Church Renewal for Creation’s Sake
An Eastertide retreat for people who want
to help their congregations find new life
Saturday, May 11, 2019 – 10:00am-3:00pm
St. Paul’s Episcopal Church
711 S. Saginaw Street, Flint – (810) 234-8637
St. Paul’s discussed this book during Lent and we’re excited that the author can join us to dig deeper into this fresh approach to church and community redevelopment.
Please call to reserve your space for this free event (including lunch) – and don’t worry if you haven’t read the book. Rev. Nurya will nurture an inclusive conversation.
The Rev. Nurya Love Parish is co-founder and Executive Director of Plainsong Farm & Ministry, an ecumenical mission of the Episcopal Church in Rockford, Michigan. She was raised in Las Vegas, Nevada by a nonreligious family. She attended church for the first time in college, had a profound and unexpected call to the ministry, and became a Christian at Harvard Divinity School. She co-founded Plainsong Farm & Ministry in Rockford, Michigan in 2015 and serves as its Executive Director. She is also rector with Holy Spirit Episcopal Church in Belmont, Michigan. She created the first guide to the Christian food movement in 2015 and speaks nationally on food, faith, and caring for our place in Creation.
Fr. Dan's words to the Burton City Council
supporting a proposed LGBTQ Protection Ordinance
March 6, 2017
Good evening and thank you for allowing me to speak in favor of the proposed LGBTQ Protection Ordinance for the City of Burton.
I am Fr. Dan Scheid, Rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church in downtown Flint and a resident of the city of Flint.
I believe that religion ought not to dictate public policy.
But I believe that religion is one of many influences on public policy and should claim its rightful place in civic life.
And so I am here as a clergy person, as an ally of the Equality Caucus of Genesee County, and as the pastor of one of the petitioners (Genevieve Field) who is a resident of your city.
My faith reminds me that our common humanity is made in the image and likeness of God and it compels me to respect the dignity of every human being, and my Christian denomination—the Episcopal Church—is in the forefront of welcoming, affirming, and including LGBTQ people in the full life and ministry of the church.
My citizenship in this country compels me to work for justice, equity, and civil rights—especially for people who as yet do not have full and equal protection under the law.
The City of Burton will, in passing this ordinance, guarantee those full and equal protections due LGBTQ persons and will become an even more attractive place to live, work, and spend money.
I urge you to consider this proposal and to vote to pass it.
Fr. Dan's column for the February 2017 "East Village Magazine"
Closing St. Paul’s every-Tuesday lunch ministry for the end of November and all of December last year was one of the more frustrating calls I’ve had to make as parish priest.
I had been noticing, along with volunteers and lunch guests, that tension and tempers in the parish hall were rising all year, and on consecutive weeks in November, scuffles broke out. The first was over an accusation of a stolen cell phone and the second was a lovers’ triangle gone predictably wrong.
I was away both times, and after the second incident, the parishioner who leads the program sent me a text message and asked that we take a break and close, at least for the next week and likely longer. She had consulted with volunteers and guests, and while opinions were mixed—who wants to shut church doors to hungry people between Thanksgiving and Christmas?—I took her advice and I played Ebenezer Scrooge, putting a “closed until further notice” sign on the door. Bah, humbug!
It was important to me that we not see these Tuesdays as pre-Christmas free time. Shutting our doors to scores of hungry neighbors because of the behavior of a few ought to have consequences for the parish, too. I asked parishioners to meet with me to talk about the ministry, to use our time in an intentional and systematic way.
Pausing to ponder and reassess
At our first meeting, I wanted to know how they were feeling about the tensions, the fights, and about closing for a time. As their pastor, I care deeply about their wellbeing. At our second meeting we talked about the purpose of the lunch ministry; what is it exactly that we’re doing and why. And at our third meeting we looked at what we do best, and we talked about some changes we could make to reclaim the sacredness of the space, to make sure we’re holy and wholly hospitable.
At the end of the third meeting, it was clear that we had spent our time well and that we would be ready to reopen the first Tuesday in January. My parishioners asked me if I would take on a larger role in the program, offering a ministry of peace and presence by being in the parish hall from ten-thirty when we open until one o’clock when we close, rather than checking in and out and often being away on other pastoral duties, so I reordered my priorities and my time.
I do my best to stay out of the way of the folks in the kitchen, lending a hand only if needed. Instead I drink coffee and swap stories with our guests, keep an eye out for people who may be troubled or troubling, lead a non-compulsory communion service, and line up for lunch with everyone.
Now I’m glad I made that frustrating call to close. I learned a lot about my parishioners, our guests, and the Tuesday lunch ministry by taking time to pause, to ponder, and to pray. At the time I really hated stopping what we were doing and closing our doors in what turned out to be an unusually cold and snowy December. But in hindsight we needed the break to reassess the ministry and renew our spirits.
Winter came for real Jan. 20
Despite December’s calendar-claim on the first day of winter, winter came for real in a January 20 capital-city, blow-hard blizzard, inaugurating not a snow storm but a storm of another four letter “s” word.
Tempers and tension in the nation had been rising throughout the previous year; I don’t need to rehearse the litany of political improbabilities gone unpredictably right for the one who more than half the electorate deemed impossibly wrong.
The outcry from this majority has been swift and the resistance relentless against the now-incumbent and his swampy cabinet appointees, his executive orders, his end-arounds, his gag-orders, his racism, sexism and xenophobia, his Orwellian “alternate facts”, his travel ban, and his Bannon.
We’ve seen post-election protests decrying the mismatch between the popular and electoral vote, pussy-hatted women marches, airport rallies, letter-writing and phone-calling campaigns, impassioned sermons and pastoral proclamations, grass-roots organizing, and social media skirmishes.
And among ourselves more quietly, we’ve asked questions that carry the shoulder-shrug of disorientation and despair: Is this enough? Will any of this make a difference? What else can we do? What’s next? Who’s next?
