Giving Ourselves Up To God

St._Martins_Church_Providence2017 Rector’s Report


Taken together the reports from the various ministry groups in this Annual Report provide in detail a record of achievements in 2017. I have no wish to duplicate this information here. For the purposes of this annual state of the parish reflection, I want to review 2017 through the lenses of spiritual practice, engagement, and overall health, a slightly different take on our three strategic priorities.

Christian communities often get bogged down in issues of belief and miss the point that what we believe is often much less impactful that how we live and act. The prayer of General Thanksgiving recited every day at the end of Morning and Evening Prayer puts it succinctly:

And, we pray, give us such as awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days. 

We express our discipleship not through the words we speak but in the manner of our living. Hence spiritual practice is a first lens through which to review these past 12 months.

Spiritual Practice

Worship is the first element of spiritual practice. At the Bishop’s visitation in January 2017 he consecrated the new nave altar and communion rails. The care and attention given to the design and manufacture together with the financial generosity of members in the congregation symbolize our commitment to the importance of worship as a community of practice.

In 2017, the average Sunday (ASA) attendance danced around the 120-140 mark. ASA is gradually falling as a stable measurement as older patterns of weekly attendance change. In addition to our traditional schedule of services, we added a new worship opportunity in the form of a monthly, Tuesday evening Eucharist during which the sacrament of anointing and laying on of hands with prayers for healing is the special focus. So far numbers are slowly climbing at this service as word of mouth promotes this as an opportunity to connect spiritual practice with the emotional and spiritual yearnings in 21st-century life.

In 2017, the offering of prayers for healing in the chapel during communion has drawn increased numbers of folk for whom this is an important support in bearing the burdens of the heart. Attendance at the weekly Meditation Hour on Thursdays continues to hold steady with the introduction of a more body focused meditation practice. On the Thursday before Christmas, we held our second Blue Christmas service, with a focus on the experience of sorrow in a season of joy. This year we drew 70 folk, roughly double the numbers on the same event in 2016.

It’s clear to me that a traditional Anglican emphasis on worship continues to not only define our community identity but is leading us to encounter a deeper spiritual connection with God as a community as we peer into the mists of an uncertain 2018.

The second element of spiritual practice in 2017 has been in the area of embedding the Bible through the ambitious program of the Bible Challenge – reading the Bible over the course of a year. An unthinking and unreflective approach of – it must be true because the Bible tells us so, as well as a cynical rejection of the Bible as a source for anything applicable for life in today’s world, are both attitudes that are equally challenged when we are exposed to the unfolding epic of God’s relationship with the Judao-Christian community over the span of some 4000 years of social and theological development. Scripture is a poor and tyrannical rulebook. However, it is a powerful source of wisdom for how human beings and communities can find strength and purpose as they contend with the sorrows and joys of living with God at the center of their lives.

I don’t have an accurate sense of how many people are actually participating in the Bible Challenge program but in 2017, yet, we have had more conversation about the Bible than before, and Bible Study has flourished in surprising settings.

For instance, Vestry meetings no longer start with a ritualistic pause and a prayer as Vestry members have each taken responsibility to begin meetings with a personal reflection on a Biblical passage, inviting wider discussion. A good third of our Vestry meetings is now given over to spiritual practice in the form of Bible reflection at the beginning and Compline or night prayer at the end. The Vestry, long the bastion of the practically minded has in 2017 continued its evolution into a leadership team of spiritually inspired vision crafters.

Yet in 2017 the Bible Challenge has deepened our scriptural fluency and tolerance for complexity. Whether you are participating actively or passively in the Bible Challenge, it continues into 2018 as a central element of spiritual practice with knock-on effects that are as yet, hard to measure. 

Member Engagement

If we were a retail organization we would report a sharp increase in foot traffic in 2017. As a lens, engagement offers us a very positive story to tell in 2017. We had a staggering 120 visitors in 2017. The definition of a visitor is a new face we’ve not seen before. Of the 120 visitors, 40 have become members.

The website has played an increasing role in showcasing the parish to enquirers. While usage by members remains disappointing considering the amount of time spent on maintaining the website, it is a key factor for enquirers in finding their way to our doors. At the end of the year, e began to revamp the website in the direction of greater simplicity and pictorial appeal. The new design will be launched within a month or so into 2018.

The fact that I can tell you how many visitors we have had in 2017 indicates an enhancement in our ability to capture this information thanks to the tireless efforts of those involved in the welcome ministry. I commend their report to you. It’s also clear to me that, in 2017, increased energy for engagement has resulted in us taking greater strides towards being an every member ministry community where everyone takes responsibility for engagement with newcomers. Over and over again, newcomers report that this is the most friendly and welcoming church they have come into. One young man who attended on a baptism Sunday said: I felt like I had stumbled into a family gathering. He stayed and was formally received into membership of the Episcopal Church by the bishop last Sunday.

