Thursday, December 29, 2016

Being Good or Doing Good::What is the difference?!? by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook, Priest-in-Charge

Being Good or Doing Good
What’s the difference?!?

a blog post by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook
Priest-in-Charge, St. Mary's Episcopal Church

[Jesus] gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
from Paul’s Letter to Titus
For a Christian, what is the difference between being good and doing good?
In Christian theology this is not a distinction without a difference. The two are closely connected. Let me explain.
Being is what something is. The essence of something—from the Latin word esse, to be—is its character, its existence as something. Being is intransitive, inactive. Doing is transitive, moving, active, expressive. Doing has impact, effect, consequences.
For the Christian, doing is the expression of being. If you want to know who (or what) a person is, watch what they do. One pastoral bit of wisdom has it that if you want to know what a person believes—that is, who they are—just look at their date-book and their check-book (or, these days, their credit card statement.) What a person does with their time and their money is indicative of their essence, their being.
Much of St. Paul’s writings deal with this distinction, mostly on the side of being. The quote from his Letter to Titus above summarizes Paul’s theology: We are good, because of Christ Jesus. We do good because of Christ Jesus. The latter is the response to the former.
For Paul, all things were made good in the first place (cf., Genesis 1), became corrupted and broken (cf., Genesis 2ff.), and were once again made whole (healthy, well, holy) in the suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus (cf., any of the Gospels). He uses the word redeem to describe what had to happen in order for us to be restored into wholeness and a firm relationship with God. So, for him, all Christians have been redeemed, and they just need to act like it (cf., Galatians).
In other words, there is nothing YOU can do to be good. God has already taken care of that. You are perfect in God’s eyes. You cannot make God love you, nor can you stop God from loving you. Period. No qualifications or exceptions.
The reason we actively care about the poor, the needy, the hungry, the oppressed, etc., is because God loves us/you. We are to be “zealous for good deeds” not to prove anything or convince anyone of anything, but because we are responding to God’s love for us, unearned and undeserved.
We are good, therefore we do good. Amen.

                                  The authors of this blog welcome comments.

Wednesday, December 7, 2016

The Journey to Ordination (part II), by The Rev. Timothy J. Yanni

In a previous entry, I explained the “standard” path to ordination in the Episcopal Diocese of Utah. My journey toward ordination, which will culminate with my ordination to the priesthood on December 17, was not exactly along the lines of “standard.” It is important to remember that God calls us all to ministry in some fashion. Each of our journeys is our own. Every single person who is called to ordained ministry has some kind of bump in their path that keeps it from being like anyone else’s. This is my story.

I entered an Episcopal Church for the first time on All Saints Sunday in 2010. I attended St. James in Midvale, which was the closest church to my house. I was recovering from the wounds of a divorce and no longer felt welcome in the Roman Catholic Church, which does not permit divorce (Roman Catholics can apply for, and be granted annulments but that is a different conversation). I was welcomed into the community at St. James and I felt a fulfillment at church that I had not felt in many years. My wounds were healing. As they healed, I felt a calling toward ordination that I had felt as a younger man. I had actually explored ordination in the Roman Catholic Church in my early 20s, but decided the timing was not right.

I met with the parish discernment committee and the rector, the Rev. John Williams, regularly and the discernment committee recommended me for postulancy in 2012. As much as Fr. Williams helped me to find comfort in his beautiful liturgy, his advice was contrary to what the Diocese expected of aspirants. The Diocese of Utah requires three years of residency in the diocese before it will admit an aspirant into the program. Fr. Williams disagreed with this policy and advised me to work around it. Although Bishop Hayashi would not admit me into the ordination process, Fr. Williams encouraged me to apply for, and move away to, seminary before I was admitted.

I believed I was, in fact, ready for seminary. In hindsight, I may not have been. I don’t really know. I can say the first year of seminary is the toughest. I took classes in Church history, Anglican history, and Old Testament. These classes rocked my world and broke down the foundation of my faith (that is what they are supposed to do, believe it or not!). Because I was in such a vulnerable point in my seminary career, I totally muffed the interviews with the Commission on Ministry and was not admitted into the process during my first year of seminary, which was my third year in the diocese.

