Epistles and Epiphanies is a blog of St. John the Evangelist Episcopal Church, St. Paul, Minnesota offering theological reflection, devotions, musings, weekly epistles and the occasional epiphany. A welcoming Episcopal Church centered on the radical teaching of Jesus, fed by the tradition & liturgy of Anglicanism, and serving the world in God's name!
Driving home from church up Summit Avenue last week, I saw a woman laying by the side of the road. It seemed like a pretty serious bicycle accident, and there were a number of people on the scene helping so I didn’t stop. I knew that I was preaching the next week on the Parable of the Good Samaritan (about an injured guy in a ditch by the roadside) and I had to smile. Some times I think God messes with my head. (Or would I not have seen this in the same way had I NOT been focused on this story? Head messed with, I swear.)
I’ve been a preacher for a long time and was pretty sure I knew a whole lot about the popular parable (I’m already in deep trouble whenever I think this). But most of us have heard the story so often that we no longer even “hear” it.
Besides over-familiarity, I knew the sticking points: Jesus never calls the Samaritan “good;” the lawyer who asks the question “who is my neighbor” really means “who is NOT my neighbor” i.e. “Who can I rule out and make this easier?” The priest and the Levite who pass the Samaritan by were bad guys and didn’t care enough to help. Conclusion: we should also be good too, and help our neighbors.
I don’t know about you but I tend to tune out generic messages about being good. I KNOW I should help others; I KNOW that there are many who need help; I KNOW that Jesus calls us to be his Body in the world. But somehow I confess that, like the story of the GS, I don’t really “hear” it. Or if I do, I don’t change that much.
Given the demands of time (or having too much time) and numerous obligations (or the loneliness of NOT having obligations) I think the real question often is: What’s in it for me? What’s in it for me to act more charitably, to go out of my way to help those who need it? To actually change something about my own life to benefit others?
And who is this neighbor I am supposed to be helping? And how am I to help? What would I really do instead of just thinking about it?
As I said earlier here, I thought I knew a lot about this parable. However, there is always more and I discovered a new way to think about these questions that address “What’s in it for me?” Of course, the idea is not original with me (duh) but is from the brilliant theologian Sam
Wells (who was with us for a weekend at St. John’s a few years ago). Actually, Wells’ theory happened to me this week at Target in Midway (head-messing again!) I’ll tell you about it. Ironically, Target-Midway has almost become holy ground for me.
See you in church. (Yes it will be hot but you won’t be wearing vestments!)
For some early tips about how to be a good neighbor, watch the master at work with the ultimate “other” – another species….
Koko meets Mr. Rogers, her favorite celebrity - YouTube
Led by Barbara Mraz and Jennifer Kinkead via Give Us Wings, it was our response to a call from the General Convention of the Episcopal Church: to work towards the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals. Those ambitious international goals—related to poverty, education, health, and environmental sustainability—initially seemed beyond our reach. And yet, even when making a difference seemed impossible, we resolved to do just “one good thing.” We made a commitment to help the people of Kayoro, Uganda build a clinic.
So much has happened in the decade that followed. St. John’s Kayoro Health Center II (SJKHCII, as it is known in Uganda) was built in 2011 and a maternity wing was added in 2017. It is now part of a health care compound with a water pump, solar panels, baby warmer, autoclaves, freezer, refrigerator and many other improvements.
Photos depict the evolution of the compound from one building in 2011 (below left) to constructing new wings in 2017 (below right) to a level-3 health center(above).
A staff quarters was recently completed, largely supported by funds from St John’s. It can house 3 staff, with modern toilets, a shower and a small kitchen. It allows the clinic to be open 24/7—one of several measures needed to bring the clinic to the level of a Health Center III, which results in more benefits from the Uganda government and greater service to area residents.
Plans are in place to expand the inpatient ward as medical needs are increasingly being met, including a larger maternity ward and an operating room. The clinic is partnering with Health Partners to develop a health care insurance program. And Simba Oil Ltd, located across the road from the clinic, has offered to extend electricity from their plant without cost, because SJKHCII provides “very vital services to the community”!
