Bishop’s Column, September-October, NHEN:

Make your giving a joyful act

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

‘About this matter of aid for God’s people, it is superfluous for me to write to you. I know how eager you are to help and I speak of it with pride to the other dioceses and bishops when I visit them. I know that when you hear of appeals to give, you do so out of a sense of bounty and not because you feel spiritually blackmailed.

‘Remember: sow sparingly, and you will reap sparingly; sow bountifully, and you will reap bountifully. Each person should give as each has decided for oneself. Not out of a sense of reluctance, guilt, or compulsion. We are not about arm-twisting or feeling like we are squeezing blood from a rock, right? God loves a cheerful giver… Our giving is not merely a contribution to the needs of God’s people. Much more than that, God can multiply whatever we give in a flood of thanksgiving to God…Thanks be to God for God’s gift which is beyond all praise!’

Do these words sound at all familiar? I hope you’ve heard a version of them before. They come from Chapter 9 of St. Paul’s Second Letter to the church in Corinth. I confess I’ve done a little paraphrasing and editing to underscore his enthusiasm for the opportunity we have to give.

You read that correctly…Paul’s enthusiasm for the opportunity we have to give.   In churches that are thriving and growing and full of the Spirit, people love to give. Anybody who has travelled and worshipped in churches of economically stressed or undeveloped communities will tell you how much the Offertory is the most fun part of the service.   In these churches it’s not enough to pass the basket around once during the service. Sometimes it comes around several times, sometimes each time to address a different need within or outside of the community. Often it comes because the people just want the chance to give more.   In fact, any eucharistic service, including our tiny mid-week services, that doesn’t invite at least a modest opportunity to give- even just a plate at the back of the church that comes up at the Offertory—doesn’t really make sense in the spirit of the hospitality of God’s Table. Do we come empty-handed when invited to a meal at our neighbors? Money is not the only thing you can bring to the Altar. I remember the exuberance of a predominantly Polish congregation in Brooklyn where I served as a seminarian when links of freshly made sausages came up in the brass plates. (I think they went to the local soup kitchen, but I remember some pretty good pancake breakfasts!)   Children in another parish I served brought up crayon drawings in the plate with the same glee as any child might present a work of art and saying, “Look, Ma! Look, Dad, what I made!” Those children knew God delighted in the cheerfulness of their giving.

What would it mean if that same kind of joy of giving was widespread in the Church in New Hampshire. What’s preventing that from happening? I suspect it’s partly because we are infected by the contagion of consumerism. We are more focused on what we are getting from Church rather than what we share. We expect to get value from our dollar, goods or services in return for our investment.   Or we give whatever is left in our wallets to the church as opposed to the first fruits, the first that comes in the best we have, the cream of the crop, to our community. Where’s the joy in that? Where is the love?

A member of our family tells the story of overhearing a couple walking down a sidewalk in Manhattan. The woman is animated, clearly frustrated as her companion appears somewhat preoccupied, perhaps sullen and annoyed. She turns to him and says in a loud voice, “I am not talking about the pizza! I’m talking about our RELATIONSHIP!”

I think that’s kind of what Paul is saying to the church in Corinth and to us in New Hampshire when it comes to our giving. We are not talking about money or the budget. We are not talking about the bricks and mortar or the cost of clergy or candles. (Though, like pizza, these things are good and necessary!) We are talking about our relationship… the bonds and links that hold us together. Benevolence, kindness, generosity, prayer, justice, mercy, love. These things are in poor supply in our society, a culture that seems to be disintegrating into coarseness, disparity, and violence before our eyes. It’s not a feeling of blind obligation to give to the church that will renew us, either our church or our society. Rather renewal of our Church will come from the sense that we get to give. We get to share in the same flood of thanksgiving that God releases in our hearts. We get to go ever deeper into our relationship with God and each other in Christ when we give from the top, over the top.   “Thanks be to God for God’s gift which is beyond all praise!”

Your brother in Christ,   +Rob

Bishop’s Column: July/August NHEN

Trellis of the spiritual life

 Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

I just built a few raised beds in our back yard.  The soil is in, all loose and black and airy.  There’s nothing planted yet but possibility. Already I anticipate the particular smell of the tomato plants. And the basil!

