From the Rector

Eric Long colorBy the Rev. Eric Long

On July 10th I preached on Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan. That was our first Sunday together after the shooting deaths of two African American men by police followed by the assassinations of five police officers in Dallas. Many of you have been kind enough to ask for a copy of that sermon, while others were out of town given the busyness of the summer months. Therefore, below is an adaptation of my sermon notes from that day so that it can be read.

I pray this inspires us all toward greater empathy and understanding of each other.

Our neighbors are everyone and our neighborhood is the world.

Sermon: Luke 10: 25- 37

In Mary Gordon’s novel, “Pearl,” the main character decides that her life should be forfeited as a testimony against a terrible thing she’s done. Actually, a terrible thing she’s said. Now I know that sounds crazy, but that’s the premise of the novel. In this young woman’s mind, she believes this is the only just way forward: her words have caused tremendous pain; therefore she needs to end her life because human life can cause so much pain.
As you can tell, “Pearl” is a cheery novel!
One compelling thing about it is how vividly it speaks about the careless ways we do inflict pain on each other. For Pearl, it was on a young man named Stevie, who was naïve, awkward, illiterate, and just not as quick-witted as others. And Stevie was keenly aware of these weaknesses in himself and highly sensitive about them, particularly when it came to Pearl: a beautiful, smart woman who had shown him some attention. That is, until he did something reckless, and Pearl responded with the terrible words: “How could you be so stupid!”
These terrible words tore into Stevie’s soul. They were perhaps the worst of all possible words for him, from the worst possible person. And they ultimately led to his death because Stevie was not able to face a world where the one person’s words he cared about most were cruelly flung at him in the most painful sentence ever. And so Stevie ended his life.
As I said, “Pearl” is a cheery novel.
Pearl decides she has to end her life by starving herself to death as some sort of atonement for Stevie’s life and as a testimony against human pain. She wants the ending of her life to be a statement. She says, in fact, that she wants to turn her whole life into one sentence – something that speaks against pain. And so she decides to go down this extreme path.
By choosing this horrible path, she does, in fact, reduce her life to a single sentence, but not the one she intended. Instead of making her life a sentence against the pain we casually cause, she made her whole life about the pain she casually caused in the one sentence: “How could you be so stupid!” Through her actions, she was making that one sentence the measure of her entire life. And because she reduced her entire life to that one terrible sentence, that one terrible sentence became a death sentence for her.
There’s a great chance that the whole premise of the story I just described seems ludicrous to you. Who in the world would sacrifice their life because of one thoughtless sentence? But when you turn the story around just a bit, it starts to connect with our lives – particularly this week – way more than it should, for just consider how easily we judge one another and sum up each other in a sentence. How we make judgments about another human being and reduce them down to one terrible sentence: “He’s nothing but a thug.”…a refugee.” “…a criminal.” “…a junkie.” Or this week in Dallas, “…a cop.” Or the old standards: “There’s that guy who ruined his business, had the affair.” “That’s the woman who had the DUI, whose kids are always causing problems at school.”
While we could not imagine making Pearl’s decision to sum up our own existence in one sentence because we know that we are much more than the worst things we have done or any summary judgments hurled our way, we casually do this to one another. And in so doing, we kill the full dimension of each other’s humanity – by reducing each other’s humanity to one terrible sentence: “You are only the worst thing you’ve ever done, or the worst thing I believe you’ve done.” And this itself is its own sort of death sentence because in so doing we assassinate each other’s full human worth.
