November 07, 2019
Lead kindly light; lead, thou me on. I do not ask to see the distant scene; one step enough for me.
John Henry Newman
Everywhere I go across the diocese, people ask about my mother, Ann, and assure me of their continued prayers. Words cannot convey my gratitude, and that of our family, for holding her in your hearts. Through the grace of God and excellent medical care; with the prayers and support of many and her own fierce determination, Ann is steadily recovering from illness, life-altering surgery, and serious infection. Having lost nearly all her muscle strength, she is now walking again.
Her doctors and therapists are in awe of Ann’s recovery, and so are we. Yet with each milestone towards health, she realizes the magnitude of her loss. For she cannot return to her life before the illness. All that lies ahead is unknown, with no roadmap for this new terrain. So she must take the next faithful step toward a horizon beyond her sight. We who journey with her feel the same way.
Anyone whose life has “hit bottom,” as they say in twelve-step circles, will recognize this as the spiritual discipline of living one day at a time. Even if we could see the road ahead, our souls cannot fully grasp what is required of us now. Knowing this about us, God invites us into a posture of profound trust. It doesn’t exactly feel like an invitation, for life as we’ve known has been taken. Do we have a choice?
In fact, we do. The choice feels like surrender, letting go of the reins, as one of my horse-loving friends would say, and allowing God to guide us on this dimly-lit path. We can actively choose what we must accept and live by faith, which is no longer an abstract concept but the daily experience of following whatever glimpse of direction we’re given, and stumbling in the dark when the lights seem to go out completely.
In the months I have journeyed with my mother, as a diocese, we have moved from a strategic planning process to the adoption of a plan, and we are now in a preparation phase for the first year of implementation. On the surface, these two journeys have nothing in common, yet for me, there are striking parallels. Our diocesan plan is full of the language you would expect--it speaks of priorities, goals, metrics, anticipated outcomes, giving the impression that we have taken charge of our destiny. Yet from the beginning, this endeavor has been a journey of faith, rooted in the profound realization that as your bishop I need to rely on the Holy Spirit for guidance each step of the way. We all do.
Our consultants have encouraged us to think in small, faithful steps, in a posture of intentional humility, learning as we go. The depth psychologist Carl Jung once described this way of living as “doing with conviction the next and most necessary thing.” As I watch my mother face into her future with courage, I commit to the same as your bishop, with gratitude to God for all of you who are making the same heroic decision to take the next faithful step as the Spirit guides us all.
October 24, 2019
The mission of the Diocese of Washington:
To draw people to Jesus and embody his love for the world
by equipping faith communities, promoting spiritual growth, and striving for justice.
To be a diocese that draws on the gifts of all God’s people to serve Christ together and live Jesus’ way of love.
At the heart of our newly-adopted strategic plan is the conviction, widely shared throughout the diocese, that our congregations cannot and need not address their challenges alone, nor can we accomplish our God-inspired dreams alone. We need one another. We have identified three specific goals for the first year, one for each arena of our diocesan mission, with a plan for regional implementation.
As a key component for regional implementation of our strategic goals, we will build regional leadership networks led by regional deans. Regional deans will serve as adjunct diocesan staff, working roughly 10-12 hours per month to help organize regional clergy and lay leaders. Of the 8 regions that make up our diocese, two are significantly larger than the other 6--Southern Maryland and Central DC. For those two regions, we will either name two deans, or one with double the time commitment and compensation.
The ideal regional dean is an established clergy or lay leader with a passion for collaborative ministry and good community organizing skills. Specific responsibilities include regularly convening regional clergy and lay leaders, so that wardens can know and support one another, vestries in neighboring congregations can work and learn together, justice champions can increase their social impact through collaboration, and congregational clergy can deepen ties of their collegiality and hone skills together.
Regional deans, in turn, will be led and supported by a senior leader of diocesan staff, the Canon for Strategic Collaboration, whose primary responsibility will be regional implementation of the strategic plan. I will write more about that new position in coming weeks.
The regional dean position description and nomination form are now on the diocesan website. Our goal is to solicit names from among our most motivated leaders between now and November 22. We’ll begin the interview process in December, so that we can present and commission the regional deans at Diocesan Convention in January.
I ask you to spend time in prayerful consideration of who might be called to serve as dean in your region and encourage them to submit a nomination. If you would like to explore the call for yourself, do not hesitate to contact me or Canon Paula Clark. We are confident that the Spirit will raise up these leaders, and grateful for the opportunity to take one more step toward the vision God has set before us all.
October 17, 2019
I am confident of this, that the One who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.
