Post-Election Word from the Rector

Logo for Blog Header

Americans went to the polls this week on Election Day and revealed how divided we remain as a people. On our campus that same day, St. Bede’s Chapel was open not only for prayers for ourselves, our community, our state, and the nation but also for two services of Holy Eucharist. Those who came were grateful for the invitation to remember something that unites the followers of Jesus and to listen for the voice of the Good Shepherd in the midst of so much pushing and shoving, metaphorical and otherwise, over the past year. Many who were not able to be there told me that they were grateful, too, knowing our prayers surrounded them with the love of Jesus.

This week I also completed a formal request for Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church to become a member of the Community of the Cross of Nails. As I’ve talked, written, and preached about over many months, this is an international fellowship that seeks reconciliation over revenge and that began at Coventry Cathedral in England. It is a powerful witness to Christian forgiveness that has inspired countless people around the world. We can be a part of that witness as peacemakers in the City of Houston.

That witness to peacemaking begins in our personal relationships, including those that comprise our own household. It will continue within our common life here at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. Our new community norms that were created before Election Day seem even more important to uphold now. The way that we talk to one another, whether in the pews or in the parking lot or in the public square, really does matter if we bear the name of Christ. Those who are baptized do bear it.

The doors of our church are open as wide as the arms of the Crucified One. Those who cross that threshold bring with them a diversity of political, social, and, yes, even theological beliefs. They belong to households of one, two, or many if there are young children or older parents under the same roof. They encounter a community of faith that honors marriage, including marriage for our brothers and sisters in same-gender relationships, who are treated as the children of God that all of us are. They meet Christians here who not only worship together but also serve together, reaching out to people in need in the surrounding neighborhoods while recognizing humbly their own spiritual impoverishment. This includes our commitment to help refugee families begin a new life in this country. Together we journey home to God.

But don’t wait passively for others to come to us to discover all of this. Tell the story of our church, which offers something for which people hunger and yet too often can’t seem to find in the world around us. Rather than turning away from the dark corners of that world, allow the light of Christ to shine through each of our lives and dispel the night. Such an act of love is more powerful than we can possibly imagine, especially in a culture stripped of grace. Invite a friend or a neighbor to join us on Sunday, November 13, at 4:00 p.m. for a special screening of Generation Found. This documentary film highlights the impact of Archway Academy, which is the largest high school for teenagers in recovery from drug and alcohol abuse in the United States and which meets on our campus because our members helped to create it.

If we want to heal our fractured communities, a good place to start is by receiving love in our community of faith and letting it overflow from our hearts into the world around us. We can do that through our prayers, including prayers for those whom we have made our enemies; through our presence in worship, not only to nurture our own spiritual life but also to encourage other Christians in their faith and their struggles; and through our promises in the Baptismal Covenant to love our neighbor and to respect the dignity of every human being as we leave the church, stepping onto Main Street in the fourth largest and most ethnically diverse city in America.

14124352_1106178732796458_6933187333668928103_o

I look forward to seeing you at the Lord’s Table each Sunday morning, where we are invited to bring to God, week after week, our hopes and our fears, our joys and our sorrows, our laughter and our tears. Together we are strengthened there with God’s grace to continue our mission “to know and share the love of Jesus Christ.” Amen.

— The Rev. Neil Alan Willard, Rector

The Honorable Tim Kaine

Before moving to Minnesota and then to Texas, my wife and I lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, where I served for over six years as Associate Rector at Bruton Parish Episcopal Church. One of the highlights of those years was Virginia’s 2006 Inaugural Ceremonies. These took place outside the Reconstructed Capitol in Williamsburg because the State Capitol in Richmond was undergoing extensive renovations at the time. I was invited by the Clerk of the House of Delegates to offer a prayer at the beginning of their meeting, which convened shortly before Governor-Elect Tim Kaine was sworn into office, where their colonial predecessors in the House of Burgesses once met. The best part of the day, however, was a prelude to the rites of the Commonwealth and to the parade down Duke of Gloucester Street.