I felt defeated and ready to give up. But I pushed on. I did everything Bishop Scott asked me to do. I found a regular spiritual director. I met with a counselor. I found a financial advisor. I pushed on with my education. And then, Fr. Williams was asked by the vestry to step down as the rector at St. James. I would not find out specific details until much later; I just knew he was leaving.

My mentor was gone. I did not understand why. I also did not know that this would actually be the best thing that could happen to my process. Bishop Scott telephoned me and told me he was assigning me to work directly with the Rev. Claudia Seiter, the chairperson of the COM, and the Rev. Peter Van Hook, the senior parish priest in the diocese (Peter was actually not the senior priest at the time, the Rev. Lincoln Ure of St. Mark’s Hospital held that distinction until his untimely death in 2016). He also told me I was moving to St. Mary’s. No one, including the Bishop, told me why this move was being made. It did not feel good at the time, but I went with it.

Revs. Peter and Claudia both basically did the equivalent of dumping a bucket of ice water over my head to wake me up. It was a necessary jolt. They, along with the rest of the diocese, were confused by my bizarre behavior and my completion of requirements out of order. When they discovered that I was actually just following bad advice, they quickly straightened me out. With their leadership, and a second year of seminary under my belt (the second year is the “building up again” year), I nailed my interviews the second time I attended them.

I became a postulant in 2015 and my policy streamlined. I was made a candidate in early 2016, graduated from seminary in May, and then ordained a transitional deacon in June. Fr. Williams has since relocated to a different diocese. I continue to keep close contact with both Revs. Van Hook and Seiter. They help me to keep my nose clean and to feel supported and taken care of.

My advice to anyone considering entering the process is this: The diocese has a very clear outline of expectations in the form of a check list. Follow the check list in as close to chronological order as possible. If you do that, and you are truly called by God, you will have a much more streamlined process than I did. I can say I learned a great deal by completing the process the way I did, but things could have been a whole lot easier for me if I had not tried to circumnavigate the established system.

It is a pleasure to serve at St. Mary’s. My childhood parish was called St. Mary’s. I received my First Holy Communion and my confirmation there. My elementary school was also called called St. Mary’s. I’m thrilled that I will be ordained at a parish named in honor of Our Lady.
~ The Rev. Tim Yanni

The authors of this blog welcome comments.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

St. Mary’s Episcopal Church: a place of sanctuary, by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook, Priest-in-Charge

We are a sanctuary for those who are searching, grieving, hurting, lonely, or in recovery, and a place where people can heal and be equipped to live as God intended, in peace and love.
from The Affirmations of St. Mary's Church

About five years ago the Bishop's Committee and I spent several months discussing what we value about St. Mary's Church. What came out of those discussions became the five Affirmations of St. Mary's Church that you see on the inside back cover of the Sunday order of worship. They remain unchanged from the time they were adopted. The promises from the Baptismal Covenant (Holy Baptism) were added two years ago to make clear the context in which the Affirmations derived.
The wording of this Affirmation is interesting, and no one has yet asked me about it. (Remember, these things were written by a committee!) We are a sanctuary… We, the people of St. Mary's Church, are clearly not a sacred, holy space within a building…but in a way we are. We are clearly not a nature reserve…but perhaps our gardens express that more than we usually notice. We are the temple of the Holy Spirit…that is what I was taught in Sunday School, that my body in some contains the Holy Spirit.
That We properly should refer to something personified, human, social. No, the statement clearly says that We are a sanctuary.
Anglicans have a long history of being a bit fuzzy about the Communion of Saints and the Priesthood of All Believers. Within those concepts there is something clearly individual as well as corporate, something clearly personal but also organizational, a thing that has structure. I suppose that our Affirmation about Sanctuary has that sort of sense: it is individual (the thing is there for the individual and it is expressed often individually) but it is also corporate (the thing is both received and expressed corporately). The sense, then, is that the sanctuary we express is a human one—trust, mutual support, protection for the hurting—and a physical one—the property and facilities that “look like” St. Mary's Church.
In early medieval England the level of violence among the various dukes, knights, earls, and occasional kings was so high that the Church in England called two different conclaves to deal with it. In the first, the bishops handed down a rule that no battles could be fought on Sundays. Out of the second came a declaration that any church in England that had red doors is a sanctuary, into which fugitives from the law—who were liable to be killed on the spot just for the bounty—could go and not be pursued by the local sheriff, duke, earl, etc. As long as they were in the sanctuary, that is the space in the church bounded by the altar rail and in which the altar sat, they could not be touched by pursuers. The bishops also declared that anyone who violated the law of sanctuary would be immediately excommunicated and their souls condemned to everlasting damnation. Serious folk, these bishops!
We usually understand this statement about sanctuary as being about people who are hurting, etc., and who may come to one of the several support groups or even show up on Sundays and sit in the back of the church without identifying themselves. We have also extended that to our LGBT neighbors (1-1 and group meetings), and to their parents and friends (PFLAG). The members of the various groups that meet at St. Mary’s Church tell us that they appreciate that we have provided a safe place (sanctuary) in which they can meet. Our church building is used by individuals as a quiet and private place in which to pray and meditate: a sanctuary.

