Dancing from Ashes to Glory!

Hillary Burdette and Bob Whittaker recently shared how important the confirmation process was for their daughter Louella. Louella was recently featured in a Clergy Conversation with Van Williams who was one of her sponsors when she was confirmed by our bishop in Bryn Mawr, along with 9 other young members.

As we celebrate our baptismal promises around the care and nurture of children brought up within the Christian family, this journey to adulthood for one of our members has become a source of inspiration for many of us. I reflect on the dedication of our Godly Play teachers, our lay mentors, former clergy and the relationships between the seven generations who share the same sacred space at St Paul’s. Louella is a fruit of this magical commitment.

Louella and the confirmation class represent this tangible way St. Paul’s has spent a lot of time, talent and treasure on future generations. Fr. Dan and I have the great privilege of moving in and out of your lives, sharing the hopes and fears of one generation for the next. I recently celebrated a life where this 92 year old was baptized, confirmed, married and her father was a choirboy in St Paul’s in the later 19th century. These links with past families of St. Paul’s needs attention and I am also so aware of the lifelong impact of growing up in St Paul’s has had on people who are now my age. Many are leaders in other churches and have taken their place in society – doing really good things. They were shaped by this place.  It is difficult to measure the social impact of a congregation, but one thing is clear, St. Paul’s church continues to have significant social capital in this community. What we do (or don’t do) is noticed. When I hear stories from the past, connect with families who share how important this place has been for them and see what St. Paul’s commitment from one generation to another (to inspire a Louella to do the things she is doing) it cheers my heart.

My sermon on Ash Wednesday reflected on a quote from Fr. Herbert O’Driscoll, who one of the great preachers and storytellers in the church. “Nostalgia is the perversion of memory. Dread is the perversion of hope”. Jesus warns his disciples about the dangers of organized religion and the need to focus on the inner secret nurture of hope, fueled by memory. It is really hard work in the dominant superficial Facebook culture we all live in, where appearances often dominate anything substantial or meaningful. As with individuals, our institutions are very experienced in perverting memory (of what really happened) with the sweet sauce of nostalgia. We are all addicted to nostalgia as we create the perfect little village, the perfect little home, and the perfect parish church, all filled with perfect little families. A longing for church as it used to be….we love the 1950’s when church was full. We love the architecture of mid-century or the great medieval cathedrals that we still mimic. We fill them with robed clergy, choirs and mitres. Why is medieval or Victorian gothic FEEL like church for many of us? Had we and our families actually lived in those eras, I wonder how we would have dealt with the poverty, inequality, the plagues and wars? Imperial Rome and Imperial Britain produced its spectacular architecture and music, but it was not without its crucifixions and sheer inhumanity. So what about NOW?

Our love of television series like Downtown Abbey and the Crown transport us to these golden ages, -Feudalism scrubbed clean of all its systemic injustice, violence and privilege. Nostalgia really is the perversion of memory. As white America struggles to look at the impact of systemic racism, the churches, like St. Paul’s, are largely retreating from the conversation, preferring to create our own Downtown Abbey miniseries and some of our gatekeepers what to pull up the drawbridges. The focus on Lenten dread -the angry God, the personal sins and desires to give up chocolate and alcohol can simply reinforce our institutional escapism. We don’t really want to look too deeply at our participation in the systems and policies that have cause and continue to cause poverty, inequality and racism, sexism, homophobia.

Historically, Lent, as a community experience was never meant to focus on MY personal sins -it was always a moment for the whole community to reflect and think differently about our passive participation in sin and human suffering and how one life =Jesus of Nazareth, changed that. Lent is not about dread, though to the casual observer, it appears more like spiritual flagellation, as we put ashes on our foreheads. I have a different thought for Lent this year. “From ashes to glory” is a phrase I will think about over these next 40 days. I reflect on the story of the African American struggle as I watch Louella and her friends dance the gospel of hope…from ashes to glory. Whatever our future in the world, America, Chestnut Hill might be, the journey from ashes to glory is central to our being and to our shared future. This really is the Gospel the world needs and longs for. Louella is teaching all of us to join the conversation and the dance.

Four Lenten trails… or journeys I recommend right after you watch her video HERE.

“Am I an Episcopalian?” Tuesdays 5.30-6.30 with the clergy, Carroll Sheppard and Van Williams until Easter. All welcome, especially if you have come to St Paul’s in the last few years or you would like to get to know some others.

Wednesday Book Club Join us this Lent as we read The Rev. Canon Kelly Brown Douglas’ Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God. Douglas explores the stand-your-ground laws in the light of recent events through a political theological lens. Douglas is the Canon Theological at Washington National Cathedral and the Dean of Episcopal Divinity School at Union Theological Seminary in NYC. Wednesdays (2/24, 3/3, 3/10, 3/17, 3/24, 3/31) 7PM on Zoom

Indigenous Spirituality  Our virtual retreat leader will be The Rev. LaClaire Atkins. LaClaire graduated from seminary with Rev. Dan and is a member of the South Carolina band of Cherokee. All ages welcome, with a special focus on youth. Dates: 2/28, 3/7, 3/14, & 3/21 Time: 5:00PM-5:30PM on Sunday evenings.

Sacred Ground -local white Churches (safe conversations) from now to July meeting twice a month on how to move forward and repair our institutional barriers to diversity and inclusion. Details here. Vestry, Search Committee, Finance, Property and Stewardship decision-makers are especially welcome and are invited. Registration HERE.

Louella represents the best of St. Paul’s. She and the other confirmation class and their siblings, represent our investing in the future, if our traditions and values are to have any significant role to play. How we all dance, make financial, space, resource, personnel decisions is the Lenten question before us. Good timing as we discern the call of our next spiritual leader!

Will we simply abrogate this responsibility and authority to Louella’s generation, or are we dancing with them and cheering them on?


Albert Ogle