In addition to increased visitors on Sunday morning, we are seeing participation from non-members for weekday offerings, for example 10 women attended the Women’s Spirituality Group who are not part of Sunday congregational attendance. This is a sign of how we have opened another doorway for people to participate in the life of St Martin’s.

An important challenge in 2018 will be able to offer men an experience of solidarity that functions to open a door to men in our wider community, beyond the boundaries of the Sunday congregation.

Any increase in numbers is an amazing achievement of swimming upstream against the flow of traditional New England indifference to the serious practice of Christian faith and the demographic challenge of a still sluggish Rhode Island economy.

A picture of Health

Financial support is not the only indicator of levels of engagement and health in our community, but it is a crucially informative metric. As with average Sunday attendance, there continues a decline in the number of pledging members. This is a global phenomenon, again reflecting changing generational demographic priorities. I commend the Treasurer’s Report where you can gain a sense of the underlying trends, which are resulting in a smaller number of pledging units contributing a higher level of income – to produce in 2017 the first surplus in some years.

At the beginning of 2017, the draw from the endowment was budgeted at 5.5%. We will end the year with a draw of slightly less than 5%. I note that this is a real achievement, for when I arrived in 2014, the endowment draw was 7 +%. The autumn annual renewal campaign netted 22 new pledges going into 2018.

Health as a lens revealing a steady progress. In my first two years at St Martin’s my focus was on reenergizing the parish system. 2017, my third year, shows a parish system fully re-energized.

This is thanks to all of you believing that St Martin’s is a community that is not only worth your continued support, but a community worth your enhanced investment of time, talent, and treasure.

Of the three elements of personal investment -time, talent, and treasure, time remains at the highest premium as the pressures of modern life take their toll on us. In 2018, the danger will be that despite an increase in membership numbers and a healthy balance sheet we remain in danger of overheating as we all run at capacity to keep the size and complexity of our program going.

A phrase we will hear again in the coming year is – less is more, i.e. we must invest more energy in fewer programs In 2018, our priority remains one of becoming more and more a magnetic community of attraction, giving testament to Archbishop William Temple’s comment that:

The Church is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of those who are not its members.

2017, has been a phenomenal year for St Martin’s during which we have shown forth God’s praise, not only with our lips but in our lives.

In conclusion, I want to return to the notion I mentioned earlier that an overemphasis on believing is less impactful than focusing on how we live our lives.

It’s a false distinction in some senses because belief and practice are intertwined so that we can’t live and act well if our primary belief in the centrality of God in our lives is absent.

Let us continue into 2018 along the path we have chartered, a path of spiritual deepening characterized by the manner in which we {give} up ourselves to God’s service, walking in holiness and righteousness -all our days.

Will You?



jonah-and-the-whaleWhat do you know about the book of Jonah? Put up your hands (metaphorically if you are reading this) if you know the name of the city to which God asks Jonah to go? Do likewise if you know the name of the city to which he escapes in order to take a ship going in the opposite direction from the one God asks him to take? Raise your hands if you know what happens to Jonah after he is thrown overboard from the ship in the midst of the storm? I imagine if you can’t answer the first two questions you will get the third right. Because what we all know about the story of Jonah is that he is swallowed by a whale and spends three days cooling his heels in its fishy belly before being vomited up onto the seashore.

In the Bible Challenge, we will arrive at day 246 on Monday having recently read through the entirety of the Book of Isaiah and are now 13 chapters into Jeremiah. Judged by worldly standards of success none of the Major Prophets –Isaiah, Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Micah, Amos, Hosea, etc -seem to have been successful. They cry out about backsliding ways and the people refuse to repent. They draw attention to impending crises and the disasters predicted happen anyway. Now, in contrast, the prophet Jonah, a minor prophet if there ever was one, is a rip-roaring success. After some shilly-shallying about, he preaches for only a day to the citizenry of great Nineveh, calling them to turn from their evil ways. Low and behold, they do! At first sight, we might conclude that no one is more surprised than Jonah. But when we look deeper, we notice that Jonah is really pissed off because he knew beforehand what the outcome would be.

He tells God plainly that it was because he knew God would change his mind that he tried to avoid the task in the first place:

That is why I made haste to flee to Tarshish; for I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster. Therefore now, O Lord, take my life from me, for it is better for me to die than to live. 

And God asks Jonah – Do you do well to be angry? meaning, Jonah, how does it serve you to be so angry?

This seems a very contradictory way for a prophet to behave and goes to the heart of the conundrum of this book of only four short chapters. When face with conundrum we all experience a strong impulse to cut through the uncertainty and confusion and make it simple anyway, regardless of the consequences.

