Wednesday, February 29, 2012

'Be Not Afraid'
St C's Wednesday Night Online Lenten Study Guide

Our Lenten study based on the book Be Not Afraid: Facing Fear with Faith, by Sam Wells, begins today, Wednesday, from 7-8 p.m. at St Christopher's Parish Hall.

When I was in youth group, we would occasionally talk about fear, usually starting with student suggestions - spiders, snakes, etc - hoping that these first steps would eventually lead us to the Big Ones.  They never did.  Wells takes the opposite approach, believing that bringing the Big Ones into contact with the heart of the Christian faith makes it easier to see how our faith also touches other fears.  So the first section in his book is 'Be Not Afraid of Death.'  We'll be jumping off the deep end.

Here are the outline questions we'll use to guide our conversation this evening:


That's tonight.  How the promise of resurrection makes it possible to die well.  I hope you can join us!

Forgiving My Parents, Myself, and - God?

One of the remarkable things about parenthood is how much of the guilt is self-inflicted.  Annie and Jude seldom make complaints (for the time being, anyway); so Bek and I are left with the awesome reality that we are shaping these little lives each day in ways that they don't get to choose and which, we know from our own experiences, will leave them with inevitable wounds and scars that will need God's healing.  I remember Rebekah pausing at one point in our courtship (yes, courtship) - she wanted to continue growing closer together, but she was filled with this terrible panic at the thought that to continue to grow closer would mean that she would hurt me. Not on purpose, of course, but she knew that that's just how real life intimacy works.

Sam Wells writes about wounds, scars, intimacies and their outcomes when, in Be Not Afraid, he reflects on life and dying:  "Few of us can honestly say our lives turned out as we had hope or expected."

Wells goes on to point out that the logical next step in the face of this truth is blame - either of others or ourselves.  The most common "other" is probably our parents (thus my opening reflection on my own guilt as a parent); but Wells points out that forgiving ourselves is no less significant, and it probably the single greatest obstacle to a good death - that is - to  trusting God with patience and courage even when few of us can honestly say that our lives turned out as we had hoped or expected.

The last few days on the blog have focused on public forgiveness-seeking, and I wanted to share a brief story that represents a variation on this theme for me: the tremendous grace over the weekend of Jude's baptism when I witnessed Rebekah's grandfather talking openly about his own life as a parent.  Of himself and his wife as parents, he said simply, "We did the best we could."  There was no self-deprecation, despairing resignation, or lingering regret in his voice. "We did the best we could," he said, and it was the voice of one who had forgiven himself.  His tone was a public witness that serves as a daily reminder to me in my own life as a parent.

"You cannot choose your parents," one book says.  Which meant my NBA career was over before it started.  You weren't going to get 6' 9" from my gene pool.  Whether by biology or sin, most of us bear what we interpret as shortcomings that we can trace to our parents.  If we can't, our children can.  As Wells is right to point out, some of these shortcomings simply reflect our own unrealistic expectations and self-deceptions regarding the lives we'd hoped to live.  Can we forgive our parents?  Is forgiving our parents the first step to forgiving ourselves?  Where does God fit into the rhythm of forgiveness, especially if God's forgiving me doesn't mean that I will necessarily follow suit and do the same?

In his profound and poignant memoir, Jesus, My Father, the CIA, and Me, Ian Morgan Cron writes about a church service he attended, full of testimonies, and his gut response to the other people's stories:

I thought I'd gag if I had to hear one more story of Jesus answering someone's prayer.  I want to jump to my feet and say, 'Hi everyone.  My name is Ian.  When I was a boy I loved Jesus, but I begged him to help me a million times and he never showed up.  I prayed that my father would stop drinking, but that didn't happen either.  If you were God and a kid asked you for that, wouldn't you give it to him?  So you can sing another chorus of "What a Friend We Have in Jesus" but you're complete morons if you think it's true.'

Cron goes on to describe a vision, then a voice, that found him after the breaking of the Eucharistic bread.  The voice was clear: "Forgive me, Ian."

Years later, he asked a trusted friend: "Miss Annie, is it wrong for me to believe it was Jesus who asked my forgiveness?"

Cron, again:

She frowned and shook her head, 'Lord, what do they teach you at that school?' she said.  Then she faced me head-on.  'Did God humble himself by becoming a man?' she asked, every word spoken more loudly that the one before.

'Yes, ma'am,' I said.  I'd never used the word ma'am before, but it seemed an excellent time to start.

'Did he humble himself by dying on the cross to show us how much he loved us?' she asked, waving her spatula at me.

My eyes widened and I nodded, yes.

Miss Annie's body relaxed, and she put her hand on her hip.  'So why wouldn't Jesus humble himself and tell a boy he was sorry for letting him down if he knew it would heal his heart?' she asked.

'But if Jesus is perfect - '

Miss Annie ambled the five or six feet that separated us and took my hand. 'Son,' she said, rubbing my knuckles with her thumb, 'love always stoops.'

Love always stoops.  The rhythm of forgiveness.  Can we forgive our parents?  Is forgiving our parents the first step to forgiving ourselves?  Is it the other way around?  In places of unrelenting hurt, dare we ask for the strength and grace to forgive God?  Dare we believe that love would stoop like that for us?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

A Great Short Story (to Encourage You)

A lot of talk on the blog of late about forgiveness-seeking as a public response to Ash Wednesday.  At lunch today, my friend John Hardie told the story of his recent effort to bring Evangelical and Pentecostal Christians to Ash Wednesday services in Catholic churches - John talked to Catholic leaders beforehand.  The Pentecostals were nervous, but reluctantly willing.  At the sermon, the Catholic priest welcomed the nervous guests with genuine warmth and then, remarkably, unexpectedly apologized for his Church's sins against these Protestant Christians.  The Pentecostals exhaled.  The two sides engaged; they spoke to each other - as friends in our Lord.

What a remarkable witness: life breathed on bones - longstanding prejudices - previously left for dead.

Turning the Scriptures, Becoming the Enemy

We are here at the table of the Lord.
We are not alone.
We are here with our enemies.(1)

Yesterday, I shared in this space two reservations about ashes-to-go, which can be summarized thusly: by separating the administration of ashes from the normative context of the Ash Wednesday lections and the optional context of the Holy Eucharist, the Church omits the day's inherent scriptural tension by which God prods his people to embody - not simply wear - our repentance.(2)  Significantly, these reservations do not lead me away from the highly positive public engagement that ashes-to-go seeks to cultivate.  On the contrary, I am lead to ask the question: "What would a faithful public engagement shaped by (but not simply a parrot of) Ash Wednesday look like?"  I wonder, for example, how many barrier begin to come down when the Church goes to the ones outside and, as a people shaped by penitence, says, "I'm sorry."  So my first start at an alternative to ashes-to-go is public forgiveness-seeking, which I write about in yesterday's post.  

Today I want to ask the question: "How does one begin to explore the shape of public forgiveness-seeking?"  I think it begins with the acknowledgment that we have enemies and that our enemies have us - that is, we are somebody's enemy.  