At a joint meeting of Diocesan Council and Standing Committee on October 8, both leadership bodies unanimously approved a strategic plan for the diocese. Then Diocesan Council, with Standing Committee approval, voted to approve a funding proposal that allows us to begin the implementation process right away. You can read the strategic plan here.
The joint meeting was a decisive moment, one of many on this journey. Moderator of Diocesan Council, the Rev. Melana Nelson-Amaker writes,
When more than 30 people--Bishop, elected leaders, diocesan officers and senior staff--gathered that night, we knew our agenda was both critical and ambitious. Work by hundreds of people over several months was before us. So were the hopes, dreams and direction of EDOW for the next five years. Yet, after taking time to ground ourselves in scripture and prayer; hearing the vision freshly articulated by Bishop Mariann; and being led in fruitful discussion by our consultant, Ms. Lauralyn Lee, the work went surprisingly smoothly. When it came time to vote, we proved to be peaceful of heart and of one mind. I believe that our new strategic plan has a means of being of practical help to every single congregation in the diocese; and that our mission, relationships and effectiveness will be strengthened by it.
President of the Standing Committee, the Rev. Dr. Sheila McJilton, writes:
The Standing Committee has been part of several conversations about our diocesan strategic plan. Much thoughtful, prayerful,and lively conversation occurred around this plan. When the Standing Committee met last week with Diocesan Council, we listened to updates, had more reflective conversation, then Bishop Mariann asked if Standing Committee needed to gather separately to discuss moving this Strategic Plan forward. I looked around the table, gauging the reactions of Standing Committee members. Not one of them needed to huddle separately. It felt like a Holy Spirit moment in the room. Unanimous vote of both bodies! Hard work has been done. More hard work lies ahead. Yet you cannot get where you are going if you don't have a destination. We have a plan. As a leader in this amazing diocese, I look forward to helping make that plan a reality.
My heart is filled with gratitude to God and all who have walked this journey. To those who attended one of 12 discovery sessions and those who helped facilitate them; to those who attended the two-day strategic planning retreat to craft the first draft and the many who provided thoughtful feedback to help strengthen it; to the members of the diocesan staff who have devoted countless hours to this work and to our consultants; to the leadership bodies and above all, to all who have prayed and helped imagine God’s preferred future for us all--thank you.
We wouldn’t be here without you.
Let me remind you why we undertook this work. During my sabbatical in 2018, I spent time in prayer reflecting on my first 7 years as your bishop and asking God what kind of bishop the Diocese of Washington needed now. What I heard was that the time had come to engage you, the people of the diocese, in a collective process to clarify our mission, a vision for the immediate future, and strategic goals to accomplish that vision.
There is some urgency to this work. For while there is good and fruitful ministry taking place across the diocese, as a whole, we are not making measurable progress in addressing the fundamental issue of membership plateau and decline that works against every creative endeavor we attempt.
At the heart of the strategic planning process was this question: how can we invest the considerable resources of the diocese where they might bear the greatest fruit in service to Christ and His mission? We were blessed that over 500 people from across the diocese helped us to answer that question.
In the next few months, our work is to lay the foundations for the first year of plan implementation, which we will launch at Diocesan Convention. Over the next few weeks, I’ll write with greater specificity about these foundations, which will include regional staffing, gathering of resources, and the creation of three leadership teams, drawing on the gifts and passions of our people. If you have suggestions or questions as we move toward implementation, or if you would like to get involved in this early stage, please feel free to email me.
At the end of last week’s meeting, we gathered around a piano and sang a spiritual: Guide our feet, Lord, while we run this race. Hold our hands, Lord. . . Stand by us, Lord, because we don’t want to run this race in vain. I felt the power of our prayer and collective awareness of our dependence on God’s guidance and grace as we move forward. May the One who has begun this good work among us help us see it through to completion.
October 06, 2019
The apostles said to the Lord, “Make our faith stronger!” Jesus replied: “If you had faith no bigger than a tiny mustard seed, you could tell this mulberry tree to pull itself up, roots and all, and to plant itself in the ocean. And it would! If your servant comes in from plowing or from taking care of the sheep, would you say, “Welcome! Come on in and have something to eat”? No, you wouldn’t say that. You would say, “Fix me something to eat. Get ready to serve me, so I can have my meal. Then later on you can eat and drink.” Servants don’t deserve special thanks for doing what they are supposed to do. And that’s how it should be with you. When you’ve done all you should, then say, “We are merely servants, and we have simply done our duty.”
