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Bishop Dietsche’s Address to the 239th Convention of the Diocese of New York

Una traducción al español del discurso del Obispo será publicada en este sitio el lunes 23 de noviembre.

November 14, 2015

Grace to you, and peace, from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

It is a great pleasure to welcome you to this 239th Convention of the Diocese of New York, and to your own magnificent and historic Cathedral of Saint John the Divine.  I want to express my thanks to Dean Kowalski for the hospitality of the cathedral, Canon Julia Whitworth who worked with us to produce our liturgy this morning, and all the cathedral staff and volunteers.  It is great to be here.

Bishop Shin and I have now spent a full year as colleagues in the episcopal ministry of this diocese, and it has been a joy and a most fulfilling experience.  Allen is a person with a keen theological mind, a lively sense of humor, and a love for this diocese, its churches and its people.  He has become more than a trusted colleague, and he is a true friend.  He has specific oversight of congregational development, college chaplaincies and young adult ministries, and conflict mediation.  And he is doing this work with vigor.  In a little while you will hear his report of some of that work.  I learn from Allen all the time, and I know he will take us on paths we didn’t even know were in front of us.  He is a blessing, and I am thrilled that he and Clara have found such a home in New York among us.

I want to say a word about a change at 1047 which has not happened, but will before our next convention.  And that is the re-retirement of Canon Michael McPherson.  As you know, I asked Michael to come back into a role he had held for many years, though some time ago, to see us through the transition in our financial office.  I asked him to evaluate our offices and systems, bring clarity and order to our operations, and to get us ready to call a permanent Chief of Operations and Finance.  He has told me that we are ready, and that search is now underway, with hope that we will be able to offer the position to a candidate by year’s end or thereabouts.  But back before the summer I had been tasked with the job of recruiting a chair for the search committee, and I just kept putting it off again and again.  Finally I asked myself why I was unable to remember to do this, and I realized that it was because I was anticipating Michael’s leaving with such dread.  He has been as fine an advisor and counselor as I could possibly have asked for, and he is a friend.  It is too early to say goodbye, but not to commend him to this convention with gratitude and deep affection, for I do not know how I would have done this work without him.  Some time ago I learned that Michael and I share a devotion to the writings of Nikos Kazantzakis.  Michael, you know this famous passage from his Report to Greco:  “I said to the almond tree, ‘Sister, speak to me of God.’ And the almond tree blossomed.” Through your eyes, Michael, I have seen the almond tree blossom in New York.

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In August I wrote you to announce and inaugurate the strategic plan for the Diocese of New York, and in October we had lift-off.  Gay Jennings, the President of the House of Deputies of the Episcopal Church, and Steve Smith, a strategic consultant in church finance and budget, have committed themselves to facilitating this plan, and I invited those who felt so called to work closely with them as an advisory committee.  In October the facilitators and advisory committee met for the first time, and interviews were conducted with both bishops and each member of the diocesan staff.  They are returning to the diocese shortly after Thanksgiving to expand those interviews across the diocese.  This will be followed by tools of evaluation and assessment of the mission and ministries of the diocese by all of you, and group meetings by region where they may hear the priorities and primary concerns of our churches.  It is our intention to come to this convention next November with resolutions for the rehabilitation of the diocesan canons around our structures for shaping and funding mission, around assessments and finances, and for charting a direction for this diocese in the growth and expansion of our mission over the coming decade.

A final report on the Indaba work of this diocese is complete and will be distributed to you next week.  You need to know why we did this, why it was important, and what we learned from one another.  Following the second and third Indaba, almost half of the churches of the diocese have participated in at least one cycle of cross cultural conversations over our three boroughs and seven counties.  These relationships built across regions and peoples are already reshaping the culture of this diocese, and are midwifing a renewed commitment of our churches one to another.  What I have been calling a “Shared Understanding of Our Common Life.”  That mutual accountability and help, that shared vision and life, is essential to the work we are now engaging.  The Diocese of New York has long identified as the heart of our mission to be an effective church presence in poor communities.  Our commitment to the poor must be at the center of our gospel life, but over the next year we will be asking of ourself in every place:  What does it mean to be effective?  What does it mean to be church?  What does it mean to be present?