In her beautiful book Getting Involved with God, Ellen Davis explores the cursing psalms (3) as prayers that are hard but meet and right to pray.  We pray them rightly because the feelings in them are honest: they give voice to our real anger.  Further, the cursing psalms locate our anger in the context of prayer, conversation, with God.  By locating our anger in the context of conversation with God, the cursing psalms lead us to entrust vengeance to God.  We all find ourselves able to pray these prayers every now and again. "But what about those days on which we don't feel angry?" she asks.  Is this a case of Scripture's reading becoming dependent on - merely reflective of - my present emotional state?  By no means...

Dr. Davis, again:

"Now, suppose you run across one of these psalms when you are blessedly free of the feelings they articulate.  Is there any prayer opportunity for you then?  The ancient rabbis said of scripture: 'Turn it and turn it, for everything is in it.'  If you have the courage (and it will take some), try turning the psalm a full 180 degrees, until it is directed at yourself, and ask: Is there anyone in the community of God's people who might want to say this to God about me - or maybe, about us?"(4)

She goes on to give this example:

"Here is one of several ways I could answer that question for myself: I am materially privileged beyond most people who are alive at this time, who have previously lived on the earth, or who will live in future generations.  By social location, income, and personal habit, I am an active participant in a rapacious industrial economy, regularly consuming far more than I need of the world's goods.  I have largely failed to moderate my lifestyle in accordance with what I can reasonably expect will be the needs of my great-grandchildren's generation, to say nothing of the present needs of those living today in the Two-Thirds World.  Yes, there are those who might cry out to God this night or fifty years hence:  'Let her memory be cut off from the heart, because she did not remember to act in covenant faith but hounded a person poor and needy, crushed in heart, even to death...'" (5)

I frequently teach that Christian faithfulness involves learning to see others and the world through God's eyes.  Equally important is learning to see ourselves through the eyes of others.  Seeking others as God sees them and - at least from from time to time - attempting to see myself as others see me is the seed, I think, of public forgiveness-seeking: wearing, embodying, repentance and the forgiveness of God that we find on Ash Wednesday.

(1) A Taize hymn quoted in Ellen Davis' Getting Involved with God (MA: Cowley, 2001).

(2) See, for example, Isaiah 58: 

Will you call this a fast,
a day acceptable to the LORD?
Is not this the fast that I choose:
to loose the bonds of injustice,
to undo the thongs of the yoke,
to let the oppressed go free,
and to break every yoke?

(3) You know - the ones we never read in church: "smash her children on the rocks," etc.

(4) Davis, again, p 28.

(5) Ibid., 28-29.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Ashes-to-go and the Oscars:
the case for public forgiveness-seeking

Struggling for ways to endure last night's Oscars - which at least ended well - I turned to twitter, where I found my friend @StuShelby asking this question: "Scandalous idea here?  Ashes-to-go proves Episcopalians are at a Council of Jamnia moment.  How can we be faithful without our land/temple/etc?"  Great question!  Billy Crystal, I'll catch up with you.

A little background:  The Council of Jamnia is said to have been convened  by Jewish leaders around 90 AD in order to firmly establish the Jewish canon of Scripture and, because of the dating, presumably also to answer questions of Jewish identity after the fall of the Second Temple in 70 AD.  Ashes-to-go is a movement within the Episcopal Church that gained momentum - and its own hash tag! - this year:  acknowledging that the days of communities oriented around church campuses are almost certainly behind us, priests distributed ashes to people from overtly secular public places: Walmart parking lots, for example.


Does ashes-to-go represent a Jamnia-like wrestling within which churches are learning to be faithful without their holy turf?

On the one hand it strikes me that I only have the luxury of writing this question as a Christian because lots of Christians before me understood the call to live and move in the secular realm, beyond the physical walls of the church building; if you're a Christian, somebody told you the Good News.  The Church is always - and has only ever been - for others. That is, this impulse is not new.

On the other hand, Christians are rediscovering as never before - many by necessity - the call to creatively and publicly engage the secular world.  Ashes-to-go represents a creative, visible, and - perhaps most significantly - generous posture toward a world that is not used to a Church that is creative, visible, and - most of all - generous.  

To my thinking, ashes-to-go gets points for creativity, visibility, and generosity.  On the level of those three traditional deficits within the Church, it's a win.

My concerns for ashes-to-go are hopefully concerns that can further grow the Church in creativity, visibility, and generosity.  Here are the concerns:

1.  Ashes-to-go, sans Eucharist (admittedly neither required by the rubrics nor dependent on being inside or outside of the building) separates a reminder of our mortality from the sacramental presence of Jesus and so also our resurrection hope. Dust to dust without the resurrection hope is not the whole of the Good News with which we have been entrusted to share.

2. Is ashes-to-go, sans Scripture, honest?  That is, is it responsible to give others the gift of ashes without the readings that make that gift at the same time a convicting invitation to self-examination of even - indeed, especially - the Church's piety: "When you pray, close the door...wash your face..."  And especially Isa 58: "Do you think this is the fast that I desire of you?"

The contexts of Word and Sacrament matter, even if it's true - and it is - that the Church must do a better job of being present to other contexts.  But Christian faithfulness need not - must not - be an either/or game.  So I asked @StuShelby: What would a faithful public engagement shaped by (but not simply a parrot of) Ash Wednesday look like?  He helpfully suggested something like the reverse confessional that Donald Miller wrote about in Blue Like Jazz, and which Dan Merchant practices in his fantastic and challenging film, "Lord, Save Us from Your Followers."  In the film, Dan takes a Gay Pride parade as an occasion to seek forgiveness from gay and lesbian sisters and brothers against whom he and the larger Church has sinned.(1)

It may not be as sexy as ashes-to-go, but public forgiveness-seeking feels like an uncomfortably faithful alternative with the promise of transformation not just for "them" but for us, too.  That is, after all,  how I find my own heart for the world informed by Ash Wednesday: the reminder that I need to spend more time in the world, but not to make the sinners more like me; I need to spend more time in the world so that, as a sinner, I may continue to feebly reach out and live into the reconciliation that Christ on the cross has made true for us all.


What would a faithful public engagement shaped by (but not simply a parrot of) Ash Wednesday look like?

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Raise Your Hand if You Like Baptism!

So this past Monday morning it's the first Sunday of Lent coming up, and I'm excited, and I'm looking at the readings, and I'm wanting to get us off to a good start to this holy season of Lent.  I figure I owe it to you, to us, to set  us off on the Lenten journey with a good first step.  So I sit down and turn to the Old Testament reading: Noah. 



Eh...  Hmm.  We can work with this.

I scribble out some notes.

Flood.  Bird.  Rainbow.   I remember that Archbishop Desmond Tutu, at the end of Apartheid in South Africa, joined Nelson Mandela in casting the vision of South Africa as a rainbow nation, a rainbow people, reconciled to one another and released from the sins, the racism, of the past.  Did Noah see that coming, I wonder?  I make some more notes. 

Off to the gospel: the baptism of Jesus.  That’s more like it.  And cool, I think: the bird, the dove that Noah sent out, comes back with a branch and then doesn't come back at all had signaled to Noah, and us, the new creation.  Now, lo and behold, at Jesus's baptism, the dove, the bird, is back.  The dove descends, telling us that this Jewish man standing waist-deep in in the River Jordan is somehow also a picture of God's new creation. 

