Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Why Do Christians Vote?
(and should we?)

A good friend, Greg, recently posted in podcast form a conversation he led with university students. The subject was voting and, more specifically, the case for why Christians might not be called to do it. I found the recorded dialogue deeply interesting. First and foremost, it takes no small measure of courage to question an assumption so widely held as "you should vote." (I think the team's decision to name the talk "You Aren't Going to Like This" was brilliant.) Many people believe voting is more basic to being a moral personal than faith. To subsequently post the conversation that takes courage in the first place to have on the internet for the larger Church's benefit and critique requires the character we all, on our good days, pray to have as Christian leaders. I especially appreciated Greg's framing the question as one of Christian discipleship. 

Full disclosure: I don't know that I will not vote this election year. That is, I might. I am an undecided's undecided. In some years, I have abstained for reasons of conscience, though not for reasons as theologically and ecclesially developed as Greg's, and, in recent years, I have made voting a priority. In both cases, I have struggled primarily with what I consider to be a false choice: I am offered Coke or Pepsi and decline, indicating that I believe soda is harmful for my health (if only I could act on that conviction!) and am subsequently ostracized by large segments of the population if I refuse to make a choice within a choice I wouldn't choose.

That is to say that my argument might have been Christian in its struggle, but not uniquely so. I am grateful for the podcast's ability to tease out some of the important, more uniquely Christian questions for God's People. 

To steer away from American politics...

Toward the end of the podcast, Greg suggests that voting as a method of discernment may be inherently violent - at the very least incapable of expressing love for one's enemy. (I am still wondering if this is true. Might there be a way to vote in such a way that builds up one's enemy? But how would one choose which enemy to support?) Greg suggests that voting is not simply a problem, then, for American politics; it is a questionable methodology for the Church to employ in her important discernments.

This thought fascinates me. I remember my rector in seminary, Timothy Kimbrough, asking what it might mean for the Church to cast lots in filling positions of leadership. After all, lot-casting is the closest biblical answer for the challenges that voting was proposed to address.

Practical aside: many churches, even diocese, presently nominate only as many people as they have positions to fill. This happens for two reasons, largely: 1) individuals can be reluctant to serve, and 2) among those who do step up to serve, it is thought that the humiliation involved in "losing" is more than they deserve. But see how lot-casting helpfully speaks to these concerns: given corporately determined criteria for nomination, it would be possible to assemble a slate of individuals - twice in number relative to the open positions - with each one made a "winner" simply by virtue of the nomination, with no fear of "losing" in the step that follows.

Theologically, this method 1) reminds the Christian faithful that total control is neither possible nor desirable, and 2) creates open space for cultivating trust in the movement and leading of the Holy Spirit.

To see the thrust of these theological points in action, consider if we are not longer filling a board or a vestry, but calling a rector. With the process down to three candidates, the vestry casts lots. Gone is the sense that the parish's long-term success depends on their "getting this right." Increased is the sense of corporate responsibility (a key point for my friend throughout the podcast) for the life of the parish. Likewise increased is the reminder that the future we so often presume is the future that belongs alone to God.

And here's the big question: why does this scare us?

Monday, October 29, 2012

How to Ask God to Give You a Heart for Africa...or College Students...or...

Reading this book, The Tangible Kingdom: Creating Incarnational Community, by Halter and Smay. And while I still have serious misgivings about "incarnational" as an adjective applied to Christian communities, I am finding the book a good conversation partner for the kind of work in which I find myself engaged as a university chaplain. 
Most recently, I read a passage that beautifully (and humbly) challenges what I have perceived as the sometimes-passivity of evangelical language exhorting Christians to pray to be given a heart for a particular people group. Yes, pray. But/and...
"...[Our] heart only changes as we live among the people for whom we will eventually advocate."

"If you go to Africa and hang out in a village of starving children, you'll get a heart for starving African children. If you hang out with the mentally ill, you'll get a heart for the emotionally imbalanced. If you want an authentic heart for people outside the've got to be with them. As they grab your heart, your posture will change, your angle of approach will change, and the kingdom of God will be a little more tangible."

Maybe this is what is meant by incarnational (though comparing the Incarnation of the Son of God to an extended travel trip to Africa seems silly and unnecessary to me). Anyway, two things that strike me:

1) The pro-activity available to each of us in our desires to live out a heart for a particular people. Go there. Be there. Also, with whom are you around now? How might intentional practices of being present to your present context open up connecting points for love in action? (Yes, I'm talking - at least in part and to myself - about putting the smartphones down.) A favorite prayer of mine from the BCP begins, "Be present, be present, O Lord, Jesus Christ..." How many times does he pray the same prayer for me?

2) The words of the first line: "for whom we will eventually advocate." Advocating is an unpredictable privilege that develops, not a starting point. Go there. Be there. Without the expectation of either reward OR immediate usefulness. If incarnational means anything helpful for describing the Church's ministry (and I'm still not sure it's the right word), it is in learning to trust and imitate the ministry of presence commended by our Lord. To be present is a gift that is not lost on others. You have other places you could be, and you are here. This already is something interesting I want to understand about you. 

Annie's godparents have this lyric from Mumford and Sons posted high above their living room: "Where you invest your love, you invest your life." This is descriptive, not normative; it's just the way things, in God's good order, are. But it's also a gift, an opportunity, an invitation...

