Monday, December 22, 2014

Dear Loved Ones | Michelle Despain, Parish Administrator

Saturday, December 20, 2014

To: All of my Friends, Loved Ones, Fellow Parishioners, the Diocese of Utah and the Community Groups of St. Mary’s Episcopal Church

Dear Ones,

I first came to St. Mary’s a little over seven years ago. I was leaving behind the practice of a faith that no longer gave me what I needed to feed my spirit. That hot summer day in August 2007, I was welcomed warmly by my dear friend Mac Baldwin. His gentleness and kindness were such that I felt as though I had merely been away for a while and he was welcoming his friend home again. As I sat and listened to the sermon being preached that day by one of my dearest friends, Julia Martinez, she uttered one simple phrase that touched my soul so deeply that I began to weep. What was that phrase? “God loves you just as you are.” For the first time in a very long time, I felt God’s love begin to heal my wounded spirit. I also knew that it was going to take a very long time to completely heal those wounds. I needed time to breathe, to listen, to study and to take a ‘time out’ for myself without anything else diverting my focus on healing my soul. I knew that St. Mary’s would be the place I would feel welcomed, nurtured, and yes, loved.

As most of you know, after only a few months of coming to St. Mary’s, I was asked to be the Clerk of the Vestry, and during that assignment of service, I was also asked to be the Parish Secretary. As time went on, my responsibilities increased, my title became Parish Administrator and I was required by Rev. Peter’s predecessor to work on Sundays. I did, as asked, but unfortunately, the ‘feeding’ of my soul began to lose precedence. Even though I dearly loved my position, my original need for coming to St. Mary’s had become eclipsed by duties and worries that everything was ‘just right’ for every service, so others soul’s could be fed. Rev. Peter, in his wisdom, assured me at the beginning of his service here, that with very few exceptions, I could be a ‘parishioner’ on Sundays. Even still, I was always running around doing something that required my attention.

As Parish Administrator for the last six years and nine months, I have discovered that God has blessed me with many gifts that I never really realized I had. Throughout his time here, Rev. Peter has helped me to recognize some of those gifts. He has been (and continues to be) a constant support to me, as does Bishop Scott. They have believed in me when I could not believe in myself and they are currently helping me to have the ‘tools’ necessary to help make some of those gifts ‘blossom’.

My greatest joy, as Parish Administrator, has been to serve my fellow parishioners and all who walk through our doors, be it a new visitor, the homeless, or those who belong to the many community groups that we welcome here. I have been blessed with love for all of you. I have laughed with many, cried with many. I have offered a listening ear with the assurance of confidentiality to those who have had no one to listen, and I have tried to share that phrase that so touched my heart in the beginning ― “God loves you just as you are.” We are ALL equal before God and his love and grace are given freely and unconditionally. I love “My Groups” and it is that service that I will miss the most, but I hope, in time, I will be able to serve all of you in some such capacity ― if that is what God has planned for me to do.

I have missed being with all of you these last four months. Life is so unpredictable and so fragile. Many of you did not know I was ill, and I did not take the time to really listen to my body, so things got really bad. In reality, I was told in August that if I had waited a few more days, I likely would not have survived. A lifetime of being used to pushing hard through any illness, or pain, almost cost me my life this time. I did not know there was a terrible infection smoldering inside of my body. An infection that had also caused my kidneys to start failing. The weeks of antibiotic transfusions, working through kidney failure with severe fluid retention, extreme pain, and several other complications, has left my body very weak. My recovery is taking so much longer than I had hoped. I am still in treatment and having physical/ occupational therapy. I am progressing, but it is very slow and I have no idea how long it will take for me to be whole again. This time my body was hit hard and I am not as young as I used to be. That 39th birthday has come and gone many times now! I have not felt a greater outpouring of love, as I have these last many months. To know that I have been in your prayers and your hearts has literally kept me going.

I love this quote from Helen Keller. “When one door of happiness closes, another opens; but often we look so long at the closed door that we do not see the one which has been opened for us.” I have been looking so long at the “closed door” that I could not see that God was indeed giving me a gift. The gift to be able to take the time to ‘feed my spirit’ ― as I had desired in the beginning.

As I have said above, I love all of my friends at St. Mary’s, the Diocese of Utah and all of the members of the community groups. You all are my love and joy, and this has been a very hard decision for me to make. I have greatly appreciated all of the prayers, cards, phone calls, food and visits since my hospitalization and now recovery. God has blessed me, indeed, with many friends. Through much soul searching and many tears, I find that my ‘season’ to serve as Parish Administrator has now come to an end, and deep in my heart, I want to do what I think is best for St. Mary’s and for me. This time, God was ‘screaming’ in my ear, “Michelle, remember why you came here. Now step back. Take care of your body. Nourish your spirit. I am gifting this time to you.” I am very sure that God will open another path of service for me here ― when the time is ‘right’ for me. I have to trust that.

