Wednesday, October 30, 2013

When Failure Finds the Spirit

"If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?" George Carlin

So, first there was this video that took the world - and my children's hearts - by storm:

And, then, more stunning than the success of the video itself, comes this startling admission on Ellen: "If we give (the production team) crap idea, and we bring it back it to the talk show in Norway and say, 'Sorry guys, we had our window, we coulda made it big, but we screwed up, and we made a song about a fox. I'm sorry."

Ylvis' explanation of its backfiring self-sabotage reminded me of a friend who was constantly afraid of preaching a bad sermon. One day, he realized that this fear was driving his ministry in unhealthy ways. So he woke up and decided to preach a terrible sermon. "Get it out of the way," he told himself. My friend felt a relief settle over him, simply in the determination to do this: he would never again have to worry that his next sermon would be his first bad one. He would learn to rely on grace.

But then something happened. That Sunday, after the service was over, person after person thanked the preacher for the best sermon he had delivered in years.

So much gets revealed in stories like these: our pride, control needs, grace, the inexplicable resistance to fail more often, the false notions that we know ourselves and others best, the joy of being surprised. In addition to all of these, Christians believe in the surrender that we encounter the Holy Spirit, who has promised to give words and prayers to those who find themselves wordless and unable to pray.

The surprising, innovating, and improvising work of the Spirit is the subject of a conversation at St. Francis House tonight, looking especially at the work of Jeremy Begbie, musician and theologian of the Church. Dr. Begbie invites us to imagine the Holy Spirit as the reality through which God's strength is made perfect in weakness - even our mail-it-in days. Because we are not the main characters in stories about us. But the story and title role belong to God, and that is very good news, indeed.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Take Your Chaplain To School Week!

Friends! In case you haven't heard, October 28 - November 11 are National Take Your Chaplain To School Week(s) - or NTYCTSW, for short. This is how it works:

Fr. Jonathan, on the set of Jurassic Park.
Over the next 14 days, invite your chaplain to school...or work...or another place important to you. Why? Because we gather at 1011 on Sunday evenings, but you live the other 99.9% of the life of faith somewhere else. And not just any somewhere - important somewheres! This is your chance to invite Fr. Jonathan to see and appreciate some of the landscapes in which you follow Jesus in the world. 

You make the plans. Propose a time or two. If coffee or lunch are involved, the chaplain buys. No strings. Them's the rules. Have fun, and don't miss out! Click here to get started!

When Mercy's Shapes Are Unexpected

Two men go up to pray. One thanks God he is not the other man. The other man beats his breast and asks for the mercy of God. 

That’s the set up, and it’s familiar. Who needs a preacher? You know this story. Every time I come across this portion of Luke’s gospel, I imagine these two pray-ers as having stood there, statue-like, in the temple, since the last time the story came up, perpetually doomed to pray as examples of how and how not to pray. “Oh yeah,” I think to myself, “Those guys...still at it.” 

We know we are not supposed to be the Pharisee; that we are not to celebrate our righteousness over against that of others. Yet, we also know that identifying with the tax collector is probably an exaggeration, though one befitting the humility to which the parable calls us. After all, the tax collector was an honest-to-goodness bad guy. Most of us do not honestly think of ourselves as bad guys or gals, which is probably why we settle on the moral injunction to be humble. But the original tax collector was not humble; he was honest.

Trying to make oneself “more humble”, of course, has its challenges, namely, it can quickly become an exercise in the self-righteousness of the Pharisee. So, while seemingly straightforward, this parable can be awkwardly uncomfortable.

To make matters worse, this parable, told in the thick of what is stewardship season in most churches, says the Pharisee we are not supposed to be like was a tither - that he gave more than 10% of all he had to the church. Don’t be like him? Oops.

But this is where the Pharisee becomes interesting to me.

The Pharisee fasts and tithes, practices he cites as examples of his faithfulness. Strangely, it does not occur to the Pharisee that fasting and tithing might be medicines for his sickness; in his own mind, they are proof of his being well. 

