by the Rev. Bruce Gray I took the photo above this week when I made a quick stop at the church to sign some papers. Like the rest of the staff, I have been working from home these recent months due to COVID19, and parish worship and gatherings have all been online. So the main doors from the parking lot into the church have gone unused.
This has given these two petunia plants a place to grow without being disturbed. But of course I see them as a metaphor. Even when the life of the church does not get to take place at the church, it goes on, and finds new places to blossom. That is the wonderful way God works in the world in general, and in each of our individual lives in particular. God is always seeking to give us new life, new ways to bloom, new ways to feel and share God's love for all.
Even though the people of Holy Family do not get to be together in person, the church and its ministries live on, and even grow. Even though we have now lived months in strange places, seeds that we did not even know were planted have sprouted and blooms can be seen, if we look. I am very glad I did not accidentally squash these two small petunia plants, and similarly, may we not, through our inattention, squash new ways God is loving us and loving the rest of the world, even in, or rather especially in, difficult times and places.
By the Rev. Bruce W. Gray If you were in central Indiana today, Friday June 26th, you got to experience a desert sandstorm. Unless you are an obsessive news follower like I am, you probably had no idea that at a very high altitude there was a massive sand storm that had blown all the way from Africa. It darkened skies in the Caribbean, but here we mostly experienced it as oddly dry air, moderate winds, and eye irritation from the tiny particles. Perhaps the only way to really see the sandstorm was at sunset (I admit, I was not awake to see the sunrise today, but maybe it was even sandier). From my backyard, the sky as the sun went down had a unique tan over tone, with everything looking like I was seeing the world through brown tinged sun glasses. It was fascinating, but after awhile my eyes became sore enough that I had to go inside.
One reason I was outdoors was the actual feel of the air. At first I could not place what was so striking about it, and then when I let my mind sort of relax rather than to run in over analysis mode, I realized what I was experiencing. I was back in time, over twenty years ago, when I lived for about seven years on the edge of the desert, west of Palm Springs, California. There the summer days were hot, but when the evening winds came up, though full of sand, they carried cool air from the ocean almost a hundred miles to the west. Then it would be time to play outside, with my kids, one of the many softball teams I was on, with friends throwing around a football in the quiet street we lived on. In other words, happy times. So this evening, as my eyes teared up and I started to cough, I had strong feelings of happiness and contentment as I again experienced good times from a third of a lifetime ago.
In the midst of these troubled times, it is important to pull on our savings accounts of happy memories, of times recent or long past, when we felt loved, purposeful, faith filled, or simply safe. Sometimes, when we revisit those times and places in our minds, we might see in new ways how God was present and loving us, or if we are lucky, we have always known and so remembering is like reading our personal holy scripture, in which we see God's subtle and might acts in the immediate world around us. These days are the perfect time for such memories, to help us hold to the faith that God never leaves us, and the holy hope that things will get better. The darker the night, the more important it is to pull to mind those times of light, those times of love, those times of God being close and evident.
In this time of pandemic, societal conflicts, and appropriately deep and difficult discussions around anti racism, it can be easy to think that life has gone off the rails in various ways. As someone who likes trains, I am reading a book by that title, “Off the Rails: A Train Trip Through Life" by Beppe Severgnini, an Italian travel writer. I thought it would be an entertaining (or should I say entertraining?) lightweight book to escape a bit from these challenging times.
Instead, it has surprised me with insights about life that are very applicable to today. It was hard to choose just one quote to share for the sake of brevity, but here is the winner...
"[Our lives] can derail because of a trifle. But it is our duty to fix the track and continue our journey, even if it’s a difficult one , even if we know it won’t go on forever. To discover you’re resilient is a source of relief, and relief is a sophisticated form of happiness." We are in times that are testing our resilience in completely unexpected ways. I hope you are experiencing surprising amounts of resilience, and through that experience a sophisticated form of happiness. That is no small thing to have, and I am grateful to God when that gift is given.
