Sabbatical Journal: Visit to St. Columba’s, Kent

I made this sketch of the Rev. Alissa Newton on the back of the bulletin while her associate preached the sermon.

One of the advantages of being on sabbatical is that I can visit other Episcopal churches on Sundays to see how they do things. By visiting other churches, I hope to get new ideas and perspectives.

On Sunday, July 21, I visited St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Kent, WA. I chose this church to visit because I admire the Vicar, the Rev. Alissa Newton. She’s a bright young priest who came to St. Columba’s when it was nearly ready to close. Despite having a lovely building in a good location, they had shrunk to the point they were considering selling the building. Since Alissa has come, they’ve nearly doubled in Sunday attendance and become a vitalized and energetic congregation.

In addition, Alissa is the head of our Diocesan College of Congregational Development. In this role, she teaches about organizational development in the context of church congregations. When I attended the CCD several years ago, Alissa was on the staff and I remember how well she explained the concepts that are making our congregations more healthy and effective.

I arrived a few minutes before the 8:00 am Eucharist and Alissa immediately recognized me (she’d seen my Facebook posts about my sabbatical). An usher gave me a bulletin and I sat down to collect myself in silence. There were about nine people present. On this day, the celebrant and preacher was the associate Vicar at St. Columba’s, the Rev. Meghan Malarkey. Meghan was ordained only two years ago and has a young family. To open the service, she rang a bell to begin a period of silence. I like that. A second bell and the service began with the usual, “Blessed be God…”

The early service had no music and followed Rite II, using the Eucharistic Prayer from Enriching Our Worship. The sermon was about ten minutes long, using the Gospel passage about the visit of Jesus to Martha and Mary’s home. Meghan said that her initial reaction to the reading, as a mother and wife, is that “Jesus just doesn’t get it!” He doesn’t seem to understand how hard it is to keep a house clean and to serve and pick up after guests. Martha is working hard, and Jesus is a man who doesn’t value her contribution of labor.

In preparation for her sermon, she read a number of commentaries, but they were all by men who also didn’t get it. Then she read a commentary by Elizabeth Schussler-Fiorenze, who said that Martha was doing diakonia, or the ministry of service. So Martha’s role was not diminished but honored. The commentary also noted that there is no mention in the text about food or cooking. Meghan said she had simply assumed that Martha was cooking and serving food, but when she went back to the text, she found it silent about that. It was just her own bias that led her to make that assumption. Meghan noted that our implicit biases often lead us to overlook the contributions of those who are outside the dominant power structure.

The small congregation came forward to stand around the table for Communion, which gave a sense of community. I would say the service lasted about 50 minutes.

After the first service, Alissa gave me a tour of the building. I asked about the large carpet that took up the aisle between two of the quadrants, with soft toys near the back. She said it was for small children, so their parents could remain with them in the service. She also showed me the Godly Play rooms which were set up for kids of varying ages. Obviously this church makes a priority of welcoming young families.

I noticed there was an organ near the back wall with a quilt over it, and I asked about it. “We normally use the piano for our music because we don’t want to give that ‘funeral parlor’ feel to our church,” she said.

I was struck by something Alissa said, “When traditional Episcopalians visit our church, they often don’t return because we don’t meet their expectations of a somber atmosphere. And I’m okay with that. That’s not the demographic we’re seeking to attract.” That impressed me, because I realized that she has a vision of the kind of church community she’s creating, and she isn’t trying to please everybody. I wonder what I can learn from that.

I went away to get some coffee and returned for the second service. Alissa apologized because half their congregation was missing because their young families were participating in the Choir Camp at St. Mark’s Cathedral this weekend. I counted about 35 people present.

The second service followed the same order as the 8:00 am service, Rite II, except this service had music. The singing was puny. Something about the acoustics of the building make it so that you can’t hear the voices of the people around you, so you feel self-conscious about your own voice and you pull back. Too bad, because the music was accompanied by a lovely pianist and a trumpeter.

The Prayers of the People were unfamiliar to me, but I thought they were very good because they seemed to be more targeted than the usual broad-spectrum prayers. The Confession, taken from Enriching Our Worship, is stronger than our usual Confession. I stumbled over a couple of places in the Nicene Creed because they made some small changes, eliminating male language for the Holy Spirit, and omitting the Filioque clause.

Before Communion they announced that white grape juice was available in addition to red wine, and rice wafers were available for those who asked. There are no kneelers or Communion rails, so we stood for Communion.

The service was almost exactly an hour long. Afterward, we were invited to refreshments in the entryway, which worked nicely. I spoke with a man who had come for his second time, and a longtime member came up and introduced herself to us and told us about the church. Very welcoming. I waited until Meghan was free and introduced myself and complimented her sermon.

