Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 17, 2020

Faith, Not Fear

Cindy Boren of The Washington Post reported yesterday (March 16, 2020):

Although sports leagues around the country suspended competition last week because of the coronovirus pandemic, the National College Wrestling Association held its national championships over the weekend, with the organization’s executive director explaining, “We’re going to operate on faith rather than fear.”

There have been other reports of churches refusing to suspend services, alleging that this is an act of faith and trust in God. (And, by inference, that those mostly mainline Protestant and Catholic churches must lack sufficient faith.)

But which action in fact requires more faith? To continue with business as usual? Or to take new action in love of our neighbors, trusting that God will sustain our faith even in new ways of being community?

It is scary to suspend Sunday services. For over 150 years, my church has gathered together on Sunday to pray, to hear Scripture, to learn, to share meals both spiritual and material. The joke about my people, the Episcopalians, is that the reason we do things the way we do is that, “that is the way we have always done it.” We are – with a few exceptions – not early adopters of technology. We do not lightly suspend our beloved worship services and embark on the mostly uncharted territory of “virtual church.” We have fears – “how will we know who needs help?” “will people come back to church, or will they just get out of the habit?” “if I put video sermons online, will anyone like them?” (Ok, I admit, that last one is just my fear.)

But when each of us was baptized, we were asked these questions, and gave these responses:

QuestionDo you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your
AnswerI do.
QuestionDo you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
AnswerI do.
QuestionDo you promise to follow and obey him as your
AnswerI do.

And our Lord ordered us to love our neighbors as ourselves. So when scientists and public health professionals tell us that by gathering in groups we are increasing an already-significant risk that our neighbors will die of a new disease, we stop.

We stop in faith that this is the right thing to do.

We stop despite our fears.

We stop out of love and faith.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 16, 2020

In view of the impending crisis

When I read the lessons for Morning Prayer, I have to admit that I rarely linger over the reading from the Epistles. Paul’s culture-bound lawyer’s reasoning is more irritating or impenetrable to me than it is illuminating. But today’s reading struck me as uncomfortably apt. 1 Corinthians 7:25-31:

“Now concerning virgins, I have no command of the Lord, but I give my opinion as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. I think that, in view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are. Are you bound to a wife? Do not seek to be free. Are you free from a wife? Do not seek a wife. But if you marry, you do not sin, and if a virgin marries, she does not sin. Yet those who marry will experience distress in this life, and I would spare you that. I mean, brothers and sisters, the appointed time has grown short; from now on, let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it. For the present form of this world is passing away.”

“[I]n view of the impending crisis, it is well for you to remain as you are.” While the crisis of the COVID-19 pandemic is full-fledged in much of the world, here in the United States it is impending. Oregon today has 39 confirmed cases, but because testing has been so inadequate, that is only a fraction of the actual cases. The travel and hospitality industries are collapsing; the stock market is crashing; elder-care facilities are in lockdown; schools are closed.

And we are, to a great extent, frozen in place, perforce remaining as we are. People who were planning weddings are having to cancel. People looking for new jobs are out of luck. Those of us who normally go out to buy, must remain at home, as if we had no possessions; those of us who normally go to jobs in the world are isolated, as though we had no dealings with it.

“The present form of this world is passing away.” Paul, we think, had an imminent expectation of the parousia, the second coming of Christ at which all would be made well. I am not one of those Christians who thinks we have been given a roadmap of end times. Nor do I think that God sends plague as punishment for sins. What I do believe is that there is no crisis from which God is absent. Nor any state of affairs that is immutable or unredeemable. The world mid-pandemic will be better if we follow God’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. The world post-pandemic will be better if we carry into it a story of resilience and caring and shedding of obsessions with material acquisitions.

At times like this, I take comfort from other words of Paul:

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? . . . No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Romans 8:35-39.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 5, 2020

Original Sin

“How important is original sin to your understanding of faith?” That was a question for our book discussion today.  The context was Barbara Brown Taylor’s book “Holy Envy,” and the question was from a HarperOne “Small Group Guide.”

I don’t believe in the Calvinist concept of original sin, tied as it is with what David Bentley Hart calls the “infernalist” version of Christianity. But neither do I believe that we can live good lives – however you define a “good life,” whether according to the 10 Commandments, or the Sermon on the Mount, or Dungeons & Dragons alignment categories – without grace.

To me, “original sin” is a shorthand way of describing the whole complex of past choices and circumstances and mistakes and tragedies that limit our freedom to choose the good.

It might be our own sin, that has irreparably broken a relationship with someone who once loved us. Or it might be the sin of our fathers, maybe in abusing one of our parents. Or it might be the sin of a complete stranger, driving while drunk and killing another person who, if they lived, would have provided love and protection.

Or it might be structural sin: the structures of racism that taught us to not care about people defined as “the other,” or that stole from our people and plunged us into poverty. The economic structures that turn our ethically neutral desires for heat and transportation into destruction for our planet.