If you’ve ever been on a long trip with a small child - or if you can remember being a child yourself - then likely you are familiar with the refrain, “Are we there yet?” It starts out like the panting of a happy puppy: quick, repetitive, cheerful. After an hour or so it becomes as much a slog as traffic in a big-city rush hour: Are we therrre yeeeeet?
Reading the news in recent days I think I’m hearing a lot of that familiar, slogging whine: Can we go to chuuurch yet?
That refrain raises an old question for me. Just what is Church? The quick answer is, of course, that Church is many things. Many of us have faced and answered that question at least once before in our lives, some of us many times. Right now, we might add the question, “Where is Church?”
I believe that “Church” is whenever and wherever these things are present: There is a bond among people, where people are gathered, seeking and finding joy, grounded in God, a gathered people seeking consolation, or hope, or clarity - again, grounded in God. Church is hearts united in prayer, hearts listening together for inspiration and wisdom - from scripture, through song, through sermons, through smiling faces - and, now, through those little floating bubble hearts that Facebook offers to us!
In the past several weeks while participating in Holy Family’s online worship, I have found deep consolation and the highest joy praying the Psalms with the background melody of a rushing creek. A sermon punctuated by birdsong is utter delight. Being offered God’s Peace by a tiny child...or by feet brandishing tap-shoes, color brought to us by spring flowers, and the deepening, lush shades of green as trees ripen toward summer. Seeing friends in the intimacy of their homes, standing on noisy urban sidewalks, snuggling with family pets, stuffed into that back of their car, and held safe in the branches of a tree...praying and offering their lives to God from all those places. And we can’t forget the technological brilliance of hands that operate all those recording devices (cell phones?) and those that quilt all the bits into a lovely whole, those who shoot it through the air to us on Sunday morning - and those e-offered comments and heart bubbles that (oddly enough) I’ll actually miss when we’re able to meet again in person! These things are all new - creativity, born from odd and troubling days. You have done this, People of Holy Family! This is Church - Church in the spirit of her most ancient and revered tradition. It is liturgy (liturgia) living up to its own truest definition - the work of the people!
If I was tech-skeptical at the beginning of this journey on the side rail (yes, I was), I am skeptical no longer. The Sunday morning ritual of gathering around the computer screen with a cup of tea, to be enlightened and inspired, to pray and to laugh, IS Church. It is a sacred and holy act (even when the center aisle of Facebook clogs up and leaves us in a moment of suspended animation!). Church is that time and space where, collectively, we pin our hearts to God...and we’re doing that. We’re doing it in abundance, and we’re doing it in creative and open-hearted ways.
There are things I miss, of course: Real hugs. Joining voices in song and prayer. Children feasting on donuts - and, ok, grown-ups feasting on donuts. I miss being sniffed by Benson the Dog at 8 a.m. And I miss Eucharist - the gathered feast of Bread and Wine, the gathered ritual of people bound together in the harvest of God’s Earth. I really miss that! Eucharist is a vital, tangible way in which God engages and delights all our senses.
But it’s not the only way.
Have we learned from this side rail that God is with us, God gathers us, binds us, blesses us wherever we are? I hope so.
Church has traditionally been seen as a place of Sanctuary...red doors, a safe place, where we can let go of pretense and anxiety and fear. Right now Sanctuary has relocated itself into our homes, where we can be free from the anxiety of coughs and contagion, and free from living inside taped-off boundaries. Free to take off our masks in God’s presence, while having a better chance to stay free from a fatal disease.
Covid19 has pressed us toward new ways of being community, of being God’s people gathered...Church. If we are to find ourselves secure - safe - in God’s arms, then, for now, we must be together by being apart. I don’t want to read another story of people so desperate to gather in church that dozens of church members are made ill, die.
I do believe, with all my heart and soul and mind, that life is an integrated whole, that God’s fingerprints mark everything that is. But the hard truth we have learned many times through history is that God does not hold a magic sword designed for slaying viruses. That is a task for the wisdom God has granted us - and helped us to nurture and expand through the long ages of our life on Earth.