It all seems too much, doesn’t it; and yet who among the resisting class feels we can afford to look away, as one day—even one hour—gives way to another fresh hell? — and we must be vigilant against the next executive overreach.
Our hearts need a break
And yet, as a pastor in the neighborhood, I care deeply about your well-being. You need, I need, we need a break from all of this. We need to put a “closed until further notice” sign on the doors of our hearts and use this time in an intentional and systematic way to take care of ourselves.
I’m not calling for a resistance stoppage. I’m not asking for a multi-week moratorium on protests and marches and phone calls. We’ve too much to lose. But I am inviting you to find a room in your home, if you’re so lucky to have the space, or a time in your day, to create a madness-free zone; a place you go where you commit not to take your newspaper or your device with you, where you turn off NPR and think about something other than the latest outrage, or nothing at all.
Write a letter to a friend, pet your dog, make a peanut butter sandwich, pick up a deck of cards and play solitaire, or Crazy Eights if you have a partner. Pray, if that’s what you do, but I’ll just end up praying about the mess, so for me prayer isn’t my madness-free zone.
Give yourself five or ten minutes or a half hour where you disconnect—reorder your priorities and your time—so you’ll have the reserve and the resolve to keep on resisting. I fear this winter is going to be a long one.
Fr. Dan’s Remarks for
“You are Welcome Here: March for Justice, Inclusion & Unity”—City Hall to UM-Flint:
February 4, 2017
I speak as a priest of the church, as a resident of the city of Flint, as a citizen of these United States, and, most importantly, as a child of God who shares in the common humanity with the peoples of the world.
My tradition’s understanding of what it is to be Christian requires that I strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being. It is an ideal well-supported in my sacred texts: the books of the Law, the Prophets, and the Gospels all agree.
This is not exclusively a Christian commandment, however, as people of any faith tradition or none at all can claim justice, peace, and human dignity as a shared goal and a common good. It is why we are here today.
And yet in my tradition, this is the final statement, the apex of our Baptismal Covenant, a position that suggests it may be the most difficult promise to keep.
It certainly is a promise that is not being kept by the president, and I’m not surprised, as justice, peace, and human dignity were not campaign promises of his.
Thus far he is keeping, at break-neck speed, many of the campaign promises he did make, appointments and executive orders that are proving to be divisive and arise from what I can only imagine is fear.
And yet in the texts I call sacred—which also happen to be bound in the book this and every president has laid his hand on—the command “fear not” is among the clearest and most consistent.
This is true in our national scriptures; the well-known verse found in the Gospel of FDR says “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.”
And today we march in resistance, united in purpose and unafraid—mostly.
Many of you are afraid, and with good reason. Time and exhaustion does not allow me to rehearse the well-reported news of the last two weeks. Many of the president’s executive orders are frightening, as are the actions of his most zealous acolytes.
I’ll admit I’m afraid, too, and I speak from a pinnacle of privilege.
I am a White, cis-gender male, who is straight, married, educated, employed, and Christian, living in a society that favors all these attributes. I’m one lucky guy.
But I have blood kin and dear parishioners, clergy colleagues and close friends who have been punched in the gut and are waiting for the next blow to land.
What are we to do?
One way I understand this most difficult of baptismal promises my Christianity requires me to keep—promises of justice and peace and dignity—is to use the privilege our patriarchal and White-supremacist society grants me to speak out against the fear that patriarchy and White-supremacy have always used to divide us.
I choose to speak out against fear by standing in solidarity with people we are told to be afraid of.
I stand with Muslims, people who with Christians and Jews claim a common Abrahamic ancestor; and I stand with progressive people of any faith tradition, or none at all. We share a common humanity.
I stand with Black people who are criminalized by custom and whose lives are made to matter less than mine; and I stand with immigrants and asylum-seekers who come across our southern border or either ocean, looking for refuge and relief. We share a common humanity.
I stand with women who insist on shattered ceilings and reproductive freedom; and I stand with people whose sexual expression and gender identity differ from the traditions of church and society. We share a common humanity.
I stand with people who are poor, cast aside by the outcomes of capitalism and faulted for what is seen as their lack of initiative; and I stand with workers who wish to organize, unionize, fight for $15, and shrink the income gap. We share a common humanity.
We share a common humanity.
And so we stand and we resist: we organize, we march, we collaborate, we study, we strategize, we act, we evaluate, we persist, we love.
We strive for justice and peace among all people, and we respect the dignity of every human being.
We share a common humanity, we are not afraid, and we will win.
“The Danger of an Unexamined Day” – Fr. Dan Scheid
UM-Flint MLK Day of Service Address, Monday, January 16, 2017
I am charged with inspiring you, in the spirit of The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to go into our city on this Day of Service and serve others. It is curious, or at least I find it so, that someone has chosen to link Dr. King’s day with volunteerism and community service. The compendium of Dr. King’s writing that I own, A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr, contains more than seven-hundred pages and is two inches thick. I’ve read nearly all of what’s in there, in the years since I bought it, and I consider myself a well-read student of his history and that of the Civil Rights Movement, and I don’t recall Dr. King being known for volunteerism and community service, in the most common understandings of those terms. To verify whether my memory served me well, I searched the index of A Testament of Hope for words like “volunteerism” and “charity” and “benevolence” and “service” and there was not even one entry listed for the seven-hundred pages of transcripts of sermons and speeches, of essays and letters, of interviews and monographs.
To be sure, Dr. King was known for activism, for non-violent civil disobedience, for faith-filled sermons, for community organizing, for protest marches, for boycotts, for deft and relentless applications of political pressure, for being beaten, for being jailed, for being threatened, for being mocked, for being maligned, and for being murdered. And, if all that wasn’t enough, after his death Dr. King suffered a fate all too familiar for martyrs in the cause of justice.
Dr. King was sainted and sanitized; his memory, or at least that which White America was willing to tolerate, displayed in a reliquary, a video loop that plays and plays again that grainy footage from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in August, 1963—“I have a dream”—the moment in time when many who claim they revere him have trained their memories of him to stop; the same who believe that King’s dream of color giving way to character was realized eight years ago when the inauguration of Barack Obama ushered in the age of post-racial color-blindness. Problem solved.
