When I think back on my childhood, some of my fondest memories come from holidays. I remember sitting around the dining room table eating turkey on Thanksgiving, going to the annual Holy Week ecumenical breakfasts at the local Methodist Church, and waiting excitedly for my parents to wake up on Christmas morning. While most days seemed to blend into each other in the midsts of everyday life, these holiday celebrations stood out. They were special. Often times we would have family come to visit or we would go and visit extended family somewhere else. These days were markers along the road, giving shape and focus to all of the days in between.
Feasts and festivals are important for us. They break up the monotony of day to day life, they give us opportunities to come together as families and communities to remember the things that are most important in our lives. Life in ancient Israel was structured around the weekly celebration of the Sabbath and seven other key festivals throughout the year which included the Feasts of Passover, Unleaven Bread, First Fruits, Pentecost, Trumpets, Atonement, and Tabernacles. These festivals helped them to remember their past (e.g. Passover and Tabernacles), celebrate God’s provision in their lives (e.g. First Fruits and Pentecost), and rejoice in God’s work among them (e.g. Atonement and Trumpets). They also provided Israel with an opportunity to come together as a community for worship and fellowship which helped to define them as a community and as the people of God.
Many years ago, when I was a brand new curate, I had a woman come into my office to talk to me about having her son baptized. She was not a member of the parish, and in fact I had never even laid eyes on her before she stepped into my office that day. So I asked her what I thought was a very practical question. “Why do you want to have your son baptized?” She looked at me like I had snakes coming out of my ears. As if to say, “Isn’t it obvious,” she responded, “Well, so he won’t go to Hell, of course!” Now it was my turn to be shocked. I said, “Ma’am, this isn’t some sort of magic wand or ‘get out of Hell free’ card. It is a sacrament!” I can’t remember what happened after that, but I do know that I never did that baptism.
According to the Anglican catechism, a sacrament is “an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual grace." It goes on to say that sacraments should be received, “by faith in Christ, with repentance and thanksgiving.” So for a sacrament to be valid, faith must be present. This is why I can’t stand on the side of the road with a garden hose and baptize people as they walk by, because without faith I am just getting them wet (and probably myself in trouble). But if that is the case, how can we allow babies and young children to receive the sacraments of Baptism and Communion? Shouldn’t we wait until they are old enough to profess a personal faith in Christ? Shouldn’t these sacraments be invalidated by the absence of faith? Not at all.
For part 1 of this story, please click here.
I remember thinking, what in the world have we done? We were the proud owners of our very own…nightclub. Sure, it had once been a church, but almost 90 years had passed since God’s praises had been sung in this building. Looking at it, I was reminded of those pictures you see on the Internet of famous people who had once been quite stunning, but years of drug abuse had taken a toll and left them a shell of their former selves. Could we recapture that beauty? Could we transform this building back into a church? We knew we had a long road ahead of us.
It was July 26, 2011. Our lease was quickly coming to an end on our previous space, and we needed to be ready to worship in this new building in 2 weeks. The task seemed impossible. We decided to pick one room and start there. We decided on the large room at the front of the building. It would eventually be our parish hall, but for now it would be everything. In two weeks we tore out the bar, stripped down the walls and re-plastered them, replaced the floor, and painted the ceiling. Two weeks after signing the papers to redeem our old building we held the first church service there since 1925. We marched around the block, reclaiming it for the Lord, and then marched right into our one usable room. The place was packed with folding chairs and our sound system was the epitome of jury-rigged. But it was beautiful, because it was ours.
“Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.” With these words we began the Lenten season on Ash Wednesday. They are hard words to hear. As Christians, we are unashamedly pro life. We believe that human life is a gift from God and should be cherished and treated with dignity and respect. We should never fail to fight to preserve the sanctity of human life. However, we cannot use a pro life culture as an excuse to avoid the reality of death. In the United States we are free to talk about all sorts of things publicly, but the topic of death remains a taboo among Christians and non-Christians alike. Have you ever noticed how we can't even say the word? We have a hard time saying something like, "Jack died last night." Instead, we say things like, "Jack passed away," or "He is no longer with us." Even when I worked in a hospital as a chaplain, the medical staff would refer to people as "expiring" rather than "dying."
Nowhere is the taboo of death more evident today than at funerals. In fact, we rarely even have funerals any more. Instead, when a loved one or friend has "passed away," we attend a "celebration of life." I had the opportunity to go to one of these a number years ago at a large church in Colorado Springs. A young man who had done a lot of work on our church building when we first moved in had died tragically in a climbing accident. The "celebration" was like nothing I had ever seen before. Since the young man enjoyed going barefoot, people in attendance were encouraged to do the same (I insisted on wearing a suit and clerical collar with my shoes on). A slide show of his life played on the giant screens throughout the service and various people spoke and told stories about their time together. There was even a woman on the stage who painted a picture. Finally, the pastor got up to speak. My guess is that he hadn't done many funerals, because he literally didn't know what to say. He told those gathered together that he had no answers, that he couldn't explain what had happened or why it had occurred. And that was it. Game over.
One of the responses I often get from people who are new to Anglicanism is surprise at the abundance of Scripture that is read in our worship services. Whether it is in the Daily Office, Holy Eucharist, or even weddings or funerals, the public reading of portions of the Bible is central to every act of worship we do. And yet, for many Christians, faith has become overly individualized. The important thing, we are told, is our own personal relationship with Christ. That is all I need. So it should be enough for me to just read the Bible on my own, right? Well, not exactly. While I certainly believe that all Christians need to spend time reading and studying God’s Word privately on a daily basis, it is also vitally important that we read it publicly when we gather together as a community.
