I am up early today, on this eve of the Feast of Pentecost. My heart is troubled, dispirited, sad.
On Pentecost Sunday, we will celebrate—as we do each year—the Holy Spirit’s coming. Remember, the Book of Acts tells us it was on the Jewish Feast of Shavuot, fifty days after Passover (fifty, hence the Greek word Pentecost for the same day), that the Church was born. Jesus ascended into heaven just 10 days before, and he promised then that the Holy Spirit would come to inspire, motivate, and animate his people to be witnesses of all the life and hope and love that he taught and modeled during his ministry in this world. They—WE—would be his witnesses “to the ends of the earth.”
The first miracle—the one we’ll beautifully enact again tomorrow—was a barrier-busting move that inspired the good news of Jesus to be spoken and heard in almost all the known languages of the world at that time. It was beautiful chaos. Some didn’t understand it; some didn’t like it; and some interpreted it as the amazingly hopeful sign that it was: the promise of God’s dream coming to anybody and everybody who would hear the good news, call out, take hold, and live it.
The miracle of languages is only the first of several gulf-crossing, wall-destroying, humanity-reconciling waves of grace that the Holy Spirit brings throughout the Book of Acts. Further in the same chapter, we find the new believers inspired to form communities marked by unity, mutual care, equity, and selfless sharing of resources with one another—especially with those in greatest need.
During this very day and time, we must ask the Holy Spirit to continue to come upon us: to inspire, motivate, and animate us to bridge the chasms and break down the barriers that divide us from one another in the human family. Deep repentance, diligent work, and joyful sacrifice will be required in order for us—each and all—to realize the abundant life that Jesus continues to offer the whole world.
As we approach the celebration of Pentecost, the world is literally groaning for a justice, equity and reconciliation that only a move of the Holy Spirit can bring. Our Black sisters and brothers cry out from endless violence and murder against them in our cities and counties across America, rooted in deep and broad systemic bias, inequality, and disrespect. In these very days, as we mourn with the African-American community the recent violent deaths of Auhmad Aubrey, Brionna Taylor, and George Floyd, there is deep pain and righteous anger being expressed, bursting forth from the cry of the Psalmist who sings out, “How long will you forget me, Lord? Forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long will I be left to my own wits, agony filling my heart? Daily? How long will my enemy keep defeating me?” (Psalm 13.1-2).
On this Eve of Pentecost, I am longing for—crying for, pleading for—the Holy Spirit to come upon us to inspire, motivate and animate us as individuals and collectively as the Church of Jesus Christ to BE witnesses to the repenting, healing, liberating, life-giving love of Jesus to the ends of this broken world. Please join me.
“Come, Holy Spirit. Amen.”
The Rev. Scott Painter, Vicar
I was recently reminded by a colleague about the Italian origins of the word quarantine. Literally meaning, “the span of forty days,” the word was used in the Middle Ages to describe the keeping of ships waiting off port for 40 days to prevent latent cases of plague coming on shore.
Of course, the number of forty is familiar to readers of the Bible. The number forty is always used to describe a time of exile, wandering, loneliness, and testing. We recall the story of Noah, when the rain fell for forty days and nights, forcing Noah and his family to be at sea until the storms calmed and new life began to spring forth; and, the story of the Israelite sojourn in the wilderness for forty years, between escape from Egyptian captivity and entrance into the Promised Land; and, of course, the forty days and nights after his baptism that Jesus stayed alone in the wilderness, tempted and tested, before starting his public ministry.
In these biblical stories of quarantine, time is spent apart: a time of consecrating self and community to God and God’s purposes in the world.
As we’ve said since first beginning to stay apart as church, at the initial rise of the coronavirus pandemic, we are doing so out of love and not out of fear. Have we been afraid? Of course. But as a Christian community, our commitment to the way of love, embodied in Jesus, is at the heart of who we are and what we do. We made an early decision to stay apart—not for a literal 40 days, but for a quarantine—with the guidance of our Bishop. We did this for love of neighbor, staying at home to limit the spread of a deadly virus to others.
Near the conclusion of those biblical narratives of “40 days,” God’s people always experience some new blessing or sense of God’s presence with them – a rainbow, the report of spies about milk and honey, the appearance of angels to attend to Jesus. But the line isn’t always clear to mark the edge of the desert and the beginning of home. There is often ambiguity that requires a new level of discernment, collaboration, and faith.