My argument is that a Martin Luther King “Day of Service”, left unexamined, is dangerous, because it allows people beholden to the powers that the Dr. King of 1967 and 1968 described, those of racism, and materialism, and militarism—and these are alive and well fifty years later—it allows these powerful people to co-opt King’s revolutionary message, to domesticate it, to whitewash it, to serve their own interests, which is to preserve the status quo, for there is always good money to be made perpetuating injustice.
So I will examine the day, using some of Dr. King’s own words, and if I may be so bold as to assume collegiality one pastor to another, he and I will find a way to preach redemption, and send you from here inspired, thus fulfilling my charge and improving my chances, from where they may stand right now, of being invited back on campus.
A word about my credentials: I was racialized when I was still very young. I was raised on a small farm outside Belding, Michigan, a town with almost no Black people. The only place where there was any number of Black people was in the state prison, which was the principal industry of the nearby county seat. My dad sold Chevys for a living—it’s likely many of them were made right here in Flint—and because he was the sales manager, he got to drive a demo model every six months, so we always had a new car. Power door locks had just come out, and I remember whenever we drove to Grand Rapids, the nearest big city, when we got near to Black neighborhoods, mom would slide her hand over and push the chrome toggle down and the doors would lock with a “ca-chunk”. When we drove out of those neighborhoods and no longer saw Black people, mom wouldn’t leave the doors alone; no, she slid her hand over to that chrome toggle and lifted up, and the doors would unlock with the same “ca-chunk”.
I didn’t think much at all about race for a long time after that—decades, really—because one of the privileges of being White is that one doesn’t have to. I carried my biases with me, more implicit than explicit, because I was a decent enough guy, after all, without a racist bone in my body.
I worked in a clothing store in Grand Rapids, one that was on the leading edge of hip-hop and urban fashion, with brands like Avirex, Pelle Pelle, FUBU, and Rocawear. The store security cameras rotated on a sprocket and chain and made just enough noise, if you knew what to listen for, to tip me off when someone came into my department. These cameras always whirred and clicked more vigorously for Black customers.
Before entering seminary, about fifteen years ago, I was required to attend a two-and-a-half-day anti-racism training workshop, where I learned some history, such as the foundational concept of race being invented in seventeenth-century America and perpetuated by the wealthy and capitalist class ever since to divide the poor, Black and White, and keep them that way. And I was introduced to methods to analyze and dismantle systemic racism. At the end I was exhausted, crushed under the weight of White guilt.
In seminary, I offered a perfectly lovely prayer one winter morning that thanked God for “the whiteness and purity” of the new-fallen snow, and created a ten-minute teachable moment, as my liturgics professor excoriated me in front of the class for perpetuating the stereotype of equating whiteness with purity. I held my ground, more out of embarrassment and pride than of linguistic logic, but soon relented and learned a lesson. I had to smile, some years later, when I read Dr. King’s final presidential address for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, where he wrote:
“Even semantics have conspired to make that which is black seem ugly and degrading. In Roget’s Thesaurus there are 120 synonyms for blackness and at least sixty of them are offensive, as for example blot, soot, grim, devil and foul. And there are some 134 synonyms for whiteness and all are favorable, expressed in such words as purity, cleanliness, chastity and innocence” (A Testament of Hope, 245).
Professor Meyers, you were right.
My first parish was in Benton Harbor, Michigan—a smaller Flint in many ways, and my congregation was racially-integrated, two-thirds White and one-third Black. I began to read James Baldwin and James Cone, Martin and Malcolm, Zora Neale Hurston and bell hooks, Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, Cornell West and Michelle Alexander and Angela Davis. I was part of an alliance that taught me about the social determinants of health and learned that the intersection of zip code and income and race have everything to do with disparities in health outcomes. The Sunday after Trayvon’s killer was acquitted, I preached about the cross and the lynching tree, inspired by events and James Cone’s book by the same name. I chickened out the week after Mike Brown was killed, but chastened by a priest and professor I follow on Facebook, who said if you aren’t going to preach it, then sit down, I preached back-to-back sermons on liberation and justice and White privilege. I was called to sit on a task force that confronts systemic racism in church and society and took that same two-and-a-half-day workshop that I had taken a dozen years before and left not crushed but on fire. And it was membership on that task force that led me to St. Paul’s, Flint, another racially-integrated parish, where not long after I started I preached about the nine saints who were slaughtered at Mother Emmanuel AME. I wouldn’t claim I’m fully woke, but my sleep has been disturbed.
So you can see why I might be a little bit twitchy with the impression that Dr. King is being repackaged to sell service, if the outcome of service beyond helping those in need is to assuage our consciences and sustain the status quo.
In last Sunday’s New York Times Magazine, Professor Michael Eric Dyson was interviewed and reminded the reader that Dr. King once said that charity is a poor substitute for justice. In his magisterial address “A Time to Break Silence” at Riverside Church in New York City on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his assassination, Dr. King had this to say:
“A true revolution of values will soon cause us to question the fairness and justice of many of our past and present policies. On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. A true revolution of values will soon look uneasily on the glaring contrast of poverty and wealth” (Hope, 240-41).
Dr. King was, of course, referring to the parable of Jesus found in St. Luke’s gospel, where two of a robbery victim’s respectable countrymen crossed the road to avoid him, while a hated ethnic other tended compassionately to the beaten man’s wounds and paid for a room for the man to recover in. The Samaritan performed a necessary work of charity, Dr. King noted, but neither he nor anyone else did anything to make the road safe from robbers or to challenge the system that drove some to a life of robbery as a way to make a buck—unlawful or lawful, as these modern times and the lack of Wall Street charges and convictions seems to indicate.
Dr. King calls us to a true revolution of values.