These sources of sin are “original” in that they predate and exist outside of any one human being. They limit our choices, and limit our vision and our ability to respond with love. I cannot work my way out of them to salvation, but need to both look for and accept gifts of grace.

spiral green plants

Photo by Steven Hylands on


Posted by: jaimemwsanders | July 27, 2013

Sustainable Mission

If we think, as I do, that the mission of church is to discern what God is doing and join in, there is by definition always opportunities for ministry.

But our particular church may not be well equipped for its current missional opportunities.  This might be due to many factors.  Maybe the people in it don’t see the surrounding community and its needs as something they should care about.  I think this is a lot more rare than we might assume.  We might assume that if a congregation is not engaged in mission in its community, they need more vision or compassion.  I think more often they need some way to see a way in which the resources they perceive they have can connect with the needs they see Jesus as caring about. 

What resources might a congregation have?  What resources does a congregation need to engage in sustainable mission?

 A congregation’s principle resource is its people.  Its paid staff, if any, including the priest, but even more its laity.  It is the laity who tutor children and staff food banks and lead Vacation Bible School and arrange flowers and sing in choirs and show up on Sunday to be renewed for caring for ailing parents and build houses and pledge money to support the mission of the church. 

So what makes a congregation’s laity a renewing rather than depleting resource? 

Some of the factors are internal, and those are what we ministers tend to focus on.  Is the worship God-centered and life-giving?  When people are ill, do they know they are loved and cared for?  Is conversation respectful?  Do people have a clear sense of mission?  Is faith shared and nourished with appropriate education? 

But some of the factors are external.  What is happening to the city, county and neighborhood around the church?  If family-wage jobs are disappearing, if the schools are in trouble, it is highly unlikely that the church will attract those elusive young families no matter how good the Vacation Bible School.  If a freeway cuts the church building off from the neighborhood in which its congregants live, those already committed may take the extra trouble to get there, but their new neighbors are unlikely to join them. 

Median income has shrunk in the past 10 years in every county in Western Oregon, and over a third of people spend more than 30% of their income just on housing.  When we teach that church membership involves tithing, we may increase the strength of discipleship of the people in the pews – but we may also be reinforcing the belief of those outside that they can’t afford to belong to a church.

Some of the factors are internal but difficult to change.  It is hard to change the words we use to worship with, but it is easier to change the words than it is to change the pews, and easier to change the pews than to change the layout of the sanctuary or the physical relationship of the sanctuary to the education rooms.  Few restaurants that exist today have the same physical layout and aesthetic as they did in 1955.  The ones that survive have invested in physical maintenance and upgrading.  They employ architects and interior designers.  But we somehow think we shouldn’t have to invest in the physical renewal of our faith places of hospitality.  If we put on a coat of paint, or replace a roof, it is a major issue – and the paint color is chosen by a committee rather than a professional. Perhaps the astounding thing is not that some of our churches are failing, but that any are surviving! 

Some of the external factors are evident now in their effects on sustainable mission.  But bigger ones may be coming.  Many of our churches here in Oregon were built in the 1950’s and 1960’s, as part of the expanding auto culture.   They were built when electricity was cheap and global warming was unheard of.  As we look at the physical resources for the church’s mission, we need to think about not only how people get around today but how they are likely to be getting around in 2040.  Are we investing in buildings accessible by light rail?  Pedestrian and bicycle routes?

I have confidence that God’s mission cannot be derailed by the imperfections of any human institution.  But I don’t think we get any guarantee that any particular church will be part of the future of that mission.  Like relay races, the batons will be passed to the organizations that have the resources to carry the mission forward.  Whether my church will be one of those depends in part, I believe, on decisions we make now with the resources we have.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | June 29, 2013

leading and following

I wouldn’t have expected a business school professor to teach a tango lesson, but that is what happened at the Kellogg School last week.  No, we didn’t get dressed up, and we didn’t actually reach tango-ing, but we put hands on our partner’s shoulders and practiced leading and following.  The epiphany for me was the difference between “following,” and “anticipating.”  Following takes a heck of a lot of trust, so I prefer to anticipate.  While pretending to follow, I am trying to guess where the leader will want to go next.  True following, the professor explained, requires being ready at any time to move in any direction.

When I came to St. Mary’s I thought I knew what my job here would be.  I would be the pivot priest, taking the congregation into being able to imagine a multigenerational, multilingual future.  Actually taking them there would be someone else’s job: someone who is younger, and knows Spanish, and has experience with family and children’s ministry.  God, I thought, would call me in a few years to another congregation which would use my cultural background.

That isn’t what has happened.  St. Mary’s has changed faster than I thought would be possible, and I am still here.  God listens to prayers, but not to direction.