So the simple interpretation is that the book of Jonah is about racial and religious intolerance and the desire to exclude those who are not members of our tribe from being the recipients of God’s grace. Despite his rip-roaring success with the folk in Nineveh by getting them to repent and thus enabling God to change his mind about wiping them from the face of the earth, Jonah, a good Hebrew, does not like God being merciful to a bunch of heathens. He likes even less being made to be God’s instrument in what appears to him to be a sorry affair.

How’s Jonah’s complaint ringing for you?

Jonah is a short book written sometime between the 5th and 4th- centuries BC during the period of the returning exiles from Babylon to Jerusalem. However, its setting is in an earlier 8th-century time, probably around the 750’s when Nineveh, the capital of the Assyrian Empire was at its peak. Recall that it was in 721 that the Assyrians swept down from the North and destroyed the Northern Kingdom of Israel completely. The book’s plot of sending a Hebrew prophet to win the Assyrians over to God’s favor has some loaded undercurrents.

In reading any scriptural text the first question to ask is what is the purpose of the writer (s)? The book of Jonah, the son of Amitai, meaning son of truth, seems to be an appeal to the returning exilic community, busily rebuilding Jerusalem, warning them against the dangers of retreating into a racial and cultural exclusivism that places limits on God’s mercy and compassion.

Jonah is a warning to our human propensity to limit God’s abounding mercy so as to bolster our own fear and anxiety.

Did you know that Jews read the book of Jonah in the afternoon on the Day of Atonement? Picture this, the drama of the morning liturgy with its solemn chant of the Kol Nidre, the prayer of atonement is now past and the expanse of the afternoon opens before the fasting penitents whose hunger and thirst only increase as the day draws on. Reading Jonah reminds them of the fruitlessness of any attempt to evade the relentless task of examining the unpalatable truths of one’s life – at least in the last 12 months.

Jonah, despite his knowing better, is a model for the fruitlessness of attempting to evade God. Jonah rejects God’s purpose, i.e. God’s desire to pardon and save. Jonah sits in judgment on God by seeking to distance himself from God’s generosity.

How perverse it is that the thing we desire most for ourselves is also the very thing we work so hard to deny to others.

In a recently published book entitled, Jonah: The Reluctant Prophet, Erica Brown, of George Washington University:

Jonah is, in many ways, every man and woman who struggles with inadequacy, who confronts the darkness within and without…. Jonah is every person who has wrestled with insecurity, celebrates second chances and then realizes the path out is never linear. Jonah is the only Biblical Book that ends with a question, because his life became a question: is life worth it? Can we find meaning? Can we find Peace? 

My answer for now is that we cannot find meaning or peace without an honest examination of how we, individually and communally have participated in attitudes and actions that have sought to limit the extent of God’s mercy, compassion, and generosity to my/our tribe, my/our community, only to those like me/those like us.

The Lectionary in placing a reading from Jonah alongside Mark’s depiction of Jesus calling his first disciples presents us with an uncomfortable challenge. God is not only more generous and loving towards others who are different from ourselves than we might care for God to be, but God expects us to be her agents, his voice, her hands, his feet in mirroring God’s concern.

God calls us to be prophets, or in the more intimate language of the gospels, Jesus calls us to be his disciples. So what is our response? What kind of prophet, what sort of disciple are we prepared to be?

Jesus echoes God’s call for Jonah to go to Nineveh when he proclaims:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; [but first, you must] repent and believe in the good news.

The Kingdom is good news in the midst of a world that continues to conform itself to the bad news of business as usual. By contrast, the Kingdom’s expectations of greater inclusion, deeper compassion, and more abundant mercy are realized when repentance as an honest confrontation with the truth of the past enables for a genuine state of reconciliation.

Are we like Jonah, or are we like Andrew and his brother Simon, James and his brother John? To be like Jonah is to sit in judgment on God through second-guessing and seeking to run away from the Kingdom’s expectations? Andrew, Simon, James, and John have little idea of what they are getting themselves into, all they know is it seems worth taking a risk by saying yes.

The time is now, the Kingdom of God is near. Which way will you follow?

Action Words

A sermon for the Epiphany/Baptism of the Lord from The Rev. Linda Mackie Griggs

“And just as he was coming up out of the water,  he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him.”

If you had to choose a grammatical theme for today’s liturgy it would be verbs. The verbs are everywhere, even before we arrived this morning. Yesterday was the Feast of the Epiphany, remembering the Wise Ones’ star-led journey to Bethlehem to see the Christ Child. This wasn’t just the noun, “journey”. These Magi from the East walked, rode, lumbered, followed, struggled, wondered, climbed, descended, sought and wandered until they arrived, some two years after Jesus’ birth, at the home of the Holy Family, where they knelt, and worshiped. Worshiped the manifestation of God with us, Emanuel. That’s what Epiphany means—to make manifest—to show.

