Wednesday, December 2, 2009

celebration of ministry

(Sermon preached at a Celebration of Ministry, St. Christopher's by-the-Sea, Portland, TX, on December 1, 2009, where -- according to the custom of the diocese -- the just-installed Rector is invited to preach.)

Celebration of Ministry

Joshua: 1:7-9

Psalms: 133 and 134

Epistle: Romans 12:1-18

Gospel: John 15:9-16


This is a blessing. Look at you! Look around. Strange faces. Friends, family. Can I say you clean up well? Together, joined in praise. Bishop Reed, clergy. Of course, our St. Christopher’s family. The prayers of countless others with us. Thank you for being here, for your presence, your prayers.

It says on this program that we are here tonight to celebrate a ministry. Let’s do it! But whose? How exactly does this work? Are you celebrating my ministry -- am I celebrating yours? Though we both have our separate histories, do we begin on this evening one new ministry? Many of you, when I first got here, asked me some version of “what do I call you?” I had two thoughts at the time: number one, just don’t call me John, and two, I hope they don’t call me the minister. It has been my humbling privilege to meet you as ministers; to come alongside, at your invitation, to serve you in ministry. Tonight, to be with my ministers, is all joy and blessing.

When you wake up in the morning, remember God and the life to which he calls you, as ministers, where do you start? How does one succinctly describe the business, the mission, that we pray, as Christians, to be about? What is the heart of the life we Christians pursue?

I first took these questions seriously at Wheaton College, where I studied economics alongside friends who would have rather died than do the same -- bible majors, physics, communications majors, and even one very attractive Spanish major who later changed my life when she said “yes”. Studying with this hodgepodge collection of friends, it was hard to believe on some days that we shared a common calling -- a common ministry. It had so many varied expressions, different directions. Sometimes our studies kept us from seeing each other at all over the course of a week. We were a mix of missionaries and musicians and future mortgage brokers. What did it mean that we shared of one life?

The college’s answer and reminder to that question was a simple phrase -- the phrase on which the institution was built: For Christ and His Kingdom. For Christ and His Kingdom. A sort of shorthand for the summary of the Law: love of God and love of neighbor. For Christ and His Kingdom: Naming both the One who calls and the task to which he calls, namely life with those he loves. (Hear the echo of our gospel read this evening: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you.”)

Some years later, I found myself, with Rebekah, at another strange church, this time in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. We didn’t know a soul, save for the two brave friends who made the trip out east with us. The priest, when he welcomed us, used words that would become familiar and true: he prayed that Holy Family would be for us and all who came to that church a place of challenge and rest. Challenge and rest. I think of St. Augustine’s confession that his heart is ever restless until it finds its rest in God. But what could it mean for that rest to also serve as constant challenge? And why in God’s Name would I pray for that?

Still later, found with strangers, again, this time at Duke’s Divinity School: eight or so of us, the first class of the newly founded Anglican/Episcopal House of Studies, folks from all over, and in a time when you didn’t have to be from all over to wonder what you might possibly have in common with another Anglican. This time, the reminder, the motto, was a picture: Roots down, walls down.

For Christ and His Kingdom.
To be a place of challenge and rest.
Roots down, walls down.

Three threads; one fabric. I wonder, have you caught it? In each one is present the mystery of communion with God: namely that he stubbornly insists on including the others. The mystery of communion with God: that he stubbornly insists on including the others. Confession time. I like Christ, rest, and roots. Not as keen on Kingdom, challenge, and the loss of security and space that walls down represents. Still, one may have confidence that the Gospel is faithfully proclaimed and pursued where these seemingly distinct aims are held up together; where loving God is not separable from loving that which God loves.

In the most real sense, then, you and I celebrate one ministry because there’s only one ministry to share: that of receiving and witnessing the love of the Triune God -- Father, Son, and Spirit -- for his church and the world. Or as St. Paul better put it: we who are many are one, because we share of one bread.

Enough preaching.

I want to tell you, finally, about a fourth strange group of people: the odd mix of Search Committee and Vestry who helped discern God’s call to us in this place.

We met for the interview, here, in the Eucharist. Yvette and Mike Sullivan, at their home, graciously hosted the next leg of conversation where, over dinner, we prodded, explored hopes, wonders, and vision; I wondered what calling Rebekah and I might share with these strangers. I didn’t even fish!

So I listened, and prayed: Lord, what do they have in common? What is the heart of the life these Christians pursue?

“We are the Church,” you told me. “We cherish the reach of our small groups. We strive to reach out; to bring Christ to the world.” “We want opportunities for spiritual growth, spiritual mentorship with one another.” One of you said that “we want a pastor who’s OK making mistakes,” and sensing an opening, I quickly assured you I was good at making mistakes, but your deeper longing for the life not of right answers but of grace was conveyed. Then the words came. The words came like holy whispers of the Spirit; and it’s important, I think, that the words came from you:

Deeper, wider. Deeper, wider. That’s what I heard when I listened to you.

Deeper, the desire for every person who seeks God in this place to be able to pursue that relationship as deep, as far, as she has will to engage; knowing that depth like this requires the help of holy friends. Wider, the desire for us in this place to reach out, invite, stretch in grace, so that the world might know the same grace by which we pray to live.

Deeper, wider, ministering from the deep well of Christ’s love for us and for others.

For Christ and his Kingdom.
To be a place of challenge and rest.
Roots down, walls down.
Deeper and wider.

