Author: Bishopfisher

From “Radio Nowhere” to “The Rising”

The following is the text of The Bishop’s Address to the 121st Annual Diocesan Convention given on November 5, 2022, at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.

The Bishop’s Address was the sermon at the convention Eucharist. Photo: Episcopal WMA

In reflecting on our convention theme, “Sing a New Song,” my mind turned to two old songs that might help us to do that. They were written by….Bruce Springsteen. One is “Radio Nowhere” which includes these lyrics: 

This is radio nowhere

Is there anyone alive out there? 

This is radio nowhere 

Is there anyone alive out there? 

Is there anyone alive out there? 

I was spinning around a dead dial 

Just another lost number in a file 

Dancing down a dark hole 

Just searching for a world with some soul 

Bruce Springsteen

Although we have some churches that have come out of these two and a half years of COVID-19 stronger, many of our churches are hurting. Some churches of all different sizes are down in Sunday attendance by 30-50 per cent. Many Sunday Schools are really hurting. And it is so hard to get volunteers. Some clergy have told me how discouraged they are and are wondering if they have done all they can do in their present situations. 

And so we sing, “is anyone alive out there? Is anyone alive out there? Dancing down a dark hole, just searching for a world with some soul.” 

But there is another Springsteen song that he wrote in response to the tragedy of September 11, 2001. It’s called, “The Rising” and starts off with a firefighter going up the stairs: 

Can’t see nothing in front of me 

Can’t see nothing come up behind 

I make my way through this darkness 

Bruce Springsteen

Then he segues to:

Come on up for the Rising 

Come on up lay your hands in mine 

Come on up for the rising 

Come on up for the rising tonight 

I see you Mary in the garden 

In the garden of a thousand sighs 

There’s holy pictures of our children 

Dancing in a sky filled with light 

May I feel your arms around me 

May I feel your blood mix with mine 

A dream of life comes to me 

Bruce Springsteen

How can we get from “Radio Nowhere” to “The Rising?” How will God working in us get “The Rising” to be our song? I’ll spend the rest of this address wondering and exploring that. 

The great theologian Karl Barth says the basic human response to God is gratitude. Everything else flows from there. When our kids were little and would get overly upset about something Betsy and I would say to them: “Stop. Tell me five things you are grateful for.” Recently, I have begun a simple practice when the wake up alarm goes off of thanking God for five things before I get out of bed. 

It is amazing what gratitude can do. The preacher David Lose says: “Gratitude frees us from fear. Releases us from anxiety. It emboldens us to do more than we could ever imagine.” 

What would happen if we started every vestry meeting, every diocesan meeting going around the room asking for expressions of gratitude. 

A remarkable example of this recently took place in Pittsfield. Jenny Gregg tells me that all the churches in the city got together and wrote ‘thank you’ notes to all 1,200 people who work in the school system. Teachers and school workers continue to be so very challenged because of how COVID shut-downs effected children’s development. And the churches of Pittsfield responded with gratitude for the hard work being done there. 

And that flows into my next wondering about how to go from “Radio Nowhere” to “The Rising.” And that is collaboration. No one church could have written 1,200 ‘thank you’ notes. But together they could. Long before COVID I was preaching the benefits of collaboration – between Episcopal churches and with churches and synagogues and mosques of all traditions. Yes, we are experiencing in our society the Great Resignation. Our ministries might be understaffed. And working with other churches might be the solution. We learned during the pandemic that we don’t have to start a much needed food pantry. Maybe we can send volunteers and financial support to the church across town or down the block that already runs a food pantry and is struggling to meet the growing need. I’m really humble about presuming to know what God thinks, but I think it is possible God would love that. 

Do you know that more times than Jesus said, “love one another,” he said, “stay awake,” “look,” “see.” What is going on right now for us to see? Something I have spoken of many times in the past year is the depression many of our young people are suffering. I’m often invited to speak at campus ministry gatherings and I ask the campus minister what they would like me to speak about. Always the answer is the same – “hope.” In a four month period of time earlier this year 7 students died by suicide at Worcester Polytechnic Institute. The early church, in the very first years after the death and resurrection of Jesus, looked around and saw the great need of the widows in a culture where women could not earn money. They saw and they responded to that need with the ministry of deacons. What is God calling us to in our 32 college campuses and for those young adults who are not in college? I don’t have an answer but maybe you do. Let’s stay awake to what God wants us to do. 

