From The Bishop
Have you wondered why Christians “disfigure” their faces with the imposition of ashes on the day they begin the great fast of the Church year? Doesn’t our Ash Wednesday custom seem to fly in the face of Jesus’ words that we remember every year on this day?
Mark this well, beloved. The cross of ash that appears on our foreheads today is not a proclamation that we are faithful, religious people who’ve remembered to start Lent by going to church. The ashes are rather a silent lament that we live far from perfect lives. The ashes say that the power of sin has hold of us, and that without God, we are helpless to get free. The ashes say that even on our best days, we fall short of the creation God calls us to be. The ashes say there are places in our lives that are a big mess, and that we need to turn away from the thoughts and actions that are creating that mess, and turn towards a new way of living and being in the world.
The language of our Ash Wednesday liturgy is old fashioned and ancient. It speaks of our “wretchedness” our “wickedness” and our utter dependence on God in Christ to set us free from sin and death. While this language may seem alien or even assaulting in a culture that constantly affirms how special and valuable we are as human beings, these are words we need to hear. We have not loved God with our whole heart. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. Now begins the season of the church year when we consciously turn again to the God who loves us so, and put all our trust, hope and faith in God’s love, grace and power to forgive.
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker
I have a framed photo in my office that was a fiftieth birthday gift from my family. It’s a portrait of an iconic Nebraska Church – the little white, wood, chapel with eight windows and a modest steeple the likes of which dot the landscape all over our state. Many of our 52 Nebraska Episcopal church buildings are near twins to the one on my photo.
The photo serves as simple but meaningful prophetic witness for me. As you can see, the church building in the picture is rotting and abandoned, and though it is starkly beautiful it is also quite evidently dead. In fact, this is the church building that used to stand on I-80 near the Milford, NE exit, and it has now been completely demolished.
When I look at this photo, as I do nearly every day of my life, I am inspired and challenged both. I’m inspired by the beauty and history of our sacred landscape, and my awareness of the wonder of God’s creation and the faithfulness of the saints who have gone before and on whose shoulders we stand in our day. I am challenged to recall how fragile is the institution of the Church, and how vitally important it is for you and I to live lives of big, bold, generous faith in our own time.
The recent posts to the Ministry Memo and The Nebraska Episcopalian are absolutely bursting with news of all sorts and kinds of ministry in our Diocese of Nebraska. God is truly blessing us in this moment with opportunities to enrich our personal relationships with Christ, to build up our parish church communities, and to serve the world in the name of our Lord. Ours is a church brimming with life right now. Enjoy. Join. Give thanks to God!
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
+ Bishop Barker
Dear People of God in Nebraska –
During the season of Epiphany the Church will tell the tales of those moments in Jesus’ life when his identity was most wonderfully and fully revealed to the world. Some of those stories include a visit by three Magi to honor the baby Jesus and surprise his parents by paying homage to him much like that due a new-born king. So too we will hear the story of Jesus’ baptism in the River Jordan, and how as he rose from the waters of baptism a voice boomed out from heaven, “This is my Son, the beloved, listen to him!”
Epiphany is not just about remembering ancient tales of how we came to understand who Jesus is for us. Epiphany is also a season of invitation for all of us to watch for – and wonder about – how Jesus is revealed to us as Savor and Lord in this here and now. Epiphany is a season to watch for human activity that demonstrates extraordinary love for God and neighbor. Epiphany is a season to watch for modern day miracles. Epiphany is a season to listen for God’s voice in scripture, tradition and experience. In all these things, we apprehend the truth that God is with us…a truth that is still so surprising and life-giving that it feels like “news” to a hungry and hurting world…news we cannot help but celebrate and share, because it is good in every way.
Our Nebraska Episcopalian is one place you can find such good news, and share in the delight of the many faithful disciples across this state who have found Jesus in our Episcopal Church and who are laboring to make him know in communities both large and small by living and serving in his name.
A blessed Epipany-tide to all!
Bishop J. Scott Barker
Dear People of God in Nebraska –
Christmas has become a celebration of many things: our common humanity, the turn out of deepest winter, the myth of Santa Claus. The Barkers have an embroidered pillow we pull out at this time of year, a gift from my oldest pal. “Family and Friends are the Blessings of Christmas,” it says.
