“People of the Book” and the Power of Story in Christian Community Discernment
Christians, like our Jewish and Muslim sisters and brothers are known as “people of the book”. The importance of scripture reading and the written stories of God’s relationship with God’s people are at the center of the lives of these spiritual communities.
Worship, work in the world and the life of personal ethics and morality are shaped by the books of scripture that are at the heart of our traditions. We find a great deal of meaning in the collections of stories and wisdom passed along from generation in the faith.
You may be surprised to learn that Islam holds both Jesus and his mother Mary in very high esteem. In fact the Koran devotes an entire ‘surah’ or book to Mary’s role in Islam and how she lives out the life of a willing servant. Similarly, Jesus, like Muhammed is identified as a prophet, one who speaks for God, in the Koran.
Whether we are Muslim, Christian or Jewish we all trace family lineage back to Abraham and Sarah. In particular it is the call of Abram to move from relative comfort and security in Ur of the Chaldees ,“ Now the Lord said to Abram, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.,” which characterizes the emergence of what we call today monotheism from a world in which a plurality of ‘gods’ was the rule rather than the exception.
Hold onto that verse for a bit, I will come back to it later.
Before writing any of the stories of the Old Testament, New Testament or Koran down, they were passed along orally. Because of this it is fair to say that before we were ‘people of the book’ we were ‘people of the story’. We make meaning by story. We remember events and people past through story. We share great truths through story.
I am a firm believer in the deep truth attributed to Roman Catholic Theologian, Storyteller and Author Megan McKenna, “All stories are true, some of them actually happened.”
In scripture story is often used to help convey truths that are more universal and primal than the events they represent.
The Bible, as we know it, is a collection of books-a library if you will-that tells a bigger story. It tells the story of God’s relationship with God’s people and vice versa. This is true individually and as communities of faith from age to age.
I remember being introduced to a mnemonic device as a young person that I originally thought was interesting. One of my early mentors in the Christian life. He wrote the word history on a piece of paper. Then he wrote it again by making it two words- his-story. He made the assertion that all of what has happened and will happen in the world is held together in Jesus Christ. Later on I considered it sort of contrived and silly.
As I have aged and noticed that all things are indeed in Christ (one of the Apostle Paul’s favorite phrases). I believe this old tools is as useful as it ever was.
This all serves as background to the work before us here at St. Mark’s. The story of this parish is a really good story and it’s truth goes deeper than the facts and events of its past.
When a group of folks gathered around 1963 to start a new Episcopal Church, it is my understanding they did not have a building. What they did have was a sense of God calling them together to be a witness to this area of Hampton.
In addition to being called to worship and witness to a particular place, St. Mark’s was called to witness and worship in a particular time.
Both the Civil Rights Movement and the Space Race met here at St. Mark’s and the ground was prepared for a truly diverse congregation to grow in the five acres and building it now occupies. There were life long residents of the Peninsula worshipping with newcomers to Langley from NASA, the Air Force, the Navy and other government agencies. There were white folks and people of color that found a spiritual home at St. Mark’s.
Decades later another marginalized group found oasis at St. Mark’s when the congregation became the first Integrity affiliated congregation in the Diocese of Southern Virginia. Integrity being a group of Episcopalians committed to full inclusion for LGBTQ folks in the life of the church. This ‘radical welcome’ came at a cost when a big conflict in the life of the congregation divided people and a goodly number left.
As a longtime member of the parish wrestled with gender identity issues, the leadership of St. Mark’s made a conscious decision for acceptance. It was a costly and faithful decision. This is the heart of discernment. Radical welcome continues to be one of the core values and gifts that St. Mark’s has to offer to the world.
Discernment differs from decision-making. Traditional decision-making is like using the ‘Ben Franklin’ method. You know what I am talking about. This method is putting two columns on a page representing a choice between two options and listing the pros and cons between the two. When we have seen the overwhelming number on one side of the ledger, the choice is clear.
Discernment, spiritual discernment, is different. We can have two or even many more columns each with many reasons supporting their candidacy for what doing the ‘next right thing’ might look like for an individual or community. What tips the scales in spiritual discernment is not the number of reasons for choosing a particular options, but in looking for where the Holy Spirit leads.
