A Pandemic Cannot Stop Your Love For Us

PHOTO: An angel waits for her role at the Christmas Pageant at Church of the Transfiguration
TEC Stock image used with permission

Many years ago on Christmas Eve, at the famed Riverside Church in New York City, the renowned William Sloan Coffin was scheduled to preach. The Christmas Pageant preceded his sermon. They had come to the point where the innkeeper was to say there was no room in the inn for Joseph and Mary.

The part seemed perfect for Tim, an earnest youth of the congregation who had Down’s syndrome. It was one line and he had practiced it over and over again with his parents and the pageant director. He had this! So there Tim stood in the sanctuary, a bathrobe over his clothes, as Mary and Joseph made their way down the center aisle. They approached Tim, said their lines, and waited for his reply. “There’s no room in the inn,” he boomed out just as rehearsed. But then, as Mary and Joseph turned to travel further, Tim suddenly yelled, “Wait!” They turned back startled. “You can stay at my house,” he called.

Bill Coffin did not wait for the pageant to end to deliver his sermon. He strode to the pulpit right then and said, “Amen!” Later he said it was the best sermon he never preached.

Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, you can stay at my house. In this Christmas season when our church buildings cannot be open, let’s say that again and again. Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus you can stay at my house. We miss being in Church so much. But your presence is still here. A pandemic cannot stop your love for us.

Theologian and spiritual guide Richard Rohr says this: “We are not human beings having spiritual experiences. We are spiritual beings having human experiences.” Now there is a lot to unpack there. But let’s go with it as true. We are not human beings having spiritual experiences. We are spiritual beings having a human experiences. Now we are having the human experience of a pandemic with all the economic and social disruption and suffering it is causing. How do we live as people of faith in this time?

It has been said “every time a baby is born, it is proof that God has not given up on the world.” My family has been blessed with two births this year. Our granddaughter, Charlotte, was born on April 28. And Elizabeth, called Bee, was born on June 6th. Both were borth in New York City where the curve was starting to flatten but the virus was still rampant. On June 6th, 5 week-old Charlotte needed emergency stomach surgery. Betsy and I sat and waited to hear if Charlotte would come through the surgery OK. At the same time, we waited to hear how the labor was going and anticipating the birth of Bee. Talk about having a human experience! The surgery on Charlotte was successful and everything went well in the birth of Bee. Thank God.

The Rev. Betsy Fisher and Bishop Doug holding Charlotte (left) and Bee (right).
Photo: submitted

“Every time a baby is born, it is proof that God has not given up on the universe.” That is exactly what the Gospel writers Luke and Matthew tell us so clearly. Luke tells us that the birth of Jesus causes an angel to go to shepherds and proclaim, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. To you is born this day in the city of David, a savior who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you. You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

Matthew is a lot more low-key about the events of that night. He just writes, “She had borne a son and he (Joseph) named him Jesus.” But Matthew tells us a lot more about what happened after that. There is the story of the Magi and King Herod’s plan to kill the baby by killing all babies two years old and younger around Bethlehem. This results in Joseph and Mary taking the baby and fleeing to Egypt for two years. They remain there until a dream tells Joseph that King Herod is dead and it is safe to go back to Israel. 

Two years living as refugees in a foreign land with no Zoom calls with the grandparents and the aunts and uncles. Two years of staying faithful in the midst of suffering. 

2020 has been a brutal year for our country, for our world, AND God has not given up hope. I’ll end with a poem from Madeleine L’Engle which has touched my soul this Advent and Christmas. It is called, “First Coming.”

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
Turned water into wine.

He did not wait till hearts were pure.
In joy he came to a tarnished world of sin and doubt .
To a world like ours, of anguished shame 
He came, and his light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
To heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
The Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
To raise our songs with joyful voice,
For to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!

First Coming, By Madeleine L’Engle



We Have to Choose Christmas: The Bishop’s Christmas Message

Christmas is always an emotional time. And it has its own Spirit that can carry us away. We all get caught up in the experience of a dark church singing Silent Night as the candles are lit and the light spreads.

In most years, we get caught up in Christmas. But this year we have to choose it. We have to make a choice for Christmas.

