From the Rector

By the Rev. Eric LongEric Long color

The Epiphany of our Lord is an ancient Christian feast which dates from at least 361 AD and falls on January 6 every year. With it, we move beyond the twelve days of Christmas into the startling discovery of just exactly what the hubbub surrounding this baby’s birth is about. The Greek meaning of the word Epiphany is “appearance” or “manifestation.” In common parlance, the word denotes a striking (and usually sudden) realization of the essential nature or meaning of something.

With the feast of the Epiphany come the Magi, those gentile sages, who had the foresight and wisdom to recognize royalty in this peasant child and know the Jesus event must mean something for the whole world, not just one private corner of it. Yet it also brings the wrath of cruel King Herod, who rightly discerns the assault that Jesus’ birth is on the status quo. Quickly, Jesus will be baptized, and the voice from heaven will shout, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”

Such is the rapid pace of revelation in the season after the Epiphany. In the coming weeks, demons will flee, the sick will be healed, and common people from far and wide will see that something new has broken into their world in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus will call disciples into his ministry, and they will enter it with great trepidation and awe, as indeed we all must. Finally, just before the illumination of the season yields to the penitence of Lent, all will be unveiled on the Mount of Transfiguration where the picture will take absolute clarity: in Jesus, God has come onto our turf, and the consequences of his coming will not be small, isolated, contained or reversed.

In each of these turns, the essential nature of God will be revealed in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, who is THE manifestation of God. Yet also unveiled are the cosmic and personal implications of such an earth-shaking event. With Jesus’ advent, things have changed, which means we must also change. This will also be made undeniably clear. However, human history has proven this manifestation of God will be resisted in human hearts. Nothing is so common as to deny the reality, and thus consequences, of God’s coming into our world. Indeed, never has so foolish a statement been made as, “you can’t deny reality.” Just ask King Herod; it is the easiest thing to reject.

So the question comes to each of us: how will we receive the reality of this God made manifest? Will we, like the Magi of old, have the good sense to recognize the seismic shift taking place under our very feet? Or will we fight like Herod to defend our little piece of a dying world?

Epiphany shouts, “Be ready! Be on guard for a revelation of unbelievable proportions.” Thus, even during these twelve days of Christmas which seem so familiar, know the tranquil carols we now sing mask a striking truth. This birth, far from being merely about fudge, gift-filled stockings, and warm fuzzies, has turned the world on its head. Nothing will be the same with King Jesus around. He will make the first, last; the outcast, embraced; the dead, alive. Nothing, despite our desperate efforts to the contrary, can stay the same. Nothing. Not even us.

The Creator just entered creation. This is the epiphany of the Epiphany.

With you in awe,

The Revered Eric Long, Rector

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From the Rector

By the Rev. Eric LongEric Long color

This is the final installment of a series of articles providing an inside look into my earliest engagement with St. John’s through your Rector Discernment Committee.  Near the beginning of our conversation with one another, I was asked to answer several essay questions.  Below is the fourth set of those questions along with my answers.  I hope this series gives you both a better insight into how St. John’s Rector Search was conducted and who I am as a person and priest in the Church of Jesus Christ.

What do you think the Episcopal Church does well in carrying out our mission?

The Episcopal Church is excellent at meeting people where they are.  People, particularly from fundamentalist backgrounds, are often delightfully surprised to feel accepted in our congregations.  Our Church offers those seeking Christ charitable entry points because we do not force an answer to every question and allow freedom of conscience.  This is a tremendous gift that we supply, particularly in this divisive age.  Increasingly, our politics, entertainment and isolated information bubbles insist that if someone disagrees with you, that person is an enemy.  When at our best, the Episcopal Church embodies a dramatic alternative to such thinking.  We give people space to be different, trusting the Holy Spirit will ultimately guide us all to the place we are to be, as we stay in the rhythms of divine grace and the fellowship of Christ’s Church.

Furthermore, the Episcopal Church offers depth and meaning to a world terribly distracted by the small and trite.  Like my children as infants staring at the plastic mobiles turning above their cribs, too many people are preoccupied by little more than what is bright, shiny and plastic.  Not much thought is invested in the eternal, while the temporal demands supreme attention.  Here, the rootedness of our tradition serves as a powerful antidote.  Our liturgy holds hands with an easily forgotten past in order to allow the future not to be determined solely by whatever seems to offer the greatest pull in any immediate context of history.