I say “strangely,” because being generous did not lead me to give; but giving, mostly with the steadfast encouragement of my wife, lead me slowly, over time, to become generous. In a real sense, the practice of tithing has been for me the mercy the second man asks of God.

Scripture invites us to imagine practices like tithing and fasting as the mercy of God when, elsewhere, we are promised in Scripture that the Spirit will give us words before others, when we need them, at just the right moment, and that the Spirit will pray in our brokenness, will pray in our stead, when our own prayer life has failed. It makes sense that God would surround us also with practices - rhythms, habits toward virtue - as gifts in exactly our places of weakness. 

But the Pharisee does not regard his good deeds as medicine for an ailing soul. He is not looking for practices that would shape his heart more nearly to the heart of God; is not looking for the help from outside that would unlock his love beyond his present imagination for love. Instead, he is looking to stack a resume with which to impress the Almighty. And so he’s content not to be “that guy.”

I remember a conversation I had with a friend who freely confessed he didn’t want a god of unconditional love. He wanted a god who loved him conditionally, for himself, in all his goodness. He wanted to be God’s favorite, he explained, and he wanted to deserve it. 

My friend’s desire to deserve whatever love he got from God may sound absurd, but think back to the myriad ways you were taught to seek the affirmation of others growing up, and how success in this or that thing was connected to self-worth: winning the approval and affections of parents and grandparents, the first chair in the orchestra, grades. Think back to those times you were told that everyone was good at something and that your life’s meaning lay in discovering that something and doing it better than anyone. 

For my friend, it challenged everything he had been taught about life, work, and what made a person of value, to be confronted with a God whose love came without condition and so could not be controlled. 

So Augustine can say, “You are my Lord, because you have no need of my goodness.”

But if goodness is not the currency with which we buy the favor of God, what, in the end, is goodness good for? What does it change if those practices we once thought of as our good works for God are really God’s merciful gifts to us - if things like tithing and fasting really are medicines for our souls? 

I suspect that most of us have been so trained to conceive of our acts of piety as disciplines of duty - merit-earning or not - that we do not know what would be involved in receiving these things again, as gifts - as practices - for our flourishing. Or when was the last time you thanked God for the privilege of almsgiving? Indeed, such a perspective would require that we not take for granted something so simple and commonplace as the gift and opportunity of weekly worship. 

In such a view, we would find permission to take as much time as is needed to name and cherish - in simplicity and joy - the good things, each week, around which God gathers us in this place: 

Bread and wine. This weekly meal. The real presence of Jesus, by the work of the Holy Spirit. The gifts of God for the people of God. Anglican priest and theologian Sam Wells writes that the Eucharist is a gift that “trains Christians to see need as God sees it. The congregation gets used to what God provides, and comes over time to need what God faithfully gives, and to shape all wants and desires around this perception of this definitive ordering of needs. And in the paradigm of eating together, the Eucharist offers a goal for all (of our) work - a goal of plenty, harmony, and of relationship with God and one another” (Wells 2006, p199).

The Eucharist offers a goal of plenty, harmony, and of relationship with God and one another. There’s the rub for the Pharisee. And it’s here, in this meal. The goal of relationship with God and one another is why we can never be content not to be “that guy.” Because holiness that widens the gap with our sister or brother is not holiness of the kind to which Jesus invites us. 

So the Pharisee in Jesus’ story, finally, finds himself in a double-bind: both claiming as his own what was meant to be God’s gift of love to him, and subsequently neglecting to offer those gifts in the service of love, for his neighbor. Even the neighbor he is glad not to be.

And every follower of the self-emptying Jesus of Nazareth eventually finds herself or himself confronted by the rhythm and practice of gifts received and given away, in the service of love, for her neighbor. Even the neighbor she is glad not to be. 



Saturday, October 19, 2013

St. Francis House: Convention Presentation

The following was a presentation delivered to the 166th Convention of the Diocese of Milwaukee, October 19, 2014.

Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton, chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal Student Center for the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Go Badgers!

Confession: before my family and I moved to Madison, we had never seen a badger. My daughter asked me, “Daddy, are badgers real?” Fair question. How can you know they exist, if you’ve never seen them? We took on faith they were out there. And, lo and behold, they are! At least in the zoos. Now I live in Madison, land of the Badgers, convinced of their existence, and I find myself here with you today to talk about another creature, one you may not have seen, least of all in the wild. How can you know they exist, if you’ve never seen them? I’ll need you to take it on faith. I’m here to talk to you about young adult Christians. 

I say I think you may not have seen them - at least not lately - because you sometimes mistake me for one of them. While flattered, I am a thirty-two year-old dad. You may have seen some of us. But I’m talking just now about those mythical unicorns ages 18-28.

I want to talk to you about these particular young adults because, whether you know it or not, you are a wonderful part of a project that is serving the flourishing of young adults in this diocese, and especially at UW.

Some of you know the story already. This is backstory, and it all predates me; it’s the vision and work of your bishop, previous chaplains, and the St. Francis House Board, over years: the short story is that the diocese partnered with a developer to build a privately run student apartment on the SFH property. In order to make room for the 8-story apartment, the 1960s addition to the SFH facilities was torn down, and the original, 4-story, 1920s structure was moved to the front edge of University Avenue, the very center of campus. After a couple of years of planning and construction, the SFH community finally moved *back* into the *new* SFH this past August. The neighboring apartment generates revenue for the mission and ministry of SFH. 

Now, this revenue decision was not *just* shrewd and smart; it was the first sign of something uniquely different at SFH. It is different because it is a missionary funding strategy. That is, SFH does not expect her students to fund the operation because SFH is clear about the mission of the Church: to be a blessing for those beyond our walls; for those who may not be Christians, for those who are not yet givers of record. As an outpost at the heart of a secular campus in an increasingly post-Christian word, SFH relies on the prayers and giving of Christians outside of our local context in order to be present to those who don’t yet know how much God loves them. So our day to day work is both the development of Christian leaders for the Church and friendship with strangers, and our story is the story of ten-thousand tiny steps.

Last year, in particular, students and chaplain took a lot of literal steps. During the construction, students walked a mile-and-a-half up State Street to worship the living God at Grace Church, which was a gracious and generous host to our community. On my first Sunday with the students, some of the students expressed disappointment at the thought of a full year without a building to call home. I told them I was excited about the year ahead of us as nomads because we would not have a building to tempt us away from the truth that the Church is the People. So in addition to missionary funding, we experienced the missionary reality of relying on the hospitality of strangers, both at Grace and on campus, in coffee shops, and in class rooms. We were learning what it is to be church in the world. 

Now, in our new digs, we continue to learn what it is to be church in the world. As we learn, I hope the work at SFH can be in conversation with the work of your local church context in ways that bless us both. Like many of you, we belong to a small community of faith, but one that is growing and relishing the gift of holy friendships with which to wrestle the God whose call makes challenging and wonderful claims on our lives.

So what does this look like? Holy friendships and God-wrestling? At SFH, it looks like breaking bread and sharing the cup on Sunday nights and eating dinner together after. It looks like prayer walks and open doors and laughter. Like a half-dozen friends knitting around a table, eating fresh baked cookies and talking out loud about how it is possible to feel lonely when you are not, strictly speaking, alone, and what word the Gospel might speak to that reality. It looks like pumpkin carving and lots of one-on-ones over coffee. Sometimes it looks like tears. It looks like relief and joy, too. Sometimes it looks like two chairs on the chapel steps with a sign on which is written, “How can I pray for you?” and a thousand some-odd students walking past, and some stopping. It looks like pilgrimage with the very poor, six-hundred campers on an evacuated cow field in Pine Ridge, South Dakota. It looks like a philosopher, bio-chem major, mechanical engineer, and French lit. teacher listening with one another to the words God has whispered to the others over Scripture. It looks like roasting marshmallows. Like challenge. Like holiness. Like life of the kind Jesus promised.