I’d like to hold this up before us right now, after this week of both careless and thought-through violence and the flurry of words surrounding it all. I’d like to hold this up before us during this election season, where this great reduction of human beings is being done with abandon, and even with joy, glee, and uncaring regard for how it further divides us and prevents us from fully considering each other in all of our many dimensions. This is because our politics have devolved into a public demonstration of the viciousness of our age, with our casual, easy indictments of others. The candidates act as if the other candidate or members of the other party can be summed up by the worst sentence or two ever constructed about them. More insidiously, they do this to whole groups of people and, in fact, they will rely on us to do the same in order for them to win. “That person is only… That group is only….” “They’re all only…” We will hear it over and over and over again. “That person is only….only….only.” Only none of it is true because none of us is ever only one thing.
I pray you believe that — and believe it enough to fight this ugliness — because nobody’s life can be reduced to a sentence, particularly the most uncharitable one that could be written. For when it is, we can also see that it can literally become a death sentence.
Today Jesus tells a famous story. So famous, in fact, that if I said, “What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you hear the word, ‘Samaritan,’” many of you would answer, “good.” But if you asked that question in Jesus’ day, I can assure you “good” would not be the answer. For no one in Jesus’ day – outside of Samaria – would say there was anything good about a Samaritan. “Samaritans, they’re all terrible. They’re unclean. Defiled. Racially impure. Their ancestors intermarried with the enemy (Assyrians). They collaborate with the Romans today. They worship wrong. Heretics all. They’re worthless and hostile and dirty and other and not us. Samaritans are anything but good.” Except to Jesus who tells the story of the Good Samaritan. Because no one’s life can be reduced to a sentence, particularly the worst sentence that could be told.
Now this is a great story. A lawyer wants to test Jesus. And being a lawyer, he’s great with sentences. Sentences that test. But after the great sentence that says that the way to true life is to love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength, and your neighbor as yourself, everything comes down to one final sentence: “Who, then, is my neighbor?”
Who is your neighbor?
Politicians will tell you few people are. Your fears will do the same. Few people are your neighbors – only those who think like you, vote like you, maybe even look like you.
But who does Jesus say is your neighbor?
If your life were to tell a sentence that answered that question, what would it say? Who is your neighbor?
The priest’s life in Jesus’ story told a sentence: My neighbor is not as important as my ritual obligations and religious worldview. I’m too much better and more important than my neighbor.
The Levite’s life told a sentence: My neighbor is not as valued as my ceremonial cleanliness before God. I can’t risk being sullied in my normal community for the sake of my neighbor. He’s not a member of my tribe.
And the “loathsome” Samaritan’s life told a sentence: My neighbor is everyone, particularly everyone in need, even those nothing like me, who even hate me. Therefore I will give all that I have, no matter the personal cost to me, for the sake of my neighbor.
Who is your neighbor?
Jesus says your neighbor is everyone in this world. And right now, in this world, we need Christians who really believe that. My Facebook feed certainly says we need Christians today who really believe that. Our newspapers shout we need Christians today who really believe that. For the literal love of God, we need Christians today who really believe that. And act on that.
Everyone is our neighbor. And our neighborhood is the world. For Jesus says our neighbors are all people, everywhere, particularly those whom we could find great reasons not to consider our neighbors. All those Samaritans in our lives. And even though we could put together a lot of sentences with a lot of reasons to justify not helping them; although we could come up with all kinds of death sentences against each other’s humanity, it doesn’t change the fact that they still remain our neighbors according to the neighborhood rules of God.
We are our brother’s keeper. We are our sister’s keeper. There will never be enough words to write any of them off from the human family.
Jesus picks a Samaritan as his example of what a good neighbor looks like and then turns to us and says, “Go and do likewise.” Because our lives are making a sentence. They are speaking of not only who we are but how we prize the God-given humanity of those around us. But it is not the tsunami of words we utter that form that sentence at all, but rather how we live our lives with whomever “the other” is in our lives that speaks the most.
Who, then, is your neighbor?

