Monday, December 17, 2012

A Short Devotion for Students in the Midst of Finals

"There are those who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge; that is Curiosity. There are those who seek knowledge to be known by others; that is Vanity. There are those who seek knowledge in order to serve; that is Love." Bernard of Clairvaux

A Student's Prayer, Thomas Aquinas:
Grant, O merciful God, that I may
ardently desire,
prudently examine,
truthfully acknowledge,
and perfectly accomplish
what is pleasing to You,
for the praise and glory of Your Name. Amen.
" transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God -- what is good and acceptable and perfect." (Romans 12:2b)

From the Book of Common Prayer:

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have
done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole
creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life,
and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for
the loving care which surrounds us on every side.
We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best
efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy
and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures
that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the
truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast
obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying,
through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life
again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.
Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and
make him known; and through him, at all times and in all
places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

The Stable's Demand

Last night after worship, one of the St Francis House students sent me a text with a screen shot of a Christmas poem, written by her uncle, a monk in the Order of Julian of Norwich. B shared it with me in light of our evening's worship and conversation, which touched on last Friday's shootings, gentleness, and the hard discipline of joy. The poem came to me as an incredible blessing. With B's permission, I share it with you here:

Bethlehem broadened and filled our horizons,
The stable demanded our hearts in return,
God spoke the Word in the flesh of a man-child
And wrote with that Body what mankind must learn:

Suffer, He said, but never cause suffering,
Give, while the rest of the world seeks to take;
Die, if it's needed, but never cause dying,
Love, with the knowledge that friends may forsake.

Peace is your hope while others are warring,
Gentle your way while the rest are all strong;
Care, in a world which has grown past all caring;
Sing to a world which despises your song.

This is your duty and this your commission;
To dance among those who creep on the earth;
To celebrate life amid deathly confusion,
To speak in your living the truth of My Birth.

Fr. John Julian, OJN

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Risking Joy.

Advent Wreath-1
Christian worship is always counter-cultural, but maybe never more so than this Sunday, the third Sunday of Advent, the pink-candle observance of Advent - Gaudete Sunday - when, positioned as we are within the university context, standing on the front-edge of final exam week, and, more sharply, in the shadow of the shooting deaths of twenty seven - mostly school children - last Friday, the liturgy comes to us with the simple, one-word exhortation that does not fit at all: Rejoice! Rejoice.

Unfortunate. Embarrassing, even. But that’s what the pink is about. The readings, too, try to do their part: Gaudete coming from the first word of the Latin translation of St Paul’s epistle tonight; St Paul to the Church: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again, I say, rejoice.”

Zephaniah, also: Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The canticle: Cry aloud, inhabitants of Zion, ring out your joy!

The gospel, well, it’s harder to see the joy in John the Baptist, but it’s there: the promise of baptism at the hand of the coming Messiah, the holy One come to save Israel from her sins, to reconcile, restore, the People of God to God; baptizing with the Holy Spirit and with fire. John: “His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” (Then again, this is starting to sound like exam week.) And then, my favorite line for its confusing peculiarity, “So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.”

This is how John proclaims the good news: fire is coming! Everyone will burn. John is not the one you put in charge of departmental Christmas parties.

For many of us, though, I imagine John sounds more honest that the other lessons. An end by fire fits more nearly our understanding of the world we inhabit. In this world, it is not easy to rejoice. Finals week or not, rejoicing comes with difficulty. Joy is not easy. Some would say, is not responsible. Knowing what we know about the world and ourselves, is not possible. For some, expressions of and hope for joy feel like betrayals of the truth.

But Luke intercepts our attempts to co-opt John with our doom and gloom projections when Luke tells us that John thinks he is proclaiming genuinely good news. Maybe he is, but we have inherited enough of Dante’s legacy to know that fire means hell. Hell does not sound like good news. But that we think of John’s fiery language first in terms of what it will do to us and only afterwards in terms of what it says about God names precisely the sin from which John tells the people we will need to repent.

For John, fire is not primarily the avoidable consequence reserved for lives gone awry (i.e., hell); instead, fire is first the impossible possibility of God born in our midst.

God will not burn us with fire, as if fire were a tool in God’s hand, a Zeus-ian lightning bolt god. No. God is the fire. God might burn us, yes, but with the same, living presence of God born to Mary. This presence is the fulfillment of a deep ache, desire, and promise. God’s presence is good news. God’s Fire, an occasion for joy: the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light. We are right to name - and hold in holy fear - the judgment of the light, what it will require of us, but also to feel the thawing ice sliding from our shoulders, the promise of what John Wesley called a heart “strangely warmed.”


Think fire that came to Moses in the bush that burned but was not destroyed;

think fire, that great column that lit up the nights, by which God led the People of Israel out of their slavery in Egypt, into the Land of Promise, so that the night and the day might be both alike, that fire which anticipates the realms of angels;

think fire as the Spirit descended on Mary, sparking the flame of the Church whose head is Christ, only Son of the Father;

think fire that formed as flame and fell on the heads of Jesus’ friends as they stood there, in his absence, locked for fear behind closed doors. The Holy Spirit birthing, breathing, life of the kind and quality we share by virtue of our baptism.

Think even the flames of the Great Fire stoked at the Easter Vigil, in which we celebrate, we remember, the death and resurrection of Jesus.

Fire, not first as our punishment, but - throughout the resounding witness of Scripture - first as God’s presence. Fire as good news.

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion;            
shout, O Israel!            
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,            
O daughter Jerusalem!    

The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst.

If you’ll humor me, turn to page 286 of your Prayer Book, the Easter Vigil, the night before Easter morning, the heart of our baptism, at which the Great Fire is lit. I pray you’ve had the wonderful occasion to attend an Easter Vigil, preferably with Great Fire. See the three-fold response sung by the deacon as the flame is introduced in procession before the Assembly:

Rejoice now.
Rejoice and sing now.
Rejoice and be glad now.

The response of the People of God to the presence of God. As Christmas announces and Easter confirms, the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. In the words of John Wesley again: “The best of all is, God is with us.”  Rejoice.

There is this great, bittersweet quote I love: “Smile, people will wonder what you are up to.” I love the quote for its reminder to treasure the gift of joy. But I also grieve the quote, just to the extent that even the barest hint of joy - a sidewalk smile - is estranged to our cultural sensibilities, deeply buried beneath the grief for so many people, such that folks will wonder what you are up to.

Count the truly joyful smiles you see, walking here on campus or on the streets back home. And, if you are brave, the next time you are walking out across those sidewalks, smile, not at people, but simply before people, the next time you are walking. Pay attention to the faces that express their gratitude for a face that reflects the fire’s warming glow. See how they acknowledge your risking the impossible possibility of joy in this world. No less than the theologian Karl Barth once said that “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God.” And elsewhere he wrote, “The theologian who labors without joy is not a theologian at all.”

Of course, one should not fake it. Cannot fake it. And yet joy may be the truest measure of one’s remembering the nearness, the presence, the fire, of Jesus. So we practice the hard discipline of joy as we come here and become the burning bush by our participation in the Eucharist, and by the daily practices of thanksgiving that are an extension of this act.

The joy we find in the nearness of Jesus, says St Paul, allows us to be gentle with ourselves and the world. Allows us the gentleness to bear with one another in love. I often wonder if gentleness is not among the most understated, underrated, of the fruit of the Spirit. Of course, in addition to gentleness, the joy we find in the nearness of Jesus allows us the patience to be present to those living in what appear to be hopeless situations; indeed, the joy we find in the nearness of Jesus paradoxically teaches us how to truly grieve, allows us to be present to God in the present, now, as it is, broken, remembers that the most definitive word about ourselves or the world finally belongs to God, and that Word, in the end, is good. Even after an unthinkable Friday morning at an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, that Word is Christ,

Who, with the Father and the Holy Spirit, lives and reigns, now, and forever.



Saturday, December 15, 2012

Songs of Grief:
3 Songs after Friday at Sandy Hook

Media and social media have offered plenty of words in the not-quite 48 hours since the shooting deaths at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut. Many of those words are likely not as empty as they seem right now, but my ears stopped trying to listen that closely pretty early on. (Part of me refuses to believe that anything intelligible can be said without more time than has elapsed.) Numb. Empty. Echoes. Distance. Stop. All words that begin to scratch at grief like this.