The history of the public reading of Scripture goes back long before the formation of the Christian Church. When Josiah discovered the Book of the Law in the Temple in 2 Kings 22-23, his first order of business was to have it read in public. The people of God had neglected this practice for so long that they no longer knew what the Lord required of them, and consequently had fallen into idolatry. When Josiah had the book read aloud before the people it sparked a national revival and return to the ways of the Lord. Unfortunately they did not continue with the practice, and quickly fell back into idolatry and ultimately were exiled to Babylon.
There we stood, spies on the banks of our own Jordan River, looking into the Promised Land. Our river was a sidewalk on Pikes Peak Ave. in downtown Colorado Springs. It was a Friday afternoon in April, 2011. We had been through quite a bit in the past few years. In 2007 we had left the Episcopal Church over issues of theology (that is another story for another time), and after losing a two year legal battle over the $17 million historic property we found ourselves homeless. We quickly secured a lease on a building that had once been a private school that had gone bankrupt soon after moving in. It was not an ideal building. It had been designed to be a school for young children and not a church, so we had to be a bit creative with how we used the space. It looked nice but had been cheaply built. Nevertheless, it had provided us a with place of retreat as we licked our wounds and regrouped.
We were very intentional in framing the time in this building as our Wilderness Period. The setting was certainly appropriate. The building was nestled into the edge of the foothills and hidden behind a neighborhood. It was literally a wild west “hole in the wall” where bandits would come to hide out from the law. We were thankful to have a place to go, but we knew it was only going to be temporary. We told the congregation we would be there for two years, the same amount of time the Israelites were supposed to be in their wilderness period. For Israel, the extra 38 years were added on because of fear and unfaithfulness. We were determined not to repeat the same mistake. Thus our reason for standing on this sidewalk.
I’m typically not a “let’s look back at the past year” kind of guy, but I must admit that 2017 was a big year for me. Last January I was happily working in a church with people that I had known for almost a decade and a half and living in one of the most beautiful cities on earth. And then God said, “Time to shake things up a bit!” So in March, off I went to southwest Missouri to begin a new adventure as the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church. I’ve discovered that being a rector is like being a parent. You really don’t know what you are getting yourself into until it is too late. Nevertheless, it has been a wonderful experience and I have learned a great deal in the past year. So please indulge me for a minute as I get nostalgic and look back at the things I learned in 2017.
Always listen at least twice as much as you talk
Despite what anyone might think, being in charge is not about doing what you want or getting your own way. Quite the opposite, in fact. As a leader, your priority should never be what you want, but rather what is best for those you serve. To figure out what that is, you need to take time to listen. It is important to find out where people are coming from. What are their fears? What are their challenges? What are they excited about?
Since coming to All Saints I have been blessed with some wonderful guides and counselors such as Fr. Doug, Darla, our vestry, and many others. My prayer for the coming year is that the Lord might give me the ears to hear what his people are saying, the heart to understand it, and the hands to put words into action.
It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas! I love Christmas lights on houses and Christmas wreaths in store windows. I wait anxiously every year for Christmas music to start playing on the radio and there is something delightfully peaceful about sitting in my living room with only the Christmas tree lights to illuminate the house. So why isn’t the church getting into the Christmas spirit? Are we just a bunch of Scrooges? Not at all! The church loves Christmas. We also love Advent.
Just like the song says, there are 12 days of Christmas, but these days don’t begin until December 25th. The time leading up to Christmas is a separate season called Advent. The word “advent” refers to a coming into being and it is a special time of preparation in the life of the church. However, we often get confused as to what we are preparing for. Many Christians assume that Advent is a time to prepare for Christmas. I can’t tell you how many “Advent” devotional guides I’ve looked at over the years that talk about Christmas, and baby Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the shepherds. And while there is nothing particularly wrong with that, it misses the real point of the Advent season.
Someone asked me recently, “If your church disappeared tomorrow, what impact would that have on your community?” In other words, what does All Saints offer to the community that is unique? As I pondered that question one thought kept coming to me: We offer to the community a view of the beauty of God. Three hundred years ago, the most beautiful buildings in the world were churches, the most beautiful pictures were painted using Biblical themes, and the most beautiful music was written to the glory of God for use in the church.
So where has beauty gone in the American church? We have traded our organs and choirs for rock bands and light shows, our altars and pulpits for tables and bar stools. Rather than stunning cathedrals that took decades to build we now have pre-fab steel buildings that go up in a weekend. We have rejected beauty and called it ostentatious or garish. We have cut corners on houses of worship in order to have more money for "ministry." But did we ever stop to think that perhaps things that are beautiful can actually be ministry?
Years ago I had a woman approach me after a Sunday morning service and ask, "Don't these young people know that we have a place for their children?" I replied, "Yes, they do. That place is right here worshipping with their parents." I was't being snarky. Nevertheless, this comment is symptomatic of what I see as a huge problem in the 21st Century Church. We are silo-ing ourselves to death! Many churches today operate on what I like to call a "silo mentality" of ministry. You come into church and are immediately placed in a group with other people just like you, where everything is custom designed for your little niche. Our favorite group to separate out is the children. Of course, every church should have an exciting children's program with an active Sunday school and an inviting nursery. But we should always strive to make worship a family event.
The Rev. Eric Zolner
Father Eric is a 3rd generation Anglican and the Rector of All Saints Anglican Church in Springfield, MO.