And it's not just the water and bird.  Noah had the rain for forty days; after his baptism, Jesus hits the wilderness for forty days.  That's cool, I think.  Maybe we'll talk about the number forty, the forty days in front of us on this first Sunday in Lent.  The dove.  The water.  Forty.  Some good connections, but as I'm scribbling my notes, I'm starting to get that self-conscious feeling you get when someone's looking over your shoulder to see if you are seeing the thing you're supposed to be seeing but you just don't see it yet.

Then sometime about Tuesday my face hit the wall of Peter's epistle:

"...God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.  And baptism, which this prefigures, now saves you - not as a removal of dirt from the body, but as an appeal to God for a good conscience through the resurrection of Jesus Christ."

Duh!  Of course!   Noah and the flood prefigures baptism, St Pete says.

Now it's not just the dove, the bird, and some numerology.  The whole of the Scriptures this morning is screaming at us: Lent is about being grounded in baptism.

This is obvious, I know, but what can I say?  It had been a long week.

The invitation we heard on Ash Wednesday makes this connection clearly:

"Dear People of God," it says, "The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of Lord's passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting.  This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism."

Of course. 

There's this wonderful church in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, which Rebekah and I attended in grad school.  The connection between Jesus's death and baptism was literally built into the structure of the church: the font used for baptism was a large, stone cross - like a tank, for dunking, despite all Episcopal reputations to the contrary - and this large, stone cross was situated in the Nave such that it was accompanied on each side by one of the stations of the cross, the particular stations - eleven through thirteen -  in which Jesus is crucified, dies, and is removed from the cross for burial.  We are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus.  Lent is obviously about Jesus's death.  Lent should as obviously be about our baptism. 


Raise your hand if you like baptism - if you think baptism is a good thing. 
Raise your hands high.

Now.  Hands down.

Raise your hand again if you will stand up right now and recite the five promises of baptism that take place after the Trinitarian pop quiz we call the Apostles' Creed?

What are we doing? 

Lent is about baptism.  We all like baptism.  But the five questions of baptism...  Do we remember them?  Most of us remember the answers: "I will with God's help."  (By which we mostly mean that if we drop the ball it's not all on us - God didn't do his part, either.)  But what are the questions?  The five questions we are all asked - that we all answer - at our baptism?

Our readings are what they are this morning because Lent is upon us and Lent is the season that teaches us baptism.  Lent shows us the get-your-hands-dirty shape of lives that believe in God, lives that call Jesus Lord, lives that commit to follow him in the way of the cross.

So what are the questions?  Grab your red book.  Page three-hundred and four.  First, the questions we answer every Sunday: Do you believe in God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?

And then, the five questions that tell you what the life of someone who believes in God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit looks like.

Question number one: Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread (1) and in the prayers?  In the letter to the Hebrews, this question gets explained.  The writer says: "Do not neglect to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encourage one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching."  Do not neglect to meet together, but encourage one another.  Did you know that you encourage someone else simply by meeting them around this table? 

Will you continue in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and in the prayers?

Question number two: Will you persevere in resisting evil, and, whenever you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?  You could preach a whole sermon on that question.  We did, this past Wednesday.  Whenever you fall into sin.  Not if.  On Wednesday I shared my awareness that my next sin won't be my first.  Faithfulness in this life is not sinlessness, but availing oneself of the forgiveness of God; finding grace to say, “I’m sorry.”

In weeks after Christmas, after all the leftovers are eaten, or spoiled, the family is gone, or grumbling, and the lights are in some state of coming down, I occasionally find presents still left in the package.  Unopened.  Amazing gifts.  Untouched gifts.  Most of us know that God gives us the gift of forgiveness.  But the truly wise among us take the time required to open it.  Forgiveness is worth unwrapping.

Will you persevere in resisting evil, and when (not if) you fall into sin, repent and return to the Lord?

Question three:  Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?  At Council two weeks ago, Dean Travis of the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest told us that example is not the best teacher; it's the only teacher.  Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?  Will you do more than commend this faith to others - will you model it for them?  Wear it in front of them.  I shared with some of you the other day my great embarrassment when Annie set up a makeshift altar in the play room.  She had a soap bottle chalice.  "Cup of salvation," she said.  The altar guild will appreciate that she had a purificator and patens, too, made of rags and puzzle frames.  Our children, our friends, the other people in our lives who watch us, they don't do what we tell them to do.  (Have you noticed?)  They don’t do what we tell them to do.  They do what we do.  What are you doing? 

Will you proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ?

Question four: Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?  A week ago, we listened to Bishop Doyle of Texas, and he was talking about how Paul and other characters in and across the Scriptures always greeted one another “in Christ,” and that this was not just talk, but it represented a mystery that is essential for us, too: that we see Christ in one another.  What does it change in me if I believe Christ can be found in you?  In my neighbor?  In my coworker?  In the server who takes my dishes?  In the beggar I pass beneath the underpass?  In my spouse?

Will you seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself?

And finally, question five: Will you strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being?  Justice and peace.  Respecting, upholding the dignity of every human being.  The revelation that Christianity is not a private possession but a corporate commitment.  The realization that we have been given a voice to be used for the voiceless, that we have been given a hope to be shared with the hopeless, that the life we know in Christ is not for us alone.  It is for sharing.  Christ is for sharing.  And sharing Christ with others means learning to love and stand up for others.  Stand up for their dignity.  In the midst of his march for civil rights, Martin Luther King, Jr. said this: “In the end, we will remember not the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” 

Will you strive for justice and peace among all people and respect the dignity of every human being?

Five questions.  I'd ask you if you're doing them, but we already established that we all (me, too) have a hard time remembering them.  We need to come back to them. 

This Lent, will you come together with me and:

Keep breaking bread,
Ask God's forgiveness,
Proclaim by word AND example,
Seek and serve Christ in all people,
Strive for justice and peace?

If doves and water and numbers like forty remind us of baptism, may baptism always remind us of these five questions.  May remembrance of our baptism call us back to these questions meant to shape our lives; these questions signal our participation in the grace by which we are sealed by the Holy Spirit in baptism and marked as Christ's own forever; these questions which are how we open the gift.  May this Lent be for us a time wherein we recover, learn, and remember these questions, which teach us our dependence on Christ; Christ himself, who was baptized for us, crucified, and is risen.



(1) I like to ask children what will be different about them when they are baptized.  Will they glow?  Will they levitate or pray perfectly?  Hear God audibly?  Maybe, but no guarantee by virtue of baptism.  The only visible difference promised them, and us, is the physical reception of the Body and Blood by Holy Communion.  "Eat well and eat often," I tell them.  In the breaking of bread, the Church receives the necessary grace to be God's visible People, deposits of grace made possible by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

[Sermon preached at St Christopher's, February 26, 2012]

Friday, February 24, 2012

Elevators, Imitation, and Encouragement

At the hospital yesterday morning for a pastoral visit, I stopped by the information station to ask for the most direct way to the blue elevators.  I had never ridden the blue elevators (which turned out to be small, cramped, and - true to their word - very blue).  The head lady at the information desk looked up, smiled warmly, and committed me to the charge of two women.  Usually, I'd receive a brief word of direction.  Today, though, two escorts.  I figured that I must have looked especially in need of help.  As we talked on the way to the blue elevators, I learned that these two women were new volunteers of the hospital.  First day on the not-for-pay job.  I was, for them, the equivalent of the errant bean can that the newbie grocer is asked to re-shelve.   They were getting in practice.

