About craigloya

I am an Episcopal priest serving as Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Omaha, Nebraska. I am a husband to Melissa, a father to Mari, and a lover of the Great Plains.

The College World Series and the Kingdom of God

The first two weeks of June are my favorite time of year in Omaha. It has nothing to do with the weather, which is often rainy, can be full of thunder storms and tornado warnings at night, and scorching heat in the day. Rarely, as this year, we get a pleasant and late blooming spring. These are my favorite days in Omaha because it’s in these weeks that we play host to the College World Series.

Omaha is rarely spoken of as a desirable destination. It’s an incredible, and incredibly vibrant city, that most people dismiss out of hand because it is located right in the middle the country, with nothing iconic to commend it. When I hear people talk about going to Omaha, they often say the word itself with a barely concealed irritation, drawing out the vowels in a verbal eye roll. “I have to go to OOOOmahaaaaah.”

But during the month of June, at least for the corner of the sports world that makes up big time college baseball, Omaha is the promised land, the most desired destination, the place everyone wants to get to. Tens of thousands of people from all over the country descend on the city, and the greater downtown area becomes a wonderful carnival of collegiate colors and baseball culture. I try to go to one or two games every year, mostly because baseball and Omaha are two of the things I love most in this world.

 

One morning this week, I received a text message from a friend of a friend. “I have an extra ticket for game 9–FSU Texas-Tech–tonight at 6. Are you available/interested?” I couldn’t tap out “You bet!” fast enough. My host is a Florida State alum, and was in town to cheer them through their run. I met him at the front gate to the stadium, and as we stood in the scrum of people pushing toward the entrance, strangers dropped in and out of one another’s conversations, sharing jokes about their teams’ chances, or the doomsday preacher standing on the corner in the middle of the crowds.

A few minutes after we sat down, a rabbi friend of mine slid into the seats a few rows in front of us. We greeted one another in the surprised way you do when you see someone in an unexpected context, and his young son insisted on a high five from his dad’s priest friend. An excited and chatty middle-aged couple who were graduates of Texas Tech sat down next to us, and enthusiastically told us the story of how they had been in Colorado on their drive from Texas to a vacation in South Dakota when they spontaneously decided to make the eight hour detour to see their team play a game in Omaha.

The game itself was mostly slow and boring. The pitchers worked especially slowly, even the umpires were the slowest I’ve ever seen. The two teams were locked in a 1-1 tie until the eighth inning when Florida State’s relief pitcher fell apart, walked a bunch of hitters, and all of a sudden it was 4-1, and that was that.

By the time Florida State’s loss was all but inevitable, most of the roughly 20,000 fans had already headed for the exits. The seats directly behind the Florida State dugout were almost entirely empty, and my companion wanted to walk over and stand behind the dugout to watch Florida State’s legendary coach, Mike Martin, who at 75 years old and after 40 years as coach, is retiring at the end of this season, walk off the field for the last time. So we stood with about a dozen other FSU fans, who chanted his uniform number, 11, in between short, clipped claps, and he came out of the dugout, tipped his cap and waved, thanking us for our support, then he walked quietly into the locker room, and one of the most important careers in college baseball history was over. My companion stood taking it in, holding off tears, having just witnessed again how quickly something big and important in life can just be over, and how quietly undramatic big endings in our lives can be, an ordinary period at the end of a forty year sentence.

As I walked alone through the thinning crowds back to my car in the midnight darkness, I was overcome with a sense that I had just been given a small vision of the kingdom of God, breaking into Omaha on an ordinary June evening. I had spent an unlikely three and a half hours with a casual acquaintance I’ve never spent much time with before, and probably won’t ever again, taking in something small but significant, and especially so for him. We laughed and joked with opposing fans. At one point the Texas Tech fan next to me leaned over when a group of fans were chanting insults at the FSU pitcher and whispered, “sometimes Tech fans are so embarrassing.” We struck up small conversations with strangers here and there. I shared a moment of inter religious affection with my friend the rabbi. We watched a man who had given most of his life to his school and to the sport, a man who brought teams to Omaha an incredible seventeen times, quietly end his career, having never won it all. Not the dramatic ending that would make for great fiction, but the kind of quiet disappointment that often accompanies our endings, that nevertheless was redeemed by the affection of those around him.