It may sound like a strange leap, but the sight of the tomato cages and the plants threading in and out of the wire structure has become, for me, an icon of the spiritual life. Like a tomato plant, I find I need some kind of structure to my life.  In my experience, if the plant is allow to just grow along the ground, the fruit gets moldy and mushy. The same is true for us as individuals and communities. We make choices to eat moderately, get adequate sleep and exercise, to keep proper borders around one’s work.  These choices, after a time, don’t seem like choices anymore, but are just how one lives one’s days.  How we live our days is how we live our lives.

Now, there’s an intimidating thought!  Without some structure, some architecture, to the day, I would tend to allow the forces of inertia, gravity, sloth, indulgence, or distraction (just to name a few) to take hold of me and keep me from becoming the one whom God intends.

The tomato cage, or trellis, that the Church has given us to support our growing into the full stature of Christ —to quote that baptismal promise — is called a Rule of Life.  It is said that St. Benedict and his sister, Scholastica,  saved western civilization from total collapse into chaos after the fall of the Roman Empire by creating his Regula, or Rule.  By it the monastic community at Monte Cassino was ordered by a schedule of prayer, work, recreation, service, and rest. According to Holy Women, Holy Men,  the Rule’s “average day provided for a little over four hours to be spend in liturgical prayer, a little over five hours in spiritual reading, about six hours of work, one hour for eating, and about eight hours of sleep.  The entire Psalter is to be recited in the Divine Office once every week.”

I already hear the groan rising over the White Mountains as the readers of New Hampshire Episcopal News read this!  Four hours in prayer?  Every day?!  Really?  But how do you spend your day? Sadly, many of our young (and not so young) people could easily be found for this amount of time before a video screen.  Again, how we live our days is how we spend our lives.  I find that if I miss reading the Daily Office (that cycle of prayer and scripture reading appointed for Morning and Evening Prayer), I begin to lose a sense of spiritual and emotional stability.  Without immersing myself in the stories of the Bible, I lose a capacity to see how the present stories being spun in our churches’ experiences have anything to do with God’s promise.  If I don’t take time daily to connect with Polly and our children, we all suffer and get cranky.  Without exercise and proper diet…well, there’s the image of the rotting and mushy tomato.   If I neglect to see my spiritual director regularly, and if I don’t practice asking for God’s forgiveness and amendment of life in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, I would tend to be even more myopic and self-absorbed than I already am. The fact is that we all have a “Rule of Life” in our  patterns of daily living that keeps us stable.  The question is, how does that daily schedule either build up or diminish our life in Christ?

Summer is a splendid time to find time with a spiritual companion or perhaps with a journal in prayer and to ask, “What daily habits are working for us?  Are there ways we are squandering our time or life-energy? Can we commit to prayer, spiritual reading, even if just for a small portion of the day?”  If you are going to make changes to  your own Rule of Life, it helps to do so with a partner, perhaps a small group at church, with whom you can find support.  Jesus always works with the disciples in pairs or small groups.  Don’t be too lax, or too rigorous. Allow time for your own nourishment, and allow time to reach out to others.

The beauty of the tomato cage is that those wires are strong and stable, but there are large openings between them so the vine can grow and stretch in freedom toward the light and water that nourish it into fullness.  May your Summer exploration in the spiritual life be fruitful.

 Your brother in Christ,
+Rob

 

Open Letter to the Manchester Community on Child Refugees

The following letter, facilitated by partner organization Granite State Organizing Project, was sent to the Union Leader:

An Open Letter on Child Refugees

We, the undersigned clergy, from diverse faiths working in Manchester, offer this open letter to our community in response to the flood of child refugees coming to the United States from Central America.

We have been watching as the number of unaccompanied children entering the United States has grown to more than 57,000 so far in 2014, up from 27,884 in 2013. These children and families are fleeing horrific and worsening violence (worse in some cases than in open war zones), extreme poverty, gang-related dangers, and their governments’ inability or unwillingness to protect them.

These refugee children are risking life and limb to flee violence and poverty in their homeland, hoping to find safety in America. The story of this land being a safe refuge and a place of possibility is heard by children and adults all across the globe. It is the same story that we heard with pride when we were children. It is the same promise proclaimed on the Statue of Liberty, and it beckons to them with the promise of safety and stirs hope in them.

