The Rev. J. Randolph Alexander, Jr., Rector
The musical “Les Miserables” is a work largely about sin and forgiveness. Early in the piece the main character, Jean Valjean, has just escaped from prison, where he had been sent for stealing a loaf of bread. He goes to rob the house of the local bishop. As the old bishop sleeps, Jean Valjean steals most of his silver. The police catch the escaped criminal. They drag him before the bishop and say, “This man told us you gave all of this to him.” Valjean hangs his head in front of the bishops. But the bishop quickly says, “Well, I did. Only I don’t understand why he didn’t take these beautiful candlesticks, too. I only want him to be a good man.” And to Valjean he says, “You must use these to become an honest man.” I think we find ourselves in essentially in the same position as Jean Valjean at the beginning of this Lent. We come with our broken lives, and our meager attempts to do better. Our accusers, and even Satan himself, seek to imprison us, to haul us before God and say, “Look at them, the miserable lot! Is that the best they can do?” But God loves us, and has given us His only Son.
Ash Wednesday and Lent are all about the love of God, but also about the holiness of God and our sinfulness. It is easy to concentrate on the grace we receive from God without counting the cost. Even in this story from “Les Miserables” the forgiveness did not come without cost to the bishop. He lost all of his silver. Forgiveness and reconciliation are not free. Our forgiveness cost God His only Son; it cost the suffering and dying of our Lord.
Lent is a time to take to heart the sinfulness of our lives, and how our rebellion grieves the heart of God. In that sense Lent is a great leveler, because we have all sinned in our own unique ways. As Paul Says in Romans, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23) Sin is classically defined as anything that separates us from God and other people. Lent calls us, and offers us time and space, to contemplate all that does separates us from God and other people, and to realize how much we have gained through God’s gracious sacrifice for us. Hence the age-old tradition of giving something up, meant to remind us of the manifold blessings we receive from God.
And then there are the ashes of Ash Wednesday. What a curious tradition. The ashes represent our mortality, the fact that we will all die, and our sinfulness. They are meant to be reminder right between our eyes, to get our attention. They represent our sin and rebellion, both individually and as a people. You see, within all of us there is a broken mirror. And try as we might to glue or tape that brokenness we cannot fix it ourselves. But the great Good News is that God can, and does.
I invite you to seize the great opportunity of this Lent: to look at the nature of sin in your life, whatever it is that separates you from God and your brothers and sisters. What else would you like to do? What would you like to change? On a broader scale, how can you and I, and our parish, contribute towards healing the sin and brokenness of our society and our world? Maybe we can only work on one or two things, but mostly I invite you to stop, to think, to thank, to pray, in short to live more intentionally.
As we stand before God, as we stammer out our case, as we acknowledge our sins, our only response, our only defense, is that our only mediator and advocate, Jesus, loves us. And that is enough. Let us meditate and build on this sure foundation throughout the opportunity this Lent offers us.
See you in Church,
The Rev. J. Randolph Alexander, Jr.
“In gratitude, in deep gratitude for this moment, this meal, these people, we give ourselves to You, O God. Take us out to live lives as changed people because we have shared the Living Bread and cannot remain the same. Ask much of us, expect much from us, enable much by us, encourage many through us.” The Rev. Dr. Mark Anschutz
In this litigious age we hear municipalities and institutions of all sizes and types speak of trip-hazards on their properties. These hazards might include any offset in a pavement or sidewalk that can lead to someone falling. Regular inspections take place to locate these hazards so that they may be repaired. It seems to me this is an approach we might employ to great benefit in our spiritual lives.
There are many spiritual trip hazards, common to most of us at one time or another. These can include jealousy, wanting what someone else has, or frustration at our lack of having something. Anger, that we never seem to get past, trips many people. Addiction to various substances trips up others. Guilt for something we did, or didn’t do, can knock us down. Fear of getting older can make most of us wobble at one point another. Obsession with gaining power or influence over others can land us on the ground before we know it. At various times a general sense of loss of control can send us reeling. I sometimes think of these hazards as a great buffet table, like a salad bar, where we all partake of some of the poisons from time to time.
I began this column with the prayer above from my friend and mentor, Fr. Anschutz, because it stresses so powerfully and so succinctly the importance of a great balm for our souls: thankfulness. To be grateful, thankful, if to focus on what we have already received, stressing our blessings and not our shortcomings. A thankful heart is a lighter heart, a more content heart, and a heart more at peace with itself and the world.
There have been times when I wanted to pray but I was a jumble of emotions. At those moments I simply couldn’t begin the prayer I so desperately wanted to pray. So I just started naming blessings for which I was thankful. They often tumble out in no particular order--things from childhood, relationship, experiences, faith, places where I have served, Immanuel. In those moments I am taken out of myself, I feel centered, and free. I encourage you to try this approach in times when you might find it a challenge to pray.