It is my hope, that you all will support me in this decision and trust with me that that other “door will open” in time. So, it is with love for you all, and hope for the future, that I submit my resignation, as Parish Administrator, effective December 31, 2014.

I will still be here. I am not leaving St. Mary’s. One day, hopefully soon, you will see me sitting in the sanctuary with you, but this time, at least for a while, I will be your fellow parishioner ― worshipping, listening, learning and ‘nourishing my spirit’. I ask just two things of all of you. One: When I return, you won’t make me cry. I look really ugly when I cry and it messes up my makeup. Two: I ask that you all support Kiffer in agreeing to take this position. He is a very gifted and talented young man. He has my blessing and I extend my hand to him during this transition. OK, I fudged— Three: Please don’t give Rev. Peter a hard time. He needs all of the love he can get! I made this decision in the best interests of my own health and the ‘health’ of St. Mary’s.

With love and gratitude in Christ,

Michelle Despain

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Who is Mary | The Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

For 2,000 years Christians have had a problem with Mary, the mother of Jesus. Even the Evangelists provide differing views, from a nagging, hovering parent (John) to humble and devoted servant of God (Luke). Historically, Protestantism has virtually ignored her (find a Presbyterian or Lutheran church named after her), while elements of Roman Catholicism have elevated her virtually to deity (some medieval theologians began speaking of a Quaternity instead of a Trinity).

On the other hand, Anglicanism and Eastern Orthodoxy have had a more nuanced view of Mary. In Orthodoxy she is called theotokos, the God-bearer, she who faithfully bore the Son of God. In Anglicanism Mary is held as the exemplar of Christian servanthood, as she willingly followed God’s request of her delivered by the archangel Gabriel (Luke). Indeed, Luke emphasizes Mary’s archetypal role in the words of her sister Elizabeth, “blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken by the Lord." Note that Mary is blessed not because she is the mother of Jesus, but because she believed in the promises of God.

In modern times Mary has been seen by feminist theologians as the model of womanhood, her identity given to her in history not by a man but by God. This is in stark contrast to the more conservative branding, found in Protestantism and Catholicism, in which Mary is the example of powerless humility—she who “knows her place”—she who gives up all power and authority to be nothing but a servant—that is, her humility prevents her from access to any positions of authority in the Church. Of course, this position ignores the evidence that in the years immediately following the Resurrection of Jesus it was Mary who became the prime mover in reviving the closest followers of Jesus who had been scattered and disheartened: she may have been the first among the apostles until her frailty or death made room for Peter to take the leadership of the apostolic band.

The Gospel reading for the Fourth Sunday in Advent is the story of the Annunciation (Luke 1, 26-38), the announcement by an angel of an imminent radical change in the life of a Palestinian peasant woman. It is a passage worth contemplating—reading again and again, and sitting with in silence—at any time of the year as each of us deals with the chances and changes of our own lives.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Stir Up Sunday! | The Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

One of the lovely things about a liturgical church like The Episcopal Church is the richness of our traditions. It is not necessary to have an Advent Wreath in the church during the season of Advent but it is a rich, pleasant, and lovely thing to have in place as a reminder of the darkening days outside as the church gets brighter inside. One of our traditions is that we open our worship with the Collect of the Day, a prayer that collects our thoughts as we enter into the movement that is our liturgy. There is a proper collect for each Sunday, each feast day, and a variety of other things.

The Collect for the Third Sunday of Advent begins, “Stir up your power O Lord and with great might come among us…” That prayer has been in place for centuries. Coincidentally, since Advent 3 is usually ten or so days from Christmas, in England it was the weekend on which the plum puddings were prepared—stirred up—so that they had an opportunity to, well, ferment for at least a week. Somebody noticed a connection, and Stir Up Sunday was born.

This coming Sunday, Advent 3, we will observe Stir Up Sunday with homiletical nod to English cuisine (not necessarily a contradiction in terms) as we continue to get ready for Christmas.

Note that the Fourth Sunday of Advent at St. Mary's Church is also the greening of the church—we hang the greens and set the flowers and candles in preparation for our Christmas worship. Our time of fellowship following the service will take place in the church as we work together to beautify our worship space.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Advent — A Needed Time of Preparation | The Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

Every year, during the first part of December, somebody will approach me and ask why don't we sing more carols during Advent. The curmudgeonly answer, of course, is: “Because it's Advent; not Christmas. Christmas doesn't start until December 25th.” Although this is technically correct, it's not a particularly helpful response to the question, nor is it entirely correct. The more accurate answer is, “Because I believe that the Church stands for something different and offers something than the world offers, and at this time we are offered a time of reflection and preparation for the Celebration of Christ's coming.” 