Luke 17: 5-10
“Make our faith stronger,” Jesus’ followers asked him, or as their cry comes to us in another translation, “Increase our faith!” I don’t know about you, but I can relate. Seeing the kind of faith that Jesus had, small wonder his disciples felt inadequate about theirs. In their feelings of inadequacy, the disciples, like many of us, assumed that what they needed was something more and better than what they had. By extension, we can presume they felt that they needed to be more and better themselves.
As with so many of his amazing one-liners, Jesus’ response to them reaches across time and space with astonishing relevance for us, saying, in essence, that a little bit of faith goes a long way. Apparently we don’t need as much as we think; faith the size of a mustard seed will do. And despite our feelings of inadequacy, it may be that we, too, are enough.
Because we live in a world that always assumes that more is better, and because we are constantly being measured, or are measuring ourselves, on the yardsticks of comparison, it’s hard to wrap our minds around the notion that what we have, and who we are, is enough. Jesus wants us to know that in God’s economy, unlike ours, less is more and a little bit is enough to move mountains. In the realm of grace, we don’t need very much to do enormous good, and we, the never-quite-good-enough ones, are, in fact, those whose faith is needed.
I realize that a certain percentage of the population is blessed with a high degree of self-confidence, and thus does not struggle as others do with feelings of inadequacy. They are the ones--perhaps you are among them--that the rest of us tend to compare ourselves to and fall short. In school, these are the cool kids, the trendsetters. Marketers of new products seek out the cool kids because they know that others will follow their lead. In the adult world, if you’ve ever taken the Strengthsfinder assessment tool, you know that for some, their natural strengths include “self-assurance.” If you are gifted with self-assurance, what I’m about to describe probably doesn’t apply to you.
This is what can happen to the rest of us, those who often feel inadequate and in need of more. Because we know how small our gifts are in the face of what’s needed, we feel embarrassed and even ashamed to offer them. When we see how meager our efforts to do good appear in light of all that needs to be done, we wonder if we should bother doing anything at all. Moreover, we know the full range of our motives for whatever good we manage to accomplish, and thus we feel sheepish when we’re given more credit than we deserve. We have a hard time believing in the economy of grace, that God would be pleased to take our gifts and efforts, however small, despite our motives, however self-serving, and work through us. But according to Jesus, it’s true: with faith the size of a mustard seed, with good intentions the size of a mustard seed, with love the size of a mustard seed, God can do amazing things in and through us.
The land of grace isn’t a distant place; it’s right here. We enter it whenever we open our messy, imperfect, sinful hearts to God. In the realm of grace, a little bit of whatever we have goes a long way. A little bit of faith is enough to uproot mulberry trees; that is to say, enough to turn the world upside down or do what seems impossible. A little bit of faith is enough to set our lives back on course when we’ve lost our way, to seek reconciliation or be at peace when reconciliation eludes us. A little bit of faith is enough to persevere when the going gets rough, to take a stand when truth requires it, to love others for who they are rather than who we’d like them to be. A little bit of faith is enough to accept ourselves as we are. We don’t need a lot of faith, Jesus says. A little bit will do just fine.
Yet how can that be? Wouldn’t more faith be better than less? That depends on what we think faith is.
So let me tell you, first of all, what I believe faith is not. Faith is not a commodity, something we can quantify or accumulate. Nor is faith a talent, skill or aptitude that some people have and others don’t. We don’t become a faith-full people by amassing spiritual experiences or flexing spiritual muscles.
I saw a cartoon once in which a person coming out of church with his arms stretched up and his index finger point to the sky, the way some football players strut around after scoring a touchdown. The caption read: “Yeah! Our church is Number One!” Faith isn’t like that.
This is what I believe faith is: it is a way of living that is open to God and other people, and a way of being ourselves, authentically and gracefully. Faith is a practice through which we learn to meet and engage our lives with undefended hearts. In the words of Joan Chittister, “Faith is living the Good-life already at work in us.” (Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: Insights for the Ages. New York: Crossroads Press, 2001). p.22.)
Faith in God has more to do with who God is rather than how much faith we have, which is why it doesn’t take much for us to be mighty persons of faith. Faith the size of a mustard seed will take us as far as we need, whenever we decide to live from it and act upon it.
