The first Sunday in October, fourteen years ago, I preached a sermon series on foundations. It was topical at the time. We were in a difficult transition in the parish. The denomination and its overseas partners were in turmoil. We were, to say the least, unsettled. It seemed a good time to look at what shape our foundation was in as a Christian community. Those of us who were at Trinity in those days may tell you they remember the series because of an illustration that stretched over four weeks. It had to do with the near collapse of Winchester Cathedral and how a deep sea diver helped save the cathedral. It’s a great story, but I won’t retell it here. If you’re interested just search for “Diver Bill” on the Internet.

The issue of foundations has been an unexpected theme in my sabbatical reading. Though Scripture tells us “For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ.” (1Corinthians 3:11); in fact, a building has foundations built on the central foundation. When we were beginning our narthex expansion in 2012, we did soil sampling of the ground where we would build. That soil was found to be fill dirt and no matter how solid a foundation of concrete and rebar we could pour; the ground underneath was too unstable to build on. The ultimate foundation of any building is the solid earth itself, and that equates to the Jesus foundation of the Body of Christ.

Even though the ground was unstable we built there anyhow, but not in foolishness. Rather, the builders drove a number of “helical piers” into the bedrock below the unstable soil. Thus a second “foundation” was set into the ultimate foundation of bedrock. This leads to another use of the image of foundation in Scripture: “… the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone.” (Ephesians 2:20) This secondary foundation’s reference to a cornerstone has real significance in the life of a Christian community. Today, cornerstones are more decorative than functional. In the past, the cornerstone was essential to constructing a stable building. From this stone all other stones will be set in reference. That’s an excellent guideline for a church whether speaking of local congregations or denominations. As the culture in which we exist changes the practices and language of the church must adapt, but only within limits. All changes must be in reference to the cornerstone of Christ Jesus or what we build will not stand for long.

helical piers

Helical piers

Of course, once the helical piers were in place, the foundation of the addition was next. Steel beams were placed along the piers and with rebar and steel sheets the foundation of the addition was poured in concrete. Once that was in place, the building could rise. There is one other foundation image in Scripture: “… you will know how people ought to conduct themselves in God’s household, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.”  (1Timothy 3:15) This rather ambitious description of the church makes more sense if we see it as a third foundation dependent on the first two.

A community, founded on the life, death, resurrection and ascension (enthronement) of Jesus is founded on a reality that does not change no matter how cultures and systems and theories evolve. A community building itself with constant reference to the cornerstone of Jesus can adapt to a changing world without compromising its foundation or losing its integrity. If both of those foundations hold, then Paul’s assertion about the nature of the church is quite reasonable.

It is this third foundation that has caught my attention in my sabbatical reading. I think it is important because until we grasp what it is and what it means for us I don’t think we’ll be able to fully realize our destiny in Christ as Trinity Parish.

That’s all I have for today. It will take some time to organize my thoughts. It will take a great deal of prayer to get a glimmer of what I believe God may be saying to us at this time. Don’t expect a quick follow up. But for those few who read this, I ask that you encourage others to read and reflect as well. Blogs are essentially monologues. Even the option for comments doesn’t take us very far. If this time away is to bear the fruit it should, we’ll have to move this from monologue to dialogue.

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And Now a Word From Dorie Ann

Dorie AnnJack asked if I would write something for his sabbatical blog so here goes.

I spent the early days while Jack was getting the basement set up for his study and prayer area working in my sewing room upstairs. It hasn’t functioned as a sewing room for many years now. In December 2007 when a burst pipe in the basement caused a flood 2 large bookcases and an armoire full of assorted papers and things were lugged upstairs to “my domain” where they sat practically undisturbed until last week. I had a lot of time for reflection as I began sorting through things from the past.

We bought this house 28 years ago in 1989. And 14 years ago this week we moved to Greeley. That was a revelation – that half of our Colorado lives have been spent in Greeley. Some of the things I found in the armoire were things that had disappeared from my life. There was a sketchbook that I had purchased shortly after Jack and I were married in 1979. I found a detailed drawing of the living room in the vicarage in Morehead, Kentucky, that included the living room window showing the large tree that dominated the front yard. (And I drew that? Hmmm.) I saw a drawing of the small cabin where we occasionally went on retreat. And lots of sketches of Jack (sitting in his lounge chair smoking a pipe; sprawling on the sofa with a cat on his lap; sitting at his desk, writing; lots of attempts just to capture the expression of his eyes.) And lots of attempts to depict Frisbee and Squeak, my 2 cats. Some weren’t bad at all and I wondered why I had left that behind. (There are lots of pages left so who knows.)

