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!

Let’s Move | Jan. 29, 2021

Weekend Digest 2021:3
January 29

Happy Friday, everyone!

I missed getting to write a Di·gest last week, but that’ll be the case every 3 weeks or so when work backs up and I just don’t have the time. Back on the horse today, though.

So, what have I been thinking about this week? 

In a word: Movement. 

Growing up, my family couldn’t travel a ton for pleasure, although we took work trips to buy goods for my dad’s store (he was a pharmacist and owned a gift shop complete with a small-town soda fountain where I worked after school and weekends until I went to college). Renee and I have tried to expose our own kids to a bit more of the world than I’d seen in my childhood. We had our tickets to Italy (!) when the pandemic shut the world down — I remember watching the pandemic move across Europe beginning from, tragically it seemed, right there in the country we’d planned to visit last spring. Needless to say, I was incredibly disappointed not to get to see Italy and its churches (my kids allow me one church/religious site per day when we travel), or even to make our annual pilgrimage to New England for the holidays, so I’ve been dreaming about travel more and more as the months have dragged on. Indeed, no doubt I’m thinking about movement these days precisely because we can’t move about freely as we’d like.

Movement and travel were at the heart of one of my favorite books of 2020 — James K. A. Smith’s theological travelogue On the Road with Saint Augustine: A Real-World Spirituality for Restless Hearts. The book starts with a simple premise: “We all leave.” We leave family. We leave our hometowns. Some of us leave the religion bequeathed to us by our parents, either finding a new configuration for our deconstructed faith or blowing right past that exit to continue down the road without God (or so we imagine ourselves). That’s why Smith wrote about St. Augustine: Our hero left his hometown for Carthage and Rome. He left his mother, Monica. Augustine’s was a life chasing freedom, a life “on the road.” Smith writes:

The road is iconic because it is the symbol of liberation. From On the Road to Easy Rider to Thelma and Louise, the road is a ribbon that wends away from convention, obligation, and the oppression of domesticity. Freedom looks like the top down, hair whipping brazenly in the wind, refusing to be constrained, en route to “Wide Open Spaces” (the [formerly Dixie] Chicks). It’s hitting the road and heading west, loading up the car and leaving for college, hopping on a bus to New York City, backpacking through Europe, or hitchhiking to Memphis. (p. 59)

– James K. A. Smith

The book is part biography, part philosophy lecture, part playlist, and always — movement. The concluding chapter, called “Homecoming,” restates the reveal. The road calls us all, but it seldom, if ever, delivers on the promised freedom we dream will satisfy us. What we need (spoiler alert) is someone with a map. Someone who’s been down every road before but seems perfectly satisfied just piling into the passenger seat to keep us awake and provide conversation on a trip to where we’ve never been. 

This is the God who runs down the road to meet prodigals. Grace isn’t high-speed transport all the way to the end but the gift of his presence the rest of the way. And it is the remarkable promise of his Son, who meets us in this distance: “My Father’s house has many rooms” (John 14.2). There is room for you in the Father’s house. His home is your end. He is with you every step of the way there. (p. 222)

I loved this book — recommended my oldest daughter read it, if only as a philosophy primer! But I was pondering movement even before I picked it up months ago. See, I’m not just thinking about physical movement down a highway, but metaphorical movement, as well — our collective movement toward wherever God is calling us as a parish family. (I really hope you’re praying about that with me, by the way!) I’ll confess that the first couple years here, I was a little afraid to move because of the risk we’d get it wrong; too timid and afraid of sailing our ship in a wrong direction. Felt like I had to thread the needle to get a clearly-marked “vision from God” for where we’re supposed to go next. It was the same crippling feeling I had years ago about finding “God’s will for my life” about whom to marry and which vocation to pursue. It was paralyzing, looking for what I call “the dot” — the single soul-mate, the college, the single “For I know the plans I have for you” career. 

Frederick Buechner famously said about vocation:

By and large a good rule for finding out [your vocation or “calling”] is this: the kind of work God usually calls you to is the kind of work (a) that you need most to do and (b) that the world most needs to have done . . . . The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet. 

Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking: A Seeker’s ABC, p. 118-19 

That’s a pretty phrase, a lovely sentiment. But I’ve come to believe it’s totally untrue. Thpffttt. Whoever even thought to look for “calling” at the juncture of our “passion” and the world’s “deep hunger” until the last 100 years in the West? Time was, you just did what your mama or your daddy did. You worked the family farm. Or you raised a family upon said farm. Looking for Buechner’s magical nexus was paralyzing. I couldn’t figure out where to move. Designer and author Liz Bohannon said as much in a piece for RELEVANT Magazine called “Stop Trying to ‘Find Your Passion'”

I am here to tell you: You will never find your passion and purpose. There. I said it. You’re probably in shock and maybe a little bit angry . . . but it’s true. Because your passion and purpose isn’t out there, buried like treasure or hiding behind a tree. It’s not waiting for you to open the right door or peek under the right rock before it jumps out at you like you’re playing some cosmically cruel game of hide-and-seek . . . . Passion isn’t a preexisting condition. A life of purpose and passion can’t be found. It is the result of being brave, curious, and dare I say, plucky?
       . . .
There is no secret. There is no silver bullet. You just have to be brave enough to listen to the whisper that says, “Keep going.”

Liz Bohannon

When we gather for our Annual Parish Meeting this Sunday (don’t forget to vote for vestry!!), I’ll give my “State of the Parish” address, and I’ll talk more about what I think I’ve heard God whisper for us. But we build that purpose together by trying things out, seeing what works, course correcting, and sailing on. Waiting for “the Dot” is just wasting time — God calls us out into the deep, and he promises to go with us to the end of the road we choose. Why would we think we had to have the directions committed to memory before we can start moving? 

One last thing about movement, by the way — Assuming we’ll be getting back to normal sometime in the month to come, who wants to go on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land? I’m hankering to lead one, so if you’d be interested in going with, let me know!

Finally — here are some tidbits if you find yourself with time on your hands this weekend:

  • While the Tennessee virus numbers have improved, thanks be to God, we are still in the “active outbreak” category. We’re extending the 10-person cap on public, in-person worship through the beginning of Lent, at which time we will reevaluate. In the meantime — although we aren’t meeting for in-person worship, we are preparingfor in-person worship, and I could use a favor. We’ve never had a bigger need for well-trained, capable ushers to welcome worshipers into our space and orient them to our Covid protocols. If you’re interested — whether you’re an individual adult, a student, a couple, or a family that could serve together as a team — please email Bill Bowlby for more information. 
  • During last Sunday’s Rector’s Forum about Episcopal Church polity, someone asked whether and how we’re connected to the Anglican Church in North America (ACNA). Here’s an interesting piece from last year in The Living Church that touches on that issue. 
  • For a brief but fascinating podcast on the Origins of Anglicanism, listen >>>here
  • Next Wednesday, Feb. 3 is St. Blase’s day when churches traditionally bless throats. I plan to do throat blessings at the midday Eucharist at 12.15 p.m. on Wednesday (complete with a new liturgical contraption crafted specifically for that blessing) if you’d like to join me!

One last thing — who hasn’t got one minute for a sea shanty? Hear here. With all the talk of Barques and going to sea, I’m delighted to learn the #shantytok trend is a thing and to read this from the Bruderhof: 

Shanties are “songs with simple, blunt rhythms, meant to be easy to learn and easy to sing along with while doing the hard physical work of sailing a large fishing vessel…. They are unifying, survivalist songs, designed to transform a huge group of people into one collective body, all working together to keep the ship afloat.
Read more >>>here.

Unifying . . . designed to transform a group into a collective body . . . working together to keep the ship afloat? Sounds like a Barque-worthy enterprise to me!


Oh, and stick around for the best version of Amazing Grace you’ll hear all week.

 
Have a great weekend — and thanks for reading. Let’s get moving!