I had been asked by the Rector to organize and preside over an interfaith prayer service at our historic church on the morning of the inauguration. This was very important to the Governor-Elect, a thoughtful Christian and former missionary, who belongs to an African-American, Roman Catholic congregation in Richmond.

Voices of prayer, therefore, on behalf of the citizens of Virginia were raised that day by representatives of the three Abrahamic traditions: Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Gospel music, sung by the Governor-Elect’s home church choir, nearly blew the roof off the building. All of it was framed by familiar hymns and at least a few familiar words from the Book of Common Prayer.

What I learned is that it’s actually possible to honor the particular identities of those invited to participate in an event like this from different religious traditions. These representatives brought into that sacred space the depth of their beliefs and, therefore, a richness to their prayers. That is to be preferred, it seems to me, over watering down those particularities and pretending that we’re all temporarily Unitarians. I believe that interfaith conversations — and interfaith prayers — are most fruitful when we bring our particularities to the table and share them as a gift.

img_5861

After all was said and done — and prayed, I received a note from the Honorable Tim Kaine, then Governor of Virginia. He commented that the time spent in the church that morning was powerful, and, he wrote,

I will always consider it the highlight of the weekend.

In Memoriam: Bishop Ed Salmon

I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord;
he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live;
and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die.

As those words and other burial sentences from the Book of Common Prayer were sung by a choir to the beautiful music of William Croft (1678-1727), the procession began for the funeral of the Rt. Rev. Edward Lloyd Salmon, Jr., at the Episcopal Church of St. Michael and St. George in Clayton, Missouri, earlier this week. At that service, I and many other clergy who had been formed under the leadership of Bishop Salmon paid our final respects to him and participated in that procession.

I had first met Bishop Salmon in 1996 at his office in Charleston when he was the Bishop of South Carolina. I was a newly ordained deacon who had come to serve in his diocese from the Diocese of North Carolina. He really only had two things to say to me. First, he told me that we in the Diocese of South Carolina are not confused about who Jesus is. Second, he told me that people would try to dump garbage at my feet (i.e., triangulate) and that my job was not to be a garbage collector. In other words, individuals were sure to bring their complaints about other parishioners or staff members to me with no intention to deal with those relationships themselves.

img_8882

img_8915One year after I had been ordained to the diaconate, Bishop Salmon ordained me on the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, June 29, 1997, as a priest at the Episcopal Church of the Resurrection in Surfside Beach, South Carolina. He also officiated at my wedding in 2003 at Bruton Parish Episcopal Church in Williamsburg, Virginia. With those famous mutton chops down the sides of his cheeks, Bishop Salmon always looked as though he had stepped out of a 19th-century oil portrait of a bishop in the Church of England. Although he could indeed be firm, he was gracious and kind.

Bishop Salmon died last month on the Feast of St. Peter and St. Paul, June 29, which was exactly 19 years after he ordained me to the priesthood. He died before sunrise. But he will awake in the eternal light of that new day, known as Easter. This I believe.

I spent an hour in the church where Bishop Salmon’s body was lying in repose in the chancel during a vigil before his funeral. I was there in the late morning. The service would not begin until that evening. It was raining outside, and I could hear thunder while sitting in the pew. Alone there during most of that time, I thought about the stormy chapters in the history of the Episcopal Church throughout Bishop Salmon’s episcopate. Most people know that he often voted with the more conservative and traditional wing of the House of Bishops. But he was also gracious and kind to those who did not agree with him, and Bishop Salmon was willing to work with them. That willingness to work across theological divides caused him to be criticized by liberals and conservatives alike. I did not always agree with him. Yet he was truly my bishop.

Salmon Vigil D

Before the commendation near the end of the funeral, as the celebrant sprinkled the casket with holy water to remind us that Bishop Salmon was baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, the choir sang a version of the following anthem by John Tavener (1944-2013). And that is when I felt the most overwhelmed by emotion.