Strangers becoming friends, the wolf lying down with the lamb (or at least FSU lying down with Texas Tech), a group of people held together, and for a time formed into a community, by something bigger and more powerful than any one of them. It would have been so easy to not notice that what we were all getting was this incredible, mystical preview of God’s dream for the world. And of course, that’s often the case. Despite all the ways our world is fallen and our lives are hard, despite the meanness we inflict on one another in smaller and larger ways, God’s reign of peace and mercy and love is always bubbling up from just beneath the surface of our lives. God’s new creation is always quietly being born on ordinary summer evenings, in coffee shops and living rooms, in church choir rehearsals, retirement parties, lunch meetings, a joke shared with a stranger, a hand held, a hand on the shoulder. For me, it’s one of the reasons I love baseball so much. It slows the world down just enough so I can notice for a time what’s happening under the surface. The slow pitchers and slow umpires were a gift the other night. Their slowness helped sharpen the edges of my attention, so that on a lovely June evening in downtown Omaha, I could see, in the smallest possible way, God’s new heaven, and new earth, I could see the angels ascending and descending, I could glimpse the world that, as a follower of Jesus, I’m called to use my whole life to bear witness to.

 

 

 

 

Portents in Heaven and Signs on Earth: Pentecost’s Call for Creation Care

One of my favorite stretches of highway is I-35 between Emporia and Wichita, Kansas. That section winds through the heart of the Flint Hills, one of the last large sections of intact tallgrass prairie in North America. It’s stunning at any time of year; each season brings its own variation of color and texture, and cultivates its own spiritual affect in the driver’s heart: mournful longing in the gray of late November, serene stillness in the lengthening light of early summer.

But my favorite time is in the heart of spring, when the controlled burns are in full force. If you’re driving about twenty miles south of Emporia late at night, you’ll come to the top of a ridge and for several minutes, you’ll be able to see dozens of fires burning at every point on the horizon. The small tongues of fire give the imposing darkness an otherworldly, almost mystical quality. It’s just about the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.

The controlled burns, of course, are a way of renewing and preserving the prairie. They get rid of noxious and invasive species of plants, they enrich the fertility of the soil, and they are critical to maintaining a complex and fragile ecosystem.  

“When the day of Pentecost had come, the disciples were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind. . .Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. . .” (Acts 2:1-2).  Pentecost is God’s promise to do for all human flesh, and for the whole creation, what those fires do for the Konza prairie. The Acts reading goes one to describe the ecological and cosmic implications of Pentecost by quoting the prophet Joel: “And I will show portents in the heavens above, and signs on the earth below. . .”

The Day of Pentecost closes out the season of Easter, and the Holy Spirit that descends this day is the instrument of Easter’s promise to make the whole creation new. Mainline Chrsitians are usually pretty good at talking about God, but our talk often suggests we don’t actually expect God to show up and do something. Pentecost is the loud, fiery, ecstatic and frenzied reminder that God is not just a character or an interesting idea, is actually up to something in our lives and in the world. And the thing that God is up to is renewing, connecting, reconciling, crossing boundaries and divisions, and healing the whole world.

The hope we celebrate during the fifty days of Easter  isn’t just about our own disembodied souls. Our Easter hope isn’t just for some future and vaguely imagined resurrection. It’s about the kingdom of God being made known, on earth, right now, as it is in heaven. The Holy Spirit’s activity in the world is about flesh and blood, relationships and communities, hills and rivers, oceans and animals. The promise of Easter is for nothing less than a new heavens and a new earth.