Recently I was reading a Christmas sermon by Warren Swenson. He says the biblical passage from the Christmas Eve service that we should pay special attention to this year is the Letter to Titus. Now you might be saying “what is that?” I remember Luke’s story of the census and the innkeepers and the shepherds and the angels and the manger. I remember all the great Christmas hymns. No one ever comes out of a Christmas Eve service saying, “Wow. That reading from Titus was really awesome.”

But it is there. The second reading. Here is part of it:

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all…Jesus Christ gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”

The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to ALL. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry did not preach about Titus in his Christmas message but his words help us understand it. “Mary gave birth to her first born son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. There, in the simplest bed, lies the One for whom no room was made. And yet strangely, there lies the One whom not even the universe can contain.”

The grace of God has appeared bringing salvation to all. And what is our response to that greatest gift? Titus says it is a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.

I have been inspired over and over again by the generosity of our churches to community organizations that are addressing the rising food insecurity of this time and other social needs. And checking in on one another. And finding ways to be community in such a challenging time. And by doing the good deed of wearing a mask.

And may we be zealous in choosing the resilient spirit of Christmas this year. We might not be caught up in Christmas because some of our traditions are not happening the way we always did them. And there is a deep sadness to that. But we can choose to live in the Spirit of Christmas. No one says this better than Howard Thurman, a leader in the Civil Rights movement and a great theologian.

“I will light candles this Christmas
Candles of joy, despite all the sadness.
Candles of hope where despair keeps watch.
Candles of courage where fear is ever present.
Candles of peace for tempest-tossed days.
Candles of grace to ease heavy burdens.
Candles of love to inspire all my living.
Candles that will burn all the year long.”

We are blessed by God taking flesh in Jesus and the gift of salvation. May we respond zealously with the good deed of choosing to be a light in this world. May God bless you with a resilient Spirit this Christmas.


Photo Credits: TEC Stock collection; used with permission

The Mission Continues: The Bishop’s Address

The mission continues. Let us run with endurance the race that is set before us.

At our Convention last year (which seems like 100 years ago), I told a story about Michael Curry. We were in Providence for a large national gathering of deacons. Michael was giving the keynote address and he was preaching about St. Paul. He said “wherever St. Paul went there was a revolution, a revolution. When he went to Corinth there was a revolution. When he went to Phillipi, there was a revolution.” And then Michael started pointing out bishops in the crowd. He would say the bishop’s name and then he would say “what would it look like if there was a revolution in your diocese” And he would name the diocese. He did this four times. Name of the bishop and what would it look like if there was a revolution in your diocese? Then he calls me out. “Doug, what would it look like…oh, wait, there is already a revolution going on in Western Massachusetts.”

I was never so proud of our Diocese!

Now a year later. We find ourselves in the midst of a pandemic. Stress and anxiety are everywhere. Clergy and lay leaders feel it. As do health care workers, teachers, parents of school age children, owners of small businesses, the unemployed and so many others. The pain I felt the most has been our inability to be with our loved ones when they were dying and then having to severely limit the number of mourners who could attend the funeral. The Episcopal Church is far from perfect but something we are really good at is pastoral care for the sick and the beautiful Prayer Book burial where we say that “life is changed not ended” and “into your hands, O merciful Savior, we commend your servant.”

And there is so much about church that we miss. Like seeing each other in person. Holy Communion. Choirs.

Add in an election that does not seem to end. In a deeply divided country with two vastly different visions for our future.

So what does a revolutionary diocese like Western Massachusetts do in this deeply challenging time?

The revolution, the Jesus revolution, always begins with a radical commitment to faith. I have three “go to” prayers in these days. One comes from the Prayer Book for use on All Saints Day. But I use it every day.

“In the multitude of your saints you have surrounded us with a great cloud of witnesses, that we might rejoice in their fellowship and run with endurance the race that is set before us. And together with them, receive the crown of glory that never fades away.”

The Book of Common Prayer, p. 380

We didn’t pick this race. But it is the race that is set before us. We don’t run it alone. We are surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses that testify to the faith and to staying faithful. Who is in your cloud of witnesses? Bring them to mind. They are running this race with you.

My other go-to prayer is from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

“God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, minds and souls, and love our neighbor as ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and sorrow.”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. King preached over and over again about “blessed assurance.” “Blessed assurance” that God is always present. And he felt that presence most clearly and deeply in the most fearful, anxious moments of his life.