What this is not about are easy fixes, and this is not a process by which to preserve everything just as it is only under a new name.  And I know that the sunsetting of the Congregational Support Plan, and changes in the ways in which the diocese supports local ministries is where some of the greatest anxieties are to be found.  It is my conviction that every parish is meant to take responsibility for its own life, so that it can in freedom offer and establish ministries to serve the people of God and draw all seeking hearts into an authentic experience of God.  What we want to create are the tools to support and equip that.  Where we will continue to invest significant resources for the operating budgets of churches, that will be all about supporting poor people in poor churches in poor communities.  Places where the Episcopal Church must be, but where the people in the community do not have the resources to support the ministry by themselves.

Beyond that, we absolutely must move away from being simply reactive to the larger demographic and cultural and economic forces that impose on us an intractable sense of decline and failure.  That’s killing us.  It is making us miserable.  We cannot be just about how to keep our churches open for another day, or how to squeeze one more dollar from already strained assets, or how to slice away another piece of our program, or how to be at peace with forever cutting our losses.  Nor do I have any interest in finding a way to make an ongoing process of decline a little bit easier to take.  I have said that if all we are about is survival it is certain that we won’t.  And for a lot of our churches, that is the bull’s eye on our chest.  A third of our churches are growing (some profoundly so);  many are holding their own but often with an undercurrent of anxiety;  too many others are underwater.  I am certain that growth in numbers of people and dollars is not the only or even the best mark of congregational health, and that what we identify as congregational and missional health will look different in different places, large and small, rich and poor, urban and rural.  We need to discover what that means and can mean in every place.  But I am convinced that that self-discovery will require local communities to take responsibility for their own life and ministry, and live in freedom, moving from the exhausting expenditure of energies to try to manage decline to a reshaped vision of the church for a new age.  In some places this is going to mean hard choices or the reallocation of assets to support new work.  And preparing for that, or for the self-examination that drives that discernment, is at the heart of the strategic plan.

Three weeks ago I joined the people of Trinity Church in Mount Vernon for the final service of that parish.  It was the 159th anniversary of the founding of the church by Bishop Horatio Potter.  We celebrated the last eucharist, and ate the last bread and drank the last wine, and I preached the last homily, and after communion, we stripped the altar.  Just as we do on Maundy Thursday.  And as on Maundy Thursday, I washed the stone altar with wine and water as the congregation watched silently through their tears.  And I said the prayers to secularize the church building, and I laid my hand on the altar and asked God to remove the sanctity of it.  We had to do this, because this summer the vestry voted to close the parish, and now we will let that property go.  It was heartbreaking, and as I look out on you now I reflect that this is the first time in more than a century and a half that those good people have not sat with us in convention.

Yet the decision to close was the faithful one.  And in 2015 three other parish vestries in our diocese did the same.  Christ Church in Patterson.  Trinity Church in Mount Vernon.  Saint Mary’s Church in Scarborough.  And finally just this week Saint Andrew’s Church in Poughkeepsie.  These vestries were not asked to do this.  The circumstances of decline or collapse that brought these churches to their end differed from parish to parish, but in the end the choice to close was the faithful, responsible act of parish leaders who came to see that how we end things is as important as how we begin them, and imposing on the churches we love a slow, protracted, excruciating, despairing death is a betrayal of the faith of the founders and of the one-time vitality of the churches, and cannot be what God wants.  Sometimes we have to let go of things we love.

Helping churches at every level take realistic, faithful, hopeful assessment of their lives and ministries, and open our eyes to new ways of doing the exciting transforming work that God is always putting before us will be a fruit of the strategic plan.  Only a small number of our churches will likely need to make the decision that these four did, though some surely will, but there are many more that must reorganize and reassess, because in a lot of places the assumptions we have made about how to sustain parishes and do ministry just don’t work anymore on cultural and demographic ground that has shifted under our feet.

So I am also prepared to receive a resolution this morning from the once thriving Church of the Good Shepherd in Newburgh, asking that they be dissolved as a parish and received as a mission of the diocese.  The tiny Anglo congregation has come to see that they just can’t go on, and have asked us — all of us — to take responsibility for continuing to build the Latino congregation which also calls Good Shepherd home.  There are important social and community ministries there that must continue, and a people who still need help to be a church.  This again is a faithful decision, a recognition of hard realities, and a hopeful expectation of what God may still do in that place;  do through us in that place.  I invite the resolution, and welcome the responsibilities that will come with it, and ask your support for it when it is put before you today.