In another address given near the end of his life, titled “Where Do We Go from Here” Dr. King asks us that,
“We honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society…one day we must ask the question, ‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’…We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring…You begin to ask the question [especially in Flint], ‘Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?’…it means ultimately coming to see that the problem of racism, the problem of economic exploitation, and the problem of war are all tied together. These are the triple evils that are interrelated” (Hope, 250).
You may expect that these are hard questions to ask. When Dr. King asked these questions in 1967 and 1968, even some of his closest disciples chastised him, and he gave the people in our country that already hated him even more ammunition.
These questions are no easier to ask today, and speaking for the church I can say that we’re seldom courageous enough to ask them. The church, broadly speaking, prefers outreach to activism; we prefer charity over justice. Then we don’t have to ask why people are hungry; we’re content with doing the necessary work of feeding hungry people and stopping right there. Then our participation in systems of injustice goes unexamined.
I wonder if the same isn’t true of our other institutions that look for opportunities for benevolent giving and charitable service, but don’t find that it’s good business to ask too many questions, for fear that their own complicity in the system will be revealed?
As Dr. King sat in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, in April, 1963, he wrote a letter to White, so-called liberal churchmen who asked him to go slowly, and he used the metaphor of thermometer and thermostat in his critique of their ecclesial moderation. In the days of the early church, Dr. King wrote,
“The church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society…Things are different now. The contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they are” (Hope, 300).
This remains true for much, if not most of the church, I am sorry to say. Only you can answer if the same isn’t true of the university. Substitute “college” for “church” in that passage and ask yourself how it sounds. And yet it doesn’t have to be that way.
Permit me for another moment to talk “church”. I do this to neither proselytize nor exclude, but merely to use the lens of Christianity that’s second-nature for me and that I hold in common with Dr. King.
I am a student of Liberation Theology. I believe that God takes sides, that God’s loves equally but that people who are poor and oppressed, marginalized and despised, come first—be they the brown-skinned Middle Eastern refugees and Central American immigrants, the gender-queer youth kicked out of their homes, or the chronically-ill who fear they’ll soon lose their health insurance.
The Exodus story in the Hebrew Scriptures bears this out: God, through Moses, led the enslaved Hebrews from slavery in Egypt to freedom. Jesus’ story in the Second Testament bears this out, too: he was born in a barn, exiled in Egypt, and came “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19). Jesus was executed as an enemy of the occupying Roman Empire—crucified—the punishment reserved for seditionists and rebels to serve as a deterrent to others who would upset the imperial status quo.
I believe God loves everyone—a message Dr. King preached and lived—but God favors the outsider: prostitutes and tax collectors will enter the Kingdom of God before the respectable insiders.
In a few minutes you will be dismissed and sent into the most important parts of the city, to see its most valuable people. By this I don’t mean the redeveloping downtown and its creative-class occupants. I don’t mean a fine church building like the one I work in, with a magnificent pipe organ and a signed-by-Tiffany stained-glass window. You won’t be rubbing elbows and currying favor with the town’s philanthropists and donor-class. No, you will be going to the most important parts of the city, to see and to serve its most valuable people. Flint’s greatest asset is its oppressed people, for in Christian terms, that’s who Christ most fully embodies now.
And so perhaps the most important thing you’ll do today is to go with your eyes open. If you do, you’ll be reminded, as Dr. King preached in his last Sunday morning sermon, at the National Cathedral in Washington on Palm Sunday, 1968, when he said,
“Poor people are forced to pay more for less. Living in conditions day in and day out where the whole area is constantly drained without being replenished. It becomes kind of a domestic colony. And the tragedy is so often—these [poor] people are invisible because America is so affluent, so rich; because our expressways carry us away from the ghetto, we don’t see the poor” (Hope, 273).
If there are any parts of today’s Martin Luther King Day of Service that need to be redeemed because they were designed to calm our consciences and anesthetize us to the gaping wounds of inequality and the terminal diseases of apathy, you can redeem them by how you choose to serve today.
Wherever and whoever you serve today, remember that your service is necessary in large part because we who are better off benefit from the structural inequities that go unexamined and unchallenged. Ask questions of the directors of the agencies you’ll visit today. Ask them why their clients need their service. And then ask them why they think their clients are poor, are hungry, are homeless, are illiterate. And then I ask you to remember that political advocacy and activism are largely volunteer-based endeavors, too.
If you are inspired to do something about what you see and do today, join community organizing groups and others who fight for justice, and give of your time, your passion, and your money, because, as Dr. King said,
“We do it this way because it is our experience that the nation doesn’t move around questions of genuine equality for the poor and for black people until it is confronted massively, dramatically in terms of direct action” (Hope, 274).
I charge you in the way Dr. King charged his audience in the conclusion of his speech, “Where Do We Go from Here”, when he said,
“We have a task and let us go out with a ‘divine dissatisfaction.’ Let us be dissatisfied until America will no longer have a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds. Let us be dissatisfied until the tragic wall that separate the outer city of wealth and comfort and the inner city of poverty and despair shall be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. Let us be dissatisfied until those that live on the outskirts of hope are brought into the metropolis of daily security. Let us be dissatisfied until slums are cast into the junk heaps of history, and every family is living in a decent, sanitary home. Let us be dissatisfied until the dark yesterdays of segregated schools will be transformed into bright tomorrows of quality, integrated education…Let us be dissatisfied until every state capitol houses a governor who will do justly, who will love mercy and who will walk humbly with his God [let that one sink in for a moment]…Let us be dissatisfied” (Hope, 251).
My time with you is nearly over, and you and I have much work to do. I thank you for your kind attention and your willingness to be challenged. You are a university community, after all, blessed with the resources of creativity, curiosity, diversity, and integrity. To whom much has been given, much is expected.
I close as Dr. King ended his final Palm Sunday sermon, and you’ll forgive his lack of gender-inclusive language, acceptable in his day:
“God grant that we will be participants in this newness and this magnificent development. If we will but do it, we will bring about a new day of justice and brotherhood and peace. And that day the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy. God bless you” (Hope, 278).
