Tuesday, November 25, 2014

A Short Liturgy for Families and Faith Communities after the Non-Trial Verdict in Ferguson, MO.

Adapted from the Book of Common Prayer, 1979.

A pastoral explanation of lament may be made, and each one present may be invited to light a candle and place it near the altar as a symbol-action of intention, to be present with God to suffering - our own and that of our neighbors. 


Let us pray.

O God, you made us in your own image and redeemed us through Jesus your Son: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and
confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.


Psalms 142 and 143, followed by a time of silence in which personal expressions of lament, grief, and pain may me made, either in silence or in the hearing of all.



142 Voce mea ad Dominum
  1. 1  I cry to the Lord with my voice; *
    to the Lord I make loud supplication.
  2. 2  I pour out my complaint before him *
    and tell him all my trouble.
  3. 3  When my spirit languishes within me, you know my path; * 
  4. in the way wherein I walk they have hidden a trap for me.
  5. 4  I look to my right hand and find no one who knows me; * 
  6. I have no place to flee to, and no one cares for me.
  7. 5  I cry out to you, O Lord; * 
  8. I say, “You are my refuge, my portion in the land of the living.”
  9. 6  Listen to my cry for help, for I have been brought very low; * 
  10. save me from those who pursue me, for they are too strong for me.
  11. 7  Bring me out of prison, that I may give thanks to your Name; 
  12. when you have dealt bountifully with me, the righteous will gather around me. 
143 Domine, exaudi
  1. 1  Lord, hear my prayer, and in your faithfulness heed my supplications; *
    answer me in your righteousness.
  2. 2  Enter not into judgment with your servant, *
    for in your sight shall no one living be justified.
    3  For my enemy has sought my life; he has crushed me to the ground; *
    he has made me live in dark places like those who are long dead.
    4  My spirit faints within me; *
    my heart within me is desolate.
    5  I remember the time past;
    I muse upon all your deeds; *
    I consider the works of your hands.
    6  I spread out my hands to you; *
    my soul gasps to you like a thirsty land.
    7  O Lord, make haste to answer me; my spirit fails me; * 
  3. do not hide your face from me or I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.
    8  Let me hear of your loving-kindness in the morning, for I put my trust in you; *
    show me the road that I must walk, for I lift up my soul to you.
    9  Deliver me from my enemies, O Lord, * 
  4. for I flee to you for refuge.
    10  Teach me to do what pleases you, for you are my God; * 
  5. let your good Spirit lead me on level ground.
    11  Revive me, O Lord, for your Name’s sake; *
    for your righteousness’ sake, bring me out of trouble.
    12  Of your goodness, destroy my enemies and bring all my foes to naught, *
    for truly I am your servant. 
An extended time of silence is observed.

Psalm 51 is read together. 
51 Miserere mei, Deus
Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving-kindness; *
  in your great compassion blot out my offenses.
Wash me through and through from my wickedness * 
  and cleanse me from my sin.
For I know my transgressions, * 
  and my sin is ever before me.
Against you only have I sinned *
  and done what is evil in your sight.

And so you are justified when you speak * 
  and upright in your judgment.
Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, * 
  a sinner from my mother’s womb.
For behold, you look for truth deep within me, * 
  and will make me understand wisdom secretly.
Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; *   
  wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.
Make me hear of joy and gladness, *
  that the body you have broken may rejoice.

Hide your face from my sins * 
  and blot out all my iniquities.
Create in me a clean heart, O God, * 
  and renew a right spirit within me.
Cast me not away from your presence * 
  and take not your holy Spirit from me.
Give me the joy of your saving help again * 
  and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.
I shall teach your ways to the wicked, * 
  and sinners shall return to you.
Deliver me from death, O God, *
  and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation.
Open my lips, O Lord, *
  and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
Had you desired it, I would have offered sacrifice, * 
  but you take no delight in burnt-offerings.
The sacrifice of God is a troubled spirit; *
  a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise. 
The Officiant and People together, all kneeling
Most holy and merciful Father:
We confess to you and to one another,
and to the whole communion of saints
in heaven and on earth,
that we have sinned by our own fault
in thought, word, and deed;
by what we have done, and by what we have left undone.