You will remember that at our last convention you spent time around tables, sharing the ways in which health and vitality, and the transformative possibilities of the gospel were being lived out and revealed in your own parishes.  I was profoundly moved by what you reported, the stories you told, the witness you made.  I know that God is doing amazing work through you in every place, and I see it when I come among you on my Sunday visitations.  So I know that we are more ready to identify and name the marks of health which must be the characteristics of every church than we might think we are.  Though so many churches struggle with few resources, that cannot be our whole story, and we must pay attention to how we witness in our communities to the love and power and grace of God.

Here is where I believe the marks of congregational health begin;  the things every church must do if it is to be a church:

Every church has a responsibility to nurture the Christian faith in children and youth.  And I must say that not having children in your congregation doesn’t get you off the hook.  There are children in your town, and there are many wonderful ways of doing this ministry besides age-graded classes on Sunday morning.

Every church must provide opportunities for adult christian education and spiritual formation.  The journey into discipleship is a journey of our whole lives.  The Ethiopian eunuch asked Saint Philip, “How can I understand these scriptures unless someone teaches me?”  And that same imperative comes to every church in every age in every place.

The minimum standard for what we do on Sunday morning must be excellence.  Every church is charged to provide meaningful, creative, beautiful worship with lively, thoughtful, engaging preaching.  This is our main thing, so it needs our very best.

Every church must reach out in faithful service to the suffering and needful and poor people in the communities in which we live, and give support to Christian mission near and far away.

All congregations have an obligation to work for justice, peace and reconciliation, remembering our baptismal mandate to “respect the dignity of every human being.”

You must provide for effective ordained leadership, and the guarantee of continuing pastoral oversight of the congregation.  The number of small churches relying on supply clergy only is undermining the very fabric of Anglican church life and community development, and blunting the edge of our public witness.

Every church must take responsibility for the care and preservation of their buildings and property, and be good stewards of these tangible assets for the support of our ministries.

And our churches owe it to one another to participate in the common life and mission of the diocese through participation in the assessment budget.

I know that many of our mid-sized and small churches, and our poor churches, cannot meet all of these obligations by themselves.  So out of this strategic plan process must come real help:  models and ways of making partnerships across congregations in shared ministry and purpose, if you have the will to do so.  And we will teach you how, that you may do these things and be the church, and find strength to do together what you may not be able to do alone.  So that our common life will express and reflect what we believe about the gospel we proclaim.

Now I need to say something about assessments.  The top twelve parishes in this diocese pay 72 percent of the assessment.  This is not unfair.  This is how it works.  From those to whom much has been given much is expected.  Jesus said that.  All of our resource parishes are paying their assessment in full or are on a plan to get there, and I am deeply grateful for all that those churches make possible in our diocese.  And I am thankful for the commitment to the assessment we see broadly across the diocese.  But we also have to say that at the end of last year our churches had accrued 5.1 million dollars in unpaid assessment.  This arrearage was built up through some hard times, I know, but it is not too strong to say that it has been ruinous for our common purpose and mission.

I believe that parish vestries and clergy are not really aware of the effect of all these unpaid assessments.  So let me tell you.  The assessments paid by our parishes support the work that by definition belongs to all of us.  Those responsibilities that lie beyond the scope of individual parishes, so we have to do them together.

Saint Anne’s Church for the Deaf is the oldest congregation in the world to serve deaf people.  The founder of that church is commemorated with a feast day on our liturgical calendar.  And as far as I know it the only way that our two hundred churches are reaching out to the deaf community in ministry.  But for a number of reasons, much of which has to do with the nature of the disability, that church cannot sustain itself without serious help.  But the diocese does not have the money that the ministry requires.  So I am in conversation now with a parish in our city about taking on the responsibility for Saint Anne’s, and partnering with the diocese to sustain this important work.  This is a church which is paying its assessment, and now I am asking them to take on a big obligation on top of that, and God bless them they want to do it.  I’m glad about that, but I do not forget that being effective and being present in marginal communities is a responsibility that belongs to all of us.