What would it be like to lead with gratitude, with thanksgiving, in our lives? What would it be like to have a journal or a document on our computers where we simply list blessings? What would it be like to mention these blessings in conversations, naming God as their source? I believe we would gradually be changed people.
Our great national holiday of Thanksgiving approaches. Might this be an opportunity to list some blessings? Our annual Stewardship campaign at Immanuel continues, after a very encouraging and promising start. Have you pledged yet? Have you set aside some time to name some blessings, and some of the ways you plan to give back to God, for God’s great purposes in the world, from those blessings? Our parish home, Immanuel, needs and deserves our prayers, our time, our talents, our witness, and yes, our financial support.
Happy Thanksgiving to you all,
The Rev. J. Randolph Alexander, Jr., Rector
I decided to go to MacDonald’s for a Breakfast treat, (specifically oatmeal, hash browns, and coffee, if that helps to set the context). As I was standing in line I heard the man next to me talking to another man about how his children were preparing for Confirmation (yes, my Mother taught me not to eavesdrop, but they were speaking fairly loudly, so there was no way to avoid listening, especially when I heard the topic!).
The one man seemed very kind, and I could imagine he was a good Dad. He said that his children were preparing for Confirmation now, but then he said, “It’s a good thing I don’t go to Church. My poor wife is having to take care of it, and I think they will stop going after it’s done.” It became pretty clear they were talking specifically about the Roman Catholic Church, as the other guy talked about the struggles of getting an annulment since he had been married before, and the first guy talked about a friend who had recently had a stillborn child, how they wanted the priest to do some sort of blessing of the body, and how the priest didn’t.
I couldn’t decide if I was glad I was in my baseball cap and shorts, rather than a collar, or not. Should I interrupt? And what would I say if I did chime in? Would that be rude beyond belief? Or would it be caring, even loving? Could I say something like, “I’m sorry you have had that experience of Church—it’s not all like that—might you give it another try?” I was a bit angry at this guy, but I was much more angry at the Church, for letting this man and his family down, on some level. And I felt sad for him, profoundly so.
I didn’t interrupt. I decided that might cause further damage. I decided I could pray for this man, though, this man whose name I didn’t know. I prayed that, in God’s time and by whatever means, God’s love and pure delight in him might become known to this man. I prayed for healing in his experience of Church. I offered a short confession for any ways I may have damaged or impaired the experience of Church, or even of God, for others. I prayed that, somehow, this man’s relationship with God could be healed and made manifest in his life.
And I wondered how many there are like him out there. . . hurting, ticked off, distracted, or just plain bored with religion. And I thought of so many of our people who are so giving and loving, to one another and to strangers, who find hope and meaning and purpose in their relationship with God and in our fellowship. How do we connect with more of those many people out there like this man? Might our Anglican branch of the great Christian family speak more to him? Might we be a home he is looking for?
I was only left with some haunting questions. I resolved to trust God’s care, love, and grace for this man, but also to hold this question before us—what more can we be doing to reach out to the many like him, right in our neighborhood? How do we even cross their radar? Will you pray about this with me? And don’t hesitate to interrupt when you hear a conversation like this, if you think it might help. Otherwise, praying is always a precious resource.
See you in Church,
The Rev. J. Randolph Alexander, Jr., Rector
Some people who are now part of Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill grew up in Alexandria, but many grew up elsewhere in the United States, or in another country. Sure, for a few of us, Alexandria has always been home, and they have a lot to teach us about this special place. But, for manyof us, work or family, or some combination of the two, brought us here.
Most of us have lived in several places and we have family and friends scattered in still other places. It is not uncommon to meet new folks at the church door, folks who have just moved to town and report knowing no one here. They come to church seeking a real community; they come seeking a spiritual home. They speak clearly and convincingly of a deep need most of us share.
One of the great blessings of being part of a local church is that deep sense of community that can develop. I believe the Lord can use that longing for community,and the community itself,to draw us closer to Him and to each other. There are many parallels between a church community and a biological family:
--We are not all alike; far from it. Just as we marvel at how different siblings can be, so, too, are brothers and sisters in Christ. Different experiences and perspectives, different passions and hopes, and varying economic, social, politic,and theological outlooks make us quite a varied lot. So what draws ustogether? Our love of Jesus and the desire to worship together in a real community draw us together, and God shows up in surprising ways!
--We will not all like the same things. On any given Sunday you can find several folks relishing every verse of a certain hymn, while others are gritting their teeth until it is over. That is how it should be in real community! Not everything will appeal to everyone; in fact, certain things will repel some of us. We must always remember that our Christian tradition offers us a broad menu when it comes to worship and means of approach to God, and thank God for that!