SJKHCII has increased the number of people that it serves each year. It regularly offers training on immunizations, reproductive health, pre-natal and infant care, and other issues. Overall, more than 18,000 people received care from SJKHCII in 2018!
Clearly, doing “one good thing” has led to more than we could have ever imagined. It was the spark to develop a full-on health care compound that has attracted many other funding sources beyond St. John’s. Every day, more people are living healthier lives with dignity and hope. Through God’s grace and St. John’s generosity, One Good Thing has led to MANY GREAT THINGS in Kayoro Village, and this story has even more chapters to come.
Is God calling you to participate in this ministry? There are many ways to respond!
Join the St. John’s Kayoro Clinic Committee. (Contact Sue MacIntosh at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Help make Days for Girls reusable menstrual kits so that young women don’t have to miss school each month. (Contact Patty Byrne Pfalz at email@example.com)
Help make Mama Kits of medical supplies for pregnant women who live too far from the clinic and will likely deliver at home. (Contact Cammie Beattie at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Visit Kayoro! A trip may happen in February/March 2020, and there may be scholarship funds to help with travel costs. (Contact Therese Anderson at email@example.com or Sue MacIntosh at firstname.lastname@example.org)
Originally published in the July/August 2019 Evangelist.
Saying Farewell to the Elliott & the Van Yperen/James Families.
By Ellie Watkins
For the past half-decade, St. John’s has been blessed with two families who have enriched us with their presence and the stories they’ve helped us share as they’ve presented in our faith forums. They are both moving away this summer, prompting us to look back and appreciate their time here.
Nate Van Yperen and Elaine James and their children Hank and Forest are relocating back to Princeton, NJ. They came to St. John’s in the fall of 2013, shortly after moving here from Princeton. They visited a few other churches, but were drawn to St. John’s by the warmth of the community, number of young families, and the farmer’s market. “These,” they say, “were signs of a vibrant and engaged community of faith.”
Elaine’s first offerings for Sunday morning faith forums were on women in the Old Testament—she gave a talk on Ruth (while she was pregnant!), and then a series on women in the ancestral narratives. “Each week I was grateful to hear stories about the women in our congregants’ lives who modeled strength, insight, and faith.” Nate’s first talk was about Theology and the Environment; his most memorable forum was a talk on Bayard Rustin. “It was enriching to hear and engage diverse responses to Rustin in his own words.”
Elaine and Nate were impressed with the lively, thoughtful conversation that consistently characterized the forums here. “The most interesting moments were when someone would use the material to connect to their experience, which would in turn connect to another’s experience,” they say. They want the church to know that “it was a privilege to serve as regular forum speakers.”
The Rev. Neil and Mary Ellen Elliott are moving to New Mexico. Neil first spoke at an adult forum here in the 90s, and was impressed at how engaged and educated the group was. “This is a smart congregation!” he observes. Then in 2012, Neil and Mary Ellen visited again as parishioners looking for a new church, and were impressed that St. John’s had taken a stand in support of recognizing same-sex marriages. “We knew we’d found a home.” Since then, says Mary Ellen, “Our time at St. John’s has been very full.”
Their house group has been “a real blessing” and a close-knit group of very good friends. Mary Ellen was involved with building and grounds, vestry, and the fellowship committee. Neil has preached and helped with planning faith formation offerings. He observes that people here aren’t afraid to bring up controversial things—”not just politically, but to express that they have doubts.”
It can be scary to express doubts or to challenge the usual teachings, but, says Mary Ellen, “it hasn’t shaken our faith.”
Is there anything else they would like to say to the church community? “Keep doing what you’re doing,” Neil tells us. “Don’t be afraid of controversy, or taking a stand, or holding on to your convictions.”
“Continue to come together,” encourages Mary Ellen. “House groups, summer meals.” She recalls many instances where parishioners have gathered and felt a strong spirit of fellowship. “Everything has been a lot of fun.”
Knowing these families has indeed been a lot of fun. We wish them well—and hope they’ll stay in touch and share stories from their new endeavors!
Originally published in the July/August 2019 Evangelist.
