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I Confess

By the Rev. Barbara Mraz

I am out of ideas so I scroll through some my old blogs, wondering if I can recycle one of them. There’s one on FDR, several directly or indirectly about Trump, and many about flowers (lilacs as immigrants, the bliss of gardens), one about feet (mine) and one about house layouts (floor plans). Yes, they were all discussed in a theological framework, and yes, I’m a deacon so I have one foot in the church and one in the world (SO in the world) but they all seem so irrelevant now. Naïve. Clueless about real pain and what can really happen. Each one of them pre-Covid and pre-George Floyd.

To be sure a lot has changed: The belief that the country is immune from massive pandemic and that a woman’s right to choose is an issue that’s been settled. The belief that the people with a record of sexual harassment will not be appointed to the Supreme Court and that masks are only for Halloween or costume parties. The certainty that the nation’s capital will not be stormed by gun-toting, flag-bearing maniacs, spurred on by a sitting president. The idea that we would have no physical contact within our families for twelve months. Virtual church.

It’s no wonder we can’t seem to calm down. At least I can’t.

Some themes endure, like the reality of those who scorn reason and evidence and the insistence by some evangelical Christians that prayer belongs in schools and that law enforcement belongs in the hands of vigilantes.

What you read on epistlesesandepiphanies does not pretend to be an opinion piece in the New York Times or an essay in the New Yorker. Instead these pieces attempt to draw attention to important issues and suggest a connection to the faith. Some provide links to exquisite music (thank you, Craig) while others highlight important events in our community. And okay, so many of my blogs are mini-commercials for coming to church the following Sunday! I admit it! So shoot me! (whoa that expression has to go….)

In this week’s Gospel, Jesus tells the disciples (who often appear to be dunderheads) that they shouldn’t be afraid to asks questions; the Epistle from James warns of the cravings that can destroy us; Proverbs gives the recipe for a perfect wife! (“A capable wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels.” It is actually a wonderful description).

So yay! Church! You should come! Jered, Craig, Jay, Cameron and I will be there to teach you and greet you and Richard has chosen some lovely music. The sermon will contain two pieces of exquisite poetry. Feed your heart. Let go of the demands on your time and just give in to your impulse to simply worship what is bigger and better than you are. Whose very definition is Love.

See you in church.

Barbara

Originally published in the Fall 2021 Mailing.

Dear Friends in Christ,

As we near what we hope and believe is the end of this pandemic wilderness, the struggles of isolation, the losses we’ve endured, and the wrestling with what it all means, it is apparent that each of us is carrying something. Have you felt that too? Have you wondered what it is that you’ve learned, what was left behind, what was gained? This moment of transition is significant and weighty and deserves something that can mark and name it for what it is. In many ways, this moment is not all that dissimilar from the moment of the Israelites crossing out of their long 40 year wandering in the desert. 

In their best selling new release from Wipf & Stock, Crisis & Care: Meditations on Faith and Philanthropy, co-editors and authors Dustin Benac and Erin Weber-Johnson draw parallels from Joshua to now, to this present time of crossing over from the pandemic, the political instability, the divisiveness, the violence of the past four years, as a wilderness experience, making this present moment our own time of crossing over into a new reality. They write: 

“In our haste to find resolution and the comfort of stability, it might be easy to brush past the ‘crossing over’ moment in the narrative. We like to know the end and, so, our imaginations are reluctant to linger in this moment of liminality, rushing instead to the outcome. But, the narrative seems to linger here, pausing to note the manner in which they are to cross over. Joshua invites a newly constituted people to cross the river into a new land, and on the way charges each of the leaders of the twelve tribes to pick up a stone from the river. They are to carry these river rocks with them as weighty markers—as a memorial. And, in fact, these are to be a sign provoking future generations, to ask ‘What do these stones mean?’

 Just as children will ask about Passover so they can hear the story of deliverance from slavery in Egypt…so they will ask about these stones and hear how God dried up the waters of the Jordan River and their safe passage across…They will recount the losses and the grief. They will remember the systems they chose to reject. They will recount how God delivered them from the crises of flood and famine. They will remember God’s faithfulness time after time and, in so doing, reclaim their collective identity as children of God.”

Over the summer, our preachers each week were parishioners who gave voice to that question of “What do these stones mean?” They answered for themselves, and perhaps for you as well, what this time has meant, what the wilderness revealed about our lives, about society, about the church. In many ways the pandemic was more than wilderness, it was an apocalypse, an ending and a revealing. There were some ugly things about the world that were exposed, seen by some of us for the first time – truths about systemic racism, greed, and human suffering and disconnection. There were beautiful revelations too about the resilience of the human spirit, our ability to lean into generosity when called upon, and about our willingness to manifest the abundant and transformative love of God to one another.