"If you go to Africa and hang out in a village of starving children, you'll get a heart for starving African children."

Sunday, October 28, 2012

On Being Texan, Reading Scripture, & Seeing Blindness

The Dudes: Jeff Bridges with Jeff Dowd
One of the highlights of my first two months at St Francis House - before I saw Jeff Dowd, the real life inspiration for the Big Lebowski, at the Rathskeller last week - came on my very first Sunday when, on the way out to dinner, Jimmy informed me that, for a Texan, I was pretty disappointing. No boots or spurs; no six-shooter or hat. No real accent, even, and Jimmy would know. “Now Rebekah,” he said. “She has an accent; there is an interesting Texan.” You can imagine my delight in sharing this compliment with Rebekah, because Rebekah is from North Carolina.

Fair warning: I’m about to let my Texan show. It won’t hurt. I think.

In Texas, sixth grade is the Texas History year. Children learn names like Davy Crockett, Stephen F. Austin, William B. Travis, and Sam Houston. Optimally, one’s class will make a pilgrimage to the capitol in Austin during this year; additionally, students will learn to disdain Colonel James Fannin (who could have aided at the Alamo, but did not) and to repeat the cry of San Jacinto: “Remember the Alamo!”

But even Texans know that Texas history does not start with the Alamo; or, better put, that the Alamo was a Spanish mission - a church - long before it was a fort under siege. The Alamo owed its being to the Spanish engagement with the Americas that began centuries before the famous battle; this ongoing engagement resulted in unspeakable hardships for the indigenous peoples, some graces, too, all of it driven by the three-fold, sometimes misguided (and helpfully alliterative) motivations of those first conquistadors; the three ‘Gs’ we learned in sixth grade: God, Gold, and Glory.

God: the missionary impulse of the early Spanish adventurers; Gold: the vast wealth of the land being conquered. Glory: the positions of honor that awaited those who were successful in risk-taking and wealth-discovery upon their return to the Old World.

God, Gold, and Glory sounded so noble in sixth grade. Now, looking back, it is hard not to name these motivating factors without some measure of cynicism for the unbridled exploitation and violence they were used to justify. So it was with some ambivalence this past Tuesday that I realized that if the last three weeks’ gospel lessons were ever made into a single film, God, Gold, and Glory would be the inevitable title, harkening back to the days of bad spaghetti westerns.

Three Sunday’s ago in Mark’s gospel we read of the rich young man whose wealth proves an insurmountable obstacle to his receiving the gift of God’s Kingdom. Gold. Two Sunday’s ago in Mark’s gospel,  James and John make a failed attempt to secure the top cabinet positions in Jesus’ new administration. Glory. This week in Mark’s gospel, we are given the healing of a blind man who longs to see God. God, gold, and glory.

Now, to be fair, the blind man doesn’t say straight out that he wants to see God, only that he wants to see again. However, in light of 1) the gospel’s recurring theme of the disciples’ blindness with respect to who Jesus is and 2) what the blind man does once he is healed - he follows Jesus to Jerusalem, where Jesus will be crucified - it is not too much, I think, to characterize this blind man’s longing as a longing to see God.

So we see the blind man and immediately realize that we have seen this before, the latest in a series of individuals coming to Jesus with a special request - three weeks in a row now. In case we miss the repetition and so also the connectedness of the stories, Jesus uses the same question to engage the blind man that he used with James and John: “What do you want me to do for you?” The blind man is the third in a trilogy of encounters.

As you and I know, the first two encounters do not turn out well. The first two encounters do not turn out well because the ones who approach Jesus cannot see that they do not see. The rich man cannot see the possibility of a future apart from his wealth; James and John cannot see the possibility of a kingdom that takes Jesus to the cross. Each in his own way holds the Kingdom to the standard of a stunted imagination. But this time is different. This time the one coming to Jesus sees that he does not see. Unlike the others, he knows he is blind. And this one is able to follow Jesus to Jerusalem, to follow the Savior whose glory is the cross.

We do not like to think of ourselves as blind. But in Mark’s gospel, seeing one’s blindness is the only sight that leads to life. To see that one cannot see makes possible the profession that invites the healing of God: “Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.”

There is a long-standing tradition in the Church: a desire among the saints, for what is called the beatific vision, the longing of the saints to see God. The beatific vision refers to the perfect knowledge of God enjoyed in heavenly realms. It is Paul reminding us that while now we see but dimly, then we will see face to face. And this is the longing of God’s holy ones, the knowledge that we don’t see, the prayer to see face to face, and with both of these the willingness to surrender every definition of the God we thought we knew before we knew Jesus.

Professor of mine in college asked us: “What if there was nothing in it for you? No streets of gold. No promise of wealth. No pearly gates. No power or position. No reunion with loved ones, even. Would you still be in?” he asked. He clarified: he wasn’t saying that there would be no reunion with loved ones - indeed, salvation as we find it offered in Scripture is the restoration of the whole Body of Christ, God’s holy People, all things reconciled to God - but, he added, and this is the heart of the beatific yearning: “What if the only thing promised you by God was...God?” Would God be enough?

Gold and earthly glory are unfortunate aspirations for those who follow the crucified King. But God as enough for us, God as enough for you - forever - this longing leans into the abundance and glory of the New Jerusalem, for this desire is God’s own.

