From the Rector

By the Rev. Eric LongEric Long color

This morning I officiated at our 7 a.m. Wednesday Eucharist. While getting up earlier than normal isn’t something I generally relish, it was rousing to discover the Old Testament reading for today was a story I learned in childhood: Shadrach, Meshach, Abednego, and the fiery furnace. While some of you may only know those names from a Beastie Boys’ song, or others, not at all, theirs is a great story, and a very timely one at that.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were three Jewish men who did something heroic during the Babylonian exile of the Jewish people: they said “no.”

To understand their story, you need to know something of the history of ancient Israel. After the reigns of Kings David and Solomon, Israel was divided into two kingdoms. The northern kingdom was called Israel and the southern called Judah. In 722 BC, the Assyrian empire destroyed the northern kingdom and forever scattered her people. The southern kingdom endured and felt mighty self-satisfied about that, believing the north was destroyed because they were not as righteous. A popular folk-theology was born out of nationalistic and religious hubris. God would forever protect them, they believed. They were better–even more precious–than others. Thus, despite the cry of the prophets, most Judeans did not take the Babylonian empire’s ascendency seriously, even when its armies marched to Judah’s borders. They should have. In 587 BC, the Babylonian empire sacked Jerusalem and forced the people of Judah into exile in Babylon.

It is impossible to overstate the theological catastrophe the exile was for the Jews of this time. While Babylon was known to be the great empire of the day, and thus, like all empires, claimed itself to be eternal and ultimate, Scripture said that God would preserve the Davidic line of Judah forever. Moreover, many false prophets ensured the people that they were more divinely valued than others, and, therefore, by simple birthright, their inheritance was God’s eternal protection. Yet Babylon sacked David’s city and God’s temple was no more. The God of Abraham seemed defeated by the gods of Babylon — a reading of the historic moment trumpeted by the empire and believed by far too many Judeans.

Many gave up and bought into Babylon’s claims. Others clung to scant cultural and cultic artifacts to retain the last vestiges of a fading religious identity. Yet largely they acquiesced to the empire as well. Others resisted. They knew that Babylon was not eternal; her claims, a lie. They trusted the God of Abraham had not been defeated. Therefore, they mustered enough hope-fueled courage to battle the temptation to hand their futures over to the idolatrous claims of a false empire.

Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego were three such men. Although they had risen to some prominence in the courts of Babylon, they knew the difference between fabricated claims of supremacy and the real thing. Thus, when Nebuchadnezzar, Babylon’s king, demanded they bow to his image or be thrown into a furnace of fire, they said “no.” Nebuchadnezzar couldn’t understand their decision. The people of Judah could practice their faith as long as it was subordinated to the primacy of the empire. Plus, these three men were valued by him. Thus, he encouraged them to simply go through the motions, even if they didn’t really believe it, in order to set a good example for other Jews. Yet knowing what really matters in life, what is eternal and what is not, who God truly is as opposed to all pretenders, they would not. Having no choice in his mind, the king threw them into a furnace of fire, for his dominance could not be questioned. God, however, preserved them, and the story tells us that not a single hair on their heads was singed.
What could such an ancient story possibly teach us today? Much, I believe. There are many false claims of ultimacy being pushed on us, enticing us to appropriate them into our lives as supreme. Too many have bought into Judah’s belief that we are somehow more precious or cherished than others, and thus untouchable. Yet the story of the God of Israel and Jesus proclaims the blessings of God are for all people, as we are each preciously made in God’s image. Some have tried to marry things “Christian” with values born of fear that most definitely are not. Yet Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego resisted fear and stood up for what’s truly righteous. Some have bowed down to the idolatry of the ideologies of empire (read political parties and factions) that demand undue allegiance and desire inordinate sway over our actions. Yet our faith declares Jesus alone is king.

These temptations are real for all of us, certainly as real for me as anyone else. In this time when Christian faith is being sidelined like parsley on a dinner plate, all of us must struggle to maintain the proper place of God in our lives. Despite my overly rigid preconceptions, vested interests, ideological leanings, and fears, it is my heart’s truest desire to serve no god but God alone. I pray you feel the same.