In rhythms of friendship, prayer, and honest questions over Scripture with milk and tea and cookies, in laughter and self-offering, we are discovering the gift God has given us in his Son, in one another, and in the good work of being a blessing for others. Generously. With no strings attached.

Finally, on this last point of living generously, you should know that your generosity has become a pattern and example for our own. And that that’s a very good thing. Over 100 of you came to share the SFH Celebration of Ministry and rededication of the building with us. That weekend, you gave more than $1,400 to the mission and ministry of SFH. You continue to feed our students far better than any of us could imagine on Sunday evenings. And many of you, not as close to Madison, nevertheless make a point to regularly remind me of your daily prayers for our community, my family, and me. 

The flip side of the absence of young adults in many of our churches is that communities like ours can oftentimes feel isolated from the rest of the church. But you continue to reach out to us in prayer, giving, and friendship. I want to encourage you to keep reaching out. Keep praying. We’re looking for you, too. If your monthly rhythm doesn’t include coffee with a young person under 25, consider adding it. And if you haven’t seen the new building yet, give me a call or drop in. Above all else, thank you for sharing the Gospel call of our Lord: even friendship with those who were strangers; the call of our Lord that sends us over and over again, outside our walls.

Go Badgers!

The Ridiculously Awesome Acolyte Festival (Promo Video)

The promo video for the Diocese of Milwaukee's Ridiculously Awesome Acolyte Festival in Madison, WI, Saturday, April 5! Check out the diocesan webpage for updates. Registration opens January 2014. Share the video and spread the word! If you feel so moved, consider sponsoring the event (see flyer below). 6 months until awesome!

Your move, West Texas. ;)


Monday, October 14, 2013

Diary of a House Blessing
(the learning of generous love without fear)

Yesterday evening at St. Francis House, the community utilized the liturgy for "A Celebration for a Home" (more commonly called "a house blessing").

The timing seemed right. Earlier in the year, when SFH installed the chaplain and rededicated the chapel, the dust had only been cleaned from the building two days before. Our community had not yet begun to build a relationship with or within the space. Eight weeks later, that relationship - though still very much beginning - has more clearly begun. SFH has celebrated two months of Eucharists in these walls. We have opened these doors to strangers, shared cookies (freshly baked), teas, and friendship's laughter. We've watched and cheered the Badger football squad, and hosted an evening concert that overwhelmed us all with its blessings. We've shared countless impromptu moments in the cracks between our program days. Much life. Some tears. We have prayed for each other here. One student, on buying a new bicycle, brought it straight away to the House, midday, to show off his new steed. This remains a highlight of the year for me.

We have known the good space of studies shared in silence. We drop in on each other nowadays for brown bag lunches. We have donned our yarns and knitted together here and welcomed strangers like sisters and brothers, only kinder. We have met midweek in this space for conversation, Scripture study, and Compline. We have prayed with strangers on the chapel's front steps, and we've been blessed by strangers-made-friends who have walked through our open doors - God knows why - and found their place at the piano, and sung their hearts to God. We have wi-fi now. And all of this with two small tables and two handfuls of chairs that are still awaiting the arrival of reinforcements.

And besides all these things, this past weekend was Homecoming. Yes, the timing was right.

The liturgy was true and beautiful. Students, chaplain, and friends from Good Shepherd, Sun Prairie, processed room to room with the Christ candle and holy water - a modern-day pillar of cloud and fire for those still in search of the promise of God - saying prayers, recalling purposes, asking God's help. Sprinkling each room with water and the intention of our prayers.

As we prayed, we received the intention of the Christian tradition for those who would ask God's blessing on their homes. We heard again the story of the three travelers come to Abraham and Sarah. We remembered that the picture of the resulting meal in Abraham's story is called The Trinity, the reminder that the earliest Church understood hospitality not simply as moral duty but as the opportunity to meet and receive the presence of God. We took to heart John's reminder that we learn to walk in the truth through love freely shown to friends and strangers. We heard Jesus one more time remind us of the provision with which God sustains his children so that we may seek the Kingdom of God.