~

Sharing with you the neighborhood of God,
The Reverend Eric Long, Rector

From the Rector

Eric Long colorBy the Rev. Eric Long

It is difficult to fit more things into an overly filled life. This is particularly so when the newly heaped on things are ones we could easily have avoided adding at all. They have been loaded on by choice.

I must own such feelings as I write this article during a brief break from my studies at The University of the South (Sewanee), where I am in the thick of my last year of classes in pursuit of a Doctor of Ministry degree. Even though my body is here, my mind and energy are very much in Roanoke, with all that makes up “real life” there. And with a mind full of “there”, it is easy to question why I am here.

Almost certainly you don’t know this, but there wouldn’t be a there for me, without here. That is because it was here at Sewanee two years ago that Carolyn H’Doubler called me by phone and asked me, on behalf of the Vestry and all of St. John’s, to come there to be your Rector. And it was here that I said yes and took on the adventure of my new life there.

Yet here I am again, even two years later, because once you have put four years into something, it seems a shame not to make a push to finish it. Somehow, I am also here as a testimony, of sorts, to why I took on this challenge in the first place four years ago: I was hungry to hear something new from God. That appetite compelled me to action, even to school work no one was forcing me to do. You see, in the day-to-dayness of life — even a priest’s life, even a church’s life — routines of busyness make it hard to have ears that listen, maybe most especially to God. And so I came. And so I come again. And because I came, I went. To Roanoke. To you. Without a here, there wouldn’t be a there.

One of the classes I’m taking is called The Art of Preaching. It involves using literature to provide fresh language for preaching. We are doing unbelievable amounts of reading and then writing sermons – which might well never be used – based on stories and poems and novels. One short story by Peggy Payne is about the pastor of a church who audibly hears God speak to him and is scared to death about telling his congregation, as they will think he is crazy. It is called “The Pure in Heart,” and I suppose that title is about the struggle the pastor has about having a heart that is pure enough to speak of the God who speaks, as opposed to meeting the low expectations of his beloved parishioners who, very much like all of us too often, do not much expect a loquacious God. The pastor finally gives in, knowing he must bear witness to what he has heard, and in response, the church board very narrowly decides not to ask him to leave, although they think it would be a very good idea that he talk to a psychiatrist.

You may be relieved to discover at this point that I have no confession to make, other than to say that I came here originally to hear precisely that voice, and the hearing of it is what brought me to you. I heard, through a phone call from Carolyn on your behalf, a call that was made because she thought you all heard something too. Now, after two years, I trust we both heard right from the God who does indeed still speak.

It is easy to be so burdened by everything else that there is no room to add one more thing. Yet perhaps like Mary of Bethany at Jesus’ feet, we find that few things are truly needful, and only one is absolutely essential — the act not easily added to the mix of life: to listen.

I came here to listen to God and because I did, I now belong there with you. But the task is not done. It continues, although now we do it together, for taking time to hear is a forever vocation, even when – especially when – it feels just like adding one more thing.

Realizing it is the only needful thing is the trick.

Listening,

The Reverend Eric Long, Rector

From the Rector

Eric Long colorOur own James Merten was gracious enough to be our preacher for Youth Sunday on May 22nd. Having spent his entire life within our community, James gave voice to the ability of the Church to gracefully shape us in all life’s seasons as it prepares us for whatever comes next. I share with you James’ words from that day so that you can celebrate this gift our community offers in Jesus’ name and then reflect on the myriad blessings that have come your way because you are an essential part of St. John’s.

Blessings,

The Reverend Eric Long, Rector

Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Pentecost – Trinity Sunday by James Merten

Many of you might recognize the last name because of my father, John Merten, probably because he seems to be involved in every committee they will let him be on. But you might not know who I am; my name is James Merten. I am a senior at Patrick Henry High School and will graduate later this month. I have been a member of St. John’s since I was a baby and was thrilled, but a little bit surprised, when Eric asked me to give a sermon for Youth Sunday. Then I was nervous when I found out that Youth Sunday was on Trinity Sunday.

I’ve been told by many people that no preacher ever wants to give a sermon on Trinity Sunday. And, after thinking about it a little bit, I understand why. It is very difficult for anyone to fully understand how God can be in three different forms but still be one singular God. So, if it’s all right with all of you, I will shy away from such a complicated subject. Instead, I’m going to focus more on the Holy Spirit and his everlasting presence with each of us. Today’s scripture is a part of what is known as Jesus’ Farewell Discourse — his final words before his arrest and trial. While I do not plan to be arrested in the future, this sermon is also, in a way, my final discourse.

In the scripture, Paul mentions twice how we will boast: once about “our hope of sharing the glory of God” and again about “our sufferings.” I definitely understand the first boasting; who wouldn’t want to boast about sharing God’s glory? But I find the second one slightly more confusing; who would want to boast about their own sufferings? Personally, I tend to keep my own suffering or pain bottled up and quite private. Paul continues in this passage with what might be known in the world of literature as a slippery slope fallacy. For those who don’t know, a slippery slope fallacy is when someone argues that one smaller thing will cause a chain reaction and end in a more significant effect. I believe that suffering is the initial cause of this chain reaction which ultimately leads to hope. And this hope is received by God who gives us his unconditional love in return.

