Holy Comforter's 15th Birthday
I wonder if any of you have a favorite verse of Scripture that you can hang your hat on - or better yet - stand firm on its foundation. 15 plus years ago I was looking for such a scripture for a yet un-named church; one that would define who we believed God was calling us to be. And I was lead to this verse from a letter Paul wrote to his friends in the Turkish town of Ephesus: "Jesus came to proclaim peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. So now you are no longer strangers but citizens with the saints and members of the whole household of God."
You see there are a lot of people who don't know who they are. They have let the world, with all its cynicism, define who they are and it's not very flattering. You're not thin enough, smart enough, rich enough or even faithful enough; you can add to that list. And the terribly sad thing is, they don't know that this isn't who they are. They don't know they have the God given right to say ENOUGH to all those false images.
What we've been trying to do at Holy Comforter is show people who they really are - they are citizens of heaven, members of God's household. It's like the pauper discovering that he's a prince or Harry Potter finding out he's a wizard. It's magic. CS Lewis might call it the deep magic of heaven, awakening the Sleeping Beauty in all of us to discover our true identity as the sons and daughters of God. Then the real adventure begins as we live out our true identity.
The great Southern writer Flannery O'Conner, who lived not too far from here in Milledgeville, GA, was once ask why she was wasting herself in such a small town. She could really do something with her life if she moved to NY. Flannery replied that the problem with New Yorker's is that they didn't know where they were from, which meant they didn't know who they were, but she did. Flannery's identify came from the deep red clay of Georgia; she was marked as Georgia's own forever by the imprint of that earth.
I ran across a quote that echoes all these sentiments: "In Christ, you're a citizen of heaven right now. You aren't a citizen of here trying to work into heaven." You're a citizen of heaven trying to work through here. This has been one of my great passions - to help people discover their true identity and Holy Comforter has become such a place of discovery.
Some of you know this story I'm about to tell because you were part of it or you know something about our family tree here. There was a time, even before our initial gatherings to form this church, when we were nameless. I did some research into church names in use in the Diocese of Georgia and came up with at least three potential names not used by any other parish in our diocese. They were Church of the Resurrection, Saint Columba's (I have a love of Celtic Christianity) and Church of the Holy Comforter. I was particularly drawn to the last name as it was the name of my home parish as a child but especially because I thought it spoke to what I envision for the new church - a place of holy comfort for the unchurched. I asked for help from the people of Saint Paul's, Augusta, where I was working at the time, for help with the name. I asked that they "test" this list with their friends who were un-churched. I wrote an open letter which included these three names, asking for input, but I went on to say:
However, those are my ideas. What about your ideas for a church name? Some criteria to consider: The name must be: distinctive, relevant, memorable. The name must be attractive to the unchurched; it must be something that will speak to them and their needs. For the most part that will preclude the use of saint's names or theologically laden names which will have little meaning to them. These names will be tested in an informal survey of the unchurched. Such a testing would include some of these sample questions: Based on name alone, which church will have the friendliest people? Based on name alone, which church will have the most celebrative worship?
It seemed that everyone had an opinion as to what would make a good name, with many suggestions made with tongue firmly in cheek. One wag sent in the following suggestions: Church of St. Nicholas: where every Sunday is Christmas Day, Church of St. Henry VIII: special outreach ministry to marriages in trouble, Church of All Saints: don?t want to play favorites, and Church of St. Caspar: where the Holy Ghost is friendly. Another person made the contribution of Church of the Confused.
Not all the suggestions were humorous. All Soul's was suggested as was Church of the Living Word, King of Kings Church and the Oglethorpe Community Church, which I knew I could never pronounce. Two of my suggestions, Resurrection and St. Columba's were shot down, with the latter name coming in for special criticism. Various respondents wrote, "It sounds like that guy, Peter Faulk." "It's too cute for Columbia County." "It sounds like a yogurt place."
However, the clear favorite was Church of the Holy Comforter, even if one respondent said it "sounds like a goose down comforter." One person who selected Holy Comforter as their preferred name said, "This name makes me think about coming into the peace, love and joy of the presence of the Lord." This is what we wanted for our church and this became our name. We want to be that place where you can come into the peace, love and joy of the presence of the Lord. But more importantly, we want to be people who carry those attributes out into the world to continue our ministry.
St. Paul writes about it in one of his letters to Corinth. He says, "Through us, he brings knowledge of Christ. Everywhere we go, people breathe in the exquisite fragrance. Because of Christ, we give off a sweet scent rising to God." You know what that's like? It?s like walking into a warm kitchen where fresh bread is just coming out of the oven, making your mouth water. You just have to have some. When people encounter Jesus in us, we should be having the same effect. I want what you have; how can I get it? And then you introduce them to Jesus and tell them of their true identify and maybe even bring them to this place as a way of remembering who they are.
When Holy Comforter was first beginning to come together I had a lot of visions for this church ? I still do ? but God has had the greater vision. I wanted us to be a place of prayer and comfort but I never envisioned the Prayer Shawl ministry and its tremendous impact throughout our community and beyond. But God did. I wanted us to make a difference in this part of God?s kingdom but I never envisioned the mentoring program at Lakeside Middle School. But God did. I wonder what God next envisions for us.
Until just this week I would have said that Holy Comforter was on a journey and that journey continues. But I heard a better metaphor from The Rev. Barbara Brown Taylor, priest and author. She said life isn't a journey. It isn?t like getting on a train and then getting off at your destination. Barbara said life was more like sailing. Every morning you get up and you see in what direction the wind is blowing and what the waves and tide are doing and you adjust accordingly. Sometimes you have to shorten the sails and at others you let them out and run with the wind. I wonder where the wind of the Spirit will take us next.
There is a prayer that I shared with those 30 people who helped start Holy Comforter 15 years ago that I want to share with you all today. But before I do I want to give thanks to those saints who started sailing with us. There not many of us left from those early days. Some have moved on and some now see God face to face and some are still here. If you were part of that pre-launch group - Thank you. And now may all of you stand and make this your prayer:
Disturb us, Lord, when
We are too well pleased with ourselves,
When our dreams have come true
Because we dreamed too little,
When we arrived safely
Because we sailed too close to the shore.
Disturb us, Lord, when
With the abundance of things we possess
We have lost our thirst
For the waters of life;
Having fallen in love with life
We have ceased to dream of eternity.
And in our efforts to build a new earth,
We have allowed our vision
Of the new Heaven to dim.
Disturb us, Lord, to dare more boldly,
To venture to wider seas
Where storms will show your Mastery;
Where losing sight of land,
We shall find the stars.
We ask You to push back
The horizons of our hopes;
And to push us into the future
In strength, courage, hope and love.
This we ask in the name of our Captain,
Who is Jesus Christ.?