Another thing I had left behind was my sewing machine but I do have plans for that item. For some months now I’ve had the idea for a Christmas banner to go along with the other 6 banners that we hang from the choir loft at Trinity. I’d never made one for Christmas because the season is so short and we usually hang wreaths. Still it has been on my mind for quite a while. I’ve known what the message will be since last Spring but it was only this week that I saw the design and the colors in my mind. Thursday we drove down to Lakewood and I purchased the fabric. Yesterday I began cutting out the letters.

So there is a snapshot for you. And blessings from Evergreen.

Dorie Ann

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Xcellent Interruption

Taking a break from reading may not have been God’s plan today. I was loading some recycling in the car for a community recycling event in Evergreen tomorrow when I was suddenly plunged into darkness. Turns out that a major power station on the north end of the town had blown a fuse (or something like that) and plunged over 2500 households into dimness — it was, after all, mid-afternoon. Dorie Ann was working on an entry that will be posted here in the next day or so. Thank God for battery backups. We got the file saved and the computer shut down before her work was lost.

The outage lasted a bit under two hours and with little else to accomplish we retired to the upstairs where we had plenty of light. I picked up the second book in my studies, Ian Bradley’s Colonies of Heaven, and went back to work. Dorie Ann went to the dining room to work on a Christmas present she’s making for the parish. When the power returned, Dorie Ann decided that her writing muse had taken the rest of the day off and continued on her project and I came down to type more nearly illegible notes into more coherent form.

[Warning: in addition to the book listed above I also spent some time brushing up my biblical Greek, so there will be no respite from the “present active subjunctive” and other delights of New Testament mysteries when I return.]

I did not finish the book I’d been working on first as it was only really the first section that had provided the early inspiration for exploring parish-wide spiritual formation. Martin Thornton, the author of that work, was a fairly intense Anglo-Catholic who spent a good portion of his early ordained life in a religious community. We might find some of his ideas a bit rigid today, but along the line of “not reading naively” it’s not that difficult to sort out those ideas which can be applied to a 21st century congregation.

There was, however, one sentence that stood out, particularly coming from an Anglo-Catholic priest of his vintage. I will end today’s entry with that quote, but without further comment on it. I leave it for you few, brave readers of these entries to sort out what it might mean for us in being a parish church. Your comments would be welcome. And now, here it is:

“…Anglican theology insists that the creative channel of Grace in the world is not the priesthood but the church…”

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The New Routine

It really began yesterday . Well, sort of. I managed to plow (slowly) through five more chapters of Pastoral Theology and actually made some useful notes. Since my handwriting (or printing for that matter) is pretty awful, I spent some part of the afternoon typing the notes in while I could still remember what those squiggles on the yellow notepad represented.

It was an interesting beginning to this journey as thoughts I encountered over 40 years ago leapt out in one “aha” moment after another. It is, at this stage, primarily a theological underpinning to why the Trinity Way of Life should exist at all and what I hope it will enable us to accomplish as a parish. (More on that later on in the sabbatical.) What I’m experiencing now is a renewed understanding of where the Way was coming from, and more excitingly, where it could go.

What is coming clear at this early stage is that our identity as Trinity Parish may be far more important than I’d hitherto understood. For the moment I will note that human history comes down to Jesus and from Jesus flows out in redemption and healing and justice for our world. I’m not saying that being Trinity Parish is the cornerstone of God’s great redemptive purpose! We are but one of thousands of Christian communities across the globe. But perhaps in discovering what it means to be Trinity Parish we may have positive impact on the community in which we live and may also encourage other Christian communities, even beyond the Episcopal Church, to find their own parish identity and thus become channels of God’s grace in a grace-starved world.

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Avoiding Naive Reading

N. T. Wright had been recommending reading the works of Josephus, a first century Jewish scholar, to get a feel for the Jewish world which was the stage for Jesus and the early church. A person in the audience challenged Wright by pointing out Josephus’ penchant for self-promotion. Wright countered with some self-deprecating comment about his own works and then concluded with the statement: “I hope none of us reads naively.”