Fr. Sammy
Rector

Unity and Unicorns | Jan. 15, 2021

Weekend Digest 2021:2
January 15
Paul of Thebes, the First Christian Hermit (d. circa 341)

Dear Family —

So I’d like to talk about something I find endlessly intriguing, and I hope you don’t find it hopelessly dry!

I’ve been thinking about unity and difference this week, for lots of reasons, I suppose. For one, we’re about to enter the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. Observed for over 100 years, the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity is the window of time between the Feasts of the Confession of St. Peter on Jan. 18 and the Conversion of St. Paul on Jan. 25 (to learn more >>>here ). I’ve always wanted us to recognize it more formally at St. B’s — alas, perhaps next year. Also, I just picked up Charles Erlandson’s Orthodox Anglican Identity: The Quest for Unity in a Diverse Religious Tradition (Eugene, Ore.: Pickwick, 2020) after reading an interesting review by Paul Treschow for The North American Anglican blog (>>>here). And lastly, ever since my call for us to pray for unity in last week’s Digest, I’ve been thinking about unity among Americans. What are we actually praying for, anyway? How divided are we, really? What to make of what happened on Epiphany in Washington, DC, and how, if at all, is that related to what we’re about at St. Bartholomew’s?

Around the firepit at the Rectory on Tuesday night, one of the guys gathered for “Second Tuesday” (the men’s group that used to meet the second Tuesday of each month at M.L. Rose on 8th has relocated to my backyard during Covidtide) asked about the meaning of the word “ecumenical.” Does it mean unity among Christian denominations or unity among the world’s religions? While the term is sometimes used to describe interreligious dialogues between Christians, Muslims, Jews, Sikhs, and the like, the word is best applied to unity between Christian denominations. The term “ecumenical” (from the Greekοἰκουμένη (oikoumene), which literally means “the inhabited earth”) refers to the movement among different Christian communions across the world to work together to build closer relationships and encourage cooperation. I’ve been drawn more deeply into this world over the past couple of years at the invitation of our bishop’s Ecumenical Officer for the Diocese of Tennessee. First, I was part of an ecumenical reading group comprising Episcopalians and Methodists, and I continue to be part of an Anglican/Roman Catholic reading group that meets monthly to pray, study, and cultivate conversations that promote understanding and cooperation between our two churches.

So why am I bringing this up at all? I want us to think about unity because we’re Episcopalians, and I find in Anglicanism a peculiar ability to “hold difference.” This peculiar ability is something called “Anglican comprehensiveness,” a concept that’s been lauded and critiqued in turn, but that resonates deeply with me. Ours is a church that strives to hold together different “churchmanships” (please forgive the gender specificity) — evangelical Anglicans, more liberal or “broad church” Anglicans, and Anglican catholics — and people of different theological convictions. Back in the day, unity could be imposed by the British crown and promoted via the Prayer Book and its rituals and formularies. But we’re no longer a national church. Prayer books across the world can differ pretty wildly. So, where’s the core of our unity now?

An axiom (perhaps wrongly) attributed to St. Augustine is helpful here — In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas: “In essentials, unity; in uncertain things, liberty; in all things, charity.” Simply put, there are essentials of our religion (the Creeds, the Sacraments, the importance of Sacred Scripture), and if we can find common ground on those, we can afford those with whom we disagree surprisingly great freedom in the “non-essentials” (like whether or not to use incense at worship, and you know where I stand on that!). Of course, deciding what’s essential and what’s not is easier said than done. J.I. Packer argued Anglicans too often confuse “the virtue of tolerating different views on secondary issues on the basis of clear agreement on essentials” and “the vice of retreating from the light of scripture into an intellectual murk where no outlines are clear, all cats are grey, and syncretism is the prescribed task.” (Quoted in John R. W. Stott, Evangelical Truth: A Personal Plea for Unity, Integrity, and Faithfulness, 2d ed. (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2003): 101) But somewhere between the land of grey cats and rigid fundamentalism is the Anglican Church. We take seriously Jesus’ call for his followers to be unified (John 17), so we should be keenly aware that, as former Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey wrote in one of my favorite little books, The Anglican Spirit:

[O]ur divisions are all the more scandalous because they are divisions within the family. The task then of unity is not the creation of unity, but finding those God-given structures and procedures that will give proper expeession to this basic kinship of the new race, the People of God. (p. 102-03.)