As we lifted, turned, and considered these themes of hospitality, vulnerability, self-offering, and friendship, we observed that these themes are not obviously connected to homes for all people. In the world of the gated community, the call to self-offering - in one's home, no less - is at noticeable odds with the culture. So blessing one's home has everything to do with choosing new life.

On this note, we recalled that the rite for the Celebration for a Home also provides prayers of cleansing to the place being blessed. A new beginning, where one is needed. We noted that this is not simply an add-on to the Christian's call to hospitality, but rather is the gift that makes hospitality possible. For the Church receives, in the mercy of Christ, forgiveness and redemption even for those parts of our pasts we would rather hide or erase; for those parts of ourselves that would tempt us toward closed postures of guardedness and self-doubt, disorienting us from the vulnerable self-offering of God. So the psalmist sings, "Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be clean indeed" (Ps. 51:7, BCP).

It was a wonderful night. Full of all the things we pray we are becoming. Lord, may we continue then your pilgrim people, washed clean by the Lamb, and grow in Christ's generous love, without fear.

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Loving Broccoli
('On Risking Joy in Public')


At coffee with a friend yesterday, I asked him, "What do you love? What are your passions? What things are you willing to look foolish for?"

He was silent for a moment, and then answered, "This may sound cliché, but I love the Bible - and teaching it to others."

My friend quickly rattled on to something else, but I stopped him and came back to his answer. I said, "You have to realize that your answer just then - the last thing you can call what you said is 'cliché.' I mean, seriously. Do you know how wonderfully absurd you sounded just then?"


A friend of mine once asked a group of us who among us would call ourselves good cooks. A few heads nodded. Would we call ourselves good drivers? A bunch of nods this time. Good pray-ers? Crickets. Nobody. Not a soul. Which was the answer my friend had anticipated and the bridge to her (wonderful) next point...

But here's the thing: I love to pray. Alone. With others. I'm not saying I'm a Picasso of petitions or anything, but I love prayer. So why wouldn't I raise my hand?


A nutritionist friend once time bemoaned the state of desserts in most families. Desserts as the carrot at the end of the stick. The reward for enduring the hardship of the meal. So a child eating broccoli for the very first time hears her mother say, "Finish your broccoli, and there's double chocolate brownie waiting for you on the other side." And she stops, looks down at her broccoli, and she thinks to herself, "Huh. I hadn't realized this was a thing I was expected not to like."


What if our job as preachers is to just love the scriptures in public?" - Lauren Winner


Nobody wants to be accused of acting "holier than thou," but an overreaction against this fear threatens to reduce Christians into a collection of sincere but non-committed hobbyists pretending not to have fallen too deeply in love; a collection of people in which no one will admit to loving broccoli because they know they're not supposed to. 

But I for one I find myself inspired by Christians who interpret the freedom made possible in Jesus as freedom to profess delight in delighting in God.

So everybody knows that stewardship season is upon us. The boiled spinach of the life of faith. And it's okay if you don't like it; if the taste is strange or unpalatable. Just don't take your cues from a world grown good at hiding love and delight. They don't know any better, and besides that, their joyless "keep calm" schtick is simply not interesting. It's okay to enjoy. Even stewardship! Praise God, it is good to enjoy it. You and I were made for holiness. Holiness, not a stick to thwack at others, but the locating of ourselves in Christ. "Taste and see that the Lord is good," sings the psalmist. How beautiful when God's people sing their love of life with God.

I share these thoughts not because I yearn for a world in which Christians love Scripture, say their prayers, give generously, and constantly offer themselves in sacrificial ways that point to Jesus crucified and risen, but because I believe such a world already exists. But risk foolishness. Let your holiness show. Do you know how wonderfully absurd you sound when you do?

