Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Siri, Why Am I Lost?
Reflections on Madison, Losing One's Way, and Patient Ministry

My family and I have been in our new home in Madison for two weeks and two days. We love Madison. We love its Austin-esque quirkiness and laid-back feel, the friendliness of the people, the thoughtfulness of the city toward families, the bicycles, the food, the cooperation among the churches, yes, the weather (hey, it's August yet), the political, ecological, and social awareness/responsiveness, and the fact that I find myself unspeakably excited for God at work at St Francis House and the good work God has set before me as its chaplain. Of course, no place is perfect, but we like our new town.

None of this is to suggest that I know my way around my new town. I'm learning. GPS makes this easier, but also more embarrassing when one inevitably gets turned around. How can you get lost with the sweet whispers of Siri to guide you? But you can, and I do, with some regularity. (In my defense, I don't have the true GPS that speaks the turns; Siri gives me printed directions, which are something like maps, I'm told.)

I've gotten so good at getting lost it has become something like a science to me. One thing I've observed about getting one's way is that it's almost never because I've gone too far. My hand-held directions tell me that my next left turn comes in 0.4 miles, and as soon as I read the instruction I begin to wonder if I've missed the turn. Just how far is 0.4? Not that far, surely. Should I go back? If I do, and subsequently encounter the correct street at the incorrect spot, how can I know where I am? Occasionally, very occasionally, I miss a turn. (The town of Monona decided to celebrate its recent construction by removing all street signs. Good call, Monona! I discovered this one Sunday while running late to church.) But most often its the doubt that comes with going to an unknown place I fear I will not recognize. I am so often amazed, on return trips, how close and connected were the turns that, going out, felt as if they were separated by eternities. Impatience (if I'm late), mistrust (of my directions and sometimes earned), and insecurity (in my ability to recognize the signs) all tempt me to turn to soon.

I have begun wondering if churches, in our nearly chronic desire for growth and wellness and faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus, haven't become a little bit like drivers in new cities. We know we want to have arrived, our cars are full of people with suggestions on the route, but impatience, mistrust, and self-doubt/insecurity often lead to rash turns and roundabouts. The quick fix and over-focus on technique. What if the right road is the long road? And what if we can trust God to point it? Would more attention the character of the Kingdom for which we're striving tune our eyes and ears such that the landscape around us also better points the way like fingerprints of God? And what will aid God's People (and myself) as we seek to become people of patience/perseverance, trust, and belief? How would the ability to trust the long-view stand to open me up to the Spirit and fill the present moment with joy?

Monday, August 27, 2012

Why Feasting and Fasting Need Each Other
(and why you and I need them both)

A friend tweeted me her excitement last Friday in learning that that Friday was the Feast of St Bartholomew. As it was Friday, my friend had planned to fast. As it was the feast day of a saint, my friend was changing her plans. And this a great and underrated gift of the liturgical calendar, I think -  for those traditions within the Christian Church who observe it - that these commemorations restore the lives of others as celebrations for us.

Left to our own devices, it is not a given that we will celebrate the lives of others. More often we are practices in resenting, disparaging, destroying, exploiting, and/or evading the lives of others. So it is not surprising that Paul exhorts the Church at Rome to rejoice with those who rejoice (Romans 12:15) alongside the admonishment to bless those who persecute them (i.e., "love your enemies"). Both are instructions at odds with the present order such that they require the inauguration of the Kingdom belonging to the crucified and risen Jesus. Celebrating the lives of others opens us up to receive one another as gifts in God's Kingdom and redirects us from the false word that would tell us we can only find life in the death of the others.

In a strange twist, there is a strain in the tradition that teaches that Bartholomew also lives into this new order now, by his fasting (i.e., "mourn with those who mourn). This tradition holds that the saints seated at the banquet table of the heavenly Feast of God are waiting, not eating, until my friend and the rest of us arrive. Just as we learn to celebrate one another, the Kingdom reaches out to us and meets us in the hunger of our present time, even as Christ emptied himself for us. In this way we learn the holy space where meet the longing and joy of God.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

What Would Jesus Pledge?
(where and in whom do we believe God has given up acting?)