Unexpectedly, my ears opened up tonight at dinner, not through words, but through three particular songs, each giving voice to a separate, distinct part of the conflicting chorus of this grief and yearning. For those who need an alternative to words.

Where is the Love? (lyrics)

All Will Be Well (lyrics)

Finally, Andrew Peterson's Doxology (song and lyrics). The only (to my knowledge) recording of this song on the net.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

The Promise is Fire

 An old sermon (4+ years ago??) from my curacy at St Helena's, Boerne, probably a little too long, overdone, and/or redundant, with some good images nevertheless to which I return in my own prayers each Advent.


The awkwardness of teenage years is too inevitable to regret.  Which would have been good news if I hadn’t found it out so late.  But what a waste, as I look back, what an unnecessary burden of emotion, tears, and self-ridicule in the learning of that lesson.  Things just don’t come easy in that adolescent cave.   They didn’t for my folks and they didn’t for me.  Those who remember adolescence fondly, well you are the special cases.  Conflict is the norm, and the nature of that growth. 

But somehow I expected to be different.  Or at least, I couldn’t wrap my mind around the struggle.  For example, I couldn’t for the life of me have told you why every outside comment felt like the critique of my whole being.  I couldn’t have understood myself why the words I offered back came out the hurtful ways they did.  Looking back, it was all so regrettable, except that it was so equally inevitable.  The necessary and natural next-step on the way to growing up. 

I remember one particularly regrettable day: my brother and I had spent the whole morning at war; fighting and climbing and otherwise monkeying our way through the house.  Finally, my parents, fed up, had enough.  In plain words, Dad told us to take our show on the road, to get out of the house, lest our next round of fisticuffs bloody the floor, he explained.  Indignant, and in a rare display of solidarity, Matthew and I stormed out the front door, together, hollering as we went, “We’ll be back.”

To which my dad deadpanned behind us, “Is that a promise or a threat?”

And as I think about the gospel read this morning, it calls to life that adolescent mood.  Enter John, the scolding parent, prattling on about repentance, good fruit, and viper broods.  Hollering to God’s children that they could as easily be rocks; that is, that they can easily be replaced.  Imagine anger, the insecurity, and the venom.  There’s a heritage to account for after all: a last name that makes them family.  But John’s words sting against the whole history of the people called Israel.  “What about Moses?  What about Exodus?  What about wilderness, exile, deliverance?   What about Abraham?  What about the promise of God made to us?”  Still John continues, his rant undeterred: “Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

A gasp!  Fire?  Would he destroy us?  Nonsense!  The rulers of Israel seethe, their anger burning back toward John.  With all of the Old Testament noise of fire and brimstone--of God’s wrath made real--John’s fire comes to their ears as the blinding exclamation point of God, the parent’s fed-up “GET OUT” to God’s children in rebellion.

Except, and this is important, John doesn’t say, “Get out.”  He stops himself short.
Instead, the merely regrettable becomes the inevitable with these sober words from John, “Get ready,” he says.  “Get ready--fire’s coming.”

“I baptize you,” John says, “with water for repentance, but he who is coming after me is mightier than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  Here me Israel, the fire’s coming.”

The One to whom John points, the Messiah, the Son of the Living God, the One baptized with a dove overhead and the thunder of God all around, this One is coming.  He is coming like fire.

You and I, from the other side of Jesus’ coming, you and I are where we are, you and I are who we are--as the Church--on account of this holy fire: this baptism; God living among us.  What Israel first heard as threat, we now live as God’s promise.  After all, if we have any place in the story of Israel, it is as the rocks from which God makes and names his new children.

For this reason, it can be easy, I think, to read the gospel today with a sort of “stinks to be them” smile on our face.  How embarrassing for them.  Those Pharisees.  Those Sadducees.  Those snakes.  Tsk.  Tsk.  Thank God for God’s grace, for our welcome; thank God for His fire; but to be honest, it’s all a little hard to take too seriously, at least from this side of the smoke. 

After all, we have the Reformation to tell us that we can be confident in salvation through Jesus.  As Christians, we do not fear the fires of hell, and while our smugness makes us nervous, we feel that Christ compels us to be smug: our faith is rightfully in Him.  Jesus, we pray, delivers us from God’s judgment.

But to think in this way, to somehow see Jesus as water to douse the fires of judgment, this is to miss John’s point this morning: GOD IS THE FIRE!  John doesn’t threaten the fires of hell, he promises the fire of God!  And so fire is not the avoidable consequence of a life gone awry; instead, fire is the reality of God born in our midst. 

Last week, we baptized a child in this font, and immediately afterwards many of us congratulated the family of the baptized.  Had we thought much longer about it, though, we might have exclaimed--just as rightly--“Good Lord, what have we done?”  The answer of course would have been, “We’ve thrown him to the Fire.”

Let us make no mistake, the waters of baptism are dangerous waters; they are Spirit-drenched waters; the waters of baptism are fire waters of God--waters soaked through with the presence of God.  The final words of the baptism drive home the terror and finality of this moment: “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism, and marked as Christ’s own forever.”

And so John’s words to his vipers are no less meant for us: He asks, “For what do you come to these waters?  Only know that the One that you seek will not leave you unchanged.  The fire water of God will not allow for disparity.  But when your lips touch the coal, the very fire of God, when you drink of the Spirit, the fire will burn holiness in you.  Should you allow it--should you desire it--the fire of God will be the birth of God’s will living in you; the death of violence and all self-deception, the explosion of a new creation in Jesus.”

As the Christian preacher and story teller George MacDonald reminds us,
“It is not that the fire will burn us if we do not worship thus; but that the fire will burn us until we worship thus; yea, will go on burning within us after all that is foreign to it has yielded its force, no longer with pain and consuming, but as the highest consciousness of life, the presence of God.”

All of which is why Christians don’t just run up to Christmas.  We take our time.  We prepare.  We wait.  We walk up to the fire.  Fire is coming.  In the meantime, we look at ourselves and we say, “What thing--what distraction--what obstacle--what vice--what defect--would I ask the fire of the living God to melt away in me?”  “How is my life set at odds with the heritage I’m so eager to claim?”  “God help me,” we say, “to be more truly me.  God help me,” we pray, “to abide more deeply with you.”  We ask: “What about me and my living twists my relationship with God into lies?”  Advent reminds us that Christmas is a transforming gift to be prayerfully approached; a gift to be received with the expectation of new life--even yours and mine. 

The reception of God’s gift is repentance in us.  It is the turning of our whole lives toward the promise of God.  It is the attending of our lives to the Life of God made man.  And as we take our steps toward Mary’s baby, this divine gift of God, we find ourselves made closer to one another, too.  Like Israel, we find ourselves made a new people:

At the nine o’clock service, just before we read the gospel, the gospel is walked into the middle of the congregation.  And our instinct is to turn toward it.  To look at it.  To orient ourselves around it.  So doing, turned around that book, we become a certain kind of people.  In that Gospel moment, we become the people who have Jesus at their center.  Advent-like, we turn toward the Word; we prepare to receive the gift of God’s Word with us.

Together, we walk toward the fire. 

And as we approach the fire that is the baby’s birth--Jesus, God with us--as we draw nearer, we bear glimpses of the holiness of God.  We reflect--if so slightly--the glory of the One we pursue. 

And this is God’s delight.  God gives us His child, that we would become His children.  That we might rest in His peace and know the end of rebellion.  That we would know ourselves--every inch of ourselves--cleansed by fire, and reconciled to God.

So walk toward the fire.  Grab hands as you draw nearer the heat.  You who would be the People of God, come to see the Son of God; come to be changed by the life that He gives.  And though we don’t necessarily know what we’re doing; though we fear the inadequacy of all that we are; though we know that this fire will consume us completely, may we pray with our being the only words that make sense:

Come, Lord Jesus, come.


The Day the Stones Sang Songs of Hope

Today I attended a lecture entitled Eclipse of Empires, Dawn of a New World Order, featuring two of UW-Madison's most prominent and (on this day) book-promoting professor's: Alfred McCoy and Crawford Young.

