Convention Address, Oct. 7, 2011
Bishop Paul V. Marshall
Diocese of Bethlehem
Cathedral Church of the Nativity, Bethlehem
To enjoy each other and grow together in the Lord
I greet you with joy and affection as we gather again for convention. It is good to see new faces and to welcome back those who have moved back into the Diocese.
Those of you who are new or who are coming to our convention for the first time will notice something a bit unusual about this gathering. The time we spend debating and discussing resolutions is not particularly long. We put our energy into being together, in praying together, in eating together, and into learning together. The gathering is one piece, so there is no discount, so to speak, for skipping the eucharist or not having dinner.
So if you are here for the first time, please do not think of this as a two-day vestry meeting, but rather like a small and discrete camp meeting. Our goal is to enjoy each other in the Lord and to grow together. Every group has only so much energy, and by long tradition we spend ours in this communal way.
The King James Version of 1611
You will also notice that our scripture readings at all services are from the King James Version of 1611. It is the foundation of the modern translations we use in all our parishes; it served our ancestors very well. We gratefully remember at this Convention that “God’s word written” can only reach us if someone translates it. We remember how the 1611 translation gave shape to the thinking and language of every English-speaking person, usually without their knowing it. We remember that it was, as all memorable English Bible translations must be, an effort at Christian unity. All of that said, it is also just fine to sit back and enjoy its language.
Scanning a few headlines of the past year
A lot has happened since we last met, much of it joyful, some of it challenging. Let me just scan the headlines of Diocesan Life for you.
We have entered full Communion with the Moravian Church in a wonderful service, and have had ongoing work sessions together with the Moravians and Lutherans.
We were able to celebrate full Communion with Lutherans and Moravians in this very room last spring at our Chrism Mass, a first for the United States.
In the coming months there will be a chance for our three churches to get together for a hymn festival. I hope you will be there.
On November 6, we will have our first-ever joint Eucharist with the Methodists as we move toward healing the most unnecessary division in Protestantism. It will be here in our Cathedral at four o’clock.
This year we have also celebrated the consecration of a new St. Peter’s church in Tunkhannock, high above the waters that have done their structure so much damage in the past.
With assistance from New Hope, St. Luke’s in Lebanon has opened “My Father’s House,” recycling old space to serve those who need shelter.
Just a year ago Trinity Easton opened a new kitchen to assist them in serving their community, a renovation done with the support of the United Thank Offerings. These are your sacrificial dollars at work.
Just a month ago there were in several places in the diocese carefully planned and well-attended interfaith services on the anniversary of 9/11. I hope that in some way we can continue the rich contacts with local Muslim and Jewish groups represented in those services.
All the news has not been welcome, however. As you know, there have been devastating floods in our northern tier very recently, and sadly there are weather people who say that major floods may be coming more than once a decade in the near future.
Diocesan House responded to the flooding in our northern tier before the waters crested, both with immediate help and calls for your support. I am grateful for the other responses that came from so many parishes and individuals throughout the diocese, but I am, and hope you are, particularly grateful for the leadership the clergy in the north have generally taken in getting aid and comfort to those whose lives have been seriously disrupted. Perhaps the area hardest hit was West Pittston, and both Trinity Church and Fr. John Major have displayed deep Christian compassion to their neighbors in an outstanding way. I am also grateful on your behalf to the Rev. Maureen Hipple and Canon Charles Cesaretti, who are coordinating our relief efforts in the north, and to Father Daniel Gunn and others who brokered a hotel full of furniture for those restarting their homes. The names I mentioned are those I recall, and I know there are many others.
You have the opportunity further to support our relief efforts through the collection tomorrow, and also by responding to the spontaneous call that arose among convention delegates to bring gift cards that can aid people buying home supplies or just having a little time away from the sludge and mold. Either act of kindness can be done in the future too, as this will be a long process.
The threat of annual flooding, as I said, now exists. Our corporate effort to be prepared is being led by Canon Andrew Gerns. We are going to have coordinated disaster response plans in place and ready to go before the end of the year.
Additionally, I have asked for and received a $25,000 grant from New Hope to be in place for immediate response to traumatic need; that will be a front-money fund we can draw from at the very moment it is needed and then replace as donations arrive.
Finally, two representatives of the Diocese are in conversation with Episcopal Relief and Development seeking funds to aid those whose lives need to be rebuilt. The response from New York has been positive so far.