(As a footnote Consider that the three Sundays following Christmas are some of the least attended services of the church year. If you like singing Christmas music, these are the Sundays to sing it.)

American culture has evolved—or we should say devolved—into a mad dash for immediate gratification. Advent, as does Lent, reminds us that important things require preparation, consideration, contemplation, and most of all good judgement. One of the things that the Anglican tradition has stood for is the centrality of a few core beliefs and actions over against a long and detailed list of rules and expectations. One of those essentials is the value of patient judgement, which requires us to slow down and prepare—that is, to be considerate and thought-full.

As the one responsible for leading this congregation’s worship I hope to instill a discerning heart and a thoughtful mind in our members. The music of our worship is meant to support our prayers and beliefs. We need time to discern and contemplate what Christmas means for us and our families. That is the purpose of Advent.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Thanksgiving | The Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

You have heard me say that I try to live a life of thanksgiving. The short version of the story is that I realized, in a time of some personal crisis, that thanksgiving was a consistent element that had been missing from my life. I undertook a discipline of giving thanks that I follow to this day.
Of course, one might say, that thanksgiving is supposed to be a mark of a Christian. Yes. However, how often do we find ourselves trapped by guilt or sorrow or fear and forget to give thanks? Our Sunday worship should never be anything less than a joyous occasion of thanksgiving—that’s what the word eucharist means—that allows us to give thanks, even in the midst of international crises like Ebola or ISIS, even as we follow the trajectory of events from Ferguson, Missouri, even as we live with unemployment, ill health, or death.

There are several prayers of thanksgiving in The Book of Common Prayer. The most familiar is the one that concludes Morning or Evening Prayer. There is a collection of thanksgivings in the BCP that begins on page 836. My favorite is the first one, “A General Thanksgiving.” It begins, “Accept, O Lord, our praise and thanks for all that you have done for us.” That is not a bad mantra or repeated prayer. It is a great way to begin or close a day. It might be a good thing to write on a slip of paper and keep in your wallet or purse.What are you thankful for? How do you remember to be thankful? And, how do you express thanksgiving in your life?

Note: before the section of thanksgivings is a small collection of graces—thanksgivings—to be used before meals. Consider using any of these as you gather to give thanks this week.

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Christ: The King?!? | The Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

In this part of the Church Year the lectionary carries some dark tones as we enter the darkest time of the year. The Gospel themes are focused on the Christ who is the King, culminating in the King’s birth at Bethlehem. This coming Sunday is the Last Sunday after Pentecost (25 weeks ago!), also known as the Feast of Christ the King. The Gospel reading begins, “Jesus said, ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.’”

In America’s democratic society it is difficult for us to reinterpret the Biblical language of kingship. Perhaps reflecting on the trouble the Jews had with their kings can help. Both Jeremiah and Ezekiel consider the base and corrupt late kings of Judah and contrast them with a good shepherd who indeed “controls” the sheep but does so in a way that ensures their well-being. The kings use their power for personal gain and glory but bring only trouble and destruction to their people,; the shepherd uses his power and knowledge for the good of the flock. The kingship of Christ is monarchy subverted.

In the Gospel reading the king is enthroned, but turns the kingly power on its head: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Matthew gives us this remarkable picture of the Final Judgment in which one group is left out of paradise because they did not know that their king was in fact the poor and needy among them. “But we didn’t know!” they cry! “You do now!” responds their king. And now we know it as well.

Monday, November 17, 2014

The Symbolism in our Symbols

You may have noticed that St. Mary's has recently transitioned from using the fleur-de-lis to using the Episcopal Shield as our primary symbol on our website, facebook, newsletter, and service bulletin. But you might be wondering: "Why the change?"

While the fleur-de-lis will continue to be an important symbol for St. Mary's, the Episcopal shield helps visitors quickly associate our congregation with the Episcopal Church, and the 80 million member, Anglican Communion.

The shield is also richly symbolic: The most distinctive part of the image is the red cross placed over a white background. The white represents the purity of the Christian faith that moves us all to do good; while the red cross represents the sacrifice of the martyrs, and more importantly, the Son of God. Together these are a reminder of our salvation in Christ, and the dedication of the saints who have come before us.

