#movingchurch

IMG_0371#movingchurch is a hashtag to be used whenever you find yourself part of an event or liturgy or action that represents the church moving into the 21st century. Something new old. Something rooted in the tradition of the church but not bound by it.

Maybe you are worshipping in a downtown park, or collaborating with those outside the church in order to bring justice to the oppressed. Maybe you are finding new ways to teach the church’s story or new ways to live it.

The Advocate was created in 2003 to be a church for those who might not be drawn to a more established church setting. We rented worship space, met for worship at 5 PM on Sundays, and determined to “be paperless” in our communications from the start. And we realized that some ways of being church in the past, even the recent past, just didn’t seem as significant as they used to be. We were focused on welcoming questions, introducing Jesus, presenting the mystery of the ancient sacraments, and having fun.

We were a “new church” for the 21st century.

Getting A Move OnBut in 2012 we moved a 19th century carpenter gothic chapel from Germanton NC to Chapel Hill NC and restored it for adaptive re-use. We kept it a original as we could, but added heating, AC, plumbing and electricity. We also brought it up to ADA code so it could be accessed by all.

Suddenly, we were a “new old church”.

The Advocate literally moved a church. And that church move became a metaphor for moving the church into the 21st century. Some parts of the old building were so rotted, they needed to be left behind. Other parts were okay, but needed some restoration. Most of the windows were in this category. And the threshold.

The floors and interior steps were just fine the way they were. Then there were parts that needed to be added and built from scratch. Like the bathrooms! And the access ramp.

You see the metaphor?

Some of the church’s structures are worn out and simply do not function well any more. Mimeograph machine Sunday bulletins are long gone. But maybe certain committee structures need to go by the wayside as well. Some hymn tones or words simply will not function for the building up of the community any more.

Other aspects of our church life simply need to be restored. We’ve forgotten about them, or we didn’t think they worked very well for a century or two, and now they have a retro appeal, or now we see that we were wrong to let them go. Baptism by immersion, for example. Processions through the city streets.

You get the idea.

IMG_7501House church? Prayers in the public square? New ways of determining “membership” …. if you are thinking about membership at all? Liturgies without vestments? New hymnody that draws the congregation closer to God and one another? Clergy that are only paid part time by the church because they are doing something else in the world to make known the love of God in Jesus? Finding new ways to enhance “the authority of the laity”?

As you tweet away, consider letting others know of ways you are experiencing the new old church, of ways you perceive the church is moving.

#movingchurch!

2014: The Year of Transplanting. The Vicar’s Report

IMG_0371Annual Meeting 2014

The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck, Vicar

2014: The Year of Transplanting

 

I’ve never called myself a church planter.

Rather, I claimed the descriptor of “Gathering Priest” back in 2002. Gathering a congregation of people who wanting to make church in the 21st century. We’ve never really talked about planting the Church of the Advocate, either. Saying instead that the Church was launched in 2003.

Launching seems much more lively and spirit-filled and interesting than planting…

So the planting metaphor hasn’t been a favorite of mine.

Yet….

 

Yet in many ways, 2014 was the year in which the Advocate was planted, or really transplanted.. It’s as though we had been a little shrub. A little shrub in a plastic container. Or maybe even a terra cotta container. Carried from place to place, getting heavier and a bit more cumbersome from year to year.

 

If 2013 was the Year of the Mud, (which is certainly was here), then I’ve got to say that 2014 was the Year of transplanting.  2014 was the year in which the Advocate was transplanted  from its temporary, migratory pot into the ground here on 8410 Merin Road, off Homestead Road in north Chapel Hill.

 

One of the reasons I am now ready to embrace the planting or transplanting metaphor is that in the past few months I learned that if you want to plant or transplanted bushes, shrubs or trees, you do it in the cold months of late autumn and early winter.

Why? Because in those seasons, the energy and biological systems that go into branches and leaves go dormant, and the plant instead puts its energy into extending its roots more deeply into the ground. So while it seems as though the tree is taking a rest, hibernating like a bear, it is really using its energy in a different way. A tree or bush planted or transplanted in the chilly months can better get its roots established before it gets all distracted with branches and leaves.

 

IMG_9596Well, for the sake of this illustration, the Advocate Chapel was transplanted over many months, reconstruction and adaptation took a while…. but the soil was patted down and the metaphorical mulch added right around Eastertide.

 

We celebrated our first full liturgy in the Chapel with Town approval, The Great Vigil of Easter,

on April 19. Not enough thanks can ever be given to Pete Barber for taking on the building and certification process in its final months.

 

And in the months since Easter, (It hasn’t even been a year yet) we have been rooting ourselves here on this site, experiencing one “first” after another –

first Easter, first Christmas….

first baptism

first wedding

first funeral

first burial of ashes in the church yard….

 

We have tried things on – chairs set-up “Choir style”, slightly different processions, incense, a kids area (still needs thought…), and lunch instead of dinner (continued thanks to Martha Wheeler and Ernie Bowen for their gift of making it happen!)

We also tried on a contemplative Eucharist on Sunday afternoons, daily evening prayer  (which is now weekly evening prayer…), Adult Christian education conversations on Sunday after lunch (it’s going well)

We started a Conscientious Projector series and have a bold vision for its expansion. we moved Indulgences from the bar to the chapel.

 

We have also rooted ourselves in prayer, thanks to the spirit-filled leadership of Char Sullivan

who anchors our Wednesdays, which in turn anchor us. (they certainly anchor me!)

 

Some of our ministries are such a part of the Advocate, if we want to continue the transplanting the tree metaphor, that they are neither roots nor branches. Maybe the trunk of our tree? (maybe time to let the metaphor go here….)

Anyway, one is our ongoing engagement in the community and world around us. Many of the people of the Advocate are involved in ministries of justice and restoration. Collectively, we support numerous ministries through our Advocate Tithe (a list of 2014 Tithe Distributions will is now posted on our website). In 2014 we also participated in the ongoing work of the InterFaith Council, Orange Justice United, and the Moral Monday Movement.

