The past few years have felt like a movie plot that keeps tossing up complications just as you think the journey home is ending. We believe we are getting back to normal, and another variant appears; first delta and then omicron. We think one round of vaccination will end the pandemic, and now we need additional shots. It’s exhausting and, on some days, even disheartening.
But as public health officials keep saying, there are many reasons to be optimistic. We are in much better shape to manage a viral variant now than we were two years ago. We know much more about COVID, how to mitigate its spread, and how to treat it when people develop symptoms. In big ways and lots of small ways, we’ve made progress. It’s frustrating that it’s not over yet, but frustration is a much better place to be than to be helpless and without options.
History is that way too. Bp. N.T. Wright in his book “Surprised by Hope,” offhandedly remarks that because of Our Lord’s Passion and the working of the Holy Spirit in the world, history has a direction and a purpose to it. Things are happening in the world, and while moral progress and transformation can be frustratingly slow, when you step back, it is breathtaking to see how far we have come. History is moving us to a moment when heaven and earth will be joined together, and all the pain in this world will finally end.
Advent is the time of year when that hope is foremost in our prayers and our hearts. This quiet, dark time at the end of the year is a season for us to look for the quiet, constant work of the Spirit in history. We remember that Heaven surrounds us and that Jesus is at work, binding up the wounds of Creation and releasing us into a new life we cannot yet see but to which time will soon deliver us.
Our Bishop, The Rt. Rev. W. Nicholas Knisely, has recorded this message for Easter.
I am just back from the semi-annual meeting of the House of Bishops. One of the topics on the agenda was to respond to the Archbishop of Canterbury’s invitation to all Anglican bishops and spouses to attend the 2020 Lambeth Conference, with the special provision that same-sex spouses of bishops not attend.
At the time it was announced, in the Episcopal Church this only affected Bishop Mary Glasspool and her spouse Becki. But the Diocese of Maine has just elected the Rev. Thomas Brown, and his spouse Tom will also be uninvited. And it is possible there may be more bishops elected in the coming months who also will be married to people of the same gender, and their spouses would not be invited, either, in the name of maintaining the unity of the Anglican Communion.
It was a hard conversation. The members of the House of Bishops are not all of one mind about same-sex marriage, but that is not what made it hard. What is difficult is that, as someone said, we are one church, and by not inviting part of the church we are all diminished. Bishops on all sides of the conversation about marriage spoke of the pain it is causing for us to not all be allowed to attend, much less feel welcomed. I was very much taken by Bishop Mary’s words (and Becki’s words) to the House of Bishops. She acknowledged the pain that the Archbishop’s decision has caused but also reminded us that the Way of Love is also the Way of the Cross. Part of our vocation as followers of Jesus is to do the hard things that we believe are the right things to do.
In this case, the House of Bishops intends to do two things. First, we intend to have a conversation about this with our spouses. They have their own ministries — they are not accessories to Episcopal ministry. Karen and other spouses of clergy in the Episcopal Church have roles to play. They will decide for themselves what they wish to do. The plan is to have a working group of bishops and spouses prepare a process for all of us to use to discuss the next steps. This discussion will take place at our scheduled meeting of the House of Bishops and Spouses in Minneapolis this fall.
The second thing we intend to do is to go to the Lambeth Conference and participate as fully as possible. As Bishop Mary reminded us in her address, “when you are on the menu, you should be at the table.” I believe this Lambeth Conference will be an opportunity for us, for me, to share the stories of ministry and service in which the entire body of the Episcopal Church in Rhode Island participates. Karen and I will be attending the conference and sharing what God is up to here in Rhode Island. I hope you will be proud of what we will do to represent your ministries to the people of the wider Communion. And I hope you will join me in prayer in the months to come for all the people who will be attending the conference – and those who have been asked to not attend. We are one Church, together walking the Way of Love.
“Very truly, I tell you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.”
I’m starting to look at the yard at May House. The squirrels have done a good job on it, burying the acorns and then digging them up. I’m always amazed they can find them. I suppose it’s a survival issue for them – and it’s just an annoyance issue for me. Given that they can’t lose sight of what they have set aside, it’s not surprising that they manage to find them again.
The squirrels know they have to put what they need to prosper into a time of quiet and hiding. Doing that lets them keep going when there’s little else to sustain them. I wonder if the world could recognize our work in the Lenten season to be something similar. Perhaps we’re the food being hidden away on the world’s behalf so that the world can keep going when there is nothing else to sustain it.
Lent is that time when we fall to the ground, when we enter into the quiet sleep of late winter in preparation for the bursting forth of new life in springtime. We aren’t doing that just to keep ourselves alive, but so those around us, who depend on us, can trust that we will be there for them. It reminds me of the safety drill on an airplane. “Put your oxygen mask on first, then you’ll be able to help those who need help”.
Take Lent seriously this year. Take on the focus and the discipline, the quietness and the austerity, so that you too can be ready to bear life when the world needs us to do that. You are a blessing to the world when you can care for others because you have cared for yourself.