And here’s one more. “Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God.” We boldly proclaim we know God in the person of Jesus. Jesus who forgives, heals, feeds, lifts up, blesses, dies and rises. Never be afraid to trust an unknown future to a known God. You are more resilient than you think because you are in the hands of a death conquering God. Resurrection is not just for the end of life. Resurrection happens throughout life when we fall and get up again.

The revolution will mean love of neighbor. We did a survey of our churches asking how they are addressing the needs of their neighborhoods during the Covid-19 pandemic. 39 of our 51 churches responded. Here is what love of neighbor looks like:

  • 37 congregations have assisted their local food bank
  • 28,000 meals were prepared, served and delivered by our congregations
  • 22 congregations collaborated with mission partners by giving financial support totaling $138,000
  • 8 people were sheltered
  • 1,200 care packages for people experiencing homelessness
  • 105 backpacks were made for those leaving prison
  • Rector’s discretionary funds accessed for the vulnerable – $40,000
  • Over 1600 masks were made and donated
  • Over 50,000 diapers and hygiene products given away
  • Hundreds of gift cards to local grocery stores given away
  • Several parish halls used for Wi-Fi by students who do not have that at home
  • Home repairs for 5 families
  • A farmers market that served 6400 customers
  • 50 blankets for babies in neonatal care at Baystate
  • 200 school uniforms for children in Haiti

That is all done by individual churches. On a diocesan level through Human to Human we are supporting lunches for veterans, Walking Together in Worcester, laundry love and recovery programs. Living out Matthew 25 is part of the revolution in Western Massachusetts.

The revolution demands racial justice and dismantling white supremacy. For several years now we have had a very active Beloved Community Commission here. The tragic events of 2020 have shone a light on 400 years of racial injustice and made their work more important than ever. More than ten of our parishes have actively engaged in education programs such as Sacred Ground. We offered a webinar to our clergy and lay preachers about how to preach racial justice. Early on in the pandemic, Laura Everett, the Executive Director of the Mass Council of Churches said she feared that at the end of this, only the white wealthy churches would be left standing. She started a One Church fund to help black urban churches from a variety of denominations. Our Diocese donated $15,000. And there is so much more to do. Come Holy Spirit.

Next week I will ordain two transitional deacons. Both are people of color.

And we have doubled down on our commitment to starting new Episcopal Latino faith communities. There will be more about this later in the Convention.

I spoke before about the great cloud of witnesses running this race with us. One of them is a local saint. Jonathan Daniels, born and raised in Keene, New Hampshire. He went to the Virginia Military Institute and there heard a call to ordained ministry. He went to Episcopal Divinity School in the 1960’s. Dr.King invited clergy from the north to come and work with him in the south. With other students, Daniels went to Alabama as a volunteer for a few days. At first he was not particularly moved by the experience but he missed the bus going back to Boston. It meant he had to stay another week and in that week he recognized the injustice of segregation and the Jim Crowe laws. When he returned to the seminary he asked for a year off to work in Alabama. He did great work integrating an Episcopal Church in Selma. With others he was arrested at a protest and jailed in Haynesville Alabama. They were released after a week and went to buy sodas at a local store. A man with a gun stopped them and aimed his gun at a black teenager named Ruby Sales. Jonathan realized he was going to shoot so he threw himself in front of her, taking a bullet that killed him. A martyr at 26. His writings include this: “I began to know in my bones and sinews that I had been truly baptized into the Lord’s death and resurrection…with them, the black men and the white men, with all life, in him whose Name is above all names that the races and nations shout…we are indelibly and unspeakably one.” Jonathan is with us now in the great cloud of witnesses.

In 2020 we have witnessed unprecedented climate events showing us that climate change is not in the future. It is now. Because of the prophetic voice of Margaret Bullit-Jonas and others, our diocese has long been a leader in Creation Care. That work is urgent.

During the pandemic, more guns have been purchased than in any six month time frame since records have been kept. Bishops United Against Gun Violence continues to work diligently for gun safety through legislation and inviting gun manufacturers to become part of the solution.

I have said often in 2020 “although most of our church buildings are closed, the mission of the church is wide open.” I am so inspired by our clergy and lay leaders who have adapted over and over again to provide pastoral care and worship. I get how hard this is. And there are more challenging months to come. Thank you for your resilience. Your commitment to doing the most loving and safe thing. Whatever the tragic toll of this virus will ultimately be, the numbers will be less because of you.