I cannot pretend to do justice to the remarkable conversation here, but a particularly compelling digression occurred over McCoy's observation that, with the decline of the U.S. as world empire a near-certainty (within 25-40 years, McCoy projects), a futuristic global empire is imaginable in which a global, governing class of wealthy, largely corporate, elite, navigate between high-profile cities as the masses are relegated to the margins, with economic disparity on a scale never before seen in the history of humanity, and governments relegated to contractor status for these dominant corporate powers.

The digression came in the form of another well-respected professor's suggestion that McCoy and Young were being too optimistic; that their "straight-line" projection failed to account for human depravity, world war, and a potential global economic collapse on par with the Great Depression.

As the professor spoke, it was hard not to hear echoes of the apocalyptic gospel lesson that began the Church's Advent season. Indeed, a friend recently preached his observation that, while the post-modern world finds end-time claims of faith traditions unintelligible, the post-modern world's vivid imagination for the end of all things is all too operative. "There will be signs..."

And then, as the conversation droned on, a most peculiar sign: bells, from the carillon tower just across the street, lifting up what I would have sworn - had I not known better, situated as we were in the heart of secularist UW - was a hymn. It was a hymn. And more than that, a laughably out of place hymn for a land and still holding the season's first snow. I began to mouth the familiar words: "Now the green blade riseth..." An Easter hymn. In the bleak of winter. In the face of annihilation and collapse, even faced with the revelation of the sin that makes the American empire possible. In the deep winter of the soul's despair. The very rocks crying out:

Now the green blade riseth, from the buried grain,
Wheat that in the dark earth many days has lain;
Love lives again, that with the dead has been:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
In the grave they laid Him, Love who had been slain,
Thinking that He never would awake again,

Laid in the earth like grain that sleeps unseen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
Forth He came at Easter, like the risen grain,
Jesus who for three days in the grave had lain;
Quick from the dead my risen Lord is seen:
Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.
When our hearts are wintry, grieving, or in pain,
Jesus' touch can call us back to live again,
Fields of our hearts that dead and bare have been:

Love is come again, like wheat that springeth green.

Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Simply and Slowly
(on advent preparation)

“...the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah: "The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 'Prepare the way of the Lord...’”

How does one prepare the Way of the Lord?

We know how to prepare, say, cakes - goodness knows this group knows that! (And I’m grateful.) We know  - or hope we know - how to prepare for exams, studies. A good essay is prepared with research or an outline. Ideally both, I suppose, but let’s not be picky. One prepares for a wedding with the help of friends, maybe a wedding coordinator, photographer, priest, and caterer. Cold weather is prepared for with a down jacket, and something substantial to cover the ears. My grandpa always swore by good socks. Game day preparations can differ greatly, depending on the sport, one’s mental approach, and whether one’s preparation is as athlete (warm-up and prepare the body) or as spectator (warm up the nacho cheese). We are endlessly engaged with all kinds of daily preparations, sometimes to our soul’s exhaustion. And even here, the simple preparation of ceasing preparations, requires toothbrush and floss before going to bed.

John has come to prepare the way. He cries out to  us, too: prepare the Way of the Lord, make straight his paths.

And I wonder how one does this.

I wonder about the various understandings, spoken or otherwise, that direct (for example) our Christmas preparations. In my family growing up, the season of Advent was greatly revered. No Christmas songs until Christmas, or until Mom put on Bing Crosby while dad was out running errands. On the whole, this approach meant that we mostly got ready for Christmas by not getting ready for Christmas. The not getting ready was the way we got ready; the not preparing was the preparing. It was all very Zen.

Of course, it’s not that we didn’t get ready at all; rather, in bold defiance of society’s worship of efficiency, productivity, and speed, my family taught me that, in some things, at least, timing matters and some matters take time; moreover, time and patience bring with them the humbling acknowledgement that we do not control God.

So the apparent tension of Advent - between waiting on the one hand and preparation on the other - can, perhaps, be held together. Expectant mothers, for example, know the truth, the secret, that the preparation is the waiting, the emptying; making room, physical space - like nurseries - and also temporal space, like stripped-down schedules that, while not neglecting life’s other commitments, are simple, bare, and expecting interruption. Preparation is making room for that for which one waits.

This is why, when John the Baptist comes preaching repentance for the forgiveness of sins, so many Israelites flock to him, repent, and ask to be opened to the coming of God - because the preparation of repentance is a powerful kind of emptying that can open one’s eyes to the salvation of God.

‘...the crooked shall be made straight,
and the rough ways made smooth,
and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.'

A friend told me about his recent trip to Uganda; he had been honored to preach at a service of baptism and confirmation. The bishop stood up and invited those who would like to be baptized and/or confirmed to meet him in front of the altar. Several dozen young teenagers rose to meet him. “You are saying ‘yes’ to Jesus,” the bishop observed. “Tell me,” he said, “in order to say ‘yes’ to Jesus, to what are you saying, ‘no’?”

Now, one could read this invitation as a simple retread of pietistic moralism, but I think that would be a mistake, to miss the larger challenge. It is not just bad sins or habits we put down in preparing for Christ; it is everything that, once set down, frees our lives to receive him. Put differently, Christians have no grounds for discerning good or bad habits apart from the measure of life lived with Christ.

I think, then, we are finally left with this question: What does life lived with God look like? This is why Advent begins with John, with Israel, the people of God struggling to live with God. Advent invites us to enter Israel’s struggle; to consider an intimacy with God closer than what we were initially prepared to take on. There’s that word again: prepare.

How does one prepare the Way of the Lord?

Preparation: not being asked to do more; maybe being willing to do less or to do what you are doing more slowly; making physical and temporal space; John asking us to re-envision all of our doings as preparation for - and eventual participation in - the three-fold mystery we don’t yet know: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.

I wonder if you are among those whose preparation this Advent would be blessed by the emptying, the holy space-making, of repentance. I wonder if there are things weighing heavily on you for which the ear of a priest, spiritual director, or holy friend, listening on behalf of God, would aid your preparation, make room for his coming. I wonder if a part of your heart aches in a good way at the thought of the relief this might bring. I wonder if instead you are mindful of a particular relationship into which you might speak your desire for forgiveness.

I wonder also - as one preparing - how slowly you are willing to linger through the story of God this Advent. I wonder what room might open in you, simply walking, slowly through the pages, the landscape of shepherds, stars, camels, and kings until the story becomes alive and wild and strange. Words that you had not noticed the first time reframing your second reading. Preparing your third reading. Anticipating your fourth. Just of Luke’s first two chapters. I wonder if the commitment to memorize - carry in your person - a small portion of the story would open in your person a place for the One whose coming we prepare. Preparation is making room for that for which one waits.

John went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah,

"The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
'Prepare the way of the Lord...’”


SFH 12.9.12

Monday, December 3, 2012

Humility and Love's Acceptance


"It's hard to be humble, when you're as great as I am."
Muhammad Ali

In my most recent sermon/post, I found myself concluding that

Saints are not the ones who always get it right. Rather, saints are those who always remember their great, great need of God. It is the humility of the saints that protects them from presumption and so keep their eyes waiting, watchful, responsive, fixed on the horizon of Christ’s returning.

In addition to believe this conclusion to be faithfully in conversation with the lessons appointed for the occasion - the 1st Sunday of Advent - I somewhat accidentally found the emphasis on humility echoing the language of that Sunday's collect:

Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

It has been said that humility is almost too tricky to be helpful in practice because of the human tendency toward the extremes of self-loathing on the one hand and self-righteousness on the other: so humility is a kind of logical response to shortcomings and as damper to successes that have not proven themselves over time; that is, humility serves as an indicator of self-awareness in moral practice.

This operating definition of humility makes humility especially hard to talk about in Advent because Advent is no longer considered a strictly penitential season, and penitential seasons are when moral practice is most up for open conversation. Thus, that humility still comes up in our collects in Advent should make us question our presuppositions about humility.

The collect recalls us to the humility of Christ in his being born among us to Mary. The One without sin poured out such that the humility open to Christians becomes less self-loathing v. self-importance but rather life without God v. life united to him. And life united to God means life for the world as well. Advent calls Christians to the humility of love's acceptance.

All of which occasions my sharing a hymn that has become my daughter's favorite - one she asks me to sing to her at least three mornings a week - #277 - in the Hymnal 1982.