A high number of our clergy are ill, and I ask you to keep them in your prayers. Sometimes both they and their spouses are simultaneously ill. Please remember especially Cal and Pam Adams, Craig and Robin Sweeney, Jim Stevenson, Charles Kapps, Ralph and Jean Roth, and Judith Krieger. There may well be others.
Similarly, I know I speak for all of you in expressing condolences to Marlene Hartshorne at the death last week of her husband Robert. Marlene has given many years and countless hours to the work of the Episcopal Church Women and to our partnership with Kajo-Keji.
A final note in the debit column. Trinity and St. Philip in Lansford chose to close rather than to merge with one of the near-by parishes. I don’t agree with this choice, but together with the Standing Committee I must accept it, and with the Trustees will see that Trinity’s resources continue to work for the mission of the church. Bishop Jack did a superb job in helping the parish tie up emotional ends in their closing service on Labor Day weekend.
The Share Save Spend approach
What can we give our culture in times of economic distress? Twice now the diocese has had the opportunity to work with the Financial Sanity program offered by Nathan Dungan, an inspiring speaker and truly good human being. I am happy to report that the Church of the Mediator made his material part of their confirmation instruction. The “Share Save Spend” approach he teaches to all generations gives people practical ways both to manage their money and to develop realistic values for their family. If your rector hasn’t told your vestry about this opportunity, you might remind him or her that they have the book. It is a sign of hope to do offer courses like this.
Parish administrators and secretaries
Speaking of reminders to vestries. Once again this summer we had a luncheon for parish administrators and parish secretaries. We do this each year primarily so that these workers, who do so much to keep each parish running and so often represent it to the community, know that they are valued. Some few, however, couldn’t attend the lunch because they could not get support to be there. I think that planning for this no-cost event for 2012 would be a simple way to let these essential co-workers know that they are valued—and to give them that message “on the clock.”
Our Renewal Assemblies
The best part of the year for me has been working on and attending our Renewal Assemblies, which began at this convention last year. Watching the enthusiasm with which lay people in particular got together to be with other Christians and to discuss their faith was a great encouragement. I am grateful to all who made those events possible. We will have time tomorrow for some small-group discussion to get ourselves in gear for the November assembly.
Tightening our diocesan budget
As we deal with economic realities, we have again tightened the budget, and are trying to do so without dropping our level of service to parishes. Even on the volunteer level, we are doubling up. The Finance Committee, for instance, also functions as the Personnel Committee, with a few additions. Similarly, I must express my gratitude to the Archdeacon for taking on the ordination process and the deployment system in addition to his many obligations. Also, our new youth missioner, Ellyn Siftar, is simultaneously missioner for youth and young adult ministries. Canon Charles Cesaretti is serving as interim Congregational Development missioner until we have resources to make a permanent appointment. Both Ellyn and Charles bring us shots of creativity and energy that have already borne fruit.
Bishop’s Day with Kids … and the Beatles
In Ellyn’s note to me reminding me to announce the change in her responsibilities, she added: “Don’t forget to say something about the Beatles.” That something is that we are making a shift. Next summer, the Bishop’s Day with Kids will be held in two locations and it will be a day for children and their families—and for anybody else who enjoys being with children. There will be a theme from a Beatles song you all know and love, but I am going to let you wait for it. Will it be Yellow Submarine? Magical Mystery Tour? Stay tuned.
Parishes trying something new
Speaking of fun, last year we adopted a resolution that each parish try something new, whether big or small, to support the spiritual formation of its members and the surrounding communities. Canon Kitch and the Commission on Lifelong Christian Formation received reports of 65 new things that were tried in our parishes. They ranged from new ways to study, to after-school events, to new organizations, pilgrimages, and experience in directly feeding the hungry. Thank you to the commission for prompting us in this direction and thank you to all the people who responded creatively.
Our youth’s commitment to New Hope
In a time when very large institutions may or may not be keeping their promises and commitments, it is refreshing and inspiring to see that the Youth of our diocese have kept their pledge to the New Hope campaign, and in fact paid it a year early. They raised a bit over their commitment of $7,000, and have designated it to provide desks and chairs in one of the schools we have built in Sudan. While you will hear more about New Hope tonight, I want to emphasize the character that our young people have displayed in keeping promises in a time when not just the economy, but enthusiasm is contracting.