Epistle column: December 2016
Every Christmas while I was in my teens, I hoped there would be a long, narrow box with my name on it under the tree. Like Ralphie, the bespectacled, blonde-haired boy in the classic holiday film “A Christmas Story”, I hoped for a gun. Some years before, when I was around Ralphie’s age, I got a BB gun for Christmas. It wasn’t a Red Ryder with a compass in the stock like Ralphie’s, but it was a nice lever-action Daisy, and I dented a lot of tin cans and stippled who knows how many sheets of cardboard with it. And I never once shot my eye out.
No, I had my BB gun already, and a single-shot twenty gauge shotgun that came on my twelfth birthday. I used that to hunt squirrels and rabbits. What I wanted next was a .45 caliber muzzle-loading Kentucky rifle, the kind that Daniel Boone made famous. This gun would’ve done double duty; it wasn’t too powerful to pot squirrels and yet it had enough to take down a deer. And as a bonus, this model came in kit form, which was the option I wanted, so I could have the satisfaction of assembling it.
Now to be fair, I never came right out and asked for this gun, but I did drop a lot of hints and left the flyers from our hometown hardware store that sold them open to the proper page. And every year, despite the hints and the pining – and maybe because of my failure to ask – the long, narrow box with my name on it was a no-show.
Please don’t feel too bad for me. I was blessed to grow up in a home where there was enough of what was needed and the resources to meet most wants. And I was lucky to have a very generous grandma and aunt, whose home we went to every Christmas day and who never failed to put more boxes than I needed under their tree – except for that .45 caliber muzzle-loading Kentucky rifle, in kit form, so I could finish building it myself. No matter how good Christmas was – and it always was good – by St. Stephen’s day I felt a boulder of disappointment in my belly. Maybe next year, I told myself, I’ll actually ask.
I no longer want that gun, in case you or Santa are wondering. I lost interest in hunting in my early twenties, and since moving to Flint, I have yet to string up the longbow that I bought back in Benton Harbor, strictly for the meditative, therapeutic release of punching arrow holes in pie plates and straw.
In the long run, I got a better gift than that Kentucky rifle. I got the gift of understanding the importance of asking for what I want, rather than dropping vague hints that might be missed, hints that were missed, Christmas after Christmas, until I didn’t care anymore.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m still not a very good asker. I understand the importance of asking, I even counsel couples prior to marriage about why asking for what you want and need is good (it keeps the other from guessing, and guessing wrong, or missing the opportunity entirely, which can cause disappointments and resentments and lead to not caring anymore). I’m simply not consistent enough at practicing what I preach. Just ask Kate; she’ll tell you I’m nearly impossible to buy for because I seldom say what it is I want.
I feel as though in the past year and a half I’ve dropped a number of vague hints about what I want and need from you regarding the redevelopment and growth of this parish. And I’ll admit to placing some of my unspoken disappointments on you – unfairly – as the presents I desire but haven’t explicitly asked for have yet to find their way under my metaphorical Christmas tree.
I have a clear vision and a number of ideas how to put that vision in place to move St. Paul’s from simply hanging on to what we have, as endowment dollars dwindle in the relentless pursuit of maintaining the status quo. While we are in this together, and it is your parish, I think I have a particular perspective on what’s needed, and the education, expertise, and sacramental calling to lead us there, and I’ll start by presenting this vision and some specific ideas at our annual meeting next month.
When it’s time for me to move on, I hope many years from now, I want the satisfaction of leaving you on better footing than I found you, as I did my prior parish. But this requires my asking of you commitments as specific as the Christmas present I wanted so much but never got: the .45 caliber muzzle-loading Kentucky rifle, in kit form, so we can have the satisfaction of building it together.
Wishing you a blessed Advent and a Merry Christmas –
November 2016 Epistle column
I try to live a thankful life and count my blessings every day. I am truly thankful for the staff members of St. Paul’s, and I invite you to join me in giving thanks for them. Those of you in parish leadership or find yourselves here during the week probably know each of them; there may be others of you who only know the ones who are here Sunday mornings. They all work very hard, out front and behind the scenes, to support me as rector and boss. And they work hard for you, whether you’re a long-time parishioner or just joining us.
Holly Richardson has taken on the role of music director with gusto, and I am thankful for her musicianship, her pastoral role as caretaker of our choirs, her community connections, and her administrative skills. She has good ideas and she’s able to understand and put into action my vision and hopes for parish music. She brings an easy wit and patient perspective to all she does. Thank you, Holly!
Rafeal McDaniel is a busy man outside of St. Paul’s, and yet somehow he finds the energy to direct our Gospel Choir with passion and fill our sacred space with vibrant and holy song. He, along with the choir, is a good ambassador for St. Paul’s and for the Gospel music tradition within our diocese, ministering at our diocesan convention and other events and at several parishes who are blessed and smart enough to ask for them. Thank you, Rafeal!
Julian Goods makes good things happen at the organ console. He plays in such a way as to compel the congregation to sing, and he dazzles with his improvisational skill. His preludes and postludes show off the range of our organ and his gifts. Julian also lends his voice and hands to the choirs – vocal and bell – when he’s not on the organ bench. Thank you, Julian!
Terence Whitehead is our head custodian and has a lot of building and grounds and contents to keep track of – one look around this parish campus tells you that. Terence works full-time and then some to maintain and clean this place, inside and out, and he is incredibly generous and flexible with his time and schedule as so many parish and outside groups use our space, and he does all this with grace and kindness. Thank you, Terence!
Tommy Gist is our assistant custodian and packs a lot of work into his part-time schedule. Tommy is always on the move and has no trouble finding things to do. He has a pickup truck, which is a big asset when we have supplies to pick up or things to deliver. He is also flexible and manages to find the time to be here when we need a little extra help, and he does this with a smile. Thank you, Tommy!