Sing of Mary, pure and lowly,
Virgin mother undefiled;
Sing of God's own Son most holy,
Who became her little child.
Fairest child of fairest mother,
God the Lord who came to earth,
Word made flesh, our very brother,
Takes our nature by his birth.

Sing of Jesus, son of Mary,
In the home at Nazareth.
Toil and labor cannot weary
Love enduring unto death.
Constant was the love he gave her,
Though he went forth from her side,
Forth to preach, and heal, and suffer,
Till on Calvary he died.

Glory be to God the Father;
Glory be to God the Son;
Glory be to God the Spirit;
Glory to the Three in One.
From the heart of blessed Mary,
From all saints the song ascends,
And the Church the strain re-echoes
Unto earth's remotest ends.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Stuff My Dad Says(1):
an Advent homily

I wonder if you can think back to one or more especially quirky things your parents used to say with some regularity throughout your childhood. Maybe they still say them. Do you have a good one you’d be willing to share? It needs to be endearing/lame/memorable.

[When asked for an example: when Dad would set the table for dinner, prepare drinks, he'd find my brothers and me in the living room and say something to the effect of, "Well, what'll it be, boys? Juice? Or Gentiles?" I'll wait a second while you put it together. Ready? Good.]

As a young teenager, I would sometimes holler to my parents as I was leaving the house, “See you later. I’ll be back!” To which my dad would inevitably and dryly respond: “Is that a promise or a threat?”

Har har. Love you, too, Dad.

Tonight, we hear the news that Christ will come again, and I think about my dad. The image given to us in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, and again in Luke’s gospel, is of God’s people standing before the Son of Man, standing blameless before God the Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all the saints. And hearing that Christ will come again - us, before the throne - I wonder my dad’s question: is that a promise or a threat?

On the one hand, clearly promise. Promise: à la Thomas Aquinas in that great hymn - hymn 314 of the 1982 Hymnal - “face to face thy splendor I at last shall see, in the glorious vision, blessed Lord, of thee.” Promise: that, on that great, last day, suffering and injustice will be ended, that God himself will dry every tear. Promise: that, on that day, all things will be reconciled, made whole, brought near to God. Promise: no more warring madness, both in the land and in my soul, but peace, the true peace, of the city of God.

On the other hand, threat. Threat: just to the extent that I sometimes act as if I will not ever be seen by God - or anyone else, for that matter - as I really am, and just to the extent that I sometimes enjoy, find relief in, this thought; the desire to flee, to hide, to escape; never fully eclipsing the instinct that Adam and Eve first learned in the garden.

I wonder if you have ever feared the coming again of another person, and who that person was. My parents used to leave my brothers and me with lists of chores when they would leave the house, things to do while they were away. The chores nearly always were left undone, or put off until the very end. We had reasons, self-inflicted, to fear their return. There are those of us who have more serious associations with fear and returns. Returns like the commotion of the drunken parent, back from God’s knows where, who might or might not have found the hidden baseball bat. Some people think of God’s returning like that. Or returns like the return of the loved one who has come back with tears in her eyes to accept the apology you know cannot undo the hurt you have caused her, and to give the forgiveness you know you will never deserve. I wonder if God’s returning has ever seemed like that for you.

Christ will come again.

There are some of us who, from time to time, long for the return of Jesus so that the others will finally get their just desserts, swiftly. Not just in a nasty way, but even in noble ways that are jealous to see justice and mercy lived out. The Psalms are full of examples like this. I suspect, though, that it is naive and dangerous to pretend that those others have offended God’s justice and mercy more often than I have.

Christ will come again.

There are even some of us who, from time to time, pray against the coming of Jesus so that we can get to do all the things we are planning to do before then. A good friend of mine in college - engaged - one day vocalized his fervent prayer that the second coming hold off just a few more weeks, at least, until he and his fiance were married and had enjoyed their wedding night.

I suspect my friend only said out loud what most of us quietly think about the end and Christ’s coming; reminiscent of Augustine’s brutally honest prayer: “Lord, make me chaste, but Lord, not yet.”

“Be on guard,” Jesus says, “so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation (that is, wasteful consumption) and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly.”

So here is the question to which these readings and this Advent and the thought of his coming and the standing before Christ keep calling me back: What about the way I hope to be then, standing in the full presence of God, am I putting off now?

What are the contours of holiness? What is its taste? Of the steps I take each day, which steps are in step with my growing understanding of who God is and who I am as God’s own? Which steps merely keep time? Which steps, when I am honest, make me doubt my desire for God? Would I be willing to surrender this last sort of steps?

And here, in the midst of this desire, that question, and honest, self-reflection, a last word about holiness and the practices that might sustain it in this life. It has been said of the saints that for all their pursuit of perfection, it is not their perfection that defines them. Saints are not the ones who always get it right. Rather, saints are those who always remember their great, great need of God. It is the humility of the saints that protects them from presumption and so keep their eyes waiting, watchful, responsive, fixed on the horizon of Christ’s returning. So it is the knowledge that they have been forgiven, for example, that becomes the generous stream of forgiveness flowing through them. It is God’s great love for them, shown chiefly in the humility of Christ born to us, that at the same time embarrasses and inspires them to love without hesitation or fear. It is exactly the brokenness, the weakness, of the saints that occasions their praise of the Great Physician. In each of these ways the lives of the saints grow an appetite for a fulfillment that must, in the end, come from outside of themselves, as gift from outside. So their lives expect, look for, live the yearning of, this gift: the promise of the presence of God.

Christ will come again.


SFH. 12.2.12

(1) I wanted to title this post something other than '"stuff" my dad says' (let the reader infer), but Rebekah tells me that, while culturally relevant, the preferred title is too edgy for a priest and, more than that, I risk losing the readership of the two or three of you who read the blog with any regularity. "Stuff" it is.

Friday, November 30, 2012

St Francis House 2012 Alumni Christmas Letter

St Francis House has just prepared its 2012 Alumni Christmas Letter. Written primarily for SFH alums, it nonetheless offers a snapshot for anyone interested in the work and ministry of SFH. Please take a look and let me know what you think.

Alumni will want to especially take note of the upcoming Alumni Christmas Reunion Gathering, December 18th, with Bishop Miller, the SFH Board, myself, and invited, honored guests the Rev. Art Lloyd (St Francis Chaplain, 1968-77) and his wife, Sue. It promises to be a wonderful evening.

Click on the link above to access the full newsletter. For best resolution quality, download the PDF onto your computer.


Thursday, November 29, 2012

On Forest Herbs and their Pollinators

The stars declare his glory;
the vault of heaven springs,
mute witness of the Master's hand
in all created things,
and through the silences of space
their soundless music sings.

 - Timothy Dudley-Smith (1)

I am Coffee Bytes just now, a few minutes away from my inaugural trip to Birge Hall, a block and half down University Drive from this coffee shop. Every week I try to sit in on an open lecture on campus. More than a few times, I have found myself in over my head. This one, at Birge Hall, is especially intimidating:
The influence of climate and land-use history on native forest herbs 
and their pollinators in the Southern Appalachians.

Yep. That's the real title. Admittedly, not my first choice, but schedules and availability play a part. I am finding that the commitment to be interested is itself a discipline - a discipline I am finding to be especially worthwhile.

Indeed, part of my intention in these visits is to witness the interest of the People of God in things that it might be easy not to notice, much less show an active interest in. Of course, for this witness to be sincere, the interest must be sincere. But this is actually the best thing about interest, I have found, because the interested one gets to decide what interests her/him. And there is a wonderful freedom in this.(2) One need not apologize for one's interests. So I come to these gatherings ready to say why the work interests me, and I come ready to listen to the interest of others because I am genuinely interested in that, too. 

My particular interest in the influence of climate and land-use history on native forest herbs and their pollinators in the Southern Appalachians is 3-fold:

Having lived in NC for three years, and honeymooned on Lookout Mountain, near Chattanooga, TN, I have a personal/geographical interest. I love the region.

Some years ago, Ellen Davis, Wendell Berry, and others, reawakened my imagination to the importance of land and place, and how we care for land and place, as Christians. This imagination has everything to do with daily life and how Christians read Scripture.