I know I’ve talked about my friend Naomi in the past, but I was thinking about her as we began this summer’s Connect Meals. Naomi was a co-worker of mine during the year my wife Erin and I served as missionaries in Taiwan. One weekend, she invited us to her home to learn how to make baozi. We knew only parts of her story: that she suffered partial paralysis connected to treatment for brain cancer; that her husband was unable to work owing to significant back injury; that she also had an adult daughter with significant developmental challenges, needing round-the-clock care.
Naomi lived in a typical tiny Taipei apartment, cramped further by the additional tables she had set up. Food was everywhere: platters of dumplings and stir fry, bowls of noodles and rice, trays of fresh fruit, and all the ingredients to make baozi. It was clear that our cooking lesson was a formality— the main event was us, her honored guests, and feeding us in abundance. It was almost overwhelming to receive such generosity.
What sets this particular experience apart was not only the quantity of food, nor the generosity with which it was given, but also the very real vulnerability Naomi showed in inviting us into her home. She brought us into closer proximity with both her joy and abundance, as well as her pain and struggle. Medical equipment took up residence next to serving platters, and couches doubled as storage for displaced home goods. This was not a magazine-worthy dinner party with an emphasis on appearance. This was scruffy hospitality, given from a place of genuine care.
During our recent Instructed Eucharist, we repeatedly used the word “discern.” We talked about how the gathered church believes that somehow Jesus is present in the Eucharist, in the readings, the bread, the wine, and in the connections we share as a community in that service. Part of the task of making Eucharist is for us to “discern” Jesus’ presence. Where is Jesus showing up? The ritual acts of Word and Table are forming us into people who can discern Jesus in the world. That teaching finds deep resonance with me as I look back on that shared meal with Naomi and her family. Through the lens of Eucharist, I can now discern Christ present in that meal. Naomi was sharing more than baozi; in her vulnerability and abundance she was sharing Christ, broken and given for the world.
Sara Miles writes about her conversion to Christianity in a somewhat unorthodox manner, receiving communion before ever considering “being Christian.” She came curious to church one day, where communion was shared person to person, and she found herself inexplicably converted as she reached out to take the bread. The Jesus she came to believe in is the one made known in the bread and wine. Her faith “proclaims against reason that the hungry will be fed, that those cast down will be raised up, and that all things, including my own failures, are being made new. It offers food without exception to the worthy and unworthy, the screwed-up and pious, and then commands everyone to do the same. It doesn’t promise to solve or erase suffering but to transform it, pledging that by loving one another, even through pain, we will find more life.”
This summer we are given many chances at St. John’s to be with one another in Eucharistic community, in a community that is defined by this kind of faith. I encourage you to sign up for a Connect Meal (visit tinyurl.com/SJEmeals19) if you haven’t already. These meals provide a place to bring our whole, authentic self, to share our story, and hear others. For our hosts, I am so grateful you are making these moments available. I encourage you to lean into scruffy hospitality, trusting that you too can give abundantly and vulnerably, and in so doing, make Jesus known.
Happy summer one and all! Enjoy eating together and sharing stories! I will see you in worship!
Originally published in the July/August 2019 Evangelist.
I am not the pronoun police and I do not have a politically correct ideological agenda to impose upon you. This renaming is an invitation to a process of me becoming a new creature in Christ. It is not mandatory upon you. My birth name is Neil and I have always loved that name. For those of you who have known me as Neil for the approximately last three years that I have been with you, and who feel more comfortable still calling me that, then I welcome still being called so. For those of you who are willing to call me Jennifer, then I embrace your affirmation.
I stand here in the shadow of a lifelong fear. Not an over-concerned fear born of vain male pride. Rather, a fear born of violation, assault, suicide, and harassment. A fear that taught me to blend in to survive. I should not have survived; there are factors that can be tallied and I had too many of them to have come through to health and spiritual glory. But I did survive and thrive. So I am here today, moving from joy to joy.
It could have been otherwise. When I was young, I secretly carried a knife in my pocket. It was not there to defend myself or to hurt anyone else. It was there as a great comfort and solace that I could make it all go away in one quick slice. The blade was resting upon my wrist and I very nearly pulled it. Instead, I chose to live and suffer through to a hoped-for better day.
I am so glad that I lived to have this better day. To have known the love of my life who prepares my heavenly mansion next to hers. To have stared into the trusting eyes of my baby boys. To come here on Sundays and share communion with you.