Exile is not our home. Our home is in God. Let’s join strength in each other and bow to God alone.

Standing with you,

The Reverend Eric Long

From the Rector

By the Rev. Eric LongEric Long color

The Holy Spirit of God simply will not allow us to make our home in complacency. Pushing us beyond every status quo, the Spirit forces us into new territories where we wouldn’t otherwise go. We see this with Jesus, as the Spirit forces him into the wilderness immediately following his baptism. The original Greek says that Jesus was “heaved,” or “tossed violently,” by the Spirit into that wilderness, so he could wrestle with every force that would close his life from new movements and possibilities. At times for us, as was the case with Jesus, this involves discomfort and even pain. At other times, these are transitions of joy. Yet the end is always the same: the people of God are ever-renewed, because “yesterday,” and even “today,” are never our home. We are forever people of God’s tomorrow.

I hope you will take time to reflect on this for your own life. It is vital to discern God’s presence amidst even the changes you are fighting tooth and nail. Perhaps the Spirit is working in ways undetectable in the wilderness of your life. It took Jesus forty days to make any sense of it all. Yet within the crucibles of change, whether for good or bad, always know that God’s Spirit is your companion. You are accompanied. You are never alone. God’s future is your home and the Holy Spirit is your Sherpa to that Mt. Everest of holy destinations that is the Kingdom of God.

I’ve wrestled with this a lot recently while contending with charting new paths for our church. We are dealing with a number of changes at St. John’s. Many of them are exciting, like new staff opportunities; others involve painful deaths of beloved friends, as well as the need to find new ways to reach our overly scheduled people. Amidst the change — and oftentimes orchestrating it all — is God’s Spirit who has no need for the laurels of years gone by and feels no regard for patterns that are continued merely because they are comfortable.

Our staff will be undergoing significant change in the weeks ahead. Recently, I announced that Tray Light is joining us as St. John’s Minister to Youth, starting on the first of May. Well known in the diocese of his birth, Tray brings the excitement of a long-time friend and established leader in youth ministries to a program that has struggled with stability and needs a revival of the Spirit. Tray’s coming, and the change it offers, build excitement. Immediately upon learning this good news, we received notice that our financial secretary, Melanie Belcher, will be leaving us to seize a job opportunity that came after her recent graduation from college. With this loss, I am taking the opportunity to discern the best organization of our entire staff. Are the ways we’ve done things the ways God would have us reflexively continue? I do not know the answer, but I know it is a question that should be periodically asked, most certainly of a church.

Another new change is that I have invited Cara Modisett to join our staff as a half-time Director of Communications. She will modernize and oversee all parish communications and directly work with Evan Hines, our continuing staff member in this area. Many of you know Cara and her many talents, but for those who don’t, she brings vast experience in publishing, editing, creative writing, and teaching. I learned about Cara from our good friend, Sandy Webb, because she worked in this capacity at his church in Memphis, Tennessee. Sandy raved about Cara as a person and the dramatic impact she had on his congregation. Cara will help us renovate our website, newsletter, and social media with an eye to better telling the story of St. John’s to the world about us. While her coming represents another move into a future that is undetermined, I believe I was led to call her to help us step out in a new direction.

Change is exciting, and looks like Tray and Cara joining our team. Change is scary, and looks like Melanie leaving and the challenge of rethinking outside established paradigms. In all these changes, as well as those of our lives, is the Spirit of God, beside us as friend and companion, guiding us into places unknown, pushing us as an advocate for newness. As this newsletter finds its way to you, I pray you will take the time to recognize how the Holy Spirit is working with you, for surely God is in the toss and tumble of all of life, in the good and the bad.