Over the next couple of weeks, we will recognize the landscape becoming more ambiguous around us, between official orders of government to stay at home, and increasing societal movement back toward work and activity in public spaces. This will be frightening to some of us, especially those who are of vulnerable age or physical health. And, it will be a relief to others, especially those who have suffered in their mental health from the extreme isolation and loneliness during these highly anxious times.
Bishop Doyle has asked the leaders of each congregation to begin making a plan unique to the specific context of the local community. He has advised that in our decision-making related to the coronavirus pandemic we will be moving away from fixed universal timelines and toward a phased approach. For now, we are in “Phase 1” –focused on mitigating viral spread—and will remain here for at least the Month of May. This means that throughout the month of May, we know that we will continue to worship and connect virtually and make service opportunities available on a very limited basis and in responses to specific needs in the community.
During May, members of our Bishop’s Committee, School Board, and other congregational leaders will work together to create a plan for moving into “Phase 2.” (Phase 2 will involve some gatherings and public worship, limited in size and space; incorporating new distancing and sanitizing procedures, maintaining stay-at-home for vulnerable people groups, continuing online connection and worship opportunities, and approval of our plan by Bishop Monterroso.)
A brief summary of the Bishop’s “Phased Plan” in 4 phases is included with this note.
In all of this, we will move forward in ways that are inspired by our core values of Communion, Compassion, Collaboration, Creativity, and Commission. We will remain committed to breaking down walls of division, and making a space in our community for anyone and everyone who want to be a part.
Love – not Fear – will be our rule and our way on this journey into God’s grace.
With you on the way,
I have a conflicted relationship with the season of Lent. It is not easy for me to sit still; I find it difficult to act in particularly pious ways (like fasting, extended prayers, ritualistic spiritual practices); and I certainly don’t love religious language reminding me about my own sinfulness or claiming a general “wretchedness” somehow inherent in all human beings.
I am quite sure that I am not alone in this. People very close to me (who may or may not live in my own home) freely express, throughout each Lenten season, their frustration with the language, expectations, and general drudgery often imposed by churches in their Lenten liturgies. More than a couple of folks in the Grace community have shared similar sentiments. And a striking data point reinforces this truth about us: in both of the last two years at Grace, four of our lowest attended Sunday morning services were during the season of Lent. Last year, our average Sunday attendance--for all of 2019--would have neared or surpassed 80; but instead, because of low worship attendance during Lent, it remained in mid 70’s. (for reference, our average Sunday attendance in 2017 was 56.) So, it may be that many of us find Lent to be good time for a little “break” from church. 😊
This year, we are praying and planning for a meaningful, inspiring, and joy-filled experience of Lent. (We are not putting away the maracas this year!) We will incorporate elements in our liturgy we pray will inspire hope, meaning and gladness even as we are careful not to shun the particular gifts of the season to guide us in repentance, lament, and solidarity with a broken and hurting world. We are scheduling special formation and fellowship programming to inspire growth in a centered and purposeful life.
I hope you will show up for Lent this year. I hope we will all feel compelled to keep coming together for worship, learning, and fellowship during this season. I hope you will find that it is not a drudgery.
On Sundays, our Spanish-language Sunday School class will continue meeting to explore the meaning of the Sacraments and our English-language class will engage a book discussion on Crossan’s and Borg’s book “The Last Week.” On Sunday evenings, we will replace our regular offering of “Connections” worship with a special Contemplative Practices and Compline offering in my study (unless our group ends up too large for that space!). And on Wednesdays, we’ll continue with the tradition of a simple soup supper followed by a presentation from area clergy or lay leaders. This year, the theme of the Lenten Suppers is “Discernment, Call, and God’s Will.”
Even though we may be conflicted about Lent in our personal experience and spirituality, I’m confident that it will be better when we’re together. As we travel the Lenten path this year, toward the glorious resurrection and abundant life of Easter, let us continue coming together, learning and praying together, growing together, and moving forward into God’s dream for our community. Together.
Let’s all keep showing up!