Permit me just three opening remarks...

First, it is so good to be here. Yes, in worship. But also, worshiping with you, St Francis House. I know, a lot of students aren’t here yet or are just getting in. Numbers will be low, I’m told. It’s not September, not Labor Day weekend. I don’t care. I’m excited. I am very much looking forward to what God is up to at the University of Wisconsin and especially with this strange subset of the People of God worshiping for the time being at Grace Church on the Square. It is good to finally meet you.

Second, students: to say the obvious, God’s call in this season for you is to be students. That God calls people -  that God calls you to be a student - is amazing to me; I find your call infinitely interesting and unspeakably hopeful. My prayer is that this ministry, SFH, will strengthen you, challenge you, and confirm the delight God has in you as a student whom God has called.

Third, if you are not a student, your support of this ministry by your presence tonight is all the more remarkable. Thank you. This ministry will move and grow and finally find its full stride as the visible People of God with your help. Lots of prayers and with your help. We are grateful for you.

End remarks.

Long before Beta Theta Pi or Alpha Gamma Rho or even Sigma Delta Tau, there was Joshua, poised in the midst of the land of promise, asking for a pledge from the people. No word as to whether this pledge involved hazing, that is, no word as to what Joshua - behind the scenes and unofficially, of course - would have asked the people to do to prove their pledge. No recounting of burning matchsticks in the Israelites’ hands as the Greek alphabet was recited, for example, but a pledge requested nonetheless.

The exchange, as it gets relayed to us today, goes something like this:

Joshua says, “Choose the true God and forsake all the others.” The people responding: “You bet.”

In real-time it was considerably more complicated. Notice the carefully crafted arrangement of our Old Testament reading: Joshua 24:1-2a (dot, dot, dot) 14-18. In the omitted verses are Joshua’s recounting of Israel’s repeated unfaithfulness: time and again making this pledge, time and again falling short. The verses after the reading include Joshua telling the people that they won’t keep their pledge. But today it’s not like all that; kind of like an unpredictable parent invited to meet your significant other for the very first time, today, to our relief, the reading has cleaned up well.

Now Professor of Old Testament Anathea Portier-Young suggests that, so long as we remember the whole history of Israel, the messy parts that get cleaned up, the edits of our Old Testament lection today can actually be helpful, serving to focus our attention on the pledge of the present moment. For the moment, Israel is not bound by failures of the past or the people’s limited imagination for the future, but just now, in this moment, Joshua’s question to the people: will they choose the One who has chosen them? And with this question, the reminder that they have been chosen.

Joshua in the heart of the promised land, the very place where God first appeared to Abram and promised the land, beseeching his would-be pledges for a commitment in the present. Not for yesterday or tomorrow. Just present now. Pledged to God and this moment.

And Joshua’s asking the pledge makes me think of two things.

The first thing Joshua and the people’s pledge makes me think of may be lost on you entirely. It makes me think of Colonel William B. Travis, military commander at the Alamo (you may have heard of it). Travis and the people have just received word that reinforcements are not coming, their defeat is sure, but that to remain at the Alamo will nevertheless likely buy the time that the then would-be Republic needs to secure victory, thus paving the way for Texas’ independence from Mexico. To remain in this place will win freedom and/but almost certainly require their lives.

The moment after Travis shares this news is long and silent and uncomfortable before Travis steps up, reclaims the command of his troops and the present moment, and famously draws a line in the sand with his saber and invites all who are with him to cross it. In this action Travis conveyed both the cost of remaining and his own palpable hope that the people would pledge themselves to the promise of the moment before them.