Once arrived at the third floor room, and having patiently endured my blue elevator ride, I waited as two nurses wrapped up some business in the room of the patient we had all (evidently) come to see.  One nurse was instructing the other by her example.  The other was listening, learning, and lending a hand where he could.  It immediately struck me that I had witnessed in these four individuals two instances of the apprenticeships that make community possible, relational, and beautiful: the willingness to walk with another.

St Paul had his Timothy.  Barnabas had John Mark.  Dean Travis of the Seminary of the Southwest paraphrased St Paul ("imitate me") when he reminded a recent assembly that "Example is not the best teacher - example is the only teacher."  I remember a fantastic New Testament class I took with Susan Eastman on the role of imitation in Scripture, the ancient world, and life.  How babies begin imitating almost from birth.   I remember Jude's baptism and Bishop Lillibridge's good word about the impressions our examples make.  He asked: "How might your life be an example worthy of this observation and taking in?"  That's at least part of what it means to be a Christian, he said: to consider the impression of faith that we impart to a baby's eyes, and to the world and one another.

I realize that moralism can potentially turn the dynamic between example and imitation into a dry burden; but what a gift it can also be!  Teaching, knowledge, embodied and shared in living relationship with others.  I thank God for the ordinary friends and saints who bravely let me get close enough to watch them.  I pray they see their fingerprints in me.  And especially because the Christian example is always one of rising and falling, rhythms of praise and the need for forgiveness, I pray for the humility and grace to welcome the gaze of others, so that we might teach, encourage, and build up one another on the sacred, pilgrim road.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

The Good News of Conversion
(an Ash Wednesday sermon)

Today is Ash Wednesday.(1)  On Ash Wednesday, the Church remembers two connected realities: sin and death.  The wages of sin is death (that’s the connection).  Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust. 

“Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked will I return. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.”

So today we are confronted with sin and death, our mortality, and I remember the warning that a long-time, beloved Episcopal priest of the Coastal Bend family once gave me concerning talk about sin.  He said: “If I talk about sin, the best I can manage with your sin is gossip.  But my sin - if I can focus on my sin - that’s the stuff of repentance, reconciliation, and healing - my being brought back into the fold and family of Christ.”

So on this Ash Wednesday, following the words of my mentor, permit me to share my basic understanding of my own sin -what I think I’ve learned about myself.

I try to keep it simple.  For example, when it comes to sin in my life, I know beyond doubt that my next sin won’t be my first.  I remind myself of this truth at least once every day so that I won’t perpetually torture myself in the face of important, new decisions. 

Yes, I want to do well.  Yes, I want to glorify God in all that I do.  Yes, I want each step to bring me closer to my Savior.  But what if I misstep?  What when I fall?  Is hope dead?  Is all lost?  By no means.  Despite my best illusions, I am not about the task of preserving my sinlessness.  I lost and gave up that game a long, long time ago.  I am a sinner whose next sin won’t be my first - or (very likely) my last.  In this life, at least, I will never not need the forgiveness of God.

If this is true, that I will never not need the forgiveness of God, then conversion is not just (or even primarily) for the pagans out there.  Conversion - being converted, the changing, transforming, and renewing of the mind – is for me.  Always for me.  Not just for the Bedside Baptists, the heathens who worship each week at Church of the Holy Comforter.  No, conversion begins in here.  Conversion is always for me.  As a Christian, as a priest, I have never exhausted the steps made possible, made open, to me.  I press on.  The pilgrim walk is long and beautiful, with a charge not completed simply because I find myself within these walls.  There is always more of God to discover and enjoy. Always obstacles that might be removed that would further open to me the vast expanse and brilliant landscape of the Kingdom of God: deeper in forgiveness, wider in mercy, fuller in self-offering and the love that we know on the cross.

A friend of mine tells the story of E. Stanley Jones.  (Have you heard of him?)  Stanley Jones was a missionary in India.  While in India, Stanley Jones established a Christian Ashram. An Ashram is a sort of spiritual community and retreat center. Jones recounted
this story:

In the Ashram, we gave the servants, including the sweeper, a holiday one day each week, and we volunteered to do their jobs for them. The sweeper’s work included the cleaning of the latrines before the days of flush toilets. No one would touch that job but an outcaste, but we volunteered.

One day I said to a Brahmin convert who was hesitating to volunteer: “Brother, when are you going to volunteer?” He shook his head slowly and said: “Brother Stanley, I’m converted, but I’m not converted that far.” (2)

The pilgrim walk is long and beautiful, with a depth not exhausted – a charge not completed - simply because we find ourselves within these walls.  There is always more of God to discover and enjoy.

“I’m converted, but I’m not converted that far,” he said.

This Lent, may I ask you:
How far are you converted?

How would you describe the always present call of conversion, the active and living work of the Spirit, in your life today?

Always present, always growing, churning, stretching, pushing, dynamic.

Paul writes in 2 Corinthians about the acceptable time, the just-right day to live into reconciliation, full life, with God.  Christ has made this reconciliation possible, says St Paul.  Jesus has opened the front door of the Kingdom, freeing us for the fullness of God, because there is always more of God to enjoy.  There’s an acceptable time and a just-right day for these things.  And now is the time.  Now is that day.  On Ash Wednesday, conversion is upon us again as Good News.

Today is Ash Wednesday.  Also, the first day of Lent.  Lent began as that time in which the Church historically prepared converts for initiation - baptism - into the life of Christ.  But you and I know that the good and restless work of conversion is alive in us and so this time is God’s gift to us as well.  The opportunity to go deeper in forgiveness, wider in mercy, more fully in self-offering and the love that we know on the cross.

Can I offer some unsolicited advice as you open this gift?  Don’t ad-lib it. Be intentional.  Sit down and sketch a flexible plan.  Scribble down the question: in what ways would you like to grow closer to God?  This question is a blank check that only requires a desire for God to write it.  Ask for help.  Use your friends, engage the Holy Scriptures, pray.  But see the opportunity.  See the opportunity, and seize the opportunity.  Ask the question.  The open door of conversion is the Good News that our sin and self-disappoints do not have the last word in our lives.  Christ is the first and last word and his life, death and resurrection call us nearer and closer, always nearer and closer, until we taste, touch, and see the goodness of God.  Don’t give up on yourself.  God hasn’t.

The wages of sin is death.  Ashes to ashes.  Dust to dust.  But today, ash and dust in this moment take the shape of the cross.  That blessed, holy cross.  That’s how we receive them.  Here is our hope: as sisters and brothers, converted again, moved closer, again, by the way of the cross, to the heart of Him in whom is our health, our life, and our salvation.



(1) Well, yesterday was.  This is a sermon preached at St C's on Ash Wednesday, 2012.

(2) Borrowed from Father Matthew Gunter's tremendous blog.  Originally found in Devotional Classics, Selected Readings for Individuals & Groups, Richard Foster and James Byyan Smith, ed., p. 303-304.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A Very Present Help in Trouble
(a funeral homily on Ash Wednesday)

As I waited in the Narthex to greet parishioners after the 12 o'clock Ash Wednesday service, the hearse pulled into the parking lot, and the fire trucks began to arrive.  The Church was to commend Sarah Truitt Chase, 23, to our Lord at 3 o'clock.  Sarah was a volunteer fire fighter, receiving the far and wide support and prayers of that community.  I grabbed a cup of cold water and exchanged my purple stole for a white one.