“Diversity is inviting someone to the party. Inclusion is asking them to dance.” – Unknown
Dear Friends in Grace,
I am so proud of you. So proud of us.
As I reflect back on the last 20 months, especially back to the beginning of my tenure as your Vicar, I am in awe at the distance we have already traveled together. With God’s inspiration and wisdom and help, we are growing and thriving -- in hope, in vision, in worship, and in numbers.
I am amazed by the grace with which you have embraced all kinds of changes to expand the breadth of our love and welcome. We continue to update our campus for efficiency, attractiveness, and accessibility. We are trying out new prayers in liturgy (approved by General Convention last year). We are learning new music for worship, experimenting with new ministry ideas to foster connection and outreach, and working to reorganize our staff and lay leaders to involve more and more people in the leadership and life of Grace.
We are Growing in Grace!
As we continue to move forward, this truth is becoming clear: our identity as a multicultural congregation is central to who we are and how we are growing. In our Church & School community—including church staff, teachers, parishioners, and students—people originally from more than 25 states and 25 countries (on 5 continents!) call Grace home. As individuals and families from new places make their way into our community, we lovingly embrace them and expand our tent to include who they are and what they bring. Grace is a lot like Houston – the most diverse city in the United States!
One way in which we continue to lean into our multicultural identity is in the area of language. It has been a practice over the years for us to sing music that comes from different parts of the world, written in languages from those places – Zulu, Mandarin Chinese, Latin, French, Indigenous languages, Spanish, and others.
Lately, we have been experimenting with incorporating more Spanish language in our worship from time to time, even printing a couple of worship bulletins in both English and Spanish and alternating between the two in what is spoken aloud during the liturgy. This is not an easy or comfortable experience for everybody. But to try it, and then to adjust based on our reflections together, is very consistent with who we are and what we have done in the past – seeking to break down barriers that divide us from one another, even when that barrier is represented by language differences. The barrier between Spanish and English is particularly poignant, because so much of the Spanish-speaking world is Texas’s next-door neighbor and so many Spanish-speaking people live in this city as their first destination in the United States.
I want to ask you to engage this work with hearts of love and faithfulness. Trust the process of trying different things. Trust that we will watch and listen to the results from our experiments and we will adapt. The one and only goal is this: not just welcome but full inclusion of anybody and everybody--from anywhere and everywhere--God leads into this community.
Growing in Grace.
I am excited to announce that The Rev. Alejandro Montes will be joining Grace as an Assisting Priest, along with The Rev. John Graham, The Rev. Deacon Dawn Shepler, and myself. Alejandro’s introduction is included in this edition of The Gracevine. He brings broad ministry experience, including decades of ministry as a priest, and the kind and generous heart of a pastor. We are so blessed at Grace to have a growing clergy team to help us follow the Spirit into God’s future.
With you all the way,
“Grace Upon Grace: God’s Increase and Our Response”
There is a particularly beautiful sentence, situated in the midst of the gorgeously poetic first chapter of the Gospel of John. These words always overwhelm me when I hear them; they inspire me by revealing the infinitely limitless generosity and benevolence of our Creator; they stir up within me deep gratitude, wonder, and even my own desire to grow as a gracious and generous person made in God’s image.
“From God’s fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” John 1.16
As our 2020 Stewardship Pledge Campaign gets ready to kick off on October 20, we are embracing this truth of God’s lavish and limitless GRACE as our campaign theme. During the Campaign, we will hear stories from members of our community who have experienced one surprise of God’s faithfulness after another, living out the truth that there is no end to the goodness God has for us.
We will also tell the stories of grace upon grace experienced in our Church & School community during the past year. Truly, we have experienced a banner year in the renewal and rebuilding of Grace Episcopal Church & School as a sustainable outpost of God’s grace in Southwest Houston…
The 2020 Pledge Campaign will run from October 20 through November 10. We’ll celebrate the in-gathering of pledges together in a special Thanksgiving Eucharist on Sunday, November 17.
Stewardship is our community’s season of acknowledging God’s grace in our lives – in our private and family lives, and in our life together as a congregation. It is a season of prayerfulness, as we ask what dreams God has for us in the coming year and how we can be a part by sharing our gifts of money, of time, of leadership, of wellbeing, of truth, and of relationship.