This typically happens best in community and only through a commitment to prayer and time.
Decision-making is about finding answers. Discernment, at its most faithful, is about seeking out and living into the questions.
What will guide is in the discernment event we have today and looking forward will emerge first in seeking which questions we are to answer. We will start with these four:
What brought you here and keeps you here? What are the core values at St. Marks? What are your hopes and fears going into an unknown process? What ideas can you offer as we move forward? From what we hear from one another in this process and in our commitment to pray regularly for the parish leadership and one another, we trust that God’s preferred and promised future will begin to emerge in the form of questions that will lead us to hear God’s voice ringing in our ears as in Abraham’s bidding us to, ““Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you.,”
This may not necessarily mean leaving this space, but it will mean leaving some of our comfort zone and previously held way of doing things behind.
May we all prayerfully travel together trusting that the story of St. Mark’s is far from over and that the next chapter will be written in God’s hand if we are able to stay focused and in a place of trust and radical hospitality.
Over the past several weeks we have concentrated on the Letter to the Ephesians in our Bible Study and Preaching. The Cliff’s Notes version has been Paul’s (?) message to a church seeking to find its voice in a new apostolic age. That basically means this church is being directed by the author of the letter to get clear about what the Good News (Gospel) of God in Christ is and how to go about sharing this Gospel with the people among whom the community lives, moves and has its being. I have been concentrating on this basic call of and to community as a model for how we might be called to discern and articulate our call to mission and ministry at St. Mark’s.
In his contemporary American Opera, Porgy and Bess, George Gershwin famously wrote perhaps the work’s most famous song, “Summertime (and the Living is Easy)”. In a number of ways the American Church has patterned its first leg of Ordinary Time (the Season after Pentecost) along similar lines. September is often viewed as the beginning of the ‘program year’ in the church. Life at St. Mark’s is no different in many ways and profoundly different in another. Summertime is often viewed as a sort of ‘holding pattern’ in the church. That is, a time of waiting for the ‘real work’ of ministry to begin again.
The ‘program year’ is often viewed as the time when ministries ramp up for another year in the life of a congregation. For any number of parishes this means more of the same with a sprinkling of new initiatives and responses to the needs of the congregation and the community it has been called to serve and in which it has been commissioned to “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
The basic story of Porgy and Bess is of Porgy, a disabled African-American street beggar living in the slums of Charleston, South Carolina and his efforts to save Bess from the clutches of her principal exploiters, Crown, a violent and possessive lover and Sportin’ Life, Bess’s drug dealer. It seems to me there are important parallels for our common life at St. Mark’s.
Like Porgy, we have obvious and seemingly insurmountable challenges to the mission to which we have been called. Also like Porgy, we are bound not to let those limitations keep us from serving as agents of good in the lives of those we have been called to seek and serve in our community. Despite ups and downs, barriers and obstacles, Porgy persists in his mission to save Bess in spite of his limitations and the underdog and apparently futile nature of his commitment to seeing Bess freed from the clutches of the relationships that threaten to destroy her life.
We too are called to persist in the work we have been given to do in being the incarnation of the Body of Christ in Hampton, the Peninsula, the Commonwealth, the nation and the world.
To be sure, there are problems with the depiction of African American life as written by composer George, lyricist Ira Gershwin and DuBose Heyward (the author of the story upon which Porgy and Bess is based). That being said I believe that we can learn from Porgy’s tenacious pursuit of one whom he loves and the noble and enduring aims he has in seeking the redemption of Bess despite her troubles and somewhat dubious life choices.
In the days, weeks and months to come it is my fervent prayer that we, like Porgy, pursue the work we have been given to do without fear of the damage it may do to our reputation and with the steadfast belief in the power of love to set free captives like Bess and those who are like her.
18 I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19 For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20 for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23 and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25 But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. 
Dear St. Mark’s Community,
It seems only last week that we shared our first Sunday together at St. Mark’s. In fact we have shared mission, ministry and worship for a bit over nine months Though it may be a stretch, our circumstances have roughly paralleled the gestation of a human child. If the analogy holds true, we are on the verge of the birth pangs of bringing something new into the world. It is true that all analogies break down in the end. However, I believe there are some similarities between pregnancy, birthing and nurture that might be useful to us as we set out to do a new thing as a congregation.
