”) alone that gives life, but also the words that proceed form the mouth of God (Matt. 4.4). We learn that we too have meat to eat that the world does not know about (John 4.32, 34). Fasting unto our Lord is therefore feasting — feasting on him and on doing his will.

There’s nothing like fasting to throw our hungers into relief. That’s why Edna St. Vincent Millay wrote her poem, “Feast”:

I drank at every vine. 
The last was like the first.
I came upon no wine
So wonderful as thirst.
I gnawed at every root.
I ate of every plant.
I came upon no fruit
So wonderful as want.
Feed the grape and the bean
To the vintner and the monger;
I will lie down lean
With my thirst and my hunger.

We lie down lean, and we learn something about ourselves. We learn that really all our hungers are pointers, in a way — my hunger for those Girl Scout cookies points to my deepest hunger, the hunger for God. 

The second most important book to my development as a Christian (behind the Bible, of course) is Fr. Alexander Schmemann’s For the Life of the World. Interestingly, I recommend it to folks all the time, and it almost never delivers the same bang for the buck to them as it did to me. But I love it! And I go back to it time and time again. One of my favorite parts is about human hunger, something so base as to seem primal and disconnected from anything holy and “spiritual” like Christianity, but it’s the foundation for Fr. Schmemann’s religious worldview. He writes (excuse the gender-specific language; he wrote back in the 1960s):

In the Bible the food that man eats, the world of which he must partake in order to live, is given to him by God, and it is given as communion with God. The world as man’s food is not something “material” and limited to material functions, thus different from, and opposed to, the specifically “spiritual” functions by which man is related to God. All that exists is God’s gift to man, and it all exists to make God known to man, to make man’s life communion with God. It is divine love made food, made life for man. God blesses everything He creates, and, in biblical language, this means that He makes all creation the sign and means of His presence and wisdom, love and revelation: “O taste and see that the Lord is good.”

Man is a hungry being. But he is hungry for God. Behind all the hunger of our life is God. All desire is finally a desire for him. To be sure, man is not the only hungry being. All that exists lives by “eating.” The whole creation depends on food. But the unique position of man in the universe is that he alone is to bless God for the food and the life he receives from Him. He alone is to respond to God’s blessing with his blessing . . . . And in the Bible to bless God is not a “religious” or a “cultic” act, but the very way of life. God blessed the world, blessed man, blessed the seventh day (that is, time), and this means that He filled all that exists with His love and goodness, made all this “very good.” So the only natural reaction of man, to whom God gave this blessed and sanctified world, is to bless God in return, to thank him, to see the world as God sees it and — in this act of gratitude and adoration — to know, name and possess the world. 

Yes! Everything in the world is God’s gift to us, and it’s all there to make God known to us and to become the medium of our communion with God! Everything — from the fish at the fish fry and the bottomless Brandy Old Fashioned, to the caress of a child or a friend’s hug; from the fancy cheese Fr. Travis used to go on and on about, to the fancy coffee Dave Madeira keeps trying to sneak into the parish kitchen (I’m a Dunkin’ man); from the Cavendish Blend No. 432 from Peretti’s in Boston that goes in my pipe (in moderation, of course), to the smell of the sea or freshly mown grass — all of it, gift. All of it, leading our hearts to home. A trail — to God. 

That’s why I fast — to remind me what those hungers are really for. But I should add — fasting doesn’t make God love me more. It doesn’t contribute to my salvation, so to speak. Robert Farrar Capon knew that. He was an Episcopal priest in New York State, and before he died in 2013, he wrote eloquently about grace. And about food. In Light Theology and Heavy Cream, he said as much: “God has arranged for salvation on the basis of no contests at all: not in singing, not in cooking, not in starving — not even, I might add, in deportment.” A little later in the book, he says that even my much-beloved lobster (a fave of my youngest, Flannery’s, and mine) can still be a fasting meal. Listen to this:

Why, I could starve myself stone cold to death and still fall short . . . . The world’s miseries are tractable only to God’s grace, not my merits. A lobster, obediently ingested, can remind me of that as well as anything else, eaten, or not eaten, on the same principle.

So whether we eat or we drink, we do it for the glory of God. Any meal, “obediently ingested,” can be a vehicle for grace. That’s just wonderful if you ask me!