Michael Ramsey

But we don’t demand subscription to an exhaustive list of theological statements to stay in communion with each other (the Episcopal Church did tuck the 39 Articles away in the “Historical Documents” section of our prayer book, after all). Ian Markham and C. K. Robertson describe our beloved Anglican Communion as a “fellowship” of self-governing national and regional churches, and “it is the mix of autonomy and relationship that makes the Anglican Communion a unique manifestation of the body of Christ in the world.” (Episcopal Questions, Episcopal Answers: Exploring Christian Faith (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 2014): 93). 

I wonder — can’t it be part of our vocation, our calling, to model that to the watching world . . . to the American world, the inter-religious world, and the ecumenical world? When we started “Table Talks” back before the pandemic, I had in mind an exercise room of sorts where we developed that muscle of ours, resisting being coopted by the polarization in the world around us, patiently listening to each other, empathizing, figuring out our own deepest opinions, then winsomely articulating them to each other. It’s one reason I’m so excited to work alongside Rev. Serena and Fr. Charlie. We will undoubtedly differ about any number of things theologically, each emphasizing some part of our Anglican heritage that first drew us into this particular church. Still, we three can also model what it looks like to serve Christ and this parish together, coming to the same altar and kneeling to receive the same heavenly food. There are challenges to comprehensiveness, to be sure, but it might just be the best gift St. Bartholomew’s can offer our neighbors in Nashville and the wounded nation beyond. 

So — if you’re still reading (and I hope you are!), what’s captured my imagination of late?

For a fascinating conversation about Christian Nationalism from a distinctively evangelical perspective, check out Christianity Today‘s “Quick to Listen” podcast from Jan. 13 >>>here.

If you aren’t already, you should be watching All Creatures Great and Small (>>>here), the new Masterpiece adaptation of James Herriot’s books chronicling his adventures as a veterinarian in 1930s Yorkshire. In episode one, the baby calf is good for the soul and worth the price of admission (PBS is free, after all).

And apropos of baby calves and other cute things, here’s a menagerie of five unusual animals of the Bible (from T. J. McTavish: A Theological Miscellany (Nashville, Tenn.: W Publishing, 2005):

  • Behemoth (Job 40.15) – The plural of the word for “cattle” seems to designate any large animal that lives in marshes, and some suggest it refers to the hippopotamus, which literally means “river horse” in Greek.
  • Coney (Prov. 30.26) – The “rock badger,” an animal about the size of a rabbit that doesn’t burrow but lives among the rocks. Renee and I saw a bunch of them in our travels to the Holy Land.
  • Leviathan (Job 41.1) – A primeval sea monster defeated by Yahweh (Ps. 74.14), in Job, it seems to mean any large sea creature, like a whale.
  • Ossifrage (Deut. 14.12, KJV) – Translated “vulture,” this Hebrew word means “bone-breaker,” from the bird’s habit of dropping bones or tortoises (!) on rocks to break them so they can be eaten.
  • Unicorn (Num. 23.22, KJV) – Yes, there are unicorns in the Bible! The King James Version uses this term for the wild ox, a species now extinct. The idea of “one horn” comes from the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament, where it may have originally referred to the rhinoceros.
  • This week marks the birthday of the great Jewish theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel (b. 1907). An inspiring quote of his: “Never once in my life did I ask God for success or wisdom or power or fame. I asked for wonder, and he gave it to me.” A wise man, old AJH.
  • Lastly, we could be facing some rocky days in the week to come. In the spirit of a Novena like the one we prayed as a parish family before the election last fall, would you join me in praying for peace every day for the next nine days? The form I’ll be praying is found on p. 815 in the BCP.

Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all people may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and forever. Amen.

May you find rest and joy this weekend, my friends. And grant, Almighty God, that all who confess your Name may be united in your truth live together in your love and reveal your glory in the world. 