So, what does your stone mean? What gift or burden were you given in the pandemic, what learning or wisdom did you receive, what insight or unveiling did you experience, and what are you carrying with you at this late stage in the pandemic? I hope you will take time to pray about this question, to ponder and meditate on it, and to begin answering for yourself what your stone represents. And, then I would like to invite you to set that stone down. 

On September 18 and 25, from 9am to noon, you will have two separate opportunities to come to church and help us in creating our own monument to this past year and a half, marking with stones what this time has meant, how God sustained and supported us, and how we have been shaped and changed by this shared experience of crisis. We will have lots of river rocks delivered to the Holly Street Garden for you to paint, mark, or write on, to capture in stone what we’re all carrying – each and every one of you. We’re calling this collective community art project “Washed, Marked, and Sealed”. 

The week before the project the rocks will be gathered and a group of us will convene together to wash them thoroughly in preparation for your pictures and words to be painted and written on them. After they dry, you will have the opportunity on those two Saturdays to mark them. Then, once each rock has dried, we will seal them to ensure the image or words you’ve inscribed will be there as a lasting reminder. Perhaps you’ve noticed an echo in the language of “Washed, Marked, and Sealed” with the language of baptism. We noticed it too. Call it holy synchronicity or providential, but it was hard to ignore the overlay in these three actions and the ministry of baptism. Each baptism in our tradition begins with a washing, in the waters of the font. Then the celebrant administers the chrism oil, the oil of baptism, in the mark of a cross on the forehead saying “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.” Undoubtedly the Israelites would have noted connections from the crossing over moment at the Jordan and their previous experience of liberation through the waters of the Red Sea in the Exodus. We too draw these parallels in baptism, connecting our own crossing over moment in baptism, from death to new life in Christ, with the same stories of our forebears in faith on the banks of the Red Sea and the Jordan where Jesus himself was baptized. So we gather up rocks washed in the river, mark and seal them, and they will serve as a lasting reminder of our own wilderness experience and God’s providing and sustaining presence with us through it all. 

Both Saturdays will be punctuated by opportunities to share with one another, to reconnect over our own stories and learnings, and around it all will be the words of scripture in the form of the Joshua story helping ground us in the shared narrative of our faith. We hope you’ll make time to join us, to mark this time, to help us remember “what do these stones mean?” as together we cross over into a new way of being church together again. Over the year ahead we will return to these stories and stones and begin to imagine together how we can retain what these stones are teaching us and ensconce that learning in some lasting way in our congregation to last for future generations to ask and learn too how God brought us through.

Faithfully,
Jered+

by Sarah Dull

Giving and loving God, I am made of stories— stories of heartbreak and triumph, stories of love and tragedy, stories of families who belong and families who break, stories of loose ends and new beginnings. I have absorbed stories that live in me like an internal compass, and many that I do not wish to carry at all. But your story remains steadfast: I am loved. I am enough. There is enough for all. Enough. Enough. Enough. May this become my constant refrain. May I believe this is who I am. May I live trusting your holy design. Enough. Enough. Enough. Amen.

Finances have been a central concern for most of us throughout the pandemic – as they often are in life. As we transition to a post-pandemic world, whether we recognize it or not, we carry our stories with us, including our money stories. Perhaps we are living from a story of fear or shame. Or a narrative that the church is dying and no longer relevant. Or a story that our actions won’t have an impact. Or a narrative that we don’t have enough. 

To speak of money is to invite tension into the room. We so quickly want to avoid it. But it’s time we reframe this. Money and possessions are one of the most common topics in scripture; Jesus talked about money more than faith and prayer.

In these stories, Jesus takes all our memories—the ways money has been used to control and the ways money has been used to liberate—and holds a new vision for us to behold: the kingdom of God. Here there is a new economy. Jesus takes bread and wine. He divides it up and gives a bit to everyone—to be fed, to have a taste of the new economy, to share that which is God’s in the first place.

Starting September 12, for four weeks, the 9am Faith Forums will explore God’s money story of liberation and justice. We will recall scriptures where Jesus teaches about money, power, and possessions and what he is showing us about faithful stewardship. Using scripture and art, this series encourages us to transform our discipleship practices into more full expressions of who we are and what we believe.

Each week has a theme; Remember, Release, Reimagine, and Restore. A member of St. John’s faith formation commission will present a passage of scripture and offer their reflections as it relates to the theme of the week. An artist from St. John’s community will present art and offer their reflections as it relates to the scripture and theme of the week. On the Wednesday before each forum we will email the parish with the scripture and art so you can meditate on them. During the forums, we encourage you to share your reflections.