When I first read the lecture title, the words to the hymn at the top of this post surfaced from some far-off recesses of my soul. Hymn 431 was my "first favorite" hymn as a child. I found it difficult to sing and impossible not to love. I come to this lecture to learn more about the "soundless music" whereby creation livings its/our constant praise of God.


(1) Hymn 431 in the Hymnal 1982
(2) I have sometimes found that, for fear of not knowing enough - or some similar insecurity - we in the Church don't indicate our interest in the interests of others nearly enough, to our mutual poverty. The Kingdom comes to those like children. Be not afraid.

Monday, November 26, 2012

"And what is this 'glory of the Lord'?"

In our worship for Christ the King Sunday, St Francis House observed a time of reflection in lieu of the homily. Specifically, the time was oriented to help us reflect on 1) the nature of the Kingdom of the Crucified King, and 2) the place this feast holds as the last Sunday of the year - and so at a time wherein examination of our own lives seems especially appropriate. To the first goal, we read an excerpt (below) from the Early Church in which themes of kingship, coming, Christmas, and cross are richly interwoven. To the second end, I asked three questions spaced over a time of silence. Following the silence, we collected ourselves and our intentions in the song at the end of this post, which rightly, I think, situates followers of the King whose glory is the cross.

A reading from a sermon of Andrew of Crete, Bishop and Hymnographer [740], from Readings for the Daily Office from the Early Church, J. Robert Wright:

Let us say to Christ: "Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord, the King of Israel." Let us hold before him like palm branches those final words inscribed above the cross. Let us show him honor, not with olive branches but with the splendor of merciful deeds to one another. Let us spread the thoughts and desires of our hearts under his feet like garments, so that entering us with the whole of his being, he may draw the whole of our being into himself and place the whole of his in us. Let us say to Zion in the words of the prophet: "Have courage, daughter of Zion, do not be afraid. Behold, your king comes to you, humble and mounted on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden."

He is coming who is everywhere present and pervades all things; he is coming to achieve in you his work of universal salvation. He is coming who came to call to repentance not the righteous but sinners, coming to recalled those who have strayed into sin. Do not be afraid, then: "God is in the midst of you, and you shall not be shaken."

Receive him with open, outstretched hands, for it was on his own hands that he sketched you. Receive him who laid your foundations on the palms of his hands. Receive him, for he took upon himself all that belongs to us except sin, to consume what is ours in what is his. Be glad, city of Zion, our mother, and fear not. "Celebrate your feasts." Glorify him for his mercy, who has come to us in you. Rejoice exceedingly, daughter of Jerusalem, sing and leap for joy. "Be enlightened, be enlightened," we cry to you, as holy Isaiah trumpeted: "for the light has come to you and the glory of the Lord has risen over you."

What kind of "light" is this? It is that which "enlightens every one coming into the world." It is the everlasting light, the timeless light revealed in time, the light manifested in the flesh although hidden by nature, the light that shone round the shepherds and guided the Magi. It is the light that was in the world from the beginning, through which the world was made, yet the world did not know it. It is that light which came to its own, and its own people did not receive it.

And what is this "glory of the Lord"? Clearly it is the cross on which Christ was glorified, he, the radiance of the Father's glory, even as he said when he faced his passion: "Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him, and will glorify him at once." The glory of which he speaks here is his lifting up on the cross, for Christ's glory is his cross and his exultation upon it, as he plainly says: "When I have been lifted up, I will draw all people to myself."

Questions for reflection in silence:

In what moment(s) or season of this past year did you feel closest to God?

What practice or practices were most up-building to you in your life of faith?

In the year ahead, in what particular area or areas of your life do you most feel/hear God calling you to grow or develop?

Monday, November 19, 2012

Thinking through Discernment

The other day I found myself in awe of and grateful for an after-dinner conversation with St Francis House students. For my own remembering and for benefit of others, this post is simply the questions and observations in note-form from that conversation, on the topic of discernment.

What is discernment?

From the dictionary:
The ability to judge well.

Synonyms:discrimination - perspicacity - acumen - judgement

Observation: discernment in the Church usually indicates a formal process, most frequently centered around ordination; but the benefit of such a process for those not seeking ordination is also apparent.

What does it mean to be discerning, generally?

Give an example of a time you exhibited discernment.

What role did God and/or faith play in this particular discernment process in your life?

What are some obstacles to discernment?

What scriptural images come to mind when you think of discernment?

How do these images shape us as Christians toward faithful discernment?

What is the role of the community of faith in/for discernment?

What constitutes a successful life?

MY LORD GOD, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.

- Thomas Merton, "Thoughts in Solitude"

A hymn-response to our conversation, selected by a student:

Lord of all hopefulness, Lord of all joy,
Whose trust, ever childlike, no cares can destroy,
Be there at our waking, and give us, we pray,
Your bliss in our hearts, Lord, at the break of the day.

Lord of all eagerness, Lord of all faith,
Whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe,
Be there at our labors, and give us, we pray,
Your strength in our hearts, Lord at the noon of the day.

Lord of all kindliness, Lord of all grace,
Your hands swift to welcome, your arms to embrace,
Be there at our homing, and give us, we pray,
Your love in our hearts, Lord, at the eve of the day.

Lord of all gentleness, Lord of all calm,
Whose voice is contentment, whose presence is balm,
Be there at our sleeping, and give us, we pray,
Your peace in our hearts, Lord, at the end of the day. 

Sunday, November 18, 2012

Did You Know the Sun is Gonna Die?

Grace and peace.

Thank you for the welcome St Andrew’s has extended to St Francis House, to be with you across the morning. It is good to be with friends, and I am especially grateful for all that St Andrew's does to cultivate your relationship with SFH. Father Andy, of course, serves on the SFH Board, many of you have provided meals on Sunday evenings, others of you are alumni of the House or friends through the university. But for those of you who may not know, St Francis House is the Episcopal Student ministry of our diocese to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The students and I will be with you all morning. Some of us were especially keen to learn that Sundays have mornings. We’re very glad to be sharing this one with you.

In the 2009 film adaptation of the popular children’s book, Where the Wild Things Are, Max, the boy in the wolf suit who makes mischief of one kind and another, says to one of his monster friends: Carol, did you know the sun was gonna die?

Carol: What? I never heard that... Oh, come on. That can't happen. I mean you're the king, and look at me, I'm big! How can guys like us worry about a tiny little thing like the sun, hmm?

But you and I know that Max was right: one day the sun will die. Moreover, that the sun will die signals, for some, the end of any meaning that finally matters. A friend of mine likes to tease his teenage daughters when they get too caught up in any one of life’s many particulars: “In ninety years,” he tells them, “we’ll all be dead. It doesn’t really matter, does it?” When the same can be said of the universe - though in a few more than ninety years - in what sense does it make sense to talk about meaning?

Of course, the end of the universe does not necessarily signal the end of meaning. A professor in seminary liked to remind us that we Christians worship a God who promises to kill us all in the end. That is, faith in the God of Jesus is not surprised by the fact that there will be an end.

Truthfully, many of us are ambivalent about the end of the world. We know that we do not want to die, but also that we do not have the strength to keep this up forever. For some of us, especially parents of young children, the suggestion that we might, one day at least, rest in peace, is good and welcome news.

So here we are, two more weeks until Advent, almost to the end, at least of our liturgical calendar. And our scriptures come to us this morning preparing us to contemplate the end and also Christ’s coming again in glory.

When Christians think about the end, we think about those things our lives anticipate. Our Old Testament lesson from Daniel reminds us that, as much as we anticipate Christmas vacation, the end of the semester, the next season of American Idol, or Jersey Shore, God’s people are given freedom for a deeper longing:

“ that time your people shall be delivered, everyone who is found written in the book. Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. Those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever.”

Over against Dancing with the Stars, Daniel foretells that those who lead many to righteousness will be made like the stars.

When Christians think about the end, we think about those things we anticipate. We learn to confess the paltry substitutes around which, in the absence of meaningful hope, we order our lives. Worship of Red States and Blue States, for example, surely betrays our fear that the end will not end with the conquering Lamb who is King. And how does truth compel Christians to speak about our worship of college football? Perhaps it is best not to ask. Put differently, when you catch me on the street and ask me if I have plans, what I am looking forward to this week, why isn’t my first answer “Holy Eucharist”? And why, if that was my first answer, would the most charitable reading of that answer likely be, “He’s a little eccentric”?