George Gibson is our financial manager and so much more. In addition to keeping the books, paying the bills, and working with the treasurer and finance committee to do the most with parish monies, George also handles many of the administrative duties around here, working with contractors and vendors to schedule service and follow up. As part of his role here, George takes on some financial management duties for our ministry partners at St. Andrew’s Church and Christ Enrichment Center, and he does all of this in three workdays – or sometimes four, when everything needs to get done at once. Thank you, George!
Kate Dunsmore is our parish secretary and is the first face and voice of St. Paul’s that many people encounter, and Kate is always friendly and helpful in greeting the public. Kate, of course, does a lot more than this. She publishes the weekly bulletin and inserts, the monthly newsletter, and other bulletins and paperwork that can come up at a moment’s notice. She keeps the parish calendar and juggles the needs of all the ministries and outside groups who want to use our space, and she keeps track of me. I don’t know how she manages to get everything done with all the interruptions to her day, but she does, and with grace. Thank you, Kate!
As you give thanks for your own blessings and you contemplate your 2017 pledge, remember that your generous and faithful giving supports Holly, Rafeal, Julian, Terence, Tommy, George, and Kate, so they can support you. Thank you!
God’s peace and blessings,
Tithing isn’t kleenex, unless it’s Kleenex™
Some definitions: Tithing is the spiritual understanding that all we have is gift from God; we keep 90% and we give back 10% as a thank you to God. Tithing on what we make before or after taxes is a quibble and splitting hairs. Pledging is promising to give some amount of money – it may be a tithe, it may be a penny, it may be a million dollars. Making a pledge lets me know in particular, and the vestry know in the aggregate, how much you plan to give in the coming year. Giving is the most general, catch-all term; it’s the result of how you honor your pledge and how you respond to occasional appeals for money for particular needs that crop up. Giving is both planned and spontaneous. Tithing, pledging, and giving are often understood as synonyms, three words that mean the same thing, but you can see that they’re distinct one from another.
Episcopal priests aren’t required to preach and teach pledging or giving; we are expected to preach and teach tithing, the biblical standard of acknowledging all is gift and a tenth goes back to God in gratitude. Nevertheless, here’s a word about pledging and giving.
There is biblical and spiritual grounding in pledging, in making a covenant. God makes covenant with Abraham; we make covenant with God and each other in our Baptismal promises. Pledging is a statement of faith that we believe we’ll have enough to keep our other financial commitments after we keep our commitment to God. Pledging also helps the rector and vestry plan the parish’s budget – the financial statement of the mission of the church. Pledging is not legally binding. Your own financial health may improve or decline any given year. All you have to do is let me know that. Money and what you do with it is a spiritual issue, and I need to know if your financial health is affecting your spiritual well-being. Pledging helps me be a better pastor to you. Pledging is good.
For most people, giving feels good. Think about your own excitement waiting for a loved-one to open a birthday or Christmas present that you picked out just for them – a planned gift. Think about the lift in your step after you spot someone a few bucks to help them over a hump – a spontaneous gift. Think about the joy you’ve seen in others when they’ve given to you, whether planned or spontaneous. I think we’re wired to be generous and to help in time of need. Giving to others is a reflection of God’s giving to us. Giving is good.
Tithing, then, is pledging and giving ten percent of your income back to God by supporting the ministries of the church. Tithing acknowledges all we have comes from God, that we pledge to give a tenth of it back, and that we give this in gratitude and faith, and to further God’s work in a particular place. Tithing is very good, the real box of Kleenex™, not the scratchy store brand or institutional-issue facial tissue that we might get when we say, “Would you please pass me a kleenex”.
Tithing isn’t the spiritual practice of most Episcopalians. The last data I looked at said the people in our denomination give an average of between 2% and 3% of their income back to God through the church: that’s $1,250 a year, or just over $100 a month, on an annual income of $50,000. ($5,000 a year, or just over $400 a month would be the tithe on the same income.) For most people, going from 2.5% to 10% in one year would be a big leap of faith and an unreasonable expectation put on them by the clergy (who may or may not tithe themselves). This is why church giving consultants and clergy ask people, and why I ask you to pledge to give toward the tithe. Are you giving 2%? Challenge yourself to give 4% this year, and 6% the following, and then 8%, and within the next four years be at the whole 10%. Are you not giving anything at all? Then start at 2% this year and keep going and in five years you’ll be tithing, too. Are you almost there? Then keep going! Are you tithing already? Congratulations! Maybe you can add another percent or two in solidarity with those who are just starting out.
In addition to a leap of faith, my asking you to work toward the tithe, I also understand I’m asking a change of culture – an individual and a parish-wide attitude toward money and the powerful role it has in our lives. Every household and every parish has its own culture around money: how it’s raised and how it’s spent; who gets to know what and decide what. That’s why it’s important for us to have honest conversations about St. Paul’s historical and current attitudes around money. Our attitudes about money speak volumes about our spiritual health, as people and as a parish. Just as I’m asking parishioners to pledge to a four or five year plan to become tithers, so I’m asking the parish to pledge to a four or five year plan to honestly examine what we think about money.
Scripture says we cheat God when we hold back the tithe (Malachi 3:8-9). What might be more important to God is that in cheating God, we’re really cheating ourselves and each other (Malachi 3:10-12) – “See if I will not open the windows of heaven for you and pour down for you an overflowing blessing.”
God’s peace and blessings,
September 2016 Epistle column
What are St. Paul’s assets? What are your own assets? You are forgiven if your first thought was money and property, since that’s what we usually think of when we think of assets. You are right to include money and property, but your assets and St. Paul’s don’t begin there, and they go far beyond what IRS and insurance agents can attach a dollar sign to.
Last month I attended “Called to Transformation: An Asset-Based Approach to Engaging Church and Community”. Bishop Ousley asked me to attend this three-day workshop, given by the Episcopal Church and Episcopal Relief and Development, to begin to learn about Asset-Based Community Development (ABCD) and how it might transform our thinking in the diocese and at St. Paul’s.