I delight in affirming and celebrating all these thoughts and truths at this time of year. Who doesn’t love a great party? Who isn’t heartened by the fact that the nigths grow shorter and the days grow longer? But Christmas, above all else, is the celebration of one utterly unique and history changing event. That is, the miracle that in Jesus Christ God becomes fully human, dwells among us, and thereby shows us how to live and love.
I pray the time of celebration just ahead is full of warmth and delight for the people of our Diocese of Nebraska and for all our fifty-three parish churches planted across this great state. I can only imagine the beauty of the many gatherings, both great and small, at which we’ll assemble to celebrate the deepest and most life-giving truth of the season. I hope you will all pray for one another, that in each and every one of our lives we might meet again the Christ whose nativity is the real blessing of the season … and the real foundation of our joy in this and every season.
Bishop J. Scott Barker
At the turn of the new year, the Bishop’s Bible Challenge will come to a wonderful conclusion for the scores of Nebraska Episcopalians who have spent time every day during the course of 2013 reading Holy Scripture. By following a simple schedule published by the Center for Biblical Studies (http://thecenterforbiblicalstudies.org), participants were able to read through the entire Bible, both Old and New testaments, over the last twelve months. Bible Challengers also received a weekly e-mail from Bishop Barker with reminders of the readings for each week as well as a handful of questions for reflection about the week’s passages. One group started a Diocese of Nebraska Bible Challenge Facebook page which maintained a lively (and sometimes irreverent!) conversation about the readings for each week.
If you missed the Bible Challenge in 2013, you can still visit the Center for Biblical Studies website and download all the information you need to read through the Bible in 2014.
– Bishop J. Scott Barker
Here comes Advent!
The season of Advent begins this year on Sunday December 1st. For many, this is felt to be the richest and most deeply meaningful season of our Church year. The great Advent theme of preparing for the coming of Christ resonates with our hopes for living in this time and place. We’re equally enticed by the notion of preparing to meet the baby Jesus again at the feast of the Nativity, and preparing to meet the adult Christ of the second coming, who’s return we await with great hope in a world that aches to meet him again and anew.
Your Advent will be richer if you take a little time right now to prepare for this season of preparation. Don’t be taken unawares when Advent dawns, but rather give some thought now to how you might simplify and enrich your life with some effort to ready your household and your soul for a meeting with Jesus. Can you pray a little more deeply? Eat a little more simply? Give a little more generously? Connect a little more meaningfully? There are lots of possibilities for celebrating Advent that can re-frame the holiday season for you from a time of harried and hurried “shoulds” to a time of quiet and delightful “cans.”
Included here is a link to a lovely Advent calendar that can easily be printed out at home and used for simple family devotions or as personal prayer resource. I hope you like it.
May your Advent be a time of readying that soothes your soul and lightens your heart. Christ coming. Prepare the way!
Bishop J. Scott Barker
Annual Council 2013 was a grand success. Our worship, celebration, reporting, debating, electing and connecting were rich and joyful in every way. Congratulations to all those who were elected to office on diocesan commissions, committees and as deputies and alternates to General Convention. Congratulations to Bishop’s Cross winners Bob Tritsch and Father Sam Bowman, each of whom have inspired generations of Nebraska Episcopalians by their faithful discipleship and grace.
Thank you to all the dozens of folks who volunteered to make annual council possible. In particular, and on behalf of our whole diocese, thanks to the staff and people of Trinity Cathedral Omaha for hosting, and extra special thanks to diocesan staff members Canon Judi Yeates, Beth Byrne and Kate Baxley who worked triple overtime to make it all come out so smoothly.
The Annual Council election results can be found here.
Thanks again to all who attended and prayed for annual council 2013. See you in Scottsbluff next year!
Bishop J. Scott Barker
John 4:22-26 (Rom 1:8-16)
October 19, 2013
I am not ashamed of the Gospel – it is the power of God for the salvation for everyone who has faith.
– From Romans 1
Annie and I went to see, The Book of Mormon last week. For those of you who don’t know about it, The Book of Mormon, is a Broadway musical now travelling around the U.S., that looks with a skeptical eye on the ministries of those fresh faced, Mormon missionaries who come ringing at all our doors. I have to say up front that I am not necessarily endorsing the show. Though I laughed as hard as I have ever laughed in the theater (and truly, during a couple of parts I was “that guy” who was snorting so hard that I was totally bumming out the people around me!) But still, the dialogue was so crude that at more than one point I also found myself looking around to be sure there was nobody in sight that I actually knew.