Pentecost issues a renewed call to care for creation. The brokenness of our hearts, our homes, and our communities is inseparable from, and caught up in, the brokenness of creation. So God’s redemption of ourselves, our souls and bodies, is inseparable from the redemption of the whole creation.  Renewing creation is one of the things that God’s Holy Spirit is up to in the world, it’s one of the marks of the Spirit’s activity, and it’s one of the key ways that the church of Jesus’ disciples joins God’s mission in the world.

The earth is dying more and more rapidly every year, and like all death, it’s a consequence of our short-sightedness and self-centeredness, a consequence, in other words, of sin. Caring for creation is not simply a side activity, the purview of a few progressively inclined Christians and churches. Caring for creation is central to our vocation as human beings, and to our vocation as disciples after Easter.

Every spring in Kansas, tongues of fire light upon the prairie to heal and save and renew it. Every day of Pentecost, tongues of fire light upon all of us who are successors to those first disciples. May those fires burn bright and hot within us, to join God’s project of making the whole creation new.  

 

Tuesdays with Saint Matthias

Today is the feast of Saint Matthias. The one and only connection I have to him is that, every Tuesday, I preside over three short liturgies in St. Matthias Chapel on the campus of a local school. Those three liturgies are the extent of my formal responsibilities as chaplain. The school was originally founded by an early Episcopal bishop as a religious boarding school for girls, and is now a formally independent co-ed day school, but has retained the tradition of weekly chapel services.IMG_0815

It’s a somewhat unusual arrangement. The school has no formal relationship to the Episcopal Church, and religious identity or education are not part of its mission or self-understanding. And yet, every Tuesday, the entire student body processes into St. Matthias, says a few prayers, sings a few hymns, reads a short passage from the Hebrew or Christian scriptures, and hears a brief homily from me.

The school is religiously diverse. There are Christians of every imaginable variation, as well as Hindu, Muslim, Jewish, and religiously unaffiliated students and families. Given this diversity, I do my best to select scripture readings and craft homilies that focus on universal or widely shared beliefs and values, while being clear about my own beliefs as a Christian priest, since that is all I can authentically claim to be.

I don’t know why the school’s founders and early leaders chose the name St. Matthias for the chapel. It’s not a common name for churches, and there is very little in the Bible about him. Mostly what we know is that he was chosen by the original apostles to take the place of Judas after Jesus’ resurrection and ascension because he had accompanied them “during the whole time the Lord Jesus had lived among us” (Acts 1:21). His main qualification, then, seems to be that he was persistent in showing up with and for Jesus.

If that’s the case, then St. Matthias seems like a perfect name for the chapel, given its current role in the life of the school. Mostly, what I do on Tuesdays is simply try to show up with and for the community in the best way I can. Because I’m only on campus for a few hours every week, I never quite know how, if at all, chapel affects anyone. Many of the students seem deeply engaged, many others seem to politely tolerate it, and a few bear the unmistakable look that the old religious guy is wasting their time.

But the thing is, regardless of how any of it is received, I really love being there. In fact, I really love them. Being the chaplain has given me a small glimpse into the inner workings of a school, and I’m in awe of how demanding the life of such a community can be, and the level of passion and commitment the faculty and staff bring to their craft. I see the ingenious way a lower school teacher can balance the nurture young kids demand while pushing them toward excellence and expecting them to bring their very best selves to the classroom each day. I see the high school teacher whose “I’m this close to losing it” tone with a group of unruly seniors provides only a thin veil for his deep affection for them, even when they are at their worst. I see the middle school teacher who walks slowly smiling through the halls, unphased even as a swarm of seventh-graders buzzes around her.

The work that happens there every day is what I can only describe as holy. Not everyone at the school would use that language, but it’s what I come back to over and over. It represents human beings at their very best, sacrificially offering their highest efforts for the sake of a higher good: forming the next generation of adults who will steward and care for the world and its people. I’m not sure there is much I can add to that with a few, twenty-minute chapel services each week, but I’m grateful for the chance to keep showing up.