How do you understand sanctuary? How does our Affirmation about sanctuary speak about you to those with whom we come in contact? What kind of sanctuary are you?

The authors of this blog welcome comments.

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

The Journey to Ordination, by The Rev. Timothy J. Yanni

I am so glad that I am able to share my journey to ordination with all of you at St. Mary’s!

My path to ordination has not always been an easy one. It has tested me tremendously as I’ve hit bumps along the way. These bumps have tested my emotions and pushed me to consider whether I ever would be ordained in this church. I continued to sense God was telling me he wanted me to be a priest, and I pushed through it. I’m happy to have an ordination date and I’m very excited that St. Mary’s will host this most joyous of days!

The path to ordination is somewhat similar throughout the Episcopal Church, but each diocese has its own policies in addition to those required by the canons of the church.

In the Diocese of Utah, the first requirement is that an inquirer be a resident of the diocese for at least three years. In this diocese, the process is nearly identical for those pursuing either the priesthood or the vocational diaconate. An inquirer becomes an “aspirant” when he or she submits paperwork to enter the process.

Once formally accepted into the process, the aspirant becomes a “postulant.” Prior to postulancy, an aspirant must complete a thorough time of discernment with a parish discernment committee. In addition, he or she must complete a criminal background check and medical and psychological tests. The aspirant must also participate in Day of Discovery and Time of Discovery, two workshops hosted by the diocese to explore ministry options.

At any step along the way, the aspirant is advised that even if he or she does not pursue ordination, they are ministers in the Church by virtue of their baptism and there is certainly no shame in deciding to halt the process.

In most cases, a postulant enrolls in a seminary after being granted postulancy. A postulant nearing graduation applies to become a “candidate.” A candidate then applies for ordination to either the vocational or transitional diaconate. The only time requirement is that 18 months must have passed between the time a person is nominated and the time they are ordained a deacon.

The Church treats deacons the same, whether they are vocational or transitional. Vocation deacons are deacons who recognize that is a ministry God is calling them to do. The Rev. Sandra Jones is a vocation deacon. Transitional deacons are deacons who are called to be priests. The ancient tradition of the Church says that all priests must be ordained to the diaconate first.

In the Episcopal Church, the canons require a person to serve in the capacity of a transitional deacon for six months prior to the time they can be ordained a priest. Some dioceses require a year of service as a deacon. Ours does not. I am the only transitional deacon in residence in this Diocese (The Rev. Charlie Knuth is canonically a resident of this diocese, but he will transfer his canonical residency when he is ordained a priest).

Both vocational and transitional deacons have the same responsibilities, liturgically and ministerially.

At each step along the way, the diocese requires a letter from both the ordinand (a fancy word for someone pursuing ordination) and his or her congregation. That means St. Mary’s submitted paperwork endorsing me every step along the way. The most recent letter from St. Mary’s was the letter of endorsement for ordination to the priesthood. If the Standing Committee consents, the bishop takes order to ordain. An ordination can only take place if both the bishop and the people of God grant their consent. If someone has an objection at any point, an effort is made to determine whether the objection is warranted.

The process leading up to ordination is very thorough. Virtually all reasonable objections are easily weeded out before a person reaches candidacy.

In a subsequent blog post, I will discuss some details of my own process. My process was not in the realm of “normal.”

~ The Rev. Timothy J. Yanni
The authors of the blog texts welcome comments.

Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Why should I be confirmed? The Rite of Confirmation in The Episcopal Church, by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook, Priest-in-Charge

In the course of their Christian development, those baptized at an early age are expected, when they are ready and have been duly prepared, to make a mature public affirmation of their faith and commitment to the responsibilities of their Baptism and to receive the laying on of hands by the bishop.
The Book of Common Prayer, p. 412

Confirmation— the rite by which one’s baptism is confirmed by a Bishop of the Church— is one of those churchy things that was pretty clear for people during the 19th and most of the 20th centuries, but now has become not so clear. Adding to the lack of clarity is our language that describes baptism and confirmation.

The Prayer Book the instruction for Holy Baptism (p. 298) says “Holy Baptism is full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church.” In the Catechism (p. 858) the Prayer Book says “Holy Baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as his children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, and inheritors of the kingdom of God.” (Consistency has not necessarily been an Anglican strong point, even if breadth and toleration have been.)

Perhaps a place that provides more clarity is the service of Baptism itself. What we do when we are baptized is respond to a series of questions about what we believe now and what we intend to do in the future. (See pages 301-305 in The Book of Common Prayer.) The first set of questions is conveyed in the present tense: Do you…? The second set of questions, collectively known as The Baptismal Covenant, continue the present standpoint and then shift into the future, emphasizing five verbs (well, five questions and six verbs): continue, persevere, proclaim, seek and serve, strive. They express what we intend to do as Christian persons.

~ The Baptismal Covenant includes the prayers in Baptism itself, expressing the relational nature of the commitment we are making: I commit, the Church commits, and God commits to this relationship. ~

For primarily historical reasons it is appropriate that a person, baptized as a child or baptized in another church tradition, present themselves to the Bishop, before whom they reaffirm (or confirm) their baptismal promises. Unlike the parish clergy, the Bishop represents the universal Church, thus witnessing that these persons are part of something much larger than just the local parish congregation. (Note also that until about 500 CE bishop’s were responsible for and in relationship to only one or a small collection of congregations. These days, a bishop cannot be everywhere at once, nor is it pastorally appropriate to do baptisms once a year or less.)

There is no way a person can be adequately prepared for baptism or confirmation. Neither can a person know enough of the faith and practice of the Church in order to be considered a worthwhile Christian. It was during the Protestant Reformation, along with the development of the printing press as well as books and articles available in a person’s own language, that the idea of intellectual preparation for Baptism became expected. Spiritual preparation was a hallmark of the Early Church, something that is slowly gaining in the modern day.

I have long felt, and believe, that if a person desires to be baptized or confirmed they should be, with the understanding that there should be a clear commitment following the sacrament to worship, study, and service. I therefore ask to continue to meet with people for several months, at least. It is one of the most enjoyable things that I do as a parish priest.


If you are interested in being Baptized or Confirmed please talk to one of the parish clergy, who will be happy to answer questions. Holy Baptism is offered at least four times a year; Confirmation is offered at the Bishop’s annual Visitation, which is November 6 this year and April 30 next year.

NEXT WEEK: What is the difference between a baptized member and a confirmed member of a congregation?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

A non-meditation on cash flow and church life, by The Rev. Peter J. Van Hook

One of the realities of parish life is budgets
If you talk to any pastor—any pastor or faith community leader—they will say something like “I did not go to [seminary/theological school/etc.] to have to deal with administration, and especially money!”
In fact, most faith community leaders have never had a single class in budgets or even stewardship (or promotion, public relations, or counseling).
Budgets and administration in general are not things I look forward to, but neither am I afraid of them. Nor am I “afraid” of Christian stewardship (there are other kinds).
And then there is the practicality of cash flow.
Cash flow is the way we describe the balance of income and expenditure. We all know what it is like to discover that we have too little money and too many expenditures at the end of the month. We can, usually, cut back for a time to make up for the difference.
Churches operate the same way. A church checking account is the same as a private checking account. We can only spend what we have taken in.
I have said many times that the leadership of St. Mary's Church has historically been very good stewards of what you share with us. (Note that the “us” is all of us, since we all are part of the whole.) We manage our resources—people, buildings and grounds, money—very well. Every once in a while the cash flow does not keep up with our projected expenditures.
That shortfall most often happens in the early fall. During the summer months some people are not as regular in attendance as at other times of the year, and/or they are not quite as conscious of their commitment to support their local church. Almost all of them “catch up” during the fall. In fact, the two months of highest income for churches is December and January, not because of the holidays, but because people are doing their end of the year balancing. Also, there are a few who pay their entire year’s commitment in January, for the calendar year following.
So: all of this is to say that the practicality of cash flow has come upon us. We need you to catch up, if you have fallen behind in your giving to St. Mary's Church. If you are not a regular contributor we encourage you to commit to such. In any case, please consider a special gift to St. Mary's Church during October so we can balance our cash flow.