The liturgies of the Church hold us, teach us, comfort and challenge us.  Many times as priest, I find myself taught, held, and challenged by liturgical "accicents" - combinations of worship experiences born of pastoral response.  Like a funeral on Ash Wednesday.  "Even at the grave we make our song..."  No surprises by the combinations - indeed, a funeral on Ash Wednesday feels almost especially appropriate - ashes to ashes, dust to dust.  But nuances emerge that unite the holy and the ordinary in profound and simple ways.  Like when you first roamed the halls of your school after hours, lights off, teachers gone.  Or when you roamed the ballpark after all the fans had left and the House that Ruth built was yours.  A holy, ordinary intimacy for which the best word I know is grace. 

I only met Sarah one time: over the course of two days, here in this same, holy space. The occasion was her grandfather's funeral not quite five months ago. In that brief time, I experienced Sarah as a young woman of conviction, compassion, and uncommon grace. Her life was a life lived on purpose.

The loss of such a life - the loss of Sarah - is a great trouble. A great and unexpected sadness. I remember Vicki's remark to me on Monday, that a mother is not supposed to be prepared to attend her daughter's funeral. It's not supposed to be like this. And Brian, who lost his bride two days before the resolution of custody issues which was to allow Sarah and Brian and Anya to live as one family under one roof. Devastating and unexpected loss. Profoundly felt loss. Trouble.

So the Scriptures speak to us, remind us: God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. In the gospel, Jesus tells his friends, "Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me." And he gives them these words not as a happy platitude on a sunny day, but as he prepares them for great loss and trouble: his departure from them, Jesus's own agonizing death. "Do not let your hearts be
troubled." "God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble."

On what grounds does Scripture say these things, even in the face of death?

The Church teaches that because Jesus Christ was raised from the dead, we too shall be raised. This is our hope in times of trouble: that nothing, not life,death, heights, powers, nor anything else can separate us from the love we know in Christ Jesus. Even in death, God is our very present help.

That's what the reading from Revelation is about. It's a picture of the heavenly realm. Every nation gathered, all things made well, but if you look carefully, the picture of the heavenly realm is not without its trouble. A chaplain who worked in a psychiatric ward and knew therefore something about trouble asked me once: "Have you ever noticed that it doesn't say that there aren't any tears - no more trouble - only that God himself is present to each tear, to each face on which they're born, with the promise to wipe every tear away?" She said to me: That feels honest.

God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble. This is at the heart of what Christians believe it means that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

May you remember this strength through your tears - the good and holy tears of love and loss and grief. May you know the presence of our God who is present in trouble. Sarah herself receives this promise in its fullness today: not that there are no more tears for her - only that the present trouble, her loss - has been met by the tenderness, the parent-like lovingkindness of God. The God who even now wipes Sarah's face, too.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Welcome to the Desert

When Easter season comes, as it will before too long, and Easter season goes, as it will fifty days later, we remind ourselves as we wave goodbye to that blessed season that the truth of Easter transcends the limits of the season.  That is, the Risen Lord is still the Risen Lord, even after Easter takes it’s turn.  Another way of saying this is that we are an Easter people.  Can I get an ‘amen’?  We already know this.  We are always Easter people, and so Easter is true in a way that stays true, regardless of the calendar.

Christmas, likewise, represents a time, a season, whose spirit we long to spread beyond the boundaries of the twelve short days that hold it.  We try to replicate the essence of the season - sometimes accurately and sometimes not so accurately - with events like “Christmas in July.”  What we are trying to do there is to be as loving in one month as we are so easily in another.   And so as a child, for example, I remember Daddy’s Christmas albums with Elvis wistfully crooning, “If every day could be just like Christmas, what a wonderful world this would be.”  And everybody nodded.

Funny, I know of no such songs, or similar beyond-the-season sentiment, for the time we’re in now, called Lent.  No catchy mottoes bandied about the church about our always being a Lenten people; no pop-musical insistence that every day be just like Ash Wednesday.  No childlike desire to replicate the emotion of this moment in warmer, summer months.

I don’t know why this is, exactly, but I have my guesses.

For starters, Lent is dark.  Dark purple and the preacher rattles on about sin.  Good times.  Oh yeah.  Moreover, it’s solemn.  Gone is the festal shout, our alleluia is silent, buried for these forty days.  What’s more, Lent represents an emptiness.  The way of the cross; the death of our Lord.  Where Easter is the gift of the Risen Christ, and Christmas is the birth of the same, and each one is characterized by the giving and getting of gifts, Lent is about losing; about sacrificial love; it’s about our surrender; Lent’s about giving up.

Yes, giving up chocolate or soda; maybe cigarettes if you’re brave.  Giving up anything that gets in the way of your relationship with your Savior.  Anything that competes with your relationship with your Savior. 

And also giving up in the deeper sense: that surrender sense again.  The yielding to the call and place of the Lord in the heart of his people sense.

There’s one more reason - maybe the most important of all - that makes that Lenten spirit something less than contagious, I think.  And that is that Lent is too much like us.  Where Christmas and Easter bring the promise of birth and new life, the hope and promise of things to come, a better way, Lent looks an awful lot like the lives that you and I already have.  Wandering.  Wiggling.  Suffering.  Desert.

It is no wonder to me that people don’t clamor for more of the pilgrimage called Lent.  Forty days is plenty.

And yet,

If we are right to call ourselves an Easter people, and I think that we are; we are equally and always also a Lenten people; always committed to the way of the Cross; always following the Way of the One who, now Risen, still bears in his body the wounds of Calvary.

Another way to make the same point: to take the alleluia of Easter without the loneliness of the desert and the hardwood of the cross is to separate the promise of God from the person of Jesus.  Lent is about knowing Jesus.

And this, then, is the great mystery of Lent: sometimes the seasons of darkness best open us up to the light.

We’re talking the season of Jesus in the wilderness.  Baptized by the Spirit and the next thing you know he’s out there, alone, wandering, tempted, and more than just politely hungry.

We’re talking Moses and his brood parading through the desert.  Forty years.  Lost.  Wondering how the pain of today connects in any honest way to the promise of tomorrow; the promise he thought he heard.  Hungry.

We’re talking you and me living lives that, more often than not, we don’t understand, in stifling darkness, sometimes despair, bedeviled by doubts and shadows of death. 

But this is the hope and mystery of Lent: that sometimes the darkness opens us up to the light.

My parents live out in the country, halfway between Gonzales and Seguin.  My folks like a lot about living in the country; my dad’s favorite part is the stars.  Every night, he goes out - a flashlight in one hand, my mom’s arm on the other - they reach the end of the gravel and turn out the light, all darkness; and the darkness overwhelms them, but only at first.  Before too long the pinprick lights take over.  Dazzling, milky seas of starlight by the billions.  Blinding.

Nights at my folks’, under those stars get me thinking: if Abraham had been a city slicker, maybe he wouldn’t have been so impressed; maybe he would have blown the whole thing off.  I wonder, would he have just shrugged his shoulders, “Like the stars in the sky?  All six of ‘em?  Big deal”?