When the disciples asked Jesus to strengthen and increase their faith, surely they weren’t asking for a greater capacity to accept certain beliefs about Jesus, as we often think of faith. What they wanted was for Jesus to increase their ability to trust him, and perhaps trust themselves, so that they could act in the face of uncertainty. They wanted to be more like him, to have something of his power to inform their prayers, their speech, their way of life. His response, in essence, was,“You have all the faith you need. Go and act upon the faith you have.” Faith has a lot in common with persistence, and, in any given endeavor, taking the next, most necessary step. It’s a bit like driving in fog, which is how the author E.L. Doctorow described the process of writing a novel. “You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”
Several years ago as part of my Doctor of Ministry degree, I wanted to study how communities of faith move through the process of change. I wanted to understand how the new idea or way of doing something moves from being one person’s idea to becoming a shared value or practice of an entire community. For while some people love embracing new possibilities, the majority of us, if we’re honest, would admit that we respond to new ideas with indifference at best, and sometimes with outright resistance.
My studies drew me into the fascinating realm of social change theory, which outlines certain principles that affect how whole societies, and smaller communities within them, move toward new ways of thinking and behaving. Think back, for example, on how we came to accept things like no smoking in public places, or the rights of LGBTQ people to marry, or in our faith tradition, how we made changes to the Book of Common Prayer.
Through a rather messy process, and with the essential participation of those whom sociologists and marketers describe as “key influencers,” the new ideas or ways of being enter into conversation with the old. For a time, it seems as if both can coexist peaceably. Do you remember the days of “no smoking sections,” in restaurants, or even more ridiculous, on airplanes? Eventually it becomes clear that something must be relinquished in order for something new to be gained. If there’s a lot at stake, there follows a time of struggle, and things can get nasty. We say and do things that surprise even us in their intensity. No matter how noble the new idea is, there’s no way of knowing how things are going to turn out.
I suspect that’s where we are as a society, and indeed, as a species, in our awareness of and response to climate change. More and more people recognize that we need to change our behaviour and consumption practices. A lot of us know this to be true but aren’t yet ready to make significant changes, and we’re sure that half-measures will be enough. But eventually, we all need to make a shift, and a dramatic one at that. As that realization grows stronger, so do the forces of resistance. That’s when things can get nasty, or perhaps even more frustrating to those who can see what we’re up against; when our self-imposed blindness becomes more strident. The struggle, just like the planet, is heating up.
In this time of struggle, people of faith can lose heart and get discouraged, whether in the role of preserving something precious or seeking to bring about needed change. We’re tempted to give up and walk away because things have become so unpleasant. But that’s precisely the time when perseverance in small ways can do the most good. Think of Jesus speaking these words about faith the size of a mustard seed being enough to move mountains to you at precisely that moment when you feel as if the light you want to live by is in danger of being extinguished. It’s through perseverance in the darkest times that real change can occur.
For what often follows struggle, if people of faith can simply hold steady, is a shift in energy, and the momentum that up until that point was working against faith now begins working for it. That’s the tipping point, as Malcolm Gladwell called it in his book on human behavior, the moment at which a new behavior or way of thinking has been “caught” by enough people to bring about a dramatic shift. (Malcolm Gladwell, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Boston: Little, Brown & Company, 2000).) The amazing thing about the crossing over, or tipping point, is that it requires far fewer people than we might imagine. In the famous words of anthropologist Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”
I know that there are many reasons for us to be discouraged these days. On so many fronts, we seem to be moving backwards rather than forward. Public discourse has been hijacked by extreme voices. The worst of human prejudices and behavior wreak their havoc in increasingly erratic and therefore unpredictable ways. The effort it takes to simply tend to basic needs can be exhausting, particularly when a part of our own ecosystem is out of balance or in distress.
These times call for the kind of perseverance needed to run marathons. It may be, in the words of Brian McLaren, time to “keep our short-term expectations low and our long-term hopes high.” For, as he writes: “the forces that oppose quests for change are strong, and they always win some of the time. In so doing, they test our ideas and our character and weed out all but the strongest and most enduring. On our quest, we should expect setbacks and mistakes, opposition and conflict. At many points we will be tempted to give up. And we should never underestimate our own power to be wrong and to do or say something amazingly stupid at the worst possible moment. This helps us not to take ourselves too seriously, and to put our trust in God.” (Brian McLaren, A New Kind of Christianity: 10 Questions that are Transforming the Faith (New York: Harper Collins, 2010), p.250.)
The good news is that a little bit of faith goes a long way. A little bit of love, a little bit of courage, a little bit of decisive action can help turn a hopeless situation around. If you don’t think that one person can make a difference, think again.
Let me leave you with a simple practice that Methodist pastor Adam Hamilton suggests in his soon-to-be released book on Christian practice entitled The Walk: Five Essential Practices of the Christian Life. Look at one of your hands and its five fingers. Every day, he suggests, strive to accomplish five deeds of kindness or generosity. They needn’t be large. It could be a simple as saying hello to a neighbor; giving a server a generous tip, refraining from swearing at someone who cuts you off on the highway. Or it could be a more sacrificial act in service to persons in need, or crossing a boundary that otherwise divides us.