The authors of the blog texts welcome comments, reactions, and critiques.

Monday, June 20, 2016

"'WHEN YOU DIE YOU WILL MEET GOD,' A Billboard on I-15 IN Provo, Utah." by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook, Priest-in-Charge

Depending on my mood I grimace or grin whenever I see a billboard like the above.
The grimace arises because the notice is stated as a threat, not a promise. “Watch out! Get ready! You’re gonna’ die and God’s gonna’ be waiting for you and he ain’t happy!” [quiver, shake, quiver]
Statements like this billboard, and other public pronouncements by Fundamentalist preachers, perpetuate a Medieval conception of God as despot (just like the kings of the day), as wrathful punisher, as stern disciplinarian.
I want nothing to do with that God.
If I smile when I read a statement like the above it is because I recognize that in fact the statement is true: “Yep, when I die I’m gonna’ see God just like the Bible promises, and frankly I’m looking forward to it!” This is the God of Jesus, the Good Shepherd, the helpful Samaritan, the Teacher, the Healer, and, yes, the party-goer, too.
There is a billboard statement that I very much like, that was sent to me by my daughter:
Live in such a way that Westboro Baptist Church pickets your funeral! (click to see the sign)
Now, THAT ONE makes me laugh out loud!


Tuesday, May 24, 2016

THE CHURCH CALENDAR...reading Scripture all year long, together, by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook, Priest-in-Charge

The Church Year (or, the liturgical calendar) is a gift. In its richness we find a way of reading Scripture and hearing the Good News of Jesus proclaimed. 

It arose out of two parallel dynamics, the desire to celebrate the resurrection of Jesus on the first day of the week, and the desire to continue the ancient Jewish practice of readings from the Scriptures as a part of the liturgical act. 

There are two separate cycles within the Church Year, one based on the date of Christmas (usually December 25) and the other based on the date of Easter (which moves according to the ancient lunar calendar). 
  • The Advent/Christmas/Epiphany cycle begins four Sundays before Christmas, and ends with the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6 (the Twelfth Day of Christmas-tide). The Sundays after the Epiphany focus on major events in the manifestation of Jesus as the Messiah, beginning with his baptism and continuing with his several miracles. 
  • The Lent/Easter/Pentecost cycle begins on Ash Wednesday (forty weekdays before Easter) and continues to the fiftieth day after Easter on Pentecost. 
Each of the cycles occupies about one-quarter of a year. That leaves about one-half of the year outside the two cycles. 

The several weeks after Pentecost are that other half, prosaically called “The Sundays after Pentecost” (duh). This time of the Church Year is also called Ordinary Time, as these are Sundays not in one of the two cycles. 

The Lectionary is the means by which we have chosen to organize the readings from the Bible over the course of the Church Year. 

Its formal title is The Revised Common Lectionary (or RCL), as it is shared and used by Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, Lutherans, and other Protestant denominations, having been slightly revised several years ago. The RCL is one of the results of the ecumenical movement beginning in the 1960s and the liturgical renewal movement that arose a few decades earlier. 

The RCL provides readings for each Sunday of the Church Year (which begins on the First Sunday in Advent) as well as readings for major feast days that do not occur on Sundays (e.g., saints days). 

This lectionary is divided into three cycles conveniently (?) named Years A, B, and C. The difference in the three cycles is that they are each based on one of the three Synoptic Gospels, Matthew, Mark, and Luke, with occasional insertions from the Gospel according to John (especially in Lent and Eastertide). 

We are currently in Year C, so the Gospel readings are typically from Luke. 