In addition, there is a parish art project, “Washed, Marked, Sealed”. On September 18 and 25, from 9am to noon, there will be two separate opportunities to come to church and help create our own testament to this past year and a half. We will mark with stones what this time has meant, how God sustained and supported us, and how we have been shaped and changed by this shared experience of crisis. We will permanently capture in stone what we are all carrying.

Perhaps you have not before experienced art and stewardship combined. Maybe you’ve even thought of these subject matters as incongruous or unrelated. However, art-making, like discipleship, is a spiritual practice. The connective and prophetic power of art helps us join our hearts with our hands, our faith with our lives, and our mess with our God.

Try it now. Meditate on Exodus 16:1-18 (Manna in the desert).

Consider Erin Weber-Johnson’s reflection on this passage:

The theme of God supplying enough found here in this text is a recurring theme throughout the bible including Jesus’ feeding of the thousands. Here we see a people enslaved for generations moving from an economy of fear and deprivation to one of provision in the wilderness. Strikingly, God provides a concept for what “enough” looks like and guides the faith community into claiming a day of Sabbath, a practice that simultaneously provides rest and guards against hoarding.

Within this text readers can hear a faith community’s changing narrative of money—moving from one which Walter Brueggemann describes as “the endless rat race for sufficiency,” to that of living with enough. We are called both to individual and collective remembrance of our relationship to God and to reflect on our relationship to money.

Meditate on this digital painting Enough by Hanna Garrity, inspired by Exodus 16:1-18 (Manna in the desert).

Consider the artist’s reflection:

We have enough… I have been contemplating this phrase for the last two years. We recently moved. In the process, we downsized. How could so many things that I remembered paying money for now become so irrelevant that I would choose to put them in the trash? My Honda Accord had to hold our bags, the inflatable bed, the two children, and me. Sitting on my front stoop, I slowly realized that I had to send everything else to the dump. I had two hours.

1-800-GOT-JUNK was scheduled out for days, so was College Hunks Moving Junk. Glen from Stevens City was available. For $50/load, he would take everything left in the house in the back of his blue pickup. Four loads. I had always contributed one trash can per week to the landfill. This was different. It was jarring. I began to feel lighter, but heavier at the same time. Why had I purchased all of these things? Enough is better than more, more, more.

In this painting, I have overlaid my empty hand with sets of circles. The guilloché-style patterning is used by treasuries all over the world to secure paper currency by making it too intricate to counterfeit. Here, guilloché circles represent my deeply personal relationship with the money that supports our lives. Some money falls past my hand, some into my hand. Moses advises the people: take only what you need, one omer each. In this piece, the idea of enough money is layered with the idea of enough sustenance through manna. The manna is portrayed by another set of circles, reminiscent of the wafers that are used in some traditions as Communion bread. Enough. Thank you, God, for providing enough, that I would take what I need.

Meditate on the poem Nickels by Sarah Are.

My grandfather pressed a nickel into my hand—
One of those small silver circles
That countries are built on
And people live and die for.
I cupped my eight-year-old palm around it
As if that gift could become a part of me.
And once I had blessed it,
And once I had tossed it,
And once wishes had been made on heads and tails,
It was time to let it go.

I laid that cool silver circle
That countries are built on
And people live and die for
On the railroad tracks.
And after the train passed,
I marveled at how something so small
Could endure so much
And still be here at all.
But I guess you could say the same for me.

Offer your reflections on the scripture and art. If you need help getting started, consider these prompting questions:

  • In your own life, when have you felt like the Israelites, wandering and doubting you would have enough?
  • What is most striking to you about the painting? About the poem?
  • How do you discern what is enough?
  • What emotions emerge for you when you observe the painting? Read the poem?
  • What does enough money, food, time and resources look like for you?
  • Do you identify with the artist’s reflections?
  • Can you determine when you have too much or too little?
  • How does hearing the artist’s statement influence how you see the art?
  • Identify a time in your life that felt like receiving manna—perhaps this was an unexpected financial gift, nourishing time spent with those you love, or a beautiful meal shared with family. What did it feel like to receive this?
  • How is the imagery cohesive with the scripture?
  • How do manna moments, like the ones you have identified in your life, impact your faith and your stewardship practices?
  • If you were to paint this text, what imagery, colors, and details might you include? What poem would you write?

The best stories captivate and transform us—they change how we live. Thinking about God’s money story should be liberating, inviting, and transformative. This stewardship season, we invite you to remember, release, reimagine, and restore your money stories so that we can write the one God is begging us to live into.