 

Another ministry of this congregation is our “incubation” of individuals for ministry in the wider church. In 2014, we celebrated the ordination to the priesthood of Joslyn Schafer, now serving as a priest at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Charlotte. We continued our support and sponsorship of Elaine Tola, who will be ordained a Vocational Deacon later this month and Molly McGee Short, who will be ordained a Transitional Deacon in June. We also sent David Wantland to the Bishop with our blessing and he continues his discernment of a call to the priesthood in the diocese. Johnny Tuttle is not sponsored by the Advocate, but he is certainly one of our own, and has been serving his Divinity School internship here since September.

And then there are the remarkable ministries of Nathan Kirkpatrick and Sam Laurent. Both of whom give of their time and talent here freely. How does a church this small get preaching this great?!?!!!

 

In addition to preaching monthly, Sam serves as our Theologian-in-Residence, and has been leading our Indulgences twice monthly. He now is ready to head down the road to serve as interim Episcopal chaplain at Duke.

In addition to his preaching once a month, Nathan serves as our Pastor-in-Residence while he continues his process of transitioning from Methodist minister to Episcopal priest. We expect him to be ordained as a transitional Deacon in June as well.

 

In 2014, we sent out a few shoots of growth, to make clear that from the beginning this chapel is to be, not just a place of refuge and strength for us, but also a resource for the community and world around us. We have hosted dances and drum circles art exhibits and yoga classes. We’ve learned from these acts of hospitality  about inconvenience, about increased heating bills and toilet paper rolls that seem to vanish, because they get used up so quickly.

We’ve also learned more about what it is like to pitch your tent on the door sill, where the two worlds touch. Our lives are enriched and our worldview made more vital.

 

On the grounds around the chapel, Martha Wheeler continued to take the lead on tending the roadside garden while Kathleen Herr and others created the Chapel garden out front.

We added two lithic “furnishings.” A stone altar on the south end the pond for use in our outdoor liturgies was funded with gifts given in memory of those people of the Advocate who have gone before us. And what I call “The Rock of David” on the north end of the pond, was funded with gifts given in memory of our brother David Buchanan, who regularly found rest and solace overlooking the pond.

 

Getting rooted more deeply has included becoming more reasonable about what tasks can be expected to be done by volunteers and what tasks need to be paid for. This is an ongoing discernment process for any church, and very much for us. As the Vestry and Vicar realized fully that we had been given to unrealistic expectations in prior years, we set out to re-define the expectations of the resident and the administrative assistant. Thanks, too, to Barbara Rowan and Linda Snow for their help with this. Resident, Anna Shine, and Administrative Assistant, Charles Rousseau,

are now welcomed in those positions.

 

We also realized a need to hire someone to mow and tend to the grounds south of the pond twice a month. Similarly, we have hired someone to clean the chapel twice a month. We offer thanks for the work of Don Hayes for the former   and Guadeloupe Collazo for the latter!

 

Notably, the people of the Advocate really came together on two occasions in 2014, in ways that deepened our roots significantly. First, on August 24, we hosted the Diocesan celebration of the 40th Anniversary of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. Both bishops of our Diocese were here, as well as two of the original “Philadelphia Eleven.” The Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward preached and the Rev. Alison Cheek con-celebrated. We gathered under a tent over the parking lot, with huge fans circulating the August air. The hospitality, music and spirit that the Advocate provided was glorious.

And greatly appreciated by all.

 

More poignantly, the people of the Advocate gathered round  our brother David Buchanan as he was diagnosed with liver cancer in the summer and declined rapidly to death in October. We had just cheered his baptism at Pentecost…. By September, dozens of us provided twice-daily visits to him.

When he died, we mourned.  We gathered on the night of his death for a vigil and memory-sharing in the Chapel, And on October 12, we incorporated the Burial Office into our Sunday morning liturgy.

Rarely has one human being touched the hearts of so many in a congregation in such a short period of time.

 

In all of this, I have been grateful for the steady leadership of our Vestry: Sallie Moore, David Moore, Celisa Steele, Elaine Tola, and David Pass, our Treasurer, Kerry Bullock-Ozkan, and our Clerk, Anne Henrich (who also most notably chairs our altar guild).

I am hugely grateful for the wise and diplomatic leadership of our Senior Warden, Tom Fisher.

Tom was the launching Senior Warden of the Advocate Vestry from 2004 – 2006. He returned to the vestry to fill out the term of someone who had left in 2011, Then agreed to a full three-year term, 2012 – 2014. Two of those years he has been Senior Warden, seeing us through the move, the transplant, and a few note-worthy bumps in the road. And I think he has served on the Finance Committee from the start.

Oh. my. goodness.

Thank you, Tom Fisher.

 

——————–

Now, I know that, being in a largely academic community, we are used to starting things afresh with a new school year in late August or early September. And I know that the liturgical new year starts with Advent One, four weeks before Christmas,

 

But there is something about early January and a new calendar year, something about Epiphany,

something about the baptism of Jesus launching him into his earthly ministry, that gets us feeling like we are on the verge of something new. And we are!

 

In 2015 we will likely continue to deepen our roots. But soon and very soon, we are going to start to shoot out some branches and leaves. Nathan is going to help us sort through just what that might look like during lunch. But I want to take a minute to offer three possibilities.

(very Trinitarian, that!)

 

First, I hope that we will be intentional about being good neighbors in this part of Chapel Hill.

That will include connecting with the historic Rogers Road community. One part of that will likely include the restoration and restocking of our pond so that it can become a local fishing destination once again. Our Rogers Road connection will also include advocating on behalf of that neighborhood for more affordable housing and access to utilities.

 

Our being good neighbors will also include welcoming the Community House, a transitional housing program for men, when it opens later this year,  and helping some of our more reluctant neighbors to welcome them too.

 

And there will be neighbors who move in to one new development of another, (and there are several going in around here). We need to be good neighbors to them as well.