Jesus, whom now hidden, I by faith behold,
what my soul doth long for, that thy word foretold:
face to face thy splendor, I at last shall see,
in the glorious vision, blessed Lord, of thee. (1)


SFH. 10.28.12

(1) Attr. Thomas Aquinas, Hymn 314 in the Hymnal 1982.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Are Professional Sports the Liturgy of the Empire?

This past Saturday, St Francis House students and I were among the 80,000 plus red-clad fans (1) on hand at Camp Randall Stadium to cheer the Badgers of Wisconsin as they took on the mighty Gophers of Minnesota. We had a great time on a gorgeous day with the very best company - one another. And the Badgers won. Very good times, indeed.

The day ended with students verbalizing their collective gratitude to the diocese, which had matched student funds to support this day directed toward leadership/community building and fun. What neither SFH nor the diocese could have anticipated, however, were the additional formative benefits proffered us through this particular gridiron act of liturgical worship.

The students picked up on this quickly: how fandom within the context of the stadium required our engagement through a series of very particular, predetermined responses, both vocal and physical. For example, every time the announcer announced, "First and ten, Wisconsin," fans were obliged to parrot both the announcers words and the official's "first down" gesture. We did this approximately 1,342 times. (To be fair, the first and ten gesture - which we decided most nearly parallels the making of the sign of the cross - for its frequency - is a modest corporate commitment when compared to that which is required of the student section. Insanity.) Indeed, every situation on the field conspired with tradition to elicit a separate, unique response from the people, engaging us body and soul in the proceedings before us.

Yesterday a friend tweeted me this quote: "Professional sports is the liturgy of the Empire." Walter Brueggemann said that. True, collegiate athletics are not technically professional sports, but not for lack of professional revenue or investments; it IS a billion dollar business. 

In this post, I am less interested in making moral judgments of a society that makes billions of dollars through what Bill Simmons calls the worship of laundry. No, just now I find myself assuming Brueggeman's definition and fascinated by the effectiveness of a liturgy that is very opposite of the buzzwords that various ecclesial pundits contend are essential to the Church's connecting to the world "out there" - e.g., relevant, authentic, dynamic, relational. That is, I am interested in the extent to which what is arguably the most formative liturgy in our country follows the blueprint for predicted liturgical success.  Let's take a brief look at each buzzword in turn.


Occasionally you will hear a sportscaster say something like, "Notre Dame is relevant again," but it is not clear to me what is meant by such a statement, except that they are winning. But that Notre Dame last won the National Championship in 1988 when I was seven years old does not appear to have any bearing on the enthusiasm of fans on game day, much less fans' willingness to attend games. Indeed, a problematic trend across sports at present is that it is more financially lucrative for owners to field a mediocre team than a champion-caliber team. Relevance as denoted by the sportscaster would seem to be a deceptive insistence on the arbitrary illusion that everybody wants to win.

Taking the word (relevant) at face value - "having significant and demonstrable bearing on the matter at hand" - the appeal of professional sports would seem to be precisely their irrelevance. As a kind of escapism, the draw of sports is precisely that they have no significance on the matter at hand unless they are the only matter at hand. Like any good liturgy, pro sports demand total loyalty and allegiance.

Indeed, the only clear realm in which sports come close to "having significant and demonstrable bearing the matter at hand" is the financial realm, of which fans are incessantly cynical and critical. The more money is made, the more difficult it becomes to profess sports as an escape without external relevance.


WWF wrestling, steroids, blood doping, the Black Sox, replacement refs, lock-outs, NCAA student-athlete hypocrisy. I suppose one could make the case that professional sports are authentically human in their predictable and sometimes open attempts to be other than they are, but that seems like a low (and bizarre) bar for authenticity. Strangely, fan suspicion that the fans are constantly kept on the outside by money-grabbers seems to increase fan passion for the game.


Yes. Absolutely. The big play. The big hit. And (My true sports love, BTW.) Soccer? Skillful. Artful. Dynamic? Just asking.


This is actually why I love baseball. I love the banter with friends as the game plays on. Friends with knowledge of and appreciation for the game's history makes the banter most satisfying. But the game itself is hardly relational. How many professional athletes do you know? What percent of the 80,000 friends at the last college game you attended have you taken to coffee? Or met? 

If professional sports are the new liturgy of the Empire, I would humbly suggest our particular Empire does not value relevance, authenticity, dynamism, and relationality quite to the extent that believes it does. But what, then, are the values of the liturgy of the Empire? And how, then, did we arrive at these words? And do the actual values of the Empire have things to teach us? 

I am afraid that the answer to the last question is "yes." I say "afraid" because I suspect the values of the Empire's liturgy have much to teach us about the selves we believe we are offering in all our worship, even the non-sporting kind. Such a lesson could be worthwhile, if appropriately frightening, in its truth.


(1) Actually, and as you can clearly see from the photo, I was wearing green, because green is the color of the jacket my father-in-law gave me, and also, it was cold. Badger fans, forgive me.