The resonance of your call with the two-part harmony of the faith I had come to know and enjoy was then -- and is now! -- resounding and clear. Yes, it is challenge, but this is the challenge for which you and I prayed! This challenge is the heart of what has brought us together. It’s the image of St Christopher bearing the child through the waters, knowing in the waters the presence of Christ. You and I, too, brought together by waters, the Spirit-drenched waters of baptism by which, with God’s help, we will continue to sing our new song: Deeper and wider. Into Christ; with the stranger; Alleluia!; forever. Deeper and wider, together, in the love of our God.

Friends, this calls for celebration.

Amen.

Monday, November 9, 2009

sentimentality and the Church

A short, if mildly offensive, video for Christian self-reflection. Hauerwas at his most convincing and convicting.

Sentimentality from The Work Of The People on Vimeo.

Friday, October 2, 2009

angels, departings, and the desire of God

(Homily given on September 30, 2009, at St Helena's midweek Eucharist.)

Today we remember, we celebrate, the fast of St Michael and All Angels. St Michael, captain to God's holy People. St Michael, in the book of Revelation, waging holy war against the dragon. St Michael, whose name means a question -- when translated, "Who is like God?" -- a not so subtle critique of on Lucifer's sin. "Who is like God?"

St Michael, curious, as an archangel, to be called a saint at all. After all, are the saints the folks like you and me?

But then, Michael, like all the good saints, living the question, "Who is like God?" -- those closest to God made most aware of the difference, soaked through and soaked through with an all holy deference -- holy reverence -- for the one God we worship and call Father, Son, Holy Spirit.

To state the obvious, I am not an angel -- nor a saint, apart from grace. But I do cherish the image in our weekly worship by which we share a space with them: "Therefore," we say, "joining our voices with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, we laud and magnify thy Holy Name..."

Think about that: our worship of God is not just the most important thing we do in our lives (though it is also that), but all heaven calls a time out to join us in the act!

One preacher once said better what I'm trying to say, "that the moral arch of the universe bends toward the cross." So while all creation groans, writes St Paul, for the redemption of earth, so too is all heaven -- and her angels! -- constituted by the desire of God for us and creation; the desire for us to be joined to the feast; the desire to be joined to the praises of God.

I cannot tell you what a joy and privilege it is and has been to have met you with the angels week in and week out as we practice this feast. Each Wednesday after Wednesday has been grace upon grace. And it is no small consolation to me, as Rebekah and Annie and I leave this place--as we leave you, that the same angels will continue to bind our worship to yours, as we foretaste the feast.

I will miss you.
I thank God for you.
I thank God for our common lot as His People.
And I thank God for our sharing the high calling of praise.

Amen.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Who is your Jesus?

*From the August edition of the St Helena's Cross Finder, available online here.*

“My mother died, but not for me. My father died too, but not for me. Jesus died for me.”

The conviction, compassion, and joy with which he offered these words require more than a context, but the context helps, too: a small, Ethiopian child -- orphaned by AIDS -- answering in determined response to the question, “Who is your Jesus?”

Who is your Jesus? The man who asked the question was himself a believer, but a believer jealous for the conviction, compassion, and joy of this child. In response to this joy, and in search of it, too, Dan Merchant reflected on the divisiveness -- the anti-joy -- that so often marks conversations of faith in this country and, as he was honest, in his own life. Why? His formal reflections took the shape of a film, “Lord, Save Us from Your Followers,” which in turn has been the stimulus for a new conversation among some of us here at St. Helena’s these past six or so weeks.

About twenty of us took turns participating in the weekly conversation: we wondered out loud what it is to love someone else; we asked in honesty why the desire to love can unintentionally turn violent -- become frustrated; we talked about the difficulty of loving a person without changing them. Am I even able to change them? Who is ‘them’?

The conversation was always lively, but not without focus. Always, the questions outnumbered the answers. What does it look like to embody the love found in Jesus? What is mission? What is the price of my being right? Is it worth in? How do I relate my faith to my country? What about forgiveness? How do I relate to those who perceive me as attaching preconditions to the life that we would share? Indeed, on some days, the questions seemed so thick, so impenetrable -- the task before us so impossible -- that despair became a viable temptation.

I am so glad our Lord leads us not into temptation!

Instead, what we found -- what I found -- was that even as the group disbanded on a given Wednesday night -- exasperated at the real challenges to reaching out and loving others -- we had already begun the work. God was working in our midst. After all, who were we? Not one-minded, certainly. Many of us literally began a night as strangers, only to end it in embrace. In place of despair, we found a gathering set apart by prayer, marked by safety, trust, and mutual respect. This allowed us to keep the question always before us; put differently, “How should she act as a Christian?” very soon became “As a Christian, how do I reach out in love to her?”

I share all of this as an encouragement: holy friendships are where our stories meet the story of the Risen Jesus and -- thanks be to God! -- the story of God holds, molds, and challenges us here. Where have you seen this? I pray that you’ve found this.

Who is your Jesus? Would you trust him to meet you in others?

Sunday, July 26, 2009

More 'For the Time Being'...

So apparently Auden's oratorio runs some 50-something pages. We'll have to get the book. That said, here's another snippet:

ADVENT

Chorus

Darkness and snow descend;
The clock on the mantlepiece
Has nothing to recommend,
Nor does the face in the glass
Appear nobler than our own
As darkness and snow descend
On all personality.
Huge crowds mumble -”Alas,
Our angers do not increase,
Love is not what she used to be”;
Portly Caesar yawns – “I know”;
He falls asleep on his throne,
They shuffle off through the snow:
Darkness and snow descend.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Auden and the Untamed Kingdom

We Christians find regular (if unsolicited) reminders that the Kingdom of God is an untamed Kingdom. Think Lewis' "not-a-tame" lion; and, if you're an Episcopalian, think hymns 463 and 464 in the 1982 Hymnal (don't worry, they are both versions of the final poem at the end of this blog entry--you can read them here). (The latter has been put to a contemporary setting that I pray will soon be shared by good friend and musician Bryce Boddie.) I have found unspeakable grace in the words of these hymns since my CPE days, but I have only recently discovered the hymn in light of the preceding poem from the oratorio for which WH Auden originally wrote the verses. Here they are (both parts of the larger poem), if slightly out of season, and never totally out of season, by virtue of the ordinary time to which the whole is pointed.