Allow me to be clear. I believe this ‘new thing’ could very well happen in the same place in which St. Mark’s has lived its history to date. The question, it seems to me is not so much, “Where we continue to be a community of faith in a new and challenging time for the church?”, but rather “how will we continue to be a community of faith in this new and challenging age?”
The passage from Paul’s letter to the Romans which precedes this reflection seems particularly applicable for us as we move forward together in seeking God’s preferred and promised future for St. Mark’s. These are certainly challenging times for us at St. Mark’s. We are living in a time of diminishing material resources, that much is certain. What, I believe, is also certain is that St. Mark’s spiritual resources are significant and growing.
As a congregation we are anxious, which is understandable. What I do not detect is a spirit of fear. Our community is bound by the good news that God’s love is unconditional and available in plenteous measure to anyone who seeks to come to Christ. We are also in a position to bear witness to the faithfulness of God. The way of discipleship has always been to dare to follow where God leads. That lead is nearly always out of our comfort zone and toward the margins of the growing Kingdom of God which the church has been called to help build as a result of the Great Commission of Matthew 28:19-20, “18 And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. 19 Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20 and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.”
Beginning on the evening of August 14th, we will be joined on this journey by Ms. Cindy Barnes, a consultant and layperson from the Richmond area who has experience and expertise in helping to guide congregations through seasons of transition. Ms. Barnes is excited to share our journey with us as we seek to do this new thing. She is an example of what Paul is talking about in the passage from Romans, which leads off this reflection. Our sister congregations in the Episcopal churches of Hampton are aware and prayerfully supporting our journey. When the clergy of our convocation gather we check in where we are and where we are going and pray for one another. Folks around us are “waiting with eager longing” to see what will be revealed as we move forward together in faith.
In the weeks and months following this August 14th meeting we will be meeting regularly as a congregation to pray, worship, struggle with God’s will and purpose for the story we are living and to watch how we seek for and live out that call.
Our goal is not so much to do the “right” thing as it is to make good choices as we travel on this pilgrim journey. Remember the words of St. Teresa of Calcutta, “we are not called to do great things, but to do small things with great love.” And also, “we are not called to success, but to faithfulness.”
I have no doubt we will answer that call faithfully.
There are two common sayings in Twelve Step Spirituality that I believe can help guide us as we do the work of discernment about how St. Mark’s will continue to live out is mission and ministry in the uncertainty that faces us and, frankly, faces an increasing number of congregations in many different traditions. Those two sayings are:
Take it Easy
First Things First
Simply put we often need to silence the inner dialogue before we can hear and see clearly what lies before us. When we get some clarity it is then time for us to move forward and take our next steps and repeat the process. If we can commit to that practice, I believe we will have taken major steps toward becoming more representative of “The Beloved Community” than we are already here at St. Mark’s.
These two sayings are invitations to the traditional Biblical practices of Sabbath-keeping (3 Six days shall work be done; but the seventh day is a Sabbath of complete rest, a holy convocation; you shall do no work: it is a Sabbath to the Lord throughout your settlements. )and pilgrimage or sojourn (3 Sojourn in this land, and I will be with you and will bless you, for to you and to your offspring I will give all these lands, and I will establish the oath that I swore to Abraham your father.)
Today officially marks the beginning of summer. As George Gershwin famously put it in his masterpiece Porgy & Bess, it’s ‘summer time and the living is easy.’ It is a wonderful sentiment that often is elusive and seems more like a dream than a declaration of how things truly are.
Summer is a time when we tend to slow down a bit and relax. Many of us are planning getaways for various lengths of time. The children are out of school and the rhythm of life changes for any number of reasons. We have more time to savor the sun. The warmth of the earth nurtures the growth of local (or even our own garden’s) produce that often bursts upon our taste buds and helps us connect with the earth that we can often take for granted.
This is also the time in our liturgical calendar where we can get lulled into a bit of a trance by the hazy, lazy days of ‘Ordinary Time’ once we turn the corner of Pentecost (often right around Memorial Day) and move into that ‘long, green season’ in the church.
