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Endings and Beginnings

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding,” from  Four Quartets, 1942.

The season of Advent encompasses both beginnings and endings.  As we begin the cycle of the church year, we paradoxically look backward with anticipation, reliving and retelling the prologue to Jesus’ earthly ministry, awaiting the appearance of the babe in the manger that we know has already happened two millennia ago.  At the same time, we look forward to Jesus’ return and the establishment of God’s Kingdom on earth, remembering how the Church has been looking forward to this consummation for the same two long millennia.

The church year begins, at least in the northern hemisphere, as the natural world appears to be greying, ending, dying.  We trust that the cycle will return again, that fresh green life will return to the withered branches, as we trust that we will be resurrected with Christ even as we die with him.  In his end is our beginning.

At the same time, as Christians we recognize that time is not truly cyclical: that this world has a beginning and an end, and that every day we move closer to the day when God will set all things right.  While God is outside time and space, God chose to participate in history: to be born into flesh, and thus to be born into time. Christ has hallowed both time and history.

So it is not surprising that, as Christ’s body in the world, the Church commemorates the cycles and recurrences of the calendar, and that we also mark the watershed events of our lives:  birth, maturity, marriage and death.  Beats in larger rhythms that function as historic passages in our own lives.

In the life of our church community, people come and go, ministries begin and end.  Any of us who have been part of a parish for any length of time have seen pastors enter and exit the stage (for better and for worse), but the life of the Body continues in its seemingly-endless cycles and its inexorable progression toward the Kingdom.

Over the last nearly eight years, we have lived together through good times and bad, through the cycles and the turning points.  Now we are approaching a new milestone, when I will leave and you will stay.  You will learn to love a new pastor, and I will learn to love a new community.  We will grieve the parting and rejoice in new relationships.  Things will not be quite the same afterwards, and the life of the life of the church will continue, in cycle and in change.

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.


Why Do We Give?

Generosity is a discipline that is of interest to Christians, not just because the church relies chiefly on the generosity of members for its financial resources, but because wealth and the ways we relate to it are such a central part of the Gospel.  Jesus talks more about money than he does about any other human institution, so there must be something there that he wants us to hear and understand.

Our spiritual relationship with money and giving is complex, and includes challenging ideas about philanthropy, charity, security, poverty, pride and greed.  Today, though, I’d like to address the narrower question of whether and how we give money to the church – a question that is freighted with all sorts of history and assumptions which can make it hard to talk about.

Before going any further, I should give credit to my friend The Rev. Timothy Dombek, Canon for Stewardship and Planned Giving in the Diocese of Arizona (and fellow Hoosier).  He teaches a two-day seminar called “Stewardship University” that changed the way I think about stewardship, and this article relies a great deal on his teaching.

Some of us may give to the church out of sense of duty or guilt.  We may have the subconscious fear that we are loved in proportion to the size of the gifts we give, or that we can somehow make expiation for our sins by giving to the church.  We may know intellectually that God’s grace is unconditional and irresistible, but our insecurities doubt that this can be so.

Some of us may have internalized the world’s model of payment for services rendered, and may give because of the good things we get from the church.  We love the music, we appreciate the preaching, we enjoy the fellowship of our friends, and we are willing to pay something for that. If we find ourselves asking questions like “how much is the church worth to me?” or talking about our gifts to the church as dues or taxes, we may be giving from this model.

A much subtler version of this kind of giving is when we give philanthropically because we want to support particular activities of the church in the world.  If we give to the church because the church does things we like, then we are really just giving money to advance our own will and our own interests, even if those things we like are good in themselves.  This sort of philanthropy is a wonderful thing and has supported extremely worthwhile charities and arts organizations. There is an important distinction, though, between a charity and the church, between philanthropy and tithing.

Tithing – the practice of setting aside a percentage of one’s income for the church – is at its best a spiritual practice for the giver rather than a fundraising technique for the church.  Tithing is an exercise in trusting God rather than ourselves.  Tithing is not about the church’s need for money, but a challenge for us to let go of part of the treasure that the world tells us so urgently that we need to protect and to hoard.  Tithing is not the way we fund ministry; tithing is ministry.  Tithing flips our assumptions about who is offering a gift to whom.