III
Well, so that is that.
Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes -
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Left-overs to do, warmed-up, for the rest of the week -
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully -
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers. Once again
As in previous years we have seen the actual Vision and failed
To do more than entertain it as an agreeable
Possibility, once again we have sent Him away,
Begging though to remain His disobedient servant,
The promising child who cannot keep His word for long.
The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory,
And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware
Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought
Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now
Be very far off. But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.
It seems to have shrunk during the holidays. The streets
Are much narrower than we remembered; we had forgotten
The office was as depressing as this. To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now, recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.
And craving the sensation but ignoring the cause,
We look round for something, no matter what, to inhibit
Our self-reflection, and the obvious thing for that purpose
Would be some great suffering. So, once we have met the Son,
We are tempted ever after to pray to the Father;
“Lead us into temptation and evil for our sake.”
They will come, all right, don’t worry; probably in a form
That we do not expect, and certainly with a force
More dreadful than we can imagine. In the meantime
There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done,
That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.

IV
CHORUS

He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.

He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.

He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.

(W H Auden – 1907-1973)

Saturday, July 11, 2009

experiment #2: books are for binding

Books record the voices of the saints throughout their many times. Books also, as good Episcopalians know, unite a people of one time. And while good friends share good books almost as a matter of instinct, good books can be difficult to find. All of this is my rambling rationale for experiment #2 (sequel to the WILDLY successful free lunch gig :P ): 'BOOKS ARE FOR BINDING'. The gist is this:

1) I am committed to cataloging my own library over time (give me a while) on the hugely cool website librarything.com.

2) Folks nearby (and especially St. Helena's folks!) need to know that this library is open -- these books are yours to check-out! -- and you can even search through them from the net.

3) Individuals with similarly helpful Christian resources are invited (indeed, encouraged) to likewise catalog your books on librarything.com, and, if you're willing, to form a multi-site, common library (remember Acts 2!). Let me know when you do, and we'll arrange to link our resources on the web.

Of course this is a small, scrape the surface reminder that the gifts of God are for the glory of God and the up-building of the Church -- but it is a first chapter!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Wednesday's Meditation: "being for another the story of Christ"

Matthew 10:1-7

10Then Jesus summoned his twelve disciples and gave them authority over unclean spirits, to cast them out, and to cure every disease and every sickness. 2These are the names of the twelve apostles: first, Simon, also known as Peter, and his brother Andrew; James son of Zebedee, and his brother John; 3Philip and Bartholomew; Thomas and Matthew the tax-collector; James son of Alphaeus, and Thaddaeus; 4Simon the Cananaean, and Judas Iscariot, the one who betrayed him.

5 These twelve Jesus sent out with the following instructions: ‘Go nowhere among the Gentiles, and enter no town of the Samaritans, 6but go rather to the lost sheep of the house of Israel. 7As you go, proclaim the good news, “The kingdom of heaven has come near.”

When I think of apostles, I think of those closest to Jesus, which of course is to forget what the word means altogether: 'apostle' means 'sent'. Today, in our gospel, Jesus gives the ones to whom he's closest the privilege of being sent.

I think of Jesus, I think of this gospel, and I'm reminded of the words to an old country song: "How can I miss you if you won't go away?"

It is a strange thing that the ones closest to Jesus would be sent farthest away, but then it's also strange that the one who would be greatest must be like one who serves. That is, it's a strangeness we've come to expect from this Jesus.

A slight aside: I often hear folks remark that they need more quiet time, time spent close with God--and sure this is a good thing! a true and right instinct--but I seldom hear folks say, "I've spent my time with God, now show me some strangers!"

In fact, a small group of us, a small group from church, meeting on Wednesdays, had been hoping to enter into conversation with folks outside of the Church--non-Christians--we wanted their insights--we longed to hear their stories--when we were suddenly humbled to realize two things:

One: we didn't have many non-Christian friends, even between us,

Two: the non-Christians we did know weren't at all interested in being guinea pigs for a small group in our church.

How can I miss you if you won't go away?

We are called--all of us--to go away.

The theologian and teacher Stanley Hauerwas writes this about apostles and sending:

"Christianity is not a philosophy that can be learned separate from those who embody it. If the truth that is Christ were a truth that could be known 'in principle' then we would not need apostles. But the way the gospel is known is by one person being for another the story of Christ. Jesus summons the disciples to him, and, so summoned, they become for us the witnesses who make it possible for us to be messengers of the kingdom. The disciples are not impressive people, but then, neither are we. Their mission, as well as our own, is not to call attention to ourselves but to Jesus and the kingdom."

To call attention to Jesus and the kingdom--to be sent out--yes, to come--and to be sent out again--this is our calling.

Who was it, I wonder, in your life, who first embodied the story of Jesus for you?

To whom might you embody--to whom might we embody--the story of Jesus still?