Blessings,

The Reverend Eric Long

From the Rector

By the Rev. Eric LongEric Long color

This is an excerpt from, followed by an addendum to, my February 5, 2017, sermon:

 Three years ago for Christmas, after a six-year hiatus, Shelley and I decided to get our girls another dog. Perhaps it was amnesia from our exceedingly wild thirteen-year ride with beagles that made us do this.  Perhaps it was the holiday season that turns even the cold heart of Scrooge warm.  Perhaps it was my redneck friend who told me, “Every kid deserves to have a dawg, Eric!”  But whatever it was, it all colluded against me in a weak moment, and the Long family once again decided it was time to go canine.

We decided to save a life and adopt a dog.  But before you think too highly of us, we were still quite picky about the dog we would be willing to adopt.  We didn’t want a barker, a chewer, a stealer, a jumper, a yapper, a pooper, or a beggar.  As I said before, those beagles did quite a number on us.  They gave us PBSD: Post Beagle Stressed-out-of-our-minds Disorder.

Well, we searched far and near for the right dog and finally found a rescue dog that seemed a good fit. In fact, he seemed perfect.  He was calm, loving, and potty-trained.  He didn’t bark and wasn’t a thief.  He was laid back, so he wouldn’t add more mayhem to our lives already so full of mayhem.  In short, he seemed like Goldilocks finally getting her porridge: just right.

We surprised the girls and had the dog’s foster family met us at the park where the girls could play with him, without knowing he would be theirs. We got a great video of Abigail and Madalene finding out they could take him home as their own.  It was a moment of pure delight, full of squeals and jumping around.

Then, we had the great fun of naming the dog.  We narrowed it down to “Johnny” for Johnny Cash – the dog in black (he had black fur) – or “Otis” for Otis Redding. 

We settled on “Otis” for the dog.  And the world seemed great.  And Otis seemed perfect.  He wasn’t a barker, a chewer, a stealer, a jumper, a yapper, a pooper, or a beggar. Unfortunately, I forgot to add “biter” to that list, because two days after Otis came to live with us, he bit the stew out of my hand. 

At first, everyone thought: “Oh, that’s okay, it’s just Eric.  Otis is a good judge of character.”  Plus, he had been through a lot, and it happened as I was trying to take some scotch-tape off of his paw.  So, maybe my fault?  Although, my Lord, it hurt! And, as you can imagine, I was very concerned.  

            However, over the next month, my concern dissipated, as Otis acted perfectly fine and slipped back into his perfect ways…until one Sunday night, when Otis viciously bit Shelley, absolutely out of nowhere and for no reason we could discern.  When I tried to break it up, Otis attacked me.  It was then we knew that this Otis Redding wasn’t going to just sit quietly on the dock of the bay. 

            Not surprisingly, that evening I got the mayhem I was trying to avoid.  Everybody in the whole house was either literally wounded by Otis or sobbing because of the obvious fact that Otis was going to have to go.

Of course, we wondered what we did wrong.  Yet the truth is it almost certainly wasn’t about what did at all that made Otis bite, but about what was previously done to Otis that made Otis bite. Otis bit because his former life taught him he had to bite in order to survive around people – in his mind, even people like us.

 

Many of us have been wounded in life.  All of us live in a “bite-first, ask questions later” world.  It is the hallmark of social media.  It is the scourge of our politics.  It is the legacy of terrorism. Yet as followers of Jesus, as disciples attempting to model his ways, we can choose healing.  We do not have to live out of our woundedness or give in to our fears.

The scripture lesson that inspired the sermon quoted above was Isaiah 58:9b-12.  Isaiah preached his message to people who had suffered through the conquest of their homeland and subsequent exile into Babylon.  They had every reason to be bitter.  They had every reason to fear.  They had every reason to bite back.  However, Isaiah gave them an alternative way to act, even in a vicious age:

If you remove the yoke from among you,
the pointing of the finger, the speaking of evil,

if you offer your food to the hungry
and satisfy the needs of the afflicted,

then your light shall rise in the darkness
and your gloom be like the noonday.

The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

You shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in (emphasis added).

 

Two weeks after Otis went back to his foster family, Shelley and I got a call from a family with two dogs they could no longer care for because of their very sick child. We cautiously decided to take one of the dogs, Emily, into our home.  And in our home Emily remains.  Two weeks later, they called back and asked if the other dog, Coco, could live with us as well.  Coco now does.  And we couldn’t imagine life without them.