Stay awake. Do you know that 10,000 baby boomers in the United States retire every day? I know we want to invite young families to our churches so we might live out the mandate to pass the faith on from generation to generation. I’m inspired by all our churches trying to do that. And could it be that some of those non-church going baby boomers might be searching for faith formation in this next stage of their lives? What would outreach to them look like? 

And staying awake also means curiosity about ministries that are working so well within our diocese. This is not a full list. Just a few. Building Bridges – our ministry with veterans – is growing and growing and growing. We have 13 churches now that offer a free meal to veterans every week or every month. Approximately 500 vets attend. Many don’t need a free meal but they go for the companionship. And some really do need the food. Through the years I have met so many who literally live under bridges on the Connecticut River. We see that. What is God calling us to? 

Stay awake. See. Look. Climate change isn’t just in the future. It is now. I’m so grateful for the ministry of Margaret Bullitt-Jonas, her Leadership Circle, AND for your response to that ministry. 

See the awesome work that several of our churches have done welcoming Afghan refugees. I’m blessed to hear the stories of my Executive Assistant, Lainey Hurlbut, as she drives a refugee family cared for by our Cathedral and St David’s in Agawam to many appointments and to their mosque. See the work we do to stand up for the rights of immigrants including our advocacy for driver’s licenses for the undocumented. 

See the work we are doing to get ghost guns and AR 15’s off the streets. See the inspirational work of our street ministries in Springfield, Worcester, Northampton, and Pittsfield. 

See the incredible energy that is put into our Good News Gardens in ten of our parishes and the food given to local food banks. 

See our Loving The Questions experience for those discerning where God is calling them. It is an incredible process that has impacted many lives and focused the gifts of lay and ordained leaders for Jesus’ mission. 

See our Human To Human ministry (what in the old days would be called Episcopal Charities) which financially supports outreach ministries. (You will hear from the director, Mark Rodgers, later today.) 

See our 80 Sacred Ground circles – congregational groups that have honestly and faithfully engaged the impact of white supremacy on our nation and church. Sacred Ground is changing us and shaping our work for racial justice. 

See that our Latino faith communities have grown from one – Christ Church Cathedral – to three. San Marcos in Worcester and St. Paul’s in Holyoke are growing with the Holy Spirit and sharing the Gospel of joy. 

See our Indigenous Peoples Justice Network with the Diocese of Massachusetts. We are telling the truth of our history, listening to Native voices, and naming what we owe to those whose land was taken with violence and lies. 

Go to Sheffield in the summer and witness our ministry to hikers on the Appalachian Trail. Last summer over 740 hikers stopped by our tent. 

In a time of clergy shortage, see the work of Rich Simpson to get us great clergy. See the ministry of our clergy who are working in two churches. See the so-called retired clergy who are serving our churches. 

And see the wonderful collaboration of our diocese with that one to the east with even more Red Sox fans than we have here. We have joined together in ministry to be stronger together. 

I could keep on going with what we see, but we have a lot to do today. And I have two more things I’m curious about. 

Our hard working chaplains chose to make this liturgy an All Saints liturgy due to our proximity to that holy day. Which leads me to wonder: if our diocese had a patron saint what would it be? 

I looked through the whole Great Cloud of Witnesses (trust me – it took a long time with many possibilities) and I offer for your consideration – Mary Magdalene. 

Mary loved Jesus. We love Jesus. And when he died a terrible death, she stayed faithful. Stayed faithful at the cross. She faithfully went to anoint the body on Sunday and was stunned that he was not there. She asked the gardener where he was because she just wanted the old body back. And the gardener turned out to be the Risen Jesus. She embraces him but the Risen Jesus tells her he needs to keep on moving. But tell the disciples he is Risen. And she becomes the apostle to the apostles. 

I think Mary Magdalene is our saint for WMA in 2022. We, too, want the old body back. 2019. Or 1955. But the old body is gone and Resurrection to something unknown and a little scary is here. And Mary Magdalene goes with this new reality and gives a message to the apostles that changes the world. Friends, that could be us. That is how we are invited to go from “Radio Nowhere” to “The Rising.” 

Marianne Budde, the bishop of Washington DC, says this: “You are a unique expression of God’s creative genius.” I love that insight. “You are a unique expression of God’s creative genius.” Thank you for bringing that gift in service of Jesus’ Mission of Mercy, Compassion and Hope. 

We began with the song imagery, so let’s end with it. I’m going to end with a much-loved prayer from The Book of Common Prayer. I invite someone in this gathering today who is musically talented to make this a song. Make this our new song. 