But here, at the Eucharist, we Christians learn to anticipate the prayer “on earth as it is in heaven,” and so we learn to long deeply, like Daniel. When Christians think about the end, we think about those things our lives anticipate, the things for which we long. Daniel frees us for a deeper longing.

To long deeply takes courage. To hope, to lean into the contingent future of God, leaves one vulnerable, especially to things like delay and disappointment. In the gospel lesson, Jesus warns his followers - the same followers who are in the process of being disappointed by the shape of Jesus’ kingship - that the end will not come as quickly as they would like: “Beware,” he says, “that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come.” It seems strange that the most significant thing Jesus says about the end is that this is not it. We are called to long deeply and wait patiently.

That we are called to long deeply and wait patiently leaves us especially vulnerable, Jesus says, to those who would announce the end before we get there.

There are, I think, at least two kinds of unhelpful complacency in life. The first kind happens when you don’t think the promised end will come and the second kind happens when you’re sure that it has, i.e., coasting to the finish. I’m not sure one is preferable to the other. Despair, on the one hand, and presumption, on the other, seem equally at odds with the Christian vocation to holiness. We require both Daniel’s reminder that our hope is true, and Jesus’ warning not to start coasting too soon.

If you’ll humor me a moment: since moving to Madison from South Texas just over two months ago now, I have become something of a Mapquest addict and an expert at getting lost. An iPhone upgrade has recently given me the benefit of Siri’s voice lovingly intoning my every upcoming turn, but prior to the upgrade, I was left reading the direction in printed list form: turn left in 436 feet, another left to take the highway in 0.7 miles. And one day, as I reflected on my many adventures getting lost, I observed that it was almost always for turning too soon. Never the other way around. “It says in 0.3 miles...I know I haven’t seen that street, but surely I’ve gone that far...feels like I’ve been driving for ever.” Pressures of time and lateness get the best of me, I’ve found. I begin to second guess the directions I’ve been given and also my ability to read them. I find that I need a voice next to me, whispering: Not yet. Press on. Don’t give up. Keep going.

I think Jesus is encouraging his disciples along this line when he warns them about the signs that do not mean the end has come. The writer of Hebrews is likewise encouraging us in this manner when he exhorts the baptized faithful to hold fast to the confession of their hope, to remember the faithfulness of God, and then - my favorite part - to provoke one another to love and good deeds (a wonderful phrase!), not neglecting to meet, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching. Collectively, these voices meet us, we who long for, but have not reached, the promised end for God’s people; they gather around us, surround us, and whisper: press on. Keep it up. Keep going. Go! Stay the good course, don’t let up, trust in God. You aren’t there yet, but that’s because the road is long, not because you missed the exit. Long deeply. Live truly. Anticipate fully. Keep the faith.

Provoke one another in love, break bread as often as you can. Learn to relish the anticipation of the Eucharist. Remember that, though the sun may die and the universe end, you are indwelled by the Love that first moved the sun and the stars and his Kingdom will have no end. Remember your place in that Kingdom. Yes, above everything else, and this is our end, remember your baptism.


SFH. 11.18.12.

Monday, November 12, 2012

A Quasi-Muppet Theology of Creation

The story of rediscovering biblical imagination at St Francis House.

Sitting around a table at Union South two weeks ago, the students of St Francis House began an impromptu conversation about the Bible. The presenting topic, raised by one student, was how we might, as SFH, dig deeper in the faith, and in ways that would both build up and challenge. This led another student to ask how the training she received in her home denomination compared to the training of the Episcopal Confirmation process. Still another student chimed in, asking what the others learned in Confirmation classes. She confessed that she remembered little from her own Confirmation training. As we continued talking that night, opening up about what we didn't know, what we wanted to know, and how we might grow towards the goals, a student piped up: "What if we used a children's Bible?"

"Say what?" I asked.

"Well, not to study, but to know what to study." The contention was that children's bibles represent something of a proposed authoritative canon, and I think that's right. Children's bibles make a case for the component stories most essential to the larger arc of Scripture's narrative flow: the narrative of God's self-revelation. (I think here of Robert Jenson who said that, "God is whoever raised Jesus from the dead, having before raised Israel from Egypt.") The students are especially keen to bring in voices from other traditions at intervals along the way to inform their reading and to compare children's bibles for discrepancies, omissions, and agreements.

"Huh," I said.(1)

"That sounds really interesting, actually." I admitted that, as the father of two children, 1 and 3, I consider myself something of an expert on children's bibles, and that I mostly hate them. I tire of improvising around clumsy stories (water into grape juice, anyone?) just before bed and when I am tired and not wanting to keep on my theological toes. And yet, I told them, all the more reason to pay attention to the ways we Christians tell the story to our children. Right?

Last week we started with the story of creation. None of us brought our children's bibles. Oops. We improvised, though, and found this hilarious story of creation.

Afterwards, we turned to the text, where the observation was made that creation happens in two stories in Genesis. And that ex nihilo is probably true, but it isn't in Genesis. We talked about genre, and I shared my Old Testament professor's take on the seven days: that to Hebrew ears this would have sounded a lot like the installation and consecration of a temple. Creation as God's Temple, made for the praise of God. We also talked about free will. I asked why it came up in the muppet version of the story. (I believe in free will, but the snake/God dynamic in the video felt a little like we had skipped straight on to Job.) The students countered with some good points about God and what we learn about God in the creation account.

As we discussed the next week (Noah and the Ark, 7:35 pm, this Tuesday @ Union South), we decided to spend the first few minutes Tuesday writing down all of the things we grew up knowing we were supposed to know about God before we started reading the Bible. If the Bible is primarily about God's self-revelation, are there aspects of our philosophical pre-knowledge that have not been especially helpful? What would be required of us to approach the stories of Scripture with a willingness to be surprised by the God we find in its pages?

To be continued...

(1) The astute reader will note that the chaplain's formal contributions to the conversation - "huh" and "say what" - reflect the highest levels of keenly sophisticated pastoral skill.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

When God's Chosen People Forget

Our lesson from Mark’s gospel is to do with a widow putting her last coins in the temple treasury; the widow’s offering is contrasted with the larger, but proportionately smaller, gifts of the rich folks. This reading has been thematically matched in our Lectionary cycle with the Old Testament reading from 1 Kings, which likewise features a generous (if reluctant) widow: the OT widow is asked to make a cake in order to feed the prophet Elijah, even though it will require, it seems, the very last of her oil and meal. The widow and her son are starving. But when Elijah says, “do not be afraid!”, the widow, like the widow in Mark’s gospel, gives all that she has.

When read together, the emerging message of the two widow stories goes something like this: give to the Lord not out of your abundance, but lay down your very life, all that you have, and the Lord will not let your jar run dry. Enter the stewardship chair with her graphs on per capita percentile giving within congregations; cue the ushers with pencils and pledge envelopes in hand; somebody lock the doors.

And all of this makes sense; it seems to fit - if all too predictably - our expectations for, and disappointments in, the Church. That is, we knew it would come to this. To be clear: that Christians are called to give sacrificially is the prevailing witness of Scripture, the example of the saints, and the clear teaching of Jesus: “...whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake and the sake of the gospel will save it.” That’s clearly the widow. But we look at the widow and this story and something feels off. We had hoped for more. Is this the life abundant? The widow goes broke as the endowment gets fat?

We are clearly called to sacrificial giving as Christians. The question is whether that is what’s going on with the widow at the temple treasury. You may have guessed by now that I don’t think it is. Let me briefly share an alternative possibility.

Locating the story of the widow’s temple offering in the context of Mark’s whole gospel, we make a few, basic observations: we’re in chapter 12. At the end of chapter 11, Jesus chases the money changers out of the temple, calling them a den of robbers. At the beginning of chapter 12, Jesus curses a fig tree, and it withers; some scholars see this as a symbol-cursing of the temple. What follows is an extended dialogue with Jesus, the chief priests, Pharisees, Herodians, and scribes in which Jesus’ authority is openly questioned; for his part, Jesus uses a parable involving a vineyard and its tenants to name the unfaithfulness of the temple leaders and predict his crucifixion at their hands; then a series of additional traps set for Jesus, all culminating with Jesus teaching in the temple courts - and here you’ll recognize the front half of today’s lesson: “As he taught, Jesus said, ‘Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation.’”