One last point — and you know it’s gotta be Eucharistic, right? Before moving to Nashville, every church I’d ever served had been a “daily mass parish.” Someone celebrated the Holy Eucharist in those places every single day of the week. And I wanted St. Bartholomew’s to be a daily mass parish at some point, as well. It only took a global pandemic for me to make it happen! But now St. B’s is a place where “the holy sacrifice of the mass is offered daily,” which is another way of saying “we go to church every day in this place!” My 3-times-a-week saintly mama and daddy, God rest their souls, ain’t got nothing on us Episcopalians.

I can tell you that doesn’t make life easier for your clergy. Take an hour-plus out of every weekday, set up, pray the prayers (we do that part even if nobody but us shows up), preach every single time (one of my mentors used to say “Preach every time you get ‘em in the room. They’re a captive audience.”), clean up after — it’s not an insignificant commitment of time in the middle of a workday. So why was that so important to me when I came here? Two reasons:

One, it changed my life. Nothing — I mean nothing — poured more fuel on the fire of my walk with Jesus than when I first started assisting at Eucharist daily. It’s part of my rule of life to go as many times as I reasonably can in a given week. To hear those stories, pray those prayers, stand/sit/kneel, hold out empty hands (or an open mouth) for the Bread of Life — it’s literally a gospel-delivery-mechanism for the whole body.

And second — and more importantly — it’s the single most important act of the church. Period. The Eucharist is. The “do this in remembrance of me” bits of the gospels. It’s the still point of the turning world, to steal Eliot’s phrase. That’s why I prefer it a little more formal than other folks do, perhaps; a little more encumbered with movement and ceremony and color (and incense); a little fancy, a little heavy, dreadful even (from the KJV of Genesis 28.17) — a service with gravitas. I want us to walk out and think “What in the world just happened in there?”Because it’s the most important thing in the world! It’s where we’re guaranteed God is showing up, every time. The Blessed Sacrament works ex opere operato — “from the work, worked.” Regardless of whether Serena or Charlie or I might happen to be “evil ministers,” the sacrament bears grace to those who “by faith, and rightly, do receive the Sacraments ministered unto them.” (Article XXVI, Articles of Religion, tucked away in your BCPs on p. 867ff). 

Which brings me, at last . . . to lembas bread (see photo above). 

You can thank Phil the Fellow for this — he reminded me of it this morning. Remember in the Lord of the Rings; the elves made a concoction called “Lembas” — a kind of thin corn cake wrapped in leaves (folks have even come up with recipes for it, like here. It’s seldom given to any non-elves, but Frodo and Sam and their fellows are given some at one point for their perilous journey. “Eat a little at a time, and only at need,” they’re told. “For these things are given to serve you when all else fails.” 

You know where I’m going here.J. R. R. Tolkien was a devout Roman Catholic. In one of his letters, he acknowledged that a reader had insightfully seen “in waybread (lembas) = viaticum and the reference to its feeding the will and being more potent when fasting, a derivation from the Eucharist.” (By the way, viaticum is the term for the Holy Eucharist administered to someone in extremis, at the very cusp of death. It’s part of the Last Rites and provides “bread for the journey” through death and into the arms of Jesus) Lembas was to be eaten daily (Daily Mass!). It was more potent if it was all the food you had (the Eucharistic Fast!). In The Return of the King, as Frodo and Sam are close to the end of their arduous trek, Tolkien writes this:

The lembas had a virtue without which they would long ago have lain down to die . . . . This waybread of the Elves had a potency that increased as travelers relied on it alone and did not mingle it with other foods. It fed the will, and it gave strength to endure, and to master sinew and limb beyond the measure of mortal kind.

For Tolkien, “the only cure for sagging or failing faith is Communion” (letter 250). It’s the only food for our real hunger because it is the very Body, Blood, Soul, Divinity, Substance, Stuff of our Lord Jesus. He is really present at our altar. And he’s really present with you — whether your faith is flourishing or flagging. He is the bread that strengthens us to endure, to master sinew and limb, to take up our cross and follow.

Hungry yet?

I know something even better than Girl Scout cookies.