However, in my estimation, it is our sacramental worldview that is our greatest contribution.  Through it we discover that God uses the entirety of our world to touch our lives with grace.  As simple bread and wine fill us with Christ in order to form us into what the world needs most, so too, everyday water births us into a new family with an eternal calling and destiny.  Our age aches for meaning.  The sacraments proclaim that God is reaching out in limitless ways through all of life.  When we are tempted to believe that existence is nothing more than one day after another, encountering a God who uses the details of life to reach out to us makes each day pregnant with the surprise of divine presence.  Our church’s gift of a sacramental worldview gives the assurance that the steps of our lives are going somewhere specific, namely to the One who graciously touches all of life, through all of life.

Where do you think the Episcopal Church struggles with carrying out our mission?  

The Episcopal Church too often seems determined to remain the greatest secret around.  Perhaps some Episcopalians believe if anyone were sensible enough to be a part of the Episcopal Church, he or she would have already joined us.  Yet mostly, I think we simply do not appreciate how hungry people are for precisely the sort of Christian expression we enjoy, but often take for granted.

Moreover, many Episcopalians believe their particular vision for the church is the only one that should be.  These people segment the Church along positional lines.  They see only one way to worship, to look at a pressing concern, or to live out our tradition.  This is also a major danger of our polity which causes us to too often vote “yea” or “nay” to complex, nuanced, and therefore, contentious matters.  Not everything is “either/or,” and it seems to me an assault on the comprehensiveness of our tradition to insist it is.  Yet, there are many who relish the voting mechanisms of our church precisely because they establish winners and losers.  However, I am convinced that when we do this, it makes us all losers.

Finally, I believe that Episcopalians need to know why we do the things we do in order to see how they hold meaning for those beyond our doors.  Some Episcopalians love the ways of our church but lack curiosity as to why they are.  While this is perhaps inevitable on the margins, it is a challenge if such thinking becomes common.  We must know how our breadth, traditions, liturgy, sacramental worldview and ethos are powerfully necessary to the world about us. Otherwise we risk being a club for the like-minded, yet one with too little idea of what brought us together in the first place.   To do so would not only put us at risk to lose our deepest identity, but also forfeit the greatest missional gifts we have to offer a hungry world.

What would you like to see the Episcopal Church do more of in order to carry out our mission?

First and foremost, I would love us to realize that we are uniquely positioned as Episcopalians to meet the deep spiritual longings of our world at this time.  As all churches in the 21st Century American context struggle with an increasingly religiously disengaged society, poll after poll tells that even those most turned off by what they know of the Church long for spiritual connection.  The Episcopal Church can meet that need for many people who have been bruised, disillusioned and even traumatized by the loudest “Christian” voices in our culture.   I constantly have people come into my congregation telling me that if it were not for the Episcopal Church, they would have left religious life behind forever.  This is a tremendous opportunity.  Yet it will take the people of our churches realizing it to be so, and then finding ways to open their doors to those not yet inside.

The good news is I see this as another strength built right into our DNA.  While much popular evangelism practice has asked people to sign on the dotted line as a 100% believer in order to belong, increasingly, people are looking for places to first connect, which will in turn shape their belief through life in community.  Anglicanism has long proclaimed that “Praying Shapes Believing,” which is another way of saying that we become more like that which we practice and worship.  Because the Episcopal Church is gifted at meeting people where they are, if we find new ways to help those who are searching find a place to belong, in which they can then begin the work of prayer, we can rest assured that in time the Spirit will shape them toward belief.  Yet our Church must see this as a prospect, then an imperative, and ultimately a call.

We would like to know more about you.  Tell us about your interests and passions outside the life of the church that speak to who you are or anything else about you that you would like us to know.

Family fills the majority of my life outside of parish ministry.  This is a joyful thing for me as my wife and daughters (Abigail – 10, Madalene – 7) are not only great fun, but remind me of why life is shot through with meaning.  We love to go to the beach, take the dogs to the park, find a place to swim, or watch a movie together while having a pizza picnic on the living room floor.   My home life is a noisy, rambunctious, happy incubator for love.   Homework, guitar and piano lessons, volleyball games, and lots of laughter fill the empty slots on my calendar.

I also love to get together with friends and watch a football game, drink an ice-cold beer and laugh until my sides hurt.  I am passionate about almost everything, so I thrive on great conversation and learning new insights through others.  I love to read, find a quality television series, watch a great movie, and to learn.  My family relishes opportunities to travel, and thus we try to experience new places each year. I am a private pilot and a scuba diver, although life has not afforded me the time I once had to pursue those interests.  I am committed to regular exercise, as much as I have to constantly inspire myself to do it.