We have one half-time college chaplaincy and a very part-time chaplaincy in Ulster and Dutchess Counties.  This is a key area of Bishop Shin’s oversight, and again and again he and I sit together at table with pencil and paper and try to cut that money into enough slivers to get at least a little chaplaincy presence in the vital community colleges in that region.  Too often we have to talk about walking away from good work in one place so we can start something in another, because we can’t do both.  In a diocese crammed with institutions of higher learning, college chaplaincy — which is the wellspring of lay and ordained adult church leadership — is woefully underfunded.  These are ministries that never have been and never will be able to support themselves, and if we can’t pay the bills they just won’t happen.

I have invested money to help Saint Philip’s Church in Harlem maintain the continuing presence of a curate on their staff, because we must be serious about raising up the next generation of ordained leaders of color.  Patrick Williams was the first to fill that position.  He is now thriving as the Priest-in-Charge of the parish, following the passing of our dear brother Keith Johnson, and is more than ready for increased responsibility and leadership in this diocese when the parish calls its next rector.  This is how we make and train priests.  And I will continue the commitment to the curacy at Saint Philip’s, but that’s all I can do.  I can’t do that twice.  So I watch every year as other bishops come in and go shopping among our graduating seminarians, because many of them can create positions in order to attract and recruit and retain promising clergy, and I cannot.  Every year I watch wonderful new priests, raised up by us, prepared by us, ordained by us, go away because we cannot make a place for them.

A church in one of our poorest areas came to me last year to say that they had by order of the city thirty days to replace their boiler.  They didn’t have any of the money.  In the end I was able to give them part of it and loan them part of it (a loan they can’t possibly repay), and then I guess tell them to go work out their own salvation in fear and trembling.  They are largely poor, they are immigrants, they work unbelievably hard for their church and they never ask for anything, and when they had to, I came up short.  And I can’t tell you how sorrowful I was made by that.

One year into the ministries of Altagracia Perez and Yamily Bass-Choate, we have leadership and human resources for building Latino ministry as we have not had for some time.  I made a big commitment to Latino ministry when I spoke to you last year, and you joined me in that, and their partnership with our Latino clergy was integral to that commitment.  And it’s paying off.  Through the New Camino workshops, more and more parishes are awakening to the possibilities right in front of them to grow and flourish in the fuller diversity of their communities, and we know that we are poised at the threshold of a great new work — new multi-cultural ministries that will define our future in a dramatically changing demographic landscape.  We are just beginning to work with a church in Rockland County that hopes to welcome a French-speaking Haitian congregation into their midst.  An Ibo-speaking Nigerian congregation is in the first steps of organization in the Bronx.  A congregation of the Malayalam-speaking Church of South India may move into the now empty Scarborough church, and they want to talk to us about a much, much deeper permanent relationship with our diocese.  Representatives of that congregation are our guests here today.  The podcasts of an emerging Korean ministry are attracting thousands of followers, and Bishop Shin remains in serious conversation with them about where this might go.  If we could only afford to hire a priest.  Responsible mission planning in a rapidly changing world demands flexibility of us and will mean new church starts, and the making of alternative and non-parochial communities.  The zero-sum thinking forced upon us by insufficient resources is holding us hostage in ways that keep us forever falling just short of the mark and that will cost us dearly as time goes on.

Five million dollars buys a lot of ministry.  And these unpaid assessments have tied the hands of this, the largest diocese in the Episcopal Church.  And here is the point you must hear, and it is painful for me to say:  the burden of unpaid assessments is born on the backs of the least resourced people in the diocese.  The poorest among us, the youngest among us, the immigrant, people of color, the challenged.

The whole issue of assessments will be part of the strategic plan work.  We need every concerned voice in that conversation.  But we have unintentionally created a climate or culture in this diocese (which is not true elsewhere) in which assessments are viewed as pay-it-if-you-can.  There are consequences to that that none of us want, so we just can’t do that anymore.

In the end, I guess this is how I think of assessments:  they are the visible sign of the love we have for each other and the trust we have in God.  They are the way, not the only way, but maybe the best way, that we make the holy people of God across our churches.