Bishop W. Nicholas Knisely’s address to the 228th Convention of the Diocese of Rhode Island.
As the year begins to draw to an end and the secular holiday season is beginning, this is a wonderful moment to take time to reflect on what God is doing in the world around us. The glorious autumn leaves are pretty much gone by now, the trees having shed them in preparation for the New England winter season that is just about here. Between prepping the yard and house for winter, we’ve been hauling out the winter clothes from storage and putting away our summer things.
Because this is a yearly ritual for us, the miraculous nature of the changing seasons goes unnoticed for the most part. In the dark and cold, in the desolation and deathlike sleep of a winter woods, none of us loses heart; we know that spring is coming. We know it because we have seen it. We have learned to believe in rebirth and new life.
This Thanksgiving, I invite you to welcome the dark and the cold knowing that it is preparing the world for the bursting forth of new growth and renewal that will be winter’s concluding moments.
As we gather around our feasting tables, and as we give thanks for the fruits of this past year, recognize that the holidays, and the dark long nights that are part of that will come to an end soon enough. We have seen it before.
And then, I hope you might remember that this yearly cycle of darkness and light, death and renewal, winter and spring, is a reminder that this is true in our lives and in our history as well. We have seen hard moments and we have seen renewal. We have seen them in our congregations, in our communities and in our own lives. The darkness ends in the dawn. Our family feasts this Thanksgiving are a testimony to that truth.
We enter the season of Advent, as the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer. But just as happens every year, in four short weeks — for those who are paying attention — as the cycle is reversed and the light grows stronger, we remember that God entered the world in the form of a small child whose life forever changed the course of history.
And so we feast as the days grow colder and the darkness grows. Because we are people who know, because we have seen it, that the darkness heralds the dawn and that winter will bring the springtime.
Happy Thanksgiving and thanks be to God!
A reflection by Bishop Nicholas Knisely
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I feel God’s presence most strongly when I’m outside and not, like most people would expect, when I’m in a church building. Don’t get me wrong. I often feel and know God is near in consecrated worship spaces – and particularly during the liturgies. But I feel that even more so, and more reliably, when I’m outside. Perhaps it isn’t surprising that I’ve spent my life as a student of the natural creation as well as of theology. Both are places where I seek God.
It was because of this dual aspect that I was initially so excited by the prospect of bringing the experience of the Connecticut River Pilgrimage to Rhode Island. My experience of last summer, paddling down the Connecticut to the sea, camping along the banks and being part of an intentional community, touched both aspects of my own spirituality. By the end, on the last day, paddling silently through the sunlit salt marshes of Griswold Point, listening to the chorus of nature and hearing the thunder of breakers crashing along the shore, I felt as close to the Kingdom of God as I had in years. At the end of the day I approached the leaders of that trip and asked if they would work with me to recreate a more compact version of the experience for Rhode Islanders.
Thus was born the two Wood-Pawcatuck River Pilgrimages that we held this summer.
While both trips followed the same course, they turned out to be different experiences, each fulfilling in its own way. The first was a smaller, more intimate experience of the southwest Rhode Island watershed. There were just seven of us on the trip. We paddled in pouring rain and beautiful sunny skies. We camped in the cold and gave thanks for warm hospitality. We saw eagles, turtles, alewives and a river returning to its natural beauty while still carrying the marks of the way we used it for industry over the centuries. We were an older group, all experienced paddlers and all active in church.
The second trip had 15 people in total and a couple more paddling with us on the last day on the little Narragansett Bay. Although there were a few older people like me on this journey, the majority were under the age of 30 – and we have a much more varied level of experience in camping and paddling. Pilgrims learn to expect nothing in advance and to be grateful for the gifts of the journey. This trip gave us things we didn’t expect and invited us to create a new form of community across age and experience that none of the other trips I had been a part of had done in quite the same way. We also saw how we as humans are altering the rivers to suit our particular needs as we watched one of the key portages of the paddle (at Alton Dam) being permanently closed off to paddlers and fisherman for reasons no one could really explain to us.
My greatest gift in the two Rhode Island journeys was to witness how quickly and profoundly a group of pilgrims becomes a community, and how quickly its members learn to care for one another. Even in a short three-day experience, we become something unanticipated as we journey, pray and open ourselves to the work of the Holy Spirit. I think the experience is as close as I can imagine I’ll get to the experience of living as part of a religious community committed to going deeper into relationship with each other as a way of drawing closer to the presence of God.
I plan to keep organizing these sorts of experiences. I’m hoping they will plant seeds in people for whom the traditional church experience isn’t working. I dream that they will have a chance to experience in this alternative way something of what most of us experience on a weekly basis in the life of the gathered community of the congregation we attend. Perhaps some people will connect with a congregation after their pilgrimage experience. Perhaps for some being a pilgrim will be enough. Either way, though, people will have a chance to know God’s presence in a new way, a way made by paddling through the wilderness and towns, praying and praising as we go.