Learning the technology of getting together for worship on zoom or YouTube live or video streaming is so challenging. Thank you for engaging that challenge. And to help you in that effort, we are starting a new financial initiative. From diocesan funds, we will reimburse any parish that upgrades their digital communication capacities up to $2000. We want to encourage you in proclaiming the Gospel with the best resources available.

And the revolution is continuing in our diocese through the development of lay leaders. Jane Griesbach and Meredyth Ward are teaching 40 people how to lead Morning Prayer. Rich Simpson and a team are training 12 new lay preachers with another class of 12 or follow. Jenny Greg has led the Loving the Questions program for several years now. It is an in-depth process to help participants discern how they are called to serve. Most years there are 5-10 people in this program. In 2020 there are 26. And I’m grateful to Pam Mott who has promoted the training of coaches in our diocese. We all need coaches to help us make decisions in this ever changing environment and now they are available as a holy resource.

We live in hard times. But the Church has gone through hard times before. The church was born in hard times. St. Paul describes it in his second letter to the church at Corinth:

“We proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord…For it is God who said ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shown in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

“But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down but not destroyed. Always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.”

2 Corinthians 4:6-12

I’ll end this Convention address with one more Saint and what the early church did in tough times. It is at the end of the fourth chapter of The Acts of the Apostles. A man named Joseph of Cyprus joined the apostles. And the apostles renamed him. They gave him the name Barnabas, which means “son of encouragement.” You see, the apostles knew what they needed. They needed a son of encouragement.

We live in challenging times. What would happen if everyone here at this Convention promises to be a son or daughter of encouragement in our churches, in our communities, in our families? It might be revolutionary.

The mission continues. Surrounded by the great cloud of witnesses my we run with endurance the race that is set before us and with them receive the crown of glory that never fades away.


Two Prayers, Same Ethic of Jesus

Photo by Kentaro Toma https://unsplash.com

At a recent zoom meeting of my bishop classmates (all consecrated in 2012) we had a lively discussion around how we are called to lead in this chaotic and politically volatile time in our country. The bishop of New Hampshire, Rob Hirschfeld, pointed out that our Book of Common Prayer has two prayers “For Social Justice.” And they have quite different emphases. One is a “collect” found on page 260:

“Almighty God, who created us in your own image: Grant us grace fearlessly to contend against evil and to make no peace with oppression; and, that we may reverently use our freedom, help us to employ it in the maintenance of justice in our communities and among the nations, to the glory of your holy Name, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.”

The Book of Common Prayer, 260.

“Contend against evil and make no peace with oppression.” It is an inspiring call for courage and fortitude. Does that speak to your soul? It does to mine.

And yet there is another prayer “For Social Justice” and it is found on page 823 in The Book of Common Prayer. (It is on the same page as the prayer “For those in the Armed Forces of our Country”. When I was the Episcopal Chaplain at West Point we used to say both of those prayers on page 823 one after another every Sunday.) Here is the second prayer “For Social Justice”:

“Grant, O God, that your holy and life-giving Spirit may so move every human heart (and especially the people of this land), that barriers which divide us may crumble, suspicions disappear and hatreds cease; that our divisions being healed, we may live in justice and peace; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

The Book of Common Prayer, 823.

“Our divisions being healed.” Does that also speak to your soul? It is the work of reconciliation that our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry is always urging us to do.

“Make no peace with oppression.” “Our divisions being healed.” How do bring those two statements together ? We cannot make peace with racial injustice. We cannot make peace with policies of separating children from parents at our borders. We cannot make peace with the public health crisis of gun violence. We cannot make peace with environmental destruction.

And yet we are called to heal our divisions. We are called to respect the dignity of every human being – not just the people who agree with us. In the radical ethic of Jesus we are called to love those who disagree with us.

Those two prayers for social justice are both true. As followers of Jesus we live in that tension. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. did. He said this: “We must learn to live together as brothers or perish together as fools.” AND “Our lives begin to end the day we become silent about things that matter.”

My prayer for all of us is that we might hold both prayers “for Social Justice” together in our souls. And in our communities. And in our nation.