--Really being part of a family requires that we pitch in, that we invest ourselves, and the church family is no different. A parish I know in California made a list of all of their ministry opportunities, a list of some 1,000 positions. Their list includes service as an usher, a lector, a chalice-bearer, singing in a choir, membership on a committee, service on the Vestry, and the like. If we compiled a list of available ministry positions at Immanuel, we would come up with many, many opportunities to be involved in some aspect of our life and ministry together!
--Being part of a family, or a real community, entails taking a certain amount of pridein that community, a certain esprit de corps. It involves a certain amount of our identity being caught up with the family or the community, with staking our claim, and declaring it publicly.
Finally, just like in a biological family, the amount of blessing and fulfillment we receive is directly proportional to the amount of ourselves that we invest in the family. For the Christian, this is all a part of Stewardship. Hear these words, traditionally heard in the Episcopal Church on Thanksgiving Day, about Home: “For the Lord your God is bringing you into a good land, a land of brooks and water, of fountains and springs, flowing forth in valleys and hills, a land of wheat and barley...and you shall eat and be full, and you shall bless the Lord your God forthe good land he has given you”(Deuteronomy 8:7-10).
Try substituting the word “community” for the word “land” and see how it might resonate with your experience.
The Rev. David M. Crosby
If you are not already aware, Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill is one of eight Episcopal churches in the City of Alexandria that is recognized by the Diocese of Virginia as Region IV. The other seven churches are:
Meetings of the Regional Council occur 3-5 times a year. Per the diocesan Canons, “Regional Councils shall be responsible for seeing that the ministrations of The Episcopal Church are made available to every person living within the boundaries of such Region and shall exercise authority for the Region as a whole in safeguarding the interests and extending the ministrations of the Church throughout its borders, so that the Region may function as a unit in matters of common concern and responsibility. A Regional Council may, for these and other purposes, and subject to the approval of the Executive Board, adopt and administer a budget.”
Region IV parishes have worked together to give financial support to outreach ministries such as the West End Lazarus Ministry, Hunger Free Alexandria, the Meade Memorial Bag Lunch Program, an annual hypothermia shelter at St. Clement, the Child & Family Network , and VOICE (Virginians Organized for Interfaith Community Engagement); Christian Formation & Discipleship opportunities include the Alexandria churches’ Lenten Series and a well- received Region IV Youth Event hosted by Immanuel in October 2015.
If you have questions or are interested in learning more about the work of Region IV, please see me.
Thank you and God Bless!
The Rev. David M. Crosby
One important ministry we all share as the Body of Christ is to pray for one another and others. It is part of our Baptismal Covenant promises. As we commit to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers,” saying, “I will, with God’s help,” we are called to actively and intentionally pray for our own. I hope we each have our own personal prayer list, but we as a parish also have a corporate prayer list. The parish office and clergy learn, either directly or indirectly, through relationships and casual conversations, pastoral calls or visits, or from being alerted by others, of matters
or issues that affect people of our parish in mind, body, or spirit. Here prayers may be in order. On Sundays, as part of the Prayers of the People, we name individuals of the parish by first name from a printed list in the bulletin.
In addition to those intercessions, we also collectively lift up friends, acquaintances, and members of our extended families who have any concerns as well that may be troublesome and burdening. You havemprobably heard these words, “... and we pray also for members of our extended parish family.” While the names of ‘extended parish family’ members are printed in the weekly Sunday Parish Notes, we do not speak them aloud.
You may notice that the largest group of names we have in our weekly prayers under the Pastoral Care Corner are for the extended parish family. For roughly the last five and half years, the parish office has received prayer requests for individuals who are not members of our parish church and tried to keep track of them. Our collective hope is that prayers would meet the need and eventually rotate off. However, we have only added to the list with little review or editing. A spreadsheet has tried to keep track of specific requests, when they were received, the reason(s) for prayer, and who made the request. Yet that list has grown long and is somewhat unwieldy now.
An effort is underway to reconcile names in the printed prayers against this spreadsheet. Where names are printed but not accounted for in the spreadsheet, those names are being removed. Where names and their related information do not coincide with a printed name in the bulletin, those entries are being stricken. This is an effort to wean down the prayer list and the spreadsheet.
We are called to prayer. Please understand this administrative effort is not meant to deter or restrict prayer, but rather is to ensure we understand for whom we pray, how, why, and yes, for how long. Should you realize a name you added is no longer present, it can be re-added. If you see a name that no longer needs collective prayer, please help us in this work. Your attention will help us all in our ministry to pray for one another and others.
Blessings & Peace,