I really love the fact that we have four real seasons here in East Tennessee. This was not the fact when I lived in Louisiana. There, the fall season was about three weeks long starting from Mid-November. Next we would get our first peak at winter with the first frost. More often than not it was followed by a fake fall which meant the temps went back up to the mid 80’s again for a couple of weeks. 

Winter might actually be as long as ten days. This occurred when the temperature dropped below 40 degrees. Though in Louisiana most people were known to fire up the gas fire places when the air temp got below 55. Spring might possibly be as much as three weeks long. Spring was easily identified by the blooming of azaleas and dogwood trees. Then it was followed by a weeks return to fake winter for a week or two depending if Punxsutawney Phil saw his shadow or not that year. Then we settled in for basically eight months of summer. This meant 100% humidity and temps in the high 90’s or even higher. 

When I lived in Chicago it was pretty much reversed. Winter was eight months long with temps seldom above 30 degrees and we could have months of gray overcast skies where we never saw the sun. Spring only lasted one week. It was usually the first week of June. Fall also lasted only about one week before the first blizzard. Summer could fluctuate from three to six weeks depending if we were lucky. 

Here in Tennessee we get the best of all four seasons. Though I have to admit spring is my personal favorite. I love this time of year when the daffodils are in bloom. I love waiting for the wild Dogwoods and Redbuds to come alive. We don’t have much in the way of azaleas here but we do have Rhododendrons which are spectacular by any measure and well worth the drive into the mountains to see them in full bloom. 

Another sign of the return of spring happen when the TVA begins to let the water levels rise in the local lakes. Life begins to emerge from its winter hibernation. Wildflowers are in abundance everywhere you look. One night you would swear that your front yard was brown and then overnight it is suddenly appears a verdant green. 

So much in nature reminds you of the sheer abundance of God’s creation. Spring reminds you that what might appear dormant is really never dead. It’s good to live in East Tennessee. We are blessed with so much that most of us tend to take for granted. Enjoy it. Enjoy it all. Get your hands dirty in potting soil. Put in your vegetable gardens. Share a portion of your produce with your neighbors. For God has been especially good to those of us who live in Tennessee. 

Peace, 

Mark+

The month of February is interesting on several levels. First, at 28 days, it is the shortest month of the year. Second, it is the month where we begin to feel the end of winter’s grip is at hand and that warmth of spring is just around the corner. Finally, for those of us who are Christians, the Season of Epiphany guides us to make way for the Season of Lent.

There is something comforting about the predictable seasonal cycles in life that we experience. Winter will give way to spring. Spring will give way to summer. Summer will give way to the fall. And finally, fall will usher in winter to complete the cycle. The same is true with our faith. Advent leads to Christmas. The 12 Days of Christmas lead to Epiphany. Epiphany brings us to Lent. Lent begins with Ash Wednesday and thus we engage with the traditional Lenten practices of prayer, fasting, and giving alms.

In South Louisiana, the time after January 6th through Ash Wednesday (this year it is February 22nd) is marked by King Cakes, colorful beads, parades in the streets, and pure unbridled revelry. It culminates with Mardi Gras, which means Fat Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday and the somber start of 40 days (not counting Sundays) of Lent. Lent is a time of penitence. It is meant to be a time of deep reflection. It is an opportunity to get our lives back on track once again and press forward. Lent is also a season to remove the bad habits that have creeped into our lives this past year. It’s like hitting the spiritual reset button so to speak.

People are prone to take on all types of traditional Lenten disciplines in hopes of ending a few bad habits and creating some new good habits. Some will give up alcohol, sweets, or red meat. Some will take on reading the Bible. Others begin modest exercise regimens to develop better health. I personally believe that small incremental changes verses large dramatic changes have the best chance for bringing about lasting change. 

Here is what I’m going to suggest for Lent, 2023. The worst of the pandemic is now behind us. Come back to church. Get out of bed on Sunday morning for the six Sundays in Lent and go to church. For a faith community to thrive we need to be intentional about being present with each other. It’s time to come back to church.