ABCD focuses less on the needs of the community (real though they may be) than on what the community already has – its assets – to “empower people to use their given gifts, to imagine something different, and then respond to what they are being called to do.” ABCD is “centered around the belief that individuals, groups, and communities have the gifts they need to address the needs they see around them.” Put another way, ABCD is less about “doing for” people from the outside in than it is inviting them to find remedies from within to make positive changes.
ABCD isn’t magic; it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach to life’s challenges – especially in times of emergency and crisis – but it is a way to transform good and giving people from doing what author Robert Lupton calls “toxic charity”, charity that creates dependency while not changing systems and attitudes. ABCD invites a mind shift and a culture shift.
One of our workshop exercises was creating an asset map, charting what we already have. There are individual asset maps and community asset maps, but for now I invite you to consider an asset map for the parish of St. Paul’s and how it applies to what’s going on right now as I write this column: the food tent at Back to the Bricks (B2B).
Our most important asset is people, our human assets. When making an asset map, always start with people. We have deeply faithful people; people with vision and follow through; people who are good planners, organizers, and workers. The next asset is our social networks. Our partners at Christ Enrichment Center are helping in the food tent, and the proceeds of the day support their work. Jeff, our B2B contact, makes sure we’re connected with the event and is selling his artwork from our front yard. Next are our physical assets: a kitchen and equipment to prepare and serve the food, tables and chairs and a tent, and don’t forget the Nave, which offers sacred beauty – and air conditioning – to countless curious and weary tourists. And then we have our big environmental asset in a built-up downtown: a lawn along Saginaw Street with several shady trees to sit under. Our spiritual assets of faith, hope, and love, of worship and fellowship, of the belief in the abiding presence of God, are the foundation of all we do. We have temporal assets – so many give the gift of time in serving God in the community during B2B. And because we worship on Sunday, a Saturday event doesn’t cause a time conflict. Oh, and St. Paul’s has financial assets, too. We have enough money to front this event, to pay custodial staff, to have our lights on and air conditioning running, to be insured, and even to offer matching red t-shirts for everyone who helps.
As St. Paul’s continues to discern our place in downtown Flint, I encourage you to think creatively about your personal assets, our parish assets, and our community assets. What do we already have – what has God already given us – that will “allow us to see a new and different future?” Because an “asset-based approach invites us to use our gifts in the service of each other and the community to create the community God calls us to be.”
God’s peace and blessings,
August 2016 Epistle column
“It’ll cost about $3,000,” said the mechanic at Shelton’s Automotive. I took my Grand Marquis in because the air suspension finally gave out; the prophecy of the “Check Air Suspension” light was fulfilled.
In addition to that pesky light, I noticed that the pump regulating the suspension was running more than normal (okay – running almost all the time) and that every morning the car’s back end was nearly to the garage floor, but would rise, dutifully, after I started the engine and the pump engaged.
Then, on our way to my mom’s for her birthday one Sunday afternoon, the dash light came on, the back end sank, and the last 20 miles to Belding were, shall we say, bumpy. We were lucky that after a bit of a rest in the parking lot across the street from mom’s house (belonging to a funeral home – maybe my car felt threatened), all systems were good enough to get us the 90 miles back to Flint, suspension – and suspense – riding high.
Monday was Independence Day, and Tuesday I had to drive to Woodhaven for monthly Mass, so I dropped the car off that mid-afternoon and walked the three miles from shop to office to home. Of course, the suspension was still riding high (figures), so the mechanic called later to ask what the problem was. I told him my woes and after he got my car on the hoist, he could see that the 14-year-old rubber “pillows” (for lack of a better word) were leaking and that, while the pump motor seemed fine, he couldn’t guarantee that it wouldn’t conk out from working so many overtime hours. I thought of Jesus’ caution against pouring new wine into old wineskins and figured I should go ahead and replace the motor. “It’ll cost about $3,000.”
Then it came to me: “Is there an old-school fix?” I asked. “Can we do springs and shocks instead?”
“I think so,” said the mechanic, and it turns out they make conversion kits, and for $550 installed I have new coil springs and shocks, and a ride that to my keister is no different from the luxurious air pillows I had been sitting on … and I’m more than two grand to the good.
Now you’d expect me to say the church is a conversion kit for fixing problems in your life, but that’s too predictable a metaphor, so I’ll let you finish that sermon.
No, I think that after a time the church needs a conversion kit. Warning lights come on, air seeps out, back ends sag, rides get bumpy. As much as we’d reflexively like to replace the old parts with ones that are exactly the same, the realistic and better option might show itself when we ask the question, “Is there another way?”
The church and cars have essential components that make them run, that make them be what they are and not something else. A car without an engine is a carriage; reversing the movie reel of our city shows us that. A church without Gospel and Table is what … the Rotary?
That’s the tricky thing about the components of the church we call traditions: Which are essential and which aren’t? Engines, of course; but how do we decide if coil springs and shocks are suitable replacements for air suspension systems?
St. Paul’s, like any parish, goes in the shop from time to time for service – sometimes it’s planned maintenance, other times it’s unanticipated. Either way, if we’re good stewards of our resources and creative in our approach, we should always be prepared to ask, “Is there an old-school fix? Can we do something else instead?”
We might discover that the way we’ve always done things isn’t the only way, or even the better way, to keep us moving down the road – the road of the Jesus Movement, the road of Love.
God’s peace and blessings,
July 2016 Epistle column
There are two large urban meadows near our home, parkland that for budgetary reasons Flint has let nature largely reclaim. On Fathers’ Day, as Kate and I walked over to the Art Fair, we happened by one of them that was recently mown. The tangle of tall grass and weeds were drying in the field, and the still, hot air held the sweet scent at nose level. My olfactory way-back machine transported me to my youth and summers putting up hay.
Farmers make hay while the sun shines. When the alfalfa in the rolling field reached its peak, dad would check the weather report to see if fair skies were ahead. We needed a few dry days to get the job done. Then he gassed up the old orange Allis Chalmers tractor and greased the bearings and sharpened the blades of the mower that rode perpendicular off the right side. Dad drove the tractor in concentric laps around the field, cutting an eight foot swath with each pass.
