Monday, August 31, 2015

The Gift of Bewilderment, by The Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

It is very unsettling, to say the least, when one finds oneself feeling quite alone while in the midst of a lot of people.

At times, it means being in a place where the customs and language are unfamiliar. It means feeling that one is different, out of sync, always suspecting that you are being looked at with sidelong glances, that there is more psychic than physical distance between you and the people around you. I experienced that when I spent four weeks in Cuernavaca, México studying Spanish. Wherever I was, I was usually the only Anglo; I am almost a foot taller than the average Mexican male, let alone the average Mexican female. To say the least, I stood out. My ability to speak Spanish was, as it still is, dreadful. I felt conspicuously out of sync. I never felt in any danger, but I also never felt at home.

People who are unfamiliar with liturgical worship — our kind of worship — can very much feel the same way that I did while in Mexico. Our worship space, our church building, so comfortable and comforting to us, so lovely and warm in our experience, can for a visitor be a strange land, an alien space. Our worship, familiar in its rhythms with its proclamation of God’s grace given to us, is for the newcomer often simply empty ritual with no meaning, no content whatsoever, a confusing babble to the person unfamiliar with us. And then we make them go through Episcopal calisthenics — sit, stand, kneel, stand again, sit...

A further stumbling-block to the new person in church is the fact they often bring with them a lot of pain as well as uncertainty. We Christians have a reputation for acting like we have arrived, that we have the answers. There is often a smugness about Christians that rubs crosswise against our claims to be humble. Maya Angelou mused once that
“I’m trying to be a Christian. I’m working at it, and I’m amazed when people walk up to me and say, ‘I’m a Christian.’ I think, Already? Wow!” [Quoted at The Working Preacher, August 2012.]

If a person is entering an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people doing unfamiliar things whom you suspect of smugness while dealing with hurts and rejections and failures, it is a wonder that many do not just turn at the door and run away.

What is interesting to me is that so many people arrived at St. Mary's Church just like that visitor I have just described, but discovered that we left our smugness somewhere near the door at some point and know ourselves to be just human beings struggling to be Christian. You may find this odd, but I want you to consider the possibility that it is that our experience of bewilderment and questioning and doubt that is one of the most important gifts we can give to someone who walks into this space.

It is one of the great paradoxes of Christianity that faith is not something we attain, it is a gift of God that in no way can be earned or deserved. Many people have told me that they arrived in a church community they know not why but in retrospect they understand that in some very important way they were led there, that God was leading them to the gift of faith. You may think that you have to make a choice, but the reality is that you have been chosen. Think about that the next time you see a stranger walking into this church building.

St. Augustine of Hippo wrote, "...Thou hast formed us for Thyself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in Thee...” (The Confessions, Bk. I, Chap. I). May we see in each of us, and especially in the visitor in our midst, that gift of searching.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Holy Baptism and the Community of the Faithful, by The Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

Holy Baptism is appropriately administered within the Eucharist as the chief service on a Sunday or other feast.

I am a progressive traditionalist. (Or perhaps it is a traditionalist progressive. Whatever.) I will not get into the details of how I base that stance, except to say that I am firmly attached to the old Anglican ideal of the three-legged stool: Scripture, tradition, and reason together giving us guidance and justification for our corporate decisions. This is especially true in matters of worship: I tend not to get attracted by the new and flashy, but I am open to innovations that support the community of the faithful I am serving.

For example: I was ordained just before the adoption of the [current] 1979 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) with its many options and alternatives. For many of my colleagues, especially the younger ones, this meant lots of experimentation and frequent changing of the service. I had been taught that the alternatives were there to enable adaptation of the rites to local circumstances, and that is what I have practiced to this day.

This is true also of my pastoral and liturgical practices regarding Holy Baptism. As noted by the rubric quoted above, I will not do private baptisms, which is how my sister and I were baptized all those years ago (on a Saturday afternoon with just my parents). The intention of the BCP is that Baptism will be administered when the entire body of the faithful can be present. Further, in order to emphasize the importance and character of Baptism, like many other pastors, I have maintained the four primary feast days of the Church Year as the proper times for Baptism: The Feast of the Baptism of our Lord (early January), Easter (early spring), Pentecost (late spring/summer), and All Saints Sunday (early winter). (See page 312 of the BCP for details.)

A quick glance at the calendar exposes an interesting catch: there can be six months between Pentecost and All Saints Day. That is a long time between baptisms!

Another, more recent, change has been something that Bishop Hayashi suggested a couple of years ago. First, we are in the business of making disciples of Jesus Christ, not just Episcopalians. (Agreed.) Second, using an Early Church model (tradition) we should make baptism more, not less, accessible. (Agreed.) For me, that means that Baptism is not to be understood as the conclusion of a process, an end in itself, but should be understood as the beginning of a process, a moment of change and departure from which one moves into the future. A consequence of that shift in perspective is that, while pre-baptismal instruction of a sort remains important, it is more important for the newly baptized person to have spiritual and pastoral support in the first months following their baptism.

So, while I still want to preserve the four feast days for baptisms, I am open to doing baptisms on other Sundays for good pastoral reasons.

Which is to say, a good pastoral reason has arisen.

A person relatively new to St. Mary's Church and her father will be baptized this Sunday, August 30. The pastoral reason is that she wants to be baptized with her father, who lives in Illinois, and time and money being tight for families with college students, the request was simple: how about when the father and daughter are together when he brings her to begin school in the fall?

They have both been going through the necessary pre-Baptismal instruction with a priest in Illinois this summer. Both will continue to be active in their respective faith communities. And, the Community of Faith will be present to welcome them into Christ’s Body the Church.