Thursday, June 25, 2009

Scripture, God's People, and the Three-Legged Race

There has been some renewed talk of late -- much of it connected to the Church’s ongoing struggle to biblically interact with the issue of homosexuality -- pertaining to the Anglican notion of the so-called “three-legged stool”. The ‘stool’ (we desperately need a better name) is said to consist of the three tools available to the Church’s ongoing moral discernment: Scripture, Tradition, and Reason. The conversation, especially to the extent that it applies to divisive issues of Christian living, largely gravitates around the suggestion that Scripture alone is normative for the Christian faithful. Extreme conservatives, on cue, (mistakenly) cite the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura (found nowhere in Luther -- or anywhere else through the 16th century, at least); and extreme liberals, also on cue, react against the notion of Scripture as of primary importance by the inclusion of resources that consciously diminish the preeminence of Scripture. I do not want to revisit either of the extremes in this space, but only to offer another understanding of the stool as descriptive (not normative) with respect to the Church’s reading of Scripture. This understanding is intentionally simplistic; it is also an understanding that reflects what I want to suggest is the most pertinent question: with whom (or where) does one read Scripture?

As a child, and even now, I understood the three-legged stool as a descriptive -- not a normative -- approach. That is, Tradition and Reason were not, for me, two extra resources available for those occasions when Scripture proved difficult and did not have the strength for the job; rather, Tradition and Reason described what happened when I came upon Scripture. As simply as I understood it, Reason was hard at work the moment I read the text and presumed to get the gist; Tradition occurred in the instant that I read alongside another one (dead or alive) who had read it before.

That Reason was present in my reading could be proved by Tradition; that is, when I read a text next to another person who read the same text, and when we read that same text with different understandings, I became aware that some variable in each of us produced the discrepancy. I learned to call that variable 'Reason'.

That Tradition was a descriptive aspect of my reading is something I am still learning not to take for granted. To me, Tradition simply means, “reading with others,” and I am still at a loss for why anyone would want to engage Scripture alone. It is not (just) that Scripture is frequently daunting and difficult; it is also that I do not understand why someone who did not believe herself called into the whole Body of Christ would want to read Scripture. (Don’t get me wrong, I thank God that folks do, but that’s my blind-spot as a cradle Episcopalian. My first encounter with Scripture is in worship.) Still, I would not back off from my claim that Tradition is descriptive (not normative) of the Church’s approach to Scripture; to be sure, it is the claim that Scripture’s reading belongs to the whole of Christ's Church that is normative.

For the Christian faithful, called together by the Triune God for worship of the same, Scripture is the location of those faithful in the story of God; it is our shaping at the hand of God; our playing at the feet of God; our learning of the wounds of God; our sharing in the heart of God. It does not happen alone. And that is precisely the rub when it comes to our current controversies, which might be summed, “Can’t I read without them?” But when you and I meet, face to face, under the Word of God preached to God’s People, make no mistake, it’s a three-legged race. It is the race of a People given over to God.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

grace, its pursuit, and tennis balls

**From the upcoming edition of St Helena's Cross Finder (July, 2009)**

Here is the grace which our soul is seeking now, and which it will ever seek until that day when we know for a fact that he has wholly united us to himself.
Dame Julian of Norwich [c. 1417]

The Catholic theologian G.K. Chesterton once wrote that the thing that makes human beings appreciatively different from, say, dogs is the human’s ability to discern the meaning of symbols. Point to a ball, said Chesterton, and the human being will walk right up to it, while your doggie friend (man’s best or not) will only look back -- politely, perhaps -- and blink. Therein, he says, is the distinction that marks the human from the animal order. Maybe he’s right...I don’t know.

On most days, I’d like to hold out hope that my own dog, Lewis, might at last catch on to the gist of my own finger extended, pointing him to the lie of his mud-caked green ball; equally, but in the other direction, I do not find myself as enthusiastically convinced (as Chesterton) that the human being, so pointed, will make a great deal more sense of the action. Or have you ever pointed -- with the whole of your heart -- toward an end you desired -- with the whole of your heart -- for a person you loved -- with the whole of your heart -- only to have that one sit still and blink?

Me too.

It is sometimes painfully obvious that instilling new perspectives, new actions, new hope -- CHANGE -- is not the sort of thing that you or I can will for another (fill in the blank) child, parent, friend, whomever.

Which brings us back to my dog. Lewis and I spend hours together, playing together, running together. He and I can tell you every bounce and inch of the yard we share. Throw a ball one thousand times and no probability goes untested. Occasionally, though, he’ll loose sight of a ball tossed high in the air, and he’ll panic. The yard that -- one toss before -- had held our common familiarity, now, in this moment, becomes a challenge to him. These are the moments I test ol’ G.K.: as Lewis looks to me, eyes begging direction, I turn and I point to the spot of the ball.

He never finds it.

Not with me standing there, hollering, encouraging, pointing. But then, if I’m patient, I’ll take a step forward in the direction of my point -- and then another. Mind you, I don’t get the ball for him (after all, who’s training who?), but I do give him a living sense of the direction I intend. By three steps in -- even toward a ball some fifty yards off -- he’s got it.

Two Sunday mornings ago I was uniquely struck by our prayers in the early morning liturgy (hang with me here). We were praying the Prayers of the People -- and more specifically the petition for “bishops and other ministers, that they may set forth, both by their life and doctrine, thy true and lively Word...” As I listened -- prayed these words -- the union of life and doctrine could not have rung more truly: doctrine and living; pointing and walking; belief not being separable from the living pursuit by which that truth is embodied in the faithful.