Monday, October 22, 2012

Do not be Ashamed to be Yourself

Every Sunday about 2 p.m., I peruse the University of Wisconsin's events calendar in search of a) items I think the students will find interesting - like free pumpkins courtesy of the WUD on Wednesday - and b) open lectures on topics that I would like to learn more about. (1) These opportunities 1) are incredibly interesting and engaging in their own right, 2) keep me mindful of the discipline required of students, 3) introduce me to new friends, and also 4) witness the Church's interest in areas of life that the world thinks the Church has discounted or abandoned.

Yesterday, I invited my wife to peruse the events calendar with me. So much of what she does for our family enables a ministry she doesn't often get to see, so this was a small way to share my work with her. Also, she frequently sees things I miss. So we're scrolling down, and she blurts out: "Clergy continuing ed?? At UW?" "What? Where? Are you going?" Sure enough. Too late and too pricey, but right here on campus. Two days, no less. I'm going to have start looking farther ahead. 

The fact of this conference is interesting to me. For all the present discussion of our being a post-Christian society (and, make no mistake, we are one), the Church assumes the world's disinterest or dismissal of Christians and the Church at its own peril. Further, for the Church to use the assumption of the world's disinterest to justify her own disinterest in the world is the worst kind of tragic and a betrayal of the Gospel. But I digress...

My main point surrounds the topic of the conference: "Clergy Leadership and Management: Shame-less Lives, Grace-full Congregations." A secular campus making room for a two-day workshop on shame and grace in the life of the Church strikes me as itself an act of grace. It is also a refreshingly honest topic to address: the role of shame in the lives of Christian leaders, and the ways we pass it down to our flocks.

Read Karen McClintock's explanation of shame and grace here.  

When I made my first CREDO (a clergy wellness conference) last November, one of the life-goals I discerned was "to become a credible witness of grace," the thrust of which is two-fold: 1) extending God's grace toward others, and 2) visibly witnessing God's grace toward me. One of the action-points of that goal was to attend one movie a month by myself as a way of stepping out of the myth that it is all up to me and I can never do enough, which, I am aware, is a kind of egotism. Shame is sneaky like that.

So, although I am not at the conference, my heart is keyed into the theme and then unexpectedly met by the words of the scriptures appointed for today's Morning Prayer: 

Watch for the opportune time, and beware of evil,
   and do not be ashamed to be yourself. 
 For there is a shame that leads to sin,
   and there is a shame that is glory and favour. 
 Do not show partiality, to your own harm,
   or deference, to your downfall. 
 Do not refrain from speaking at the proper moment,*
   and do not hide your wisdom.* 
 For wisdom becomes known through speech,
   and education through the words of the tongue. 
 Never speak against the truth,
   but be ashamed of your ignorance. 
 Do not be ashamed to confess your sins,
   and do not try to stop the current of a river. 
 Do not subject yourself to a fool,
   or show partiality to a ruler. 
 Fight to the death for truth,
   and the Lord God will fight for you.(1)

What a wonderful encouragement, I think, for followers of the One who died on the cross and who find ourselves in an unpopular (but not impossible) time: do not be ashamed a) to be yourself AND b) to confess your sins. Surely these twin admonitions to not be ashamed can only be connected by the conjunction AND by the grace and mercy of Jesus. And they are. We in the Church - and especially we leaders - cannot steep ourselves too much in this mystery. 

Thanks be to God.

(1One day it was the economy of Janesville, Wisconsin, as a microcosm of the national economy in recession, with a particular eye toward measuring the effectiveness of job retraining among the middle class. Another day it was African post-colonial readings of ancient Greek literature. Still another time I listened to and had the privilege of meeting former U.S. ambassador John L. Hirsch. Not bad for a lunch hour. 

(2Wisdom of Sirach 4:20-28

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Learning to See the King on the Cross

James and John want to be right and left of Jesus in his glory. We do not know what exactly James and John think they are asking of Jesus or how they come to think he can give it to them. Presumably, they are asking for something like to be made top cabinet officials in the new administration. Or maybe not. We aren’t told. The only other mention of right and left in Mark’s gospel will come later, as in: And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. We are probably safe in assuming that James and John are not asking for that. So we are left to wonder what kind of God’s glory is a cross and what it will do to us to return the love of such a God.

“You do not know what you are asking,” Jesus tells them. And this is the understatement of the century, I think. The disciples do not know. Three times now Jesus has named his coming death and resurrection, and one time Peter rebukes him, a second time the disciples argue about which one is the greatest, and this third time we learn that James and John must have won the second time because they are ready to cut the others loose and receive their honorary medals. To drive home the disconnect between what Jesus is saying and what his disciples are hearing, Mark bookends these three prophetic occasions with blind men who are not able to see until Jesus heals them.

“Are you able to drink the cup that I drink?” he asks James and John, “or be baptized with the baptism I am baptized with?”

Jesus’ question should get our attention because Jesus is asking James and John if they are able to drink and be baptized with a kind of warning in his voice. As if the drinking and the baptism could be dangerous. But some of us have already been baptized, and some of us have made a sometimes thoughtless habit of drinking each week from the cup. I started when I was six years old. Some very good people taught me, but nobody warned me. They warned me at the doctor’s office, especially before shots - “Careful, this will hurt” - but not before I entered the suffering of my Lord. Teaching an adult Sunday School class once, I said that we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus. A parishioner corrected me: “Jonathan, you mean the resurrection of Jesus. We aren’t baptized into the death.” But I was right. You can look it up. And it’s the tension of this text: James and John sensing the victory of God, still not seeing its cost, not anticipating its course.