“Choose this day whom you will serve,” Joshua tells the people. The words name the promise, but also the costs, that is, the alternatives, that which they stand to lose; and it is simply true that pledging to this takes us away from that; that the choices we make inevitably leave us wondering what was behind door number two, anyway. Joshua does not hide this reality, but names that life lived in praise of the God of Israel will cost them their slavery to the gods under which they’ve enlisted. And of course the opposite is also true: to not cross the line of this moment will cost Israel the only real alternative to the lives they are living, the abundant life that God means to make open to all those whom he loves.

So I think of William B. Travis when I think of Joshua and the people’s pledge. And the second thing I think of is, not surprisingly, the pledge made at your baptism.

Another pledge with a cost and a promise.

Just like our reading from Joshua, which the lectionary edits to emphasize not the wanderings of the past nor our failures in the future but the pledge of the present moment, the moment of baptism is less about wandering and failure and most about God and you and this moment and water and splashing and Spirit and the Body, together, and promise: one Lord, one faith, one baptism. The covenant by which we find ourselves united to the death and resurrection of Jesus.

And while we are sometimes tempted to think of baptism primarily as our pledge to God we know we are really accepting God’s pledge to us. In our baptism, we discover that, in the pledge and person of Jesus, God has given his own Self for the world and its life. Christ is the pledge that makes it possible for those with ears to hear and eyes to see to see and hear the Kingdom of God - in all its redemptive grace - today, in this moment, now.

Not always easy, for sure, between papers and red lights and children and my bad days and God knows what else - but if the Eucharist can be my practice, discerning by faith Christ present to the present, Christ pledged, in the Body broken and the Cup lifted to my lips, then perhaps...perhaps...

And this is remarkable: that as I pledge myself to meet God in the places and people to which he is pledged, I daily rediscover the depth and breadth of God’s pledge to me.

In a moment, we will receive Christ’s pledge anew: “The Body of Christ, the bread of heaven,” pressed to your hands. “The Blood of Christ, the cup of salvation,” fresh on your lips. This moment of moments is preeminent, must always hold the place of honor in our common life together. But the integrity of this moment hinges on the next moment to which you are present. We know that God is present to us, the question as we leave is always, “Can we stay present to God?” In the language of our baptismal covenant, “Will (we) seek and serve Christ in all persons?” That is, can we keep space with those who try our patience and ask where in their company our Lord resides? Can we sit with the mentally challenged and homeless and helpless and God knows who else and still believe ourselves to be more than wasting time? Seeking and serving Christ. Or where and in whom do we believe God has given up acting?

To leave this place each week and keep the pledge that we receive - the pledge of God given as gift in the moment to which you are present - will require that we cross the line in the sand and receive each present moment as if it were the promised place of divine encounter. Not in the anxieties or ambitions of tomorrow, neither in the mountain tops or valleys of yesterday, but here, now, in the ordinary time we so often try to kill: Christ in our midst. So we pray to become people pledged to the God who is pledged to us, pledged to you, in this moment.

Let us pray.

Gracious God, through Israel, your People, and Jesus, your Son, you pledge yourself to us and the world. We confess that we sometimes forget your promised presence and on our bad days resent it. But Your persistence presence finally undoes our attempts to take ourselves more seriously than You do, and we, like Sarah, laugh. Thank you. Give us grace we pray to be as present to the world You love as You are. Give us grace to seek and serve You always. May our preoccupying thought in days ahead be - in each moment - how we may seek and serve You here, now, today. In Christ’s Name we ask it.

Amen.

[Sermon preached 8.26.12 to the community @ St Francis House.]







Friday, August 24, 2012

Talking to Your Children about Baptists
(or 'Practical Challenges in Faith and Parenting')

I received an email from a good friend yesterday about a faith/parenting question that has come up for her daughter concerning baptism and the nature of accepting Jesus. I thought my friend's question was excellent, and asked if I could share our conversation here. I do so hoping that the content will encourage parents to talk with one another about our faith and the particular faith challenges we experience as parents. Christian parents need not soldier on alone.