That comment stuck with me in the four years since I heard it. I’ve done a fair amount of naive reading over my lifetime, mostly in books about how to grow a church. I became aware of that problem some years before hearing N. T. Wright when Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Church, made waves across denominational lines and had clergy flocking to satellite conferences to learn how to replicate his phenomenal results at Saddleback Church. That wave petered out for most all mainline clergy who tried Warren’s methods. In retrospect we forgot in our enthusiasm that Warren was a Southern Baptist, and Southern Baptist is a very different church culture than our own.

The problem of reading naively is that when the latest magic bullet fails to produce the expected results we find a thousand different reasons to dismiss the whole book itself. In fact, about 25% of Warren’s book can be relevant to churches like ours. We have to read with discernment, the opposite of reading naively.

This lesson learned comes back to me now as I re-read Martin Thornton’s Pastoral Theology: A Reorientation. It was the book that gave birth to a vision of a community in common spiritual formation and thus set me on a path that has led to, among other things, the Trinity Way of Life. Now the great challenge is to reread it with discernment. That takes time and patience.

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A Preparation Nearly Complete

It doesn’t feel like a sabbatical — yet. It’s not the daily labor making the house livable, creating the work space (nearly there) and the prayer and study place (complete!!). It’s more that this feels like one of the extended stays we take up here after Christmas and Easter and maybe a week in the summer. The older cat is pretty skittish, waiting to be bunged up in the cat carrier for the trip home. I sympathize.

I did no reading today, spending time in sorting out the 14 years of neglected mess and throwing a lot of things out, setting much aside for recycling and going through old cassette teaching tapes trying to determine if I would ever listen to any of them again. A few made the cut, but only a few. There was one interesting treasure among the detritus, a packet from the cruise ship we took on our honeymoon in 1979. Included in the packet were the menus from the various meals. I know we were only in our 20s but I’m amazed we didn’t need an angioplasty by the time the cruise ended.

Tomorrow is my first Sunday away from Trinity. Even on short vacations it seems odd not to be preparing for the liturgies. So the oddness today is nothing unusual. We’ll see how odd it will feel to get back into that routine come November. Tomorrow evening I’ll be moving the computer down into the work space we created this week and then Monday begins the attempt to establish a pattern of prayerful reading, prayerful reflecting, prayerful note taking and maybe even some prayerful writing. I already miss the folks in our parish and hope and pray that will discover this time apart is a wonderful opportunity exercise their spiritual authority in ministry that comes from their connection with Jesus, not their connection with a priest.

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The Sabbatical Journey Begins

Instead of starting on sabbatical reflections I spent most of Friday afternoon locking our credit with the big three (Equifax, Experian and Transunion). Thank you Equifax. (That was sarcasm.)

However, as this time away began just this past Monday, I didn’t have much to write about. According to our diocesan sabbatical policy this is to be a “time for rest, renewal and inspiration.” I hope these seven weeks will encompass all three, but the first few days have not reflected that hope. Much of that has to do with the peculiar setting for this sabbatical. We lived in Evergreen, Colorado full time from 1989 until 2003. In 2003 God took us on what we thought was a temporary sojourn to Greeley, Colorado to work with Trinity Episcopal Church. Things did not go as planned, and thanks be to God for that. Because of the peculiar path we ended up with two homes, visiting our Evergreen residence for an overnight every other week. Most of our furniture moved with us to Greeley, so we’ve been “camping out” in the mountains when we visit.

This sabbatical is intended to be a time of revisiting many of the books that have shaped my approach to parish ministry, a time of collecting disparate writings and reflections on that journey and seeking to put all this material together in a way that can be shared by others. This is all being done back in Evergreen, but we’ve had to create a space for prayer, study and writing and that has been our work for the past week. We’re almost there and we’ve been able to walk through our neighborhood daily, listening to the elk bugling and occasional running across our local herd while keeping a safe distance.

Today we took an early break to visit the Evergreen Rotary Club where Greg Dobbs, a new inductee into the Denver Press Club hall of fame, was the speaker. I also signed up to help with their annual recycling event on the 23rd. And this afternoon I finally opened the first book I needed to revisit, Martin Thornton’s Pastoral Theology. The real work of the sabbatical starts this coming Monday.

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