Well I find this week that I can’t stop thinking about, The Book of Mormon. And that’s not because it was so funny or because I am still wondering if I have to set some higher standard for my night-on-the-town viewing pleasure. It’s rather because like any great comedy, The Book of Mormon picked up on deep truths about real life, and by casting them in a different light, ventured to much deeper places than just a tickle of the funny bone.
The Book of Mormon takes place mostly in Uganda, and in typical satirical fashion, all that’s hardest about living in the developing world is blown up to super-size in the play. The energy which drives the show is the tension between the experience and expectations of the young, white, middle class, naïve American missionaries and the experience of the Ugandans they visit, who are starving, living with AIDS, and in constant fear of being tortured by the neighborhood warlord and his rampaging thugs.
The plot piece that is really the engine of the whole play – is the constant and heartrending juxtaposition between the message the missionaries bring to their potential converts…and that message’s utter failure to speak to the experience of the folks they hope to save. One of the show’s running gags is the guy who has a particularly gross medical condition afflicting him in a particularly embarrassing spot. (I’m leaving out the details in this beautiful cathedral setting!) Oh yeah – he bluntly challenges the missionaries again and again at opportune moments – what do have you for this?
My dear Episcopal brothers and sisters, as surely as The Book of Mormon is about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, it is also about us.
– If we would truly and deeply live into our Baptismal vows…
– If we would seek and serve Christ in all persons…
– If we would maybe – just maybe – grow our churches…
We’ve got to answer the persistent question the world is asking the Church right now: What do you have for this?
We are in fact living in a moment of unprecedented challenge and change for humankind. We are hastening towards global environmental disaster. In the lifetime of the youngest people now dwelling on earth, everything changes. We live in the midst of economic disparities that are unsustainable and frankly and utterly immoral. Our unbridled accumulation of wealth and deep reticence to share with others is a moral failing of epic proportions. Sixty years on from the last world war, we’ve become so cavalier about the use of blunt military force to achieve our political and economic ends that we don’t even recognize we’re at war anymore.
We live in a moment of unprecedented challenge and change for humankind, and all around us, people of every age – especially young people – are aware of these realities and are looking for the answers on which their health, wholeness and very survival depend: What have you got for this?
Now I share in every way your passion for our Episcopal way. This Church brings delight and meaning to my life! I believe that in our Book of Common Prayer – especially in our most ancient prayers – we have inherited some of the most beautiful poetry in the English language. I believe that our hymn lyrics are the most theologically astute in Christendom, and that our hymn tunes reach heights of musical excellence unmatched in the music of any other denomination. I believe that our church governance – patterned from top to bottom after the image of the “body of Christ and its many members” and utterly reliant on the Spirit to move thru democracy – is the best and most faithful church structure anywhere.
I could go on and on – but I doubt I have to. If you are here today – at this particular gathering – you are surely both a disciple of Christ and a big ol’ Episcopal Church geek like me! But you and I are only secondarily, members of the Episcopal Church. We are first and foremost disciples of Jesus Christ. And it is HE – not beautiful liturgy, not progressive politics, not our rich Anglican history – that has the power to speak to the challenges of this moment.
Today we celebrate the feast of Henry Martyn, who at the very beginning of the 19th century served in India and Persia as a priest and missionary. Martyn came from a prominent English family, was educated at Cambridge, and was a scholar of the first rank. You’ve all read enough history, and seen enough Masterpiece Classics, to have an idea about what a 19th century English cleric looked and thought like, and Henry Martyn might well have been one of those comical characters that are most TV and movie clergy – all awkward and out of touch with the lives and the passions of the people he was called to serve.
But Martyn bravely and faithfully went in the other direction. He got real about the world he was living in and the people he was called to serve… he figured out how to share the Good News of God in Christ in just the way that met the deepest needs of his new neighbors and friends. Despite the disapproval of his superiors in ministry, his preaching was supplemented whenever he could afford it with the abundant and unquestioned distribution of food – rice to be exact – to congregations, often numbering in the many hundreds, that we’re filled with people hungry for more than words. Faced with a people whose prospects were extremely limited because of poor access to education, Martyn built schools and solicited funding from back home to keep them going, in a major effort to sew seeds of hope, and to meet the deepest needs of his new neighbors. And Martyn learned the languages of the people of his new home, so that he could not only communicate with ease – but as is ever the case when learning a whole new language – might himself be changed, by coming to know more of the thought and aspirations of his new friends.