At first, we would look at their teeth and fear the possibility of their bite.  Yet we decided that no bite was going to change who we were. We knew that love makes us vulnerable to hurt, but it still must win the day.  Therefore, we chose healing, and I hope we always will, not only when it comes to dogs, but more important, when it comes to the rest of life.

 

Blessings,

Eric

 

From the Rector

By the Rev. Eric LongEric Long color

The administrative demands of work flooded in with a fury at St. John’s since 2017 began. This is always the case at the beginning of the year with changes in vestry leadership, a new budget, Diocesan Convention, the Winter/Spring programming season, the liturgical calendar that says Lent and Holy Week/Easter will be here before we know it, plus the bishop’s annual visitation, and a million other small details, each of which is easy to lose in the shuffle. Yet this year’s beginning has been especially intense for a multitude of reasons. When such a flood comes, the fear is that we will drown in it. However, I take heart in having felt this way countless times before, only to find that through us pulling together as a staff alongside parish volunteers, and through old-fashioned hard work, it somehow all comes together in the end.

The feeling of being overwhelmed is not a good feeling though. None of us relishes it. At best, we endure it. Yet when we make our way to the other side of it, a sense of accomplishment awaits us, along with much gratitude that we proved once again to have the wherewithal and fortitude to see it to completion.

But does it have to be this way?

Churches, sadly, too often mimic the frantic busyness of the world about us. Your clergy and vestries at St. John’s have talked about this often. While there will always be a great deal of administrative work to do at a church the size of St. John’s, much of the pace at which it comes and the programming volume are surely self-induced. There are no easy solutions, but we are having extensive conversations about how to give our members not just countless activities to add to their already-burdened calendars, but chances to retreat from the intense pace of their overwrought lives in order to allow enough space to be still and get to know God better. We want chances to go deep and not just skim along the surface like a rock tossed fast across the pond. If God is in the depths, somehow we must find a way to meet him there. However, that will require slowing down enough to sink into his life.

There are several ways we are trying to carve out this space in our life together. You will notice in the weeks ahead some new small group opportunities that purposefully set aside time for reflection. In fact, the major component of our Lenten Wednesday evening program will be given to small group sessions together. As well, we are going to have a Women’s Retreat this spring (April 28 – 30) in order to get away from the hustle of life so that God can work restoration in our lives. These are but a few of the new ways we are trying to forge a new path as a congregation in order to move us out of the flood of never-ending busyness and into those places where we can dwell with God and each other.

Revelation tells us that “God has made his home with mortals” (21:3). This is the huge takeaway of the Jesus-event. Although its immensity will never fully be understood on this side of heaven, its reality can surely be missed by those not paying attention. Knowing it is difficult to pay attention in our distracted, stressed world, the Church needs to intentionally offer occasions dedicated solely to paying attention to what God is doing in our midst. My New Year’s resolution to you as your pastor is to provide these holy spaces so that you might find deeper communion with the God who has come your way.

Blessings,

The Reverend Eric Long, Rector

From the Rector

By the Rev. Eric LongEric Long color

It was particularly difficult to be a priest during Christmas in 2012. It was dreadfully tough to be a parent that holiday too. Being both was almost overwhelming.

I had never heard of Sandy Hook Elementary before December 14 of that year. Like thousands of other schools, it simply existed, nameless, because after all, why would I ever need to know that school’s name? Yet on that day, its anonymity died, along with far more precious things.

Back then, I walked to pick my girls up from school each day, unless it was Shelley’s turn. Generally, pick-up was a one-parent job, mom or dad, never both, whoever could fit it in or just lost the coin toss. But not that Friday. That Friday every mom and dad went to pick-up: Shelley and I, and a multitude of others. We all walked together with knowing looks and shaking heads, red eyes and anguished concern that hung thick in the air like some funeral dirge no one could have ever imagined needing to sing. We walked without our faces buried in phones for once, but rather, looking up in expectation of our children coming home from school in a world where, without warning, all children do not.