In the coming weeks, you’ll receive a mail packet from our Stewardship Chairperson and Bishop’s Warden. Special thanks to Bob Duran for chairing the Pledge Campaign again for 2020. Please begin now to pray and consider how you can and will contribute the community life and ministry of Grace in the coming year.
My prayer is that we will find ourselves “all in” at Grace in 2020 – that we will burst with gratitude for God’s presence and work among us, and that we will be generous with our treasure, our time, and our other resources to share with God in growing this community.
I know that in making pledges and serving with others we will open ourselves to experiencing more and more of God’s grace upon grace.
With you on the way,
What are you for?
I remember many years ago, in the aftermath of a personally devastating experience, I came to a poignant realization about myself. The epiphany didn’t come easily; in fact, I had to wallow in a great deal of anger, regret, and resentment first. Someone had inflicted great pain on me; I had chosen to operate in the wrong system; I had been wronged. And my focus was on that wrong.
At a pivotal time in that process, I became aware of something very problematic in my life up to that point: the awareness that for many years I had been charting my life’s course according to what I was against, what I was not, what I didn’t want. The problem: I didn’t know what I was actually FOR.
This revelation allowed me, over time, to rebuild a huge part of my life on very different terms. I began articulating what was most important to me, what brought the most joy, what kind of work was truly fulfilling.
The fact that I was able to make this profound shift in my life – from “against” to “for” – is in large part the reason that I found my way into the vocation of a priest and, eventually, into the call to be Vicar of Grace.
During the past several months, the Bishop’s Committee and I have been discerning what we are “FOR” at Grace. We have reviewed and considered the results from the Holy Cow! Survey; we have reflected on worship, outreach and fellowship programs at Grace; and we have engaged many thoughtful conversations with lots of folks in the congregation. Out of this work, we have drafted a list of “Core Values” for Grace that we believe reflects the reality of who we are and who we are becoming as a community.
Core Values are the things we value most of all – the convictions, commitments, and investments we are FOR. Knowing and talking about our Core Values will help us make decisions that are based on shared priorities and commitments. It helps to put the factors of individual personalities and personal passions at the service of the whole congregation.
You’ll notice this month that we are announcing a significant renovation to the chancel in the church nave, to be completed during the second half of August. The decision to do this work was based on our values – the redesign brings a simple Altar Table closer to the center of the worshiping congregation to remind us that the Communion is at the heart of who we are; it is a compassionate project, making the chancel and altar rail accessible to everybody regardless of physical ability; it makes space for creativity, allowing a large area for musical performance and community programs to take place.
Much more will be said about the chancel project in the days to come, but for now, it stands as a wonderful example of how our “Core Values” can help us to decide what investments and projects should be priorities for our community.*
I encourage you to review the list and descriptions of our 5 Core Values included with this article. Pray about them. Ask questions about them. Talk to your Bishop’s Committee members about them. We will continue, over the course of our life together as Grace, to refine, reinterpret, and even, from time to time, re-state them in new and inspired ways.
What a joy to be moving forward, with shared values, in common life and mission together.
*Thanks to the generous and anonymous donation of parishioners, the construction of the new chancel has been paid for outside of the annual budget. An invitation will soon be extended for others to give toward the purchase of new simple altar furnishings.
As Christians, we are always challenged to be on the move. The stories of our tradition testify to a life of faith spurred to action, called out of comfort, inspired to cross borders, and compelled to press forward.
We recall the voice of God to Abraham, inviting him to move faithfully to a strange land; or to Sarah, promising that she would bear a child in old age. We think of the prophet Isaiah, who challenged Israel to “enlarge the place of your tent” to facilitate the enormity of God’s blessing that was promised to come; and Jonah, commanded to travel to the land of his enemies and call for repentance (with the terrifying prospect that they might be saved!). And, of course, we always lift up the witness of Jesus Christ, God Incarnate, who “did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited but emptied himself...being born in human likeness...and became obedient to the point of death,” as St. Paul proclaims to the Philippians.
To walk this life of faith, and especially to follow our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is to walk a path fraught with change and transition and difference, through a landscape dotted with promise and hope and renewal. We walk this path for a purpose – that we may, more and more, accept God’s dream for our lives and enact God’s dream for this world.