The disciples are not able to see, and so are like the blind men in need of Jesus’ healing. That these men who have left everything to follow Jesus are blind keeps us open to the possibility we might also be blind. We may be tempted, because we are a part of God’s Church, to think of ourselves as seeing better than others, but that James and John are our parents in the faith reminds us that we may not be able to see what we cannot see. Even the spiritual - indeed, especially the spiritual - have blind spots. (A friend of mine is fond of saying, “if you could see 'em they wouldn't be blind spots.”)

Which brings us to the heart of the issue: If Jesus could show us our blindness, and heal it, what else could we see?

In The Weight of Glory, C.S. Lewis wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” This life of faith thing is supposed to restore our vision. Not only does faith help us see God; by faith, we are supposed to see things when we look at the world that we didn’t see before. And so we are right to ask each other hopeful questions, like: “Where or in whom have you given up hope of seeing God’s acting? Would you be open to your being wrong?”

William Temple once said that

"The world, as we live in it, is like a shop window into which some mischievous person has got overnight, and shifted all the price-labels so that the cheap things have the the high price-labels on them and the really precious things are priced low. We let ourselves be taken in. Repentance means getting those price labels back in the right place."

Getting the labels right begins with James and John: learning to see God’s glory on the cross. And daring to get nearer. This reality is so at odds with everything around us and so much of what we believe - if belief is measured in actions - that this is a hard label to swap: that here, on the tree, is our King and so also the standard for all other power, all other kingships; that here at the cross is where we learn what love is and who God is. And what we learn about God and love on the cross is that God has chosen not to be, except to be with us. This is a hard label to swap. It requires that we see in the One who is pierced the Son of the living God. And it requires that we see ourselves in and the world through God’s eyes as wholly precious, beloved of God, a treasure beyond all knowing: even as Christ himself.

When God looks at you, he sees Christ, says Martin Luther. And also your neighbor. This changes everything. So Jesus tells the disciples:

You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it is not so among you; but whoever wishes to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be slave of all. (1)

With these last words - first among you and slave of all - we are asked to be vulnerable for each other and strangers because we are asked to find our share in Jesus. Says St Paul:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
 who, though he was in the form of God,
   did not regard equality with God
   as something to be exploited,
 but emptied himself,
   taking the form of a slave,
   being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
  he humbled himself
   and became obedient to the point of death—
   even death on a cross. (2)

James and John want to be right and left of Jesus in his glory. We do not know what exactly James and John think they are asking of Jesus or how they come to think he can give it to them. Presumably, they are asking for something like to be made top cabinet officials in the new administration. Or maybe not. We aren’t told. The only other mention of right and left in Mark’s gospel will come later, as in: And with him they crucified two bandits, one on his right and one on his left. We are probably safe in assuming that James and John are not asking for that. So we are left to wonder what kind of God’s glory is a cross and what it will do to us to return the love of such a God.


SFH. 10.21.12

(1) Mark 10:42-44
(2) Phil 2:1-8

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

More than Surviving: the Calling of Christian Students

A few years ago, Stanley Hauerwas wrote a wonderful piece on the calling of the university student. Here is the link to it. What follows is the short-hand case, through the lens and observations of a parish priest turned chaplain, for why students and the rest of us should read it.

While at the university, students become accustomed to a standard set of questions: "What is your name? In what year are you in your program? What is your discipline and/or major?" Many times (though not all the time) conversations will continue around the theme of "and what do you hope to do with that?" These questions are not good or bad in themselves, they just are, and they are common. Combined, though, with the student's preexisting sense (or lack thereof) of after-graduation direction, these questions can add to a building feeling of anxiety about the unknown future (is there any other kind?). Indeed, many adults, long after college, continue to invest a disproportionate amount of stress and energy around questions of what they will be when they finally grow up. Discernment, in this vein, primarily sees itself as about the discovery of the place where one isn't yet.

But discernment, for Christians, is much richer than the futile attempt to control uncertain futures. The life, death, and resurrection of Jesus give us the life with God and victory over death that we could not give ourselves, and subsequently free us for more than doomed attempts to (as Hauerwas puts it) "get out of life alive." Grounded in the gift of God's self, Christian discernment becomes less about where I should go next and more about where I am now and - most of all - about how God is acting in and is present to the here and now that is. Christian discernment awakens my awareness of God at work in the present moment: seeking and serving Christ in all persons.

What a gift this is, I think, for students: God calls Christians to be students. Indeed, that God makes Christian-students possible is a gift to the whole Church: and not as an investment for an uncertain future, but rather as faithful engagement of the world in the light of the Gospel, here, now, today.

From the end of the article:

"To worship God and live faithfully are necessary conditions if you are to survive in college. But as a Christian you are called to do more than survive. You are called to use the opportunity you have been given to learn to construe the world as a creature of a God who would have us enjoy—and bask in—the love that has brought us into existence. God has given your mind good work to do. As members of the Church, we’re counting on you. It won’t be easy. It never has been. But I can testify that it can also be a source of joy."