In time he translated the entire Bible and the Prayerbook into Hindi, and translated the New Testament into Persian….making available to whole countries, cultures and continents the Good News of God in Christ.
Henry Martyn figured out how to answer the question: What have you got for this? By spreading the Word in some brand new ways.
In The Book of Moron one of the Ugandan characters sings a song about the promised land that has been touted by the missionaries. The song pokes fun of course. It turns out the promised land is not heaven or the kingdom of God glimpsed now in the ministry of the Church but rather, Salt Lake City. At the show, the audience laughed and laughed. We’re so sophisticated. We know how far one arid US city – lets’ face it, ANY physical location here on the earth – is sure to fall short of paradise.
But the character who sings about this promised land is utterly in earnest. She has real human pain and deep human need that only a relationship with God could possibly and miraculously cure. As she sings about a kingdom that comes right out the Book of Revelation – a place there is no pain, where there is laughter instead of dying, where there is healing and food and friendship a-plenty – her song suddenly turns. And she gives voice to the hidden anxiety of every human being that hears a whisper of the Good News from a Christian, or who dares to visit a church on a Sunday morning:
I’ll bet the people are open-minded…
And don’t care who you’ve been…
All I hope is that when I find it, I’m able to fit in…
Will I fit in?
If we continue to lead with our old tricks beloved, I’m afraid that for many people who visit our parish churches or are served by our church outreach ministries, the answer to that question will be “No.” We’ve spoken to one another and our world for generations in a very particular and beautiful vernacular: Elizabethan English, classical sacred music, fancy vestiture, traditional church architecture. I do not suggest we reject this wonderful inheritance, only that we put first things first. Given the challenges of this moment in human history – given the gnawing hunger and hopelessness that is daily life for so many – only one offering will suffice.
Our Good News – that Christ is alive and has shown us how to live and love in a whole new way – that essential message remains unchanged and unchanging. It is as new, and compelling and true today as ever it was. That Gospel is light and life for every human being that ever was or ever will be. We are called like Henry Martyn to spread the Word in this extraordinary moment. Will we proclaim Christ the Constant Gardener, through stewardship – the honest care and conservation of our resources – for the earth? Will we proclaim Christ the Bread of Heaven, as we provide food – real food – for the hungry? Will we follow Christ the Prince of Peace, as we push back – in the courageous and peaceful rejection of any use of violence to achieve political or economic gain?
Will we take up the cross, by self emptying – the sacrificial sharing of the resources God has entrusted to our care, so that others can know the grace of having enough?
I believe we already know how to do this. The Church has been learning to speak new languages for 2,000 years.
What have we got for this? “Jesus” is the answer. Our task today is simply to find new ways to spread the Word!
+ J. Scott Barker
October 19, 2013
Doubletree Hotel – Omaha, NE
Dear Brothers and Sisters –
Grace to you and Peace in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. It gives me real joy to begin by saying there is a ton of good news to report to you this morning. I have news of big prayers answered. I have news of fresh initiatives in our diocese that will help us to be increasingly faithful disciples and an increasingly healthy Church. I have news of what’s on the horizon for us, including some exciting prospects for the year and years to come.
Last year at this time I was more than a little nervous. Twenty percent of our churches served by full time priests were searching for new rectors, and a fistful of additional smaller churches were looking for part-time help. A twenty or twenty-five percent turn-over in our clergy ranks seemed a little fraught to me, not to mention that one of those discerning churches would be choosing the priest who would be my next-door neighbor for many years to come. So I asked you at council last year – “begged” you might be a little more true – to please pray for all those communities in transition, that The Holy Spirit might guide us in calling some really fine new priests.
Answered prayer! We are so abundantly and already blessed by the new clergy who have come to live and serve with us in our Diocese of Nebraska. We will introduce you to all of them just a little later on this morning, but I want you to know now that I could not be more pleased with – and proud of – these fine new leaders. A big answered prayer.
Last year in Kearney, I gave you an update about St Barnabas – the Anglo-Catholic parish in Omaha that we’d fallen into some real and deep disagreement with over the years. Though the threat of still more legal action loomed, I was hopeful. “I fully expect,” I said:
…that next year at this time I will be able to report to you on the creative and faithful way we found to move forward. And in order to help achieve that end, pray: for the good people of Saint Barnabas and for all those who are working to resolve this dispute.