God, author of salvation, write a story of money in my heart that remembers your faithfulness from generation to generation. God of Jubilee, upend my internal narratives about my worth and security. Gather me into your holy imagination of what is possible. Invite me into a new way of being. God, your love restores souls. Fill my story with healing, grace, and renewed life. Thank you for breathing in us new ways of being. Amen.

“No subject is too difficult to talk about. You just have to know where the pain is.” Leonard Bernstein.

Just when we thought it was over, it isn’t. The disappointment is palpable.

Kids will still mask in school — and the poor teachers will have to enforce it, and the rest of us are back to masks, distancing, and hand sanitizer.

There is a visceral shudder from constantly hearing words like “Delta variant.” I am even tired of dear Dr. Fauci and of those endless, droning statistical reports about hospitalizations and deaths at 2:00 on MPR.

Thirty percent of the workforce says that they will either seek a new job or need massive alterations in the one they are to stay.

Air travel is done more reluctantly and more expensively than ever before.

Virtual healthcare is a reality.

The Great Minnesota Get Together seems as dangerous as Sturgis.

The people who are still “waiting” to get vaccinated keep hurting all the rest of us and our rage grows.

And for many of us, church just feels different.

In person, it’s the masks and how difficult they can make it to have conversations and just to breathe. It’s good to see people but we can’t really SEE them. And we have no service sheets and offering plates are way in the back of the sanctuary. And the peace is passed with elbow bumps or with names from the UTube link that Craig reads off his phone. You need to sign in with your address in case contact tracing is necessary. And little kids who are as yet unvaccinated — we miss them.

We even miss funerals and the opportunity to celebrate a life and grieve the loss.

And of course, zooming the service is different in pretty much every way. (But the breakdowns are less frequent now).

If you go to church to escape all topics Covid, good luck because what we have in this Sunday’s Gospel reading: A DISCUSSION OF HANDWASHING.

I kid you not.

Of course, it’s a lot more than that. The Pharisees basically ask Jesus, “Who do you think you are to mess with TRADITION?” We will consider what the traditions are that we most value — and what we would be willing to give up for something bigger. This is exciting but dangerous ground because what we love we usually love a lot.

It is critical that we keep talking to each other in every way we can and that we keep showing up for it is the unvoiced opinion, the hidden grudge or hurt that often causes people to take drastic action and to leave a relationship, an institution, a job, or a church.

Bishop Mariann Budde points out that “the person walking away from you can’t hear you.” I would add that in some sense the silent person, the passive person, always “wins” the argument because there is nothing you can do with failure to engage. It ends everything.

Yes, church is different but that is also a good thing. It is a time when traditions can be examined and embraced or discarded and when we need those beautiful faces behind the wretched masks more than ever.

But we have to stay in the game, talk to each other even in our pain and frustration, and keep washing our hands! Oh wait, in the Gospel Jesus says not to… well, of course there’s more. …

See you in church.

Barbara

Last month Junior Warden, Holly Weinkauf, shared her experiences of running a small business. One paragraph in particular caught my attention

“My focus at Red Balloon isn’t on money – it’s on the people, my staff, the customers, the books, the experiences, our priorities, our values. At the same time I do have to make sure we are managing our resources in a way that gives us the oxygen to do the things that are important.”

This is very similar to how we balance our finances and our faith at St. John’s. As Holly’s Aunt Nanci advised, “Money certainly isn’t everything, but boy, it’s right up there with oxygen!” We often need money to live into our mission, God’s mission, but it should never eclipse that mission. This month I invited my colleague, Richard Gray, Director of Music at St. John’s to share an example from the last year-and-a-half when he and St. John’s leadership had such an opportunity: to use the funds donated by parishioners and his own ingenuity to sustain musicians and life giving music in our community.

Like I imagine many of you do, I believe to the core that the music and fine arts are a necessity and not a decoration. In many cases, they are the life, breath, and heartbeat of any community, organization, or group. The Twin Cities alone are known for a significant number of choral groups, professional orchestras, chamber music ensembles, sacred music programs, and so much more. Inside any musical event, you will find culture within the history of the pieces being performed or offered. You will find diversity within the music of those who wrote it. You will find history based on experiences the performer shares that they’ve had, teachers they have learned from, and what opportunities they have had for studies. Within a church service, you will see how music relates to the liturgy and readings being offered, or the sermon that has already been advertised. All of this is a necessary form of communication that simply gives us life and gives us breath.