 

Second, n the year ahead, I also hope we can find new ways for the people of the Advocate to support one another in our several vocations and ministries in the world. We will begin with our Epiphany Commissions in the weeks ahead.

 

Third, I want us to become a community that welcomes children more fully and safely, teaching them the Christian story, giving them a place where they know that they are loved and cared for

and where they can begin to connect that love to God.

 

Being a good neighbor,

Supporting one another in the world,

welcoming children.

If we can do these three, we will be blooming!

 

As a way to wind up this report of the year gone by and to get us thinking and feeling about the year ahead, and to give everyone a chance to stretch, I asked Elaine and the Blue Grass Band to getting us going again with that classic rally-up song: This little light of mine.

So if you would, and as you are able, please take a stand and get ready to sing!

 

 

Panel Reflects on the 40th Anniversary of Women’s Ordination and it’s Legacy

 

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On August 24, 2014, the Advocate hosted a diocesan celebration of the 40th anniversary of the ordination of women in the Episcopal Church. Following the Eucharist, and the sermon by The Rev. Carter Heyward, a panel discussed the legacy of that first ordination and how it might inspire the mission and ministry of the Church today. The panel was facilitated by The Rt. Rev. Michael B. Curry, Bishop of North Carolina. It included The Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner, The Rev. Dr. Carter Heyward, and seminarian Hershey Mallette, and the Advocate’s Theologian in Residence, Dr. Sam Laurent.

See the Vimeo Video here:  http://vimeo.com/105376040

 

Why Wear Red for Pentecost?

UnknownThe Sunday that is seven weeks (50 days) after Easter Day is the Feast of Pentecost. Pentecost is the is the day on which we re-member the story given to us in the second chapter of the Book of Acts.

The story goes:

– 40 days after the resurrection (which we celebrate at Easter) Jesus ascends into heaven (which we celebrate on Ascension Day)

– But before he ascends, Jesus promises that he will not leave us “comfortless”, but will send the Holy Spirit to strengthen and to guide us, to guide the church.

– Ten days later, on the Day of Pentecost, Holy Spirit descended on the people gathered. (note: Pentecost is an ancient Jewish festival of the harvest, the name of which translates from the Hebrew as The Festival of Weeks. This festival is referred to in Exodus chapters 23 ad 34, and in Deuteronomy chapter 16)

– In the Book of Acts, the story is told:

And when the day of Pentecost was fully come, they were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit, and began to speak with other languages, as the Spirit gave them utterance. And there were dwelling at Jerusalem Jews, devout men, out of every nation under heaven. Now when this was noised abroad, the multitude came together, and were confounded, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.

So… on The Day of Pentecost in the church year, fifty days of Easter and ten days after the Ascension, the clergy wear RED vestments to signify the work of the Spirit. It is also a custom in many churches for the people in the congregation to wear RED on the Day of Pentecost as well. We wear RED to remind us of the fire of the Spirt.

In addition, a congregation with many dressed in RED is colorful.

And perhaps most of all, it is fun.

 

Building Basics: A Marilyn McCord Adams Sermon

The following sermon was given by the Rev. Canon Marilyn McCord Adams at the Church of the Advocate on Sunday, November 17, 2013.

BUILDING BASICS

Luke 21:5-19

“As for these things which you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down!”

photo by Thomas Fisher
photo by Thomas Fisher

From the Advocate’s point of view, few texts could seem more untimely.  Doesn’t the bible say: there is a time to build and a time to tear down.  Surely, we are in the build-up phase!  Yes, we know, our already antique white-frame church will fall into ruins.  But we are spending more than we have to refurbish it for another century’s run.  We don’t have to remember “no stone upon stone”!  We have pictures of the church shrink-wrapped in pieces creeping down the road on a truck.  For how long did the main box just sit there, waiting for the foundations to be poured?  Where was the steeple parked until the frame was steady enough for it to be hoisted into place?  We are veterans of construction delays and surprises: shrunken bead-boards, walls put up and then taken down again for rewiring and insulation.  How long was it before the windows could be fitted in?  Wasn’t it more than 40 days and 40 nights that Noah’s flood held up our parking lot?  Our eschaton is “in by Christmas… well, maybe Ash Wednesday…  at least by Easter.”  “O God, the last throes of a construction project is no time to remind us that what we are building up, will eventually be torn down!”

Of course, Jesus was prophesying the second destruction of Jerusalem, an evidently traitorous prediction that helped justify his execution.  However fixated Torah’s God seems to be on temple floor plans and decoration, God’s chief complaint against Israel is not the buildings.  Jesus does not condemn Herod’s remodel for bad taste.  Jesus does not say that God objects to old-age down-sizing into much smaller quarters than Soloman originally built.  Many houses of worship have been destroyed down through the ages.  But, equally, many remain as monuments to the gods they honored and to the society that built them.  Schism has shut congregations in rump dioceses out of their buildings, while many mainline church buildings stand empty.  Whether a religious community has or lacks buildings is not the key issue.  Biblical prophets down to Jesus declare: God destroys Israeli institutions–the temple, the city, the Jewish state–because the body-politic has lost its way spiritually.  The principal problem is its esprit de corps.  

For the Advocate, the last three years have meant major transition and discernment.  Israel didn’t cross the Jordan and enter the land to become like other nations, scrambling to win the international power sweepstakes.  Israel in the promised land was God’s social experiment.  God called Israel to model what life together with God in community was meant to be.  The Advocate isn’t moving into a building to blend into the mainline religious establishment.  The Advocate is moving onto Merin Road because it concluded that the time had come when land and building would be more skillful means than ever-so-well-organized plastic boxes.  Jesus is not second-guessing that judgment.  Jesus is reminding: the important thing is to keep focussed on what plastic boxes and buildings are in aid of.  Jesus is telling us not to forget the mission God gathered us for, warning us not to lose touch with the Holy Esprit de corps.

