Monday, January 31, 2011

A Reminder I Need

This article appears in St. Christopher's February newsletter.

A Reminder I Need
“…you have caused a new light to shine in our hearts, to give the knowledge of your glory in the face of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord.” BCP, 378

God was willing, and the people consented: Tom Turner, ordained priest last night, January 24, in nearby (or at least not too far away) Alice, Texas. Brimful, dressed up, lungs full of song. Great day for Tom; great day for God’s Church. Like baptisms, ordinations never get old for me; nights like these are never “just another worship service.” A helpful reminder, perhaps, that no service is “just another”, but each one, every time, is wonderful entrance, tiny taste, of the Kingdom, as often as we gather. Still, ordinations have a way of leaving no doubt. It is always and all joy to witness these celebrations; to participate with brother and sister clergy, to lift glad praises alongside extended family, the duly proud parishioners of Episcopal Church of the Advent. We were told that Tom’s ordination was the first in the 128 year history of the church.

The long procession of acolytes, choir, and clergy began in the narthex and trailed out deep into the courtyard, so that the bright first hymn came to those of us in the courtyard’s shadows as if on tape delay; as if the glory of worship radiated out from the sanctuary and into a world that may or may not have been mindful of the miracle of this people and this moment.

Shortly after the procession and initial presentation, the bishop landed on this prayer, appropriate to ordinations, that always stops me short:

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably upon your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquility the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were being cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The Church – the People of God – is a wonderful and sacred mystery. What a wonderful reminder. A reminder I need; a reminder I cherish. Reminder that God pours His grace on His People as He carries out the plan of salvation in peace. Reminder that the lives of God’s People witness the raising up of cast down things and the making new of things grown old. Reminder that that which God began God will see through to the end – is perfecting – by, with, and in His Son Jesus Christ. Reminder that the People of God are the Body of Christ.

The Church is a wonderful and sacred mystery. And so you are: saints of God assembled and working for Christ and His Kingdom as lawyers, teachers, businesspeople, students, directors, mothers and fathers, therapists, nurses, real estate agents, counselors, and, yes, sometimes priests. God’s Church is God’s People, and God’s People are wonderful, sacred mystery, beloved of our Lord.

I thank God for this mystery – that is, I thank God for you. You are agents of God’s grace in a world so much in need of grace. “Give ‘em grace!” a priest friend used to dismiss our worship with those words. I pray that, by God’s grace, the world will know God’s love through you.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

regrets and the possible

Bek shared this quote with me; it comes from a book she's reading entitled, In the Sanctuary of Women: A Companion for Reflection and Prayer, by Jan L. Richardson (Nashville: Upper Room Books, 2010). Of course each of us carries regrets; how can even these regrets (and we who carry them) know the forgiveness and hope of the Gospel?

"I have learned to understand regrets as invitations, as messengers. Rather than being thugs from the past, come to beat me up for decisions I cannot possibly retrieve, they come instead with a word to offer. The word often speaks of something missing in my life, some connection I need to make. With time and with giving attention to the regrets, they have become not so much about loss as about what is yet possible. What path can I still make from the choices gone before?

"Blessing: That you may welcome your regrets not as sorrows but as messengers, as invitations, as doorways to what lies ahead."

Christ and courage in community

Throughout the morning at St. Christopher's, students from the Teen Challenge residential program offered a wonderful and oftentimes (in Episcopal circles) overlooked gift of Christian community - they shared their testimonies. One parishioner remarked to me as she left after worship, "Wow. That takes courage." God knows it does. The courage to name God at work in one's life requires a tremendous vulnerability and courage, becoming an equally tremendous gift to the Church, lifting the veil, witnessing the transparency of grace.

On the subject of courage, I'm astonished at how often I'm tempted to believe that my job as priest is to protect people from the dangerous things that it takes courage to encounter in worship: foolishly trying to protect people from God, from God's people (that is to say, from one another), from the naivety of their thirty-year-old priest, from the Spirit by which the Word calls and convicts, heals and sends, in the lives of God's people.

The words of the Lutheran pastor in John Updike's Rabbit, Run are not undeserved from time to time for me: "In running back and forth [trying to fix/protect other people] you run from the duty given you by God." The Lutheran pastor, Kruppenbach, says that that duty is prayer. Trading my protective instinct for prayer? My own work exchanged for God at work in God's People, even and especially when I stand to look silly? That takes courage.