With this in mind, I would find it much easier to open up and share with others my own sufferings. However, I would still be hesitant to share something so personal with those who might not understand my struggles or might judge me based on what I say. And I think that is why St. John’s is such a magnificent place. This is a place where we can all come together, be comfortable with our faith and comfortable with sharing what is happening in our own lives, whether that is pain and suffering or joy and happiness. This is a place where we can gather and share our feelings with each other and with God in a judgment-free environment that encourages others to endure for a while longer, build our character from our sufferings, and have hope for the future. And in return, receive the love of God through others.
I am reminded of when my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer, a time when our entire family was suffering. While I was only in the fourth grade, I can remember the pain that we felt as she received several chemotherapy and radiation treatments. This could have been a time in my life when I doubted God and chose to walk away from his promise of love and compassion and his promise of everlasting life with him. But instead, I came to St. John’s with my family, and we continued to sit in the front row and pray for well-being. We continued to receive love from other parishioners who genuinely cared about how we were in this time of trial, and continued to push us further and endure through this tribulation to a point where we were hopeful of the outcome and a place where we were ready to receive God’s love. We were all able to endure through this tough time and have hope that everything would be all right. And with this hope, we were shown God’s love that has been given to us unconditionally.

To those of you who weren’t counting the number of times I have used the words “love” and “suffering,” I will just go ahead and let you know now that I have used the word “suffering” eight times and “love” only seven times. So to that, I only have five things to say, “love, love, love, love, love”. Now the count is eight to twelve. Now I didn’t do this to be obnoxious, but instead to try and show my point that love will always be greater than suffering. Suffering is a momentary pain that we will all feel in our lives, but love is something that God gives us for all eternity.

St. John’s truly is a beautiful place. And I’m not saying this because of the magnificent church, the glorious music, or the numerous outreach programs we have. I’m saying this because of each of you, the amazing parishioners who come together to love and support us in our times of pain and suffering. This is a community founded on God’s love with the full intent to share it with the entire Roanoke Valley. This is a community that I am proud to be a part of and a community that I will greatly miss as I move on to Charlottesville to attend the University of Virginia this fall. I am confident that this community will continue to grow and flourish and I know that I will always have this kind and loving home to return to. Thanks be to God.

From the Rector

By the Rev. Eric LongEric Long color

Unbelievably, it snowed last Saturday. This should not occur on the 9th day of April. It was briefly the talk of the town – or at least the part of the town I was huddled in. The snow was, thankfully, an outlier; a momentary return to frozen days belonging to a former season, and, as such, it did not last. With this blip of unwelcome weather gratefully gone, we again spring forward with temperatures and spirits rebounded. This time of year feels like turning a corner. In many ways this is the case. We have finally left the cold behind for the gloriousness that is springtime in Virginia. Easter Sunday is a milestone passed as well. It was joyous, but now only another great memory, and with its passing, the rhythm of church life slows while we slide inexorably towards summer. I suppose this is because families that live by the school year are eyeballing summer breaks. Their focus is shifting. The long slog is near over, and vacation plans long-since laid no longer feel too many calendar pages away to think about. Yet it’s time to pay attention now, because summer will soon be here. Turning each of these corners makes this a fun time of year, at least for me. More sun, longer days, less hectic schedules, and a break from the hard-driving pace of regular life fit well into a world that is warm and that entices us outdoors to play.

Within the Record this month, you will see programming shifts that match the change of seasons. For children and youth, we have ample offerings this spring and summer that are varied, fun alternatives to our regular programming. Also, our Sunday morning worship times will shift as our 10:30am service will move to 10am starting on June 5 (our 8am worship time will remain unchanged). This small change of time allows more of the day to be enjoyed with family and friends, and also helps our Adult Christian Education time (which will now be held between 9 – 9:45am) to fit more easily between the two morning services. The changes in tempo of our parish life yield space for new “longer form” education offerings, such as our “Learning to Lead for Change” weekend workshop led by Jen Brothers for adults of all ages on April 29 and 30. Our Youth Sunday will be on May 22nd and will have a Jazz Eucharist and lunch as well as a special concert that night featuring our children and youth choirs. We will also welcome back a good friend when the Reverend Sandy Webb visits Roanoke as our speaker for the St. John’s Endowment Society event on Saturday, May 7, and our guest preacher the following day at all Sunday services. Finally, Martha Bourlakas will be with us on Wednesday, May 25, for a book signing event celebrating her memoir, “Love Feast.” More information about each of these can be found in this month’s newsletter or by contacting our church offices. What we have endeavored to provide is out of the ordinary occasions for growth, learning, and refreshment for all the people of our parish.