There is not -- I am convinced -- one soul among us who does not desire to share the truth she has found in the Good News of Jesus: that sins are forgiven (even mine); that old wounds are healed (even mine); that mercy is the flood and drenching promise made to each and every child of God (even me). Even so, may we remember -- that is, may we never forget! -- that the surest means of sharing our fervor, of relaying this truth, remains in every moment to walk, together, toward the ball -- even the abounding grace we find as a People in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Monday, June 22, 2009

for the sake of that one

Recently, St Helena's (Boerne) welcomed the Rev. Ned Bowersox into our common life as Interim Rector. Early on, he set what I imagine is an important tone for interim rectors, but doubtless, too, a true tone for all rectors. Ned said (paraphrasing), "There is a shepherd at St Helena's Church, and it's not me. I'm a sheep-dog to the shepherd -- but, emphatically, I AM NOT the shepherd." Importantly, Ned's comments remind St Helena's (and the whole of Christ's church) of the vicarious aspects of ordained ministry that point with every inch of them to the one priesthood of Christ, who alone is the Good Shepherd of the faithful.

I wonder how many churches in times of transition find it difficult to remember that -- whatever the stakes and whatever it appears might be lost in the process -- the place of Christ as their Shepherd is not up for grabs. Put another way, the congregation never ceases to act in and with the only resource that matters: the presence of the Risen Jesus who calls them into His Body and makes them His life for the world.

So, with all of this rattling around in my head, I stumbled on Bishop Willimon's blog from a couple of days ago; in it, he writes about the question of numbers, or, "Why does my pastor seem so caught up in growth?" And while it seems to me that purely numerical growth is an ever-present temptation to the church, Willimon helpfully reminds us that if the temptation is strong, it may be because there is a truth to be reclaimed in the inclination to grow; moreover, that truth emerges when the addition of members is not viewed with suspicion as the agenda of the pastor, but as the good and beating heart of the Lord who alone is Shepherd.

Forget "the 200 barrier" or "resource-sized" goals...what happens when the compassion of the church is expressed as Jesus expressed it: "for the sake of that one..."?

Which brings us to the end. Weekly, I encounter ministries who would like more P.R. "May we speak to the subject during Sunday's announcements?" they ask. "May we write one more testimonial in the Cross Finder?" "Would you send out an email?" And of course, we say yes, and will continue to do all of these (really good) things. But it is the heart of our Shepherd -- as well as the empirical witness -- that the most inspired invitation continues to be -- you guessed it -- the invitation, face to face, for the sake of that one.PS If you read through this article and didn't follow the link, it's not too late! You'll enjoy it.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Wednesday Homily: The Feast of the Martyrs of Uganda

There are days that leave us grasping for nobler things to say. Days when even our good sense cannot bail us out. Days when our first impulse (rightly) is grief.

Today is the day we remember--and in a true and strange way, celebrate--the deaths of thirty-two Ugandan Christian, by burning, and the faith for which they died. They were burned when the king rightly surmised that when they called Christ their king, they meant it.

So they remind us that the Kingdom of God is not obvious Good News to those who count themselves as kings already. Moreover, they remind us that, in a world of violence, embodying peace oftentimes stands to elicit more violence.

It is not always peaceful to be peaceful.

All of which is why--points to the fact that--it takes courage to pray 'thy kingdom come.'

'Thy kingdom come,' when the world has its own kingdoms set up already.
'Thy kingdom come,' when, if I am honest, most of the kingdoms set up already are very much in my favor (that is, I like them).
'Thy kingdom come,' when the invitation of the new Kingdom offers no promise to us, save to see the face of God.

This past Sunday, Pentecost Sunday, Fr Ned summed up the resurrection hope this way: He said, for believing Christians, that 'Death is no longer fatal." The witness of the martyrs of Uganda--and of ever time and place--belongs to that statement. For if death is no longer fatal, life need no longer be fearful.

So the saints do not fear death; they don't even fear one another; and they have long ceased fearing themselves.

Freed from their fears, they sing songs, they forgive--they forgive!--even the ones who burn them.

Be not afraid!

O that we would take those words and plant them in our hearts; remind our selves of them; align our lives with them.

Be not afraid--where do those words find their target in you?

You and I, in Christ and together--may we find the courage--may we receive here the gift--to witness the peace and the joy of the risen Jesus--even, and especially, where our fears are revealed.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

Pentecost homily from service at Morningside Ministries (assisted-living center)...

The Rev. Jonathan R. Melton+
St. Helena’s, May 31, 2009
Day of Pentecost, Year B
Acts 2:1-21; Psalm 104: 25-35,37
Romans 8:22-27; John 15:26-27; 16:4b-15

+++
It would have to be Peter. Wouldn’t it? Jumping headlong into water, Peter. “Get behind me, Satan,” Peter. Peter, who on his best days, is as hard-headed, stubborn, and will-full as me. Peter, who, at the time of crucifixion, the moment of his revelation, denied his Lord and Savior.

In the reading from Acts on this Holy Day of Pentecost, the Spirit falls from the heavens, descends on all people--it’s the birth of the Church!--and as people line up--the new Body is shaped--a living people is formed, it is Peter who is asked in the midst of it all to give the first Christian sermon.

We should have known better.

We should have seen it coming.

Do you remember--way back--student elections, all the rest, voting to determine which one of your peers would have the privilege of representing the whole? Which one would speak for you? And do remember the fear of that one? The one whose nomination is a joke? What if he wins? What if she really does it?

But here he comes, brimful with Spirit, a wild look in his eye, standing before the people, he pauses, and preaches--and these are his words:

“We’re not drunk, you know.”

“No really--we’re not drunk.”