Answered Prayer! This spring, we finalized a settlement agreement and brought to end over a decade of dispute and years of litigation and its associated expense. We let Saint Barnabas keep the building. In turn we received from the congregation a substantial payment for that church property. We parted ways charitably. The people of Saint Barnabas are pleased. Your diocesan leadership is pleased. Your Presiding Bishop is pleased. I think Jesus is pleased too. Thanks be to God – another answered prayer.
Last year at this time we talked about the amazing ministry of the Tri-Faith Initiative – as well as the great challenges that ministry presented, as we puzzled to figure out how to accomplish all we felt called to do. “What we have been doing up to this moment, has been unsuccessful in some important ways,” I said last year,
…we need to be honest about that, and we need to be real about the likelihood that the structure of the Episcopal Tri-Faith presence will be changing in the weeks and months to come. God knows what is next. And God will show us the way… I bid your prayers.
Prayers … answered! Since last we met, our Christian Tri-Faith effort has welcomed a new partner to the table. The Diocese of Nebraska is now in partnership with – and fully supported by – the Nebraska Synod of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. Working with the Lutherans means an infusion of new members at the congregational level, new talent at the board level and a new pool of financial resources on which to draw as we begin constructing a church on the Tri-Faith campus.
We’ve always known that our Episcopal Church was a little too small to achieve all we’ve dreamed for this Tri-Faith effort on our own. Our partnership with the Lutherans – and the prospect even perhaps of adding an additional partner in the months and years to come – will mean not only access to greater resources to build this venture, but a much fuller and more vibrant expression of Christianity on the Tri-Faith campus when that church is finally built.
Amazing answered prayers!
Two of the challenges you invited me to take on at the time of my election were to cultivate great church leaders for our diocese, and to get a handle on our diocesan finances. I’m delighted to report this morning on an initiative that has already achieved some meaningful success in these two areas of priority. Just last month, we held a kick-off event for a new diocesan ministry: “The Bishop’s Society for Clergy Excellence.”
We got a core of folks together from a pool of representative parishes around the diocese, and asked people if they’d pledge at least $1,000 a year over three years, to help us build a program to attract and keep great priests here in our diocese. The idea is to establish a diocesan sponsored “curacy” placement for brand new seminary grads. We’ll ask them – and pay for them – to work for 18 months as a staff member in one of our large eastern churches, and then for 18 months as a priest-in-charge at one of our smaller, western parishes. That’s three years of wonderful formation for a young priest in very different settings and three years to fall in love with – and so choose to stay in! – the Diocese of Nebraska.
The goal of our first Bishop’s Society gathering was to raise pledges totaling $25,000 a year for three years. With that much – and some support from our regular budget and our Bishop Clarkson Foundation – we knew we could begin building this new curacy project. Well thanks be to God – didn’t we raise $35,000 that first night – with promises for a like amount annually over the next three years. Even cooler, we were given a gift by the Lauritzen Foundation promising that every dollar pledges in 2014 to build up our diocesan endowments will be matched buck-for-buck up to $100,000 this coming year.
Now that’s a big deal – because if we can grow our diocesan endowments, we can lower the amount of the faith-asking we ask from all of you to fund diocesan ministries. And if you all are asked to share less with the diocese, you’ll have more to do ministry at the parish level (where we all know the best stuff happens.)
So this is the work towards which the Bishop’s Society will next turn. In the months to come we hope to grow this group to include folks from every parish in the Diocese of Nebraska, and not just a few representative parishes. And we’re even now working on a fun party to celebrate the success I am sure we’ll achieve in the year to come. I urge those of you who believe in our diocesan mission and have the resources to support our work, to join the team.
For some time we have struggled as a diocese to provide good formation for folks who have a calling to serve the Church in ordained ministry. Residential seminary formation is still the norm for priests, but seminary does not work for every person’s setting in life, nor is it necessarily the right pattern of formation for folks who do not intend to make a paid career of being a priest.
And for a long time we relied on EFM as our principle curriculum for diaconal formation – but that wonderful program was never intended for that purpose, and EFM training left more than one deacon frustrated that they were not as well prepared as they might have been for service in the Church and the world.