In this moment we best do God’s work of valuing life and respecting every person when we join our hearts and keep our bodies at home. Are we Church yet? Yes, I’d say - in surprising and creative ways we might never have imagined only a few months ago! We might need to “be Church” this way for some time to come...and, I I have no doubt whatsoever, we will be blessed and renewed and loved by God in every moment - Church, as we always are.
Holy Family, Fishers, has been worshiping together exclusively on the internet, via Facebook and YouTube, since March 15. One of the major concerns has been keeping the large number of parishioners under 18 connected and nurtured by Holy Family even though physical gatherings are not possible. The teens are adapting to Zoom get togethers well, playing games, praying, and just talking with each other.
The youngers were a bigger worry, since communicating through a screen only goes so far with them. Fortunately, Holy Family has a long history of children being in church and active in as many roles as possible, so the worship via the internet was filled with familiar patterns and words. One of the mothers in the parish sent me these encouraging words, which I am sharing with her permission...
We became licensed as transitional foster parents for migrant children from the border earlier this year and accepted our first placement in March, a three year old boy from Guatemala. This also coincided with social distancing and staying at home due to the coronavirus. He arrived on a Saturday, and the first few days were understandably quite challenging. I remember thinking after our first breakfast that Sunday morning that church probably wouldn’t be happening, or that we would need to watch it after the kids were in bed. He had been begging to do play dough since he woke up, so after breakfast, we got out the play dough and all of the supplies to go with it. He and our four year old daughter Nina were calm, quiet, and content playing at the kitchen table for the first time since his arrival, so we decided to stream the church service. They were both intrigued and often looked up at the screen while continuing with their creations. Nina got excited about seeing people she knew and hearing familiar phrases and prayers. They sat there playing through the whole service, and a new routine was formed.
Since then, every Sunday we break out the play dough (or more recently, homemade slime) and have church together at the kitchen table. Our little boy’s English has exploded, and he is constantly asking me about words, so during church, he now asks multiple times what “alleluia” is and gets very excited when he hears “Jesus.” Both kids have both been belting out “Glory to God in the highest and peace to God’s people on earth” and have loved seeing people do their readings out in nature (or from a tree). While we really miss being with the church community in person, we have come to enjoy and appreciate these calm moments together at the table in the midst of weeks that often have a lot of chaos. We are so grateful to everyone who is making the online services possible and wanted to let you know the impact it is having, even on the little ones.
This year, Holy Week and Easter were experienced by many people in a new and unique way, as churches in many parts of the world were closed to limit the spread of COVID-19. As many have already said, the best way Christians could love their neighbors, as both Jesus and the prophets before him instructed, would be to stay home. This dynamic continues today, and the best ethical practice remains the same-stay home for the sake of the wider world.
So Holy Family has been working hard to create and share meaningful worship without being in the church, and with all the leaders and participants being at their homes. So rather than worrying about whether the temperature in the church is comfortable and the bathrooms are clean before a Sunday service, I watch the weather forecasts for the week so that I can plan to record my portions of the service on a pretty day outside. I still am responsible for making sure the bathrooms are clean, but just at my house.
What has been surprising to me each Sunday, as I sit at home experiencing the prerecorded service, is who many people are participating in this way. Some Sundays there have been as many people who watched on YouTube or Facebook as we have had in attendance in person in past years. That makes me want to do my best with worship all the more, but also gives me a sense of hope that the Grinch called COVA-19 has not been able to steal people's connection to God, to take away our faith, hope, and love (to quote 1 Corinthians 13), nor separate us from our fellow human beings, particularly those in need. Instead, many people are taking these very different times as a chance to live in very different ways, choosing to spend our time of necessary distance to develop intentional and deep ways of connecting with both strangers and people close to us.
So COVID-19 did not steal Easter, and it cannot steal our identities of beloved children of God, who continue to be loved deeply by the one who conquered death on Easter through the Resurrection, and continues to offer to everyone new life, new hope, and new meaning even in times that feel chaotic. We are people of the Resurrection, and are called to live that reality in our actions, words, and perspectives, with generosity and joy given by God.