Glory to God whose power, working is us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine. Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church and in Christ Jesus forever and ever. Amen. 

Zacchaeus: When We Find our Sycamore Tree

Let’s look at some of the history of Halloween, the story of Zacchaeus in the Sycamore Tree, and All Saints/All Souls Day. Then let’s see if the Holy Spirit makes a connection.Most historians agree that Halloween began with the pagan Druids in Ireland many, many centuries ago. In their calendar, influenced so much by the harvest, October 31st was the last day of the year. November first was New Year’s. The Druids believed that on the last night of the year the spirits of the dead would rise – just for that one night. That was both a good thing and a scary thing. People looked forward to experiencing the presence of their deceased loved ones. But they also didn’t want some spirits to come back. Hence costumes to hide from the unwanted spiritual visitors.

The “night of the dead” was popular in Ireland and it was also practiced in a variety of ways in numerous cultures. It seems to be a universal belief that the dead are alive somewhere and they can still contact us.

In the same era, the Church celebrated All Saints Day but it was celebrated in the spring. In the 800’s the Church absorbed the pagan practices (something we have done frequently) by moving All Saints to November first and renaming the “night of the dead” to “The Eve of All Hallows (saints).”

That created a problem and an opportunity in Ireland. All Saints Day was a feast day requiring just that – prayer followed by a feast. But many in Ireland were poor and had little available for a feast. So on The Eve of All Hallows (Halloween), they went door to door begging for food for the next day’s feast. Later this practice evolved. The Church added “All Souls Day” to follow “All Saints Day.”  That meant praying for the souls in Purgatory. As the beggars would go door to door, they would promise, in exchange for food, to pray for the souls of the deceased in that family. This door-to-door journey was known as “souling” and the cakes given for the prayers were called, “soul-cakes.”

Souling on Halloween, Mary Mapes Dodge(Life time: 1905), Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

In the 1700’s one skeptical woman thought, “I bet a lot of people eat these cakes and forget to pray for the souls in Purgatory.” She came up with a solution. She put a hole in the middle of her cakes so that when the recipient would eat through the cake and get to the hole, he would be reminded to say the prayer he promised. Doughnuts were born.

You may be wondering what this has to do with Sunday’s gospel story of Zacchaeus. Stay with me. You know the story. Zacchaeus, “chief tax collector and rich”, hears Jesus is coming to town. He goes to see if he can get a glimpse of him but the crowd is dense and he is short. He climbs a sycamore tree to see above the crowd. Jesus sees him, goes to the tree and tells Zacchaeus that he wants to have dinner with him. At dinner Zacchaeus appears to have a great conversion and promises to give half his wealth to the poor and if any are defrauded he will repay them back four times as much. But, and here’s the key, some linguists say the text should not be, “I will do this” but, “I already do this.” Zacchaeus is telling Jesus he already gives half his possessions to the poor. He already repays defrauded people four times what they are owed. In other words, he is a good man. But he is still unhappy. There is still something missing. There is an emptiness in the middle of his soul.

Zakæ (Christ And Zacchaeus) Niels Larsen Stevns – Own work (photo: Gunnar Bach Pedersen) (Randers Museum of Art, Randers, Denmark) Public Domain

And that is true for all of us. The woman who invented doughnuts is onto something. We are built with an inner emptiness and we try to fill it in so many ways. Some of those ways might be self-destructive. Some of those ways might be good – like giving half of what we have to the poor. But nothing will ever fill that hole except a relationship with the Living God. That is why Jesus can say to Zacchaeus, “Today salvation has come to this house.” Now Zacchaeus is connected to the source of all life.

Theologians have expressed this in many ways through the years. St. Augustine wrote, “my heart is restless until it rests in You.” Dag Hammarskjold, the philosopher and philanthropist wrote in his diary:

“I don’t know who – or what – put the question. I don’t even remember answering. But at some moment I did answer yes to someone – or something – and from that hour I was certain that existence is meaningful and that my life, in self-surrender, had a goal.”

Dag Hammarskjold

Paul Tillich, in a famous sermon fifty years ago, put it like this:

“Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying, ‘You are accepted. Accepted by that which is greater than you. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek for anything; do not perform anything; do not intend anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted!’ If that happens to us, we experience grace. After such an experience we may not be better than before, and we may not believe more than before. But everything is transformed. In that moment, grace conquers sin, and reconciliation bridges the gulf of estrangement.”  

Paul Tillich

Sounds like Zacchaeus to me.