The Advocate is called to pioneer.  Pioneering strips you down to basics.  Certainly, up to now, the Advocate’s life-style has been materially minimalist–life without clutter, only what we can carry, only what can fit into those ever-so-well-organized plastic boxes.  But travelling light is an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual strip-down: a back-to-basics willingness to strip away smoothing disguises and to stay in touch with raw realities; a disciplined commitment to live without masks.

Church attendance may be down, but people are starving spiritually.  What are they hungering and thirsting after?  We exist to help them name it and to accompany them on a journey that gets in touch with it.  To do this, we have to meet them, to spend time with them, to listen hard, to turn ourselves inside out, upside-down and backwards to figure out what they may be saying.  To be worthwhile companions, we need to become translators, to learn, invent, and teach new languages.  We have to imagine new rites to dramatize inchoate fears and seething angers, to “act out” hopes and dreams to make them somehow concrete and real in advance.  To be helpful pioneers, we need skill at holding on and letting go, the better to let fundamental questions and fresh discoveries shape daily life.

The Advocate has been an experiment.  It continues to experiment with how to do this.  But etymologically ‘experiment’ is derived from ‘experience’.  We can’t help others get in touch with core issues and flounder to express them, unless we are willing to keep on being pioneers, to keep on journeying ourselves.  Back to basics!  What are we hungering and thirsting for?  What is it that at the bottom of our hearts we have always wanted?  What does that desire demand of us in relation to its object and transcendent source?  What do we need to change to prioritize it?  What impact does that priority have on our lifestyles?  …on how we treat each others in our families and among friends?  …on how we relate together in community?  …on how we show courtesy to Mother Earth and work to change society?  Where do we need to grow?  What do we need to outgrow?

Of course, some Advocates did, but many did not begin yesterday.  Hair color and wrinkles testify: some of us have been on the road a long time.  We have evolved language and discerned directions, blazed trails and taken less travelled roads.  We have let our spiritual longing and our attempts to respond to the transcendent Other shape our lives.  But precisely because we are old-timers, we know: we will always be beginners, because there is always more.  Sometimes spiritual desires erupt like a volcano, but more often they seep into consciousness.  What presents at the surface is only a hint and metaphor of what is really going on at the core.  Exposing our deepest desires means taking off one mask after another.

Different issues dominate the changing seasons of life: loneliness vs attachment, betrayal vs commitment, meaningful work vs unemployment, success vs failure, bounty vs loss, nurturing children, caring for the aged.  There is wrestling for the meaning of life, the meaning of suffering, and the meaning of death.  Making our peace with one, doesn’t necessarily mean coming to terms with the others.  Fresh experiences crash through hard-won understandings.  Pioneers are experimenters for life.

photo by Thomas Fisher
photo by Thomas Fisher

Pioneering requires distinctive virtues.  Relentless candor keeps us in touch with raw issues and guards against self-deception.  Restless intolerance is ever outraged at human degradation, impatient with failures of loving-kindness, where human decency is concerned never agrees that good enough is good enough.  Pioneer insatiability refuses to pray the Common Worship collect: “show us your glory as far as we can grasp it; and shield us from knowing more than we can bear.”  No!  Pioneers can’t get enough of God.  Pioneers keep calling on God to enlarge our capacity, nag the Holy Spirit into showing us those things that we haven’t yet been able to stand.  Pioneers require the courage of their curiousity and chutzpah, barging in (as they do) where angels fear to tread.

Pioneers have to be open for rough and tumble, but that doesn’t mean being grumpy all the time.  Pioneers know how to combine discontent with gratitude for the capacity to journey, for the richness of the company, for the excitement of discovery, for all they have learned.  Pioneers also know how to combine frustration with confidence, because they more and more experience that the One towards whom and into whom we journey is travelling with us.  ‘God’ is our name for the One who is infinitely more than we can ask or imagine.  ‘Christ’ is our name for God-with-us, taking hits in the trenches, running on out ahead of us to die on the cross and rise from the dead.  Eucharist is our way of fessing up to what’s wrong and binding ourselves to one another and to the One with whom all things can come out right.

Stone upon stone?  We are the stones.  You are the stones, the basic building blocks.  Jesus’ charge to us is, ‘stay alive!’

 

Advocate to launch Clearness Committees in 2013-2014

discernment2The Church has long recognized that life presents choices, chances and challenges and that it can be difficult – or better stated, befuddling – to navigate through them. Most of us know those large questions of life that can feel beyond baffling: What opportunities should I seize and which should I let pass me by? What challenges should I try to unravel and which aren’t worth the time? Why do I stay “stuck” around a particular question? And in the end, how will I know that my life has mattered at all?

The Quaker community has long held that each of us has an inner wisdom about such questions, that our souls know the answers but that our lives are too crowded and too busy for us to hear them. So centuries ago, the Quakers devised a practice, known as the Clearness Committee, to help individuals tune out all the other voices in their lives  and listen to their own. This practice is a structured, safe and confidential, often one-time, experience for a person to do her or his own discernment in the company of a small group. It is not a time to seek advice or counseling; it is instead a time to receive the questions of others to go deeper into yourself.

The Advocate will begin offering a ministry of Clearness Committees in the fall of 2013. If you have interest in participating as an individual seeking clarity around a question, situation, problem or opportunity in your life, please let Nathan Kirkpatrick know (nkirkpatrick@div.duke.edu). If you would like to know more about the Clearness Committee process or what it means to ask for a Clearness Committee, you are invited to informal conversations after the 5 o’clock liturgy on September 8 or October 6.

Because there is a significant time commitment involved (3 hours per Clearness Committee), we are limited in the number of committees we can offer, but we will do our best to accommodate as many people as possible over the course of the 2013-2014 academic year.

 

The strength and beauty of small churches

In a time of extraordinary transformation, small churches are a resource and a gift to the wider church… They are the ones best-prepared to enter the way of revitalization and renewal, and to report back to those who will follow.

iStock/DaniJelm

One afternoon, my daughter texted me from college with a quote: “Evolutionary innovation occurs most easily and quickly in small populations.”