Grace and Peace —

Fr. Sammy
Rector

New Year, Same Prayer | Jan 8, 2021

Weekend Digest 2021:1
January 8
Friday in the Octave of Epiphany

Dear St. B’s family —

Greetings and Happy New Year! 

In this first Digest for 2021, I’d wanted to start on an upbeat note, but like many of you, I was dismayed at the violence at the Capitol this week. Still thinking about it as I type today, and I don’t feel very upbeat. On New Year’s Day, the Most Rev’d Michael Curry, our Presiding Bishop, had given an interview to Judy Woodruff of the PBS NewsHour calling the time we’re living through a “perfect storm of a pandemic, a racial reckoning, and a polarized American society.” Read the full article >>> here. This week’s events certainly seemed to confirm his observation.

My family lived in Washington, DC, for a time, and I recall the days surrounding the inauguration of a new president as being exciting and optimistic ones, and feeling that our tradition of a peaceful transfer of power was something to be legitimately proud of in a world where revolutions and coups d’etat were often the norm. But I didn’t feel optimistic watching my TV this week. I was moved by what my friend and Dean of our cathedral church, Fr. Timothy Kimbrough, wrote on Wednesday:

It is the vocation of Christians and the Church at large to work for peace by way of peace-making. As disciples of Christ, you and I must eschew civil violence of every kind. Now is the time to condemn today’s barbarity in Washington, D.C. in no uncertain terms and in the name of Jesus Christ. Read the full email >>>here.

Timothy Kimbrough

So we begin 2021 as we ended 2020 — praying for peace in a divided world. But we aren’t called just to passively intercede for the world; we’re called to actively love it. Yesterday’s epistle at mass was 1 John 3, which says “Let us not love in word or talk but in deed and truth.” It’s all the more providential, then, that 2021 started with that interview with Bishop Curry because his is a clarion call not just to prayer but to love. And not a sentimental kind of love, either — he advocates a vigorous, sinewy love that’s absolutely committed to the good of the other. It’s what you’ve heard me call a “my life for yours” kind of love, the kind of love Jesus embodied. Bishop Curry again: 

When we live like that, then Congress can work. When we live like that, then the economy can work. When we live like that, then there is equal opportunity for all. You see what I’m getting at? Love is not a sentiment. It’s a commitment to the common good. (Emphasis mine)

Bishop Michael Curry

And that’s what I want St. B’s to be about. Let that kind of love fill the sails of our Barque — sharing the good news of the reign of God with the world; worshiping with reckless abandon; and serving the poor, the other, the one without position or power or privilege. May this year find us wholly committed to the common good, and see where that takes us.

Speaking of the Barque — this year I hope to talk about “stewardship” more expansively than I have before. The word actually doesn’t originate from the financial sphere, you know. It emerges from many passages of Sacred Scripture, from Genesis and the NT epistles, and most of all from the teachings of Jesus, specifically the Parable of the Talents. Stewardship is faithfully asking how we can “manage or look after” the gifts God’s entrusted to our care — not just our financial resources. So in Epiphany we begin “Seasons of Stewardship,” a series of windows of time throughout the calendar year when we’ll ask how we’ll we’re stewarding everything from the earth, our time/talent/treasure, even our own bodies. The question I want us asking in this first season is about stewarding our spheres of influence. Our networks of relationships. Epiphany is a season of light, so how are we taking light into the dark places we inhabit? How can we love our friends, neighbors, relatives, associates who may be in a dark place at the moment? The vestry and I are thinking about how we’re doing that as a church (you’ll hear more at the Annual Meeting in a couple weeks about how we’re striving toward a “tithe” of our budget going to outreach), and I invite you to ask it about your own life, specifically where you might be able to take the light of the saving gospel of Jesus Christ in this new year. 