I was born differently than I would have liked to be. That was God’s Will. But God’s Will is not always immutable. God has opened new doors and shown me a way forward at last to be my long-wished-for self.
There are pictures of me from when I was 5 years old. I have always loved those pictures. When I have shown them, I have been asked, “Who is the little girl?” That used to embarrass me, but not anymore. I see them as how I would like to have stayed while growing up. Frail, blond, and pretty. There is one picture in particular. I wrote a poem about it:
The Episcopal Church has a long and complicated history of wrestling with and discerning the full inclusion of out gay and lesbian persons fully into our life and ministry. We have come, haltingly over time, to be a church that understands same-gender attraction as one of the diverse manifestations of God’s creation, and that people who identify as lesbian, gay, and bisexual are just as God intended them to be and that God loves them and each of us as we are and for who we are.
As our understanding has grown, many have come to believe that people exist on a spectrum of sexuality and gender, as well as married, single, partnered, and celibate. Moreover, this spectrum manifests a great diversity of gender expressions. We know there are some who identify as transgender: those whose experience of their gender assigned at birth does not match their understanding of their own gender. The Episcopal Church has begun to evolve our polity and teaching to be inclusive of transgender, non-binary, gender-nonconforming, and genderfluid persons at all levels of ministry and life.
My colleague, the Rev. Dr. Cameron Partridge, himself a trans man and Episcopal priest writes,
We can view human beings as both a ‘bond’ of a wonderfully variegated creation and an agent, or workshop, of creation’s transformation into the heart of God. Humans were created last, reasoned the patristic theologians, and we were given the gift of gathering the whole together and lifting it up so that all creation might be transfigured by the Creator….When we stumbled in our feeble attempts to fulfill that vocation, Christ came into our midst and became the ‘fresh institution’ of creation, transfigured us in his image, and bound creation to himself—even the parts of creation that we do not always understand and that sometimes make us uneasy. It is through this transforming power of Christ that I, and many transgender people like me, find our true identity as children of God.
This spring, the Episcopal Church’s Standing Commission on Liturgy and Music made available, through our Book of Occasional Services, a liturgy that acknowledges and blesses as holy the process of name change.
As the introduction to that rite reads, “When an event or experience leads a baptized person to take or to be given a new name, the following may be used to mark this transition in the parish community…This new beginning is distinct from the new life begun in Holy Baptism, which conveys regeneration and the responsibilities of Christian discipleship.” We recognize that there are many reasons a person might need to change their name. And, in the case of transgender persons, the process of transitioning from one gender expression to another very likely includes the process of changing one’s name. I am grateful then for this liturgy making possible for ours and other faith communities, to come around a person in transition, to bless and give thanks for the renewing and reclaiming of their truest God-given identities.
At St. John’s we have come to know trans and gender-nonconforming individuals as integral members in our life as a faith community. On June 30, I am delighted we will be able to use this service for one such member, Jennifer, as she makes the courageous step of changing her name and affirming her identity as a woman before God and us her faith community. I hope you will experience the same gratitude and wonder I felt at Jennifer’s vulnerability and authenticity in sharing this part of herself with us, as together we honor what God is up to in her life.
Again, as my colleague, the Reverend Dr. Cameron Partridge writes, such a moment “can be a part of our rebirth and new life that accompanies our membership in Christ’s body…I have many times encountered transgender people who tell their own lives as stories of salvation history. Many, including myself, are people for whom the mystery of faith finally helped us claim our selves, our souls and bodies, as vessels of reconciliation.”
It was a beautiful day; the sun shining, the garden greening, no bugs yet. But somehow I just couldn’t get a break. The handyman wouldn’t return my calls and I needed STUFF
FIXED NOW, the car was making a funny sound, I received a surprise medical bill, everyone seemed to be disappointing me one way or the other. I must have said “Are you bloody kidding me??!” dozens of times.
And then then the wind shifted, a friend called, the car kept quiet, and I felt that things would work out. I breathed again.
Some people call that the Holy Spirit.
The disciples were having a series of bad days and a cold fear was in the air. Persecution was intensifying; Jesus was leaving (again) and the usual arguments were taking place. But then Jesus promises to send a “spirit” to help.