Excerpt from my friend's email:

I am in need of a bit of parenting advice and I think you're the guy who might be able to help me on this one. K has a great group of girlfriends, most of whom are members of local churches, primarily of the Baptist persuasion. They're all starting to reach that age where apparently it's expected that one A)"Invite Jesus into their heart and get baptized.

I'm struggling to find a way to explain all of this to K without belittling the Baptists. In particular I want to give her a good response to the "when did you accept Jesus into your heart" question because some of her friends' parents treat that day like a second birthday. And while I know that moment can be memorable and momentous, I don't think it is for everyone and I don't want her to feel like her faith is less legitimate than her friends' because of all of this.


Does any of this make sense? I'd love to hear your insight...

My response:

This is a great question! I am going to think about it for a while as a parent for whom the question hasn't come up yet. (I got it a lot at Wheaton, but that was me, and I was older.) Here are some initial thoughts:

When Annie comes to me with questions from Baptist friends, I will first wonder with some regret how she came to have Baptist friends (kidding!). Then I think I will tell her that some people can think back to a moment in which Jesus became the center of their life. They remember the day. They remember what they were wearing and what the sky looked like through the windows. This memory is very important to them because they also remember what life was like before they met Jesus, and they are glad to have Jesus in their lives now.

Then I will tell Annie that

There are also people who have simply grown up knowing Jesus. They don't remember the day they first met. I have lots of good friends for whom I couldn't tell you the first day we met. I have just always enjoyed being with them, for as long as I remember. Jesus is that way for me. I was baptized as a baby, and on that day Jesus invited me into his heart, and he has been with me all along.

Annie, whether you remember the day like your friends or have enjoyed him for as long as you remember, like Dad, the important thing is that he has loved you for as long as you have been, and that he will always love you, and that, every day, he is with you. This is what we celebrate in Communion, when Jesus meets us to share himself with us. My prayer for you is that knowing Jesus gives you joy. You are his joy, too.

Bless you! You are in my prayers as the conversation unfolds. (Trusting that you can use my thoughts intended for a three year old for your older, more mature K. Let me know if I've too much missed the developmental mark!)

Peace.
Jonathan+

Thursday, August 23, 2012

Peace and the Battle

So to call the blog of late sporadic would be kind. Said blog (rightfully) slid to the back-burner as the family and I undertook the good, hard work of transition to our new home in Madison, Wisconsin, where I am glad to finally be, and where I now serve as chaplain to the St Francis House Episcopal Student Center. Without presuming to speak for you, I know I've missed it. I'm glad to be back. I'm hopeful that we can find our groove again.

Just now, some informal thoughts in conversation with the epistle assigned to this coming Sunday, August 26, especially as regards the lesson's role in the Church's tradition, hymnody, and self-understanding.

The well-known passage from Ephesians exhorts followers of Jesus who are the Church in Ephesus to "put on the whole armor of God." Christian theology historically cites this passage in the traditional three-part delineation of the Church: the Church militant, expectant, and triumphant. Roughly speaking, the Church triumphant is understood as that part of the Christian faithful already in Paradise, the full presence of God; the Church militant is we Christians living on earth who continue in struggle against the spiritual forces of evil (citing this passage from Ephesians); the Church expectant traditionally refers to the Church in waiting (Purgatory), though in light of even Catholic writers like Henri de Lubac - who suggests that those seated at the Feast are nevertheless waiting for all the guests before they begin to eat - it might be possible to find the description of the Church expectant helpful, even apart from the full doctrine of Purgatory (which is difficult for many Protestants) - in so far as it emphasizes the unity and common destiny of the People of God.

Anyway, the point: our place in the Church (at least at the time of my writing) is as the Church militant, those who struggle, and further that this understanding anchors itself largely in Paul's words about the armor of God. 