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

The First Question Was How I Should Sit

The first question was how I should sit. Should I read? Cross-legged? Surfing the web on my iPhone instinctively seemed like poor taste. Though I had brought my Bible out with me, I decided I would not read it. I would sit with both feet on the ground, hands in my lap. I would smile gently, making eye-contact, but not staring. I would not speak unless spoken to. By disciplining my presence in this way, I hoped to model the gift I intended this hour to be. Open it if you want it. No strings. (1) My prayer and goal an was action explainable only by love, which meant I had to risk looking foolish. (My wife assures me I am good at looking foolish.)

I tried not to expect anything at all going into it.

I reminded myself of how much I was asking of passersby: a conversation with a stranger on a very crowded street about heart-level things. Things some people don't talk about with anyone. They would be crazy to stop.

That I was dubious about my prospects for conversation, however, does not mean the invitation wasn't genuine. It does mean the invitation wasn't necessarily about getting someone else to screw up their courage to pray with a stranger; it was about my finding the courage to make an offer, coming out of my faith, that left me vulnerable. The fact that I could not know if anyone would stop was a part of the vulnerability. I was immensely grateful for the prayers of friends across Madison - and the country! - who reminded me that, though vulnerable, I was not alone. (2)

That said, the hour was not just - or even primarily - about my own vulnerability. I wanted to find a way of acting that would witness the Church's acting vulnerably for others. I am well aware that the a growing number of people - inside and outside of the Church - are not at all convinced of the effectiveness of priests for the flourishing and building up of the Church. Many clergy no longer wear the clergy uniform - the black shirt and collar - when in public places, because they both 1) intuit this doubt and 2) experience the collar as a barrier to relationship. It's simply easier not to visibly represent the sins and broken trusts of the Church over time. For many, the collar represents the twin desires to collect money and control people (desires, it should be said, by no means unique to clergy). By sitting in the chair next to this sign for an hour, I wanted to open the hands of my Church in a way that would gently and generously challenge the desires others have rightfully learned to expect of the Church.

"I'm here because the Church is called to bless others with what we have been given," I told a stranger who asked.

Part of my prayer for exercises like Monday's is that the collar might be reclaimed as a symbol of the availability of prayer for all people. That is, I wouldn't mind if some of the passersby remember me as "the guy with whom I could pray." The larger part of my prayer, I think, is that St. Francis House would continue to grow in our imagination for blessing one another and others, and that we would remember that the blessing we have to offer beyond our own power is prayer. Monday morning was my seeking training for becoming a leader of a community true to that prayer.

On a practical note, two handfuls of friends stopped by and waved from distances, most of them workers in the buildings on our block who have become friends. Additionally, the event became the occasion for a relational breakthrough with the union workers who have been protesting just down the block from us. Though I had gone out to them on several occasions with water, invitations to use our facilities, and an interest in them as people, it was the chance for them to see me doing what they do - sitting by a sign - that finally broke the ice.

Two students stopped for prayer. In both cases, they came up the steps making small talk. Because they did not directly ask for prayer, I asked them if I could pray for them. "Of course," they both said. "That's why I'm here." In these encounters, I re-learned the lesson that if I have offered a thing, it is possible - indeed, likely - that the offer remains close to the heart of the person who comes close, even if nothing in the person's appearance or speech betrays this hidden hope. The Church must kindly keep offering, even when we think we have made the invitation clear.

No strings. Ever.

Sitting in that chair invited a hard consideration of the strings we Christians have practiced into habits. But here is the hope: if we can choose new habits that witness the stringless grace of God, we will leave those around us with nothing with which to account for our actions but this: "They must believe it's true."


(1) In fact, a few minutes after the above picture was taken, and reading the mistrust in the eyes of pedestrians, I scribbled, "No strings. Ever." under the question on the sign.

(2) This was my only exception to my decision not to read: every 20 minutes, when the foot-traffic slowed, I would take 30 seconds to hop on Facebook and read your notes of prayers and encouragement. 

2020-21 Annual License Renewal Letter

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