A way I consider my network of relationships is to think of an oikos,a Greek word that means “household,” but in this context it means my primary base of relationships and sphere of influence — my family, friends, neighbors, coworkers. I was introduced to “oikos evangelism” in seminary through a classic book by Michael Green called Evangelism in the Early Church. This article >>> here says: “In our COVID-19 world, these are people “inside the bubble,” quoting Green as saying:“Christian missionaries made a deliberate point of gaining whatever households they could as lighthouses, so to speak, from which the gospel could illuminate the surrounding darkness.” I’m not saying we keep our head on a swivel looking for folks to “witness” to so we can “win more souls” to Christ, but that we trust God is leading us to people to bless in his name and for his sake. As the Prayer to St. Raphael the Archangel (click >>> here), which Flannery O’Connor prayed every day, asks:

Lead us toward those we are waiting for,
those who are waiting for us.

In this season of stewarding our spheres of influence, Read more about “oikos evangelism” >>> here.

In the meantime . . . I hope you’re still finding some time to rest, read, reflect, and even listen to some great music during the remaining winter months. Here’s what I’m consuming:

  • If you’re looking for choral music for Christmas and Epiphany, my go-to is a Soundcloud playlist from the Choir of the Church of the Advent where I served in Boston: click >>> here. The staff have also put together an Epiphany playlist that I give a thumbs up to. Find it on Spotify >>> here and on Apple Music >>> here
  • My Flannery and I subscribed to Peacock ( click >>> here — it’s free, for now) just so we could keep watching episodes of “the Office” at the end of the day — it’s my current favorite elixir to soothe a troubled spirit.
  • And I’m enjoying the photography of Coco Liu, a Chicago-based iPhone photographer who chronicles the urban landscape around him. I love cities — the bigger the better — but I’m also fascinated with ways the built environment can abut the natural world, like this shot from Liu’s Instagram account >>> here. More about cities and the built environment in future Digests, I assure you!

That’s it for this week. I leave you with the same prayer the Presiding Bishop shared on social media and via the Living Church earlier this week:

For Peace
Eternal God, in whose perfect kingdom no sword is drawn but the sword of righteousness, no strength known but the strength of love: So mightily spread abroad your Spirit, that all peoples may be gathered under the banner of the Prince of Peace, as children of one Father; to whom be dominion and glory, now and for ever. Amen. 

God bless you and guide our nation in the way of justice and peace —

Fr. Sammy
Rector

A Few of My Favorite Things | Dec. 18, 2020

Weekend Digest 2020:2
December 18

Greetings, St. B’s Family —

This is probably my favorite week of the year — the days are still growing infinitesimally shorter until the solstice (I love winter — the darker and colder, the better!), Christmas is still out in front of us (I prefer my gratification delayed yet a little longer still, thank you very much), and by now packages have begun appearing under the Rectory tree. And some are book-shaped — my favorite kind! A while ago, I collected a wonderful word — Tsundoku: n. “Leaving a book unread after buying it, typically piled up together with other unread books.”Those book-like wrapped shapes under our tree may add to my stack. I love the word “tsundoku” for the same reason I love the week before the solstice and the days before Christmas — it’s all about anticipation. About potential. I first came across the word in a review of Nassim Taleb’s The Black Swan. 

Umberto Eco among his love, books.

The reviewer, Maria Popova, quoted Taleb writing about medievalist and author Umberto Eco:

Eco belongs to that small class of scholars who are encyclopedic, insightful, and non-dull. He is the owner of a large personal library (containing thirty thousand books), and separates visitors into two categories: those who react with “Wow! Signore professore dottore Eco, what a library you have! How many of these books have you read?” and the others — a very small minority — who get the point that a private library is not an ego-boosting appendage but a research tool. Read books are far less valuable than unread ones. The library should contain as much of what you do not know as your financial means, mortgage rates, and the currently tight real-estate market allows you to put there. You will accumulate more knowledge and more books as you grow older, and the growing number of unread books on the shelves will look at you menacingly. Indeed, the more you know, the larger the rows of unread books. Let us call this collection of unread books an antilibrary.