It’s oft-repeated among clergy that ninety-percent of ministry is just showing up. From what I can tell, that’s the whole basis for St. Matthias’ apostleship: he just showed up to be with and for Jesus. I hope that the school community will keep inviting me to show up to be with and for them. I hope that, if nothing else, I can bless the holy work they all do teaching and learning. Most of all, I hope that all of them will know that, in the face of how fast things move and how hard it can all be, they are loved, they are more valuable than they can imagine, not because of how good they are (though they are certainly that), but simply because of the holy endeavor they are offering themselves to.

Those few hours with St. Matthias every Tuesday have served to reshape my imagination about much of what I’m doing leading a cathedral the rest of the week. Whatever else I may or may not bring, the most valuable thing I can do is to show up, to be with and for the people who make their home there, to pronounce God’s blessing on their joys and struggles, to remind them they are, more than anything, beloved of God, accompanying them, like Matthias, as best I can during the whole time I’m given to live among them.

 

Working the Beads

A few years ago, I received an unexpected gift from an old friend. The package contained a short note written on a card, and a simple rosary he had made for me. The note described how, a few years before, he had started praying the rosary, and it had become an important spiritual practice for him. 

After he made the rosary, he told me that he had prayed a novena for me using it. We haven’t talked a lot in recent years, and we don’t know all the details of each other’s lives, but he said he felt the church was a better place because I was out there somewhere ministering in it, and he was glad to be connected with me through this simple tool for prayer. It was one of the most moving gifts and letters I have ever received.

I had never prayed the rosary before, but I was so touched by the gesture, I decided to give it a try. In the few years since, it has made a profound difference in my life, and deepend my relationship with Jesus. 

I was skeptical at first. Like most Episcopalians, my Marian piety could be described as agnostic and half-formed at best. I gladly acknowledge her importance in the scheme of salvation, but don’t feel entirely comfortable with asking for her intercession, and feel far less comfortable with popular Roman Catholic acclamations like “Queen of Heaven,” and devotion to various apparitions of Mary. Nevertheless, I was amazed at how easy the rosary prayers came to me, and how quickly the practice began to nourish my spirit. 

We meet God most fully in silence, which modern life keeps in short supply. The constant pings and pulls for out attention, the never ending stack of demands at both the office and at home, and my naturally anxious and fidgety disposition all make the stillness where we most fully encounter God difficult for me to find. The repetitive prayers of the rosary, and the feel of working the beads through my fingers, provides a rudder for my mind and body that steers my spirit into a deep and silent stillness. While I often begin the prayers in distraction, somewhere in the midst of praying through them I’m drawn into a deep calm, and by the end I’m usually simply sitting with a God who is beyond my capacity to understand or imagine, contemplating the depths and mystery of that God’s great and endless love. As those periods of stillness compound on each other day by day, I’m able to carry more and more of that stillness into my living, meeting life, and the people God gives to me, simply as they come, as a gift to be received and cherished, instead of the next thing to be managed, or checked off the list. 

And for all my Protestant squeamishness about praying to or with Mary, the prayers have, it turns out, drawn me deeper into the person of Jesus. What the rosary calls the “mysteries” of Jesus’ life, teaching, death, and resurrection allow me to spend extended periods of time contemplating, imagining, wondering about, and simply sitting with the person Jesus, bringing key moments of scripture into direct conversation with whatever neurosis, demands, griefs, or longings I’m carrying day by day. Praying the rosary has helped make Jesus more present and more real as a companion and source of strength for my moment to moment living. 

Following my friend’s example, I also often pray the rosary for a specific person or situation I’ve been asked to pray for. But more often, I simply take a few moments to offer to God all the people in my life, known and unknown, remembered or forgotten, who have some particular need to know God’s healing and grace. I don’t pray nearly as often as I should, and I’m not nearly as conscientious as I should be about praying for the people who I’ve said I would, or who have asked me to. In praying the rosary day by day, I’m trusting God to remember all those I’ve said I would remember but haven’t, and all those I love and care for whose struggles I don’t know. Praying the rosary is one more way of simply offering all I am, and all the people I either love deeply or know only casually, over to God’s loving kindness. 