Now let’s take this doughnut spirituality and move it to All Saints/All Souls Day. On this day we will think of those we love but see no longer. There is an acknowledgement that someone is missing. How do we say, “yes” to that truth and say, “yes” to Eternal Life? Let’s turn to that great theologian, Bruce Springsteen. The Boss wrote a song – Terry’s Song – when a friend and E Street band member died. Here are some of the words:

“They say you can’t take it with you

But I think they’re wrong.

All I know is I woke up this morning and something big was gone

Gone to that dark ether

Where you’re still young n’hard and cold

just like when they built you brother

And broke the mold

Now your death is upon us

And we’ll return your ashes to the earth

And I know you’ll take comfort in knowin’

You’ve been roundly blessed and cursed

But love is a power greater than death.”

Bruce Springsteen

If you don’t believe Springsteen, then believe the words of The Book of Common Prayer:

“If we have life, we are alive in the Lord. If we die, we die in the Lord. So then whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s possession.”

The Book of Common Prayer, Christian Burial, Rite II

We are saved by relationship with the Living God. Forever. The emptiness is addressed when we find our sycamore tree, that place that allows us to see and meet God. For some of us that place might be our local church.

There is a story told of a little five year old whose family was visited by relatives who lived far away. The family took the relatives on a tour of their town. As they drove near the church, the five year old said to his cousins, “That’s where God gives us bread.”

God will give us bread – inviting us into a relationship that gives life. Salvation has come to this house. Amen.

Day 5: An agenda for Episcopal Bishops

A key moment at the House of Bishops meeting at General Convention began with a question. Bishop Jennifer Baskerville-Burrows asked Presiding Bishop Michael Curry this question:
“What should the agenda of Episcopal Bishops be? Michael thought for a moment and then spoke from the heart. Here is part of what he said:

Presiding Bishop Curry

“I’m very concerned about this country that I love, potentially being on the verge of living out the opposite of unselfish, sacrificial love. How can we help this country to bind up our wounds, to learn to live democracy, and to be truly a country where there is liberty and justice for all. That’s at stake…If we can help our people to find their voice and claim the values and ideals that most people probably believe…we can help to heal this land, and help this country join with others and heal God’s creation…I believe this House, the people in this room, you are so smart, so capable, and faithful. There may be the capacity to find our voice – not a partisan voice, but a follower of Jesus voice- that might help our people and our churches, and then, maybe in turn the sensible center that is in this country, and in this world, to find its voice… I can’t sit back and watch this country self-destruct, and neither can we.”

The Most Reverend Michael B. Curry

His statement came from his soul and speaks to the present moment in our country. One example of following up on this call to heal, was the statement we adopted two days later called, “Climate and Our Vocation in Christ.

The statement says “Climate change and environmental degradation are manifestations of our tuning away from God.” Then it lists the many ways that so much is made worse by climate change. And then calls on us to act:

“If we hope to treat all migrants with dignity, we must address climate change so droughts, floods, and extreme weather don’t force people to flee.
If we hope to build peace, we must address climate change so that competition for scarce resources doesn’t drive further violence
If we hope to ensure that every child of God has enough to eat, we must address climate change so that the bountiful earth can continue to support and sustain food systems that nourish people and the soil.”

House of Bishops: Expressing the Mind of the House on Climate and Our Vocation in Christ

The statement continues with our belief in the Resurrection of Jesus that gives us a message of hope to tell the world.

“Climate and Our Vocation in Christ “ serves as an example of finding our voice and calling for healing in our country and our world. But we have more to say and, more importantly, more to do as Church.

For many reasons, I think The 80th General Convention will be a significant one in The Episcopal Church. Thank you for reading my reflections in these daily blogs. It’s been good to share this experience with you.

God bless you.

Day 4: Resolutions are about God’s dream for us

Yesterday, among the many resolutions passed by both the House of Bishops and House of Deputies was one proposed by me. It is B003 – Regulating Ghost Guns and 3D Printed Guns.

Final status of Resolution B003

Here is part of what it said:

“That the parts and kits used to build ghost guns- unserialized and untraceable firearms that can be built by anyone using unfinished frames- should be banned, and until that is possible, should be subject to full regulation as firearms and subject to all federal regulations that apply to firearms, including all oversight related to provisions of the Brady Handgun Violence Prevention Act.”

Tens of thousands of these guns have been sold in the U.S. in the last two years. It is simple and legal. Purchase a ghost gun and receive all the parts to the gun but they are not all put together yet. In some cases it means screwing in one screw and it is a fully functional gun. To buy one, no background check is required and there is no serial number so the gun is untraceable.