But that was yesterday. Even as the rest of the world has taken down the tree, gone back to work, (or stayed home from work and shoveled snow) and prepared to enter the post-holiday doldrums, the Church has barreled full speed ahead through the Christmastide of twelve days straight into the season of Epiphany, stopping along the way to observe the feast days of Thomas Becket, St. Stephen and St. John the Evangelist; also the Commemoration of the Holy Innocents and the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus. And today, the first Sunday after the Epiphany, we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord. (And oh, Lent is just five weeks away. Whew.)

So like the Magi, the Church is on the move. The calendar symbolizes the dynamic nature of the faith journey; a path marked variously by joy, mystery, wonder, and challenge. Say what you will about the life of faith, it is not static—it is never still. Even stillness isn’t still. Within the most solid rock subatomic particles move in relationship with one another. Every relationship in creation, from atoms to our relationship with God, is dynamic because it involves engagement of one with another. Otherwise, it’s not relationship. Creation moves. It’s all about the verbs.

In the beginning, God. We never see God as still. In the beginning, God created. God as Spirit swept, over the waters, bringing something new from nothing, from chaos. God spoke, ‘Let there be…’ And it was. Creation was the first Incarnation—the first joining of matter and Spirit to create everything that exists. And everything that is now, is descended from—and connected to–what was from the moment God loved it into being. The very water we will use to baptize Grayson Savastano this morning is materially connected to those first milliseconds of Creation.

The water we use today is connected to the Red Sea through which God led the Israelites from Egypt. It is connected to the River Jordan in which John baptized Jesus. It is connected to the water that was transformed into wine at the Wedding at Cana. That’s a pretty amazing genealogy. And yet there it is, flowing through the great Story of our creation, liberation and salvation by a dynamic and loving God.

In Mark’s Gospel we see the dramatic and transformative movement of the Spirit as Jesus emerges from the water of the Jordan: the heavens are ‘torn apart’ and the Spirit descends upon him like a dove. And again, God speaks: “You are my Son, the Beloved…” In a reflection of those first moments of Creation, something new has emerged from the water with God’s creating word—Jesus’ ministry of healing, teaching and challenging authority as he begins his journey to the Cross.

It is this journey that is reflected in the baptismal liturgy. Grayson will be symbolically immersed and then raised from the water into new life as a member of the household of God, mirroring Jesus’ dying and then rising again. The Holy Spirit is present, blowing and flowing in and through this community, as Grayson becomes a new creation—a Christian.

What does that mean? What does it mean to be reborn by the Holy Spirit? Look at the verbs.

The first verb in the Baptismal Covenant is “believe.” A common way of looking at belief is to see it as adherence to a set of tenets or articles of faith, but a more dynamic translation of the term “credo” (from which we get the word, ‘creed’) in this context is to give one’s heart to something. “I believe in God the Father…’’—I give my heart to God…to Jesus Christ…to the Holy Spirit. I give my heart to the God who is three in one and whose very nature is to create, to love, to give.

And flowing from believing are the most important verbs in the life of a Christian: to continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in breaking bread, and in praying; to persevere in resisting evil, to repent and return to God; to proclaim the Good News; to seek and serve Christ in all persons; to strive for justice and peace, and respect the dignity of every human being.

These are vitally important verbs. They are the words that should mark us as a community throughout a world that is in many ways in chaos. They are words that we are called to live into every day as Jesus’ hands, feet and voice in the world, helping God to bring God’s dream of reconciliation, healing and wholeness to fruition.

To be a Christian is not simply to be a Christian; it is to Live as a Christian. It is to journey like the Wise Ones journeyed to the Christ Child: to seek, follow, wonder, struggle, wander, love, and give. And, like the three Magi, it is to do it in company with one another, because no Christian journeys alone.

What baptism does is to bring us into a dynamic relationship with the community that vows to support us, thus expanding family in the way that Jesus redefined it

when he looked around at his followers and friends and declared, “THIS is my family—these are my mother and brothers and sisters.” Christianity is relationship—not just with God but with each other.

As Grayson’s new extended family we will pray that God will sustain him in the Holy Spirit and that God will equip him with the gifts of curiosity and discernment, courage and perseverance, joy and wonder. It is these gifts that we are called to help Grayson develop as he grows into the full stature of Christ.

We promise to support Grayson’s family as he faces the challenges and the joys of living a life of faith. He will learn, through God’s grace and in the embrace of his community, that God’s blessing at baptism is irrevocable—that there is nothing he can do that will separate him from God’s love and presence. He will learn a lot of verbs: like give, thank, love, and grieve. Like take, eat, drink, and forgive. And as he learns these verbs and lives into them in his journey of faith he will himself become a kind of epiphany—a showing of God’s light to the world.

May that light –the same light that shone upon the beginning of time; the Light of Christ that came into the world marked by a star over Bethlehem—may that light illuminate, sparkle, radiate, reflect and shine through Grayson and all of us now and always, Amen.



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