In the upper left hand corner of the shield there are nine white crosslets arranged on a madonna blue background. The background color is associated with Mary, as she is traditionally adorned in blue by artists. The nine crosslets represent the nine original Episcopal diocese in America. Together these remind us of the history of our faith, from it's beginnings with the incarnation of God, to it's more recent history, with the establishment of the Anglican Church in America.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Deseret News: Musical Exchange

Musical exchange allows for 'sharing of gifts' between Mormons, other faiths

Published: Tuesday, May 20 2014 6:51 a.m. MDT
Updated: Tuesday, May 20 2014 6:51 a.m. MDT

More Photo's available Here
PROVO — An Episcopal congregation in Utah County is reaching out to its neighbors at BYU and in the community through music.
The congregation of fewer than 100 at St. Mary's Episcopal Church helps the county's homeless through the Food and Care Coalition, and to those addicted by opening its doors for 12-step meetings. However, the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook realized that creating a venue for musicians would be an additional "win-win" service opportunity for his and other congregations.
In medieval England, churches with red doors indicated that they were sanctuaries for criminals. The red door outside St. Mary's, 50 W. 200 North in Provo, indicates that the church is a safe place for all, including aspiring musicians, Father Van Hook said.
He and St. Mary's full-time organist Ruth Eldredge reached out to former and current students at Brigham Young University to let them perform or practice at the church, regardless of their major or profession.
"I think music is one of the most practical ways possible to reach out to the community and to connect with the community," said Eldredge, a member of the LDS Church.
In August, Father Van Hook visited BYU organ professor Don Cook and asked if St. Mary's could host beginning organ students. This was the first time in more than 20 years as a professor that a leader of a non-LDS congregation had approached Cook for the opportunity, rather than the other way around, he said.
Two of the college's 16 students accepted in the fall, although neither were organ performance majors. Natalie Durham, a piano performance major, said the experience was one she would repeat.
"The role of organist in the meeting was certainly one of being a leader. There wasn't a conductor at all, so it was all up to me as the organist to lead. The congregation actually followed my phrasings! That was really exciting," Durham said in an email. "Everyone was extremely surprised to hear that it was my first time ever playing organ for a congregation. Several individuals told me they hoped I would come back again."
This partnership may seem unusual given that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints make up 98 percent of the county's religious adherents,according to City-Data. Catholic members make up 1.1 percent of those who are affiliated with a religious congregation in Utah County, with the remaining 0.9 percent of the religious belonging to those of other faiths.
The high density of members of the LDS faith is precisely why there is a need to reach out to other congregations to get professional experience. With three full-time and two part-time professional organist positions in the LDS Church, most organ performance majors at BYU assume they will spend their careers playing for another congregation.
This was the case for Andrew Unsworth early in his career.
He played the organ at Catholic and Lutheran churches while growing up in upstate New York and majored in organ performance at BYU. While earning his undergraduate and graduate degrees, he played for Baptist, Lutheran and Catholic churches and was the BYU organ scholar at the Cathedral of the Madeleine for two years.
“It really opened my eyes to all the good that those churches do in the community,” he said.
After completing graduate work, he returned to the Cathedral of the Madeleine as a full-time organist for five years. He came to appreciate the commitment and passion of other religions and the time and love they put into their worship music.
"The idea to make something beautiful and to offer it to God, that's something that I really admire and respect," Unsworth said.
He credits his current position as Tabernacle organist for the LDS Church to the practical experience he gained while playing for other churches.
“I don’t think I’d have my job on Temple Square if I hadn’t been a cathedral organist,” he said. “Ultimately it’s been a positive experience for me in which I have grown spiritually and musically.”
Student organists are just the tip of the iceberg for BYU performers at St. Mary's. Eldredge has roots at BYU, where she completed her undergraduate degree and taught for eight years. Now she spends part of her time scouting out current or former BYU students who are willing to sing or play for St. Mary's church. Sometimes these positions are paid and other times students are volunteers. So far, violists, oboists, vocalists, cellists and those who play the French horn have assisted in liturgies.
A six-person interfaith choir just wrapped up six weeks of performing at St. Mary's. Logan Bradford was among those who performed.
Rehearsals and singing at the service were held right before Bradford's LDS sacrament meeting, which he said was an ideal way for him to prepare to worship. He said he was impressed by how welcoming the leaders and members of the congregation are.
"We more or less kind of became temporary members of their congregation. They grew to love us and we grew to love them," he said.
In addition to giving musicians a way to gain experience and earn a little money, the performances provide an interfaith experience that Eldredge says is vital for coming together as a community.
"You don't have to look very far to see (that) not every spire in Utah County is an LDS Church spire," she said.
For Eldredge, the musical exchange provides an opportunity for understanding other religions in the community. "This isn't an us (vs.) them. This is an us."
In addition to bringing in worship music, Father Van Hook hopes to attract aspiring musicians for recitals and performances. St. Mary's became one of few venues for musical performance after the destruction of the Provo Tabernacle and its subsequent conversion into an LDS temple. He admits he is not a musician, but said he has been told that the acoustics in the chapel are ideal for performances.
“It’s a sharing a gifts, not a matter of belief,” Father Van Hook said.