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In February I was invited to join sixteen other Anglican bishops from across the communion in Capetown, South Africa to engage debate and conversation about climate change.  I learned so much.  One night I stood outside under a clear and dark indigo sky, and I turned to the Bishop of Northern Argentina and asked him to help me find the Southern Cross.  I looked up at it, these simple four stars I had so longed for so long to look upon, and was moved almost to tears.  For the beauty of the earth.  For the beauty of the skies.  “O Lord my God,” I prayed, “how can you be so good?”  The following morning we celebrated the eucharist on a little patch of verdant grass by a chattering, rocky brook, in a narrow, high-walled canyon near our retreat center.  Maybe it was the Garden of Eden.  And while we sat in silence and prayer, two wonderful families of baboons came down the sides of the canyon and hid in the thickets on either side of us, barking and hooting at each other while we ate the Body and Blood of Christ.  Later, one bishop reflected that we had been joined at our morning worship by a choir, magnifying our voice of praise, and reminding us that we have responsibility also not just for our economy and human interests, but for the whole non-human order.  We are called in this hour to step up, and the creation looks to us in hope.

The report which we issued to the communion had no pretensions to be the kind of document that Pope Francis with his resources can produce, but we wanted to set some first principles, benchmarks and boundaries, and create a clearing in which Anglicans in every place might engage reasonable conversation.  In response to that document, two resolutions are coming before you today.   One comes from the Task Force on Socially and Environmentally Responsible Investing.  It provides a clear, reasonable plan for divestment from the most questionable fossil fuel interests.  It is a thorough and well-reasoned document.  Broad and deep.  The task force was made up of people from the investment committee of the diocese and people from the environmental committee, and all I asked was that whatever they brought to this convention be something they could all embrace.  This is profoundly good work, and I commend it to you.  The second resolution comes from the Committee on the Environment and has to do with the sustainability of our buildings and properties, which I must say is where our own convictions about global warming meet the place of our greatest challenges.  This is where we show whether we are really serious.  The proposed resolution provides helps and guidance for parishes to address energy issues in their buildings and to set short and long term goals around sustainability.  Again, this is fine work.

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You will remember that General Convention has mandated that all dioceses achieve parity in health benefits between clergy and lay employees.  This Diocese fully supports that position, though we recognize the complexity of implementing it across our churches.  At our last convention a resolution on this matter was tabled, though we understood that the mandate was to take effect on January 1, 2016.  Much work has been done on this issue since the last convention, and I am pleased to know that a new resolution will be offered today and I fully support it.

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Black Lives Matter.

When we came together a year ago, we were still anticipating the grand jury decisions in Ferguson and Staten Island.  And we passed resolutions in convention calling on our churches to explore the deep currents of racism in their own lives and histories, and to reach out to build bridges in local communities between our churches and police precincts and neighborhoods;  that we might be “the repairers of the breach.”  And by the time the Eric Garner grand jury decision came down just weeks later, some of our churches had already done exactly that, so that when we went to the streets in protest, in some of the places where we minister it was with mutual dialogue happening and the seeds of trust already planted.  Some of our churches went out of their way to thank the police for protecting their rights of speech and assembly.  But we didn’t know then what the coming year would bring.  By the time the nine martyrs were killed at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, we had already witnessed the unrelenting pattern of institutional violence against mostly young black men month after month after month.

The imperative for racial justice is before us again with an astonishing urgency, and the need for racial reconciliation stands at the heart of what it means for us to be one people.  In the world, in America, but also in the church.  We must never waver, never falter in our step, in our striving against oppression, injustice, violence, cynicism, despair and the collapse of hope.  Again and again we have gone and we will go to the streets, and we will make no peace with violence and racial hatred.  Yet the church cannot exist only in order to point the accusing finger.

Martin Luther King called for the emergence, the creation, of the Beloved Community of sacrificial reconciliation, predicated on the refusal to respond to hatred and violence with hatred and violence, but also a community shaped by the redefinition of human relationships;  a community committed to the investment of its shared resources in the overcoming of poverty and the lifting up of every person.  Though a man of profound dreams, King was also a pragmatic realist.  He believed that the Beloved Community was practical, realistic and doable.  Strategy, not wish dreams.  But if we want a different world we have to create it, not by accepting forever the eternal division of the human race into irreconcilable sides, but by the transformation and the conversion of the human heart, the human soul, and then the human family through the love of friend and enemy and the stranger at the gate.  He said this is doable.  But it takes attention.