There is certainly a place, actually even a commandment, to support this sort of slowing down, it’s called Sabbath keeping and is quickly becoming a lost practice in our lives. Sadly, sometimes the church is no different.
I shared with the vestry the other night that clergy are not immune to the seduction of busy-ness as a measure of our worth. Sabbath, true Sabbath, does not come easy to us. Doing nothing is often equated with ‘wasting’ time. The reality is that we cannot and should not be perpetual motion machines.
That being said, Sabbath cannot be a substitute for action in response to the Gospel.
We are currently in a season in the Lectionary when we will read a great deal of Mark’s Gospel. I would say there’s some providence in that given our circumstances and that Mark is our patron.
As this ‘long, green season’ unfolds I would bring your attention to the rhythm of Jesus’ ministry. Particularly in Mark Jesus alternates between withdrawal (often for prayer alone) and active ministry (feeding, teaching, preaching, healing). As I have mentioned to before these are complimentary and necessary partners in the work of ministry in general and particularly in a season of discernment around questions related to vision, mission and direction for both individuals and congregations.
While this summer will be a time for us to live together into our new schedule of worship, formation and fellowship (Sabbath-keeping) it will also be a time that we will need to gather to share honestly about the big questions facing about finance, resources and facilities (navigating the pilgrim’s way). I hope and pray that you all will dedicate time to both Sabbath and discernment as the summer unfolds and we seek clarity on what God’s vision is for St. Mark’s.
May our rest and Sabbath give us strength and clarity for the holy sojourn ahead of us.
St. Mark's Moves to a Single Sunday Service Beginning June 17th at 9:30 amAfter three parish conversations, prayerful consideration and the input of Sunday staff, the Vestry and Leadership has set forth the following trial schedule for Sundays beginning on June 17th and running through Labor Day weekend.
8:30 to 9:15--Formation and Spiritual Development in the Rose Room
9 am--The Sanctuary will be open for quiet reflection and prayer (if you would like to have a conversation with fellow parishioners, please do so in the narthex and at a tone that is respectful for those seeking quiet time)
9:30 am -10:45 am--Weekly Eucharist and Worship (there will be a balance between choral music and silence that seeks to honor the both and allows for a variety of devotional expression)
10:45--Fellowship in the Wray Center--We will be seeking volunteers to provide light, quality refreshments. Please consider joining with another person or family in providing this repast to help lighten the load
As we move toward fall and the resumption of choir we will set a regular schedule for choir to help lead worship twice a month.
This week's Old Testament Reading is an important one for people of faith, especially for those who are seeking direction and a new sense of possibility in relationship to the Living God.
Samuel, the son of Hannah, has been dedicated to the service of YHWH as was typical of first born male children in Judaism as it was practiced in his time.
Part of the story has to do with how the life of the People of God had grown stagnant due to a relative lack of God's speaking to and inspiring to Israel about their call and purpose as they lived out the covenant made between them and YHWH.
Water is kept from becoming stagnant when it is kept in motion. Our Baptismal Font at St. Mark's is a good physical reminder of the importance of water in motion. Remember that Jesus referred to the water we receive from him like this, "The water that I will give will become in them a spring of water gushing up to eternal life.” The Holy Bible: New Revised Standard Version. (1989). (Jn 4:14). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.
Part of the life of a healthy and faithful parish is a commitment to keep seeking the next chapter in its life. We are called to fight against stagnation and to keep the water moving. Life at St. Mark's is not stagnant, but we are part of a tradition in America that has, in some ways, gone stagnant. The expectation of Churches to each be housed in independent, single use buildings is bleeding many small and medium sized congregations dry financially and in terms of the energy of the congregation to support the building.
Often the support of the building comes at a cost to ministry to those who are outside the church's wall. The Most Rev. William Temple, former Archbishop of Canterbury, once said, "the church is the only organization that I know of that exists primarily for those who are not its members."
To live into this promise it is important that we return again and again to the promises of Baptism to be of service to others, seek justice, respect dignity, participate in the apostles teaching and fellowship, the breaking of the bread and the prayers, and repent and return to God when we screw up.