Alleluia. May flights of angels sing thee to thy rest.
Alleluia. Remember me, O Lord, when you come into your kingdom.
Alleluia. Give rest O Lord to your [servant,] who has fallen asleep.
Alleluia. The Choir of Saints have found the well-spring of life
and door of paradise.
Alleluia. Life: a shadow and a dream.
Alleluia. Weeping at the grave creates the song: Alleluia.
Come, enjoy rewards and crowns I have prepared for you. Alleluia.

Last but not least, definitely not least in the life of Bishop Salmon, this reflection would be incomplete without mentioning his dogs. There are many photographs of him with rather large dogs sitting in his lap. I had the pleasure of meeting a lot of friends, old and new, at the home of Bishop Salmon the night before the funeral. It was good to see his wife Louise again and to meet their children Catherine and Edward. But I was especially delighted to meet his newest puppy, Lindy. Alleluia!

Salmon Puppy

“Americans Crave Forgiveness But . . .”

Not surprisingly, I preach a lot of sermons about forgiveness, something that God does really well and that we don’t. The facts on the ground point this out to us time and time again. So did a study a few years ago by the Fetzer Institute of Kalamazoo, Michigan. That study was highlighted in a Religion News Service article by Whitney Jones, “Americans Crave Forgiveness But Are Not Very Forgiving,” which stated:

Most Americans have a desire for more forgiveness in their lives, but they are more critical when choosing who to forgive . . .

How have Americans become somewhat miserly with forgiveness, reversing the biblical idea that it’s more blessed to give than to receive? Read on:

Most people said they sought the advice of friends and family rather than religious leaders when grappling with issues of forgiveness, while one in four said they did not know where to go for help with spiritual needs, and a third of them struggle with spirituality.

Of course, it might be built into our DNA, part of the human condition, a red flag of our bondage to something that’s greater and more powerful than ourselves.

It seems that most of the people around us, while wanting forgiveness for themselves, believe that some things are unforgiveable and that forgiveness is always conditional. According to the study referenced above, 60% of us are willing to admit that we believe the latter point to be true (i.e., that “forgiving someone would first depend on the offender apologizing and making changes”).

Reading that and the previous statistics makes us wonder what the “real” percentages are, doesn’t it? After all, who doesn’t struggle with faith when the issue of forgiveness, incarnated in a concrete situation, is staring us right in the face? One of the contributors to the Mockingbird Blog, “Tryin’ to get down to the heart of the matter,” wondered about that too:

These results are, in fact, much too conservative. My feeling is that the true numbers ought to be about 100% in every case. Almost nobody knows what in the world is going on (existentially speaking), including myself; and our true selves emerge spontaneously, not after we have a moment to mull over the best answer to the pollster’s question. So the margin of error in polls like these is influenced less by the sample size . . . and more by the respondent’s desire to respond as the idealized self. The reality, of course, is that the numbers would have been the same had the poll been conducted within the church. Thank goodness that Christ was pro-active in his forgiveness, even calling out from the cross on behalf of his murderers, ‘Father, forgive them!’ Yes, and forgive us too.

That, my friends, is what we call unconditional forgiveness or one-way love.

12235027_1278472592178266_4825114918637126974_n

Bishop Curry Bids Farewell to Carolina

Greetings from Raleigh

North Carolina is my home state. I was born in High Point, where my Granddaddy Willard had a farm. I was raised in the Moravian Church at a country intersection known as Union Cross, where my great-grandparents are buried in God’s Acre. I became an Episcopalian in Winston-Salem while an undergraduate religion major at Wake Forest University. I went through discernment about my particular calling by God in the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina and was ordained a transitional deacon at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Winston-Salem.

My roots — familial, cultural, and religious — run deep in the Old North State. Even though I’ve never served a church there as a priest, I still feel connected to its land and its people. So I’m just as excited as Episcopalians there about the fact that the Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, will soon become the 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. That will happen on All Saints Day, which is tomorrow, November 1, during a beautiful liturgy of installation at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. Presiding Bishop-elect Curry loves the Lord and the Lord’s Church, and he invites all of us to join “The Jesus Movement.”