Black Lives Matter is the insistent claim made against the dehumanizing reality that white supremacy in America blunts the capacity of people in the majority culture to look upon someone different in race or gender or culture or religion and see in them someone like themselves.  To see in them the same humanity.  That incapacity is writ large and easy to identify in the vile language and destructive actions of virulent racists.  It is much harder for us to recognize in the often unconscious mental defaults that go into our day to day decisions and the ways in which we relate to other people.  That are also woven into the life of the church, that are imprinted on the way we think and make decisions in ways we are not aware of.

In February Margaret and I invited the black clergy of the Diocese of New York to come to our house for a reception and a time of conversation.  When we planned this, Canon Simmons and I thought that what we were going to talk about was how to recruit young people of color for the ordained ministry of the church.  But what I heard that night was that it was difficult for clergy to encourage young people of color to enter the ministry when there were so few opportunities available to them, and when career advancement too often stops at the edge of the Bronx.

What I heard was the pain of very highly qualified black clergy asking why they cannot be seen as natural candidates for the rectorships of the larger, more resourced, usually majority white congregations.  What I heard was the plea of serious people to be taken seriously, to be considered — just considered — for the kind of higher profile parish ministries that can lead to real leadership across the larger church.  I listened.  It was hard.  We cannot change this culture unless we do it in a completely intentional way, so Canon Tammearu and I will partner with these same clergy to retool the way we receive names for parishes to ensure that whenever possible churches are given slates of candidates which represent the fuller diversity of the church.  And train vestries to imagine voices of leadership for their parishes that they might otherwise have looked past but which can richly bless their common life.  It’s a step.  But what it is about is paying attention.

Canon Simmons and I have continued to meet off and on with a representative small group of the clergy who were at my house that night.  And a few weeks ago we were gathered over sandwiches in my office.  We started off talking about these same issues, but the conversation evolved, and one priest began to share his experiences of the Indaba, and how rich it was to enter so deeply into the homes and culture of people whose lives and communities were so different from his own.  And then one priest looked about at this group of black clergy and said, “we need more people at this table, we need some white people at this table.”  And what emerged was the desire, that will become an invitation, for honest loving conversations across and about race in this diocese.   An invitation first to clergy, that we may come as brothers and sisters and cross the divide together.

The spirit of that desire is encompassed in the first of the resolutions brought today by the reparations committee.  I urge its passage, and I will ask the sponsors of this resolution to provide direction and helps and resources to assist congregations in this work.  In this hour nothing is more important.  The second resolution from the reparations committee calls on congregations to read together the book The New Jim Crow and engage in meaningful ways the study of the scourge of mass incarceration:  the race-minded bending of the laws and courts of America toward social control by the imprisonment of extraordinary numbers of black and Latino men.  This phenomenon, unique to America, and what it means for the destruction of communities and families demands the attention of every person.  I am grateful for these resolutions and thankful to Diane Pollard for presenting them today.  We’ve come this far by faith.  But Lord, how far we have to go.

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Two weeks ago, when Michael Curry entered the National Cathedral to be installed as the 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church, he was met at the door with this demand:  “Tell us who you are.”  And he responded, “I am Michael Bruce Curry, a child of God, baptized in Saint Simon of Cyrene Church on May 3, 1953, and since that time I have sought to be a faithful disciple of Jesus Christ.”

There is nothing that I believe more than that all that is represented by those words and that welcome is the true will of God.  We elected Michael because he is an exceptional Christian, a man of love and power, and a leader.  An unashamed follower of Jesus who talks about him all the time.  But he is also African American and a cradle Episcopalian, and for the work we have before us — this reconciliation, this making of the peace, this repairing of the breach — he will be, I know, blessing upon blessing for us.  For he is wise, and he is loving:  this man, our teacher and our guide.

Sustain him, O Lord, by your Holy Spirit.  Give him an inquiring and discerning heart, the courage to will and to persevere, a spirit to know and to love you, and the gift of joy and wonder in all your works.  So much of the work of the church is just so hard, the challenges are formidable, and the obstacles before us are impossible.  So may God make us every one brave and strong and faithful for the journey.  My dear friends, I love you so.  It continues to be the privilege of my life to walk with you.  And I know, the hard work is worth it.  It’s worth everything.  Amen.

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