“Relevant to the church?” she asked.

“Yes!” I texted back. “Where did you hear this?”

“In my paleo-stratigraphy class.” she replied.

After almost 10 years as vicar of the Church of the Advocate, a small mission church in Chapel Hill, N.C., I know well the insecurities that can plague small churches. Compared with large churches, with their many programs, resources and staff members, small churches can easily feel overshadowed and somehow “less than.”

But my life and ministry at the Advocate has also taught me the strength and beauty of small churches. At a time of extraordinary transformation, when the whole church is looking for new ways of being for a new generation in a new world, small churches can be an invaluable resource and a gift to the wider church. In many ways, small churches are the ones best-prepared to enter the way of revitalization and renewal, and to report back to those who will follow.

The church certainly has no lack of small congregations. In virtually every denomination, most churches are small, with an average Sunday attendance of less than 100, even less than 50.

Are they — are we — ready to hear and to answer the call to lead? If so, we have much to offer the church and the world.

Small churches can be places of extraordinary community, the very thing that people today long for. In a small congregation, an individual can often find a sense of belonging more readily than in a large church. In a small congregation, Paul’s metaphor of the church as the body of Christ comes alive, with each individual essential to the whole (Romans 12:4-81 Corinthians 12).

At the Church of the Advocate, we say every Sunday that the liturgy will be what it will be because of whomever God has called together in that time and place. The liturgy literally would not be the same if each person were not there.

What is true for the liturgy is even truer for the community and its life together. Each person brings her or his particular needs, history, skills and passions. The gadget-adroit teenager, the writer, the prisoner, the singer who can sing the tenor line, the rambunctious child, the chef, the chronically mentally ill adult, the carpenter — each brings something essential to our life together.

With scant resources and fewer people to make things happen or support a budget, small churches are inherently vulnerable. But as sociologist Brené Brown has pointed out, both in her books and in a popular TED talk, vulnerability is not a bad trait to have. In vulnerability lies great strength — for vital people and, as Brown made clear in a talk to the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes earlier this year, for vital congregations.

Those who minister in small churches have long known this vulnerability — and the hidden strengths that it brings. Vulnerability helps us identify with the poor and needy. It helps us understand the vulnerability of Jesus and our dependence on God and one another. Vulnerability helps make us faithful.

In addition to the gifts of community and vulnerability, small churches are blessed with the capacity to try new things more easily than our larger counterparts. They can in the right circumstances be nimble and agile.

Sure, small churches are known for being averse to change. They often have members who are reluctant to give up control of some particular aspect of the congregation’s life, whether worship, music, outreach or finances. They can be closed systems with well-identified role players, each doing what he or she has always done, leaving little if any room for newcomers or for change. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

With fewer people in the pews to satisfy or mobilize, small churches can move and even experiment more readily than larger congregations can. Small churches can take a worship service outdoors or down the street on a moment’s notice. They can easily change how they do processions for a season to see whether another approach might be more meaningful.

Small churches can change their meeting time or the way they engage with the surrounding community with surprising swiftness. They can more readily talk about and explain, discuss, and even argue about changes with each other, and then break bread together in fellowship.

At the Advocate, for example, our relatively small size has enabled us to find times and ways throughout the church year to name and celebrate the ministry and vocation of the laity in the world. Through commissions, prayers and celebrations, our people are better able to connect their faith and their work.

Not far away, in Oxford, N.C., St. Cyprian’s Episcopal Church, a small, once-struggling historically African-American mission, offers an object lesson in change. After years of slow decline, the church embraced a call to be a place of reconciliation, healing and hospitality in a town with a notably racist past. The transformation of the congregation and its surrounding community has been palpable.

To some, words like “evolution,” “innovation,” “change” and “experiment” are frightening, distasteful, even heretical. But if the Spirit is moving in the church, we need to be alert to the ways the Spirit might be calling us to change.

Both as individuals and as congregations, too many of us have grown accustomed to certain ways of being and doing church. As with any change, the prospect of doing church in new and different ways seems uncomfortable, even frightening. It can require a deep and painful “letting go.”

Small churches have been letting go for years. They know what it means to be part of the body of Christ, and to have the gifts of vulnerability and flexibility.

They are called to lead the way. I pray that they will answer the call. And I pray that the wider church will find ways to encourage and nurture that call.

The paleontologists are right: Evolutionary innovation occurs most easily and quickly in small populations.

On Faith and Doubt: A Sermon

A sermon given on August 11, 2013 (Year C – Proper 14) by the Vicar, The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck

The story goes that there was a drought in a region of Texas and the crops were failing.

The people were in despair.
So the local pastor called for a prayer service, inviting folks near and far to come together to pray for rain.
He distributed fliers and walked the streets inviting everyone to come.
On the day of the service the church was packed.
Hymns were sung.
The pastor climbed into the pulpit and looked out over the anxious congregation.

“What are you doing here?” He asked?
“We’ve come to pray for rain,” a woman in the fourth pew cried out.
“Amen!” said another.

The pastor looked back at them.
“Well”, he said, “It ain’t gonna work.”
“What?” “Why?” They cried.
“You don’t have faith”. He said flatly.
The congregation grew defensive.
“How do you know?”
“Not one of you brought an umbrella.” he replied.

I heard that story decades ago.
And, lame as it is, it stuck with me.
Because, at some level,
I identify with the congregation in that Texas Church.

So I’m glad for the pair of lessons we are given today.
Because they give us a chance to reflect on faith.
and, by extension,
on doubt.

First, Abraham, father of our faith,
father of the faith of Jews and Christians and Muslims,
has his own despairing conversation with God about heirs and descendants.
Abraham is old.
His wife is old, way past child-bearing years.
She has never given birth.
And God promises Abraham descendants as countless as the stars.
Crazy, right?
But because God promises, Abraham believes.
“And God”, scripture says, “reckoned it to him as righteousness”.
Which means, God basically said,
“Well, now Abraham, I reckon this faith of yours makes you a righteous man.”