By the Rev. Cathy Gray I’ve been taking extra long walks in our neighborhood this week - right along with several other locals, all of them feeling the pressures of being house-bound by a combination of Covid 19 and sloshing rain. I miss people - family living outside my household, and friends. I miss the vibrancy of being in church - the unique energy that slides from silence to song and back again , seamlessly. I miss standing near someone whose life is fully unlike my own...but there we are, praying together in one voice - or in common silence. I miss stretching out my hands to receive that little taste of Bread - something so commonplace that it’s significance can be easily missed. I miss the passing of the Peace and I miss the exhortation to “Go into the world in peace” - reminding me that the nurture and courage we are granted in worship comes with a calling to take God into the world with us, to hold it all like a shiny penny or a new joy - a thing begging to be shared. But, do you know what I don’t miss? I don’t miss God. I don’t miss God because, once we know what we’re seeking, God is impossible to miss. She sings through the tree branches, just beginning to bud, quivering lightly on a gust of wind. She conducts the chorus of birds - singing robins and cardinals and sparrows and hawks - into a delightful harmony (or, to an ear more sharply tuned than mine, maybe into a delightful mis-harmony!). The tweets and the twitters and the chirps, the squealing announcement of prey spotted, the flutter of wings and the sudden surprise of an expansive swoop - all those things remind me that all is well in the world - even in this time when, clearly, not all in the world is well. I love the feeling of solid ground under my feet; I love the feeling cool, damp air on my face. I love the morning sun and the blue of the morning sky, and the sweep of gray clouds, portending an afternoon rain. I love the greetings of neighbors (at a six-foot distance) who, like myself, would rather live outside the walls and breathe the air come fresh from heaven. So, I don’t miss God. God’s wind-breath of creation, Ruach, surrounds me, swirls through me, lifts me up. It’s pretty much impossible to miss this God who refuses to leave us, this God whose delight in us is boundless, and whose love for us is endless. Be well, dear people, and, please, don’t let yourself miss God!
By the Rev. Bruce W. Gray The theme for the last week of the Lenten Challenge is Share. When Holy Family’s leadership designed the Lenten Challenge many months ago, the thought was that this part of the challenge would be focused on trying tithing (donating ten percent of one’s income) for the weeks of Lent. That is still a worthy goal for a household, and certainly Holy Family could put the funds to good use. Tithing is an important spiritual expression of our love for God and humanity.
But with the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic and of the international economic situation, the spiritual dimensions of sharing have become much more important to how we choose to live each day. Government guidance is not just about staying home to stay safe, but also to only buy what we need so there is enough for everyone that day. Sharing in this time is about being generous with giving up our personal desires to get together with people beyond our households so that more people can be saved from the virus. It is about supporting local businesses when we do go out so that all who depend upon those businesses for their livelihoods can be kept whole. It is about sharing greetings (at a safe distance) with people we come across on our neighborhood walks and parking lots when running essential errands.
There is also a deeper step we can take. We can be generous with our prayers for both people we know and for strangers. Social media is full of prayer requests (or maybe just my clergy algorithms fill my feeds with them). I am tempted to skip them if it is someone I don’t know, or if I am in cranky state, evaluate them for credibility. Instead, I should just pray for each person and situation, however briefly. I invite you to do the same.
As I work from home, I try to have a good view out the window to be able to feel the life that is flowing outside in nature. But I am also now trying to intentionally pause and pray for each person I see walking by. With a few exceptions, I have no idea what specific needs and concerns they may have, so the vast majority of the time it is simply a prayer for God’s love to be with them. It costs me just a few moments, but it makes that time holy, and the space around my desk and the space outside become deeply sacred spaces. So the world is changed for the better. I invite you to do the same.
Finally, we should take seriously the opportunity to share Holy Family widely. Right now is a great time to invite people to church, since participating in an online service is about the least threatening test drive of a church and of God there is. Increasingly, there are very bad interpretations of these times being put forth in the name of God, so now is yet another crucial time for us to share with those around us, through our Facebook feeds, FaceTime calls, and any other means, the good news that God truly loves and cares for each one of us, and quite literally, does not wish any of us ill. This past Sunday’s online worship had well over one hundred participants, through the YouTube recording and the Facebook Watch Party. I hope everyone who did so had a sense of God’s love and care. I am going to try even harder to share on my social media and other connections the invitations Holy Family sends out for those opportunities. I invite you to do the same.