To its credit, this country has taken in refugees before (and to its shame, it has also turned them away, sending them back to danger and death; something we believed we would never see or do again). It is fast becoming apparent, however, that the collective will to care for these children is below their expectations and need. For them, the story that fostered such hope is met with profound disappointment as once in the US they are being detained, disgraced, and deported – treated more like criminals, terrorists, and threats than children, refugees, and victims of unspeakable horror.

As leaders in the faith community, we stand in solidarity and love with the children who seek refuge in our land. Deeply aware not just of our own immigrant stories and roots, clear biblical imperative to care for the stranger in our midst, to offer food, shelter, and care to those in need, and that there is no religious tradition which justifies sending children and refugees to their deaths, we invite our community to join us in prayerful study and active consideration of how we can best respond to this crisis and address the needs of those seeking our aid.

Bishop Robert Hirschfeld
Bishop Libasci
Father Joseph Gurdak, Ofm Cap.
Sister Felicia McKone
Sister Dorothy Cormier
Father John Buchino
Rev. William Exner
Rev. Kathleen Cullen
Sister Carol Descoteaux
Sister Jacqueline Verville
Rev. Patrick McLaughlin
Rabbi Beth Davidson

Bishop’s Statement

Bishop’s Statement on NH State Senate Vote to Table the Repeal of the Death Penalty in New Hampshire

The Rt. Reverend A. Robert Hirschfeld, Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire, has issued the following statement on the New Hampshire State Senate vote on HB 1170:

“My heart grieves that the Senate has voted for the time being to perpetuate the escalating thirst for revenge in our culture.   Today’s vote feels a bit like Pontius Pilate washing his hands of the situation. This will be an especially painful Good Friday.  As we recount the unspeakable brutality visited on Jesus, we will be reminded how much we are all complicit in the violence that infects our hearts. We will continue to work and pray for a less violent society.”

Bishop’s Column: May/June NHEN

 We vow to continue God’s work

 Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

Celebrant     Will you continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers?
People         I will, with God’s help.

Years ago I traveled on a service trip with some university students to the Dominican Republic.  We were doing “church” work, helping a small village clean up debris after a powerful hurricane destroyed many of their homes and their small chapel.  Some of our group were part of the chaplaincy I served at the time.  Others were non-Christians whom we were happy to have as part of the whole experience.  Some were anthropology students interested in learning about the structures of that culture.  Some were seeking to strengthen their Spanish skills.  One student happened to be a young Muslim man.  This was in the early 1990s.

I knew very little about Islam then, and I still wish I knew more.  Aaqib taught me a great deal about the origins of Islam, the teachings of Mohammed, differences among the denominations in Islam. Perhaps the most powerful thing he taught me was that when I asked him what his religion was, he said, “I study Islam.”

By that he did not mean that he was taking classes in college about his religion. He meant that his life was learning the teaching and practices of his belief.  And he did.

When others in our group noticed Aaqib (a name that means “follower”) step away at certain hours of the day to pray and to open his Qur’an, they noticed.  Interestingly, when I opened my Daily Office book and offered Morning, Noonday, Evening Prayer, and Compline during the course of the week-long sojourn in the Dominican countryside, the others in our group began to take part, not because it was obligatory.  There was something of Aaqib’s witness to spiritual discipline that stirred something in them.  They wanted what he had.  And then they realized that there were practices from their own Benedictine-based Episcopal spirituality that they hadn’t yet been taught.

As I travel throughout the Diocese of New Hampshire, I wonder sometimes about our own discipleship.  The word disciple means “learner.”   The disciples of Jesus were those who listened to his teaching and then sought to continue to learn in their own “disciplines” of prayer, service to each other and their neighbors, and to the scriptures.

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Bishop’s Testimony before NH Senate

April 4, 2014
A. Robert Hirschfeld, Tenth Bishop of New Hampshire, Episcopal Diocese of New Hampshire

4.4.2014(Photo courtesy of Pete Cross)

Honorable Senators, I am proud to have the privilege to address you on this matter of ultimate importance.

I am A. Robert Hirschfeld, and I serve as Bishop of the Episcopal Churches in New Hampshire.