Two years of dealing with the COVID virus caused new habits to replace familiar habits. Let’s use the Season of Lent to create something new together. It’s not possible to go back in time and relive the past. It is possible to take the lessons in life that we’ve learned and strive for something better. This year, make a commitment of creating a new habit of being present on Sunday mornings here at All Saints’. For just six Sundays, come back to church.

Peace, Mark+

Another New Year has arrived. It will take me a couple of weeks to adjust to writing 2023 instead of 2022 for the year. The calendar is mostly a tool used to simply mark time. It helps us keep track and remember the important events in the world and in our own lives.

In my parent’s generation, people wanted to know where you were on December 7, 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked? Some twenty-eight years later the defining question being asked was, where were you on July 20, 1969, when the astronauts landed on the moon? A date, a time, an event in history, all help us to keep track of our place in God’s creation.

In my own lifetime, 1976 marked our nation’s Bicentennial. It also happened to be when I graduated from Captain Shreve High School, in Shreveport, LA. Six years later, on March 6th, 1982, Liz and I were married in St. James Episcopal Church. Next came our son, Christian, on May 20, 1987, our daughter, Micaela, on November 20, 1989, and finally, our youngest, Mallory, on January 14, 1997, which was during the Great Ice Storm that hit Lake Charles, LA, that year.

For people from Louisiana, we remember August 29, 2005, as the date when Hurricane Katrina came ashore and forever changed life as we knew it. When three inches of snow hit Baton Rouge, in December of 2008, we now proudly refer to it as the Great Blizzard of 08’. On February 1st of 2017, I became the new rector of All Saints’ Episcopal Church in Morristown, Tennessee. Of course I will always remember when my bishop here in East Tennessee, told us to get ready for the COVID-19 pandemic back in March of 2020.

As I reflect on the years that have gone by, I realize that there has never been a year that was just plain ordinary or uneventful. There have always been wonderful times when I have stood in total awe of the power that humanity has to serve the greater good. There have also been those times when my heart has been broken because of humanity’s indifference to the suffering of others.

The year 2023 is indeed a new year. It brings with it the potential for tremendous good and bad. So this new year I have only one resolution to make. I resolve to live into my Baptismal Covenant. This year I want to really seek out Christ in all persons and love my neighbor as myself. This year really I want to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.

While it is true that there is much more to the Baptismal Covenant, I’ve chosen to focus on the last two promises. As I see it, those two alone are more than enough to keep me busy for the whole of 2023.

Peace, Mark+

November 27 marked the first Sunday in the Season of Advent, 2022. We shifted over from our primary lectionary lessons from Luke in Year C to Matthew in Year A. We have changed from the seasonal liturgical color of green used after Pentecost, to the soothing color of Advent blue. In addition we shifted the Eucharistic Prayers that we use on Sunday. At the 8:00 Rite One service we now use Eucharistic Prayer I, instead of Prayer II. At our 10:30 Rite Two service we are using Prayer B instead because it has a more incarnational tone to it than Prayer A. We put away the Gloria for a few weeks in favor of the Kyrie and at the end of communion in Rite Two we now use the second post communion prayer.

So why is there so much shuffling around with the order of worship? It’s a lot to take in for someone not familiar with the Episcopal Church and our liturgical forms of worship. Can’t we just figure out what works and stick with it Sunday after Sunday? The quick answer to that question is…no.

We are a people of faith where the way we worship is a true reflection of what we believe. In Latin, it is said; lex orandi, lex credendi. We tell the story of our Christian faith by how we worship together throughout the entire year. We are a liturgical worshipping community. We use colors and symbols to enhance how we tell our story to others.

Our story begins with a four-week season of preparation we know as Advent leading to Christmas Day. Like the familiar carol reminds us, there are Twelve Days of Christmas, ending with the Day of Epiphany on January 6th. Depending on when Easter is set, the length of the Season of Epiphany varies before giving way to 40 days of Lent. Easter is determined by the first Sunday after the full Moon that falls on or after the spring equinox. Then of course there are the 50 days of Easter tide leading to Pentecost, Trinity Sunday, and the long green season after Pentecost. Which brings us right back to Advent once again.