This past year, we said YES to an invitation from several neighboring dioceses to be part of the Bishop Kemper School for Ministry. This part-time educational program – meeting on a campus on the grounds of Grace Cathedral in Topeka – is proving to be just the right solution for Nebraskans who have a calling to serve Jesus as priests and deacons, but for whom other ways of formation are not a fit. Later today, you’ll hear from Father Andrew Grasso, the Dean of the Bishop Kemper School, who is with us to share a bit more about how the school works and how we hope to enrich its offerings in the years to come.
Along with the four postulants we now have in formation at the Kemper School, I am so excited about this new initiative, and its potential for helping us shape really fine clergy to serve here in Huskerland.
The last new initiative to which I want to draw your attention this morning, is the substantial investment we’re making in re-visioning and re-organizing our international mission and service work.
You know that for many years, the Diocese of Nebraska has been a real leader in supporting international mission work. We’ve made a difference in the lives of countless folks in the developing world through our ministry overseas. And the people we’ve come to know and love through those efforts have of course, made a profound difference in our lives too.
That work was particularly lead through the ministry of Bob and Ellen Snow, the recipients of last year’s Bishop’s Cross award, who for many years lived and worked in the Dominican Republic as missionaries from the Diocese of Nebraska. Complimenting the Snows service over the years have been countless parish-based mission and service efforts, ranging from bike riding and volley ball bashing fundraisers, to actual mission trips emanating straight from our parish churches, for youth and adults alike.
A little later today, Canon Yeates will give a presentation to update you on the details of our current diocesan mission partnerships, as well as our hopes for the future. The essential thing I want you to know is that we remain deeply committed to our mission partners not only in the diocese of the Dominican Republic but in the diocese of Twic East in South Sudan as well. And that as part of that, we will endeavor in the months to come to focus all our efforts much more closely on the ministry priorities towards which Bishop Holguin of the DR and Bishop Deng of Twic East have pointed us.
More to come.
Our Future Together
As far as diocesan mission priorities, count on a continued emphasis on “the basics” in 2014 and beyond. We will strive to find ways to help unify the diverse and far-flung parish communities that are the constituent members of this Diocese of Nebraska.
– We will continue our efforts to build commissions and committees that are representative of the whole diocese. We will continue to meet (and eat!) all over this great state. I will continue to visit every parish church, every year, without exception. We will strive within the limitations of our modest resources to provide services the likes of which will be most helpful to equip and encourage ministry at the parish level.
– Expect a major effort to help provide great formation for vestry members in the nearest future – that in response to frequent and urgent requests for help in that area.
– Expect some diocesan restructuring to provide a more constant presence for support and resourcing in the west.
– Expect programs like the Bishop’s Bible Challenge, our Nebraska Common Prayer Facebook page and our new on-line Nebraska Episcopalian to continue to come to the fore. Programs that everyone can plug into with minimal effort. Programs which feature the basics of Christian discipleship, like Bible study, healthy communication and common prayer.
Now about our longer term future together, I’d like to share a story.
I visited a small church in a vast, western Nebraska county a couple of months ago. I was scheduled for an evening visit, and I was looking forward to a time of worship, prayer, conversation and feasting with a group of good people that I seldom get to see. I arrived about fifteen minutes ahead of what I thought was the appointed hour, and was surprised on walking into the church’s parish hall to see the whole gang already assembled. There were about a dozen folks sitting around tables and looking a little bored and frankly perhaps – just a little bit pissed.
I lead with my winningest Nebraska nice guy smile. “Howdy everybody, how’s it going?”
“You’re late,” was the rather stern response from the senior warden.
Well – turns out the wires had got crossed. My mistake undoubtedly – I apologized – but things started quickly to go from bad to worse as I worked to try and salvage the evening. To my suggestion that we head into the church proper for worship as a start to the night, “No. The church is too hot.”
To my suggestion that folks arrange themselves in a circle so we could talk together and I might here a little about what was going on in the parish: not a soul got up from the little family groups into which they’d already sorted themselves at the parish hall tables. Uh oh.
To tell you the truth, though I thought the gang was being a little bit ornery, I was also sympathetic. There I was smack dab in the middle of yet another disappointment, the likes of which so often characterize life in the Church. And not just life in our small churches, but in every church everywhere in this and every other diocese and denomination on God’s good earth.
You come to church on a Sunday morning maybe especially in need of prayer and support – maybe excited to share some great family news with the folks of the congregation – only to find that an argument about the church memorial garden has put everybody in a foul mood and is keeping them from listening when you need them most.