When the widow finally steps up to the treasury box to drop in her coins, she walks somewhat unwittingly into the middle of this larger anti-temple dispute. To emphasize the point, Mark tells us that Jesus watches the widow as he sits opposite - or literally “over against” - the place where the offerings are made. And immediately following the widow’s offering, Jesus foretells the temple’s destruction.

The “here, there, and in between” of this poor widow and her offering is Jesus’ prophetic challenge to the temple establishment, chiefly on the grounds that it devours the homes of widows; so it becomes increasingly difficult to see Jesus as lifting up the widow’s giving to the temple as an example for us to follow. Indeed, it becomes difficult to imagine that Jesus is primarily talking about the widow at all, except as an illustration of the brokenness of the temple system as it is presently ordered.

It would be as if the slick televangelist on the 700 Club successfully snookered Grandma out of her savings, and the moral of the story was to give like Grandma gave.

But if Mark’s gospel is not about giving all you have to the religious establishment, what is it about?

I think Mark’s gospel this evening is about remembering what it is to be blessed; remembering what it is to be chosen; remembering what it is to be God’s holy people. I think Jesus thinks that the people of Israel in his day, as embodied in the temple leadership, had forgotten what it was to be blessed, chosen, and God’s holy people.

So just what does it mean to be chosen by God? Does it bother us that God chooses some and not others? And what of the Bible’s disturbing trend in which those who are chosen are chosen precisely to share the blessing of God to the ones who don’t appear to be chosen?

Last Thursday night at dinner on the Terrace, the notion of discernment came up. Who is God calling me to be? What am I called to do? These are versions of the question “What does it mean to be chosen by God?” And with it, the follow-up: how do God’s people live that calling out?

The Israel of temple worship was to be a people of praise whose life, worship, and example, pointed the glory of God. Israel has been chosen, blessed, to extend the blessing of God; along the way, Israel struggled to comprehend how the blessing could be shared without its blessing being lost. If I give it to you, what’s left for me? This is the fear that is present when widows’ homes are devoured for the protection of one’s sense of being holy, set apart. It is the fear that there isn’t enough, and that blessings are not true or lasting, that God might be as unfaithful as we know ourselves to be. But God is true. There is enough. And God’s chosen are chosen to share the blessing of God with those who are sure they have not been chosen. And this vocation, this calling, the calling of Israel, is most concentrated, most fulfilled, say the gospels, in the person of Jesus, whose Holy Spirit we share.

Such a vision for blessing out of blessing - the conviction that we, as the people of God grafted into Israel by the mercies of Christ, have been blessed to be a blessing - must form our imagination for the priorities of the people of God and how we live those out: as Mark’s gospel reminds us, the Church must always stand with the poor.

So finally, as you mature in the faith, growing into the full stature of Christ, I do pray you will always give to your church, and generously, but also that you will challenge your church to be as lavishly generous as she wants you to be. That you will prod the Body of Christ to seek out and stand with the lost. To stoop down and anoint, to bind up, the broken. To risk even financial vulnerability. To always ask how the blessing might be shared, the Good News enacted, especially with those who don’t feel much like chosen. There are a great many people out there who don’t feel much like chosen. They are on street corners, in dorm rooms; they are your professors, your friends. They are the strangers; they are your sisters, your brothers; and they are your calling, because they are God’s delight.

You are, too. You are God’s chosen. God’s chosen are chosen to share the blessing of God with those who are certain they cannot be chosen.


SFH. 11/11/12

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Praise and Politics:
Lancelot Andrewes and the Gunpowder Plot Sermons

Two days ago, sneaked between streams of election-oriented Facebook posts, a second, much smaller, stream curiously began to trend: "Remember, remember the fifth of November..." I stared blankly at the screen. I confess that I had not remembered (either the date or the particulars of its significance) and required a quick wiki refresher course on the Gunpowder Plot of 1605 (November 5th, of course) in which Guy Fawkes was caught underneath the British Parliament with three-dozen barrels of gunpowder and a set of matches. (Oops.) Fawkes and his fellow conspirators were promptly hung, drawn, and quartered.

[Parenthetically, I was curious: why did this date, which I had forgotten, come so easily for so many of my Facebook friends? I mean, we're talking about a relatively minor event most famous for not happening. St Francis House students have subsequently informed me that Guy Fawkes and the historical non-incident were central to the plot and understanding of the futurist, anarchistic, film V for Vendetta. It's supposed to be really good. Ah.]

Apart from being a significant part of Anglican history (Fawkes and his fellows were conspirators from the Catholic minority), the juxtaposition of November 5th and November 6th (Election Day) both seriously and somewhat humorously named the tension between government and Christian discipleship. Leading up to Election Day, I was struggling to discern a faithful Christian response (see Why Do Christians Vote - and should we?) to the election. I was taking seriously a friend who doesn't vote. Some Americans will tell you that to not vote, while not an act of treason, is not an American thing to do.

The most interesting challenge, I think, of the Guy Fawkes story comes in the epilogue. In 1606 (one year later), Lancelot Andrewes, bishop and scholar in the Church of the England, was commissioned by the state to preach the first of what were later called the "Gunpowder Plot sermons." The aim of the commission was to hold the attempted treason (and the fate of those who tried it) in the collective memory of the people and so discourage future treason.

Where I was wondering if voting represented a compromise of faith, Lancelot Andrewes was asked to preach a sermon for the state to protect its sovereignty. If the American political process can become idolatrous (and it can), so too can the Christian's spiritual wrangling over what to do next. Lancelot's challenge so dwarfed my own that it gave me some humility and perspective. What's a good bishop to do?

And he was a good bishop; this was no Constantinian puppet. Still, he preached the sermon for the state. You can read the sermon here.

Neil Barclay Johnston, in the abstract to an article for which I don't have access, writes that Andrewes' state-commissioned works were distinctive for
what is lacking in the sermons themselves: historical antecedents for the apparent exaltation of the king and the state ground these expressions in gratitude and obedience to God. Moreover, as is seen from the shift in emphasis that Andrewes’ rhetoric takes in these ten sermons, they are much more than anti-Catholic and pro-English propaganda. They are, in fact, sacred epideictic efforts that use the politically ordained occasion for spiritual ends: to give praise to God for the Gunpowder Plot deliverance, to rebuke the treasonous act and the traitors who plotted it, and to issue a renewed call to obedience.
Here is a remarkable thing: in a sermon commissioned to counter national treason, Andrewes exhorts his hearers to praise in ways that repeatedly subordinate the same state who commissioned the sermon under God.

Andrewes' did not refuse the commission. Still, his imagination for faithful engagement with the powers was deep and broad, and he praised his King at the invitation of another king. In Sam Wells' language, he over-accepted the opportunity, with its challenges, and proffered an invitation to praise. That he could do so is surely only possible because he lived the life of praise. I want instincts like that. May we become people capable of over-accepting the powers because our lives have become living sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving to God.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Does Voter Apathy Expose the Fiction of a Polarized America?

In a recent post, I asked why Christians vote, and whether, as Christians, we are right to do so. Just now I am praying for the unity of our nation, the coherency of the Church, and the unexpected future of which our control is an illusion.

I am also wondering about popular voting rhetoric and conventional wisdom, trying to understand how it all adds up. For example:

  • We have all heard some version of "if you don't vote now, you can't complain later." This is a strange position for a Christian to hold because complaining is not a right most Christians would admit to wanting to preserve. Indeed, once upon a time, I gave up complaining for Lent. It was the single most edifying Lenten observance (next to the weekly walking of the Stations of the Cross) I have ever engaged. The position is also strange because it imagines a time or condition at which point conversation ends.
  • Another piece of bizarre conventional wisdom is that one does not ask someone else for whom they are voting. (Admittedly, Facebook is increasingly rendering this dilemma moot. You don't have to ask.) Even in a Facebook world, however, face to face discussions about why one votes (or doesn't) and for whom one votes are as rare as ever and to the detriment, I think, of honest, productive discourse. ('Cuz let's face it, we ain't getting that from the candidates. It's not happening.)