As we walk the last days of Lent, I pray that we all may find times to slow down enough to share, to share what God has given us-God’s love and peace and so much more.
By the Rev. Cathy Gray Before Jesus began his ministry, before there was even a whiff of Lent, or Death, or Resurrection, or Easter, Jesus withdrew from what was familiar to him. He chose to re-locate himself for forty days to a wilderness place, a place that, in his day, was not so much a retreat space as it was a place to be avoided. Bandits hid there, and strange, gnarled branches that just might be alive.
He chose hunger. Jesus was no John the Baptist. He apparently didn’t have skills at scooping honey from the hive, or discerning locusts from ... well, from the even more unsavory insects he might stumble upon and hesitantly bite into.
Jesus chose hardship for this forty days. Stone pillows, branches and fallen leaves for cover from the cold. He chose to lie awake with the strange and haunting sounds of the night - not the simple bumps and creaks of walls settling as the air warms and chills, but the chirps and the shrill calls of night birds, the howling of wolves, and the snorts and snuffling and growling of whatever prowled or nested or hunted in darkness.
Wilderness in the first century AD was not a delight but a thing to fear - it was a certain danger, the people believed; it was a place of such mystery that to even travel along its edges - or to journey through it - took courage, strong heart. It was folly to choose to be there alone; one who would stay for forty days might be seen, on return, as occupying a space somewhere between absolute fool and stunning miracle. There is evidence that Jesus was seen as both.
Early on, in the beginning of the Christian order, this season in Jesus’ life became the model for a vital period in the lives of those who would follow him. The idea of putting aside those things that can lull us into a vague sense of comfort and those things that crowd our lives to the point of distracting us, came to be seen as a way of focusing minds and hearts on the true center of our life itself - specifically, God! And along with a clearer vision of God comes a renewal of our sense of what matters, a renewal of our commitment to those around us - those who struggle with the wilderness places of hunger, fear, injustice, uncertainty, marginalization. For those among us who are the hungry or the marginalized, Lent and the focus on God may lend a new sense of hope or courage, of a new, bold heart ready to demand justice and seek peace.
This year, though, Lent is winding its way through our global community in ways both mysterious and unwelcome. This is a Lent that doesn’t give us choices of whether or not we will refocus our lives. It has pushed us all into a wilderness we could not have predicted last time we celebrated the Resurrection. It has forced us to reconsider the meaning of community, the boundaries of togetherness, and the health implications of things as simple and as cherished as hugs and handshakes and kissing babies.
This year, Lent has quite literally gone viral. In 2020 Lent has taken on the code name of Covid 19. It doesn’t care what our usual early-spring traditions are, doesn’t care about our usual faith expressions or even whether we are people of faith at all. This year, we will all spend days, weeks, in the wilderness; many will spend it quite alone, many will face more than their fair share of frightening noises in the night, or of equally frightening silence in their days. I don’t like some aspects of this Lent at all. I don’t like it when people are lonely or afraid - or angry about feeling a need to joust with mythical windmills (and confronting this virus can certainly feel that senseless). But I get it, I guess. If I had only a newscaster for a friend, day in and day out, I’d be angry. And I am angry, because I can’t fix this for anyone.
So, indeed, we find ourselves in an odd wilderness, a place that most of us alive today have never experienced. All around us those things we take for granted are being shuttered - schools, museums, libraries, in some places even parks and zoos. I have to say, this just isn’t normal! I’ve recently been wishing for a bit more free time; now I have it and I’m not thrilled. I’m not sure what to do or how to feel or how to interact with neighbors and with strangers in the market. I’ve rarely ever in my life been bored, but just yesterday I found myself standing still, staring at a wall, and wondering if boredom would strike about a week on; would I actually run out of things to do and ideas to explore, petty things to worry over? Probably not, but I could make myself crazy fretting over such possibility, so I gave it a name - Anticipatory Boredom - then boxed it up and moved on.