By the way, that’s why they ask the shops on the shoreline to turn off their outdoor lights during turtle hatching time.  At least on the east coast they do.  The sea turtles get drawn out of their shells by a sort of lunar signal; the tidal pull of the moon; and always positioned just so; such that the newly hatched turtle can simply follow the moon through the sand to locate the waters. 

Sometimes the darkness opens us up to the light.  Which is also to say that sometimes lesser lights are more dangerous than darkness.

So the devil in the darkness comes to Jesus as false light this morning: that is, in the gospel this morning, Jesus is tempted by things that don’t look all that bad.  Turn these stones to bread; jump off this temple; receive every kingdom.  
Sometimes the darkness opens us up to the light.  Sometimes lesser lights are more dangerous than darkness.

Which is all just to say that Lent, a season of darkness, is God’s gift. 

Maybe not as sexy as Christmas or Easter, but Lent is that season, that invitation, to turn out the lights and see what is left.  When all the shiny toys are put away; when the neon moons are all unplugged; when the touch-up lights are off your face, and it’s just you as you are with your fears and your dreams and your God, your priorities unmasked, what’s left? 

Where are you, really, in relation to the one light that matters most to you, or at least at one time mattered most to you?  Do you still see it?  Does it see you?  Do you still feel the pull of its gravity?  What’s in the way?

Lent is the season for questions like that. 

Reflective questions.  Reflective space.  Yes, you’re busy, yes, you’re hurting, you know that - but why?  Questions like that require seasons of quiet and grace.  And the way of the cross brings the mercy, the balm, that makes it possible to be truthful and hurt, forgiven, with God; even to learn the suffering of His Son.
Which is why, with apologies to Christmas, Easter, and Johnny Mathis, we need a little Lent, right this very minute; ashes in the window; repentance of the spirit.

We need the time of truthful speech; and if it’s dark, so be it. 

Do not be afraid.  He’s still with you.  But don’t squander the darkness.  Press on for the light that lasts.


(Sermon preached Lent 1, 2011)

"Becoming Courageous"
(this Lent at St C's)

(CLICK text to enlarge)

Monday, February 20, 2012

Awkward Ash Wednesday

It’s always a little awkward, Ash Wednesday.  Stumbling into church on a weekday during lunch or after dinner in order to have rich, black, dark soul, bits of earth, smudged on your forehead.  A tiny cross on your forehead.  For the rest of the day, right there on your forehead.  But that’s not the awkward part, I think.  That’s just the unusual part.  The awkward part is stumbling into church on a weekday to have rich, black, dark dirt smudged on your forehead, a tiny cross on your forehead, at the very same time that Jesus is speaking these words to you in Scripture:

“Whenever you give,” Jesus says, “whenever you pray, or fast, don’t put on a show, don’t disfigure your face, don’t otherwise make a scene of yourself, but when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

We in the Church, we hear these words, promptly put dirt on our heads, big signs on our heads, and go back in the world.  Truly, the Church is God’s sense of humor.  

It’s awkward.  Still not as awkward as the truth about ourselves that Jesus’s words today reveal: namely, that we sometimes do this God thing for reasons other than our God.

Why else the warning?  Why else the instruction?  Don’t do this for others; don’t breathe a word to the others; but be pointed to the Father who sees the secret intentions of your heart.

We thought he didn’t see it; but God does see, God knows, how we sometimes do this God thing for reasons other than our God.

Reasons like being seen by the others.  What will she think of me?  How do I look to them even now as I’m praying?  What do I think of them?  Why isn’t he here?  God knows he needs it.  Marital problems, most likely. 

Reasons like guilt: what would Mom think if I didn’t?  What would my kids think if I did?  I need to be an example for them; for her.  I want to be an example for them.  A better example than I received, maybe.  Or maybe my coming is an impossibly small step toward a standard I can never attain.

Reasons like a polished reputation.  My loyalty is my credibility, every Sunday I’m there, my good standing, in this church.  I won’t ask for much in return, but I would assume that certain innovations would be run by me beforehand.  After all, this is my church.

Not just this day, but every time we enter this place, the unspoken, painful, and obvious awkwardness, of each and every last one of us: that we sometimes do this God thing for reasons other than our God. 

And so Ash Wednesday comes as the beginning of a season to fast, to go without, to go hungry, to develop a hunger and thirst for the righteousness, the peace, the presence, of God.  To name our need of God.  To name God as Creator, ourselves as Creation, and to say “I’m sorry” for my sin; sin, which is another word for my pretending to be my own Creator; for my forgetting that I walk in the presence of God.  Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the season of being truthful about ourselves and remembering that God sees that truth already.

And the truth about myself is that, despite the whispers of the Western world, even post-Enlightenment, I am not my own man; I am dust made alive by the generous breath of God’s Spirit.  I am dependent.  I am reliant.  I am sustained at the hand of Another.  I am not my own; I am God’s gift. 

The truth about myself is that there is a world of thanksgiving that I neglect when I forget that I am not my own.  The truth about myself is that the constellations of actions that make up my behavior, my personality, my being, these don’t always reflect the light and love that the Father has lavished on me.  Because I am God’s child, when I forget who God is, I forget who I am.

The truth about myself is that, you couldn’t tell it sometimes, but I could stand to be brought closer to this God.  And the truth that I could stand to be brought closer to God is never more true than when I think that it’s not.

We sometimes do this God thing for reasons other than our God, but there can be only one reason for our coming to the altar today, on Ash Wednesday: to be reordered, to be drawn nearer, to the Father who is the source of the life that we share through the mercies of Christ with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

A friend of mine put the invitation of Ash Wednesday this way:

"If I understood, deep within my bones, that God once had his hands in my dust, that God formed me from the dust of the earth and that the very breath which animates this body comes from the wind he first blew in my lungs...if I knew this like I think I know the exchange of light between the sun and the moon, if I knew this like I think I know the parity of gravity and tide, then surely, my life would look differently than it does right now. I would walk with greater humility. I would not neglect my Creator. I would not pursue immortality by way of might, wisdom, the accumulation of riches, or the sheer force of persuasion.

"Today a cross of dust and ash will be marked over the cross of oil made on your forehead at your baptism. Forever Christ’s, we said, his own forever. So it is and so it will be but not without dying, not without taking up the Cross of the Son, and placing your life without hesitation in the hands of the Creator."

That’s the Good News, by the way, of Ash Wednesday, despite all it’s awkwardness - that the dust, which is the reminder of my mortality and my sin, touches my skin as the cross of the crucified and Risen Jesus. 

So if only for today, I come to this church, and I’m not paying attention this time to the sins of the others.  The shortcomings of them.  If only for today, it’s my own sin that I bring.  If only for today, I come to this church, and I’m not thinking this time about what they might be thinking; I’m letting go of what they imagine of me, how I look, how I seem to be.  If only for today, with dust on my forehead, and brokenness in my heart, I’m naming my sin, my need for my Father, and my desire for healing, for wholeness, the kindness of God.  If only for today, I don’t bother with hiding, pretending, but I offer my dirt smudgy self to the hands of the one who first called me into being; who muddied His hands with the dust of me in the first place. 

As he sculpts me, molds me, softens me, turns me, I long with my heart, mind, body, and soul to be closer to Him.

The truth of Ash Wednesday is that I can stand to get closer.
The Good News of Ash Wednesday is that He wants this, too.