Tithing is a sort of Sabbath for our money: a recognition that all of our time and all of our gifts belong to God, and that we don’t need to squeeze more work out of every minute and more stuff out of every dollar.  As Sabbath makes the whole week holy, tithing a percentage of our income hallows all of it.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Jesus knows human nature well enough to understand that our money is a proxy for our energy and our commitment and what we actually value.  What we do with our money says more about the state of our heart than the words that we speak. 

Do you hear the bells?

Vivos voco,                        I call the living,
Mortuos plango,               
I mourn the dead,
Festa decora,                   
I adorn festivals,
Fulgura frango.                
I shatter the lightning.

+   +   +   Traditional Latin inscription on church bells

That folk may come to church in time, I chime;
When pleasure’s on the wing, I ring;
To speed the parting soul, I toll.

+   +   +   Inscription on the bell of an old village church in Devonshire

Bells in church buildings may seem perfectly obvious – but why?  What is there about striking heavy bronze cups to make a loud sound that had anything to do with Christian faith or Christian community?

Christianity did not invent bells, of course.  China developed bells, gongs, cymbals and singing bowls thousands of years ago; they were an important part of traditional Chinese religious practice, and were adopted by Buddhism and Hinduism.  The penetrating, far reaching sound of the bells was often understood as carrying prayers to the ears of the gods and ancestors, as well as creating a meditative state of mind.  When the ancient Egyptians learned how to smelt bronze, bells became a part of their religious practice, too; Moses may have carried this tradition out of Egypt and taught the Hebrew priests to sew bells to the hems of their robes, but the shofar, or ram’s-horn, was the traditional call to worship.

Christianity did not invent monasticism, either, but the disciplined daily schedule of prayer and silence in monastic communities made some sort of signaling system necessary.  In the earliest Christian monasteries, monks were alerted by striking a resonant piece of wood called a semander, which is still traditional in many Orthodox traditions.

According to tradition, it was a bishop in Nola, near Naples, Italy, who first introduced bells into Christian worship around the year 400, both as a call to worship and as a way of calling attention to important parts of the service for congregations that could not see or hear much of what was going on.  Bells caught on quickly, and by the early 600’s bells were so closely associated with the call to Christian prayer that Mohammed vetoed them for Muslim worship, establishing instead the tradition of the muezzin’s chanted call from a high minaret.

In the early Middle Ages, between the fall of the Roman empire and the slow development of Medieval European civilization, Christian monasteries functioned as outposts of culture and religious centers, especially outside cities.  The sound of the bells calling the monks and nuns to prayer seven times a day was a connection between the cloister and the world outside; a Christian working in the fields or the kitchen could hear the bells and pause for a moment’s prayer in communion with the brothers and sisters.

Fast-forward to the English Reformation in the sixteenth century.  Given the opportunity to develop a new prayer book for the independent English Church, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer turned to the monastic cycle of daily prayer, simplifying it for the use of Christians in all walks of life.  The new Book of Common Prayer was anchored by the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, to be prayed either in the parish church or at home.  The parish church bell, like the monastery bell, became even more important as a way of calling the people together for prayer with their neighbors, whether in the same space or separated by distance.  The voice of the bell became closely associated with the parish, such that people could readily pick out the sound of their own parish bells from others.

St. Saviour’s bells have been speaking to the people of Bar Harbor for over eighty years.  Many have heard the quirky story of the bells’ donation and the reason for the “temporary” steel tower, but far more important than that story, I think, is the way that our bells have worked themselves into the sensory landscape of our community.  Neighbors and tourists may grumble about being awakened, and nearby dogs may go on high alert, but the slow, sonorous voice of our bells is as much a part of downtown Bar Harbor as the smell of the sea at low tide.  I particularly love the interplay of our bells and the firehouse horn at noon and nine:  church and state, protectors of spirit and of body, letting us know that all is well in our little village.

Not all may recognize it, but our bells are a sort of witness to the people of Bar Harbor, residents and tourists.  We no longer live in a society where everybody goes to church, and the bells are just a reminder to do what we are all doing anyway.  The bells have become more like a voice of one crying in the wilderness:  refusing to let the world forget that we owe our existence to God and our redemption to his son Jesus Christ.  The bells are a song on the breeze, celebrating the fact that the Holy Spirit still speaks and that there are people who still listen.  If even one or two people stop what they are doing and offer a few moments of prayer when our bells ring, how wonderful!  The voice of the bells calls each of us to prayer, to relationship with God and God’s people.  Do you hear the bells?