The Officiant continues

We have not loved you with our whole heart, and mind, and strength. We have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We have not forgiven others, as we have been forgiven.
Have mercy on us, Lord.


We have been deaf to your call to serve, as Christ served us. We have not been true to the mind of Christ. We have grieved your Holy Spirit.
Have mercy on us, Lord.


We confess to you, Lord, all our past unfaithfulness: the pride, hypocrisy, and impatience of our lives,
We confess to you, Lord.


Our self-indulgent appetites and ways, and our exploitation of other people,
We confess to you, Lord.


Our anger at our own frustration, and our envy of those more fortunate than ourselves,
We confess to you, Lord.


Our intemperate love of worldly goods and comforts, and our dishonesty in daily life and work,
We confess to you, Lord.


Our negligence in prayer and worship, and our failure to commend the faith that is in us,
We confess to you, Lord.


Accept our repentance, Lord, for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty,
Accept our repentance, Lord.


For all false judgments, for uncharitable thoughts toward our neighbors, and for our prejudice and contempt toward those who differ from us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.


For our waste and pollution of your creation, and our lack of concern for those who come after us,
Accept our repentance, Lord.


Restore us, good Lord, and let your anger depart from us;
Favorably hear us, for your mercy is great.


Accomplish in us the work of your salvation,
That we may show forth your glory in the world.


By the cross and passion of your Son our Lord,
Bring us with all your saints to the joy of his resurrection.


The Officiant then says

Almighty God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who desires not the death of sinners, but rather that they may turn from their wickedness and live, has given power and commandment to his ministers to declare and pronounce to his people, being penitent, the absolution and remission of their sins. He pardons and absolves all those who truly repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel. Therefore we beseech him to grant us true repentance and his Holy Spirit, that those things may please him which we do on this day, and that the rest of our life hereafter may be pure and holy, so that at the last we may come to his eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The following may be sung.



The Officiant then says

The Peace of the Lord be always with you.

People And also with you.

Signs of peace are exchanged.


Let us go in peace, to Love and serve the Lord.
People Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Knitting, Woodworking, and Other Subversive Signs that the Kingdom is Near
(Reflecting on Material Consumption and the Creative Possibilities of Christian Community)


Knitting, Woodworking, and Other Subversive Signs 
that the Kingdom is Near 

(An outline from a class I was asked to lead at St. Dunstan's Episcopal Church, drawing primarily from the work of Jean Vanier and William Cavenaugh.)

The Backstory
  1. The story of Joe the Marine.
  2. The 3 roles we live: simultaneously producers, consumers, and product.
  3. Some Christians in our tradition’s history have experienced fasting as a helpful spiritual discipline, drawing people into deeper relationship with God and each other.
  4. Fasting oftentimes is defined as not eating for a period of time. Eating is consumption of material. 
  5. Shopping is also consumption of material.
  6. Could fasting from shopping/purchasing be a helpful spiritual discipline, drawing people into deeper relationship with God and each other? 
3 quick thoughts on arranging a fast from purchasing:
  1. Think it through. If you’re fasting on day B, make sure on day A that you have enough gas in the car. 
  2. Because you will have to buy gas on day A, arranging a fast on day B may feel like semantics, but this is not more than you already do when you work a little longer on day A in order to take day B off. 
  3. There is something important about the arrangement of consecutive hours free from a practice - whether the practice is work, consumption, or something else - something that is transformative. We know this, or we would never take vacations. 
What would a purchase-less day/week/month require of you? What might it look like?

The next step: more than negation.
  1. If you were to abstain from purchasing long enough, you would eventually need to make some of the things you used to buy. If you did not buy your clothing, for example, you might need to sew or knit your clothing instead.
  2. Making things, becoming involved in their material processes, can be a creative way to grow a deeper appreciation and healthier respect for the material world. 
  3. After all, purchasing doesn’t make us materialists. In practice, it makes us gnostics. We become increasing detached from production, producers, and even the products we buy.
  4. Advertisers know all of this, which is why they sell abstract intangibles attached to products; a car means freedom, and so on. 
  5. Oftentimes, the pleasure is not in having, but in wanting - in identifying some aspect of our self to construct through the purchase. We are constantly promised renewal through created things; the chance to start over.
  6. What could/do you grow, make, produce, create?
Creativity in Community
  1. We often think of spiritual practices like fasting in individual terms. But communities can fast together; they can also engage creative processes together.
  2. “Community is built through the sharing of gifts.” Jean Vanier, l’Arche.
  3. Only when we share gifts can we fully experience the acceptance of a community of belonging, because only then have we risked our true selves to be accepted.
  4. How much do you trust this faith community’s ability to accept you as you are, in all your giftedness and brokenness?
  5. How can your creative/productive resources be given for the life of this community and others?
Hebrews 10