At the end of the tango lesson, when I realized that I had been trying to anticipate God, and that instead I need to learn to follow, I started to cry.  Trust is hard.  Letting go of expectations is hard.  But I have to trust that God sees gifts in me that I don’t see – gifts that aren’t matured yet.  That this old, over-educated, Anglo woman can learn to tango.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | April 7, 2012

In Between

I keep expecting life to be like books, with a beginning, a middle, and an end.  Instead they are all middle.  Stories make arbitrary decisions about where to begin and end.  By focusing on only one little bit or problem – who will Elizabeth Bennett marry? – they create an ending.  In my former profession, I had the experience of beginning, middle and end because I only saw a small part of the story.  A corporation was trying to buy another company, for example.  I didn’t come into the story until a certain point, and left after the transaction was completed.  If I was involved with the client again, it was for another story.  The tidy plot was an illusion created by my limited vision.  What would the story of Pride and Prejudice look like if seen from Elizabeth’s father’s perspective?  It wouldn’t start with Mr. Darcy coming to town, and wouldn’t end with the pairing.

Most of church life seems to be “in between.”  We artificially create stories for purposes of OTM narratives, or resumes or sharing at clergy conferences.  But the “old” is never past, and the “new” is never fully here.  On Palm Sunday St. Mary’s was fuller than usual, and with new families.  But Maundy Thursday, and Good Friday, the faithful attenders were older, English-speakers, fewer.  The new identity is, like the Reign of God, “already and not yet.”  I need to be patient, valuing the old while welcoming the new.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | April 3, 2012

Will any sermon do?

Some of my parishioners watch services and preachers on TV.  One told me how much she liked a (young, male) preacher because “he is so good looking, and he always says just what you want to hear.”  Another frequently tells me what the Pope said in his daily homily.  I feel frustrated and inadequate sometimes.  How much easier my ancestors had it, not competing with Roman pomp or charismatic televangelists! Their poor congregations had to put up with the sermons they were given – however dry, or long, or boring!

Sunday, though, one parishioner told me that his lady friend had been watching a Palm Sunday sermon on TV, and “I didn’t like it.”  “Not everyone believes the same thing we do.”  YES!  Sometimes all the years of Episcopal preaching and teaching have had an effect.   There are differences of theology. Content matters.

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 27, 2012

Fantasy vs. reality

Early on in this blog, I wrote about my fantasy of “Afternoon Tea with the Vicar.”  I imagined that people in Woodburn would share my Anglophile tendencies and reading material.  WRONG.  Afternoon tea never really took off at St. Mary’s.  The reality has been far more interesting.  I could never have imagined hundreds of people gathering on the lawn to eat, dance, and play a traditional ball game from Michoacan, Mexico.  I could not have imagined a young acolyte who also is an Aztec dancer.    God has a broader imagination than I do – I am just along for the ride!

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | June 4, 2011

Fight the good fight – what?

One of the gifts of serving a congregation that is at least a generation older than me, and without a choir, is that I am forced to scour the hymnal in search of hymns that I don’t know but that they might. My present theory is that if a hymn in the 1982 Episcopal Hymnal is ALSO in BOTH the 1940 Episcopal Hymnal AND in the Ecumenical Consultation on Hymnody list (found in the back of the organist’s edition of Service music), there is a reasonable chance that my parishioners will know it. So tomorrow we are singing “Fight the good fight with all thy might.”

What? Isn’t this militaristic? Certainly that is what I would assume from the title. Christians fighting seems way too much like the so-called Christian social ideologues.

But the lyrics are about “lay hold on life,” and “run the straight race.” Isn’t this the pilgrimage/life journey metaphor that we boomer labyrinth-walkers are so fond of, but expressed in language of an earlier generation? The epistle for tomorrow, 1 Peter 4:12-14, 5:6-11, is written in the context of painful life and casting anxiety on God. My parishioners aren’t suffering persecution; but living with a family member with dementia no less requires courage and casting anxiety on God. Choosing to open our eyes to the injustice and economic pain of our community, and to try to do something to help rather than retreat to the magic never-never-land of shopping malls requires courage, strength, and trust in God.

So tomorrow we will sing Hymnal 1982 Number 552. Or at least the organist will play it, and we will see if anyone sings. And maybe some people in the congregation, at least, will gain the strength to once again “get up and do what needs to be done.”

Posted by: jaimemwsanders | March 13, 2009

Bubbling Mud

Last summer I went to Yellowstone Park, and saw geysers.  Some of them shot up rapidly with steam and water.  More of them were pools of mud, with bubbles coming up from the bottom once in a while. 

Some experiences of God’s spirit and direction are like the showy geysers.  More of them are like the mud pots.  These bubbles – are they of new life?  Or are they just gases put out by old decaying organic matter? 

I think St. Mary’s is in sort of a bubbling mud stage.  There are bubbles of regret coming up in this transitional time – regret for customs that have died out; regret for people who have died or moved away; regret for youth and the energy of the time of first building.  And there are bubbles of ideas and initiative for new life – ideas for new possibilities for outreach; hints of gifts for leadership and ministries yet undeveloped or untapped; ideas for caring for one another. 

I’m trying to be patient, and prayerful, in discerning which bubbles are which.   Trying to tread carefully and not fall into the mud.

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