Amongst the other exciting changes coming to St. John’s is the long-awaited renovation of our Garden. Weather willing, work will commence in early May. Ultimately, this sacred outdoor space, where many of our saints are buried, will be remade into an even more beautiful, accessible, and usable natural cathedral. This renovation will allow us to hold concerts, worship, after church fellowship gatherings, and much, much more in an area better suited for each of these. Because of those who are buried there in the hope of Christ, and because of the new, life-giving events that will be available to us in this restored space, we are renaming it The Resurrection Garden.

The change of weather is but one of the countless demonstrations that God is forever beckoning us forward. The snow is behind us; we have turned the page. It is a good season, not only outdoors, but within the doors of – and beyond – St. John’s Episcopal Church.

With great anticipation,
The Reverend Eric Long, Rector

From the Rector

By the Rev. Eric LongEric Long color

It’s been a bad news decade and a half. Wars without end, economic collapse and then stagnation, terrorism on our shores, and political dysfunction beyond our wildest fears have become our new normal. They have pushed us to the precipice of the most disturbing political season in memory. We are told our candidates are the product of years of pent-up anger, but for many of us, these candidates fuel the anger and lead the level headed amongst us to despair. It seems to be a low historical moment, and many people are afraid.

Fear generally has an ultimate source: death. We fear not having enough to live on. We fear religious fanatics who would gleefully blow up the world in their fury. We fear the possibility that our country might not be able to fully protect us or give our children the opportunities we’ve taken for granted. And underneath it all is the wellspring of all anxiety: death.

Good Friday is a day that makes sense in such a world. We understand powerful empires sacrificing the innocent to maintain control. Grace, mercy, and love getting mowed down by those bent toward hate is too common a tale. Pontius Pilate we know, as he wantonly kills to maintain political control. Chief Priest Caiaphas is a familiar character as well, as he cynically decides, “It is better that one innocent man should die for the people than the entire nation perish” (John 11:50).

Good Friday makes sense. We know this day. We inhabit this reality.

Easter is the shocking intrusion. Tales of new life and empty tombs sound like raving fantasies in our Good Friday world. I suppose that’s why the women saw the stone rolled away, and didn’t think “Jesus is raised,” but assumed someone stole his body. Theft squares with our tragic status quo. New life upends it. I guess that’s also why Mary Magdalene did not initially recognize the resurrected Jesus, because everything in her life conspired to convince her that death always gets the last word, so much so that she couldn’t recognize life even when it walked up and stood right before her.

Easter makes no sense in a Good Friday world. Yet Easter still comes. Resurrection wins the day because of a God who will not play by our rules. Our political power plays, our compromised ways of dealing with one another, our death-filled fears are simply not currencies with which God has to barter. Our God looks into the grave and shouts, “LIFE!” Our God faces down the Pontius Pilates of the world and shouts, “NEWNESS!” Our God stands alive in the midst of his anxiety-ridden followers and shouts, “FEAR NOT!”

My friends, Good Friday is not our end. Good Friday is not where we are to make our home. We do not have to be driven this way and that by the former rules of this world, for God is stepping into the graveyards of our lives and declaring, “ALL THINGS NEW!”

It’s Friday. But Sunday’s coming.

Rejoice! Easter Sunday is here!

From the Rector

Eric Long colorBy The Rev. Eric Long

“Sagging” is not a word one welcomes a doctor to use when describing what’s happening to a part of your body. This is especially true if you’re still in your twenties, and the sagging is occurring in a particularly sensitive area. Yet that was my fate, when my doctor told me several years ago that my vision was quickly deteriorating due to an eye condition causing my corneas to sag. Thankfully, he offered a solution to the unwelcome droop in my eyes: rigid contact lenses, which straighten up corneas like a strict mother who allows no slouching. Ever since, I wear such lenses to keep my eyes on the straight and narrow.