If you’re looking for distraction this weekend — here’s just a couple of bullets about what I’m consuming (“consuming”  — see what I did there?):

  • Continuing in the food vein — Few shows have caused as much joy in the Woodhouse for adult and child alike as “Nailed It” – Amateur bakers compete to recreate edible masterpieces for a handsome cash reward in a show billed as “part reality show, part hot mess.” I seldom laugh out loud at TV, but I do watching this!
  • Kendall Vanderslice’s Edible Theology blog is such a treat — she purports to write about the nexus “where the communion table meets the dinner table” and the role of food in spiritual formation (remember the masts of the Barque?!). In her recent entry, Issue 26: “From Flour You Come,” she touched on Lent and how it’s God’s chance to “meet us in our lack, our heartache, our longing, and our need.” She’s not giving up anything at all this Lent because we’ve all given up so much this last year — “I’m at a place of emptiness already,” she says, “and ready for God to join me here.”

Thanks, as always, for reading. You’ve been in my prayers all week, and may God bless you this weekend. May I close with a few more words from Kendall Vanderslice? 

God longs to meet you in your emptiness right now too. Will you recognize your own hunger with me?

Consider that an invitation —

Fr. Sammy
Rector

The One About Justice | February 12, 2021

Weekend Digest 2021:05
12 February 2021

My dear sisters and brothers —
Greetings on this last weekend before Lent!These past few days have been familiar ones for me. By “familiar,” I mean they roll around every two years, and I recognize their approach. In my head, I call them the “Most Dangerous Days of the Year.”Let me explain what I mean.

To start, a quick digression about prayer because prayer is the reason this happens to me semiannually in the first place. Bear with me here — I hope you’ve heard me say (multiple times now) that there’s a shape to Anglican life, a “simply Christian” spirituality that is the “threefold Rule of prayer.” That’s how it’s described by Martin Thornton, a hero of mine, in his classic English Spirituality: An Outline of Ascetical Theology According to the English Pastoral Tradition (Cambridge, Mass.: Cowley, 1963). This shape of life is rooted in the Benedictine tradition, and it comprises:

  1. The Daily Office
  2. Private Prayer
  3. The Eucharist 

No time or inclination to read Thornton’s book? There’s an easy, quick introduction in this 2013 blog post, and it pieces the three-fold rule together like this:

  1. The common Office (Opus Dei
  2. Supporting private prayer (Orations Peculiar
  3. Both of which are allied to, and consummated by, the Mass

Simply put, Anglicans have traditionally arranged their lives around, first, praying the Daily Office — the daily cycle of Morning and Evening Prayer from the BCP. The Office is a delivery device for large doses of Sacred Scripture, most especially the Psalms, which can be prayed through every month (per the little italicized notations sprinkled throughout the Psalter beginning on p. 585) or according to the Daily Office Lectionary (p. 934f). The set prayers of the Daily Office are, in turn, supported by “private prayer” or “private devotion,” which Thornton describes as “short and frequent habitual recollections” of Christ’s presence and the practical pursuit of God’s will throughout the day. Both the Office and private prayer culminate in the Eucharist . . . and the Eucharist and Office form the essential prerequisite for private devotion . . . and on and on, the pieces interweaving and reinforcing each other to cohere into what Thornton calls an “ascetical system” — from the Greek ἄσκησιςáskesis, meaning “exercise” or “training.”

My friend Derek Olsen writes about this in Inwardly Digest: The Prayer Book as Guide to a Spiritual Life (Cincinnati, Oh.: Forward Movement, 2016) — my favorite primer for the Prayer Book, and one of my top books of the past five years. Here’s what I’d say if I could write as well as Derek:

The Book of Common Prayer stands at the very center of Anglican spirituality. It gives us our core spiritual exercises. Furthermore, it relates them to one another in a sensible fashion, providing a baseline implicit rule of life . . . . The prayer book is best understood not as the Sunday service book, or even as a collection of services, but as a system of Christian formation.

What I’m trying to say is this — The “threefold rule of prayer” enshrined in our BCP is a system, an assembly line, a shop floor, or a protocol. The BCP makes saints, and the litmus test for whether it’s working in my life is: “Do I look a little more like Jesus this year than the last?” If it moves me on that line, it’s doing what it’s supposed to.

Now, I know this isn’t a slam dunk. No system of spirituality is absolutely foolproof, completely guaranteed to shoot saints out the end of the production line like widgets. And the BCP isn’t easy for everybody, either. Some of us don’t find resonance with its set or “canned” prayers (I do, to be honest; never was I so overjoyed as the day I found prayers that said what I wanted to say in exactly the same way I would’ve said it if I’d been a poet). Some of us lean toward the contemplative in a way that rewards the practice of silence in place of words (although there’s ample room for silence and contemplation in the BCP system, too).