Like any prayer, there are times when praying the rosary is deeply moving and profound, and times when it is simply rote, or when I’m too distracted to notice which. Ultimately, prayer doesn’t come down to what we feel about it in any given moment. Prayer, like faithful living generally, is simply about showing up, offering our whole selves—our joys and sorrows, our loved ones and those who vex us, our doubts and our hopes, our cynicism and weariness, our jealousies and generosities, our living and our dying—over fully to the God who made us, who calls us by name, who cares for us, and who longs to draw near to us, and to call us beloved, until the whole creation is made new.  

Mountains Beyond Mountains: Address to the 162nd Annual Meeting of Trinity Cathedral

The 2003 book, Mountains Beyond Mountains, tells the story of Dr. Paul Farmer, a physician who has dedicated his life to delivering quality medical care to some of the poorest and most remote parts of the world. The book focuses particularly on his work to help tackle the public health crisis posed by tuberculosis in Haiti. The book’s title is drawn from a well known Haitian proverb, which states simply that, “beyond mountains there are mountains.” Indeed, Farmer’s life and work are a testimony to the fact that, when it comes to fulfilling the words from Isaiah that Jesus quotes in today’s gospel lesson–bringing release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, setting the oppressed free–one challenge is  inevitably followed by another. Beyond mountains there are mountains. What I find most inspiring about his story is that every single one of us, when we set ourselves to it, has the power to make a big difference in the world. All of us have something to contribute, all of us have a part to play. But none of us can fully accomplish it on our own. Only God’s power will bring in the fullness of God’s kingdom. The most we can do is give what we can, and contribute what we have. Beyond mountains there are mountains.

Today is the sixth annual meeting of Trinity Cathedral that I have presided over as your dean. In these years, we have climbed a mountain together. When I first met the search committee almost seven years ago, they described a congregation that wanted to turn itself outward toward the community, that wanted to renew its focus on children, that was hoping to grow and serve the world in deeper and bigger ways. As I look at where we are today, we have climbed that mountain.

We continue to be an exception in the landscape of American Christianity: a church founded before 1900 in an urban core that is experiencing significant growth. Most churches with our formula are in decline. Our average Sunday attendance has increased by  more than 40%, our total membership has grown by more than 100 people, even accounting for those who have moved away or who have gone on to greater glory. Our annual giving has increased from $214,000 in 2013, to almost $350,000 the past two years. And if you wonder about our commitment to children, last Sunday at coffee hour I was walking across the room to talk to someone, and I was nearly tackled by a stampeding horde rumbling toward the treats. Together, with the power of God’s spirit, we have climbed a mountain.

But always, beyond mountains there are mountains. This annual meeting represents a turning point in a lot of ways. As we enjoy the view of where we’ve come, we can see the next mountain approaching on the horizon.

The foothills of this mountain have to do with our financial position. When I arrived at the cathedral, your chapter made an intentional decision to invest for growth. We have built up our staff and our programs, and the vitality and growth we’ve seen is a direct result of that. But we are using our roughly five million dollar endowment more aggressively than we can sustain over the long term. The chapter has made the intentional decision to do that each year, but they are also aware that we can’t continue that practice for more than another few years. While our annual giving has increased substantially, around 60% of our active households make a pledge every year. If we can get closer to 100% of families participating in our annual giving, it would go a long way toward putting us in a place to sustain who we are today into the foreseeable future. That’s one challenge we’ll need to work in in 2019.

The grand, picturesque mountain rising beyond those foothills is one of the biggest capital projects this congregation has ever undertaken. What we are calling Cathedral Commons will be a center for nourishing spiritual hunger and building community in our congregation, our city, and our region. A fully renovated parish building will in the first place better serve the needs of our growing congregation–improved accessibility, better hospitality and security, improved and more flexible spaces to support our programs. But Cathedral Commons will also serve as a platform for us to build on what we are doing, and will become an important spiritual and community center. It will allow us to make DEO not only a nice lunch, but a center for serving the poor and addressing the root causes of poverty and homelessness. It will allow us build on the work Brother James and his community are doing, and bring the riches of contemplative spirituality to support the lives and work of business, non-profit, and faith leaders here in Omaha and beyond. It will help us to work with interfaith partners to help young people discover their callings, and build the character and habits that will sustain them in pursuing their life’s highest purpose. I’ll say a lot more about some of these emerging programs downstairs, but what we are envisioning for Cathedral Commons will make us an important center supporting faith and the life of prayer in Omaha and in the wider region.