We forced smiles for the sake of Abigail and Madalene that Christmas, and our deceits grew far larger than normal. That year it wasn’t only that reindeer could fly, or Santa really could do all that in one night. No, that year we also said that monsters weren’t real, even though we now knew they sometimes came. And we pulled it off. Abigail and Madalene never knew a thing – a hiatus for them from a new reality in which they had unknowingly come to live.

The people at my church knew the truth though. As they painfully sang “Joy to the World,” they knew, and looked at me with eyes that begged to know if that story still held, or if it was just another fantasy we tell, to hide away from a world sometimes just too sad to bear. To be honest, that Christmas I wondered a bit too, for how could a world into which God would come, be the same world where that could come too?

Jesus was born into the real world, not a Renaissance painting. Jesus’ world had it all: senseless violence, political strife, and even another true story about the slaughter of innocents, itself too dreadful to tell. Yet that was the world God came to visit, rather than some idealized version of it, as pretty as it is on Christmas cards. The world into which Jesus was born is one that can know fathomless sorrow, with depths unknown, and yet into which God willingly dove headfirst.

It is in this world’s sorrows, and ours in it, that Christmas shows its hand, disclosing whether it was just bluffing all along, or not. In this world — the real world, our world — we see how much we need the Jesus who comes… into our hurts and pains, and into the hurts and pains of people about whom we’ve never heard, until we hear more of them than our hearts can take… into sorrows so deep that only God could possibly fill them up. And so God did. And so God does.

That is what I told my parishioners gathered that Christmas Eve night, singing songs they hoped still held. It’s what I proclaimed that night and have never stopped proclaiming since — and never will: our faith is a load-bearing wall. It can endure the worst, because it says God so loved the world, even as it really is, that he gave his only son, so that this real world can be whole in a way no idealized world ever could.

Some stories we tell because they are fun even though we know they aren’t true. Some stories are too true to bear. Some stories are so true and joyous all at once that they have the power to change every other story because they matter just that much.

Christmas is such a story. A story that heals all others. A story of the God who visited the stories of a world such as ours.

Christmas matters that much.

Christmas Blessings,

Eric

From the Rector

By the Rev. Eric LongEric Long color

As a pilot in the Navy and then for Fed Ex, my father was gone for large portions of my childhood.  This was the price that came with Dad’s service to our country, and then his job.  The longest separation started when I was nine years old.  Dad was assigned to sea duty for two years on an aircraft carrier, and my family decided to remain in Memphis, TN, as that is where Dad’s future employment would be.  Two years is a dreadfully long time for such absolute separation, and it stands out as a particularly sad time in my life.  Yet what floods in right behind those lonely memories are the people of my church, mostly older, who rushed into that void and were there for me and my family in tangible, powerful ways.  Although we had no blood relatives in Memphis, I grew up with countless surrogate aunts and uncles, grandparents, and even father-like figures.  They filled my life through Calvary Church of the Nazarene.  I still remember their names and continue to feel their love.  I wonder at times what I would be without them, what different path my life would have taken without that church.  I’m glad that is a version of myself I will never know.

One fall when my dad was at sea, our church was holding a Father-Son banquet of some sort.  I will never forget the number of men who called me up to ask if I would come with them to that event.  They cared enough about me that they stepped into that empty place and transformed what would otherwise have been a painful memory into one of the most powerful testimonies I have about the goodness of the Church for our lives.

This way of being there for one another is one of the most enduring gifts of life in Christian community. I don’t suppose we notice it so much, except at those times when we need it the most.  Recognizing this has indelibly shaped my ministry.  At St. John’s, this is the chief reason we have tried to introduce chances for our church to be together across generational lines at gatherings such as our Fellowship on the Fourth events.  We have also endeavored to allow for community to be built with people in similar stages of life.  Yet the one group the clergy have longed to see brought into being is one offering friendship and fellowship for parishioners of retirement age.  This eluded us in the first stage of my ministry as we sought to rejuvenate waning children and youth programs, but we always circled back to it as a priority that had not been met.  We worried over this potential hole in our community life through which someone might fall.  Meeting this need has been regarded not only as the right thing to do, but, for me, as a way to give back.