You plan the big fundraising event to raise cash for the mission team to go to the reservation or contribute to the Sowers Fund but the very day the goods are delivered the calls start rolling: we got our Christmas greens (or their thanksgiving pies or our Halloween pumpkins) from the Boy Scouts this year. Sorry.
You plan a nice evening with the bishop, and the son-of-a-gun shows up so late that by the time you see his face, everybody is half checked out and ready to go home.
It can be pretty discouraging. And you know it was always like this, right? Even in the 1950s and 1960s and 1980s people were still people and so church life and church ministry was never easy.
So back at church that night, we did finally begin the conversation I was hoping we’d have. If you’ve ever been in any meeting with me at all, you have probably had some version of this conversation. Could we go around the circle and hear a story from each person about some way you met Jesus in the past year because of your affiliation with this church?
If I wasn’t especially surprised to meet a slightly grumpy group that evening…well – neither was I surprised by the way things changed when we started focusing on the Lord. As we began to go around the circle – and people (God bless them!) took my little question seriously and started to share real stories about where they’d encountered Christ in that little church community – suddenly everything was different. People recalled profound experiences of healing and encouragement and celebration in the midst of which the person of Jesus was so truly present that no one could doubt he was risen indeed. People remembered relationships with church folk that went to a place of such intimacy and mutual sacrifice, they knew with every fiber of their being that they were not merely in the presence of a fellow member of the Church, but were in fact in the presence of the Holy One of God. By the end of that time of storytelling together, virtually everybody in the circle was in tears.
And there was a phone call a couple days later saying that it had turned out to be one of the best conversations they’d had in church in a long while and that on Sunday, for the first time in a really long time, everybody was in church.
Following Jesus is not easy. It never was – and it never will be. Jesus does not promise our lives will be free of challenge, struggle, conflict and pain because we follow him. What he promises is to fill all that experience with his presence.
Life in our parish churches may very well be difficult in this time and place, maybe even lots more difficult than was the case last year, or ten years ago…or when first you came to Christ whenever that glorious day might have been. Try not to let that get you down. Know that you are beloved. Know that for as long as you break the bread and say the prayers and meet in his name, Christ will be in the midst of your communities. Know that even your modest and seemingly unsuccessful efforts really matter, that God is pleased with the trying, and will take care of the results.
Never forget that he is always present when we gather in his name, and that if we invite him and dare to follow, he will lead us a guide us for all our days.
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
The Right Rev. J. Scott Barker
The 146th Annual Council of the Diocese of Nebraska will be hosted by the people of Trinity Cathedral in Omaha this year. A packed weekend over October 18-20 is planned for all. It’s our particular hope that folks who make the long journey from westernmost Nebraska to participate in council will enjoy the special opportunities we’ve provided to for worship, nurture and mission in and around Omaha.
On Friday October 18, you can join in stocking a mobile food pantry at Holy Spirit Church in Bellevue, you can participate in Evensong lead by the clergy and choir of Trinity Cathedral (18th and Capitol Streets), and you can learn about the history of our diocese (and this bishop!) in the museum rooms and exhibits at the Clarkson Center.
On Saturday October 19, join in the 8 AM festival Eucharist at Trinity Cathedral, and then make your way across the street to the Doubletree Hotel. The business meeting of Annual Council runs from 9:45 – 5:30 PM, and there will be ample room in the convention hall for visitors and guests. Highlights will include the Bishop’s annual address scheduled for 10 AM, and the presentation of the Bishop’s Cross, scheduled for 3 PM.
On Sunday October 20, Episcopal Churches all over Omaha are ready to welcome you to worship and pray with your brothers and sisters in Christ. If you’ve got any energy left, a 5 PM “Dominican Night” will be hosted by Saint Andrew’s parish in Omaha. The event is open to all and proceeds will benefit mission outreach ministries to our mission partners in the DR.
I bid your prayers for a lively, engaged and successful Annual Council – and for the strength and courage to take what we receive at council back out into our larger diocese, “Spreading the Word” of our enthusiasm for Christ’s bountiful love to all those around us. I am confident it will be a weekend of wonderful celebration and prophetic challenge for the people of God in the Episcopal Diocese of Nebraska.
Faithfully Yours in Christ –
The Rt. Rev. J. Scott Barker