This faith of righteous Abraham has been heralded far and wide in the millennia since.
Throughout scripture and the traditions of his descendants it is recounted.
Romans, Galatians, James,
the camp song, “Father Abraham had many sons….”
This faith of Abraham’s allowed him to give up and to take on,
to move and to be moved,
to trust.

The story is told and told again,
because it is amazing, sure.
But also inspiring.
Abraham trusted God, despite the hassle, despite the upheaval, despite the irrationality of it all.
Abraham trusted God,
and God did indeed provide.
Oh, that we could have the faith that Abraham had!

In today’s reading from Hebrews, we get some further explication of this faith, and more of the Abraham story.

Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Indeed, by faith our ancestors received approval. By faith we understand that the worlds were prepared by the word of God, so that what is seen was made from things that are not visible.

Now comes the Abraham part:
By faith Abraham obeyed when he was called to set out for a place that he was to receive as an inheritance; and he set out, not knowing where he was going. By faith he stayed for a time in the land he had been promised,… By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old– and Sarah herself was barren–…”
We are not talking here about faith in government,
faith in our school systems,
faith in our military to shield us from harm,
or faith in our ability to raise money.
We are not even talking about faith in the statements of the Creed.

Rather, the faith of Abraham and the faith of the writer of the letter to the Hebrews,
is faith in God.
And in the words of Brother David Vryhof of the Society of St. John the Evangelist:
[this faith] has more to do with the heart than with the head. Genuine faith involves trust. Christian faith, Christian belief, has to do with a radical trust in God. It does not mean trusting in the truth of a set of statements about God; it means trusting in God.

If thou but trust in God to guide thee.
so the old song goes,
And hope in him through all thy ways.
He’ll give thee strength whate’er betide thee.
And bear thee through the evil days.
Who trusts in God’s unchanging love,
Builds on a rock that nought can move.

And when we’ve got it,
we know we’ve got it.
And it is good.
It is like finding your groove.
It brings an inner peace,
a calm strength,
a blessed assurance.
All who are gathered here today have probably known it.

And, likely,
all who are gathered here have probably known doubt, too.
un-trust.

Now doubt isn’t something that gets a lot of sermon time,
but the tradition and the experience of the faithful
speak of it plenty.
From the father who brings his son to Jesus and exclaims:
‘I believe; help my unbelief!’
to St. John of the Cross writing of “the Dark Night of the Soul” in the 16th century,
to Teresa of Calcutta in the 20th century.

Doubt is a part of the life of faith.
If we are engaged with the world and others,
if we are thinking and inquiring,
which is to say,
if we are alive.
then we are going to have moments,
or seasons,
of doubt.

Maybe one day we experience something painful or challenging,
and we think,
If God were really in control, this wouldn’t happen.
Maybe we hear a really convincing argument from someone who either doubts or outright doesn’t believe,
and they sound mighty intelligent.

Faith is not rational,
not provable,
not quantifiable.
And we live in a post-Enlightenment world that over-values rational thought.
Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. … what is seen was made from things that are not visible.
Hard to prove that!

Or maybe we doubt because we really like someone who doesn’t have faith and we don’t want to be on a different side of the equation from them.

Or we hear of something really unloving that was done in the name of faith
(we don’t have to look far to find an example)
And even though Paul’s letter to the Corinthians makes plain that
“If I have faith, but not love, I am nothing,”
we think we can’t go on identifying with a faith that would lead people to that kind of meanness,
or that kind of injustice,
or that kind of elitism.”

Or maybe we doubt,
because believing that there is a God who is bigger than us and our experience in this world
flies in the face of our desire to be the biggest kid on our own playground.
We resist acknowledging that there might be someone bigger.
And we don’t want to give up the control we don’t have.

Until, at some point, we really do want to give it up.
Because it is too hard to keep trying to control everything we can’t control.

And then…
and then we hear someone tell of an experience of their faith.
and it rings true to us.
Or we read something that someone has written
and it rings true to us.
Or we witness something truly loving,
and we think,
“there is more to that love than this moment”.
Or we hold a newborn infant in our arms.
Or we realize that the connection we feel with another is holy.

Or we witness the beauty of the diverse faithful gathered in prayer,
or the sounds and words of a hymn pierce our heart.
Or the rhythm and routine of going to church in spite of our season of doubt,
shakes something loose.
And we remember a time when God was so real to us, we couldn’t deny it,
and we still can’t deny it, really.

And we just know.
We know once more that there is a God who is bigger than us and our experience in this world and
that God loves us and desires that we love.
We just know once more
that there is an eternity that transcends our time and our space
and it is good.
We just know once more
that despite the difficulties and challenges of this life,
all will long be well.
Things may not turn out as we expect or plan,
but they will be well.
There is a rock on whom we can depend,
everlasting arms on which we can lean.
We just know
that the more we can knit our will to God’s will and our spirits to God’s spirit,
the more we will flourish,
the more we will be the creatures we were created to be.
And once more we have an assurance of things hoped for
and a conviction of things not seen.

And faith,
trusting God,
becomes for us once more a way of being,
a way of life.
We pray for rain and pack an umbrella.
And it is good.

If thou but trust in God to guide thee.
And hope in him through all thy ways.
He’ll give thee strength whate’er betide thee.
And bear thee through the evil days.
Who trusts in God’s unchanging love,
Builds on a rock that nought can move.

Amen.

Moving Church

Moving Church  

The carpenter gothic, board-and-batten St. Philip’s Church was built in Germanton, North Carolina, in 1891. It was designed to seat 150 facing forward in 25 nine-foot long pews. The congregation grew to 22 people by 1895. Then the vicar died. Episcopalians started moving to the burgeoning city of Winston Salem, ten miles to the southwest. For the next 80 years the congregation of 5-10 people and their descendants kept the church going. Then they died or moved away.

