From the Rector
Sometimes the spaces around us tell us of events that have happened. Other times they can tell us of events that are yet to be. I had an experience of the latter the first time that I stepped into the sanctuary at All Souls and looked at the cross above the altar.
When I first saw that cross above the altar I thought to myself, “That’s an icon cross. But where is the icon?” In your mind’s eye, if you look at the flat panel cross that rests on top of the beams of the larger cross in our church, you can imagine that it was designed for an icon to be there. Which, in fact, was the case.
Over a decade ago, All Souls contemplated having an icon of the Crucifixion written for the cross that hangs above the altar. Drawings were made, but the icon was never written. When I first arrived at All Souls and asked about the “empty cross”, I was told many reasons about why the icon wasn’t written, but the most common reason that was expressed to me centered on a concern was that if there was an icon of the crucifixion hanging over the altar, that this would the only way that people would encounter Jesus. The sole focus would be on his death, and that his life and resurrection wouldn’t be seen as part of the story.
Then, five or six years ago while on Vestry Retreat, several members of the Vestry and Staff engaged in this very conversation. And just as a member of the Vestry was describing their frustration that a year-round icon of the Crucifixion would be the only way to see Jesus, Christopher Putnam and I were struck by the very same thought at exactly the same moment: what if you had several icons written, that were displayed seasonally? What if, instead of one way of seeing Jesus, we were able to engage several images of his sacrificial––that is self-giving––love?
This epiphany has led to the last five years of wondering, planning, sketching, imagining, praying and preparing. Our chair of Arts at All Souls, Michelle Barger, has been tireless and steadfast over these years of finding an artist, working with them on design, and preparing our space. Thanks to a generous gift offered for this purpose, we were able to work with a local iconographer and Episcopal priest, the Rev. Paul Fromberg. The Rector of St. Gregory of Nyssa in San Francisco (and leader of our recent Parish Retreat), Paul became interested in this project and has given it hours and hours of time, effort and attention.
But what icon to paint? To come to this, we began by asking ourselves some questions: How do we see Jesus? How are we seen by Jesus? What image would best begin to tell this story at All Souls? After months of discussion and consideration, we felt drawn to the understanding of Jesus as the Good Shepherd. But one challenge to this was that to our knowledge, no icon had ever been written of Jesus the Good Shepherd in a cruciform shape. But rather than seeing this as a drawback, Paul saw this as an opportunity––how can the story be told this way?
This Sunday, celebrated around the world as Good Shepherd Sunday, I am elated that we will have our newest icon, this particular glimpse of God, present at all three services. I will be preaching with it, we will be blessing it, all are invited to pray with it. And then it will be placed on the cross above the altar so that we can live with it, gaze upon it, encounter God with it.
In the seasons to come we will rotate in the “empty cross” as it has it’s own story to tell. And through the generosity of folks at All Souls, we will commission other icons of Jesus, still other ways to tell the story. And people, if they come but for one Sunday, or for years to come, will have a glimpse, be able to come close to God’s self-giving love.
From the Senior Warden
Last year, after a very stimulating communal process of listening and discernment, All Souls adopted three initiative areas that would inspire and guide the work of our Parish for the next 2 -3 years, to live more fully into our Vision and embody our Christian calling in this place and time.
These initiatives are:
1. To develop deep hospitality that invites discernment with others, and provides opportunities to know who and whose we are.
2. To become a center for Christian action and practice for all ages.
3. To complete exploration and preparation necessary to start re-purposing the Parish House to support the mission of the parish.
During the last five months, faithful members of All Souls have worked tirelessly on developing proposals to bring these initiatives to fruition. Formed in three groups, these members have spent significant time praying, doing research, assessing and discussing opportunities that have the potential of engaging our whole Parish family in meaningful ways towards these initiatives, and that also respond to the themes that emerged from the body of the congregation during the strategic planning focus groups.
This week, the Vestry of All Souls joyfully approved recommendations made by the groups working on the first two initiatives, Deep Hospitality, and Christian Action and Practice.
The group working on Deep Hospitality proposed actions to work on three specific areas of hospitality: invitation and welcome, orientation and incorporation, and spiritual kinship. The actions proposed are:
a. the creation of an Evangelism ministry, which will lead the efforts of our Parish to live into the part of our vision statement which states, “invite all who seek Christ deep into our Parish family.”
b. continuation and strengthening of the work of orientation and incorporation done by the Newcomers/Greeters ministry team
c. exploration and creation of an alternative model of small group that has the potential of creating meaningful connections between more members of the congregation.
The group charged with Christian Action and Practice proposed three areas of focus for Christian action and daily practice: immigration, climate change and foster care. Each of these areas include this group’s vision for “opportunities for faith-based responses to pressing needs in our community, state, nation and world that are individual, collective, service-oriented, advocacy-oriented, short-term, long-term, intergenerational, interfaith, and anchored in the Episcopal tradition. Each area has the potential to engage a broad cross section of the congregation; provides opportunities to collaborate with other faith-based organizations already engaged in this work; and can be communicated to and draw in others beyond the walls of All Souls.”
The Parish House group presented a progress report on steps and actions that needed to repurposing the Parish House would entail, from pondering the viability of remodeling the current structure vs. rebuilding, analyzing costs and fundraising alternatives, and meeting with non-profit and for-profit developers to explore possible partnership.
In the coming weeks and months, you will hear from the various people and ministry teams as these actions begin to take form. I invite you to offer prayers of gratitude for the tremendous work of the people in these groups, for guidance as we move forward with these actions as a congregation, and for personal discernment on where the Spirit might lead you in these initiatives.