God, give me courage.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

random thoughts at the coffee shop

So just now I'm reading an article in Books and Culture - a gift from my father-in-law - and it's a particular article called The Eucharist Makes the Church by JI Packer Professor of Theology at Regent College, Hans Boersma. But I'm reading the article at Starbucks, with a decaf mocha in my hand, which means that even as my eyes scroll through his summary of neo-Thomism and its rise at the hands of Pope Leo XIII, my ears are listening to the overhead music, my brain wondering who the artist is, and whether iTunes sells him.

What is it? Do I want it?

That these two questions are so often possible in natural tandem is a miracle I'm not so sure I want. If you know you can buy any thing, everything becomes its own commercial. It's all for sale. Life as product. No longer are commercials the interruptions to the action; commercials are the action, the default settting of the soul with respect to things (and people) outside ourselves. And maybe you, like me, have found youself on occasion trying to buy your self as well. What an exercise. What an enemy of grace.

Parish Address, January 9, 2011

“Be prepared,” the Boy Scouts told us, and they were right. And yet, as people, as Christians, we know that we must never be so prepared that we’re kept from being devastated, unsettled, cut to the quick, and – where it is called for – moved off the script. Maybe it’s not that we’re too prepared, but not prepared enough.

Today is Parish Meeting Sunday; it is also the day after a gunman shot eighteen people, killing six, and wounding twelve others, including a congresswoman. Prepared as we are for today at St. Christopher’s, we wonder if we are prepared to grieve this kind of madness, murder. Before saying what ought to be said on this Parish Meeting Sunday, I want to first offer a reflection of what must be said about yesterday and about the Gospel. These reflections are the work of Christian columnist and author Diana Butler Bass:

The Sunday after Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, my husband’s family attended their Presbyterian church. They went with heavy hearts, expecting the pastor to help make sense of the tragedy. The minister rose to preach. The congregation held its breath. But he said nothing of the events in Memphis. He preached as if nothing had happened. My husband’s family left church that day disappointed; eventually, they left that church altogether.

This Sunday, many Americans will go to church. A sizeable number of those people may be hoping to hear something that helps them make sense of the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and the others who had gathered at her sidewalk townhall in Tucson. Some pastors may note the event in prayer and some may say something during announcements or add a sentence to their sermons. But others might say nothing, sticking instead to prepared texts and liturgies. Many will eschew speaking of politics.
That would be a mistake.

Much of American public commentary takes place on television, via the Internet, and through social networks. We already know what form the analysis of the assassination attempt will be. Everyone will say what a tragedy it is. Then commentators will take sides. Those on the left will blame the Tea Party’s violent rhetoric and “Second Amendment solutions.” Those on the right will blame irresponsible individuals and socialism. Progressives will call for more gun control; conservatives will say more people should carry guns. Everyone will have some sort of spin that benefits their party, their platform, and their policies.

But who will speak of the soul?

Since President Obama has taken office, many ministers have told me that they have feared addressing public issues from the pulpit lest “someone get hurt.” Well, someone is hurt — and people have died — most likely because bitterly partisan lies have filled the air and most certainly because some unhinged individual killed people.

At their best, American pulpits are not about taking sides and blaming. Those pulpits should be places to reflect on theology and life, on the Word and our words. I hope that sermons this Sunday will go beyond expressions of sympathy or calls for civility and niceness. Right now, we need some sustained spiritual reflection on how badly we have behaved in recent years as Americans — how much we’ve allowed fear to motivate our politics, how cruel we’ve allowed our discourse to become, how little we’ve listened, how much we’ve dehumanized public servants, how much we hate.

Sunday January 9 was the day on which many Christians celebrate the Baptism of Jesus: “When Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.’” (Matthew 3:16-17) Jesus’ baptism in water symbolizes life, the newness that comes of cleansing. But there is a darker symbol of baptism in American history: that of blood. In 1862, Episcopal Bishop Stephen Elliot of Georgia said, “All nations which come into existence . . . must be born amid the storm of revolution and must win their way to a place in history through the baptism of blood.” Baptism as water? Baptism as blood? Baptism accompanied by a dove or baptism accompanied by the storm of revolution?

American Christianity is deeply conflicted, caught between two powerful symbols of baptism, symbols that haunt our political sub-consciousness. To which baptism are we called? Which baptism does the world most need today? Which baptism truly heals? Do we need the water of God, or the blood of a nine-year old laying on a street in Tucson? The answer is profoundly and simply obvious. We need redemption gushing from the rivers of God’s love, not that of blood-soaked sidewalks.