Monday, October 15, 2012

Coming Clean: My Liturgical Formation at a Methodist Divinity School

On the short flight back to Chicago from the Province V Chaplains' Conference in Gambier, Ohio - flight out of Columbus - I listened to this hour-long podcast by Sam Wells via Sam Wells, priest in the Church of England, served as the Dean of Duke Chapel during my time at the divinity school there. His wife, the Rev. Jo Bailey Wells, was hugely instrumental in my three seminary journey through her role as Director of the newly formed Anglican/Episcopal House of Studies.

I share the link to the podcast here less out of nostalgia and more because I found the whole talk helpful and the first part beautiful - so beautiful that I took the time to transcribe it here, though if you do read it, read it out loud; it needs to be read slowly.

I also share it because, as a Duke alum, people are never quite sure where to place my liturgical sensibilities. I grew up in an Anglo-Catholic parish, studied economics at Wheaton College, and so of course proceeded to undertake seminary training at a Methodist divinity school. I share this beginning of Sam's podcast in part because I feel like it is a good theological account of the liturgical formation I received at Duke.


"There is a power at the heart of the universe. It's what brought the universe about, and it's what will bring the whole show to an end one day. And that power is so shaped never to be except to be with us. And the name for that shaping is 'Trinity'. And the way in which we see that shaping is Jesus. And God's commitment never to be except to be with us in Jesus is so powerful that Jesus becomes just like us. And, if we were in any doubt whatsoever of God's commitment to be shaped to be with us and to be with us to the very end, then on the cross we see that Jesus is prepared to risk even being with God in order always to be us. And we have two days of uncertainty - whether this amazing gift we've been given...that Jesus has shown us that he will be with us even at the risk of continuing to be with God - and that anxiety is resolved on Easter Day, the day of new creation, the last day, the first day, the every day in which we see that nothing can separate, not only God from us, but nothing can separate God from God. And that creates the most dynamic power there ever has been and ever will be and is released upon us in the pouring out of the Holy Spirit and all the gifts of the Spirit. And those gifts are everything we need to reclaim our past in the forgiveness of sins and to discover our future in eternal life. Those gifts are everything we need to worship, to be God's friends, and to eat with God forever in the banquet of the Kingdom.

"If worship proclaims and embodies and displays that - it's good. To the extent that it misses any of that out, it's not as good as it could be."

Sunday, October 14, 2012

Homily for a Patronal Feast

Maybe it was the day-old pizza. Maybe it was a sermon I heard recently on the epistle of St James and the power of self-deception. Maybe I was just inexplicably cranky. Whatever the reason, I found myself this past week feeling cynical about, of all things, St Francis Day. I say "of all things" because how can one dislike a day that features puppies and kittens and lizards in church? Or upholds the goodness of all creation? I say "of all things" because I am the chaplain of the St Francis House Episcopal Student Center, and St Francis Day is our patronal feast. Happy birthday! But celebration notwithstanding, today I am wary of the feast as we have come to observe it in the Christian Church.

The concern is this: to what extent has St Francis Day been given over to the tendency within the Christian faithful to dismiss the challenge of a particular witness by lifting it up in part, and in a manner comforts the faithful without also discomforting the faithful? Without keeping us honest... Put differently, has the Blessing of the Animals - however good and well intentioned an act it is in itself - become within the context of the Church's practice an act so isolated from the whole of Francis' life and witness that it now stands alongside Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny as a sentimental caricature of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus and the subsequent life and calling of the people his Spirit conceived, that is, the Church?

Parenthetically, I’ve long feared that something like this happens in ordination: that the Church, by the enormous, comic spectacle of making priests, keeps the rest of the Church at arm’s length from the challenge of being so called. As if holiness were an optional elective among the faithful. “Here, you go be holy for us.” And yet any priest with the audacity to acknowledge such a call surely does so only within the context and understanding of the priesthood of all believers, with Christ as the head and great, high priest; that is, she understands that she has no priesthood to exercise apart from the whole Church living her priestly calling.

G. K. Chesterton once famously said that Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult and left untried. If Francis meant to show us anything, it is that the life of the Christian - every Christian - can be radical, beautiful, and distinguished from the lives we would have otherwise lived.

Now, to be clear: let’s keep blessing the animals! I’m not THAT cranky. But remember - as we’ve said before - that Francis preached to them, too. Constantly. Converted them, even, if the stories are to be believed. The homiletic take-home was almost always "praise him." Through your barking, fetching, soaring, tweeting (not that kind, but that kind, too), praise the Lord. If Francis preached these things to wolves, there’s no reason to think he’d change it much for students: praise him! In your reading, speaking, learning, writing, procrastinating - in all things, praise him, and proclaim him! So I ask you: why doesn't October 4th occasion church-wide reflection on the call of each one to preach with the same passion with which we bless hamsters? Again, I ask you: where is the exhortation to proclaim? And of course to sing the praises of God? How can we let the day pass us without praying Canticle 13 at least three times? Or singing hymns 400 and 407 at every mealtime?

Francis preached and praised ALL THE TIME, yes, with animals. "PRAISE THE LORD IN ALL YOU DO," he said. And they listened to his words. That’s significant. Cats and dogs - all creation is important, but/and exactly because creation is important, as the good work of our Creator, the words with which we describe creation and speak to it, as it, are every bit as vital. Indeed, just to the extent that we live lives unintelligible from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (and our desire to do so is the obvious rub that Chesterton names), humble and courageous words - and not just the preacher’s - are necessary to articulate our actions with any meaning. We preach Christ, and him crucified.