[Sermon preached Ash Wednesday, 2011]

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Social Media Resources for Churches
(and becoming resources for one another)

I have been perplexed, humbled, and greatly encouraged by the growing number of individuals who have commented to me in recent weeks about St Christopher's use of social media in our work as the Church.  Our church is developing a reputation for consistently and creatively engaging our larger community through social media.  By social media, these folks mean our blend of electronic discourse via our website, this blog, email, facebook, and twitter.  People tell us we're good at these things.

I find this positive feedback perplexing and humbling because I feel like our efforts are very much a work in progress, with a lot of trial and error (some days mostly error).  I find this feedback encouraging because even errors require a lot of work and daily learning, and it seems that some of that work is bearing fruit.

One of the great ironies of the process is that the positive feedback mostly comes from outside of our local church community.  We are still working within the local congregation to make this a tool "for us."  Email, much less twitter, is not without its local challenges.  But maybe this is why I find social media so energizing in ministry: it represents one of the few areas of our existing church life that is very clearly not primarily for us.  Social networking, after all, is primarily about sharing pieces of life among disparate people.  Social media helps us practice being for others.  Most churches need practice in being for others.  This is in part what we hope we are learning from Jesus.

I realize that social media is not necessarily so.  But it can be.  And it's good practice. 

The following video is from Bishop Michael Curry in NC.  It's excellent, and the end connects the practice of social media to the Gospel in a way that I find compelling and focusing.  (Let's face it, it's easy to get distracted online.)  I also want to commend the short book Be Social: The Social Media Handbook for Churches.

But I'm also interested:

What insights do you have into social media for the Church?  What challenges have you experienced?  Where do you need help?  What help or learning would you like to share?  Where are your unexpected successes?  And my favorite question for Christians: Why, in God's Name, do you do this?

About Jude's Name:
Reflections and Links from Day 2 at Council

Day two is in the books at the 108th Council of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas.  Rotel and the Hot Tomatoes stole the show at the end, but session highlights belonged to the Bishop's Address, Bishop Bauerschmidt's extended consideration of hope over lunch, and informal Open Mic time with Bishop Lillibridge to end the day (which prompted the most interactive twitter conversations of this Council thus far - score one for social media).

My own reflections keep returning to Bishop Bauerschmidt's observaton that "hope is when one cannot visualize the route from the way things are to the way they might be."  The image of not knowing the road reminds me of Thomas Merton (1) and also of every day as a parent of small children.

Rebekah and I named one of our own small children "Jude."  His name means "praise" or "thanks," which we understand to be the heart of the identity of God's people.  Additionally, Jude is the patron saint of lost - or hopeless - causes; thus St Jude's hospitals which serve terminally ill children.  For Rebekah and me, an embodiment of what it means to have been given all the time in the world to be God's people occurs when Christians are present to others and one another when the road is hidden and hope seems lost.  (See yesterday's post on holy patience.)

Christians believe both in hope against hope and also that it is uniquely in the vulnerability of hopelessness that God's power becomes most clearly visible.  As Bauerschmidt noted, hope is able to name God at work precisely because it reaches beyond the optimism of linear human progress, which, after all, can be illusory.

Hope against hope is the distinct hope Christians learn on Good Friday; it is the hope of the People who are baptized into the death - and resurrection - of Jesus.  It is the hope which we pray will lead Jude, Annie, and their parents, to persevere in seeking Christ in all persons, and praising God for the new, unending, and unexpected, life we receive in him.

(1) Merton's famous prayer:

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.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Hope, Holy Patience, and Stanley Hauerwas:
reflections from the first day of council

I will likely write more about Council after Council because I won't be occupied in the life and business of Council.  (Sounds fair.)  That said, I do want to at least modestly attempt to mark the trail along the way.  I hope these notes and links can be a point of engagement for those of us here and those of us back home and elsewhere.

The 2012 Council of the Episcopal Diocese of West Texas got off to a flying start today with the return of the (only somewhat) fictional Mrs. Barrington and, later, the Council Eucharist, highlighted by the Rt Rev Andy Doyle's straightforward and encouraging word, fueled by a passion for the Gospel of Jesus.  Along the way, we welcomed guests, found old friends, and made new ones.  A particular highlight for me was Bishop Reed's Bible study on the nature of the Christian hope, with its beginning in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.

How does the resurrection of Jesus bring present (and not just future) hope?  This question kept bringing my own thoughts to holy patience - the gift of being able to wait without desperation, terror or fear.  Holy patience of this kind is a gift of Christ's resurrection - part and parcel of victory over death.  This connects in my mind to a piece from Stanley Hauerwas about becoming friends of time.  It is remarkable that in the simplicity of things like patience and presence the reality of the Lord's resurrection (and so the fullness of our hope) can be reflected.

As Hauerwas says elsewhere, Christians have been given all the time in the world to be God's people.


Tuesday, February 14, 2012

My Valentine's Day Fantasy

I came across a Google blurb today that was ready to tell me what this day is about, in case I had forgotten.  It read: "Valentine's Day is about fantasy and romance."

On any other day, I might have moved on quickly.  Not today.  Today, an echo of Rowan Williams and the desert mothers and fathers bade me linger.  Call it an occupational hazard.  But if "fantasy" is that fanciful imagination for the unreal, our desert parents want with all their hearts and wisdom to remind us that this is not a phenomenon reserved for romantic and sexual realms.  Many of us live in perpetual states of fantasy, many of which are revealed by our fears and worries.

For example, I recently observed in a sermon on love and knowledge that
There’s an old and funny saying that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you.  But believe it or not, most people are too self-centered to be out to get you.  I know it’s a blow to all that you’d like to believe about yourself, but most of the time, they’re not thinking about you.  Maintaining defensive knowledge like this kind can be pretty exhausting.

These less-than-sexy fantasies are humbling and wearying.

So in his book Silence and Honey Cakes Rowan Williams writes:
The desert means a stepping back from the great system of collusive fantasy in which I try to decide who I am, sometimes to persuade you to tell me who I am (in accord of course with my preferences), sometimes to use God as a reinforcement for my picture of myself and so on and on.  The 'burden' of self-accusation, the suspicion of what the heart prompts, this is not about an inhuman austerity or self-hatred but about the need for us all to be coaxed into honesty by the confidence that God can forgive and heal.

Quoting Henri Lubac, Williams adds: "It is not sincerity it is truth which frees us...To seek sincerity above all things is perhaps, at bottom, not to want to be transformed."

How does one tether the heart to the truth? 

Prayer, for sure.  Spiritual direction - the help of holy friends.  Engagement in the community of faith, God's Church.  But daily, I find another tool essential to honesty in all of these other things.  Before I say what it is, let me share how I discovered my need for it.

Last November, I set a goal to walk 10,000 steps each day.  In order achieve the goal, I discovered that I needed to walk where I had previously used the car.  I started walking the short trip from the office to the house for lunch.  I enjoyed the exercise, but loathed the mental strain.  It seemed I would use the eighteen minutes to cook up lists of things to do and worry over.  Visits to make.  Services to plan.  Meetings to arrange.  Phone calls.  Contracts.  Financial issues.  By the time I was back to the office, I was swamped and deflated. 

So I set a modest goal: think only about the walk itself, and check the time when I first noticed that I had become distracted.  The next day, over the course of two eighteen minute walks, I never made it longer than two and a half minutes.  This confirmed my suspicion that I was all but handed over to fantasies: focused on the 'unreal' and not present even to myself.