Overall, I would say that the atmosphere at the church was relaxed, friendly, and cheerful, while still keeping the dignity of the Eucharist. I’d like to go back someday when all the young families were there and see what that’s like.

Sabbatical Journal: Visiting family and friends

Camping near Baker City, Oregon.

My six-day retreat at Christ of the Desert Monastery in New Mexico was part of a 19-day trip I took through the American West. Driving 4,000 miles in my little Honda Fit, I crossed parts of seven states and visited my family and friends.

On the way to the monastery, I visited my friends Tom and Jean McCarthy in Farmington, New Mexico. I hadn’t seen them since 1979, and I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t written them since about 1990. Even though it’s been a long time since we’ve been together, they seemed exactly the same as I remember them. Tom and I were close friends with two other guys in high school, and seeing him was like going back in time.

After my retreat, I traveled to Colorado, where I visited my family. I saw my mother, my brother and sisters, and all my nephews and nieces except for my nephew, Noah, in Kiev, Ukraine. It was great to see my mom, who will be 100 years old in December, and my sister, Betty. Betty makes it possible for mom to live in her own home, although it’s getting more and more difficult.

In Boulder, Fort Collins, and Broomfield, I visited my brother Tom and his wife, Lora, and my older sister, Mary. I was able to have coffee with my nephew Ben, another coffee with my nephew Will, and I had dinner with my sister, Mary, and her son, David, and his girlfriend, Annie. My niece Annie Jo gave me a tour around the CSU campus in Fort Collins where I attended school 1972-74.

I stopped in Phippsburg, Colorado, near Steamboat Springs, and stayed overnight with my niece, Elena, and her husband, Dustin, before travelling on. It was great to see all my family. It makes me feel connected to them even though I live a long ways away.

I continued toward home, but on the way back I stopped off to see my friends Fred and Pogo West. Fred and Pogo were partners with me when I was a tree thinner in Southeast Alaska, 1981-1982. I hadn’t seen them since then, and it was wonderful to re-connect and catch up on their lives. Fred has liver cancer, and he’s undergoing radiation treatments.

I camped out each night while traveling, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I have a complete camping kit, including a roomy tent, a homemade kitchen set, and comfortable bedding. Several nights I was able to find an out-of-the-way place to camp with no fee, which makes the trip much more affordable. I love camping out in the great outdoors.

Having time to visit my family and friends has allowed me to reflect on my life’s journey. All these people are part of my life, and seeing them helps me put my life together and make sense of it. I’m grateful for my life’s journey and all the people I have been given to know and to love.

After 19 days away, I was certainly glad to come home to Katy and our cozy home. It’s true what they say, “There’s no place like home.”

Working without an office

Because we’ve been in transition between buildings for over a year, it’s been a long time since I’ve had an office to work in. When New Fellowship Church needed my office to expand their use of the building, I moved into a corner of the modular building, then later I moved into our secretary’s office, perching on a stool at the treasurer’s desk. Now that we have moved out of our old location, neither Linda, our secretary, nor I have an office.

It’s not that I need an office all that much. Visits can be done without an office, and I can do my sermon preparation and other writing anywhere. With my church laptop computer, I can do my administrative work from home or Starbuck’s or anywhere else. My cell phone is always with me, so I’m not tethered to an office phone.

The truth is, however, that an office allows you to be more productive. Probably the hardest thing is not being in daily contact with Linda. We collaborate constantly, sharing information and working together to produce the bulletin, the newsletter, scheduling the building and church events, sharing news about the latest needs and demands of parish life. Although she’s available instantly on her cell phone, it’s just not the same when we’re not in the office together.

And I find that being office-less is disorienting. An office is a home base, a place where I can collect my thoughts and put things together for the day coming up. An office provides stability and security, like a fortress or a command post. Without it, I feel homeless and unsure of my surroundings. In addition, an office provides a place for my books and my papers. When I need something, I can put my hand on it. Without an office, I’m living out of boxes and continually searching for resources I rely on.

I’ll certainly be glad when my exile ends, and I’m back in my office. One thing’s for sure: when things are back to normal, I’ll have a new appreciation for my office surroundings.


The definition of frustration is “The feeling of being upset or annoyed, especially because of inability to change or achieve something.”

That pretty much sums up my feelings these days. We’ve been waiting for weeks and months for our new building to be finished, but it still hasn’t happened. The reasons are complex and include contractor delays, problems obtaining materials, and the difficulty of scheduling inspections from the County and passing those inspections. The latest delay is due to the County’s insistence that we complete the wood fence that acts as a visual barrier for our neighbors.