These are finely engineered contacts, each crafted to precisely reshape only one eye, meaning each offers correct vision only if worn where it’s uniquely designed to fit. Thus, it was with alarm that I learned at my annual exam that at some point in the year, I mixed up my contacts, and, consequently, spent an indeterminate number of months shaping each of my eyes in the wrong way. “I’m surprised you’re able to see much of anything well at all,” the technician told me, shocked that I wouldn’t notice such a thing for so long. Thankfully, over time this will be corrected by putting each lens back in its proper place. However, for the next few weeks, I not only will have sagging corneas, but misshaped ones, malformed by mixed-up lenses, not made to fit my eyes and correct my vision.

My exam was on Ash Wednesday, a day we gather in church for an annual checkup with reality. Owning up to our mortality and the places of brokenness in our lives is necessary if we are to see ourselves and the world about us without distortion. Sadly, we don’t look at our lives with such honesty too often, but instead gaze through alternative lenses which skew our vision if we look through them too long. Consider your television, where you will almost universally see youth, beauty, and success prized beyond all else. Death will rarely be present there, other than as something the protagonist will never face, unless to forever escape from it. Glance at the political season at hand, where no candidate ever asks us to look at our own need for sacrifice or reform, but rather to see only others as the problem. We are ever encouraged to value self-justification over self-reflection, self-satisfaction over self-giving. And we look at life through these lenses without knowing they aren’t really right for us; they’re mixed up and will only cause our eyes to become malformed and our vision skewed.

This is why we are given the corrective that is the season of Lent. In these forty days, we see that it is okay to acknowledge our wrong, because we exist in a universe of grace, upheld by an uncondemning God who is heaven-bent on setting us right. In this yearly march to Easter, we feel the freedom to take a glance at the scary abyss that is our death, because we do so through the lens of Jesus, who has trampled down death and will overcome it in us as well. Lent fixes our myopia, bends the astigmatism straight, all while taking the lazy slouch out of vision that has never been lifted to see anything but self. Lent casts our vision on the things of God and God’s wondrous activity in the world, which can be so easily missed if our eyes are misshaped by lenses not made to help us rightly see.

“You have eyes, but do not see,” Jesus often said. I know, all but literally, what he meant. Yet I also know what it is to have vision restored, through lenses that refocus and shape sight to behold reality truthfully.

May this Lent be one of ever perfecting vision for you, as the abiding truths of your life come into focus through the lenses crafted uniquely for you by God.

Blessings,
The Reverend Eric Long, Rector

From the Rector

The other morning, my wife, Shelley, posted an article on her Eric Long colorFacebook page which resonated with her and me. It speaks to what many who grew up in other traditions have found within the Episcopal Church. Wanting you to have a chance to read this article, I have included it in full. I would welcome your thoughts about what you read.

Blessings,

Eric

 

11 things I love about the Episcopal Church
by Ben Irwin

My faith was saved in a gutted-out shopping mall. I had reached a point where I no longer believed in God’s love—or rather, I didn’t believe it was meant for me. I thought it was something reserved for God’s “chosen ones,” and I just couldn’t imagine myself as one of the lucky few. It was a trendy church with a famous pastor and a hip worship band that helped me reassemble the pieces of my faith. I will always be thankful for that church.

At that time, I had no idea my journey would lead from that gutted-out shopping mall to an old red door. But it did. Today it’s the Eucharist, the stained glass windows, and the liturgies of the Episcopal Church that are breathing new life into my faith.

I’m not alone, either. Lately I’ve been sifting through the stories of fellow travelers like Rachel Held Evans, Jonathan Martin, and Lindsey Harts. We’ve all found something meaningful in the Episcopal Church, something disorienting and comforting all at once, something that feels vaguely like… home.

That’s not a term disaffected evangelicals like me are quick to use. But that’s what the Episcopal Church has become for me: a new spiritual home.

Here are some of the reasons for that…

1. The way the liturgy soaks into your being.
The first few times I walked through those big red doors, I didn’t know the code. I didn’t know when to sit or stand. I didn’t know how to use the prayer book. I didn’t know how to cross myself. While others have sought to make Christianity as accessible as possible, the liturgy of the Episcopal Church feels other, like a strange artifact calling us into a different and slightly foreign reality. Learning the liturgy was like learning a new language.