At least it was short.

And before he steps down--three thousand--three thousand!--have been added to their number.

You’ve seen it happen. Locked up in church on days the preacher didn’t have a clue. Didn’t know where to start. Bright sun calling out to you through the windows. You had all but checked out, when suddenly, Spirit. A Word meant for you that hit the right spot. As if God was talking to you. Suddenly, you get nervous about the preacher. For someone so clueless, she sure seemed keyed in. But it wasn’t her all; it was Spirit.

Spirit.

Your friend looking at you strangely, oddly, gratefully across the table; so grateful for your listening; for your presence. You feel awkward, humbled, because you didn’t do much at all--in truth, had a hard time stifling a yawn--but your words spoke the peace, the forgiveness, the mercy, he needed to hear.

Spirit.

Not Peter; not preachers; not even you. But Peter, and preachers, and, yes, even you. Because the Spirit has come as the life of God’s people. The Holy Spirit of Christ as the life of God’s people; borne in God’s people; birthing God’s people.

And very much just as for Peter, the work of the Spirit is to remind us and empower us to believe the story of God above and beyond the story of us; better still, to believe the story of God as the story of us; God’s story for us. The story of the Risen Jesus made true for us: light over darkness; forgiveness over sin; joy over despair; life over death.

Do you know what a people who have forgotten to fear death look like? Do you know what what it looks like when people remember to forget the failures and shames that used to define them? Do know what it looks like when people engage one another as if the God of creation was with them?

Drunk.

Not really, but they do look like Peter; a little wild in the eyes; they look a little bit strange; any why not--they live by the Spirit.

This day and every day, may it be so with us.

Amen.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

The Free Lunch Experiment: Official Rules

A random experiment in relationships and good food, run by the Assistant to the Rector at St. Helena's Church...

HOW TO PLAY:

1. A tweet will be issued (and relayed to Facebook); this tweet announces an opportunity for 3 people to enjoy a free lunch on the Assistant. The tweet will announce the day and time of the upcoming lunch.

(Example: On Tuesday, a tweet might announce a Free Lunch Experiment on that Friday, at 12:30pm.)

2. The first 3 folks to respond in the 48 hour period following the initial tweet will be notified of the restaurant location by email.

3. It takes 3 folks responding to "make" a free lunch. Winners will be notified as to whether we have a quorum by 5pm of the day before the free lunch.

4. "Winners" of a free lunch are not eligible for the next free lunch; after sitting out a turn, they become eligible again.

5. Of course you can always make an appointment with the Assistant--at any time--just not this randomly, and with 2 other random folks too!

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

unpolished questions on friendship and fear

Right behind the popular myth of the person who is 100% bad or 100& good (without sin, for the sake of provocation) is the crippling fear of your and my not knowing the difference. What if he deceives me? What if she fools us? And so, wary of obtaining unnecessary scars from untrustworthy people, we keep our vigils of all kinds on all comers: friends, spouses, political and religious leaders, media operations, medical institutions. [Importantly, and most of the time, it is only a let-down or similar failure that can constitute this sort of personal revelation--primarily because we know better than to hang around the criminals and wait for revelation.] Our cynicism names our mistrust, but it also (if inadvertently) carves out a false space: "us" against "them" means that I'm (for the moment) very much in the good, and, subsequently, that the greatest emphasis rightly falls on what one stands to lose, and its protection. After all, we, too, stand to be revealed, and loss of personal self-protection threatens the bleakest despair--if we are no longer untainted, we are likely with the "all bad." This mindset is culturally convenient and shared in a society that believes (or, better, wants us to believe) that it can sell us its protection. But an emphasis on preservation and protection is a problem for those enjoined to lose their lives to find it. So the Christian must ask, but in the sincerest kind of way, "What do we have to lose?"

What if I didn't fear corruption at the hand of another? (What exactly am I fearing when I do? Death? Something greater?) What if I didn't fear that her corruption would reveal my own? What if the only story that could ever define me has defined me, and defined me with the promise of unending life? Who would my friends be? (Or, too, who wouldn't?) And what would be our purpose? What, as friends, could we expect?

Monday, May 18, 2009

from 'Blue Like Jazz': me and my supporting cast

Here's a short and insightful clip about the hard-to-break tendency to view the world through the lens of 'me.' The humor stems directly from the honesty--which is ample. The honesty also has the effect of revealing those people who are otherwise painted into corners by our not-as-honest self-narrations. I'd be keen to hear your thoughts.

From the author of 'Blue Like Jazz,' Donald Miller.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

more thoughts on presence: loneliness, leadership, and love

This link is an easy-reading interview that picks up on the previous video's theme (presence); it moves in the direction of God's promise to be present and human feelings of loneliness. The connection at the end between leadership and, as I read it, love are really well put:

http://faithandleadership.com/qa/samuel-wells-we-are-never-alone

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Monday, May 11, 2009

Body Language and the Kingdom of God

Low-end estimates indicate that body language is 75% or so of total communication. The irony of this statistic for blogs (and other gnostic media) notwithstanding, body language stands to tell us more about the people with whom we communicate--and what it is they're desiring to communicate to us--than anything else.

But that's not all...

The individual who would become more self-aware has long been coached to listen to her own body. This would suggest that sometimes our bodies know more about us than we do--or at least that what our bodies do is as real a part of who we are as what we formally acknowledge in the consciousness of our heads.

All of which is my physical case for the importance of posture, especially when we relate it to prayer and the embodied love to which God calls us: posture stands to help us live in truth with our intentions.