This foundation in place, militant language subsequently comes to pervade the Church's self-understanding, prayer, and song. I think immediately of "Onward Christian Soldiers," for example, in which the self-description of God's People is "marching as to war." Or Martin Luther's "Mighty Fortress". Or any number of others. Randall Balmer elsewhere notes that the siege mentality of some seasons of especially Evangelicalism was encapsulated in the architecture of church buildings, etc., which took the shape of literal fortresses. Signs of the struggle.

So far so good. But a question: if we proceed in our understanding of Christian struggle and militancy to simply list the particular items Paul encourages his hearers to put on, how would we as a Church find our default understandings of militancy and struggle challenged?  

Here goes:

Truth.
Righteousness.
Whatever will make you ready to proclaim the gospel of peace.
(Huh, that one is interesting - for obvious reasons - and also because Paul forsakes his metaphor language seemingly to emphasize the point. "Whatever it takes, wear that.")
Faith.
Salvation.
The Spirit, whose emphasized work here is
Prayer.

My own devotional and instinctive response to the words above listed is Gethsemane and the events of Holy Week. These words take me there, to the struggle - time of trial - from which Jesus tells his disciples to pray for deliverance. And of course it makes sense that the struggle and the cross should find shared space in Christian understanding. But can this space also instruct us as to the shape of Christian militancy? Where enemies are there to love and the last words of his Spirit are forgiveness for those who do not understand the things they do?

Importantly, these thoughts transform the Church's militant hymns for me. The hymns are not for me un-singable, but they find a meaning in the content of the armor to which we're called that the hymns do not suggest alone. 

Perhaps all of this is yet another example of the Christian discipline of insisting that God inform our definitions, rather than the other way around. So, for example, we do not know what love is apart from the love we encounter in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. We do not call God "just" before learning what justice is from God. Might it be so with struggle? And so also, with militant response: in this life, committed to the hard, even militant, struggle of peace and the Spirit and the work of the Spirit: the agonizing good work of prayer.   

Thursday, August 16, 2012

Dear Friends in Christ
a letter to our neighbor-friends

August 15, 2012
Dear Friends in Christ,

Grace and peace!

An introduction: My name is Jonathan Melton, and today is my first day as chaplain to St Francis House Episcopal Student Center at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. As you might imagine, I am both excited and nervous. I’ve been some years out of college, and further, I am doubtful of the claims of some that Wisconsin’s is a “dry cold.”

The excitement, however, is all-weather; it is rooted in the gift and challenge of Christ-centered community among remarkable young women and men who have said “yes” to their respective vocations as students. The opportunity to be formed by God together, with the freedom to explore - in the company of holy friends - the full extent of the claims of the crucified and risen Lord in and on our lives is a privilege and rare gift.

The gist: I am writing you on my first day at St Francis because of the four remarkable words that the Gospel opens to us, and with which this letter began: “Dear Friends in Christ.” I am convinced that for us at St Francis House to live fully into the breadth and depth of the present moment will require the help of all God’s good friends. My prayer is that St Francis becomes a place that receives and extends holy friendship generously and regularly with you, our neighbor-friends in the dioceses of Milwaukee, Fond du Lac, and Eau Claire.

That is, I hope our friendships grow.

Just now, I would ask your help: if you are aware of students in your parishes or larger communities 
who will be attending UW in the fall, please let me know, so that we may welcome them well. Equally, please feel free to share my email address: chaplain@stfrancisuw.org and our St Francis number, (608) 514-1734, liberally. We would love your help in connecting especially new students to the Episcopal community on campus.

Also, if you are ever in the Madison neighborhood, please do give me a call. It would be my pleasure to extend a St Francis welcome to you in person.

With gratitude, and in the peace of Christ.

Jonathan+

The Rev. Jonathan Melton, Chaplain
St Francis House Episcopal Center
@ the University of Wisconsin-Madison
(608) 514-1734 / (608) 514-1SFH; chaplain@stfrancisuw.org