So can I promise you this system will make you a saint? No. I can just say that after twenty years in the system, I find every year it makes me just a little more loving, a little more patient, a little more peaceful, a little less afraid. 

(Hope Renée will back me up on that!)

End of digression.

Now back to the “dangerous days” thing from before. Being a person of prayer in our tradition means at least one thing: It means that every two years, I find myself face to face . . . with Isaiah. Specifically, chapters 58 and 59 of Isaiah. So whether I like it or not, whether I go looking for it or not, whether I’m ready or not — I am drawn back to the prophet’s warning that there is such a thing as a people who can rebel against God, even while “day after day they seek me and delight to know my ways” (58.2). It is possible, Isaiah says, that iniquities can be “barriers between you and God,” and my sins might have “hidden his face” from me (59.2).

Whoa. 

So how can I know? Is there some kind of rapid Covid-testy thing that can tell me I might be bluffing God here? Turns out there is, and that test — is justice. Chapter 59’s just shot through with it:

  • The way of peace they do not know, and there is no justice in their paths (59.8).
  • Justice is turned back, and righteousness stands at a distance (59.14)

And my personal favorite:

  • The Lord saw it, and it displeased him that there was no justice (59.15)

The days turn dangerous when they force me to look inside and ask whether I’m really acting justly in the world. Is our parish? But I’m also grateful to be forced into this exercise every so often because it makes me ask “What is God doing in the world — and maybe could I be part of it with him?” So in these dangerous days I Google “What does the Bible say about Land and Housing?” and I find Vine and Fig Tree from Dr. Jill Suzanne Shook. Then my little 30 minutes of prayer of a morning has led to further thoughts about the Sabbath principle and Community Land Trusts, affordable housing, and the Year of Jubilee. Or I’m reminded of Dr. John Perkins, and I take time to read again the “3 Rs of Community Development” he has championed for decades as leader of the Christian Community Development Association. I search “What does the Bible say about refugees?” and I find this piece from WorldVision. Then, boom, I’m amazed all day that I was a refugee in need of grace when God welcomed me, so who, then, have I welcomed today? And what can I do to welcome more people tomorrow?

Dangerous days, indeed. 

But I need these days, too. I need them because I don’t want to miss out on what God’s doing. I really don’t. And for me, the equal and opposite danger is continuing to go through life thinking of no one but myself, protecting my comfort, avoiding suffering on behalf of the other at all costs if I can. In Ah, But Your Land is Beautiful (New York: Scribner, 1982), Nobel Prize-winning author Alan Paton’s anti-Apartheid novel, we meet Emmanuel Nene, a black court messenger, visits Robert Mansfield, a white headmaster of an all-white school. The government has ordered Mansfield not to let his white students mingle with black students from another school after a football game. Mansfield resigns, and the two men talk of how they now may be “wounded.” If they act on what they believe, they will suffer at the hands of enemies and be ostracized by friends. If they give in, they’re safe. But in the story, Paton’s own Christianity rings in the character Emmanuel’s words to Mansfield: 

I don’t worry about the wounds. When I get up there, which is my intention, the Big Judge will say to me, “Where are your wounds?” and if I say, I haven’t any, he will say, “Was there nothing to fight for?”

Thank God I found a set of exercises — Daily Office, private prayer, the Eucharist — a kind of system that forms me, ever so slowly but inexorably, into a person who sometimes wants to bear the wounds of love like those my savior still bears. Those exercises are the third sail of our Barque — the “Worship God” sail — and I learned this week that one’s sometimes called the “mizenmast” and it helps balance the ship’s helm. Prayer, Scripture, the Eucharist — these balance us and keep us upright and afloat so God can steer us wherever, and to whomever, he pleases.

Thank God for these dangerous days — because there is, indeed, so very much in this world to fight for.