The year 2018 was one full of promise and new life. You called a new Vicar, appointed by Bishop Doyle to lead this community. We worried about falling attendance and low school enrollment, and we prayerfully strategized to reverse those trends. We said goodbye to beloved staff and called several new individuals to support us in our ministry and life together. We experimented with new worship forms, with outreach programming, with new community groups and classes, with new liturgies, language, and music. We explored new ways of inhabiting interior and exterior spaces on our campus to facilitate connection, outreach and worship. We worked to strengthen the church’s bonds with our school as a ministry and outreach of Grace.
All of this only scratches the surface. Our journey in 2018 was fun and exhausting, joyful and frustrating, hopeful and irritating, invigorating and challenging, inspiring and stretching and exciting. And there is more to come!
Welcome to the life of faith in Christian community. And, welcome to Grace.
As I reflect joyfully on our Annual Meeting last Sunday, my prayer is that we will wholeheartedly celebrate the joys and accomplishments of 2018, honor the legacy of this congregation on which today’s good work is founded, and be inspired by God’s vision for this community in 2019 and beyond.
With you in ministry,
“God's Creation gives us a model for making and sharing homes with people, but the reality of God's Trinitarian life suggests that Christian hospitality goes farther than that. We are not meant simply to invite people into our homes, but also to invite them into our lives.” –Lauren F. Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath
I’ve been thinking a great deal about hospitality lately. I’ve been thinking about what it would take for us to make the kind of space in our life together in order to nurture meaningful and lasting connection for newer members and newcomers to our church community.
Grace is truly a welcoming congregation. Almost everybody agrees on this. When folks visit our campus, whether for school business, for a community event, or for worship, they are met with love and kindness – consistently greeted with warmth, generously assisted in finding their way around, kindly thanked for being with us and always invited back. We welcome visitors unconditionally, affirm difference and diversity, and make space for the new experiences and perspectives that others bring. I am so grateful that this value of welcoming was already wholeheartedly embraced before I arrived at Grace early last year.
It is one thing, however, to feel welcomed among people, and quite another to become connected with them.
To be sure, many folks who are more recent arrivals with me to this congregation have found their way toward a next level of participating or belonging – exploring expressions of new ministry, bringing inspired ideas from former church communities, pledging to financially support the life of Grace in a new year, committing to new areas of service. I am so grateful for this positive energetic.
This is a good start, but we will have to do more work at becoming the kind of people who can continually make space for more and more people to connect and transform us with who they are and what they bring.
I believe that God is calling us, in 2019, to discover new ways of fostering deeper relationship with all who find their way to us and desire to know Grace as home. We are being called into a deep hospitality that goes beyond welcome to be with us, to invitation for becoming part of us. This will involve some changes to our facilities, it will mean new programming that intentionally brings us together, and it will mean – as all change does – sunsetting some old ways of doing things to make space for more inclusive and expansive modes.
God has a beautiful dream for this world, for this city, and for this neighborhood around us in Southwest Houston. And God has included Grace Episcopal Church in making that dream come true.
I’ll look forward to sharing more about this vision for inclusive and expansive hospitality with you at our Annual Meeting on January 27. I hope that everyone who calls Grace home, or who wants to call Grace home, will be with us on that day.
The Reverend Scott Painter, Vicar
“In my distress I called upon the Lord;/ to my God I cried for help./
From his temple he heard my voice,/ and my cry to him reached his ears.”
This time of year, it can be easy to forget that holidays aren’t happy for everyone.
For many of us who have experienced profound illness, trouble, or loss, a holiday can morph into another painful milestone along a seemingly endless line of “firsts” without that health, or well-being, or loved one present with us as before.
Though much of the world around us is lurching headlong toward a Merry Christmas, we who are in pain or grief receive a profound gift in the time of Advent — because this is the season for sitting still with the deep longing of creation, grounded in brokenness and sorrow, to cry for God to meet us where we are.
This cry requires us to be honest. This is not a time for a stiff upper lip, or for donning any pretense. If we are to experience joy at all with the coming of Christ at Christmas, it will depend on our forthrightness about how desperate we are for God’s healing and sustaining presence.
If the need for honesty about our pain resonates with your experience of the holiday season this year, I especially want to invite you (though it is open to everybody) to our Longest Night service at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church (1805 W. Alabama) on December 21 at 7:00 PM.