24 And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, 25 not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.
  1. There is a significant difference between not neglecting to meet because you will be missed in your pew and not neglecting to meet because you are baking the bread. Christian community is about choosing, as a community, to rely on the gifts of each member for the sake of the Body; this is the community of belonging.
  2. All of this understanding is already present in the Eucharist, with the reminder that as we risk our gifts in community, Christ blesses and is present to even those parts of ourselves we believe are inadequate for sharing. 
  3. For it is God’s love, shown to us in Christ, that makes the community of belonging possible.

Monday, November 10, 2014

Interstellar, Crying At Movies, & My Man-Crush On Matthew McConaughey


To write a review (it seems to me) is to imply that the reviewer believes herself capable of rational and objective - if not detached and insightful - thought about the subject she's reviewing. Let me acknowledge and dispel this belief at the outset with respect to two of the most important facets of the film Interstellar:

Firstly, Matthew McConaughey. Seriously. I'm in. I could watch his "Osiris" commercial for Lincoln on loop all day without complaint. Give me a Shiner, a plate of hot buttered tortillas, a side of guacamole, and I'll lack for nothing else. I would try to defend this, but this is the irrational bias section of the review, so, Matthew. 

While we're here, how many beer drinking scenes do you think they wrote into the script after McConaughey's agent calls and says, yes, he'll take the part? I mean, is there a person on earth who looks more cool, in-command, and like his true self drinking a beer? The man was made to drink Lonestars on porches with aviator shades and a glazed and faded semblance as he mumbles cosmic truths. Who knows, maybe the beers weren't there in the script at all - maybe Matthew insisted on drinking a beer in every front porch farmer/philosopher scene. Maybe he *always* has a cold one in tow. Maybe he's *that* cool and in-command, sidling up to a scene with a brew in his hand and everybody forgets the scene had ever been imagined any other way.

Secondly, movie plot lines with daughters. I don't watch many movies. One a month, in theaters. But the last three movies I've seen have been these: Calvary, The Skeleton Twins, and Interstellar. Among other things, and in completely different ways, they all feature daughters as heroines. As a parent whose life changed forever the day my daughter was born, I can't tell you how gratifying it is to see movies that tell compelling stories of remarkable, strong, complex, and captivating women. And, in each of these films, women as daughters - uniquely - shape a significant part of each plot.

That women - and especially women as daughters - have found a new and long-coming place as compelling lead characters in today's movie industry is a welcome reality. It is also the reality that, on account of these characters - and my own role as a dad - I cry a lot in these films. 

The scenes can (and, in the case of Interstellar, oftentimes *did*) feel clunky and thin, but it's "Murph" - some parent's daughter - and in the blink of an eye he's missed a decade of her life...

Bawling.

Parenthetically, with all the theory of relativity / space-time-continuum stuff elevating the viewer's awareness of the cost of every passing minute, the length of the film seemed a touch ironic. At least not very self-aware. But then the music with the tic-toc rhythm would take over a scene and you realize, "Wow! They are aware! They just think this thing's that good!" And, for large chunks, it was. Even when the film sunk to self-indulgence, it never stopped being fun.

So, to recap so far, I cried a lot. I love my daughter. Also, Matthew McConaughey.