If you’re looking for distraction this weekend — here’s some of what I’m consuming:

  • Thinking about the Psalter reminded me of our very own Dr. David Madeira’s guest stint on the Psalter Project Podcast! Listen to it here and learn why he cares so deeply, as do I, about us chanting the Psalms as a worshiping family, plus you hear the genesis of the 12-point technique that was the subject of his dissertation.
  • On the subject of podcasts and prayer — Drop twenty minutes on our diocesan Bishop John Bauerschmidt’s take on the history and the value of the Daily Office in last September’s “The Daily Office 101” from the Living Church Podcast. A great line from the intro: “The critical nature of daily prayer for the life of the Christian is the logic behind that most venerated of Anglican devotional tools, the Daily Office — the life of the Christian is constituted in prayer.” Remember in last week’s Digest I said “habit happens”? Bishop John prescribes that we make the Daily Office a matter of habit, marking out the beginning and end of every day. Quoting Anglican poet and divine George Herbert: “Prayer should be the key of the day and the lock of the night.” The podcast even has a funny faux pas about slapping your enemies around the 7.45 mark. I laughed out loud!
  • Seems like all my friends are listening to the Hillbilly Thomists! They’re “a group of Dominican friars banded together over a common love for bluegrass and folk music” (I kid you not), and you can read about them here). I’ve fallen deeply in love with Living for the Other Side, raspy voices and all, and their Quarantine Sessionsis my video of the week.
  • Want to spend way more time than you need on identifying parts of sailing ships?
  • One last thing — Read this amazing thing from friend of the parish Dave Zahl on blizzards: 

Anyone who has taken a walk or a drive on the day after a massive snowfall will notice how sixteen inches of blanketing looks most beautiful in the places we know to be ugliest. Parking lots and strip malls, empty lots and cracked sidewalks, trash heaps, and construction sites transform from eye-sores into pockets of enchanted calm. No other catastrophe possesses such redeeming magic; no other disaster leaves everything in its wake more beautiful rather than less. Barring Calvary, that is.

Thanks, again, for reading. I’m thankful for any channel I can find to connect with you during this separated time. You are never far from my thoughts, and may God bless you this weekend.

Yearning for justice this time —

Fr. Sammy
Rector

The One About Friendship | February 5, 2021

Weekend Digest 2021:4
February 5
The Martyrs of Japan

Dear friends —

An orthodox icon of Christ and St. Menas, also known as L’Icône de Jésus et son ami, Jesus and his friend. 

Often I’ll start my missives to you with “Dear family,” but today, I begin differently on purpose. As I type these words, I’m grateful that God brought my own family here to Nashville and St. B’s three years ago, not just to make us family to you but to bind us to each other specifically as friends
Confession: I actually don’t make friends all that easily. I’m an incredibly “I”-ish introvert (sometimes that surprises folks, but introverts can feign extroversion and be really personable for a while, then we just crash and retreat into a nest of Netflix), and I probably have some abandonment issues from being adopted that make me hesitant to form bonds, but as I get older, I’m convinced more and more that I need friends. Not just family, friends. Whether I want them or not (and friendship can be difficult), I need them. Why is that? Well, for at least two reasons.

First, apparently, God must think we need friends because he has a habit of sticking us right in the middle of a bunch of them. After a while, that doesn’t seem like an accident, right? Every couple of Fridays for the past several months, I’ve tuned in to a short online presentation from the Trinity Forum, a group that “endeavors to cultivate, curate, and disseminate the best of Christian thought, to equip leaders to think, work, and lead wisely and well.” As your rector, that’s what I pray every single day to be able to do. Cherie Harder, President of the Trinity Forum, began her most recent email with this quote from C. S. Lewis:  

In friendship . . . we think we have chosen our peers. In reality, a few years’ difference in the dates of our births, a few more miles between certain houses, the choise of one university instead of another, the accident of a topic being raised or not raised at a first meeting — any of these chances might have kept us apart. But, for a Christian, there are, strictly speaking, no chances. A secret Master of the Ceremonies has been at work. Christ, who said to the disciples “Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you,” can truly say to every group of Christian friends “You have not chosen one another but I have chosen you for one another.” The Friendship is not a reward for our discrimination and good taste in finding one another out. It is the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others.

C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1991): 89-90

I have chosen you for one another. Just think that through for a minute. God says to introverted little me, “you need these people, and I’m giving them to you and you to them,” so who am I to say, “nope, I’m all set?” What gifts do you have that I need; what have I that can benefit you? What lessons, experiences, wisdom can we share? Who needs to hear a voice from across the fire on a cold February night when the world seems so disconnected and atomized and we’re all distributed like particles in a gas? What beauty waits to be revealed in the medium of your friendship?