As we continue on our listening, prayer, discernment and commitment to God's call for us may we all remember to be bold in asking for the fullness of God's vision to be revealed in the spirit of Eli's request to Samuel in the text quoted above this reflection
As we prepare to turn the calendar to June and really get into the summer season, I’d like to take a bit of time to reflect on my favorite Celtic Saint (maybe my all time favorite saint) Brendan the Navigator. I believe that Brendan’s life of faith, courage and adventure may have lessons for we at St Mark’s as we set forth on a journey of discernment about the future life, mission and ministry of our community.
Brendan was born in County Kerry in Ireland in the village of Fenit near Tralee adjacent to the Dingle Peninsula in 484 CE. He was baptized by Bishop Erc of Ardfert and dedicated to the church by his parents and raised by a nun named Ita. Ita’s grave is on the site of Brendan’s baptism.
After a profound call and a deepening of his conversion during an experience on Hungry Hill in County Cork on the Beara Peninsula, he established monastic quarters at the foot of Mt. Brandon on near Dingle, in Ardfert and in Clonfert in County Galway. Brendan’s monastic community, like that of St. Brigid, housed both men and women, unlike the vast majority of those in mainland Europe.
Brendan’s most enduring legacy is detailed in the Voyage of St. Brendan the Navigator. This written legend details the seven-year journey of Brendan and companions chosen from among those in his monastery to set out to a place Brendan had heard of from another monk who called it The Promised Land.
The journey across the seas by Irish pilgrim saints is not unusual. Preceded by Columba, Columcille and others, Brendan fits into the tradition of the ‘white pilgrims’ who set out on the seas in coracles, leather-hulled boats without rudder or sails and trusted the winds, waves and Spirit of God to lead them to the site of their missionary adventures. These pilgrims or ‘white martyrs’ (indicating exile) knew that they would likely never see their homelands again.
Brendan was different. Brendan set out with a destination, albeit an amorphous one, in mind. He also built and provisioned a craft large enough for at least 14 other monks. His boat, a curragh, was made of oak, elm and oxhide and had sails and a rudder. The Dingle people of Ireland, being good sailors, knew how to navigate.
Sometime between 512 and 530 Brendan set out on two journeys, the second of which would last seven years and made a repeated cyclical voyage that followed the rhythm of the liturgical calendar. The particulars of the second journey are fascinating and informative. There is evidence to suggest that perhaps Brendan and his companions reached North America fully 900 years before Columbus.
What might be informative for us and help us to understand the journey that we are on is that Brendan chose to travel in community, he returned to share the story of the journey just as the earlier pilgrim monk did with him.
We are embarking on a journey that is the result of the circumstances of the church in this age. Just as the church grew and changed over the centuries due to the context of its mission, so are the Church in the 21st Century faced with new circumstances that require us to adapt so that we might seek where God has called us to go in order that we might share the faith that is in us.
The boat that we are climbing into, like Brendan’s, has sails, a rudder and a community with a shared vision of what is possible if a group of people commit themselves to prayer, trust in the wind of the Holy Spirit and keep their home firmly placed in the grace of God in the person of Jesus Christ.
Set firmly in the liturgical tradition of the Church, bound by prayer and nourished by the mystical Body and Blood of Christ in the Eucharist, we can be assured of God’s presence and blessing on the journey, regardless of the ultimate destination.
As we embark on our journey of discernment about where and to what God is calling us, perhaps we could offer this prayer regularly as individuals and as a community. This is Brendan’s Prayer….
Shall I abandon, O King of mysteries, the soft comforts of home? Shall I turn my back on my native land, and turn my face towards the sea?
Shall I put myself wholly at your mercy, without silver, without a horse, without fame, without honor? Shall I throw myself wholly upon You, without sword and shield, without food and drink, without a bed to lie on? Shall I say farewell to my beautiful land, placing myself under Your yoke?
Shall I pour out my heart to You, confessing my manifold sins and begging forgiveness, tears streaming down my cheeks? Shall I leave the prints of my knees on the sandy beach, a record of my final prayer in my native land?
Shall I then suffer every kind of wound that the sea can inflict? Shall I take my tiny boat across the wide sparkling ocean? O King of the Glorious Heaven, shall I go of my own choice upon the sea? O Christ, will You help me on the wild waves?
(Ascribed to Saint Brendan the Navigator before sailing across the Atlantic.)