His last official act as the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina was to attend yesterday’s investiture ceremony for the newest President of St. Augustine’s University in Raleigh. Afterwards, he offered a farewell to his people near and far.

Haiku Friday: Warning Signs

This is Anana, a polar bear at the North Carolina Zoological Park in Asheboro, which is the first state zoo and the largest natural habitat zoo in the world. Anana was having a great time playing in the water when my family and I saw her there recently.

We also saw this warning sign on the upper level of the polar bear exhibit. Both humorous and serious, it certainly caught our attention.

Have you ever noticed a warning sign about something, perhaps funny, perhaps not funny at all. Or maybe there was a time when you very much wished that you had noticed a warning sign. Or maybe you’ve read a tragic news story like the recent one from Texas in which a man mocked a warning sign about alligators and didn’t live to tell the tale. Or maybe you fantasize about posting a warning sign at home, at work, at school, at the airport, on a billboard overlooking a busy highway, etc.

Let’s write haiku about any of those things, whether real or imaginary. It only takes one verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Here’s mine:

Don’t jump in the lake —
gators. But a Texas man
dove right in. Short swim.

Texas Tuesday: Caterpillar

If you plant it, they will come. This Very Hungry Caterpillar, which is destined to become a monarch butterfly, is munching on the milkweed plants in the back yard of the Rectory. Welcome to Texas, little one.

When I saw this, the first thing that came to mind was, not surprisingly, this passage from the popular children’s book The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle:

On Saturday [the Very Hungry Caterpillar] ate through one piece of chocolate cake, one ice-cream cone, one pickle, one slice of Swiss cheese, one slice of salami, one lollipop, one piece of cherry pie, one sausage, one cupcake, and one slice of watermelon.

Presiding Bishop-Elect Michael Curry

Bishop_Curry_3_8x11

The Rt. Rev. Michael Curry, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, was today elected to become the 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church. He was elected to serve in that position for the next nine years by the House of Bishops on the first ballot with 121 out of 174 votes. That election was then confirmed by the House of Deputies — comprised of priests, deacons, and laity — with a vote of 800 to 12. The General Convention of the Episcopal Church, which is currently meeting in Salt Lake City, Utah, is a triennial, bicameral legislative body that is comprised of the House of Bishops and the House of Deputies, both representing 110 dioceses.

Quite frankly, I’m thrilled about this election! When the Presiding Bishop-elect was invited to come to the House of Deputies and bring a word of greeting, he said:

This is the Church where I was baptized as a baby. . . . This is the Church where I learned about Jesus. . . . The Church has challenges before it but we have a God and there really is a Jesus. We are part of the Jesus movement, and nothing can stop the movement of God’s love in this world. Nothing.

Presiding Bishop-elect Curry is known for his inspirational preaching both within and beyond the boundaries of the Episcopal Church. Here’s a little taste for you:

Haiku Friday: Things of Haunting Beauty

The Rt. Rev. Jeff W. Fisher, Bishop Suffragan of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas, recently pointed me to a video of an Easter anthem by 18th-century American composer William Billings (1746-1800) being sung in the Sacred Harp tradition. The Sacred Harp was a tunebook that was first published in 1844. That tradition, also known as “shaped-note singing,” originated in New England but was practiced primarily in the South. So the 2003 film Cold Mountain, set in Western North Carolina during the Civil War, appropriately featured the singing of a couple of shaped-note hymns. Billings’ anthem “The Lord is ris’n indeed” sounds like this:

I find this tradition of singing to be hauntingly beautiful and other-worldly. It momentarily transports me to another time and place, as though being lifted up into God’s presence. That’s how some people describe sacraments. While this old-fashioned singing might not be transcendent for you, I’ll bet there’s something you’ve seen or heard or experienced that has been — something of haunting beauty that stays with you and feeds your soul. That’s our haiku theme this week.

So write one verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. That’s all you need to do. Here’s mine:

Don’t know how they work —
the shaped notes. “Alleluia” —
rough-hewn, thunderous.