To Alcatraz for Ai Weiwei
A Personal Reflection
Completely unschooled in the artistic installations of Ai Weiwei, my participation in this expedition to Alcatraz to see the Ai Weiwei Exhibit was based totally on Michelle Barger’s enthusiasm and reports from my son, Will, whose love and appreciation of art knows no bounds. It was my very first trip to Alcatraz in the 60 years that I have lived in the Bay Area.
Kenneth Baker opened his review in the Chronicle last September with “the highly anticipated @Large: Ai Weiwei on Alcatraz… depends too much on the sort of patience and reflection that few people may ever bring to a tourist destination.” And indeed for me, there was no way I could have found the “patience and reflection” were I simply an Alcatraz Prison visitor.
What I found on this first trip to Alcatraz was not a world famous Federal Prison, with an emphasis on the Al Capones, the “Birdman” and other famous criminals, but a major art exhibit complete with social commentary set in a prison like museum, staged to feature this artist’s works devoted to freedom of the spirit, of the body and of the soul. The setting was perfect on this spectacular island refuge for birds and plants.
As our boat neared the rocky shore, beyond the rotting signs of warnings of prisoner escape, were sentry sea gulls (in place of prison guards) stationed in measured single file, standing watch over their island. A perfect symbol of freedom and a significant contrast to what we were to see inside.
Ai Weiwei, a prisoner in his own country not allowed by the Chinese government to travel, had designed the exhibit and shipped it to this country piece by piece to be assembled by an expert team on the Island. His exhibit focuses upon political prisoners, those interned owing to their speaking out, against their governments and other institutions of power.
The installation consisted of four distinct sections. In the New Industries Section (where once inmates did laundry for the military and made garments for government workers) housed a colossal dragon kite, unable to find freedom, and iconic birds of countries violating human rights. In another cavernous hall lay the images of 175 political prisoners from around the world (constructed out of Legos!); on the lower level of this hall was a huge structure of birds’ wings using the imagery of flight to signify the tension between freedom and captivity.
The Cellhouse Hospital, where eerie sounds from psychiatric observation rooms pierced our ears and toilets overflowed with porcelain blossoms signifying that freedom can emerge anywhere. In the Cellhouse Dining Hall visitors were encouraged to write postcards to individual prisoners.
Many visitors, and I, among them, spent more time in the Cellblock where we were invited to enter open cells and be immersed in the sounds of music and readings of political prisoners. Among those voices:
Victor Jara, Chilean supporter of Allende,
“I don’t sing for the love of singing
Or because I have a good voice
I sing because my guitar has both feeling and reason…”
Martin Luther King
“If we will but make the right choice, we will be able to speed up the day, all over America and all over the world, when justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”
“The spirit of the antichrist is being reincarnated
On these mysterious nights
Oh, merciful God
Shine your sunshine on Iran”
And even Pussy Riot,
“Virgin Mother of Christ, Put Putin away.”
No, I am not sorry that I hadn’t gone to Alcatraz in the past 60 years. And, I may never go again, for this trip, with fifteen All Souls kindred spirits and friends, made an impact that would not have been possible under any other circumstances. When I next participate in the Vigil for unjustly incarcerated immigrants on May 2, at the West Contra Costa Detention Center, I will look across the Bay and remember the words, songs and images from Alcatraz.
– Margaret Sparks
From the Associate for Children and Youth
“Truly, I say to you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child shall not enter it.” Luke 18:17
This is a passage that gives me particular appreciation for working with young people. Week by week I am reminded that faith like a child is a state of being that is rooted, yet open, grounded but flexible. It’s a willingness to wrestle with questions that have no answers. It’s a soul-deep inhalation in which God’s mysteries seep through our senses, while our mind is left free to wonder and our heart to delight.
In childhood, this state of mind maybe more effortless. As we age and develop preconceptions and defenses against emotional involvement, our exploration turns from fascination to investigations, from knowing truth with our bodies to knowing truth with our minds and we lose touch with the childlike state of being. Even when wrapped up in the daily grind, we may seek a return to this state, but the work required to reawaken this awareness can feel unrealistic.
In Zen Buddhism this concept is called Shoshin, which means, “a beginner’s mind,” a childlike capacity to receive openly and see the world with fresh eyes. As we develop structures necessary to give order to our world, these structures limit our spiritual development and our ability to be open to receive mystical gifts. The structure that gives us order will not bring the Kingdom into our hearts. These structures can support us but we must reach for something beyond the predictable order of adulthood to cultivate the openness that invites God’s presence. It’s this kind of faith that allows us to navigate uncharted waters with only the stars as guides.
Here at All Souls, the Rev. Michael Lemaire described faith as a willingness to engage with the mystery. Young children, often more comfortable with the unarticulated messy mystery, explore the contours of inner awareness with a raw sensitivity to God’s presence. I wonder how I can become more sensitive to God’s presence? I wonder what it would look like if we were to let go and lean into the mystery? The answer is before us: Christ presents us with images of great humility.
This state of wonder and grounded flexibility may be easier to access as children, but it is available to us as older children and adults. This requires a willingness to be wrong, the acceptance of limitations, and a constant choice to navigate past limitations so that we can connect with the source and receive the Kingdom. The humility of Christ is evident in His acts of kindness and gentleness and even in his expressions of anger or strength.
As we lean into the mystery, it may sometimes feel like stumbling around in the dark, and we may be left feeling vulnerable and ashamed at having to admit our own limitations. It’s a way of living life that requires us to put down the guises and the ways in which we take ourselves too seriously, so we can develop a childlike state of mind. We make these choices moment to moment. As adults this work can be hard, but with faith and a community surrounding us, this spiritual work allows the deepest parts of ourselves to emerge so that we can welcome the Kingdom of God into our hearts, with childlike awe and delight.