If we don’t speak for the soul, our silence will surely aid evil.

It’s the day after gunfire in Tuscon, and it's also Parish Meeting Sunday at St. Christopher's. And the particular gospel lesson before us this morning - the baptism of Jesus - speaks appropriately to the tragedy of yesterday, and it is also at the heart of who we are and all that we do as Christians at St. Christopher's. For here at St. Christopher's are people who have been gathered into and gathered by the baptism of Jesus. As the old hymn tells it, we are people who dared one day to "wade in the waters." Baptism names the action by which each of us is sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ's own, forever.

Whenever a Christian or a church asks what God has in mind for her life, it's always a version of the question: what does it mean to be baptized? What does it mean to share in the death and resurrection life of Jesus?

So it is that we enter the church and pass by the baptismal font each time we gather, as we make our way into the nave, each time remembering the waters that make us the church. Remembering the waters that give us our sense of mission and purpose - our identity. Before anything else - before we preach, or suit up, or acolyte; before we sing with the choir, read the lessons, set the table, or put our offering in the plate - the font catches us at the outset, and it seems to cry out, "Hey you! Don’t forget. Hey you! Listen to me! Remember your baptism!" Remember the Holy Spirit that seals you, and is with you, and remember what it means to be baptized in Christ; for the words that the Father first meant for Jesus are now also true for all who share his baptism, and these are the words: This is my beloved, my child, in whom I am well pleased.

So before any business or mission we have, the first task is this: remember that you are beloved of God. Remember that God Himself loves you with every inch of what it means to be God.

Can I get an "amen"?

With the love of God as our foundation - as our starting place - I want to offer the Rector's report for the year 2010.

Annie, Rebekah, and I have been a part of the St. Christopher's family now for just over one year. The year has both blessed us and been difficult for us, as we have navigated the transitions and learning curves of new place, new baby, new position as if learning to juggle for the very first time. We have been grateful for the support of friends, for those of you have reached out to us, for your prayers, for your patience, and for your presence. The people of St. Christopher's are more gifted than perhaps you realize, and you have blessed me and your church family best by your exercising your gifts in the ministries that God has called you to. My stated goal for this first year has been to get to know you, put down my own roots, and learn who you are, learn with you and learn to be with you. To begin the foundations of holy friendship. I am grateful to God for this beginning.

Of course, as the sappy song says it, we’ve only just begun. I hope we continue to build on these good foundations - I plan to; I pray to engage more of you one on one, over coffee and lunches, alongside one another – as we’ve done – preparing meals for the homeless, in ministry, and, of course, most centrally around the bread and the cup that we share, the Body of Christ. I hope you'll continue to seek me out, too. As a congregation, I pray to continue to explore with you the many habits and aspects of parish life by which we seek to serve God here.

Many of you have discovered what priests already know: that calling a priest doesn't end a transition, and I hope this reminds us that transition is a constant state - and that remembering that we are always in transition affords us the flexibility of a people whose first task is to remember that they are loved. Don’t dare forget you are loved.

When Rebekah and I interviewed and later arrived at St. Christopher's, the common chord and vision struck between Vestry and Rector was a desire summarized by these words: roots down, walls down. Roots down, the opportunity for each one who came through these walls to grow in the life of faith as deeply as she had courage. Walls down, Christ's commandment to this church to do everything in our power to reach out beyond ourselves: to our neighbors, the community, and beyond.

Roots down, walls down.

On both of these fronts, we have much to celebrate this past year – we’ll hear about some of them throughout this morning, but I'd be remiss not to highlight a few here: the more than one thousand meals provided to the homeless through St. Christopher's and the Survive the Night ministry; or the development of a monthly fellowship luncheon at the Carriage Inn Retirement Center, and a new worship service, also at Carriage Inn, beginning this year; our team of adult youth leaders continue to pave a solid foundation for our youth and their friends - I can't begin to tell you, for example, the gratitude of the homebound as the youth sang carols door-to-door three weeks ago; and children's Sunday School is positively revitalized from where it stood one year ago; the Ladies of the Light continue to set a communal bar for hospitality and study; and our first year-round Stewardship campaign led eight families to make new or first-time financial commitments to the ministry of St. Christopher’s – the work you and I do together inside and outside of this place. And I haven't even mentioned the Evening of Christmas music and the many, many of you who gave of yourselves to invite folks from beyond our walls in.