Shifting gears. You might remember me sharing before a favorite quote of Francis’: "It is no use walking to preach unless our walking is our preaching." We might read these words in a number of directions, but I daresay a direction we cannot omit is this: Francis' vow of poverty (and this as something different from simply being a university student). Would that October 4 re-called Christians to our call to be present to and among the poor; indeed, to walk with them. Would that October 4 became our reclaiming the call that William Law penned for Christians when he exhorted us to “Love poverty and [have] reverence [for] poor people as for many reasons, so particularly for this, because our blessed Savior was one of the number and because you may make them all so many friends and advocates with God for you.”

As a child, reflecting on the witness of St Francis, I used to pray that I would become a person of sufficient peace that birds would find me a worthy perch. Ridiculous, I know - what a sad childhood, you’re thinking - but it worked for Francis. How does the peaceful witness of Francis stand to challenge our society's deeply ingrained patterns of ritual violence and force? Where is the symbol-act alongside the blessing of turtles for especially costly peace, an end to war, on St Francis Day? Surely this peace is as central to Francis’ witness as the call to sprinkle water on Muffins, the cat.

Finally, I am unreasonably fascinated by the readings assigned to feast days. I sometimes ask my would-be confirmands, "What Scriptures would one appoint for your day?" Of course the saints don’t get to pick their lessons. The Church picks them for them, as a sort of rehearsal, a remembering, a treasuring, of a given saint’s life. The readings become an act of observation. What Scriptures, they ask, did this individual’s life call to mind, speak to life. The appointing of lessons for a Christian is like having one's life woven into the grand narrative of God's story. And this is the appointment - this is what the Church sees and hears in the life of St Francis:

May I never boast of anything except the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to me, and I to the world. For neither circumcision nor uncircumcision is anything; but a new creation is everything! As for those who will follow this rule-- peace be upon them, and mercy, and upon the Israel of God. From now on, let no one make trouble for me; for I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body. May the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with your spirit, brothers and sisters. Amen.

The literal connection between Francis and the text is the allusion to the stigmata, the marks of the crucifixion that Francis is said to have prayed for, and received: “I carry the marks of Jesus branded on my body.” But in every other aspect of his life also: the marks of Jesus branded on his body. And this is what he prayed for. I don't know what to do with this prayer. And yet I know it is the prayer my being a Christian is training me to pray: the marks of Jesus branded on my body. On my good days, I even pray to want to see it happen. On my other days, though, I'm grateful for puppies and kittens and lizards and photo ops, which prove suitably pious distractions from the call of the Christ with holes in his hands; holes Francis prayed to made worthy of sharing.

Francis blesses the animals; but when he is done he looks up at us, too. And there in his gaze: the conviction that the life of every Christian can be radical, beautiful, and decidedly distinguished from the lives we would have otherwise lived.

Thanks be to God.


SFH. 10.7.12

We Need Some Clever Preachers

Usually we Christians are suspicious of clever preachers, but today we need some clever preachers, because a plain reading of this gospel should scare the hell out of us.

Many times, the representative, faithful Church goer - we’ll call him Joe Pew - will approach the sermon moment with some suspicion, a determination to not be had: “Play it straight, preacher. Put the cards face up, and keep things on the level.” This is why Greek words, say the seminaries, are to be avoided or used sparingly. Avoid the appearance of excessive cleverness. In south Texas, where I served for five years, pastors who preached with an open Bible in their hands were held in the highest regard. The message is clear: “Preach the plain word.”

This suspicion of overly ornamental preaching has much to commend it: there is a beauty and simplicity inherent to the Good News of the Gospel and the hard wood of the cross that the preacher tempted with excessive cleverness does well to remember, indeed, to cling to. There is also a truthfulness within the contemplative tradition that asserts the power of the Spirit to speak intimately, plainly, clearly to God’s people, even apart from the benefits of a twenty-first century seminary education. And of course there is the gravest danger in wishing a twenty-first century seminary education on the authors of Holy Scripture or worse, on Jesus himself: as in, “yeah, but said that, but just imagine what Jesus would have said with the benefit of a course or two in pastoral care and/or exegesis...” A little caution, indeed, even suspicion, thrown back on the preacher, is not all bad.

Just as surely, this suspicion has its limitations. In its extreme form, too much suspicion within the Sunday Assembly can betray fear of the truth, a fear of any word spoken which would challenge or amend what the hearer already practices and believes. Yet because we worship the One who said, “I am the way and the truth,” we know that we need not be afraid of truth. We rightfully invite the learnings of commentaries, the readings of previous generations, the questions of other traditions, and we properly insist on reading and hearing Holy Scripture together, as Church. This means that we will always have preachers to mistrust; just as we will always have congregations to keep them honest.

Today’s Gospel in which Jesus encounters a man unwilling to part with his wealth is the exception that proves this dynamic tension. Today, congregations across our Communion are forgoing their usual suspicion of preachers and instead imploring them to dig down into their interpretive bag of tricks for something (anything) clever that will tame these words of Jesus. Most preachers will be happy to oblige.