This is a special service, inspired by a liturgy from the Episcopal Cathedral of St. Andrew in Honolulu, that I helped to adapt and lead during my time as Curate at St. Stephen’s. It is a liturgy of candlelight, and quiet, and prayers, and meditative music.
It is a liturgy to guide us through our grief toward hope.
How fitting that the Winter Solstice -- the year’s longest darkness -- takes place in the context of Advent longing. Because it is darkness that calls out for light. And it is pain and sorrow that call out for salvation.
Please join us next Friday for this special time together with friends from St. Stephen’s. I will be there, playing some music, leading a portion of the service, and offering healing prayer. I hope to see you.
The Rev. Scott Painter, Vicar
Happy New Year!
I love new beginnings, fresh starts, and trying again.
For Episcopalians and Christians of many other traditions all over the world, time moves to a different rhythm from the established days, weeks, months and years set on the calendar that governs modern society.
The Church’s year ebbs and flows with the energy of the cosmos. Our Liturgical Calendar (which guides our annual patterns of worship and activities) is set each year according to the solar and lunar calendars. Some Festivals, like Christmas on December 25, are fixed in place according to the sun. Others, Easter most of all, arrive at slightly different points each year, according to the moon.
(You may be interested to know that Easter’s fluctuating situation is a result of a conscious decision of the Church, about 1700 years ago. The Council of Nicaea established in 325 AD that Easter will come each year on the first Sunday after the first Full Moon after the Spring Equinox. This is why Easter can arrive much earlier or much later each year – as early as mid-March and as late as almost-May.)
It is actually Easter’s movement on the calendar each year—in relation to the fixed point of Christmas on December 25—that determines how each liturgical year will relate to the January-December calendar of the rest of society.
The church begins each new year with the season of Advent, comprised of the four Sundays leading up to the Feast of the Nativity (Christmas!).
To begin with Advent is the most counter-cultural and counter-intuitive wonder. We begin each new church year not with a big bang, nor a party, nor a pinnacle Feast. No, we start anew with deferred gratification.
Advent comes from a latin word that means “coming.” The season of Advent is a time of waiting for what comes next. But it certainly isn’t a time for passivity. NO! Advent is a time for anticipation, and hope, and preparation, and prayer.
My favorite Advent passage from Scripture is in the Gospel of Luke (3:4-5). The writer is telling about John the Baptist, who is proclaiming that a Savior is on the way. His words ring in my heart throughout the season of Advent: “Prepare the way of the LORD; Make His paths straight. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill brought low; The crooked places shall be made straight And the rough ways smooth; And all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’ ”
There is a holiness to the waiting of Advent – it is rooted in the promise that God has not left this world to its own devices and has not left us to fend for ourselves. The promise inspires us to hope; it rouses us to prepare the way for God’s salvation to be brought into every place of despair that the world knows.
How do we prepare in Advent?
As a community in worship, we prepare by telling the stories of promise, praying our hope, and singing our longings for God’s salvation. In service, we prepare by making straight paths for God’s goodness into the world: by loving and serving!
I encourage you to join in the work of Grace2Go, serving our neighbors on Tuesday and Thursday mornings from 7-8:00 AM in the W. Bellfort parking lot. Just show up once, find a way to help out, and meet some of our neighbors. You can also get a name from Mitzi Coleman off of the Angel Tree. The name belongs to a child, who may experience scarcity and lack at Christmas. You can purchase a toy for that child, according to her list, and bring it as an offering of love to be shared. We also continue to accept donations for Braes Interfaith Ministries throughout December. BIM experiences a great demand on their services to the needy during holidays. Your generous gift will support that ministry. (FYI, BIM is always welcoming new volunteers!)
As individuals, let’s take time to voice our concerns and longings in our prayers. And let’s be intentional in our kindness to others, in our generosity to those in need.
Advent is the perfect way to begin our new year together in faith – with a season of holy waiting. I look forward to walking with you through anticipation and preparation for God’s gift.
The Rev. Scott Painter
I serve as the Vicar of Grace. A word from our English heritage in the Episcopal Church, "Vicar" means that I serve as the priest and pastor of this congregation.