All in all, I am rarely bored.  I easily find life to offer limitless possibilities for fun and excitement.  I am blessed.

Thanks so much for reading this series.  I hope, indeed, you have gained a good bit of insight into who I am as a person and priest.

Blessings,

Eric Long,
Rector

 

From the Rector

By the Rev. Eric LongEric Long color

This is the third installment of a series of articles providing an inside look into my earliest engagement with St. John’s through your Rector Discernment Committee. Near the beginning of our conversation with one another, I was asked to answer several essay questions. Below is the third set of those questions along with my answers. I hope this series gives you both a better insight into how St. John’s Rector Search was conducted and who I am as a person and priest in the Church of Jesus Christ.

How are you testing whether God might be calling you to a new parish?

Obviously, I do not know if I am called to be your next Rector any more than you do at this early moment. I can think of a million and one reasons to stay where I am. Yet the undeniable reality going on within me right now is I feel called to a new challenge. I rejoice at what I have done and am doing at St. Christopher’s, but also realize this church is now in a healthy position where they do not need me as intensely as times past and are in a great position to attract a talented new leader to guide them forward.

It is my deepest desire and agenda to serve where I am useful, well fitted and, most importantly, called by God to be. While there might be any number of places where these criteria might be met, there are numerous situations where they certainly could not. I regard the freedom I have to stay or go from my current position to be a significant help in discerning the right move forward. If there were something driving me to change for change’s sake, or, God-forbid, I needed to run from something, I think bad decisions could easily occur. It is the peace I feel in however this unfolds that builds confidence that my discernment will be sound.

As we move forward together, the first way I will test the call is to listen. What do you have to say about who you most want to be as a church and where you see God calling you to go? What is your sense of how we would work together? Do I sense God elbowing his way into this situation? Do I see the gifts I possess as helpful to St. John’s future? Secondly, I will talk with friends and colleagues. I value good advice and seek it out most particularly when weighty decisions are to be made. Finally, I will rely on my wife. She is wise in her knowledge of me, intuitive regarding how people fit together, and blessed with a high emotional IQ that generally yields good instincts as to whether a partnership will bear fruit for those involved.

What in the materials you have read about St. John’s or heard about St. John’s speaks to you and suggests God might be calling you to our parish?

As I have a good friendship with your former Rector, the Reverend Barkley Thompson, I have heard a great deal about St. John’s for several years. Your community is joyful, determined to be undivided, healthy in the major metrics of church life and has formed a track record of success. This makes you appealing to anyone who celebrates churches which live into their potential.

A couple of years ago, Barkley shared with me the Senior Wardens’ Consultation Report that St. John’s formed in response to the 77th General Convention’s decision to allow same-sex blessings within our church. I was most impressed by the thoughtfulness of the report and the generosity given to people of differing viewpoints. Yet mostly I love how proactive it demonstrated your congregation to be about taking on hard tasks, along with your determination to find a judicious way forward through tough terrain. I regard your work as unparalleled by any other similar undertaking I have seen. It provides everyone a place to stand as long as they are willing to stand with others. It remains a remarkable achievement.

This leads me to at least two more immensely attractive aspects of St. John’s. The first is that through painful experience by past leadership, your community has discerned that you have no use for “my way or the highway” leadership styles or congregational decision making. Believing churches that disallow differing opinions to betray a vital distinctive of our tradition, your resolve to be a community of breadth excites me. Yet you do not do this from a position of timidity. It is not indecision that allows you to encompass varied viewpoints, but specifically because you have done the hard work of theological investigation. It is through reflection that you have determined comprehensiveness is your most faithful path forward. I agree.

With regard to your Parish Profile, I would struggle to find anything that fails to excite me. Your recent success, strong lay leadership, willingness to push “out into deeper waters of faith,” The Gathering service which inventively seeks to take the best of our worship and shape it in new ways, plus the overall tone of joyfulness that marks the description of your community, grabs my heart and attention. For this Memphis boy, your picture of the Elvis impersonator in the profile is a nice touch. From a priest’s perspective, a church that knows who and why it is, suggests a congregation that anyone would be honored to lead.

While I know much discernment is to follow, I find myself enthusiastic when contemplating a conversation with St. John’s in a way different from other opportunities that have opened for me. You appear to me a uniquely healthy church.

Blessings,
Eric Long, Rector