Noticing my clinched fists, for example, I might discover with greater honesty my difficulty in listening to the person before me. Becoming aware of what turns out to be my unnamed resentment, I find myself confronting two options: 1) recognize my resentment and end the conversation; 2) let go of the resentment and unclench my fists. In this case, the physical act of un-clinching allows my head and my whole self to share the same desire--and to be honest (truthful) within myself.

At this point, I think of the epistle from last Sunday (yesterday), the 5th Sunday of Easter: "Those who say, "I love God," and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars..."

I read these words, just now, with the physical reference point of Christ's Body, the Church, and I wonder what postures stand to make the Church more truthful? Where are our fists clenched tight to each other? Where might we open our white-knuckled fists to our God?

And lest I leave you in rhetorical silence, here's a provocative start:
http://willimon.blogspot.com/2009/04/passing-plate.html

And a teaser:
"No church that expends 90% of its money on itself is a faithful congregation. There is no way to follow Jesus with a closed hand. Jesus’ great gift makes givers of us all."

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Addendum to Imitation

On the imitation theme, from an old newsletter article...

O God, you manifest in your servants the signs of your presence: Send forth upon us the Spirit of love, that in companionship with one another your abounding grace may increase among us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
From The Book of Common Prayer, p125.

My wife is a terrible challenge to me.

Let me explain.

Today I write from the Mustang Island Episcopal Conference Center, at a program for newly ordained clergy of the diocese. That, anyway, is my professional explanation for how, some seven hours ago, I found myself walking the beach, just a tad before sunset, dabbling at my photography hobby, and singing songs through the air to our God. Birds danced around me; sunlight burned the sand a gentle orange--which only made the waters seem more blue. It was not just peaceful; it was peace.

But then, as I turned to walk the just-more-than a half-mile back to camp, a single piece of sand-covered trash--litter--caught my eye. No sooner did I register the thought and I was three steps past it. “If only I had seen it two steps sooner,” I began to rationalize. And then, by way of hypothetical observation and cerebral instinct, I thought too, “You know, if Rebekah were here--even now, eight steps beyond it--she’d turn back. She’d pick it up.” And so I did; before my brain had time to think my lived response, I turned back for the trash.

I was--am--humbled, without resentment. It’s funny, in that moment, guilt was not my motivation; now, as I tell it, pride is not my satisfaction. (Indeed, after that moment of reflective action, I abruptly realized that I had committed myself to the other trash around me, too--my walk became much longer.) Instead, that vesper instant joined me to the person--the living witness--of one whose love undid me. Stripped of every thought save thankfulness and love, the words of Scripture filled me: “So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’”

It is said (by St. Paul, among others) that we learn the Kingdom of our God by imitation. But listen close, also, to a second paraphrase of Paul: we cannot imitate the virtues of the Kingdom and remain apart from love. That is, you and I, we do not imitate at distances, hoping, as it were, that we might somehow get, acquire, the qualities we covet in God’s saints. No, the objects of our imitation are not so self-contained--but they exude the love of Christ.

Repeatedly, I have known--been challenged by--this love in the person of my wife--but not only in her person. You, also--each of you, and together--consistently make demands on my imagination for Christ-like-ness. You challenge me when you remember the homeless on days I’d forgotten; when your joy in our worship re-inspires my own; when you model forgiveness and, on other days, seek it; when, as in Bethlehem, you walk out into visions you can’t yet perceive--and do so with joy, that our joy might be shared.

I wonder: how has imitation shaped you in this place? Do you find the holy friends whose imitation draws you closer both to God and one another? When, in our common life, do you feel the clenched fists of the lives we control held out flat, opened wide, to the Spirit of God in our midst? How, here, has loved shaped you, even beyond your own desire to be shaped?

"Imitate Me"

Imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery, but the sincerity is in the witness to the other, obvious, still often unspoken, goal: to become like the one we imitate. Children are good at it; we adults find it harder: "I want to be like you."

Of course, imitation does not imply wholesale duplication--one may imitate this or that footwork or approach without imitating any of the number of inevitable flaws the imitated one possesses. Yet even here, an intentional orientation or response to limitation and failure might be found imitable by some (e.g. the ability to seek out forgiveness).

I think what I find most compelling (and sincere) about human imitation in particular is the irrationality of it all. For example, I don't necessarily imitate you because I understand you; most of the time I imitate you as a means of understanding. This means that the sort of intentional imitation of which I'm speaking requires a trust most often founded on love--the child-like desire to "become just like you", again. I remember especially a priest from my time as an undergraduate student who, in the course of administering the blessed bread and wine at Communion, knelt to eye level when he blessed a small child. Every small child. Deeply admiring the priest for the faith I knew in him from elsewhere, I instinctively trusted the action and longed to see what he saw from that crouched vantage point. Now sharing that vantage, I find myself shaped.

The particular thing that has me returning to the phenomenon of imitation today is a baby bird, found last night, next to dead, by our porch--and my wife's unmovable compassion for said baby bird. I wasn't as stirred, but out of obedience to (and love for) my wife, began sharing some of her bird-tending duties (dropping small beads of water onto the bird's beak from the end of a spoon). I still don't see the bird in the same way--with the same love--she does, but I'm closer than I was before I raised the spoon.

A million thoughts just now from a seminary class on Imitation and Paul, led by Susan Eastman (a summary of her theological take on imitation can be found here ), as well as so many from Hauerwas and Wells and the shaping role of the liturgy and, most importantly, the centrality of moving, understanding, and learning from within the embodied faith--the People of God. It is frustratingly simple to most that the best way to understand a thing is to put your feet in the fresh imprints of others. That kind of trust is much harder to learn.