Throughout the pandemic, music and fine arts were greatly impacted. Concerts and large services were cancelled and rehearsal schedules that professional musicians counted on were taken off the books. Musicians who were already in the midst of national and international travel for serious performances, with contracts signed, needed to change plans, without knowing if these jobs, and the corresponding income, had any plans to be rescheduled.

At St. John’s it was important to us and important to me that we kept up everything that we could to continue to financially support our paid musicians; this includes our eight staff singers who supplement and support the volunteer parish choir as well as our children’s and handbell director. Through no fault of their own, our original plans for their musicianship were cancelled. Thinking as fast as possible, we managed to address our needs virtually and continued to provide compensation that our musicians would have received should the pandemic have not happened. Rather than singing with the choir or directing the children’s groups, together we scheduled online lectures, classes, written reflections on performances and pieces of music, and kept everybody musically moving in creative ways.

Financially supporting musicians means not only supporting their time but supporting their training and experience. I am grateful for the ways that this parish showed that support because it benefited so many people. It benefited our volunteer choir members, who learned about subjects including vocal technique, spirituals and gospel music, Gregorian chant, shape-note singing, and Anglican repertoire. It benefited our bell choir, who learned about the practice of bell ringing through resources and discussions, even away from the bell table. It benefited our parish, who continued to sing, hear, and witness such beautiful singing from our cantors each Sunday while we were digital and virtual. We continued to hear our beloved and favorite hymns as well as new ones across different hymnals and musical styles. We heard beautiful solo pieces from the individual musicians’ repertoire witnessing their experiences and histories as trained musicians.

Most importantly, the continued support allowed us to be right where we are now; back in the choir room, at the bell table, in the chancel and ready to begin another in-person year—a year full of services, Choral Evensong offerings, Lessons and Carols, and a grand Holy Week & Easter. The support kept us together and things didn’t stop. Normally, rehearsals and musical preparations by the choir are not done over the summer; however, we have changed that this year and witnessed great eagerness and willingness to go above and beyond in preparing to bring back in-person life and breath through music.

Thank you for your caring and resourceful leadership Richard! And thank you to our parishioners for your continued support during this pandemic. I have heard from many people that they have been sustained in various ways by St. John’s. And it is you, our members, who provide the oxygen to do that.

Understanding and navigating our society’s financial systems as followers of Christ can be challenging. Maybe that is why Jesus talked about money and possessions more than prayer and faith. As with most spiritual practices, we gain strength when we share with and support each other. To write a post, offer resources, submit an article, or do an interview please contact Executive Administrator, Sarah Dull. You never know who needs to hear your story.

Only the Lonely

by the Rev. Barbara Mraz

Following an excellent array of lay preachers, you’ll be hearing from me this Sunday. Like Johanna, Nathan, Greg, Mary and Holly, I will be referencing some of the things I learned during Covid. Most of these preachers have spoken, at least in part, about their appreciation for the community that is St. John’s and what it has done for them. Each one of their sermons have, in different ways, taught me, moved me and helped me.

Looking honestly at my experience during the past fifteen months, however, I have to say that some of the things I have learned are not all positive. For one thing, I have learned more than I wanted to know about loneliness.

It can be embarrassing to admit that you’re lonely, like saying you don’t have many friends and maybe even “no life.” If you live alone, it’s easy to appear pitiful. It doesn’t help much to say that loneliness is an “epidemic” because it is highly
personal.

Part of the reason for our loneliness, I will suggest, is that we have placed high boundaries around ourselves and our lives with strict protocols about when we are and are not “available” to others. Some of this is good mental health, some of it is a kind of cultural hyper-protectiveness that is less healthy.

On Sunday, there will be a brief musical introduction to the sermon in honor of King David (and Leonard Cohen), more music, some dramatic Scripture, the Sacrament we have missed for so long, and we will worship God who gives us life.

See you in church
Or you’ll see us on the screen….

Barbara

(Yes, the title here is the same as that old Roy Orbison song from the Sixties….which I can’t get out of my mind, unfortunately.)

Holly at Red Balloon Bookshop

I have known and worked with Holly Weinkauf since I first started at St. John’s in 2012. She has served in several leadership positions and is currently serving as St. John’s Junior Warden. Understated, patient, kind, and faithful, Holly has been a pleasure to work with as well as an inspiration for me. I admire how Holly balances her business, family, and church life. I asked her to share her experience running her own business and any connections with her faith.

Ten years ago, in the summer of 2011, I did something that some found exciting, many thought crazy and a few thought was both exciting and crazy. I bought an independent bookstore.