Tuesday, August 18, 2015

The Stewardship of the Church: The Management of Ministry and a Visit with the Chancellor, by The Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

In the Prayers of the People this summer we have been praying that we would be good stewards of the earth: “that we may use its resources rightly in service to others, and to your honor and glory;…” It is a line I like very much, because it gives context and direction to our use of God’s creation.

I believe that the same sentiment can be applied to the care we give our own church buildings: the worship space, the parish hall, the offices, the grounds. St. Mary's Church has a long and respectable history when it comes to the stewardship of this property. They remain in remarkably good shape thanks to generations of parish leadership who have seen that there is no deferred maintenance, and that little problems do not turn into bigger ones.

This outlook on care for what we have received is very much on the minds of the members of the Bishop's Committee as they continually see to the funding of our maintenance needs, and look forward to make sure that our plans include appropriate care. Those plans have included not only our own use of the property, but also the many support groups like A.A. that use the building week in and week out—sometimes over 400 people a week attend those meetings! One of the concerns for the members of the Bishop's Committee as we contemplated the Community Music Outreach Program (CMOP) was how to assure adequate care as the church building itself would be used.

A little-known aspect of managing the church property is the laws and regulations we must observe, including everything from food and health laws to liability concerns. Because St. Mary's Church is incorporated as a nonprofit entity we must follow the Internal Revenue Service regulations concerning who can be allowed to use our building. For example, no for-profit entity may use the property for any purpose at any time. (The logic is that we might be competing with another for-profit entity that would like to provide, say, meeting space, but cannot do it as cheaply as we can because we do no pay property or other taxes.) Also, we cannot allow just any school or educational program use the facilities: the University of Phoenix is a for-profit company, whereas BYU is private and nonprofit, and UVU is a public institution.

As we have developed the CMOP there have been a number of questions about specific uses. Not just policy concerns—is it OK to do operas and dramas? (Yes) How about a political group? (Maybe) How about private music teachers? (Maybe not.) The reason is that even the nice lady down the street who gives piano lessons to the neighborhood kids is considered by the IRS as a for-profit entity (unless she has incorporated as a nonprofit! educational program). Even though a recital is done for the benefit of the kids (in this case) it is not clear that the church facilities can be put to such a use.

There has been enough confusion and anxiety about these questions, and many others, that we have invited the Chancellor of the Episcopal Diocese of Utah (the diocesan attorney) to visit with us this coming Wednesday evening. Stephen Hutchinson is not only an attorney, he has extensive experience in nonprofit legal issues. He also grew up at St. Mary's Church! This one-hour meeting is open to any interested person. (The class usually scheduled for Wednesday evenings will not meet in order to accommodate the Chancellor.)

St. Mary's Church has become known in many parts of our communities as an accessible, welcoming place, not only on Sunday mornings but also all during the week. We want to make sure that this identity is maintained and developed, and we want to make sure we do not even inadvertently misuse our nonprofit status. We want to continue to use this gift, this facility, rightly in service to others, and to God’s glory and honor.

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

A Brief Meditation on Preaching on World Events, by The Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

I face a dilemma any time there is a human tragedy or other public disaster or calamity. I find myself caught between my commitment to a Sunday service that is focused on God’s grace and our thanksgivings for it, and my responsibility as Priest and Pastor to help you make Christian sense out despair, shock, and confusion. (As an Extrovert type I also have a need to talk about my own reactions and feelings, and sermon preparation is often a place where that happens for me.) These two things are not in any essential conflict. It is just that the present form of our worship and our community life do not provide easy avenues to reach a resolution.

I have long felt, and been committed to, the liturgical philosophy that most people when they come to St. Mary's Church they are looking for sanctuary. Sanctuary in this sense means several things all at once:
~ a safe place where a person can come—to a worship service or to a meeting—and know that they will be respected in their person, just as they are.

~ a congregation in which children are recognized and received as full and responsible members of the worshipping community.

~ a congregation in which differences are respected, and where the question has at least equal importance to any answers.

~ a worshipping community that recognizes the transient nature of much of our membership, and is careful to allow those who are hurting to have space and time to heal, and is also diligent about letting any person know that they are welcome in this place.
These elements of sanctuary sometimes conflict with this pastor’s need to address the concerns and feelings we sometimes bring with us to church.

For example, the week after the terrible tragedy in Charleston, South Carolina, I wanted to explore with you themes like the source and power of evil, the contemptible nature of violence, the power of symbols to incite action, our lack of concern as a society for the mentally ill, and the sense of powerlessness we feel when confronted by acts of destruction. But… There are children in church! There are people there who are themselves hurting and need a word of comfort and solace! There are people there who are visiting for the very first time, and I do not want to give a bad impression! There are people there who might disagree with my analyses, and preaching does not give any opportunity for dialogue! These people and many others I have in mind each week as I prepare for worship and preaching. These concerns even affect my choice of hymns! In other words, I sometimes feel stuck.

Part of my vexation is the reality of this congregation’s life: we have very little in the way of Adult Christian Education, nor do we have a prayer group or other fellowship groups in which these conversations might otherwise take place. Our recent efforts at building two different groups around the study of The Catechism in The Book of Common Prayer is an effort to begin to build back what once, many decades ago, was robust Christian Education program at St. Mary's Church. Later this summer we will be adding another ongoing adult program, but that information is for later.

My solution to my dilemma is that I would have a number of different groups meeting at various times and places to do different things: study group, prayer group, young adult group, a dinner group. Coming together outside of Sunday at 10:30 AM provides opportunities to create and maintain relationships, to build trust and community, and to hear one another’s concerns and thoughts. I just do not have the slightest idea, at this point, as to how to get from my dilemma to more opportunities to meet and talk.

Your thoughts and observations would be most welcome.