Contracting of the economy and our enthusiasm
And that is where I want to spend the remainder of this address. Everybody has a personal theory on what has gone wrong in this country and in the global economy, and as we enter an election year that discussion will only intensify. As a culture we seem to find relief is redistributing blame, as though that settled anything. I have another concern.
My job means that I meet and talk with people daily, mostly but not entirely in the church. I also get to watch how parishes and vestries, and a least two educational institutions behave.
I have concern about the extent to which some people seem to feel overall discouragement, a lack of energy or enthusiasm for even free gifts, a disinclination to joy. Even more troubling, I regularly see fear. Fear of being an unemployable elderly person living and dying in poverty. Fear of having nothing left to pass on to descendants. Fear of letting go when it is time for others to be in charge. Fear that one’s life has been or may be ruined, or far worse, that one’s life has been meaningless. That kind of fear leads to moral and personal paralysis or unattractive behavior. If it is all meaningless, we might feel why bother, why behave?
Our church ignores those fears at our peril. Our pastoral duty to our members and to those whom our message reaches is to acknowledge that some people are feeling very bad right now, and that many if not most people feel uncertainty and may have low expectations for life. One of the most important things preachers and all those who bear Christ into the world can do is listen to the distress around them, and give a clear signal that it has been heard. This is especially hard to do when fearful people act out, individually or corporately, but it is essential that we try.
Making a difference in time of fear
We also have something to say to each other as Christians believers that makes a difference in a time of fear.
On Sunday we shall again hear that very familiar portion of Philippians where St. Paul simply tells them to stop worrying and start praying and then reminds his hearers of two things. The first is that he knows how to be rich and how to be poor; he knows how to be full and how to be empty. Like the Christians in Southern Sudan, he knows how to be the same person regardless of his circumstances. Like most people, I will go to my grave believing that rich or poor, it is good to have money. But St. Paul’s more important belief is that each of us is much more flexible than we might think, and that happiness is not and cannot be a function of income. Happiness is a function of personal integrity. Again, there is nothing at all wrong with aiming for success, but our present circumstances do us the favor of reminding us that the goals of our life need to be a little more substantial than relative wealth.
Personal Integrity: not since John Lennon and Princess Diana can I remember a death bringing forth as much reaction as we have seen to the passing of Steve Jobs. There was a man who has seen failure and success. How many of his speeches do not say that the important thing in life is to do something that you love, something that gives meaning, something that expresses your integrity?
My favorite is from his 2005 Commencement Address at Stanford: “Remembering that I'll be dead soon is the most important tool I've ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life. Because almost everything -- all external expectations, all pride, all fear of embarrassment or failure -- these things just fall away in the face of death, leaving only what is truly important. Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.”
There is no reason not to follow your heart. I believe that is when the joy comes. Joy comes when individuals follow their hearts rather than dimly remembered parental voices about what they should have achieved. Joy comes when churches follow their mission rather than their fears. Joy comes when we make sure to live each day.
These thoughts are not bromides in my opinion. Steve Jobs lived for some years under a death sentence, and spoke from that reality. St. Paul wrote some of his most inspirational lines about attitude from the grim reality of a damp and dark dungeon. You know, the lines in Philippians 4 about staying focused on whatever is good, honorable, and so on. We will hear them on Sunday. His advice to the Philippians is also advice to individuals and churches in our time who may feel fear, discouragement, crippling ennui, or the temptation to become a curmudgeon.
I can do all things through him who strengthens me
The apostle’s punch line is what I would want you to take home. If you remember anything from this convention, anything at all, remember that St. Paul ended his words of encouragement to very anxious people with this: “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.”
It makes a difference when we are working at a task to know that somebody will appreciate our work, that somebody values our efforts, that somebody knows that the hard parts are really hard. It makes a difference to be able to recall somebody’s face smiling as we take our first steps or play our first piano recital, or get ready for our first heart surgery. It makes all the difference as we think about our approaching death that there is someone who has passed from death to life and waits for us on the other side of death to welcome us, someone who encourages us every step of life’s way. That Someone is Jesus Christ, in whom we live and shall live.
My message to the convention this year is quite simple:
(1) These are demanding times and we must continue to care for each other in every way we can, patiently, letting our gentleness show.
(2) The times also give us the opportunity to clarify or perhaps discover our deepest values and then be sure those values are what we pursue.
(3) The times give us the ultimate gift of reminding us that we can do all things, all things, through Christ who strengthens us.