Keep in mind, this was at a time when for many years, more independent bookstores were closing than opening. It was at a time when ebook sales were skyrocketing and many were wondering if the physical printed book would soon be found only in archives. Oh, and also during this time, many analysts were predicting the collapse of the entire retail brick and mortar landscape as more and more shopping moved online. And yes, it was during this time that I bought a brick and mortar bookstore.

Deciding to own and run Red Balloon Bookshop was not a decision I came to lightly or naively. While I had experience in the world of books, I had no experience running a business. So I spent time in conversation with others, learning more about the bookstore business in general and this business in particular. I evaluated my resources of both time and money. I knew there was plenty of uncertainty in this world of bookselling and that I would be taking a financial risk. I knew that I had much to learn and even more to do. I also knew that if I did this, I would be investing in a well loved community bookstore that had been making a difference in the lives of kids and families for years. I was excited about being part of that and excited about imagining what was possible.

During that time I spent many Sundays in the pews at St. John’s sitting with this opportunity and decision. As we like to say in the Episcopal Church – it was my period of discernment. On one of those Sundays, a sermon seemed to be particularly directed at me. What I remember most about that sermon was maybe the exact quote or maybe a variation of a quote from theologian Frederick Buechner “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet” Listening, I knew that for me the bookstore was the place where my deep passion (for books, people and community) and the community’s need (for this bookstore) met.

So I took a leap of faith.

For a minute, let’s think about that word, faith, along with a few other words often used in a spiritual context – awe and love come to mind. I recently read John Green’s new book The Anthropocene Reviewed (which I give 5 stars – and if you’ve read the book or have listened to the podcast, you understand). In his chapter on wonder, he speaks to our ability and willingness to do the work that awe requires. It’s not that I didn’t know this before, but that line made me think more and more about how faith, awe and love don’t just happen, we need to be open to possibilities and willing to do the work. So when I think back to that first “leap of faith” I also think about how that went hand and hand with my ability, willingness and discipline to do the work that this particular leap of faith required.

So, I took a leap of faith… and I also got to work.

I worked on clarifying our values and priorities, who we wanted to be and why. These values and priorities have evolved a bit over the years, but have essentially remained the same. Our values include being a place where kids from all backgrounds are seen, valued and belong; being a convening space, a place where we connect people of all ages to books and authors and in the process, build community; and a place where my staff who share a love of books and understand the power of books can have meaningful work and thrive. All these things help us be better people for each other. Through my Episcopalian lens, I know all these things help move us to becoming a beloved community.

I also quickly learned that for me running a bookstore means I have to navigate and balance my ideals and values with the hard financial truth that this is a tough business with razor thin margins. In order to do the things we do at Red Balloon, all those things that contribute to creating a “beloved community,” I have to pay careful attention to the finances. The bookstore can only serve our community as long as I can pay the booksellers and the bills and the taxes.

Let me take a quick detour to share a little bit of financial advice from my Aunt Nanci who was no financial guru by any stretch of the imagination. Of all the people in my life, Nanci was someone who truly lived by leading with her heart. She had a fierce belief that we all can live authentic lives full of purpose. In terms of material possessions, she lived a fairly simple life but she always had the financial resources needed to do the things that were important to her. Her financial advice to me: “Money certainly isn’t everything, but boy, it’s right up there with oxygen!”

My focus at Red Balloon isn’t on money – it’s on the people, my staff, the customers, the books, the experiences, our priorities, our values. At the same time I do have to make sure we are managing our resources in a way that gives us the oxygen to do the things that are important.

Just like we do at St John’s, each year I work on creating realistic and sustainable projections and budgets that move the bookstore closer to aligning our values and priorities with our resources. And I need my team to understand this as well. As Brene Brown (whose podcasts have sustained me during this pandemic BTW), often says – “clear is kind, unclear is unkind” I’ve always believed it’s important for my team to understand how the bookstore finances work (and sometimes don’t) to give them more clarity on some of my decision making. Because they have this understanding, we’re continually working together to find new revenue opportunities and re-evaluating what we do and how we do it. With their help, each year I take a new leap of faith. We all re-center our values. And we all get to work.

After my first few years, we were moving closer to aligning our values and priorities with our resources. Ebooks plateaued and print books were actually on the rise. Brick and mortar retail was still happening and Red Balloon was doing more and more to live into our values AND we were in a financially sound place.

But even with the best financial plans, there are no guarantees and business disruptions will happen. When we had to close our doors to the public on March 18, 2020, I was deeply concerned and filled with anxieties and worries. Because I had been caring for and stewarding our finances, we did have a cash safety net – but as the pandemic continued and enveloped our world, I couldn’t help but wonder – How would I keep everyone employed? How would I keep everyone safe? The landscape in which we did our work changed in a way we never could have imagined. We had to quickly figure out how to still sell books and connect with our community while having our doors locked.