The apostles were celebrating a Jewish harvest festival when it happened: The wind shifted and everything changed. The disciples stopped arguing and started doing good things. Peter preached up a storm and converted thousands on one day.
Sunday is Pentecost – a confusing celebration if there ever was one! It’s about tongues of fire and people speaking in different languages and still understanding each other and is called “The Birthday of the Church”. The color of the day is red (for the tongues of fire).
But mainly it’s about “spirit” and what that means for us now. When this Spirit touches us through words, music, the Bleeding Heart in the garden, or a feeling that won’t quite go away, we might call it coincidence, wishful thinking, or our imagination. We can dismiss it and reason it away.
Or we can listen, and pay attention, and see what God has to say to us. It can be pretty interesting and sometimes even save the day. Or our life.
And I’m not just being dramatic here. There will be plenty of drama on Sunday! But there will also be more……
Our culture would have us believe that there is some inherent tension in being both Christian and a member of the LGBT community. In my own past, I’ve heard things like “being gay isn’t sinful, but being in a homosexual relationship is,” or, from LGBT friends, “why should you be a part of a movement that hates us?” The latter cut particularly deep—homophobia is not exclusively a Christian problem, and all of Christianity is not a homophobic movement. The view of incompatibility between the Christian and LGBT communities persists, however, and I had fallen victim to it by the time I graduated college.
When I was a teenager, and I was first starting to grapple with one of life’s most troublesome questions—whether some people are evil by nature—my father answered that “God’s law is written on the heart of all men and women.” Even as I wandered outside the Church, the law written on my heart told me that LGBT individuals were not actually unwelcome. To the contrary, I felt pulled towards finding a faith community that would celebrate LGBT individuals and welcome them as children of God.
To be LGBT and Christian is to recognize that God created us—all of us—in his image, and that we are called to honor that image by living authentically. We know that the Church is a place that looks in awe at all that God has created and welcomes it. By our own experience, especially at St. John’s, we have felt the Christian community telling us that our relationships are just one more manifestation of God’s love for us.
God transcends the lines that humans use to create division, like race, gender, and sexual orientation. The Christian community reflects that transcendence in its diversity, and LGBT Christians play an important part in the completing the big quilt that is the Church.
Originally published in the May-June 2019 Evangelist.
Jim Johnson is a longtime fixture at St. John’s—a friendly face greeting people on Sundays and an experienced voice contributing to committee decisions. He’s a cradle Episcopalian with a longtime interest in evangelism; he joined St. John’s in 1975 and was elected to the Vestry four years later.
His first assignment was co-chair of Fellowship with Lola Ferguson. “We were a really good team,” he remembers. They served during the St. John’s Centennial, an entire year’s worth of celebrations, culminating in a banquet with the parish and all its former rectors. “It was the most people I’ve ever seen in our gymnasium.”
After that, he was asked to chair the stewardship committee. It was a time of high inflation in America, and St. John’s was facing a potential financial crisis. Jim helped change the previous model and got people talking about pledging and giving. The congregation responded, and they ended their campaign with an impressive surplus of $71,000. “I’m really proud of that,” Jim notes.
After that, he became Senior Warden. “The day Grayson Clary told me he was resigning was not a great day for me, because I knew it would be a big responsibility to find a replacement for him!” The church wanted to make their associate rector, Tom Harries, their interim rector, but the diocese’s policy was to bring in someone new. A deadlock ensued. It ended when Jim, attending an unrelated Christmas party at the Minneapolis Club, saw Bishop Robert Anderson at a different party next door. Jim ran after him and caught up with him on the stairway landing. They agreed on a compromise: Harries could become the interim rector if St. John’s stopped using the 1928 prayer book at the 8am service! Jim attended 8am services to personally explain the transition to the new prayer book, and it went smoothly.
Jim also served as greeter at the door for 13 years. Assisted by Eleanor Hartman, he kept copious notes on visitors. “I really like meeting new people,” he says, adding that hospitality is so important. “Greeting people at the door is one of the keys. If you’re new in any setting, you don’t know what to do” and you appreciate someone who can guide you right away. “A little gesture” like inviting someone to coffee hour during the Peace or delivering a loaf of bread to a visitor “makes all the difference.”