The first collective move will be to point out the relativity of richness and so discount our own wealth: maybe Jesus isn’t talking to us. We have money, but not that much, and besides, we don’t love it like that. I read recently that political campaigns make such frequent appeal to the middle class because everybody thinks they are in it. Everybody knows somebody richer and everybody has a few friends who are poorer, leaving each one, in her own mind, in the middle. But consider one study which concluded that for every person on the planet to attain the material wealth of even the average middle class American would require six physical earths. And lest we presume exemption from Jesus' words on the basis of our immediate context on campus (not a place of great financial wealth), consider also that if the world population of seven billion was representatively shrunk down to one-hundred people, seven would enjoy a college education while ninety-three would not.

So the assertion of our relative poverty will do us no good toward taming Jesus’ words. Still, there will be other tools employed today across the larger Church to assist in lessening the blow. Let’s briefly consider three other spins of this Sunday’s gospel. Here I am borrowing from my friend and mentor in college, Matt Gunter, an Episcopal priest outside of Chicago, who presents a kind of ‘mythbusters’ for this text.

Proposal number one: one popular interpretation posits that the eye of the needle refers to a narrow gate in the city wall of Jerusalem. “A camel, the story goes, could just squeeze through the gate after being relieved of its cargo.” The verdict: Myth. “There is no evidence of such a gate and the interpretation does not show up until the late middle ages when an imaginative monk put it in a commentary on the gospel.”

Proposal number two: “The Greek word for camel is spelled like the Greek word for rope. A rope still won't fit through the eye of a needle, but it is less preposterous than a camel.” The verdict? Myth. "There is no evidence that the writer of the Gospel of Mark had a spelling problem or that Jesus did not pronounce his words clearly.”

Proposal number three: “Jesus is only referring to those who trust in their money." Myth. "That’s not what it says. Look again. Jesus says, ‘It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the Kingdom of God.’’ Someone who is rich. Period. John Wesley was probably right when he explained that, “[I]t is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for those who have riches not to trust in them.”

If the preacher cannot be trusted to be clever today, where does that finally  leave us? I suppose it leaves us somewhere in the vicinity of the disciples who said to one another, “Then who can be saved?” The despair of the disciples’ question occasions Jesus answer and our hope: “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

There is no clever evasion of this text tonight. The two-fold deception must be ended: 1) wealth is a problem for the Christian faithful, and 2) we are the wealthy. Yet Jesus does not leave the disciples or us merely with an honest emptiness. Instead he steers us toward the very reliance on God that wealth so often impedes when he says, “For mortals it is impossible, but not for God; for God all things are possible.”

This leads me to the ending:

Pray for the rich. Even ourselves. If there is no hope for the rich apart from God’s action, may we pray for this action in earnest. Publicly. Openly. Even, to the world’s eyes, foolishly.

When I was a rector at a small parish, I once included the rich in the prayers of the people. Not in isolation, but there, next to the poor and among other prayers. “Lord, we pray for the poor. We pray for the rich as well.” And a man came up to me after the service. “Father Jonathan, why did we pray for the rich today?” he asked. “They’re rich. What do they need? What could we ask God to give them? With what can God possibly help them?”

And these were rhetorical questions without real answers for the man in my parish. But taken at face value they also become for us true questions of abundant life and the Kingdom of God. We who find ourselves wealthy to such an extent that we do not even see it and do not know what it would look like to begin to divest ourselves of our wealth, and far less what it would mean to rely on God in such a way that would leave us vulnerable and so also open to the salvation of God: what do we need? What could we ask God to give us? With what can God possibly help us?

To the God for whom all things are possible, pray for the rich. Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, pray for us.


SFH. 10.14.12

Saturday, October 13, 2012

What I Learned at Convention

I spent the past week on the road and in the air for the Province 5 Chaplains' Conference and, closer to home, diocesan convention and, in both cases, was without my computer. The blog got lonely. Glad to be back home.

At diocesan conference, I had twin-duties: delegate and exhibit booth representative, both for St Francis House. I had a great time at my first convention in the Diocese of Milwaukee. I made new friends, heard some powerful stories, and all in all thoroughly enjoyed becoming at home with my new diocesan family. The booth was especially rewarding and fascinating. SFH has many cheerleaders throughout the diocese, a rich legacy of alumni, and many willing partners in ministry. All in all, very good. And I wouldn't do it again.

As convention unfolded, I recognized the limitations of the St Francis House exhibit setup, replete with (really nice) posters of our building project and a meal sign-up sheet that I quickly hid, and how these had predisposed us to conversations of a certain type, largely trending toward information updates, rather than a dialogue of common ministry in which members of the whole diocese play integral parts. For most exhibits, selling wares, etc., simple information exchange does the job, but it didn't quite seem to fit SFH or the broad gathering of convention and the common mission we share.

"But Jonathan - just what questions do you imagine as more interesting than moving buildings and meals?" (Which are really cool.) I'm glad you asked.

"Where are you from? Who are the college students near you?" (OK, so I asked this anyway, but it came across as deflecting from my own material.)
"How is your church supporting and engaging these students?"
"What would you like to ask a college student about her faith?"
"What would you tell a college student about your faith?"
"What can I and/or my congregation do now to be involved in campus ministries?"
"How do the promises of the baptismal covenant bring parish and campus ministries in contact?"
"What light does the Gospel shed on our ministry to and with universities?"