The foundation of our Christian Story is cyclical. However, the experience of our Christian Story is cumulative. This is why so many of us have our own family traditions connected with this time of year. Certain music must be played while decorating. Special food is cooked and shared with family and friends. People gather to watch classic movies like, It’s a Wonderful Life, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, the Christmas Story, and now this year, the Christmas Story 2.

The point is that telling the story is central to our very being. Certain repetitive acts serve to enhance our understanding of how God became human flesh and lived among us. As we slowly move through the weeks on the calendar, we mark important events and milestones that help up tell the story. When we get to the end of the story on Christ the King Sunday, we pause for a brief moment and then we begin again. The unique narrative of the Christian story is that it is both never ending and one that is constantly evolving.

Last Sunday was the first Sunday of Advent – Year A. And so here we are. Let us begin once again.

Mark+

It’s no great secret that many secular holidays and religious holidays appear right next to each other on the calendar. The culture wars have been around a lot longer than most people realize. The Church has done its best to obliterate the pagan roots of many holidays by instituting religious holidays close by. Thus, it comes as no real surprise that All Hallows Eve, aka Halloween, falls on October 31st, while the Feast of All Saints’ falls on November 1st. Just to pile on a bit, next the church placed All Souls’ Day on November 2nd. It certainly makes for a crowded three days of festivities. The religious world often competes with secular influences.

While All Saints’ Day has been traditionally observed on the 1st of November, no matter which day it might fall during the week, the Church has deemed it to be of such importance that it should also be observed on the following Sunday if November 1st falls on a weekday. Our Book of Common Prayer makes the designation quite clear. So this year while All Saints’ falls on a Tuesday, we will observe our patronal feast on Sunday, November 6th.

We are also doing something new this year with the observance of All Souls’ Day. In most faith communities All Souls’ Day is known as the Commemoration of the Faithful Departed. All Souls Day … is a time when we particularly remember those who have died. The prayers appointed for that day remind us that we are joined with the Communion of Saints, that great group of Christians who have finished their earthly life and with who we share the hope of resurrection from the dead. — Bays & Hancock 2012, p. 128

For the past four years I have been serving on the Board of Serenity House here in Morristown. Serenity House is part of Friends of Hospice. The mission of Serenity House is to give people a place to die with care and dignity. We are inviting all the families who have had loved ones pass away at Serenity House for a special service, a Day of Remembrance. The Rev. Jason McIntosh, from First Methodist, and the Rev. Sam Schaus, from First Presbyterian, will co-officiate with me.

This special All Souls’ service is meant to be a time of prayer and remembrance. It is hoped that it will remind us of our connectedness to one another is so strong the death is not able to separate us forever. We pray to you for those we love, but see no longer: Grant them your peace; let light perpetual shine upon them; and, in your loving wisdom and almighty power, work in them the good purpose of your perfect will; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Peace, 

Mark+

It happens twice a year here in Morristown. Well at least it happens twice a year in non- pandemic years. We have BBQ in the fall and the spring. The build up for BBQ is slow and gradual. The planning behind the scenes is deliberate and intense. So many moving pieces have to fall into place for a BBQ weekend to be successful. 

We start planning for the next BBQ as soon as the last one wraps up. While the event is still fresh in our minds, we have a postmortem meeting to discuss what went right, what could have gone better, and how we might improve. Then we rest for a couple of months before we get ready for the next BBQ. 

A group of 15 or so faithful parishioners have been meeting for months carefully planning for October 6-8, 2022. This year we had to order a new tent to replace the one the windstorm destroyed last spring. We also made the decision to buy shelves to store equipment inside the church downstairs. We can also use the same shelving to hold orders for our growing corporate sales. 