Future History

Last summer, as we commemorated the 150th anniversary of the first Episcopal service on our island and reflected on the stewardship that built this church, a few folks began to wonder what kind of legacy we are leaving for those in future generations.  The Bicentennial Club was born from a commitment to make our community sustainable for at least the next fifty years: taking care of our physical plant as well as looking to the long-term financial and demographic health of our parish (I had suggested “The Biker Gang” as a cool nickname for the Bicentennial Club, but Jim Vallette didn’t think that was as clever as I did).  As we celebrate more anniversaries in the next few years (the founding of our parish, the completion of our first building), count on the Bicentennial Club to remind us that stewardship of our history extends into the future as well as the past.

One of the first efforts in this direction has been a sensitive remodeling of our front entrance to be more accessible to those with mobility issues.  We were quickly blessed with four initial gifts totaling forty-five thousand dollars, including a generous pledge from our neighbors at the Parish House.  More gifts have continued to come in, and we are on schedule to begin construction on the project this fall.

When we presented the proposal for the entrance at a parish meeting, several folks mentioned other items around the campus that need some attention.  The Vestry had many of these on our radar, but others were things we might not have thought about.  Our ever-attentive Junior Warden, Wayne, quickly added more items to the to-do list: some major capital improvements, some minor maintenance fixes.  Your vestry has been addressing these responsibly.

No one seems to know just how old the church boiler is, and that should tell us something. The faithful old beast has always (so far) rumbled to life every fall, but that can’t go on forever. This summer the Ves­try hired Richard Rollins, PE, to evaluate our system and write specifications for a replacement. We are currently soliciting bids to replace our boiler (we will send the old one to live on a farm, where she will be able to run free and chase rabbits), as well as to tune up our other heating systems to be more effi­cient. This work will begin in the spring, when heating contractors are less busy and more competi­tive.

We had also asked Dick Rollins to investigate options to increase our energy efficiency and decrease our carbon footprint.  Some ideas (like heat pumps and geothermal heating) were found not to be very appropriate for our building and location, but we plan to do further research on possibilities for solar electric generation.  There are grants and loans available for such projects, and we may be able to coordinate with the replacement of our roof shingles, another need on the horizon.

You may have noticed the church looking a little dim, especially in the back of the chancel as bulbs have burned out, and you may have wondered why no one has replaced them yet (there is room here for the old jokes about how many Episcopalians it takes to change a light bulb: “Change it? My great grandfather donated that bulb!”). A few years ago we replaced the lamps in the church chandeliers with super-efficient LED bulbs.  Since then, the cost of LED’s has come down dramatically, and in the next month we will be replacing the lamps in the track lights and spotlights as well.  This will significantly reduce our electric bill from lighting, the LED’s will last several times as long as incandescent bulbs, and will generate far less heat (I can’t guarantee that they would have made the last two weeks in July comfortable, but every little bit helps).

One of the goals of the Bicentennial Club has been to reconnect with the families of some of the folks whose names are commemorated on the plaques and windows that fill our church, inviting them to be part of the future of our parish as well as the past.  One of our first endeavors at this will involve necessary repairs and restoration of several of the stained-glass windows.  These conversations are ongoing, and I have great hopes that we will be able to rekindle relationships with some of these families.

All of these projects are important, and all of them cost money (you knew I would get there, didn’t you?).  But this is not about a big capital campaign to raise funds.  In 2015 and 2016 the Living Stones Team did a great job of educating all of us about the realities of our parish finances and our responsibilities as stewards.  In response to that campaign, St. Saviour’s congregation did an impressive job of increasing pledges and annual giving to reduce the amount we draw from our endowment every year for operating expenses.  The endowment is healthier, and our budget is more sustainable than it has been in some time.  The task now is to continue our annual stewardship so that we can live within our means, and cultivate the endowment so that it can support the long-term sustainability of our parish.

Part of that cultivation is “the duty… of all persons to make wills, while they are in health, arranging for the disposal of their temporal goods, not neglecting, if they are able, to leave bequests for religious and charitable uses.” (BCP p. 445).  Just as we set aside part of our regular income to be a sacramental offering to God, we are invited to sanctify all that we have gathered in our life by giving part of it away.  One of the reasons we have an endowment, and one of the reasons that St. Saviour’s has been a strong rock in this community for almost 150 years, has been the generosity of our people in their estates.  This is an easy way to ensure that St. Saviour will be healthy at the celebration of our bicentennial.