In order to step back from "the great system of collusive fantasy", I began talking to myself in order to put a leash on the wandering mind - I think faster than I can speak.  Next, I made an eighteen minute covenant to only speak true things about my immediate and visible reality.  I wasn't very good at this at first.  I started simply: blue car, unkempt lawn, flag pole, etc.  But after a few minutes (maybe two and half?) I began noticing my reality in greater and greater detail.  The house with no cars and the front porch left on.  The boat left out for cleaning after yesterday's fishing expedition.  The teachers wrangling up the children on the playground.  In all of this, I prohibited myself from ascribing motivation or intention: what is actually happening?  Strangely, if you do this long enough, you ending up sounding a lot like Garrison Keillor.

I share this mostly because I find myself constantly needing to call myself back to it, the practice of being present to what is.  For most of us, responsibility is far more likely than Valentine's Day to lead us into the world of fantasy.  But just because it's stressful doesn't mean it's real.  Some fantasies are subtler.  For some reason, maybe their subtlety and false appeals to self-importance, I find myself preferring even these fantasies to "the need for us all to be coaxed into honesty by the confidence that God can forgive and heal."

But God, when I see those words, and God, when I'm honest, I want that.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Everything You Need to Know About Lent

Soon and very soon, parishes everywhere will pack themselves full of pancakes and people for the traditional Fat Tuesday feast.  The next day, of course, is Ash Wednesday.  There is an obvious and dynamic connection between these two days: we eat up the fat on Tuesday because we are preparing to live without it come Wednesday and for the next forty days: the season called Lent.

Lent, for its part, is popularly known as the time to give up something, like cokes, chocolates, or cigarettes.  Sometimes we name that we're better off without these things - perhaps because they are unhealthy; other times Lent simply becomes a kind of confirmation about what we have taught ourselves about God: namely, that it can't be godly unless it hurts.

Because Lent encourages sacrifices (even small ones), Lent is easily misunderstood, I think.  The misunderstanding begins when we encounter Lent apart from the mystery of faith Lent serves: Christ has died.  Christ is risen.  Christ will come again. 

Abstracted from this mystery, Lent appears to many as primarily concerned with pious moral-ism - what we do or don't do.  This is problematic even on the purely moral level because the moral abstinence of Lent is as equally likely to lead to relapse as it is to renewal in the end.  "Sometimes I leave Lent having forgotten about cigarettes altogether," one person tells me.  "Other times I sing Easter's 'alleluia!' in part because I can finally smoke another drag."

But do we really think God cares about our chocolate consumption?

Enter Robert Farrar Capon.  In his book The Parables of Judgment Capon famously writes that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus ended religion, once and for all.  By religion, Capon does not mean the corporate gathering of the worshiping community; he means the idea that you or I can manipulate the Divine by our actions.  The death of religious superstition: "Lord, you scratch my back and I'll get yours."  "I will do X and God must do Y."   The Good News of Jesus is that God comes as undeserved and unexpected gift.  Christianity, says Capon, is the death of salvation produced at my own hand. 
Back to Lent, then.  How can Lent be returned to the context of what God in Christ has done for us?  If sacrifices are those things by which we try to control God or others, what would it mean to sacrifice our sacrifices? (1)

I think of parents, for example.  God knows that parenting is an enormous sacrifice.   Given the enormity of the sacrifice, why do so many empty nesters struggle to know what to do with themselves when the sacrifice is relieved?  I think of the enablers of alcoholics, whose identity is so wrapped-up in their "care" for another, that they prevent the other individual's healing.  I think of any and every time I am tempted to believe that salvation in this moment will be produced at my own hand.

Let me be clear: I'm not suggesting that parents give up parenting for Lent.  I'm only wondering why the biggest sacrifices are the hardest to end, and I'm admitting that at least part of the difficulty is my unwillingness to end my false religions; the extent to which our identities becomes wrapped up in illusions of self-sufficiency.  Grace comes always and only as undeserved and unexpected gift.

So sacrificing my sacrifices might mean turning existing relationships on their heads: being taught instead of teaching; following another instead of leading; listening instead of speaking; unhooking my sense of self-importance; naming out loud that the gift of the moment is God's to give.  Maybe this turns my so-called sacrifices into privileges: a parishioner the other day, telling me how honored she is to be able to care for her mother, as she dies.  The gift of the moment is God's to give.  Salvation comes from him.  Thank God.

And have a holy Lent.


(1) I'm indebted to Stanley Hauerwas here and his thought-provoking piece, Sacrificing the Sacrifices of War.


Sunday, February 12, 2012

Marked as Christ's Own:
Jude's Baptism

A blessed and joyful day today with family and friends at St Christopher's as Jude was baptized, sealed by the Spirit, and marked as Christ's own forever.  Bishop Lillibridge presided and offered the good word moments before the event: he observed that babies are always, well, observing, taking in, studying us.  We are making impressions.  He asked something along these lines: "How might your life be an example worthy of this observation and taking in?"  That's at least part of what it means to be a Christian, he said: to consider the impression of faith that we impart to a baby's eyes, and to the world and one another.

Delighted to have Catherine and the Reads on hand as godparents, and standing as proxies for the Scoggins.  We love you guys!  Overjoyed for days of celebration like these in the St Christopher's family, and across the whole Communion of Saints.

With Jude's wonderful painting from the Reads.

Friday, February 10, 2012

First Reflections On My Inaugural Ambulance Ride

I spend a lot time in hospitals, only not often as the patient.  That changed Friday afternoon, though, when I woke up in time to remember being wheeled away from a basketball game with friends at the local community center - well on my way to my very first ambulance ride.  Good times.

[Parenthetically, I don't remember much about the blacking out itself, but I definitely remember having a killer game going.  It was joy beyond telling to be on the hardwood with friends, that familiar orange, round ball, and a soft rim.]

Back to the ambulance.  The culprit seems to be some combination of dehydration and a mystery cardio-complication that will make this the first of a few hospital visits this month. 

I can't say enough about the care I received throughout the day.  From Jon and John, who called 911, gathered my gear, interpreted whatever garbled instructions I managed on the way out, called Bek, and followed me to the ER, to the paramedics who were as clear as they were kind, to the nurse who in our five-plus hours together became the kind of friend for which a handshake felt unsuitable, to Bek and Dad who sat with me, to the doctor and unseen others, the day became one about being sustained by the gift of friends and strangers.

Of course our lives are always contingent just to this extent.  Sometimes, though, we're blessed to have all illusions to the contrary removed.
The day set these words from Evening Prayer loose in my heart throughout the long hours:

O God, your unfailing providence sustains the world we live in and the life
we live: Watch over those, both night and day, who work while others sleep,
and grant that we may never forget that our common life depends upon each
other's toil; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Watch over them, indeed, O Lord.  And thank you for them.

Friday Flashbacks (this week on the blog)

Tomorrow promises a follow-up on yesterday's post.  Today promises some long-overdue basketball with a friend.  Without further ado, then, the week that was:

Thurs: Pancakes!

Wednesday: Grocery Bags and the God Who Gives

Tuesday: A Conversation with Bread and Wine

Monday: Jesus, Garrison Keillor, and Highly Trained Dogs

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