A dozen people met a couple weeks ago on a Saturday morning to brew 110 gallons of All Saints’ BBQ sauce. We started at 8:00 AM and finished around 1:00PM. Under the leadership of Bob Harmon the whole event went off like clockwork. Bottling the whole inventory of sauce took place last week. 

Careful calculations were made and then checked and rechecked to order the required 6000 lbs. of pork butts, slaw makings, beans, and all the serving containers. Here again we are grateful for Bill Connellee for his amazing attention to detail to get these orders in on time. Susie Carter is our Queen of Slaw and Brooke White is our Queen of Baked Beans. The production of both BBQ sides require the coordination of numerous volunteers. 

John Hutchins and Udo Wender are the two pit masters who oversee the all-night flipping and sauce basting of the pork on Thursday and Friday. Two shifts of trustees help with the labor of turning the pork butts every hour. Countless wheel barrels full of hard wood scraps are hauled and carefully turned into coals that slowly smoke and cook the pork butts. When the meat comes off the pit there is an army of volunteer workers waiting and ready to grind the meat, weigh it and package it. Some of it is made into sandwiches and plate dinners. 

Inside the parish hall cardboard has been put down on the floor to protect it from all the constant back and forth traffic. Patty Kirkley & Kathy Jones-Terry head up tracking the Corporate sales. John Litz lets us borrow his gator to haul cooked meat up the hill. There is a beehive of activity constantly bringing out food and supplies to the tent where the sales are made. Of course we’ve gone high tech with a point of sales ordering system that allows us to keep track of everything thanks to Skeet Jernigan. Inside the church office Lynne Ann Anderson has been taking orders for a couple of weeks and that weekend works overtime to account for all the sales. 

Jack Fishman graciously spreads the word about All Saints’ BBQ through the Citizen Tribune and Anne Ross uses digital media and the Chamber to do the same. Carolyn Dean works with Tribune on placing our ads. The wardens of the parish, Howard Mauney and Colleen Andrews, have been tirelessly working behind the scenes for months, “herding the cats,” all the while listening to complaints and suggestions. The job is never ending and it’s always a work in progress. 

At some point you begin to see that this is really much more than a twice a year fundraiser. It’s a community of faith coming together with the goal a common purpose. It’s a labor of love that serves the wider community of Morristown. It brings us all closer together and let’s people know who we are. Before coming to Morristown I never really thought that BBQ could be sacramental. Having witnessed firsthand how much goes into each All Saints’ BBQ event, I can now see it all in a new light. 

Mark+ 

I’m sure it is the engineer in me that is attracted to all of those quasi-reality television shows that feature old classic cars. I especially like the shows that discover barn-find cars that have been hidden away in storage for two or three decades or in some cases even more. There is something compelling about seeing a rare muscle car that somebody parked in the 70’s or 80’s and walked away and just left it only to see it be rediscovered in the 2020’s.

If the classic barn-find is not covered with a protective cloth then it is often covered in a thick layer of dust and dirt. Usually the car is buried under piles of stuff that have been resting on the hood, roof, and trunk. So these items need to be removed. Often the tires have dry rotted and have long since gone flat. So they might not hold air.

There is a meticulous process for verifying the status of the classic car. VIN numbers are checked against engine block numbers. Any documenting papers are also checked to verify the history and collectability of the car. Old gas needs to be emptied from the gas tank. All engine fluids and filters need to be replaced. A new battery will need to be installed. Then everyone holds their breath to see if the engine has ceased up or will it turn over. Being able to turn over is crucial for bringing life back to this barn-find car.

Science says, “What you don’t use, you lose.” This is to say when we stop using something it immediately begins to atrophy. This is what has happened to us during the two-year pandemic. So many things that were a regular part of life went on hold. Ministries we relied upon ceased. The rules for what it means to live in community with each other changed overnight. Now that we are beginning to emerge from the Covid pandemic we are faced with the task of “restarting the car” that has been sitting idle for more than two years.