Many Christians are currently observing the season of Lent.  It is a time when we prepare ourselves to contemplate the meaning of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus.   As we approach Good Friday, we are called to consider how followers of Christ, both individually and corporately, have regretfully chosen to participate in and perpetuate the violence and brutality of society.   Some of our liturgies on Passion Sunday and Good Friday even call upon the pastors and people to report the words of the avenging and rage-filled crowds that demanded the execution of one they came to hate.  Reading the stories of the crucifixion from the Gospels, we answer Pilate’s question about what to do with Jesus by answering, “Crucify him!”

It’s a painful and starkly honest ritual reenactment of how good men and women are swept up in the same sin and evil that we would otherwise condemn.  The effect of this reenactment is to remind us all of how broken, flawed, and fallen we are.  To shout for Jesus’ crucifixion brings us to the abyss that opens between fallen humanity’s grasping for vengeance on the one hand and God’s infinite passion for love and mercy on the other.

Regardless of how clinically or mechanically it may be administered, the Death Penalty is an instrument of violence and vengeance that only widens that abyss and further coarsens and contaminates our collective souls.

Over the past several months, crowds of people have come forward in our State to stay something else.  The have peacefully, and with dignity and respect for all victims of violence and murder, urged repeal of the Death Penalty.   They do not wish to deny consequences or punishment for brutality and violence.  Rather, they say simply that they wish not to participate in, or amplify, brutality and violence. Many of them, like myself, are people of faith.

As Bishop, I continue to learn about the blood-soaked history of the Church, where executions were often justified by distorted attitudes about righteous vengeance or retribution in the name of God.   It is fitting that this debate takes place during this season.  Lent is a time of contrition, of changing minds and hearts toward a more civil and just realm, a realm where trust in mercy can bring about a deep healing and true peace that further killing has never succeeded in providing.  My hope and prayer is that you may be led to vote for repeal so that our communities will uphold and restore the dignity of our citizens that the death penalty callously diminishes.

Thank you for your service to our beloved State, and for your time.

Delivered April 3, 2014

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Bishop’s Column: March/April NHEN

Diocesan Shield for sign2Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

At a meeting in early December, the Standing and the Mission Resources committees, along with some other representatives of the Episcopal churches in New Hampshire, met with me to do some praying, listening, and visioning about the direction of our collective ministry in this diocese.  We studied some statistics and trends of our life here.  We shared stories about where we sense the Holy Spirit is leading us.  There will soon be a more full report about some clear directions we sense the Spirit is leading us.  But for now I would say that we did not come out of the meeting with any blueprint or five-year strategic plan.  We came away with a mixture of exhaustion, fear, and joy.  That might sound frustrating.

As soon as I say this, I am reminded of the Easter gospel:

But the angel said to the women, “Do not be afraid; I know that you are looking for Jesus who was crucified. He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said. Come, see the place where he lay. Then go quickly and tell his disciples, `He has been raised from the dead, and indeed he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him.’  This is my message for you.” So they left the tomb quickly with fear and great joy, and ran to tell his disciples.   (Matthew 28…)

As I travel around the Church in New Hampshire, it’s increasingly clear that we are living in a time of such mixed feelings.   Fear and joy.  We could add other feelings that the first women and men who followed Jesus from his baptism to his crucifixion and resurrection felt as well.  Imagine that first Easter morning. What other emotions might you have had if you “were there when they crucified the Lord?”  How about anger at Jesus’ choice not to raise an army to throw down his opponents, but instead to make himself vulnerable to the powers of the Empire, even unto death?  How about unbearable sadness at this suffering and death, as of a lost child?  How about despair bordering on apathy at the way things are and are becoming?  How about the cabin-fever like annoyance and irritation at the friends and colleagues with whom you have journeyed so long, only to end in a public failure?   How about the desire to cling to and to attend to Jesus’ body, even battered and cold in the tomb and the shock at its disappearance?  The Gospels offer examples of all these responses.

