3 October 2019
ONE. I’m here in Center City Philadelphia sitting in my 4thfloor aerie of an historic hotel room, looking out of the tiny, single dormer window to the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, which, when it was built in 1922, was the longest single span bridge in America.
I’m here for the 250thanniversary gala of the founding of the Widow’s Corporation, a benevolent society that serves Episcopal clergy people and their families. Ironically, while I am here to celebrate this historic event, I am missing the kick off of a 275thanniversary- the founding of our own St. James in Lancaster. Their year-long celebration begins this week with an exceptional museum display of the Social History of their church and its ministry through the years; the exhibit is at LancasterHistory (230 N. President Ave, Lancaster). I got to see a preview of the exhibit last week- it is fabulous! Go!)
In our diocese the Widow’s Corporation helps to pay uncovered or exceptional medical costs for our clergy and families and also supports several wellness groups designed to promote the mental, physical and spiritual health of our clergy. We have received a great gift from this organization and I am honored to serve on its board. In order to properly fete this anniversary, there is a three-day program filled with concerts, dinners, lectures, tours and seminars. I’m here for just one and a half of those days. Last night we enjoyed a concert of the Choral Arts Philadelphia and the Bach Collegium of Philadelphia held in the historic St. Peter’s Church followed by a late-night garden dinner at the Powel house. Samuel Powel was the colonial and post-revolutionary mayor of Philadelphia. Martha and George Washington celebrated their 25thwedding anniversary at the Powel House. I wandered around the empty rooms of the colonial house last night- a special treat to have just a small group of us invited to tour the house- and thought of the numbers of conversations that must have taken place within these walls during the years in which our country was just taking shape.
This morning I went on a three-hour historical walking tour of Philadelphia. We visited Independence Hall; saw the Liberty Bell; walked down 18c. Elfreth’s alley, the nation’s oldest continuously inhabited residential street still preserved with its cobblestones, shuttered storefronts and colonial architecture; we saw Dolly (Dodd) Madison’s home, the Betsy Ross house and, most special of all, we had a special private tour of the home of William White, sometime rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia (where he deftly served a congregation made up of both loyalists and patriots) and later became the first bishop of Pennsylvania and the first Presiding Bishop.
This place is soaked in history. It is the foundation of all that we now enjoy, and it is the genesis of those things that bring us heartbreak- like racism, classism, political messiness; andit is from history that we can harvest our “useable past” (Dwight Zcheieli) for the future.
TWO. Yesterday afternoon, driving here to Philadelphia with another member of our diocese, she asked me: “If you could meet anyone from history, whom would you choose?”
I immediately said, “Besides Jesus?” (she laughed and nodded, yes,). “Then, JS Bach, I suppose, “ I answered. “Or Mozart.” This morning, at breakfast, I added to my list, “Henri Nouwen.” (She had named Martin Luther King Jr. as her choice.)
We long to have conversations with these people because there is something about them- something that made them tick, or that they demonstrated in their own life – that we find inspirational, irresistible and curious. What drove them? What were their challenges, their thoughts, their feelings? When did they want to quit? What kept them moving forward? We ask these things, I think, to learn about them, but even more, to tap into passion and drive and keep ourselves focused on moving ahead.
Why JS Bach? For his brilliance. The constellation of faith, mathematics, and musicality that produced some of the world’s most perfect pieces of beauty.
Mozart? For his drive, his passion, and the creative genius that yielded, also, such beauty in spite of great stress and hardship.
Nouwen? For his compassion, bone deep. His faithfulness, and his ability to have his finger on the pulse of God.
History – the history of people and their work, the history of people and their being.
I want to know, so that I may become.
THREE. My Uncle Pete died last month. My siblings and I came from places afar to join with our cousins outside of Boston. We stood around a small hole in the ground where my cousins laid their father’s ashes next to the graves of their mother, and two other brothers, also my cousins, who have already joined the Saints in Light. We went to the Church and sang hymns (my Uncle’s notes were included in the bulletin giving us encouragement and direction about how to sing each hymn -“with gusto!”… “all of the verses!”) and we heard eulogies, and we prayed prayers, and we cried and shook with laughter at some of the stories recounted in that holy space. \\
My siblings and cousins and I moved up a generation that day. We are now the elders of our family. It weighs a little heavy, but it is undergirded with a foundation, a history, that I cherish. In our family, we claim musicians, poets, suffragettes, a signer of the Declaration of Independence and, (maybe my favorite) Great Aunt Emma who was known to pick up the pigs in her barnyard and carry them around to where she wanted them to be. Our family has its share of tragedies, early deaths, cancer, alcoholism and sadness. And our family has its share of moments of triumph, accomplishments and resilience. We have History. It is Our Story, and it will carry us into the future.
Soon, we are to embark on Shaped by Faith, a diocesan initiative that is going to ask a lot of our congregations and clergy. We are going to look closely at our reality, invite exploration of God’s call to us today, and seek to be creative in re-shaping ourselves for Mission. We have done many great things in our diocese. Our History is so rich. We will celebrate and rejoice, drawing strength for our future together.
History is not just for museums.
It is inspirational, exciting and important.
What do your family stories say about who you are today?
What in your life is consistent with the foundation on which you stand?
What are you changing in your life to create new patterns in the history of you and your people?
We are blessed by those who have gone before, so that we may become.