Hamilton regularly challenges his congregation in the Kansas City area, which is quite large, to calculate the collective impact of their deeds of kindness. No matter a congregation’s size, the difference we can make in our communities and our world can be transformative. If there are 100 people in worship today and we all commit to 5 acts of kindness, that’s 500 acts of kindness is day. Multiply that by 7 days in a week and 52 weeks in a year, and we quickly realize that, taken together, our efforts can, in Hamilton’s words, “close the gap between the world as it is and the world as it should be,” or as God would have it be. He writes, “Nonreligious and nominally religious people are seldom interested in our worship styles, theological distinctives, or myriad of programs. . . What leads the unchurched to take notice of a church is when that church and its members genuinely care about them and when they are actively engaged in seeking to have a positive impact on the community.” (Adam Hamilton, The Walk: Five Essential Practices of the Christian Life (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019) p. 215.) Think of what a difference St. Philip’s, Laurel can make, and the Episcopal Church as a whole, whenever when we decide to act on the small bits of faith we have.
Before you and before God, I commit to at least 5 acts of kindness each day and invite you to do the same. May God work in and through our mustard seed faith, accomplishing far more in us than we can ask for or imagine.
October 03, 2019
In a season when I have been focused on strategic planning for the future, I was blessed this week to have two occasions to think recall the inspired leadership of Bishop John T. Walker. Last Sunday, we commemorated the 30th anniversary of his death at Washington National Cathedral. On Tuesday evening, we gathered for the annual Bishop Walker School Evensong.
For many, Bishop Walker remains a spiritual touchstone. In nearly every congregation, I meet people who tell me how Bishop Walker influenced their life and faith. Priests and teachers speak of how Bishop Walker inspired their choice of vocation. Interfaith leaders credit him for the establishment of the Interfaith Council of Washington. Civic leaders remember his courageous role in the anti-apartheid movement of the 1980s.
Born in 1925 to sharecropping parents in Barnesville, Georgia, John Walker grew up in Detroit, his family part of the Great Migration of African Americans from southern states. Both his grandfather and great-grandfather were ministers in the African Methodist Episcopal Church; Walker joined the Episcopal Church after college and discerned a call to priesthood. He was the first African American to attend Virginia Theological Seminary in 1951. After parish ministry in Detroit, he accepted a call to teach at St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire.
In the mid-1960s, he was named the first Canon Missioner of Washington National Cathedral. He quickly became a recognized spiritual leader in Washington, DC and across the diocese. A former teacher and the father of young children, he took a special interest in the Cathedral schools while also advocating for the city’s public school system. As an African American whose life bridged the worst of Jim Crow and the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, he knew the pernicious evil of racism and yet refused to be defined by it. He integrated nearly every institution he attended, joined and led, and he helped others walk proudly through the doors of church and society that had previously been closed to them.
The Diocese of Washington elected John Walker as bishop twice, first as Bishop Suffragan in 1971, and then as Diocesan in 1977. As bishop, Walker realized that the completion of Washington National Cathedral fell to him. In a move that takes my breath away, he named himself both bishop and dean of the Cathedral. He then poured himself into the hard work of fundraising for the Cathedral, while at the same time leading the diocese and providing moral leadership during one of the most volatile periods of our society. He was, in the eyes of some, a moderate, yet he never shied away from the pressing issues of his day.
His children describe their home as a refuge for many, where people coming for dinner might stay for a year. He had the ability to treat everyone he encountered--from custodians to presidents--with equal warmth and respect. He inspired a generation of young people, now leaders in their own right, to live purposeful, faithful lives. As a result, John Walker was loved in a way that few leaders are.
On September 29, 1989, the day chosen to mark the beginning of a full year’s celebration of the Cathedral’s completion, Bishop Walker died. Reading the accounts of that day, you can feel grief rising from the page--the stunned sense of loss and immediate resolve to carry his light forward.
On Tuesday evening, the Bishop Walker School boys sang, read the lessons, and offered prayers with confidence that would have made John Walker proud. I reminded them that they attend a school named for a man who would want them to know that what seems impossible to them now can be possible if they, like him, refuse to give up on themselves and the dreams God has placed in their hearts.
His example inspires me as well, and I feel his presence among us as we embark on God-inspired dreams for our future. “We’ve come this far by faith,” the spiritual reminds us, “leaning on the Lord.” We stand on the shoulders of spiritual giants, among them John Thomas Walker.