Jesus Is Calling Us Out of the Boat

Photo by Ankit Sinha on Unsplash

Often times when I gather with acolytes, lay readers, Eucharistic ministers, clergy and choir before a liturgy, I’m asked to say a prayer. (We will have those gatherings again, when we can do that safely.) Part of that prayer is this: “Lord, in this hour together, may you comfort us as we need to be comforted and challenge us as we need to be challenged.”

I believe that today’s story of the storm at sea, together with another story of a storm at sea, reveals the comfort and the challenge we receive from Jesus. Today’s story of a storm comes in the 14th chapter of Matthew. Matthew tells another story of a storm at sea in chapter 8. Let’s look at that one first.

In chapter 8, Jesus and the disciples are on a boat at sea. After a long day of preaching, teaching, forgiving and healing, Jesus is asleep in the boat. “A windstorm arose in the sea, so great that the boat was being swamped by the waves.” The apostles were terrified and they woke up the sleeping Jesus. Jesus “rebuked the winds and the sea; and there was a dead calm.”

Psychologists like Carl Jung and many theologians encourage us to pray stories such as these as our stories. Imagine the boat and what happens in it as the story of our lives. Have you ever experienced your life as one caught in a great storm? Other Gospel writers use the words “the boat was being battered by the winds and waves.” Or the gospel of Mark says “they were straining at the oars against an adverse wind.” I love that line. Have you ever felt you were “straining at the oars against an adverse wind?” Have you ever felt like that during this pandemic? I know I wake up some mornings feeling that way.

The apostles wake up the sleeping Jesus. Taking this story as our story, we have the possibility of doing that same thing. It is our Christian belief that “the kingdom is within.” Christ is present in us. In baptism we have been “claimed as Christ’s own forever.” When the adverse wind hits us, when our lives are being battered by the winds and waves, when we are afraid, it is time to “wake up the Christ within us.” It is time to go to that place in our souls where we are loved by God. Remembering what our Michael Curry says over and over again: “If it is not about love, it is not about God.”

Wake up the Christ within who had the power to calm the winds and the waves. Wake up the Christ within who said so many times in his earthly ministry and says to us now, “do not be afraid. I am with you.” Wake up the Christ who offers us “a peace which passes all understanding.”

In this story we experience the Christ who comforts us as we need to be comforted.

Now for the second storm at sea. In this one Jesus is not in the boat with the apostles. Jesus has been praying on a mountain while the apostles are in the boat far from land and the wind was against them. Early in the morning they see Jesus walking on the sea. And they are terrified – not because of the winds but because of Jesus. They think it is a ghost.

How can they find out if it is a ghost or it is Jesus? Peter knows how. He says “Lord, if it is you, command me to come to you on the water.” He says this because if the answer comes back: “oh no, Peter. Stay in the boat. Stay there in your fear. Keep things exactly as they are.” That would not be the Jesus they knew. That would be a ghost. When Jesus says “come, get out of the boat and follow me”, that is the Jesus they knew. The Jesus who had come to them months earlier when they were tending their nets and invited them on a journey that would change the world. That’s the Jesus who challenged them to become part of the Jesus Movement that is out to change the world from the nightmare it is do so many into the dream God has for it.

Brothers and sisters, we are being challenged right now in many ways but one that might finally be getting our attention is that of racial justice. We are being challenged to acknowledge our history of white privilege and our oppression of people of color. Jesus is not a ghost saying “stay in the boat. Keep doing what you have been doing.” Jesus is being Jesus and he is saying, “Get out of the boat. Yes it will be difficult. But now is the time.”

Recently I read a Fourth of July sermon by The Rev. Deborah Lee at St. Bart’s Church in Manhattan. She refers to “the land of the free and the home of the brave” and says this:

“Rather for people of color, it has often been the land of the followed and the home of the fearful. The land of the harassed and the home of the intimidated. The land of the suspected and the home of the disenfranchised.”

The Reverend Deborah Lee

Lee goes on to quote activist Ginna Green. “The United States is breaking – painfully, visibly – but not irreparably. The cracks have always been there for us to study. Perhaps now we can create a place that holds us all.”

May Christ comfort us as we need to be comforted AND may Christ challenge us as we need to be challenged. Jesus is calling us out of the boat to follow him on an adventure that will change the world.