A second reason, not unrelated to the first, is that I need friends for my own continued conversion. This is from a book I read many years ago by Maurice Roberts:

Friendship is good and necessary for us . . . . It corrects our angularities and rubs off our corners. The recluse is the first to fall into eccentricities. The more we are with ourselves the more become like ourselves. It is only when we come back into the circle of godly friends once again that we realize how awkward, or else opinionated, we have become as Christians. We all go astray “like sheep,” but we go astray less if we keep within the flock and refuse the temptation to wander off into solitary pastures where we are all on our own . . . . Healthy Christian character, which is full-orbed, well-rounded and rich in good fruits can best be foremd within the circle of sanctified friendships . . . . Let us see to it that we have grace to be good friends one to another for life, or rather, to eternity.

Maurice Roberts, The Thought of God (Carlisle, Penn.: Banner of Truth, 1993): 175, 180

Confession number 2: That book is inscribed “Thanks Sam for your friendship. It is more important than you can ever imagine and you are dear to my heart. ~ M.”  My rule of life requires that every month I take a “friendship inventory” and ask whether I’ve been available to my friends of late. Honestly, I can’t tell you the last time I seriously sat down to do that inventory. And I haven’t seen M. in probably five years. All that to say — I know I’ve got a lot of work to do on this front.

A symbolon.

So let me invite you to think with me this weekend about friendship on a couple fronts:

  • First — What’s the ground of our friendship, our belonging to one another here at St. B’s in particular? On what field do we meet? I’d suggest it’s on the field of the creeds we confess. When you and I confess the same creed, it’s like a shibboleth, which Wikipe . . . uh, the “Oracle of All Things” defines as a custom or tradition, usually a choice of phrasing or even a single word, that distinguishes one group of people from another (and it’s a great early episode of The West Wing, by the way — if you’ve got 5 minutes for 2 scenes, here you go. Thank me later). You may have heard me introduce the Creed at mass with the words “Let us confess our faith in the words of the great symbol of the Nicene Creed,” a phrase I picked up from a mentor back in Washington, D.C. The actual purpose of a creed is to provide a doctrinal statement of correct belief or orthodoxy. The Christian creeds were drawn up at times of conflict about doctrine: acceptance or rejection of a creed served to distinguish believers and deniers of particular doctrines. For that reason, a creed was called in Greek a σύμβολον (symbolon), which originally meant half of a broken object which, when fitted to the other half, verified the bearer’s identity.  I love that image. When we say the same Creed, it’s like a secret phrase or a word — we each hold a piece that fits the other’s and identifies us as friend rather than foe. As long as you hold that piece and I hold that piece, we enter the same field together.
  • Second — I’m definitely asking you to commit to some befriending work in the coming months. And I know what I’m asking you is a challenge. This won’t be easy. It will impinge upon your freedom (at least your freedom “from” being entangled in others’ lives, if not upon your freedom “for” the kind of human flourishing human friendships promote). But it’s so very worth it. Here’s an example — Remember our old friend, James K. A. Smith? I saw a piece on CBS Sunday Morning last week that probably got me thinking about friendship in the first place, and it also reminded me of Jamie Smith. (Hint: Don’t watch the CBS clip just yet — wait until you’ve read this paragraph). The CBS piece is about two friends from Nashville, Andy Gullahorn and Gabe Scott (who I’m sure many of you already know because they’re musicians and, well, because Nashville) who exit their front doors once a week and walk toward the same spot in the city, where they’ll then greet each other with a wordless set of gestures — “clap, snap, high five” — then they walk back home. Just a quirky bro story, right? Actually — no! First, it reminded me of something — I’d heard about this little ritual before! Enter Jamie Smith. Back in 2016, he did a separate little video piece for Laity Lodge about Andy’s and Gabe’s ritual. Watch that one first. Smith’s project has been about developing Christian character — cultivating “virtue” — through the power of habit, thus the focus on this thing Andy and Gabe do. For an accessible introduction to Smith’s work, check out the popularization of his more academic work in You Are What You Love: The Spiritual Power of Habit.In the video, Smith says: “The most challenging part of the Christian life is realizing the spiritual power of habit. And you can’t think your way into new habits. But then it’s the hard, plodding work of immersing yourself in new rhythms and routines that are looking for making that connection.” Gabe Scott says later in the video: “I spend a lot of time in my life doing some things on purpose but definitely not on a regular basis, and then doing lots of things just because they’re in front of me. But there’s something about doing something intentionally, being disciplined about it, saying ‘No matter what, I’m gonna do this thing,’ and it pays dividends. It just does.” What I’m asking you to do as part of St. B’s is to commit to forming habits of friendship with each other. We’re a gathered parish from all over the metro area, so that means planning ahead: Can I plan a play date for my kids and yours at a local park? If you’re going out these days, circle a Friday night every month to invite a different family to join you at a local brewery. Invite someone to a fire pit conversation some night (that’s what Renee’s and my LifeGroup is doing every week in Covid, no matter how cold it gets out there). Check out the S’mores Community on Wednesday nights at the church. And when you do that, you know what happens?Habit happens. Habits form and habits can heal — as evidenced by the second half of the CBS video shot years after Smith shot his first piece about the new habit Scott and Gullahorn were building! Now go and watch the CBS video. Amazing. 
  • Third, remember we’re doing a soft rollout of “Seasons of Stewardship” at St. Bartholomew’s this year, and Epiphanytide is the season to steward Christ’s light in the world. Before Lent starts and we switch to another season, maybe take a few minutes and think about your own sphere of influence and what friend you might have who could use a little good news? 
  • Who knew there was a Flannery O’Connor documentary out there and didn’t tell me? Had to learn about it from a nun in my reading group! It’s called Uncommon Grace: The Life of Flannery O’Connor (the namesake of my youngest, Flannery Agnes), and here’s the trailer: Haven’t found a place I can stream it, but Sister has a DVD she promises to loan me to watch forthwith. Mary Flannery, as she was called, was drawn into the cultural conversation around race back in the summer with pieces flying at me from the New Yorker and CommonwealAmerica Magazine and countless blogs and tweets. Her writing is certainly difficult to read sometimes. And some of the quotes she gave during her too-short life confirm her conflicted relationship with race as a southern, female, Roman Catholic writer of short stories. But I’ll never forget an interview I heard with Professor Bruce Gentry from Flannery’s alma mater, Georgia State College, who said she was “the best American fiction writer for ‘recovering racists, of learning not to be a racist,’ implying that anyone who unconsciously lives within the categories of white privilege is, in fact, always recovering from the latent effects of racism: ‘Recovering from white racism takes a long time,’ Gentry notes, and O’Connor would have included herself in this recovery. Indeed, her stories are shocking and revolutionary in the way they bring home to her readers the assumptions of whiteness.” (Quoted in “The Higher Mathematics of Flannery O’Connor: The Making of an American Master,” The Free Library. (2014). As someone in recovery myself, Mary Flannery remains a voice I turn to — along with Jamar Tisby and Howard Thurman and Esau McCaulley and many others — to understand the world and better understand myself. 
  • Looking for background music for your reading as the temps drop this weekend? Try Jeff Tweedy’s “Love is the King”). I’ve lived with his voice crooning in my head a long time (anyone remember Uncle Tupelo? Anyone? I hit the sweet spot of Alt-Country and got to see Uncle Tupelo in a little Oxford, Mississippi bar one Thursday night in 1991. And somebody recorded the audio! Oh, the wonders of the internet. 
  • And if the term “GameStop” catches your attention, check out this podcast I just listened to. I love it because (a) I definitely didn’t want to have to preach about this!, and (b) I learned a ton listening to it, and it prompted me to think about stuff like “work vs. investing,” which I hadn’t thought about before. It’s an hour-long, but it’s really accessible and informative. Plus, there’s a shout-out to Wendell Kimbrough, friend of the parish right at the end! Well worth a listen.
  • I’ll close how Cherie Harder closed her own email I quoted earlier:

If, as C. S. Lewis claimed, friendship is “the instrument by which God reveals to each the beauties of all the others,” may such examples of friendship serve as sunshine in this bleak midwinter — illuminating new possibiltieis for creative collaboration and warming us to the task.

Amen, Cherie. Today’s as good a day as any to look for those new possibilities. St. B’s isn’t just family — it’s friends. And I’ll start working on that from my end. Just this morning, I texted M. to thank her for the book she gave me way back when and invite her to Nashville to see about rekindling our friendship. And I promise you I’ll restart my monthly Friendship Inventory practice next time it pops up on my calendar. Hope you’ll join me.

And have a blessed weekend, friends!

Fr. Sammy
Rector

P.S. Go Tompa Bay!