Part of the process for restarting up of a church includes a good measure of discernment. Do I really want to keep doing this? Is this particular ministry something I want to continue doing? Maybe I would rather change something out and replace it with something better? Will I even continue to use this “church” for the same tasks or will I now need it for something completely different?

In a post pandemic world we are rediscovering what it means to be the Church in 2022. Like a classic car, certain built-in features and options may no longer be relevant for the Church of the future. We are going to have to reimagine what the mission of the Church will look like moving forward. It might be leaner. It might be smaller. It might have to be more flexible and learn how to adjust to new demands. All this means we most likely will be able “restart the car” without too much effort. But it also means that once we have it up and running again that we might have a few “extra left over parts” that are no longer required to make the car work.

When it comes to restarting a church that has been dormant for the past two years we will discover that some things will be left behind. We will learn what is really necessary and what it is that really want to do moving forward into the future. The mission will remain pretty much the same. We will spread the Good News of Jesus Christ. Only now, how we go about spreading the gospel might seem different because the church we are no longer looks very much like what we used to be.

Though as long as it still gets the job done, then I say, “Thanks Be to God!”

Mark+

This is not easy for me to admit. I’ve struggled with this point of theology for many years. I’ve always held that when it comes to the Body of Christ there are indeed many parts but we still belong to the same One Body. Sadly, it would appear that the unity found in the Body might no longer exist.

Jesus the Christ: my Lord and Savior, the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, the Good Shepherd who searches for the lost sheep, the one who Redeems us all by the blood of the cross, the wise Rabbi who taught his disciples by parables; that Jesus always showed compassion for those who suffered.

When Jesus saw the multitude exhausted and hungry, he fed 5000 of them. No questions asked. When Jesus encountered the blind, the lame, those with leprosy, he had compassion for them even the outsiders. He never wondered if they deserved their situation, he just healed them all. Compassion is the ability to feel the pain that others are feeling. There is a profound sense of belonging to each other that allows us to draw close enough to recognize and acknowledge our common humanity. Even when Jesus was being crucified on the cross he showed compassion when he said, “ Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.”

I admit that I am troubled with the declining amount of compassion that can found in our world. I’m troubled by how easily some among us dismiss the suffering of others. There is growing evidence that many believe if bad things happen to you, then you must have brought it on yourself and thus you must deserve it.

When we remove basic compassion from our lives we allow ourselves to objectify those who are different from us and no longer see them as children of God who were created in the image of God. This racism is easily excused. Sexism is allowed. Homophobia is casually overlooked. Tribalism is used as a cover for all manner of evil acts.

Thankfully, there are still some Christians who believe that compassion is a defining trait of the faith. Sadly, far too many Christians are unable to show compassion for those who suffer. When Mahatma Gandhi was once asked about Jesus he said, “I like your Christ, I do not like your Christians. Your Christians are so unlike your Christ.” For those of us who follow Jesus, it’s time for us to show the world that our faith is grounded in compassion.

Peace, Mark+

One of the guiding principles of my priesthood has always been: “If I have to choose between right thought/ dogma and right relationships, then I’ll choose right relationships every time.” Time and time again over the history of the church, official church dogma has failed us. It has always been the relationships that have endured. I’m pretty sure this is why Jesus put so much emphasis on us living into the Great Commandment, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your mind, and all your strength. Then love your neighbor as yourself.” It’s always been about relationships. 

At the ripe old age of 64, I’m beginning to see a deeper understanding of living into the Great Commandment. Less stuff and more memories. I’ve always believed once you have food, clothing, shelter and transportation covered, then anything else is extra. 

My wife and I have told our adult children we no longer want or need anymore stuff. Instead of sending us a gift, call us or send a card with a handwritten note for birthdays, mother’s day or father’s day. We cherish memories of those we love much more than we care for our material possessions. 

It’s actually rather freeing to walk away from the stuff. If I give away the stuff, I no longer have to worry about taking care of it. If I decline the additions of more possessions in my life, then I’m free to go where I want, when I want, with whom I want. 