The other readings—from the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms, and the Letters of the Christian Bible—are linked thematically to the Gospel for the day, with two exceptions: 
  • The readings from the Letters are thematically linked to the Gospel reading in the Christmas and Easter cycles, but are read seriatum (more or less continuously) by Letter during the Sundays after Pentecost. This year we begin with Galatians and continue through the Letters of Paul. 
  • The readings from the Hebrew Bible are always thematically linked to the reading from the Gospel, except that during Ordinary Time there are two “tracks” or strands, one of which links the OT reading to the Gospel, and the other which reads seriatum. Thus, in Year A the OT readings begin with Exodus and continue through the early historical books; in Year B the readings are from the great monarchy narratives, and in Year C we read from the later prophetic books. 
Since I became Priest-in-Charge at St. Mary's Church in late 2011, we have always used Track 2, which links the OT readings to the Gospel reading. This is because I preach from the Lectionary, rarely going “off-topic” to a theme unrelated to the readings. 

Next year, in Year A in Ordinary Time we will use Track 1, which will allow us to hear read a substantial portion of the Hebrew Bible over the next three years. (Note that the selection from the Psalms almost always is linked directly to the OT reading for the day.) 

There are two direct implications of the Church Year and the RCL. 

First, by using a lectionary we are “forced” to read from every part of the Bible. In traditions that do not use a lectionary the (usually) single reading from the Bible is chosen by the preacher, who may have a favorite short list which is used again and again. The tendency is stay away from uncomfortable or difficult subjects (think of my sermon on the Holy Trinity on May 22). 

Second, in every Episcopal Church in the world on every Sunday there are four different readings from the Bible spoken to the people: the Hebrew Bible, the Psalms, the Epistles (or Letters), and the Gospels, covering every part of the Bible in three years. In other words, there is more Bible read and heard and addressed in The Episcopal Church on Sunday than there is in any other Christian tradition in the world. The so-called “Bible-based churches” have nothing on us. 

In the foregoing commentary, a number of relevant details have been passed over in the interest of length. For example, there are minor differences in the Lectionaries in each denomination due to traditional usages, and there are rules of precedence that determine what feasts can be celebrated on a Sunday. If you detect one of those deletions in the commentary please be free to ask me about it. 

- Peter+

Friday, May 20, 2016

Creating and Living Our Values at St. Mary's, by the Rev. Peter J. Van Hook, Priest-in-Charge

On the inside back cover of our weekly order of worship is the list of principles by which we intend to as a Christian community. Although the word “value” as a noun is a relatively recent addition to English parlance, it has become a common term in organizational management, where it is usually defined as something like “guiding principles.” 
When I use the term I mean something far deeper. For me, a value is a statement about being over, against, doing, or having. A value answers the question, Who or what are you? Are you honest, kind, faithful, loving, Christ-like, hard-working, truthful—these things express who you are rather than what you do.
When I work with church groups I suggest that the values they express can be used to measure and justify decision making. That is, as a faith community we will do this or the other—or not—because of who we believe we are as expressed in our values. As an example, at St. Mary's Church we state that we value ROOTS, expressed as a faith community steeped in the Anglican tradition, and committed to the historic creeds and the centrality of Scripture, all of it interpreted in the context of local life and needs.
Recently, two of them have arisen in conversations fairly frequently: Hospitality and Sanctuary. 
Hospitality is expressed as being a welcoming community, no matter who you are, where you came from, or where you are in your spiritual journey. 
Sanctuary we have defined as being a safe place, for those in recovery, those who are hurting or lonely, and those who just need a place to encounter God. 
These principles do have much in common, but they can also be in tension with one another. Let me give you an example . . . .
As fellowship time was winding down on Sunday, May 15, a gentleman came into the front lobby and asked if there was any food available for him. (I was not a participant in the conversation that followed, but I did overhear much of it.) Apparently, he was quite convinced that this little church would have something like substantial food supplies available, especially for people like himself. When offered a sampling of the goodies offered at fellowship, he threw them on the floor and demanded “real” food.
Up to this point the conversation had been fairly reserved, the exception being his escalating demand for food. When it became clear that we could not meet his he was asked to leave.
So, I ask you: were we being hospitable and were we providing sanctuary for this individual?
There is an argument that can be made that we might have gone further out of our way to address his demands. However, his behavior was becoming increasingly belligerent, and it was becoming clear, at least to me, as it was to those engaging the gentleman, that we were not going to be able to respond to him in the way that he expected or wanted. The judgment made by those engaging with him was that any kind of real relationship, human to human, was not going to be possible. Sadly, but realistically, he needed to leave. (If he had appeared sick, confused, or too addled to be safe on his own, we would have made some phone calls.)
What this event illustrates is the “bottom line” in our efforts to be hospitable and to provide sanctuary: Are you willing to be in a human relationship with me, or are you going to place demands or conditions on our relationship with which I cannot live?
In talking with the people with whom I regularly work, I have stated repeatedly that “no one in this church will get into trouble for having called 911.” Why? Because personal safety trumps hospitality. “If you hear or suspect or know of any situation regarding child or elder abuse, call 911 first. Then, call me.” The child’s safety is paramount. “The support groups that meet here have permission to use our facilities. Their members do not have permission to use us.”