In 1980, the church building came under the care of the Diocesan Historic Properties Committee. They organized a local committee to keep up the building and to provide two services a year for any who wanted to participate. They got the building listed on the National Register of Historic Places, not only for its simple architecture, but also because it had never had electricity or plumbing. It was exemplary of the 19th century rural church.

By 2010, the local committee couldn’t recruit new members and it folded. A nearby Baptist church was interested in the land the building occupied. The Diocese determined to put the property up for sale and began to seek interested parties to move the structure, if possible.

That’s where the Church of the Advocate got involved.

A mission church of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina, Advocate was launched by three established Episcopal Church in Orange County, NC in 2003. Very aware of ourselves as a 21st century mission within the Anglican Episcopal tradition, we were intentional about developing new ways of being for a new generation in a new world.  We developed our webpage and our presence in social media; we got involved in the community, and held our service at 5 PM each Sunday. We rented space for that Sunday worship, first in a Unity Church, then for five years in a synagogue. We earnestly considered the call to remain a nomadic church, unbridled by the maintenance of land and building. We looked at storefronts, got creative with outdoor processions downtown, held meetings in one another’s homes. We became known for our authenticity, our engaging and creative liturgy, and our weekly fellowship dinners, which extended the Eucharistic feast. Our reputation for engagement in the community was bigger than we were.

We were a congregation that realized that the church is not a building, rather the church is the people of God, the Body of Christ.

But six years into it, the task of setting up and taking down our worship space every week was losing its charm. More important, we began to realize what a more permanent location could provide for us and for our ministry. We wanted to offer a variety of opportunities for prayer, contemplation and worship. We wanted to offer hospitality throughout the week. We wanted to plant community gardens and invite people into public space to organize and be empowered to work for God’s compassionate justice in the world. We began to look for land.

In January 2011 we closed on a 15-acre site. Funds to buy the land came from the sacrificial giving of the congregation, but also from the generosity of several octogenarians — friends from a generation that strongly believed that a church needs a building. From the start, we knew that the land was a gift and that we were being called to be faithful stewards of it. We could only justify “owning” the land if we had a vision for sharing it, for buildings with “porous walls” which allow people to come and go freely. We wanted the site, the whole site, to be a resource to the wider community. We wanted it to be a place of contemplation and action, for restoration and service. Our vision developed to include a non-profit center, a residence for up to 15 people living in intentional community, a retreat center, an education center, and a Center for Theological Engagement or Restorative Justice.

Fifteen acres can host a lot.

But first, we needed a building in which to worship. And still, we were a small congregation without much money.

We had just gotten to the point of considering how to build a 1000 square foot worship space when a member of the Diocesan Historic Properties Committee approached us about St. Philip’s Chapel. Would we consider moving the old church building to our site rather than building a new one from scratch?

The idea resonated deeply with the congregation. As a people committed to environmental sustainability, we realized that re-using an existing structure was much preferable to new construction. As a congregation with many young adults, the building held a certain “retro” appeal. For others it was nostalgic. For all, it represented our commitment to cherish the past while making it new, to be rooted in tradition by not bound by it. The simple beauty of the all-wooden building resonated with our shared aesthetic. We also heard a call to allow the building itself to flourish, to be used for the purpose for which it was constructed, to be a place of worship and hospitality for a growing, vital congregation.

Due diligence proved fruitful. We learned about Mike Blake of Blake Moving Company, who specializes in moving old buildings, Blake said it was doable, and the cost, even including the addition of electricity and plumbing, would likely be less than new construction. We confirmed that the building’s status on the register of historic places did not stand in the way of its moving. This led us to a tangle, though — the heartfelt opposition from some who lived in and around Germanton.

While the Episcopalians of Germanton had long since died or moved away, several people of the region were attached to the beautiful wooden building. It was a visual touchstone for them, a place they identified with their small town. Their compelling arguments raised valid questions of ownership. The Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina legally owned the building. But the people who lived in and around Germanton had visually owned it for more than a hundred years. And several of them knew the Episcopalians who had lovingly tended the church in the mid-twentieth century. The Advocate was committed to giving the building new life and vitality for all the right reasons. But should that outweigh the more limited but bold efforts of the local population to try to keep the building in place and do the same? The conflict was painful for everyone. But the emotional, spiritual and financial investment of The Church of the Advocate was increasing.  And the Advocate’s emerging passion for making the building accessible to all in all seasons of the year, combined with the matter of legal ownership by the Episcopal Diocese held sway. As did the youth, energy and hope for the future church that the Advocate embodies.

Thus began the actual and the metaphorical process of “Moving Church”. It has not been simple.

The move itself was an adventure. To move a building a short distance, overhead lines can be taken down temporarily. But taking down lines to move a building over 100 miles is prohibitively expensive. Instead, Blake removed the bell tower and roof to keep the clearance under 16 feet. The stained glass windows were removed for safekeeping.  As the building was taken apart for transport, previously invisible rot and decay revealed itself. The building didn’t just need preservation; it needed renewal. At each step we had to determine which parts should be declared unfit for restoration, which parts could be restored with re-used old wood, and which needed to be completely rebuilt with new lumber and nails.

The building could not be moved along the interstate, but only along back roads. Every mile of the route had to be planned and approved by local jurisdictions. Road closures and police escorts had to be arranged. Overhead branches had to be trimmed and overnight stays had to be arranged. Moving church is slow business. It requires creativity and perseverance. And it requires a lot of communication all along the way.

The night before the building rolled onto its new location, a group from the Advocate went out to its berth by the highway and prayed evening prayers.

We celebrated “a church on the move,” and realized that we were being formed for our future.