And honestly, we don’t have to climb this mountain, of course. There are good reasons not to. It’s hard work. If we’re going to do it, all of us will need to pitch in with time and prayer and money. Frankly, it would be easier not to. The thing is, when you called me to be your dean, you trusted me with caring for the spiritual well-being of everyone who makes their home here. That’s a sacred trust, the weight of which I feel day in and day out.  And as I read the scriptures for wisdom about how to fulfill that trust, as I look over the history of the church, as I say my own prayers day by day, it’s my observation that God doesn’t ever ask anyone to stay where they are. God never asks anyone to play it safe. The Bible is full of people who had good excuses for not climbing their mountain. Too old, too young, too poor, too sick, too scared. God has heard it all.

God is in the business of healing the world with love. I believe, in the core of my being, that God is going to do that, with us, or without us. I’m now old enough and have taken enough falls to know that God’s project to heal the world with love doesn’t depend on what our budget looks like, or whether we can pull off a big, fun capital campaign. But I also know that each of us gets one life. Just one. It was given to us out of God’s pure love, it can be taken from us at any moment, and we don’t get it back. So when I think about how I want to spend this one little blip of a life I have, I can’t think of anything better than giving it fully to God’s project of healing this broken, grieving, heartbreaking and beautiful world with love. So I’m going to do what I can to climb whatever mountain comes next, for as long as it pleases God to give me breath. In these years, I have come to love every one of you as family, and I’m all in with you. So let’s go climb this mountain together. The view will take your breath away.  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Daily Bread

In addition to our principal celebrations on the Lord’s Day, the cathedral celebrates Holy Eucharist every Wednesday, Thursday, and Friday. Our weekday services are not well-attended. Occasionally, we’ll have as many as eight or nine people in the congregation, but most of the time it’s two or three, and on many days, like today, it is just me and the lay server. I will confess that I often find this responsibility tedious and burdensome When I already have an impossibly long to do list, a schedule full of meetings upon meetings, and when I’m always conscious of letting someone down by what I’ve failed to do, saying mass for one or two people doesn’t exactly feel like a welcome addition to a full plate. 

I’m the pastor, so I could discontinue the practice, of course, and I have come close to doing so many times. But our monk-in-residence and a few faithful souls love that we do it and think it’s important, and I love them and think they’re important, so here we are. 

To be honest, the longer I have put up with it, the more deeply I have been converted by it. Struggling with the very tedium and burden of daily Eucharists has helped me come to know Jesus more fully, experience God’s love in deeper ways, and better understand what, as a priest in Christ’s Church, I am for. 

I’m usually rushing from something to get to the chapel on time, then rushing off to something else as soon as I can get away. That means I’m almost always praying about whatever is right in front of me on any given day. Squeezing mass into the middle of ordinary days has forced me to learn how to lay everything from the smallest concerns to the biggest anxieties, on God’s altar, which has in turn helped me learn how to better see God at work in every ordinary moment. Taking a regular share in these services has helped me bring more of my life and myself to God. 

Saying mass in a small chapel with only a few people also offers a powerfully intimate encounter with Jesus. Sundays are full of conversations and laughter, music and people, and it’s all joyful and good and holy. But the quiet weekdays help keep my heart tuned to God’s still, small voice. Returning again and again, in the midst of the ordinary hectic day, helps keep me pointed toward Christ, the morning star, the true north for our souls. 