We will be working this year to clarify and change, if need be, our values, those statements that guide our decision making. Your participation is essential. What are the values you would like to see St. Mary's Church express?
The authors of the blog texts welcome comments, reactions, and critiques.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

"...I was in prison and you visited me," a blog post by our Seminarian, Tim Yanni

“I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in

prison and you visited me.” Matthew 25:36, NRSV.

I am in my final weeks of seminary at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in

Berkeley, California. As my final semester wraps up, I find myself facing a whirlwind of

emotions. Some of the emotions come at the realization that I will be leaving this place

which has been my home for the last three years. Others come at the realization that I

will be parting ways with my classmates and we will each be going our own separate

directions in life. Some of us may never see each other again. While I expected these

emotional triggers, I did not expect the emotional response I felt when I walked away

from San Quentin State Prison for the final time.

Through the graces of the Graduate Theological Union, of which CDSP is a part,

I took an elective class about prison ministry. The course is offered by the Jesuit School

of Theology of Santa Clara University. The course was taught by the Jesuit chaplain at

San Quentin, Fr. George Williams. As a requirement of the course, I spent several hours

each week at the prison. I must admit, spending time at San Quentin has changed my

life in ways I never could have expected.

San Quentin is one of the most notorious prisons in the country. It’s one of those

prisons people know by name. It’s in the category of Folsom, Sing Sing, Huntsville Unit,

and the now-closed Alcatraz. If you are doing time at San Quentin, it isn’t because you

have been convicted of a traffic violation. To go to San Quentin, home to California’s

750 death row inmates, you probably committed a pretty violent crime. If you are doing

time at San Quentin, there is a possibility you one day may be executed for your crimes

and an even stronger possibility that you will never be released to set foot outside its

tan, concrete, razor-wire- fortified walls. As a prisoner in the California Department of

Corrections and Rehabilitation, you have very few privileges, very little privacy, and in

many cases, very little hope.

“But Tim,” you might say. “Why would you waste your time going out there and

talking to these guys? They are criminals. They deserve to be punished.” This is a

loaded question and the answer is equally as loaded. I have been asked this very

question by peers, by prison guards, and by community members. What this question

indicates to me is that there is much work to be done in the field of prison ministry. The

shortest (and in my opinion best) answer to this question is straight from the Gospel of

Matthew. As Christians, it is not uncommon to discern those tasks to which Christ calls

us. However, there are a few tasks Jesus specifically tells us we are to do. We are

called to visit those who are in prison. This is not a suggestion. It is simply not optional.

What I have discovered about myself over this experience is that I had been

called to bring a face of humanity to the people who are stuck behind bars at San

Quentin. They are humans. They experience human emotions. As we are told in the

Book of Genesis, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he

created them; male and female he created them” (Gen. 1:27, NRSV). We are also told,

“God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good” (Gen. 1:31,

NRSV). This doesn’t tell us God made some people in his image. It also does not tell us

that God said some of creation is good. God made us—all of us—in his image. And God

said his creation—all of his creation— is good.

An inmate recently asked me, “Tim, why do you never ask me why I’m in here?” I

told him I thought it would be rude and intrusive to ask.

He said, “No. I want you to ask my why I’m in here.”

Believing I was calling his bluff, I said, “Ok, great. Then why are you in here?”

He said, “I’m in here for first degree murder. I killed my ex girlfriend.” I felt chills

run through my entire body and it took everything I had to keep from making a physical

reaction. This inmate needed to share his story. As his chaplain, it was my obligation to

receive it. He gave me gruesome details of his crime. He told me he was sentenced

“200 years to life.” He will never get out of prison. What was most troubling to me was

that he committed his crime before I was even born. He has spent my entire lifespan

behind bars at San Quentin.