Roots down, walls down. It's happening all over our parish. And yet, from my perch as your priest, and after a little more than a year living with and among the St. Christopher's family, I am increasingly aware that as we seek to reach out to the community beyond the walls of this church, we are experiencing difficulty because of walls inside the church. In order to grow our witness, both sets of walls must come down. It does no good to welcome the stranger if you aren't on speaking terms with your neighbor. By not on speaking terms, I don't necessarily mean an outright hostility - though that might also exist - I mean any impediment to open, truthful, and abundant conversation. Conversation like, “Can we talk?” “How can I help you?” Can we work together?” “Will you help me?” Without this kind of speech with each other, we're left making assumptions about one another, and our parents warned us about what that does.

An example that I've asked Marge Davis's permission to share: this past year, faithful leaders of the St. Christopher's Food Pantry ministry have asked me privately about the commitment of the congregation to this ministry. Some have even speculated that the city of Portland is simply not a city with a sustainable care for the poor. The facts appear to bear this out: volunteers for the ministry have been hard to find; food has sometimes run low.

And yet, in the parish-wide ministry survey put forth by the Stewardship team this past October, the St. Christopher's Food Pantry received as much interest as any other ministry of the parish. People able and ready to support by their money, their time, and their food.

In this case, and others like it, interior walls have proven to be formidable obstacles to the heart and passion of our parish and the very real desire to respond to God's call. In some cases, these walls have resulted in frustration, resentment, or burnout. Other times, exciting visions for ministry have simply been left by the wayside. Because no one else cares, the thinking goes. But they do. You do. I've talked and prayed with too many of you - you really do care.

How then shall we act?

As beloved of God - remember that you are beloved of God, before anything else - we receive Jesus' words to us: "Love one another, as I have loved you."

Beginning in February, I want to offer us a concrete practice designed to take Jesus's admonition seriously and better enable us to share with those outside our walls the love we receive and develop within these walls. The idea is a once-a-month gathering of all leaders in the church. The twist is this: you get to decide if you're a leader. So these meetings are open to everyone who wants to come. We'll meet for prayer, we’ll read Scripture together - in particular prayer for our church family and our ministry outside of ourselves. And then we'll break up to discuss the things that are important to our ministry at St. Christopher's. So, for example, one month we might have three things on the agenda: say, follow-up with visitors, short-term mission trips, and who’s taking down the Christmas decorations. If you’re interested in any of these things on any level, you come. After prayer time together, you would go to the table with the ministry that you most feel called to engage, be an active part of, and you would discover at your table the other people God is also calling to that ministry. You discover a team.

We'll see how it goes, but I hope you'll take advantage of the opportunity - the opportunity to be heard, grow in relationship with one another, and reach out as Christ invites us. We have no lack of good ideas and initiative here; but coordination, communication and follow-through constitute the difference between good intentions and growing the Kingdom of God in this place. It’s an exciting practice, the meetings, because they stand to grow us as leaders in order to grow us as church.

Of course, there's a danger in this. Number one, it only works if you come to the table, to the meeting. Number two, at one time or another, we'll each be surprised by who else comes to our table. The willingness to sit down with people we aren't ready to choose is forgiveness - the very essence of love. And because our first task is to know we are loved, we know we will find the grace we need to share love with each other.

Our reach to the outside has everything to do with the walls on the inside. This is not just true for our mission to Portland; it’s the whole Gospel for every life. It’s why healing and forgiveness are so connected in Scripture; it’s why Jesus forgives as he heals; the reach out is profoundly connected to the healing within. And the willingness to sit down with people we aren't ready to choose is forgiveness - the very essence of love.

And isn't that the terrifying and wonderful mystery of the waters of baptism? Who will meet us at the table? Who else is coming? This is where our ministry beyond these walls meets with, intersects, the ministry within these walls, we're always called and coming to the table, where the only certainty - the only thing we're promised - is that God will meet us there. The challenge of the waters and the table and our particular challenge for 2011, I think, is to learn to believe with our heart, soul, mind, and strength, that this is enough. So much more than enough.

Because you didn't choose this God or the other folks at the table. But God in Christ chose you, His beloved - and me, His beloved.

In 2011, let's so share God's love with one another that we believe it meant for us - and for everyone else, too.

With gratitude, and joy, to be your priest, and with love, expectation, and prayers for the coming year together in our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Rev. Jonathan R. Melton, Rector

2020-21 Annual License Renewal Letter

Each year, just before Advent, I request the Bishop's renewal of my license to serve in the Episcopal Diocese of Dallas. These annual le...