This June 18th, I will mark my 28th anniversary in Holy Orders. By my counting, I’ve baptized more than 650 people (mostly babies), officiated at the weddings of more than 480 couples, and presided over the funerals for more than 500 souls. Each one of those is a memory that I care deeply about. 

In my desk at the office, all four filing drawers are filled to the top with letters and notes that I’ve kept over the years. Most of them are personal thank you notes for baptisms, weddings, and funerals. I’m blessed to have a vocation where I am allowed to be present at the holiest times in peoples’ lives. As such, I’ve kept each of those notes, letters, and cards as a reminder of why I was set apart with my ordination. 

There are those days when my heart is heavy. There are days when I wonder if the church and my priesthood can really make a difference for a world that is so divided and so broken. When that happens, I open up one of the four filing drawers in my desk. I randomly pull out a handful of cards and letters. Usually that is about a half a dozen of them. Then I open them up and begin to reread them. 

Instantly, I’m transported back in time. I connect the name to the face; the face to the place and circumstances; the place and circumstances to the story of how we originally met. Whatever doubts I might have had about my priesthood, they fade quickly away. Those memories of people in my life bring me comfort and help me to focus and move forward once again. So now I can easily leave behind all the stuff. On the other hand, the many memories of a shared humanity where paths in life have crossed and touched our souls, those will stay with me forever. It has taken me a lifetime to get here, but you can keep all the stuff. I’m more than content to remain connected to people and my memories. 

Fr. Mark 

There have been numerous times in my life when even after giving my very best effort I came up short. I didn’t come in first place. I didn’t win the blue ribbon or hoist above my head the coveted golden trophy. I used all the resources at my disposal along with my outside of the box imagination and still I missed the mark.

Yet, as long as I really knew that I had given my best effort I was content. As long as I knew in my heart if I were to replay the situation before me over and over again, the outcome would remain the same, I could live with that. You see, there is no shame in giving all that you have for something you dearly believe in. There is no shame in trying your absolute hardest and still falling short of accomplishing your original goal.

Which is why with recent events in the news, I’m left struggling. Is this really our best? We just crossed the million-person mark for lives lost to COVID-19. A million is a lot of anything. We fought over vaccines, the wearing of masks, and social distancing. Some said it was all a hoax and the body tally kept increasing. Others said it will go away when the weather warms up. Now we wonder how did we allow ourselves to get to this point? Why did we let our pride, our fears, and complete ignorance, inflict such damaging losses on this, the most powerful nation the world has ever known?

Then over the last two weeks we’ve all watched in horror as two mass shootings have once again wreaked carnage in a grocery store and an elementary school. The media covers the aftermath like a blanket. Our elected officials send up the usual thoughts and prayers. Many of us are outraged to live in a country where there are more mass shootings that days in the year. As for me, I have to ask, “Is this really our best?”

I understand the deeply polarized world in which we are living. I know how tribal we have become. Our leaders have become experts at exploiting our fears and hurts to raise billions of dollars for the next election cycle, though in terms of any real action nothing ever changes. The list just gets longer: Columbine, Red Lake, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois, Sandy Hook Elementary, Marjory Stoneman Douglas, Santa Fe, Oxford, and now Robb Elementary joins the ever growing list of mass shootings.

Is just maintaining the status quo really our very best effort? Is doing nothing the preferred choice instead of engaging the difficult work of finding compromises? Has it now become acceptable for us just to send our children off to school and let them take their chances in life’s lottery that they might be the next shooting victims?

I believe that to date, we have not yet given these issues our very best effort in finding new and better solutions. I know that we can do better. There is certain to be another future wave of COVID that will take even more lives. Without any meaningful changes in how we handle firearms in this country we are certain to have more and deadlier mass shootings inside of our schools.

We need more of us who are willing to offer our very best to find new answers for entrenched problems plaguing our nation. What we have given so far, simply isn’t enough. To break the vicious cycle in which we find ourselves stuck, it will take all of our best.

Father Mark +