The resolution continues with information about about manufacturing guns using 3D printers.

In the last resolve, we ask our Office of Government Relations, members of the Episcopal Public Policy Network and individual Episcopalians be encouraged to advocate for state and federal legislation that would ban these weapons.

There are many other resolutions advocating for desperately needed changes in the way we live. Now some people say these resolutions are meaningless. They don’t accomplish anything. But our Office of Government Relations, led by Rebecca Blachly, says that is not true. Just the opposite. Here is what Rebecca and OGR says:

“When a resolution passes on a public policy issue, OGR communicates the Church’s stance to Congress and the Administration, as we are requested to do. But it doesn’t end there! In the months and years ahead, we engage with and build relationships with specific Congressional offices, often prioritizing members who sit on relevant committees. We work with Congressional offices before legislation is introduced; we help to find co-sponsors for legislation, and then we advocate for hearings and ultimately a vote on legislation that is in line with the General Convention resolution. We have private meetings with career and foreign government officials, including in the White House, on the Church’s public policies, shaping the conversation and adding a valuable perspective for policymakers to consider. We send action alerts on legislation that comes from General Convention resolutions, enabling tens of thousands of messages to be sent to Congress from engaged Episcopalians that amplify the Church’s voice. Resolutions don’t just end when Convention ends – that is when our work in the Office of Government Relations – and your work as members of the Episcopal Public Policy Network – begins!  In the coming weeks, we will explore many ways that the work of General Convention resonates in the political and policy advocacy sphere and demonstrate how much of an impact our Church has.  We hope to show the impact of the Church’s advocacy! We will share some ways that the Office of Government Relations ensures that General Convention resolutions are carried out and that Episcopalians have the opportunity to help implement them. We all have an opportunity to amplify the Church’s public witness on important issues of the day.”

Rebecca Blachly, Office of Government Relations
Photo: BUAGV public witness at #GC80 Credit: Office of Public Affairs, The Episcopal Church

Resolutions like mine are not shouting into the wind. They are about God’s dream for us. Please God may they make a difference. The Jesus Movement Rolls On.

Day 3: Profound and productive dialogue

Here’s the big fear I had going into General Convention this year. Because our time together was dramatically shortened to lessen the risk of Covid infections, I feared we might rush through the 425 resolutions. There would be no time for serious conversation. There would be no time to deal with complexity. There would be no time to distinguish between what is important and what is foundational. There would be no time to hear all the diversity of voices in the room.  Prayer time would be greatly reduced. There would be little time to listen for the Spirit, no room for the Spirit to breathe.

This fear has not come true. On Saturday the House of Bishops had some of the most profound and productive dialogue in my experience. This is just my limited perspective but I believe people felt heard. There were disagreements that we worked through. Some bishops admitted changing their minds because of the testimony of others! The newly ordained bishops of the last three years (many of whom are female, many of whom are people of color) participated with holy energy that is so very welcome and needed in this community. Several times when there was no consensus, the decision was to wait and come back to the issue instead of having a vote where a resolution would be accepted or rejected by a tiny majority. That was not “kicking the can down the road” but leaving the question open for a while to give subcommittees time to work out a compromise and time for all of us to pray and let the Spirit breathe in us. Last night around 9:30, after deep dialogue about what we are called to do in a highly fractured country, several bishops asked our Presiding Bishop what he thought. As always, he offered holy wisdom and then paused and said, “let me sleep on it.”

Photo Credit: The Episcopal Church

We still got a lot done. There are many places where you can find full reports, but here are some highlights:

  • With the House of Deputies we made a serious commitment to Racial Equity within our Church and within our society. A plan is in place and substantial financial resources are allocated for it.
  • The House of Bishops developed a process that should allow for continuing expansion and inclusivity of our prayers and giving us a structure as to what goes into The Book of Common Prayer (acknowledging that The Book of Common Prayer includes, but is more than, the physical book itself).

There is a growing concern in our country and in Canada about abuse in ”Indian Boarding Schools” run by the Church. The Anglican Church in Canada has, and is, facing this traumatic reality. As is the Roman Catholic Church.

  • Today, The Episcopal Church took a major step in committing ourselves to uncovering the truth of what went on in those schools, the continuing trauma in families and doing everything we can to work towards healing.
Here is where the work stands at the beginning of Day 3 of #GC80

Those are just a few decisions made today. I could keep going but I need to exercise and pray before another full day. I’m blessed to be in this Church.