If we were lucky, a hot wind would blow, speeding up the drying time, and in a day or two the hay would be dry enough to rake. Dad would drive another set of laps around the field, this time pulling the mechanical rake behind the tractor, making three-foot-wide windrows. The field looked like a labyrinth, but one that would take the better part of a day to walk into and out of.
Dad didn’t own a hay-baler, but a neighbor did, and the next day the neighbor would drive over with his own tractor and follow the same route around the field. The baler gobbled up the raked hay in its front chute, and kicked out from the back chute rectangular bales wrapped in twine, each weighing in the neighborhood of sixty pounds.
Dad and I would follow behind with our tractor, now pulling a flatbed wagon. One of us would drive, and the other would sling the bales, loading the wagon row by row until it was four bales high. We’d take turns driving and slinging, since one was less work than the other. For the top row, number five, we’d stop the wagon and I would clamber up top and catch the bale that he tossed. Then we’d drive back to the barn – carefully – the load swaying gently side to side.
Once at the barn, dad would either back the wagon inside next to the hayloft, or, if we had to use the upper loft, he’d park next to the elevator. This was a long trough with a conveyer belt that ferried the bales, like cars on a roller coaster, from ground level to an upper barn door some fifteen feet off the ground. One of us would unload the wagon, while the other was up top in the close hot air of the loft to pick the bales off the belt and stack them, column after column, until the wagon was empty. Then back to the field we went for another load, until we were done.
We drank plenty of ice water. I remember an old red and white Coleman jug with a plastic snap top. The melting ice cubes would slosh around inside; I remember the sound of the ice clattering together as dad and I passed the jug back and forth and swung it to our lips. We’d refill the jug with the well water that supplied our house and barn. I’ve never tasted better water.
Once we were finished, we stripped off our long pants and long-sleeved shirts – even in the heat of summer, we had to dress this way to keep the cut ends of the hay from shredding our forearms and shins – and dove, wearing only our skivvies, into our farm pond. It felt so good to wash off the sweat and chaff from our skin, and made less of a mess for mom to clean from the tub.
We did all this, of course, to feed our sheep while the pasturelands slept from late autumn to early spring. Twice a day in those dark months, one of us would go to the barn and sling a few bales of summertime through a trap door, down to the basement where the sheep could safely graze and make the manure that we’d use to fertilize the alfalfa field come springtime.
God’s blessings and peace,
About this Blog
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June 2016 Epistle column
Glenwood Cemetery is an old neighborhood – rolling hills, mature trees, and long-acquainted families. Last month, one of their children came home for good, and I was asked by two who are still but visitors to see his remains safely there.
I hadn’t been in that neighborhood before. I’ve driven by many times but never found a reason to swing my old red Mercury through the iron gates. (I wonder – how welcome is a Ford vehicle in a General Motors’ Cemetery?) Many of the plots bear names that are becoming familiar to me as I come to know my adoptive city: Mott and Whiting, Crapo and Kettering, Pierson and Pierce, and Dort, where I stopped to do my work.
I showed up early and walked about while I waited. It was quiet – I know, it’s a cemetery – but nevertheless the midmorning traffic on Court Street was light and there weren’t any of those dreadful leaf blowers making a racket. (If in fact there is a Hell, then these machines have a special place in Satan’s shed; rakes and brooms, on the other hand, hang on the right side and the left of God’s garage.) I took a bit of a walk-about, admiring the obelisks, crypts, and headstones; peeked over the precipice of the grand canyon that splits east from west (is one side a better neighborhood than the other?); and got my head and heart into what I was called there to do.
The Liturgy of the Burial of the Dead in our Book of Common Prayer is exquisite; it might be the best service we have, especially when conducted within a Requiem Mass. One wishes it was used more often than circumstance calls for. It has as much to teach us about life – temporal and eternal – as it does about death.
Of course at graveside, one turns to the last pages of the liturgy: The Committal (page 484 for Rite I and 501 for Rite II), and this is what I did, as the funeral had been held earlier and elsewhere. After the opening anthem come the words of committal, and these are said while the priest sifts a handful of soil upon the coffin or urn – “earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” As a sacramental person, I find this part of the rite powerful, and I love that it took my attendance at a Jewish funeral to figure this out.
When Hy Berkowitz – “Mr. Berk” – died (he was my employer when I worked in his store), part of the graveside ritual included offering family and friends the obligation of shoveling three scoops of dirt into the hole. For the first, one turned the shovel upside-down to symbolize the impossibility of the task, and then the other two were done in the proper manner. That was the first time I’d heard the thud of earth on box (and I had been to countless Roman Catholic funerals). I shall not soon forget that sound. I was offered a turn with the shovel and I discovered that, practically speaking, it’s filling in a hole; spiritually and emotionally, and real-ly, it’s much, much deeper.
I insisted, at my dad’s funeral five Februarys ago, that I help fill in that hole with the nearly frozen soil, and my brothers and sisters, and a few of our spouses and children, followed my lead. Many cemeteries claim that they can’t allow this; they’ll tell you they’re worried about safety, but I think it has more to do with wanting to distance the living from what needs to be done. My advice? Don’t let ‘em do it. It’s hard work. It’s supposed to be.
Being a priest means getting my hands dirty, but not every colleague sees it that way. In many church supply catalogs and sacristy cabinets, including ours, you’ll find a sterling silver cylinder the size of a big cigar, meant to hold the earth that’s ceremonially cast on the casket. Utter nonsense! When I commit someone’s body, I want to feel the cold soil in my right hand as I hold my prayer book in the left. I like that there are dirt smudges on the pages and grit in the binding. I like that when I shake the bereaved’s hands I leave some earth, ashes, and dust on theirs.
That’s what I did in that old neighborhood of Glenwood Cemetery one May morning, just as the sun fought its way victorious through the clouds.
God’s peace and blessings,