If you were to travel with me on the visits I make at various congregations, you would recognize all of these emotions, even today.   They are the emotions of good, loving, faithful, and committed followers of Christ who are experiencing a kind of death of a kind of church as it becomes, as it were, an empty tomb.   Churches all over the diocese, even the ones who have felt immune to such tremors and shocks, are seeing that their health and life cannot be measured by the usual vital signs of Average Sunday Attendance and the number of Pledging Households.  However, the parish churches that are experiencing some of that Easter fear-joy mix are the ones that are running out from their buildings to see how Jesus “indeed is going ahead of you to Galilee,” that is, to the beginning of the story and the place where the religious experts would least expect Jesus to be.

There is incredible, brilliant, spine-tingling joy in following the Jesus who is going from his spiced tomb in Jerusalem to gritty Galilee   Here are some places where Jesus has gone before us:

Bishop’s Column March-April 2014

Bishop’s Column – Jan./Feb. NHEN

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

We have heard some fascinating stories about religion in the world news recently. A few weeks ago a minister in Utah disguised himself as a homeless man and visited one of the congregations he served.  As he entered the church, he was particularly unwelcomed by at least five of the worshippers, one of whom reportedly told him he did not belong there.  When he revealed his true identity, as one of their own, many were tearfully shocked, embarrassed, and chastened. One said he was ashamed of himself.

Another story tells of the custom Pope Francis is adopting — leaving his apartment in the Vatican at night.  Dressed in clothes, neither of a bishop nor a pontiff, but of a simple priest, he walks among the poor and dispossessed of Rome where he gives alms, shares food, and tells them they are loved by God.

As we enter the season of Epiphany, we are asked to reflect on how the Presence of God “shows up.”  An epiphany is a showing, a revealing, an appearance, a manifestation.  The Magi travel from the East to see the “showing up” of God in the surprising birth of Jesus. The Holy Spirit shows up in a visible way at the Baptism of our Lord.  In his Sermon on the Mount,  Jesus teaches us that God’s light shows up in the world through humanity in some astonishing ways: among the poor in spirit, the merciful, the hungry and thirsty for God, the peacemakers, the persecuted and reviled.  Jesus even says that we can be the light of the world and we are not to hide this light under a basket.   Epiphany is the season when the scriptures, the preaching, the storytelling, and the prayers urge us to look, to see through the eyes of our faith, to behold God’s presence in all persons, places, events, especially when we would least expect it.  Those who were once covered by a veil of shame and remorse are nothing less than the bearers of God’s presence.  “As you did it to the least of these,” Jesus says, “you did it to me.” (Matthew 25)

Bishop’s column Jan-Feb 14.2

Bishop’s Column – Nov/Dec NHEN

Gratitude is not about quid pro quo

Gratitude is not only the greatest of the virtues but the parent of all others.  —Cicero

Dear sisters and brothers in Christ,

The reading from Luke’s Gospel that we just heard (Luke 17:11-19, Oct. 13) tells the story of the Ten Lepers who are healed after pleading with Jesus to have mercy on them. Only one returns to offer his thanks to Jesus. It is the Samaritan, the “foreigner” as Jesus himself calls him, the one who has no claim or right to ask the Jewish Rabbi for anything, who is the one who praises God with a loud voice, falls at Jesus’ feet, and thanks him.  And Jesus tells him that not only is he cured of his physical ailment; he is healed and made well in his soul. The original Greek tells us that the thankful leper is “saved” by his faithful attitude of gratitude.

As we head into the holidays of Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s, we are put in mind of the state of our gratitude.   I admit it— when people tell me I should have an “attitude of gratitude,” I normally react with just the opposite.  When we confuse gratitude with a sense of indebtedness, we can get grumpy.  In a capitalist, consumer society, our relationships are infected by what we might call “transactionalism” where our interactions one to another are reduced to an inner calculation that says,  “I’ll do you good so that I can expect you’ll do me good in return.” Or as an old song went, “What have you done for me lately?”  How flat and sorry our life is when it’s reduced to such reasoning!   It creates a kind of entitlement where we expect benefits to come to us because we feel the world owes us for benefits we have provided,  however small or great.  Worse, we can sometimes descend to feelings of entitlement that have a narcissistic tone that says, “I deserve to be treated with favor simply because I am who I am.”  We wonder if that was the attitude of the Nine who demanded mercy and then went on without thanking Jesus.  The Samaritan may have been especially grateful because he knew he had no prior claim to ask Jesus for anything, being an outsider to Jesus’ religion and community.

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