In a group discussion one evening, I came to the realization that I was the only

person in a group of seven men who had never committed a murder. I sat in a circle,

face to face, within arms reach of six convicted murderers. Where is God? I wondered.

What am I doing here? Why am I wasting my time with these guys? This wondering

came to a head when one of the men said he would kill again if someone harmed one of

his family members. I felt hopeless for him. I felt scared. What is this guy capable of

doing to me if he decides he doesn’t like me? I walked through the gates, back to the

car, and crossed the Richmond Bridge back to Berkeley that night and I didn’t say a

word to my classmates who drove with me. I had trouble sleeping that night.

Several days later, I attended the Catholic mass, which was presided over by Fr.

Williams. At the mass, I had a very different experience. I looked around at a gathering

of men, all dressed in prison-issue blue shirts and pants. Most of them sang, many of

them raised their hands in prayer, and some of them danced. The Spirit was alive and

well inside that chapel. What I witnessed on that Sunday morning was a group of guys

who have absolutely nothing. Still, they are madly in love with Jesus Christ and the

grace he brings through the sacraments.

An inmate recently asked me, “Tim, have you ever seen those airplane

commercials? The ones that say ‘Wanna get away?’”

I responded, “Yes, I have seen them.”

He said, “You know what I think, every time I see that commercial?”

“No. What do you think?”

“I think, ‘yep. I sure do,” he said with a laugh. I have to admit, it was a pretty good

joke. What made it funny was that it was very human. I don’t know this man’s crime. But

I know he is a human.

I remember conversations I have had with a man who is 46 years old. He is

incarcerated for a murder he committed when he was 19. He has been in prison for

longer than he had been out of prison. Although he faces the parole board this fall, he

may never go home. His sentence was for life.

I remember conversations I had with a man who changed his name—and his

religion—while incarcerated. As he spoke to the entire group of inmates, he thanked me

by name for spending time with them. “People on the outside need to know we have

human faces,” he said. “Please go out into the world and tell them that we are humans.

It means so much to us to know you are here, even if we don’t get a chance to talk to

you, because it reminds us that you think about us and you haven’t forgotten us.”

Our Christian theology tells us that we are all sinners. Yet some sins carry more

weight than others. I certainly am not perfect and I believe it would be a travesty if I

were known only for the worst action I ever committed in my life. I can’t help but believe

this must be true for everyone. Are there some crimes that require restitution and even

punishment? Certainly. However, must they be carried out without dignity for the human

person? If we are to answer this question in the affirmative, then we are turning our

back on our baptismal covenant.

Celebrant Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

People I will, with God's help.

Celebrant Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as


People I will, with God's help.

Celebrant Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the

dignity of every human being?

People I will, with God's help. (BCP p. 305)

Spending time inside prison walls is not easy to do. It is challenging. Even though

those living within their walls are humans, made in the image of God, there is still an

aura of the systematic evil which penetrates the prison. There is racism, violence, and

drug use all around in prison. At San Quentin, every time I went, I noticed the

prominence of the exhaust pipe of the gas chamber. I can’t help but think of the lives

that were extinguished in the room directly below the ugly green smokestack. There

have been 215 hangings, 196 gassings, and 11 lethal injections, which have ended the

lives of condemned men and women inside San Quentin. Fifty-six men have died while

awaiting execution at San Quentin since 1976. Fourteen of these deaths were suicides.

I am also reminded of the lives that were ended by the men and women who were

executed there. It feels wrong to kill people to teach them that killing is wrong. There’s

not an easy solution, but I don’t believe the death penalty is a good one.

The reality is that people are broken. All of us are broken. And none of us can be

defined solely by the worst offense we’ve ever committed. It is important to remember

that each of us also has caused pain to other people in our lives. The fact that people

continue to show us love and compassion does not take away from the pain we may

have caused others. The same is true in the criminal justice world. Showing compassion

for the imprisoned does not mean there is a lack of compassion for their victims. It

means that God’s compassion transcends wrongdoing. Our compassion for one another

needs to be visible in the world, inside of prison and outside. If we can work together to

change the hearts of would-be offenders, maybe they won’t end up in prison in the first

place. And if we can bring a little love and a little hope to the people inside the walls,

maybe they will remember that God loves them and does not neglect them.

~ Tim Yanni
The authors of the blog texts welcome comments, reactions, and critiques.