It has been six months since the building arrived at its new home. The foundation has been built, the bead board ceiling covered with boards of insulation and on the roof, new shingles replace the old. Insulation has been blown onto the backside of the board and batten and the bead board walls returned. The original stained glass windows will follow. Only the window that faces liturgical east will be different. It will be clear glass now, and will be called the Vision Window, given in thanksgiving for those whose vision and perseverance brought the building to this place. Handicap accessibility and plumbing are coming soon. The electrician has installed 21st century wiring and the steeple is now covered with long-lasting pine shake. The cross that had fallen from the steeple years ago was replaced with a new cross that rises high above the tree line.

We have sold most of the old pews, and have received a donation of 90 chairs, which will allow for flexible use of the space. The pump organ is gone, and a piano is coming. The acoustics inside the nave have been described as being “like in the inside of a guitar”, ripe for unplugged instruments and a cappella singing, which we understand to provide an experience of the Spirit moving among us. The old woodstove will become a credence table, holding the vessels for the people gathered, providing a different kind of warmth.

We still have to provide some infrastructure – parking lot, curbs, sidewalks, and sewer – before we get the coveted Certificate of Occupancy.

Even then, I pray we will not settle.

The building is moved, but the church keeps moving, as long as we are open to the Spirit and alert to the world around us. If so, we will continue to cultivate gardens that are open to all and we will build with porous walls. We will continue to cultivate a liturgy that is both an expression of the faith of the people gathered and that forms the faith of the people gathered; that is both a work of the people and a public work. We will mentor young adults in the discernment of ministry, and provide a space for teaching the traditions, an also for intentional and open theological engagement.  We will be alert to the needs and injustices in our world and find ways to make God’s compassionate justice known. Carefully and patiently, we will examine our old structures and ways to determine which have essentially rotted and can no longer function, which need to be preserved as they are, and which can be moved and restored, made new for a new generation and accessible to all.

Moving a 19th century carpenter gothic church building 120 miles along back roads was exciting, and it makes for a good story. But moving church, the people of God, is by far the greater work.

 

Photos and videos of the Moving Church can be viewed at http://movingchurch.tumblr.com

The Rev. Lisa G. Fischbeck is the founding Vicar of the Episcopal Church of the Advocate, a 21st century mission church in Orange County, North Carolina.

http://theadvocatechurch.org

 

 

 

 

Holy Week at the Advocate: Carrboro becomes Jerusalem

One of the blessings of being a “church without a building” is that we are take our Holy Week liturgies out into the town and country, remembering the experience of Jesus and his followers on the streets of Jerusalem, in the “upper room”, before the councils of church and state, and on the road to Calvary, walking the way with him in story and song.

Holy Week begins on Palm Sunday (March 24) We gather at the Carrboro Town Commons at 11 AM. Rememberring Jesus’ “triumphal entry” into Jerusalem, we gather as the people of the first century did, and wave our branches of palm (provided) and flowers from along the way (brought from the homes of those who bring them).

There we hear the story of the Lord’s Passion, and realize how relatively quickly the cries of “Hosanna” become the shouts of “Crucify Him”.

On Maundy Thursday, we gather at 6:30 PM at the Fleming Lodge at Camp New Hope, on highway 86, three miles north of the I40 interchange. The disciples gathered with Jesus for the Passover in the “upper room”, we gather together for a middle eastern meal, lovingly prepared by two of people of the Advocate. We enjoy food and wine and fellowship, and re-live the story of Jesus washing his disciples feet and instituting the holy communion in his “last supper” with them. The evening ends in darkness, as we anticipate the events of the next day. (bring a flashlight to find your way back to your car!).

On Good Friday, we return to downtown Carrboro. At the noon hour, we gather at the Carrboro Town Commons for the Good Friday liturgy. This is a simple service of prayer and scripture reading.

Then, at 1 PM we join with others at the tree in front of the Carrboro Town Hall to begin The Way of the Cross/ Via Dolorosa.  We will walk the Way of the Cross through downtown Carrboro, concluding at the old Carrboro cemetery.

The way of the cross began as a practice of Christian pilgrims to Jerusalem, walking the path that Jesus followed in the final hours leading to his execution and burial. As pilgrims returned home, they carried this devotion with them. Church tradition now recognizes 14 stations along the way, marking events from Jesus’ condemnation to his burial. Eight of these stations are taken from events described in the Gospels; the remaining six are inferred from these accounts, or come to us from pious legend and tradition.

In Mexico and Central America, the Way of the Cross is often walked through town and city streets on Fridays in Lent and on Good Friday. We walk the way of the cross today through our own town. We do so not only to remember a series of events in 1st century Palestine, but also to reflect on the state of the world, our nation, our city, and ourselves, and Christ’s presence in all of these places. We conduct the way of the Cross (La Vía Dolorosa) in English and in Spanish, in recognition of, and with hospitality for, our neighbors who are Spanish-speaking. All are welcome and invited to walk the Way with us.

Then, at 9 PM on Saturday night, we gather for The Great Vigil of Easter, this year with Baptism of our adult catechumen, Jonathan Leiss. And we will all  renew our Baptismal Vows. At the the Unity Center of Peace on Seawell School Road. This is our liturgy of Easter, when we celebrate the Resurrection of our Lord in the darkness of night. (As you are able, please bring a bell, horn or whistle to accompany the Paschal Shout). In this liturgy, at once solemn and festive, we hear again the story of God’s creation, the prophets, the promise, the incarnation, and our salvation. We gather in darkness and move to light. We gather in expectation, and move to joy. If you have never experienced and Easter Vigil, you are especially encouraged to do so this year.

On Easter Day (March 31), the celebration continues at 11 AM with a festive Eucharist and Easter Dance (simple and fun), the baptism of a toddler of the Advocate, and Potluck Feast at the Advocate site, 8410 Merin Road (on the corner of Merin and Homestead Roads by the train tracks). Parking at the site is limited, so folks will need to park at the town lot across the tracks and walk or ride with others. This is a day of joy and playfulness — the Lord is risen, indeed! As you are able, bring a festive dish to share.

Holy Week provides an amazing opportunity to live into the Christian Faith. The more you put into the days and liturgies of Holy Week, the more you will receive.

Come and walk the Way with us!