The inability to do anything to change the situation is quite frustrating. I thought we would be in the building weeks ago, yet we’re still waiting for the occupancy permit. I don’t even have an office (I’m typing this in my temporary “office” at Starbucks). The building is completely ready for occupancy but we can’t occupy it.

I find that it’s very difficult to be productive without an office. Normally, the office is the place where I have my base of operations including a computer with internet, a phone, a printer, and collaboration with our secretary. Without the stability the office provides, I’m like a wandering nomad. Of course, many things do not depend on the office, such as visits, writing and planning, and I can do them without an office, but the office is the base.

I’m grateful that our parishioners have been quite resilient and flexible. We had to worship outdoors the last two Sundays, and no one complained (having perfect weather helped a lot). But we can’t keep that up forever. We really need to be in the building. So I continue to wait, fussing and stewing over the completion of the fence, and the arrival of the inspectors who will finally sign off on our occupancy.

God, give me patience.

Another delay

I dreaded sending the email to our parishioners last week that announced that we would not be able to have our first service at the new building on Easter Day.

We have had so many postponements in moving to our new building that yet another one seemed like just too much. Many people have set their schedules based on our plans to move, and here I was, asking them to reschedule once more. And of course it’s disappointing not to be able to celebrate Easter in our new building.

But facts are facts, and our contractor simply isn’t able to have the building ready for us. The main delays have to do with inspections by the State and the County for the septic system, the fire sprinkler system, and the landscaping.

Fortunately our members have been quite resilient, and everyone has adjusted to the new schedule. When the times comes, we’ll have our first service, and it will be wonderful.

The anticipation of moving into our new building

It’s looking more and more sure that we’ll have our first worship service in our new building on Easter Eve, when we celebrate the Great Vigil of Easter. The next morning, on Easter Day, we’ll celebrate the resurrection of Christ at our regular 8:00 and 10:00 Eucharists for the first time.

After the many delays and disappointments of the past year, I feel almost giddy that we’re so close. The electricians are finishing up the last details; the tile, vinyl, and carpet are almost complete; the parking lot has been paved; and the landscaping has been scheduled. There are many finishing details that remain, but the contractor is hard at work and every day there are many workmen on the job.

Our transition team has met to plan the move from our old building to our new building. There will be many pickup truck loads to transport the mile and a half down Old Frontier Road, and it will be a challenge as we try to decide where to place everything. We’ll probably be living out of boxes for awhile, just like homeowners during a house move.

But thinking of our first service and how wonderful it will be is almost overwhelming. I’m sure we’ll all be thrilled to see the chairs in the nave, find our place, and come to the altar rail for the first time. We’ll hear how the organ sounds for the first time, and we’ll get a feel for the light as it comes though the steeple windows and fills the room. We’ll sense the presence of the congregation as we see our friends around us in a new setting.

I’m sure it will take some time to get used to. At first everything will seem so new and strange. But over time we’ll find our places and smooth out all the wrinkles, and we’ll be at home in our new church.

Bishop’s Visitation January 13, 2109

Well, I have to say we had a wonderful day yesterday when our bishop, the Rt. Rev. Greg Rickel, visited us for his once-every-three year visitation.

We had a full church, the confirmation of three fine young people, and a splendid sermon by our bishop. Bishop Greg brought his large and expansive personality coupled with a warm and humorous presence. After he confirmed our young people, he encouraged them to sprinkle the congregation with a fir branch, using the holy water from the font. They were a little hesitant at first, but they got into it after a bit. “Remember your baptism!” they said as they doused us with water. It was a lighthearted moment, a good way to act our the bishop’s message of the importance of our baptism.

After the service, the bishop mingled with folks during coffee hour, then we took him and our other guests from the diocese to the new building where we gave them a tour and sat for a meeting with the Bishop’s Committee. It was a fine and satisfying day.

In his sermon on baptism, Bishop Greg told this story:

A baptist preacher and an Episcopal priest were having an argument about baptism. The Baptist preacher insisted that baptism was only valid if the person was entirely immersed in water, while the Episcopal priest said that sprinkling water on the top of the head would be sufficient.

The Episcopal priest asked the preacher, “What about if a person was immersed to their knees. Would that be enough?”

The preacher said, “No, that’s not enough.”

So the priest said, “How about if the person was submerged to their waist?” “Not enough,” said the preacher. “Their neck?” asked the priest. “No, that’s not enough,” said the preacher.

“What if the person was submerged all the way except the top of their head?” he asked. “Nope, not enough,” said the preacher.

“See?” said the priest. “It’s only the water on top that really counts.”