The first months of the pandemic required that I take the biggest leap of faith since buying the bookstore. I had to believe that the store would get through the pandemic. And as it turns out – so much of the work we’d been doing between 2011 and early 2020 helped us weather the storm. We revisited and reiterated our values. We all kept working. And the community that we had worked so hard to foster, in turn, showed up for us.

The pandemic reaffirmed for me that even in very difficult times, sound finances, like oxygen, allow us to exist. But our values and our community are the reasons WHY we thrive.

Running a small community centered-business is based on leaps of faith and stepping into the uncertain future. And along the path, I have realized that there are so many parallels between my business/community building journey and my own faith journey at St Johns. I’ve also learned that I can’t separate the necessity of sound finances from the vitality of doing the good work that we are all called to do.

Thank you Holly, for sharing your story and your faith with us at St. John’s!

Understanding and navigating our society’s financial systems as followers of Christ can be challenging. As with most spiritual practices, we gain strength when we share with and support each other. To write a post, offer resources, submit an article, or do an interview please contact Executive Administrator, Sarah Dull – you never know who needs to hear your story.

Reading this week’s email from Bishop Loya, the following paragraph caught my attention:

God doesn’t simply command sabbath as a nod to wellness or self-care. It’s an act of social and economic resistance to the lie that human beings are only valuable because of what they produce. The ten commandments are given to the people of Israel to help shape a different social economy than what they experienced as slaves under Pharaoh. The social economy of Pharaoh says work, because people are there to be exploited to produce. The social economy of God says rest, because human beings have inherent worth and are made for love.

As an economics student this time of lockdown has piqued my curiosity about a global economy that honors people, profit, and the planet – something I have long desired but not thought possible. However, there are an increasing number of books about Eco-civilizations built on an economic philosophy that is just and generous. Entire schools of thought like Modern Monetary Theory offer us new visions of how we can do well while also doing good. If you would like a break from the constant bombardment of scary stories of impending financial doom facing our country and the world, watch Economist Stephanie Kelton deliver the 2018 Presidential Lecture at Stony Brook University, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RpyuqKLh6QU.

In 2016, at a Neighborhood Economics event, Old Testament scholar and theologian, Dr. Walter Brueggemann described two competing protocols of how society should be structured, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ZtpD304AmI:

  1. Protocols of Purity (rooted in the book of Leviticus) stratify the community into hierarchical groups based on gender, religious practice, appearance, diet, etc. Straight men being the purest, immigrants being the least pure, and women, LGBTQ, and People of Color featuring somewhere in between. Brueggemann says the protocols of purity demean people who are considered less pure and when people have been ritually demeaned, they can be economically exploited. So, when religious purity is transferred to the practice of economics we get stratified education, stratified housing, stratified healthcare and the less pure and demeaned cannot get loans, pay higher interest rates, earn lower wages, etc. – sound familiar?
  2. Protocols of Neighborliness (rooted in the book of Deuteronomy) include laws from Moses such as you must not charge interest on loans to neighbors (and who is our neighbor…?), you shall not collect collateral on loans to poor people, you shall not practice wage theft, do not be so greedy you do not leave enough for the vulnerable and needy, and after 7 years cancel debts for poor people [reworded/summarized]. Brueggemann says, these protocols imply we cannot do the economy in any viable way without recognizing that human people merit dignity. They aim to subordinate the economy to the community, so we do not have a permanent underclass. The primary call of the protocols of neighborliness is to beat the debt system.

Brueggemann argues that the protocols of purity do not understand that neighbor trumps purity and stratification – Jesus did, but not the protocols of purity! And that the Bible is an endless contestation between people who believe faith is about stratified purity and people who believe faith is about neighborliness.

Brueggemann draws two conclusions:

  1. Protocols of purity cannot make us ultimately safe or ultimately happy because they are out of sync with the emancipatory God of the Exodus.
  2. Protocols of purity inevitably end in violence, whether quick or slow.

Finally, he calls us to the work of figuring out how the protocols of neighborliness can break the vicious cycle of stratified purity. Over the last 14 months, I believe, we have seen signs that more and more of us want this too. I have heard calls for new ways, different ways of honoring our value and meeting our needs. I have witnessed the emergence of creative ways of relating to one another that respect our planet, distribute power equitably, and honor all of God’s creation.

In economic terms, we need to change the risk/reward equation; make the actions and products that hurt people and the planet less profitable and less desirable. Some examples:

  • Make providing healthcare more profitable than denying it.
  • Make maintaining peace more profitable than going to war.
  • Make protecting women’s rights and freedom more profitable than selling them to human traffickers.
  • Make investing in under-resourced communities more profitable than jailing people of color.