I remember a near-senile priest who filled-in at my college church one Sunday. He didn't say much that made sense to us (acolytes) before the service, but just prior to beginning, he looked at me with every seriousness and asked, "What do you think--am I ready for the dance?" He checked the mirror, smiled approvingly, and we were off--off and dancing the living dance of the Triune God. I pray I never forget the unexpected joy of just that moment--and that I never grow too old to trust the lead of the saints of God.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

about the title

Updated: October 21, 2013

"The Patience of Trees"

So, the blog's title has changed. More than six years since I began blogging, and four years after "Chasing Yoder" took shape, the blog's name is now "The Patience of Trees." It may be a silly thing to mess with a good thing 32,000 visits into the adventure. I apologize in advance for all the links I've messed up (though maybe I flatter myself). All of the articles are still there, but there address names will have changed. Anyway, I suspect I will have more to say about the new title in days ahead, but a few initial words may be helpful:


First, the blog, as it evolved, did not engage Yoder thoroughly enough to warrant the old name. The blog was, is, and will be a blog about Christian living. I will forever be indebted to Yoder for the imagination for Christian living his works opened for me, but the title did a disservice to more serious students of Yoder and, increasingly, felt more like an historical marker than a present description of the work on the blog.


Additionally, I probably owe readers a future post about Yoder's much publicized abuses of power with women.  JHY's actions toward women are a great sadness to me. I don't buy the NY Times' characterization of theologians as religious professionals who "counsel others to behave" (an underdeveloped understanding of the work of theology), but clearly JHY's actions are a deep disappointment to those of us who have found life in his works. I remember Sam Wells talking to a small group of us about his own disappointment when these events first came to light, and also of the reminder that came with it that faith is not about equipping us with a purity that does not need forgiveness and the cross. I remember a similar but separate conversation in which Wells argued that divorce in the case of an unfaithful partner should not be a given for Christians, because we have been given resources for a greater imagination. I find myself returning to the twin convictions that 1) what Yoder did was terribly wrong, and 2) this is exactly what the Gospel is for. 


One of the great gifts Yoder gave me was the theological resources to more fully appreciate the book of Revelation. I grew up thinking that Revelation was for Baptists. I was jealous some, but didn't get it. The new title names that to which Yoder pointed me, for which I am grateful. Images of trees and leaves, particularly, long ago emerged for me as grounding images from that book.


I am probably jealous of trees. They do not scurry or fret or appear to be anxious about their levels of activity. Trees are planted to a place and, with rare exceptions, hold no hopes of future travels or explorations. Trees don't long for exotic countries in order to satisfy some sense that doing so will fulfill them or their perspectives on the world. Trees don't write bucket lists.


Most days, trees mock my struggle with temptations to justify my existence. They stand planted over hours and days and weeks and years. The psalmist invites us to be likewise planted. And I think Wendell Berry is helpful for understanding what this might mean, but I do not yet understand. My admiration for trees is great.


It is probably going too far to say that trees do not have ambition. Who knows? But trees intuit the connection between the depth of one's roots and the reach and fruitfulness of one's branches.


But besides the natural patience of trees, Christians marvel at that one, holy tree in particular, at which we meet and learn the patience of God. "We adore you, O Christ, and we bless you. Because by your holy cross you have redeemed the world." So redeemed, Christians believe we have been given all that we need to be patient with ourselves, one another, and the world. This blog is my learning the patience of the slaughtered Lamb.


The original 'About the Title' post (Chasing Yoder), 4/30/09:


Conversations about Christian living increasingly frustrate me. An example: It is more and more possible today to have extensive conversations about "life in Christ" that lead to this or that ecumenical agreement--and who doesn't want ecumenical agreement?--without anyone ever risking the question without which any agreement is just a polite refusal to honest engagement, namely, "What is life in Christ?" Really--I mean, what does it look like? Where does it happen? Who does it involve? These are hard questions. And so, anticipating the difficulty of these questions and what it might take to live them out, we can instead agree that, whatever 'life in Christ' is, it's very important.


It's a cowardly concession, but, I admit, it's a concession that years of stale, denominational debates had made seemingly inevitable. And so today we live in a world where new ecumenical agreements--new communions--are formed every day, even as virtually no one suggests the sharing of physical houses of worship. It is enough, it seems, to validate our competing efforts to live life "in Christ."


Not too long ago, I made an unexpected friend at a bookstore. I had been eying a book I'd known for a long time that I was overdue to read: John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus. The new friend grew excited to learn that I hadn't read the book yet; he noted that Politics had changed his life; I bought it, read it, and continue to find in it a picture of "life in Christ" as exciting as the one I'd always prayed God meant; his is a serious attempt to sketch the life unintelligible apart from the crucified and risen Jesus.


The book isn't perfect, but the picture is a challenge to the drivel that accumulates in the dank corners of all of our lame concessions. My wife and I struggle daily to take such a picture more seriously; we see others doing the same; the Body of Christ, striving to be so! So while I hope this place collects lots of thoughts here--and about a variety of things--the pursuit of this picture, the growing into the stature of Christ--is the wrestling match to which I hope to most return, and in which the touch of God is joy.

a place to collect

This is not my first attempt at this blogging thing. It is the first time I've had a real purpose for blogging (I mean, beyond cultivating an influential, loyal, and far-reaching audience). I hope this can be a place to collect some of the thoughts (my own and others) that I no longer seem to find the time to acknowledge, much less process. A place to make connections. A space to let them grow and accumulate new meaning over time. Anywho, that's the thought. We'll see...