Nassim Taleb

Read Popova’s review >>> here. It’s an act of humility to build a library of what you don’t know. I thought about that often this year when we saw such divides in our country over issues of race, public health, politics — you name it; we found a way to disagree about it. The thing about books is not just that they can teach us truths. They can also correct misperceptions we may not even know we have. I don’t know who said it (Mark Twain?), but the quip seems more axiomatic to me this year than ever: It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble. It’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so. 

A small sample of Father Sammy’s book collection

If you have room under your tree, maybe buy yourself a copy of Alan Jacobs’ Breaking Bread with the Dead. Jacobs is one of my favorite writers (his The Year of Our Lord 1943: Christian Humanism in an Age of Crisis was a gift from Renee last Christmas and became one of my favorite reads in 2020). Jacobs’ thesis in Breaking Bread is that life in an environment of “high informational density” like ours (we’re awash in a sea of information from Twitter to The News Hour) tends to produce people of “low personal density.” We’re whipsawed by the most recent “fact” we’ve encountered. Jacobs: “A World that seems to give us infinite choice actually makes a choice nearly impossible: the informational context chooses for us. And what that means is . . . our web of information determines what we love.” So he proposes we read broadly, and specifically that we read old books, voices from outside our time, speaking from without our presuppositions and biases. It’s a necessary corrective to our wandering hearts, a way to cultivate virtue, which Augustine called “rightly ordered love.”
For some shorter fare, let me recommend two pieces from Breaking Ground, a web commons collaborative between Comment Magazine and Plough Quarterly (both of which I ravenously consume when they appear in my mailbox), along with the Davenant Institute. One piece is by my friend Leah Libresco Sargeant, and the other is from her husband, Alexi, whom I’ve yet to meet. Both write beautifully and have turned their attention, in different ways, to the world emerging from Covidtide. Leah compares the current state of the world to life on a “generation ship,” a kind of interstellar ark traveling at sub-light speed, leaving our world in search of inhabitable planets off-earth. 

A generation ship spans the wide gap of time between planets. No one aboard at the beginning of the journey expects to see the destination. They commit to the ship in order that their children, or their children’s children’s children will see and reach the promised end. Delivering on the promises of a generation ship requires committing to specific practices of stewardship.

Leah Libresco Sargeant

Leah proposes (>>>here) an ethic designed not to make our lives resemble “normal” in the middle of a disaster but to enable us to rebuild better. 
We aim to conserve the best of our old lives and to discover new strengths and traditions as we go. A generation-ship mentality embraces the continuing crucible as an invitation to become more deeply rooted in what matters most, to leave behind whatever evils we’ve allowed to accumulate, and to discover new gifts. We can’t narrow our vision to only work toward what will be won in one lifetime.
Or, as Wendell Berry would say: “Plant sequoias.” Alexi’s piece, “Small Apocalypses,” begins with Buffy the Vampire Slayer, quotes G. K. Chesterton, and ends with this beautiful resolution:

Let us wake up to ways the world ends every day, responding with compassion when we encounter others going through one slow-motion apocalypse or another. But let us also not turn a blind eye to the grace-filled apocalypses of first steps, surprising kindnesses, and new possibilities. Just because a baby, for example, is a small and ordinary being doesn’t mean she is not also an apocalyptic prophet, tearing with tiny hands at the veil that keeps us looking only at what is and not at what ought to be.

Alexi Sargeant

Wow. Wish I’d written that.
God bless and keep you these long winter nights —

Fr. Sammy
Rector
P.S. When you’ve worked through the playlists I shared last week, maybe check out this one >>>here from my friend Mother Beth Maynard. Any Advent playlist that starts with Johnny Cash — I want in on that.