Part of the "don't ask, don't tell" nature of voting respects the individual freedom on which the voting process is predicated. The other part, says conventional wisdom, is that such a conversation would be too polarizing. You don't ask how old people are, if she's pregnant, how much your co-worker makes, or for whom your neighbor is voting.

And in truth, it does look like our nation is polarized. Twenty-four hours away from "the day", every national polling organization has Obama and Romney in a statistical dead-heat. And yet, those same polling organizations are predicting only a 41% voter turnout, a full 11% less than North Korea. The red/blue civil war we imagine appears to be comprised, in fact, of more than a little apathy, or - put another way - a 2 out of 3 likelihood that the person you ask about politics won't be nearly as fierce (or offended) as you imagine. One CNN op-ed contends that the deluge of political ads in recent days target, in part, the disenfranchising of potential voters so that only the most predictable voters (those on the far right and left) make it to the polls. Candidates aren't looking to win popularity contests, but to strategically energize known, friendly-to-them regions. This raises the question:

Does our current political system bank on our inability to speak face to face and charitably with our neighbors across the aisle? To what extent does the prevailing silence make possible the fiction of red-hot passion that, when you look at the numbers, simply is not true. This silence is why I admire those, like my friend Greg, who chose to break it, and who encouraged me to do the same. Like most things in life, political particulars are not as scary when you name them.

Let me be clear: I am not asking anyone who isn't voting to vote (or vice versa). I am asking you to share your thinking (even if undecided) so that your friends and neighbors can learn from your insights and your struggles. And to do so with charity. Be vulnerable. Where are you passionate? Where are you conflicted? What do you admire in the other side? What information do you wish you had for the conversation? Develop a healthy reluctance to tell others what responsible Americans/Christians/Others should do - that is, don't assume the war. Give an honest account of what you are doing. How is your voting a reflection of your life? If you are feeling especially courageous, include how questions of faith bear on your thinking. Where you wish your faith gave you more direction or clarity, name that, too. Even if you don't share it, write it out. But do share it.

The system would tell you that your vote makes the difference. But your vote is not your voice (neither are those insufferable memes, by the way), only one expression of it. Share your full voice with the rest of us. As the robo-calls come to a merciful end, most of us are dying for an interesting conversation.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Resurrection, Carly Rae Jepsen, & Memories of Granny

All Saints’ Day does not always start with the tomb. This year we receive the account from John’s gospel in which Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, but other years we hear “blessed are the pure in heart, blessed are the poor in spirit, blessed are the meek, the peacemakers, the merciful” from the Beatitudes in Matthew’s gospel. Still other years we receive the less spiritual version from Luke: “blessed are the poor, period.” In fact, in the history of the Episcopal Prayer Book tradition, dating back to the first English prayer book in 1549 (463 years ago, for those scoring at home), this is only the third Sunday for which John 11 has been appointed to this feast - all in the last six years and owing to the adoption of the Revised Common Lectionary in 2006. I don’t say this to diminish the appointment of the reading - far less to diminish the RCL, which has Christians across denominations reading Scripture together (always a good thing) - but I want you to appreciate the historical uniqueness of this moment. It is a good thing, I think, but/and the Church is not used to doing this. All Saints’ Day does not always start with the tomb. But because this All Saints’ Day starts with the tomb, I will, too.

When I was little, my Granny took my younger brothers and me on frequent trips to the cemetery. Both of Granny’s parents, my great-grandparents, were dead, and Granny’s husband, my Grandpa Jack, had also died two years before I was born. It is obvious, but still painful, for me to say I never met him. Granny would dress us up, comb our hair, and take arrangements of flowers, sometimes real but mostly artificial, sometimes with flags, and we’d pile into the car; once arrived, she would clean up the plots, usually with some remark about the poor condition of the grounds, and my brothers and I would place the arrangements of flowers at each site, sit back on a bench with Granny for a few minutes in which she would talk aloud to God and Grandpa. We’d walk the grounds a little while, and then we’d all go home.

I remember these visits as some of my earliest introductions to mortality. Grandpa Jack had been buried with his military dog-tags between his teeth, Granny said, which sounded unimaginably horrible to me at the time. And then there was the cognitive disconnect that occurred when I saw my Granny’s name already engraved on their shared tombstone, with an open date on the right-hand side. This was a lot for a five to seven year old to make sense of.

We made these trips with Granny on special occasions: Memorial Day, Labor Day, other times. I think Granny felt a sense of obligation in keeping these dates, and also that she felt she carried the obligation alone. She would sometimes rag on my dad about his not caring to go out to the cemetery with the regularity she would have liked. Remembering family history is very important to my dad - it is a value he has passed on to me - but the grave sites themselves were not as relationally engaging for him as they were for Granny.

One day Dad told me plainly: Your granny goes to the cemetery to meet your grandpa. I don’t know that he’s there; I do know he is present in our worship at the Eucharist. That’s where I meet my dad.

“Why do you look for the living among the dead?”

asked the men that first Easter morning at the tomb. I think this is my father’s question, too. It’s the question that knows that not all emptiness is empty. There is, for example, the great emptiness of that first Easter morning - the empty tomb - likewise the vacuum left in earth and rock when Lazarus was unbound, set free, the promise that we, too, will be raised; that we, in our bodies, shall see God.

Your granny goes to the cemetery to meet your grandpa, said my dad. I don’t know he’s there; I do know he is present in our worship at the Eucharist...

For empty tomb, resurrection people: the Eucharist, as place of reconnection, place of resurrection, place of eternal life; the Eucharist, whereat we are joined as often as we gather by “Angels and Archangels and...all the company of heaven, who forever sing this hymn: holy, holy holy...”

"Geddes MacGregor in The Rhythm of God tells of a priest who, when asked, 'How many people were at the early celebration of the Eucharist last Wednesday morning?' replied, 'There were three old ladies, the janitor, several thousand archangels, a large number of seraphim, and several million of the triumphant saints of God.' (1)

All the company of heaven...In truth, it is not the heavenly hosts who join us at the Eucharist, but we who join them, for they are always singing this song. So they welcome us here, and we foretaste heaven: the feast of God in which the Lord dries every tear and death is swallowed up. Eucharist as the place where heaven and earth kiss and the prayer “on earth as it is in heaven” finds some grit and grip, anticipating the vision and promise of Revelation: the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God; and in this place of holy meeting we sing the song of new and unending life, praise of the risen Lamb: holy, holy, holy.

And this is the tune the whole created order was made to sing. And heavenly hosts don’t stop their singing, because Communion does not simply name the surprising news that we are not alone, but also the truly Good News that, where Jesus is, resurrection is. We are in the presence of Jesus and so here is resurrection, here is new creation. Only the risen Christ makes it possible for saints to sing, and the song we sing is the victory of God.

On All Saints’ Day, it is fair to ask just what a saint is. Lots of speculation about what makes one a holy one, but I think the simplest sign is this: they sing the song. They sing the song of the Holy One whose joy it is to share the banquet of the Lamb. Saints are all of us who sing the victory of God.

Like any good song, it’s meant to get stuck in your head. We learn it here, in part, so that we might hum it out there, in the world. Like an eternal “Call Me Maybe" (only so much better). We learn the song here so that the tune will suggest itself there, almost like instinct, when we’re not really trying; there, when we we think we might break for the weight of it all; there, when we wonder what it all means; there, when we don’t see the way and feel like giving up; and there, too, when things are good and we imagine that we might not need God or that we could do the job as well of he; there, when the mystery and beauty of it all finally silences our attempts to control the mystery with our words and we fall down in wonder, love, and praise: holy, holy, holy. We learn this song here.

With our ears trained for this song, when we hear an echo of it out there, a harmony, or subtle variation, we remember, we recognize, that we were made to fill the skies with the singing of the song that first moved the sun and the stars and loves us in its being. Saints sing this song with their lives and because death cannot stop the song, neither does death mark the end of God’s holy ones.

It’s a wonderful song. The invitation is to sing it with your life. Dare to sing it not just in showers or automobiles or churches but in your daily life, too, your living and dying, your vocation, let it be your direction. Learn to sing this song out loud with your life and with friends: holy, holy, holy.

Where Jesus is, resurrection is. To sing the song of Jesus is the marvelous work of saints. Sing.


SFH. 11.4.12

(1) God in the Moment: Making Every Day a Prayer, Kathy Coffey

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