Sticking with this practice over the years has continued to remind me that the church’s main business isn’t producing or achieving anything. Saying mass day after day, when almost no one comes, reminds me that as disciples of Jesus, we are not called to accomplish and achieve, but to simply offer ourselves to God, to place daily on the altar of mercy our worries, our joys, our failures, our loved ones, our enemies, our life and our labor, “ourselves, our souls and bodies.” Liturgy isn’t useful or constructive, it isn’t worth doing for large numbers and not worth doing for small numbers. Liturgy, and the Christian life it enables, is about showing up for God and offering our lives to God. 

These simple daily offerings provide a gentle, quiet, spiritual heartbeat in the midst of our city and our diocese. There aren’t many people in downtown Omaha who take notice of what we’re doing at noon on weekdays. The saints who live and work across the plains and in the towns of Nebraska certainly don’t often think of their cathedral and its little weekday offerings. But two or three disciples are at the altar almost every day: praying for ourselves, praying for our city, praying for the churches and communities across our diocese, naming them and their clergy out loud before God, asking God’s blessing on their lives and ministries, thanking God for the gift of our connections across time and distance. I trust that spiritual heartbeat is, in God’s mystical economy, pulsing and resonating in the souls of those we pray for and with. 

So even though not many would notice or care, and as much as it would make it easier to get lunch, I don’t think I will discontinue our weekday services. As a cathedral church, they are an essential part of our vocation to pray without ceasing for the life of our city and diocese. As a priest, they irritate me into remembering what I was ordained for: to lead God’s people in offering our whole lives to God, and to help God’s people join the river of love that constantly flows from God and back to God, moment by moment, day in and day out, world without end. 

Address to the 161st Annual Meeting of Trinity Cathedral

On August 12, 1805, Meriwether Lewis and his “Corps of Discovery” expedition reached the source of the Missouri River in the Montana mountains. He took a cool drink from the spring, rested a while, and ascended to the top of the ridge at Lemhi Pass. The group had been travelling in canoes upstream and uphill for many long months. They had endured illness, a harsh winter, grizzly bears, and the death of one of their companions. As they ascended that ridge, they expected to see what all the scientific experts of the day just knew to be true: the land and the river gently descending toward the Pacific Ocean. They thought they had finally discovered a water passage across North America. What he found when he stood on the top of that ridge was not a gradual descent to the ocean, but massive, awe-inspiring, snow-capped mountains as far as he could see. Lewis and his company were skilled canoe men, able to navigate the most challenging waterways. But if they were going to reach the Pacific, they had to become mountain climbers in a hurry. In an instant, all their preparation and training were thrown out the window by the awesome site of the northern Rocky Mountains.

I came across that story in a book I’m currently reading called Canoeing the Mountains.[1] It compares the situation of the contemporary church to that moment in Lewis and Clark’s journey. Churches of every variety have been on a steady path of decline in membership, attendance, and participation since the late 1960’s. The fastest growing religious group is those who have no religious affiliation at all. We are now several decades past a time when Christian identity and belief could be assumed. Anyone who has a serious commitment to a Christian community in this moment is swimming against the stream. The church of early and mid-twentieth century America was a wonderful fleet of canoes, led by skilled water travelers, carried along by the current of culture. But standing on the ridge of 2018, the church is looking at a new reality, and suddenly needs to learn how to climb mountains.

According to every statistical trend, as a downtown church, founded before 1900, this old canoe ought to be wearing out, and coming apart, and facing a crisis of survival. But by every objective measure, that simply isn’t true. In 2017, we welcomed more than thirty new members to our cathedral community, our fourth consecutive year of double-digit growth. Our Average Sunday Attendance is up by more than 30 per cent since 2013, and our annual giving is up by more than 60%, moving from $214,000 pledged a few years ago to nearly $350,000 pledged for 2018. Our total membership is over 500 for the first time in more than a decade, and that’s not counting the dozens of people who are regular participants in our ministries but haven’t formally joined as members. Our children’s programming is expanding, children cooing and crying and joyfully singing are as regular a feature on Sunday mornings as the big organ trumpets. This crew of rowers is quickly learning how to climb mountains.