From the Rector | December 10, 2021

Weekend Digest 2020:1
December 10, 2020

Greetings, St. B’s Family —

Perhaps you noticed, during the pandemic I got into a habit of sending you a midweek check-in every week because there was always something to report, an announcement to make, prayers to request. Starting this week, I’m going to switch it up a little for a while — the midweek email from St. B’s will be the E-News with info and links for all that’s coming up around the parish, and my personal check-in will move to most Fridays. Moving it closer to the weekend allows me to share information that may not be as time-sensitive but that I hope you’ll find intriguing, and then you have the weekend to check it out if you’re so inclined. It may be something about one of the parts of our Barque of St. Bartholomew, something I’m reading, a question that’s nagging me, or maybe just a podcast I’m listening to. We’re calling it the Rector’s Weekend Di·gest, seeing as how a digest is a compilation or summary of material or information. Whatever that information is from week to week, I hope you’ll find something that catches your imagination.

For this inaugural edition, let’s do start with something from the Barque — You’ll remember our sails are Evangelism, Serving the Poor, and Worship, each supported by a mast of Formation and held in the hull of our Community. In this year, when we’ve been forced out of our building, which we all love, I’ve thought a lot about the church’s essence and our essential work of worship and serving in the world. In what way are we — the Church — our building, our physical structure? And in what way might the pandemic push us out into the world to do the work God’s given us to do? 

Way back last December, in a longread for The Point Magazine called “A Serious House,” James Chappel wrote:

The earliest and purest Christians had no inkling of the yawning granite structures that would one day symbolize the faith. For them, the church was ambulatory, representing the spirit of Christian assembly operating within social structures, like yeast in dough, rather than confronting them from without. Instead of viewing the church as a “fortified castle,” [Jacques] Maritain urged, “we must think of an army of stars thrown across the sky.” Maritain called for the church to spill its way back into the streets, bringing the mission of Christian love and even revolution with it . . . . Catholics on the ground should be working with anyone, atheists included, in the pursuit of a vision he thought that many shared: a society of tolerance, diversity and freedom. 

[In the church of Chappel’s youth, he says] I remember a place where imperfect people gathered in an attempt to make sense of an imperfect world, and where old words and old music combined to create something like beauty. Some people can find these things in secular places, but many cannot. And the list of secular institutions in which racially and economically diverse populations come together to confront moral questions with any degree of seriousness is not a long one . . . . We need now, more than ever, the sort of space that [poet Philip] Larkin presumed to be a relic of the past: “a serious house on serious earth,” and one “proper to grow wise in.”

I love that image — an army of stars thrown across the sky. In this season of lengthening shadows, we call Advent, and my prayer has been for us to be found that way — wherever the pandemic throws us, that our worship will form us, our Christian Formation offerings will shape us, such that we want nothing more than to go with God’s light into dark places. 

While I’m rereading that piece and typing those words, I’m sitting by the fire in the Rectory, listening to Advent music, which I do a lot. Our staff put together a fantastic “Come and Behold” Playlist on Spotify (I bet you can’t tell which staff member recommended which songs. Find the links >>>here). For more traditional tunes from our Anglican patrimony, the church where I served in Boston has a playlist on Soundcloud >>>here, and here’s another one I love that I found on Spotify >>>here.

And speaking of the Rectory — Here’s your weekly snippet of theological miscellany: Many Protestant church communities don’t maintain homes for their clergy, preferring to include a housing allowance as part of their compensation. Others, however, still do. For instance, Roman Catholic priests, having taken a vow of poverty, own little property and must live in what the church provides. Here are some terms for clergy housing:

Parsonage – Many protestant churches
Rectory – Episcopal, Roman Catholic, Church of England
Manse – Presbyterian, Lutheran
Vicarage – Church of England
Episcopal Residence – Methodist bishops

And my personal favorite –

Palace – Old term for the residence of an Anglican or Catholic bishop, one still used for Lambeth Palace, the London residence of our chief prelate, the Archbishop of Canterbury.

Boy, those were the days, huh? 

From our palace to yours, I hope you have a restful and blessed weekend!

Fr. Sammy
Rector

P.S. Don’t forget to drop by Kathy Edwards’ pop-up boutique: Original art, home accessories, candles, jewelry, notecards, and clothing. All proceeds benefit New Life Restoration Ministries. Items are not individually priced — you decide how much to pay. She’s open during daylight hours, Monday-Saturday, December 11-18 at her home, 1110 Stonewall Drive.