These days, I’m having to rely less on the prayer book. After months (and now years) of repetition, the words and movements come more naturally from within. Rachel Held Evans described it like this: “At first, the liturgy of the Episcopal Church captured me with its novelty… But we’ve been showing up for nearly six months now, and so it is a different sort of beauty I encounter on Sunday mornings these days—the beauty of familiarity, of sweet routine. I know the order of service now. I know it well enough to have favorite parts, to skim ahead when I’m hungry or restless, to get the songs stuck in my head.”

We are products of a culture that demands everything is new and fresh. We frown on repetition and ritual. But these ancient patterns have a way of soaking into your bones. The prayers and songs stay with me throughout the week in a way no sermon ever has.

2. The way the liturgy invites me to worship with my whole being, bridging the false divide between body and soul.
Genuflecting in the aisle. Crossing yourself. Kneeling. Episcopalians worship not just with their hearts or their voices but with their bodies. Not that it didn’t take some getting used to. It was a few years before I could bring myself to make the sign of the cross. Now I appreciate it for what is: a prayer. It just happens to be one you pray with your body.

And why not? God made us whole persons. We are not disembodied souls stuffed into human shells. We should worship with our whole being. Our heart and soul and flesh should cry out together, as the Psalmist wrote.

It should be said we’re not the only ones who embrace the notion of embodied worship, and our way is not the only way to do so. Pentecostals practice embodied worship when they lift their hands in praise or dance in the aisles. Whole-person worship, as I’ve learned from the Episcopal Church, can be faith-deepening. That’s because, as Elisabeth Grunert once commented, “We learn with our bodies.”

3. The way it anchors my faith when no act of will on my part can.
I don’t always believe the words of the Nicene Creed. But I say them anyway. Sometimes they’re more a confession of desire than conviction, a statement of what I desperately hope to be true. When I struggle to believe, the rhythms and patterns and prayers of the liturgy are like an anchor. It’s as if the rest of the community—those around me and those who came before me—are saying, “It’s OK. We’ll carry you through this part.”

Faith is no longer dependent on me willing it into being. As Jonathan Martin writes:
“With my own world feeling disordered and untethered, I am quite happy to be told when to kneel and when to sit and when to stand. I love that there is almost no space in the worship experience to spectate, because almost every moment invites (but not demands) participation. I have been in no position to tell my heart what to do. But because the Church told my body what to do in worship, my heart has been able to follow—sometimes. And that is enough for now.”

4. The way it embraces orthodoxy without rigidity.
The other day my priest (who takes Scripture and theology about as seriously as anyone I’ve ever heard preach), referred in passing to Adam and Eve as our “mythic forbearers.” No one broke out the pitchforks. There were no murmurs or protests. No angry blog posts. No one accused him of “getting the gospel wrong.”

For many of us, it’s a refreshing change. As Lindsey Harts wrote after hearing an Episcopal homily on God’s sovereignty in relation to the Big Bang, “It was the first time I hadn’t heard the Big Bang being bashed in a church setting.”

Anglicanism has long been known as the via media, the “middle way” between two traditions. The Episcopal Church has also helped me navigate the middle way between unbelief and dogmatism. Ours is a faith handed down from the apostles, but not one so fragile that it cannot cope with science, with new findings about the origins of the universe, ourselves, or whatever else we might discover. Ours is not a fear-filled faith.

5. How it makes room for those who’ve been burned out, worn out, or otherwise cast out.
I love how one of my favorite preachers, Jonathan Martin, describes what drew him to an Episcopal church: “I went out of sheer, bold-faced desperation for someone to preach the gospel to me, someone to lay hands on me, and someone to offer me the Lord’s Supper. There was no motivation more noble than hoping to not starve.”

A lot of us have burned out on our faith at some point—or been cast out. Maybe it’s because we grew tired of always having to pretend we have it all together. Or maybe someone’s gender or some other part of their identity excluded them from service. Maybe we were told we had to choose between science and faith. Or maybe we were just beaten down by the relentless drum of condemnation. The Episcopal Church is a refuge, a respite, a place where we can come as we are and learn to receive grace again.