It is, therefore, my great joy to announce that we now have this long-awaited group for our older members.  The Fine Wines is a community of retirement age parishioners who will gather to share life with one another while having fun.  If you have not heard about this group, or could not attend their first event on November 29th, please look at the full schedule of outings and events they have planned for the months ahead provided in this newsletter. What they have put together is fantastic.

Togetherness is the point of it all, and a great point it is.  For what was taught to me as a child forever remains: we really do need each other.  Indeed we do, and this is why God has given us to one another.

With you,

The Reverend Eric Long, Rector

From the Rector

By the Rev. Eric LongEric Long color

Last night at our vestry meeting, we did all the normal things vestries do: we discussed new and lingering issues with our facilities; reviewed the financial statements for the month, while trying to use your gifts in the most judicious ways possible; discussed strategies to meet the broad needs of our people across all generational lines; and celebrated new endeavors on which God is calling us to embark. Believe it or not, our meetings are always uplifting, mostly because our leaders know that we are not simply having a business meeting, but prayerfully making decisions about how to be the church that Jesus says we are to be.

Last night offered something more. Ann Marie Wood made a report to the vestry about one of our nine Outreach ministries, Temporary Relief for Unexpected Emergencies, or T.R.U.E., as it is generally called. T.R.U.E. helps our neighbors in the Roanoke Valley who find themselves in extreme circumstances pay for housing costs so that their basic need for shelter is preserved. Many of you know all about this work because you have volunteered to help on Tuesday mornings. All of us, however, should be aware of just how significant an impact our parish is making on our community. While other area charitable organizations have reduced the assistance they offer, St. John’s has increased its commitment to provide basic dignity to all people in Jesus’ name. This year, St. John’s will provide almost $62,000 worth of assistance through T.R.U.E. alone. In 2016, we have already helped well over 900 families and individuals, an overwhelming proportion of whom have children in their homes. In doing so, we are literally fighting homelessness before it occurs.

When Ann Marie gave us her report, I welled with pride for our church and you as her people. If you consider that on a good Sunday, 500 people are in attendance in worship at St. John’s, and yet we are annually helping over twice that number of families and individuals keep their houses, who could not rejoice in such faithfulness? What’s more, it is clear to me that behind every decision our vestry makes about budgets and facilities, those people are at the forefront of our leaders’ hearts and minds.

St. John’s is a model of Christian generosity. In absolute sincerity, I know of no other church our size which comes close to doing good at the level this parish does. It is beyond any church I have ever served, or ever been associated with. As I mentioned above, T.R.U.E. is but one of nine Outreach ministries of St. John’s which also include everything from an after school tutoring program (CYP), to assistance to families transitioning out of homelessness (Family Promise), medical missions in Ghana (Kimoyo), blood drives for the Red Cross, once in a lifetime gifts to change the course of a family’s future (Crossroads), and home repairs for needy families in Appalachia (Grace Rebuilding). If you’re counting, my list is not exhaustive because we also partner with area agencies to give hope in Jesus’ name. In fact, I write this article having just walked an extra block to my office because there was nowhere to park at church: St. John’s is hosting the Total Action for Progress (TAP) luncheon today, just another one of our many outreach efforts.

I look forward to many such long walks from my car into this church, not only because I need the exercise, but because the world needs St. John’s to be St. John’s. If you’ve wondered what happens around this place when we aren’t at worship, this is it. If you’ve wondered what our vestries do, it is making sure this continues.

St. John’s, this is who we are and each of us should have a heart that sings with joy, knowing that when Jesus asks us what we have done for those in extreme need, we will join hands and say, “Together, Lord, we did quite a lot.”

St. John’s Gives. Celebrate all the ways.

Blessings,

The Reverend Eric Long, Rector