Only a matter of a few days ago I thought, surely, we would experience the comfort of emerging from this Lenten wilderness journey just on time to hold one another through the empty sadness of Holy Week. I thought we would stand together to witness the light’s return and the resounding joy of the first Eucharist of Easter. Now, we know that we are to have an extension in our Lenten journey; this Covid version of Lent will last for more than its allotted forty days.
I’m thinking it may be helpful this year if we can rethink wilderness just a bit, maybe bring it more in line with our more contemporary understanding of wilderness as a rich and lovely and generous place...ok, yes, and sometimes a scary place even still! In the forest the floor is soft, cushioning and quieting your step. In a good wilderness the air is cooler, scented with the wild and the mysterious - ready to gift us with sights and sounds we would miss if we didn’t take courage and venture into such places. We might find the paw prints of a bear, sight a fawn in a meadow, be surprised by a frog on the stream bank. In a wilderness time, if we can find a way to love it for what it is, we will emerge, when we emerge, graced with lungs renewed and filled with Ruach, God’s Spirit-Breath that blew across the waters of Creation. Maybe, even, our hearts will beat a bolder rhythm, signaling a readiness to indulge ourselves in some new, creative, and healing ministry our “old selves” could never have taken on. It’s possible, of course, that some of us may come to the end of this Covid Lent journey wounded in unthinkable ways. Those of us who are broken by this season of life might perhaps take courage and comfort in knowing that we are surrounded and loved by our companions (meaning “those who break bread with us”), those who will continue to care for us and pray for us and honor us in ways inspired by God.
Our common Easter celebration will necessarily arrive later than the first Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox (that’s how Easter is dated each year). But be assured that, whatever “hold” is placed on our liturgical lives, the moon will roll around to fullness and the sun will swing its high course as it does year by year. In fact, that Sunday will dawn with Resurrection in its bones - and one by one, by household, by family, by the bonds of friendship, we will see and feel and know that the miracle of New Life is possible even in the tangle of the deepest wilderness. However scattered we may be at the time of that dawning it will still be the dawning of Easter. That dawn will carry with it the same promise it carries every year - that Christ is Risen, that we are invited to rise with him, that in God all things rise up and are lovely and life-giving and a deep, deep joy to behold!
May your rest find you cradled in God’s arms May your waking be greeted by God’s light May all that you are and all that you do Be drenched in God’s endless and unbounded love!
By the Rev. Cathy Scott Learnin' and Discernin' the Word of God This weekend’s Lenten discipline centers on reading and, taking to heart, Holy Scriptures. We hear the Scriptures every Sunday – four different scripture, usually linked around a common theme. But are we really listening? Meaning, we may cognitively pick up some of the ideas, words, and scenes from the scripture we hear, but that is just the beginning. We must also, as St. Benedict writes in his Holy Rule, listen with “the ear of our heart.” How can we do this? Here is an ancient monastic practice that is used by folks today to bring the wisdom of the Scriptures into our daily lives: Lectio divina is a practice of reading and meditating on Scripture with “the ear of your heart.” It is an easy practice with profound results. Incorporate lectio divina into your life on a daily basis. Anyone that says they have no time for a 20 minute practice may need to reevaluate what is consuming their life. Here are the steps:
Carefully and slowly read a passage of scripture. Reread it, even more slowly. Do your eyes stop on a phrase, a word….stay with that phrase or word.
Meditate on that word or phrase. What does it mean for you and your life? Your relationships? Your journey with Jesus?
Pray for understanding, courage, strength, whatever the Scripture inspires in you.
Move into contemplation. Meaning, allow that phrase or word to sink deeply into your being. Thinking is over, just rest with God's Word and allow God to work with you. End your lectio divina with Thanksgiving to God for the gift of this time and the grace of the moment.
With this practice, the Holy Scriptures will be alive to you and can impact your life in powerful ways. May your Lent be filled with God's grace and words every day and may you grow in compassion and love as Jesus taught.