6. The way you can simply be, if that’s all you can do.
You feel it sometimes when you visit a new church. The hungry looks, sizing you up as another potential cog in the church wheel. The pressure to join this program, sign up for that group, volunteer at this event… all before anyone’s even learned your name.

I’ve been part of two Episcopal churches now, and neither one has been like that. They’ve given me space to just be. They’ve let me move at my own pace. To quote Jonathan Martin again, they’ve been places where “I can love and be loved as a human being, without my gifts or my life being commodified in any way.” Or as Lindsey Harts put it, “It’s the only place I’ve ever stepped foot into that didn’t seem to expect something of you.”

It’s not that the Episcopal Church won’t invite you to become more deeply connected. They will. But they seem to get that each person is different—and, more importantly, that people are not commodities.

7. The way their worship can be deeply moving without resorting to emotional manipulation.
When a church tells me how I should feel (“Clap if you’re excited about Jesus!”), it smacks of inauthenticity. Sometimes I don’t feel like clapping. Sometimes I need to worship in the midst of my brokenness and confusion—not in spite of it and certainly not in denial of it.

In contrast to the standard worship formula of so many churches, “the liturgy does not try to coerce everyone into the same emotional experience,” as Jonathan Martin writes, “but in its corporate unity strangely creates space for us all to have a very personal experience of God.”

Sometimes when you stop trying to manufacture a particular emotion, you stumble into something even more profound and beautiful than you could have imagined.

8. How the “shared cup” matters more than “shared dogma.”
I have spent a lot of my life trying to get my theology right. I’ve spent years believing all the “right things” in order that I might belong. So it was jarring when a good friend explained to me that the sermon (the meat!) was not the center of Anglican worship. It’s the Eucharist, the common table around which we all gather. We belong so that we might find a common faith together, not the other way around.

Jonathan Martin writes: “The problem in Protestantism in general, historically but much more profoundly now, is that have we far too much emphasis on getting the beliefs right. No wonder we now have over 40,000 denominations—the search for perfect doctrine is endless… At St. Peter’s, we recite the Nicene Creed every week. But the practice of the liturgy… and the shared experience of the Eucharist is what holds us together. Beyond that, there is plenty of room for difference. The emphasis is not on sharing dogma so much as it is sharing the cup.”

9. The way everyone is welcome as a full participant, even children.
My 4-year-old is welcome at the table every week. She is able to receive the bread and the cup even before she’s made a profession of faith. This sends a powerful message: God’s grace is for her, too. She is no less a part of the body of Christ just because she doesn’t fully understand yet what that means.

One Sunday shortly after our daughter began receiving communion, we were milling about during coffee hour. (If there was a number 12 on this list, it might be coffee hour.) As we were talking with our priest, our daughter began solemnly placing a goldfish cracker into each of our hands. Our priest picked up on what she was doing, and he played along. She was reenacting what she’d just been part of in the sanctuary. The Episcopal Church is a place that nurtures those first small, occasionally faltering steps of faith—and welcomes the full participation of those who take them.

10. How it reminds me that I’m part of something bigger.
My first real experience of liturgy was in the UK. We lived for a short time in a village an hour north of London, and we began attending the parish church. Every Sunday on our way into the 700-year-old building, we’d walk through the churchyard, past the weatherworn graves of long-dead parishioners who’d prayed in the same pews, whispered the same prayers, and sung the same songs for centuries.

I need to be reminded that my faith does not begin or end with me—that, to quote a comment from Rachel’s blog, it’s “something that you don’t really own.”

11. How at the altar, we’re all the same.
It’s been said the ground is level at the foot of the cross. I don’t think I’ve appreciated that quite as much anywhere as in the Episcopal Church. At the altar, we all kneel, as Lindsey Harts put it: “We all receive what we cannot do for ourselves. We all confess our weakness—that even the gifts we bring were God’s gifts to us in the first place. We all receive the same body and blood. We need to do a lot better at cultivating and embracing diversity in our midst…but the altar is as good a place as any to start.”

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Many of these things can, of course, be found in other traditions as well. But for me, it’s been the Episcopal Church that has nurtured my faith, breathing new life into me. May you find beauty in whatever tradition you call home. May God breathe new life into your faith—wherever you are.