The people who are joining or renewing their commitment to our community regularly report they are doing so because you are showing how following Jesus can make a difference in our lives and in the world. Our ministries with the poor and marginalized, through the Friends of Tamar, DEO, Yates Outreach, and the Fricke Food Pantry have become more and more central to our identity in recent years, and they go hand in hand with our weekly worship to form us more and more in the image of Christ, and send us out into the world. We are learning how to climb mountains by simply connecting people with the power of Jesus to change lives and heal communities, and finding ways to share our lives more deeply with one another.

In 2018, I plan to devote more of my time to doing a deeper dive with spiritual formation and discipleship. In addition to continuing to build the ways we are forming both children and adults in the faith, I’ll be starting a handful of small discipleship groups that help people go deeper in their daily walk with Jesus. Father Steven, with several lay leaders, will be starting a series of small dinner groups, who will meet regularly to share life and faith in more substantial ways. I hope that this year will be a year of growing deeper in our faith and spiritual practice.

While God is up to great things in our midst, there certainly continue to be challenges as we learn to navigate this new terrain. While your incredible generosity continues to expand, we are still relying more heavily on our endowment each year than what is sustainable over the long term. Favorable market conditions mean the total balance on our trust funds is higher now than it was a year ago despite a heavy draw, but we need to continue to work to reduce the amount we are drawing each year. That means we will likely need to develop more creative and innovative ways to generate revenue for our cathedral.

One way we began to explore that in 2017 was to appoint a task force to begin to craft a plan for renovating an ageing and increasingly challenged parish house. We contracted with the architecture firm Alley, Poyner, Macchietto to help us dream about how God might be calling us to utilize and leverage this resource in the coming years. You all contributed big dreams and ideas, and the task force and architects are busy in this new year working to develop a more concrete plan. Stay tuned for more in the coming months.

Our corps of discovery here at the cathedral is led by some seriously talented and faithful field guides, and I would put our staff up against any staff, at any church, of any size, anywhere. In the first draft of this address, I tried to list out the specific things that each of them do for all of us in this place, and it literally doubled the length of this sermon, so I’ll say more about each of them downstairs. But when you see Father Steven King, Deacons Ellen Ross or Teresa Houser, Stacy Gustin, Erin VanZee, Brother James Dowd, Christine Misek, Maurice Thompson, Marty Wheeler Burnett, or our newest staff members, Linda MacTaggart and Kyle Smith, please say thank you to them. They all work longer hours, and handle more responsibilities, than any one of us fully realizes. That’s not even beginning to name the countless lay volunteers who put in long hours each week to support all that we do here.

In every generation, it can feel like our challenges are unique, or that no one has ever been looking at mountains like this before. But just look around this space, picture the people who are no longer sitting in these pews, or go look around the museum, and you’ll see that there is an army of people who have stood right here before, who are cheering us on. George Selwyn and James Patteson are memorialized in those windows, and they had to adapt and innovate in the South Pacific. Jackson Kemper is memorialized in that window back there, and he adapted and innovated across most of the central U.S. Dean Charles Gardiner, and Libby Lauritzen, Jack Fricke, Dan Loring, Gloria Dunbar, Warren Whitted, George Barger, Brad Ableson, and on and on and on, all had to do in their day exactly what we are doing in ours. What an unbelievable privilege for us to stand in that line, and be called to embark on that adventure.

Last March, my family did some mountain climbing of our own by way of a cog rail to the top of Pike’s Peak in Colorado. As we stood at the summit, we could see as far as Kansas on the horizon, and just beyond Kansas, the actual curvature of the earth. We could see the edge of our planet while firmly planted on it. Standing in this pulpit, seated in that chair, I have the incredible privilege of looking out over all of you who I have promised to love and nurture as best I can. I see us learning to climb the mountains before us. And every day, every week, every year, I can see the horizon of God’s kingdom of love and peace, justice and life, drawing closer and closer, so that we can almost touch it. Amen.

 

[1] Bolsinger, Tod. Canoeing the Mountains. IVP Books. Dowers Grove, Illinois. 2015.