He hosted a lot of brunches for new members at his house—indeed, many current members joined after attending one of Jim’s brunches! It’s one of his most powerful contributions to St. John’s.
And there are many other contributions in Jim’s history of servant leadership here. He served as treasurer from 2000-2013. He helped organize the Cornerstone Trust, the church’s endowment fund, and continues to serve as a trustee. He organized the Men’s Breakfast, “a wonderful group” for a long time with Don Husband. He’s been chairman of the building committee since 1996. The committee handles capital projects, aesthetics, gift acceptance, and memorials. “It all ties in with outreach and evangelism.” They’ve overseen everything from railings and ramps to renovating the undercroft. It “looked just like a 1902 basement in someone’s house!” Now this clean, updated space is a key part of our programming.
But if it starts to seem like Jim does it all, he’ll set you straight. “I would be lousy at lots of things it takes to run a church!” he laughs. He’s quick to compliment the work of many others around the church and what a great job they’re doing. “You have to match people with their talents. That’s what teamwork is all about. That’s how you have progress and move ahead. A church is like a village. It takes a village to make things work.”
Originally published in the May-June 2019 Evangelist.
At the beginning of the 21st century, the National Study of Youth and Religion was released as one of the most significant pieces of sociological research on faith in this country. The longitudinal study is an invaluable resource in the ongoing work of faith development and formation in children, youth, and family ministry.
One key discovery was the strong correlation between “sticky faith” in children (faith that lasts into adulthood) and their relationships with adults who can communicate authentically and articulately about faith in ordinary life. These trusted adults are one of the most significant factors in sticky faith for the children in our care and keeping.
In the past decade and a half, we have come to know Jean Hansen as one of those adults: a key figure in helping faith “stick” with and continue to positively influence our children through adolescence and into adulthood. As you read, she has worked hard to create a network of adults around each of our children, adults who can speak honestly and authentically about what God is up to in their lives. It is her work, and theirs, that have kept our ministry with our youngest members alive and moving forward.
Now, that work transitions to a new staff leader and into a new season at St. John’s. The terrain ahead is not without significant challenges. As Jerome Berryman, creator of the renowned Godly
Play curriculum, noted in a recent article in the Christian Century: “If learning to be a Christian is like learning a language, then teaching children to speak Christian is more complicated than it used to be. Families don’t go to church as much as they once did, and the culture does not naturally support Christian speech or Christian ways of thinking about the world.”
If children are to have faith that sticks with them into adulthood, they need sustained contact with folks who can speak the language. That exposure requires an ecosystem that nurtures both adults and children. It will require a recommitment of effort, energy, and resources equal in the church to that which we give to our programs, liturgies, and formation for adults.
This season of transition is the perfect time for our faith community to take stock and to assess with honesty and care, whether we need new resources or a better redistribution of resources to tackle the challenges of faith formation for children and youth at St. John’s.
During May and June we will host three listening sessions, one for parents of young children, one for youth, and one for all members. A search team is being convened and a job description posted.
In addition, there will be a survey for all members asking for good feedback about our hopes and aspirations for ministry with our youngest
members and their families. Do you think St. John’s has a place for people of all ages to use their God-given gifts? Are children and youth as welcome and fully included in our faith community? In worship? In faith in action? In formation? In music? What do you most appreciate about our current ministry with children, youth, and families? What do you hope to see next? We want to hear from you at these listening sessions and in the anonymous responses we gather with this survey.
In June, we will begin interviewing candidates with the hope to call a new staff leader for Children, Youth, and Family ministry to partner with us in shaping our programs, building use, worship, and formation, to better connect with families and our youngest members, helping transmit the faith, and celebrate the faith and gifts in each generation.
As Berryman concludes, “just as the commitment to creating meaningful worship reaps its own rewards, so too teaching our children [and youth] the language of faith has deeper benefit than we can imagine. Jesus said that if we would welcome his kingdom, we must do so like a little child. In teaching children [and youth] the language of faith, we enter into the mystery anew.”
Originally published in the May-June 2019 Evangelist.