Each of us have unique gifts that we can contribute to this work. As we emerge from this pandemic, how can you work toward an economy that shapes a better world for all of us? Here are a few ideas I had as I researched this post:

  • Do not allow money to separate you from God, which leads to spiritual death. Use the power of the Holy Spirit to remain grounded in God and in Jesus’ teachings when dealing with financial matters.
  • Forgive yourself. Most of us have made mistakes when it comes to money and some of those mistakes have fallen short of our Christian values. Christ has already paid the price of those sins, and of any sins to come. You are forgiven and restored to new life. Accept His gift.
  • Consider if there are debts owed to you that you can forgive. We understand sin as seeking our own will instead of the liberating and loving will of God. This sin distorts our relationship with God, with other people, and with all creation. Jesus frees us from the power of sin so we can live in harmony with God, within ourselves, with our neighbors, and with all creation. Discern what sacrifices you can make to clear debts owed to you, give the debtor new life, and restore your relationship.
  • If you have been blessed with money or other resources, look for ways to pay your blessings forward and use those gifts to help others.
  • If you have been blessed with financial skills use them to help others navigate complex money matters. Financial concerns are a leading cause of stress and money mismanagement can have devastating consequences such as crippling debt, homelessness, and legal issues. Using your God given talents to help others avoid or get out of these situations is bringing God’s love to a hurting world.
  • Similarly, if you have been blessed with being an advocate, use your voice to bring about financial reforms that help the poor and suffering and brings about God’s justice and equality for all.
  • Just as Christ stood in solidarity with us on the cross, look at how you can invest and spend your money in ways that reflect God’s values and stands in solidarity with the oppressed.
  • Follow Bishop Loya’s advise, and God’s command, to rest as you need to. We do not have to keep up with an economy built on protocols of purity and stratification; take some time out for neighborliness.

Jesus talked about money more than any other topic during his ministry among us. There’s a reason for that. We can’t love God and oppress each other. John 3:17-18 says it best:

How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help? Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action.

I would love to hear your experiences, thoughts, or ideas on how we can work to bring about God’s economy here on earth.

Understanding and navigating our society’s financial systems as followers of Christ can be challenging. As with most spiritual practices, we gain strength when we share with and support each other. To write a post, offer resources, submit an article, or do an interview please contact Executive Administrator, Sarah Dull – you never know who needs to hear your story.

by The Rev. Barbara Mraz

As the heady perfume filters into my yard from the courtyard below, I am intoxicated with spring. The warmer weather, the happy (although expensive) trips to the garden store, the birdsong, the tulips flaunting their flowerhood… my favorite season by far.

I love this from the writer Patricia Hemp: She notes that lilacs were first brought to America by 19th century Czech immigrants and that the lilacs now seen next to a farmhouse on the prairie in Minnesota or Iowa may have been there longer than any of us have been alive: “With all that immigrants had to leave behind, they valued these bushes enough to make room for a cutting or two among their baggage and bundles … They’re immigrant flowers brought here by people who loved their beauty. They survived the journey and they thrived.” (Spillville).

And reading that, my heart is less troubled.

See you in church.

Barbara

By The Rev. Barbara Mraz

I went into Kowalski’s Market on Thursday and bought some things for a luncheon I was having the next day: chicken, bread, walnuts, half and half, lettuce, and proceeded to have an experience that serves as the basis for the sermon on Sunday. It has to do, in part, with bread and roses. 

The phrase “bread and roses” is commonly associated with a textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts from January to March of 1912, which united dozens of immigrant communities under the leadership of the Industrial Workers of the World (led to a large extent by women). Eventually the workers won pay increases, time-and-a-quarter pay for overtime, and a promise of no-discrimination against strikers.

Supposedly, one of the women strikers carried a sign saying, “We want bread, but we want roses, too!” Subsequently this phrase became a signature song for the labor movement and for many women’s colleges, too: We want to eat but we need beauty, too.

I cannot encourage you strongly enough to watch a wonderful British movie called “Pride,” based on a true story of a group of Gays and Lesbians in 1986 who decided to go to a small town in England and support miners who were on strike. They went there to help because they hated Margaret Thatcher and because they understood what it was to be unfairly treated. 

You can imagine the reception at first. (“Aren’t all lesbians vegetarian?”  someone asks).

Connections will be made on Sunday, I promise, but here is a clip from the film where the miners and their supporters finally come together. “Bread and Roses” from Pride – YouTube.

See you in church.

Barbara