My other thoughts are less focused. 
  • As the film opened and we were first introduced to a futuristic world in which concepts like agriculture and food supplies are nearing extinction, I confess I began fearing that the film might veer into ecological preachiness. This fear is itself a strange one, since I am a preacher who cares deeply for the environment. Still. It was my day off. Alas, I need not have feared! Once we'd landed in the credits, I found myself perplexed at how a film that had first inspired this fear seemed environmentally tone-deaf by the end. Many of the relationships depicted in Interstellar could have been deepened significantly, but none more - by way of backstory and lament - than the people's relationship to the land they were leaving.
  • The exception to the above complaint is the documentary footage we see of aged survivors of the future. This is the most evocative intermingling of futuristic and historical thematic elements I've ever seen in film. Sadly, though - again, with the lone exception of the table setting scene - the documentary scenes are thin on content, the director seemingly satisfied to have located the innovative medium.

* S P O I L E R   A L E R T * 

  • The Matt Damon hour of the film felt like a film in itself and was hugely entertaining. Anne Hathaway's Dr. Brandt gives us the set up when she tells McConaughey that, while the adventure is dangerous, there's no evil in space - any evil would have to come from the human species. Minutes later, it's Matt Damon playing his best Javier Bardem-esque sociopath. 
  • In addition to being a great and unexpected villain, Damon's character confirms the message the crew had received from McConaughey's daughter a few minutes before, namely that the mission's 'Plan A' was not viable from the start. The crew members had been duped because, says, Damon, the evolutionary instinct of each one of us makes it easier to say "yes" to missions like these when we believe that, by engaging them, we can save our own children. By so clearly exposing the self-interests of the film's heroes-in-making, Damon's character attempts to establish an atmosphere of moral ambivalence. Indeed, Damon initially makes the claim that NASA's deception and cover-up is morally justifiable before confessing to McConaughey that he gave false information about the planet on which he landed because, having landed on an uninhabitable planet, he could not imagine being left for dead.
  • Damon's character is entertaining, if not convincing, as one seeking to cloud the clear waters of McConaughey's own sense of right and wrong. What Damon accomplishes, however, is that he reestablishes the film's credibility as an exploration, itself, with no predetermined end. Where before, the viewer might have been tempted to read the film's direction as "pro-NASA," after Damon, we are left with the clear understanding that nothing is clear. Maybe the moon landing was propaganda after all! Maybe we should all be farmers. Now it is clear that nothing is being endorsed. Nothing is safe. Nothing is promised. This is Christopher Nolan at his Dark Knight existential best.
  • I watched the movie at Madison's Sundance theater with my buddy Justin. He and I both laughed unreasonably loudly at the movie's best intentional comedy moment, when a robot tells a won't-be-stopped McConaughey, "That's not possible!" to which McConaughey fires back, "No - it's necessary!" It's a ridiculousness scene - abstracted from its immediate context, the scene is a caricature of white, male privilege - and the beginning of the end, ultimately, for Interstellar as an agnostic thrill-ride of nothing-is-promised exploration. When McConaughey speaks these words of defiance, we know that he will not die, which is too bad, because such certainty undercuts the movie's haunting and compelling premise. If McConaughey's character had died at any number of key parts - especially before physical resolution with his daughter, Murphy - the film would have stayed with me in an unsatisfying, profound, and deeply disturbing way for months. Instead, by the end, we have come to think of McConaughey as all-powerful and immortal, in his own mind, a stand-in for human ingenuity and the human spirit, watching his daughter die before he slips a ship and carries on - the unencumbered, embodied spirit of progress and exploration. 
  • The near-end scene in which McConaughey's character cries out to his past self not to leave his daughter for this mission is heart-wrenchingly pure. Of course, it complicates a simple workaholic/absent dad narrative to note that he believed his work was saving the world. But, of course, imbalance of the workaholic kind often involves believing our work will save the world. The courage of Interstellar was in naming the deception such belief often involves, even if in this case, McConaughey ends up saving the world after all. How did this sound like a good ending to anyone who was involved in the film's first two and a half hours? But even the unsatisfying ending is brilliant in its own way - for, finally convinced that nothing is certain, the audience is surprised when certainty makes a last appearance at the end - overcoming our new found faith in uncertainty and disappointing us with the happy ending for which we'd long stopped hoping. Of course, when it happens, we realize we were foolish to have given up hope. 
After all, this is Matthew McConaughey.


Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Live the Mercy You've Received
(a sermon for Oscar's installation)


I was honored to preach last night at my good friend Oscar Rozo's installation as Chaplain to the Lutheran-Episcopal Campus Ministry at UW-Whitewater and Priest-in-Charge at St. Luke's Episcopal Church. It was a wonderful evening and a joyful celebration. Here is the sermon I preached.

The Lessons
Psalms 133 and 134

In the Name of the living God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Friends! Bishop Miller, Bishop Froiland, my sister and brother clergy, my dear friend and brother, Oscar: grace and peace in Jesus Christ our Lord.

So, it's late. Later than we're usually assembled like this. Nearing bedtime, maybe, for some of you. I know, me too. But are you happy to be here? Yes? Turn and tell a neighbor, "I'm happy to be here!" I am happy to be here, too, with dear friends and for this celebration. As I was driving the winding roads to get here tonight, with the anticipation of the evening and the time change thrown in, making it overly dark, it felt almost like preparing for the Easter Vigil. What a gift to be gathered now, as then, called together by the Spirit of God.

Bishop Froiland, you and I were in the same room a couple of weeks ago, at the retirement party for my good friend and colleague, Pastor Brent Christiansen, at UW-Madison; he was celebrating the end - 21 remarkable years of ministry spent there with students. You and I didn’t meet that night, but it is wonderful and appropriate to be sharing another room with you just now, this time to mark a beginning, as another minister of the Gospel takes up the mantle of ministry among students and as priest-in-charge at St. Luke’s.

In fact. Presumably. Just now. Word is. We are among students. Students, where are you? 

I bring the love and prayers of the Episcopal community at UW-Madison for you tonight. We are cheering you on with our whole hearts as you continue the good work God’s begun in you, lovingly calling you to grow as a community of belonging and blessing for others. To the people of St. Luke’s and you students, it is a real joy to be with you.

I don’t know what you students make of being a Christian on campus in 2014, what it’s about. Whatever else it means, you probably assume it means doing service projects or something similarly impressive, in order to be vaguely useful to those around you. But I hope you know the blessing you are already, by virtue of your having risked the vulnerability required to gather as this community of belonging. Your growing imagination for life together, knowing and being known, seeking Christ in one another and others, is a beautiful gift for which the outside world deeply longs. True fact.

Enough flattery. Let’s get to the gospel. Someone’s given us the Great Commission to talk about tonight, so there’s no point putting it off. I mean, I’m clearly putting it off. Eh. It’s not that I don’t like the Great Commission. God knows, I’m for it. Bishops, I’m for it! The Great Commission, for Christians, is the top of the list. The best. It’s just that, well. An African Bible scholar one time said, “You white, Western Christians and your infatuation with the Great Commission - it must be nice,” he said. (I’m paraphrasing.) “To have the luxury of assuming the power necessary to exercise these words of Jesus in the peculiar ways you do… Who else on this planet is in a position to take for granted, as a given of the Gospel, the freedom, the wherewithal, to go out and conquer to the ends of the earth, the power to make, to shape, to mold the social order as you deem best, even if you don’t know best? You assume the role of baptizer, teacher, leader to those you may or may not take the good time to know first. And, then,” he said, “if you have taken for yourself the role of the colonizer in all that comes before it, of course it makes sense to remember that Christ is with you to the end of the age; that God has legitimated your efforts to be salvation for others.” What the bishop didn't say is that such a vision depends on a presumption to power  which even the while Western church may no longer find itself comfortable assuming.

“But,” he said, cheering up some, “did you know that the original Bible did not come with tidy bold headlines at the top of every section? That is, there’s nothing to stop us from finding another commission in the scriptures and calling it the great one instead. I would suggest, for example,” he said, “the interaction between the risen Christ and Peter around that charcoal fire on the beach in those early morning hours. Jesus, re-meeting the friend who denied him. ‘Simon Peter, do you love me more than these?’ Three times he asks him. Peter, engulfed by humiliation and grief, crying out from the depths, ‘Yes, Lord! You know that I love you.’ Jesus’ commission to Peter: ‘Feed my sheep.’”

I share this African scholar’s observation not only because his suggested great commission closely resembles the mission statement painted on your parish hall wall - We feed people! - and far less to question the Great Commission itself. Let’s be clear about that. What I want us to question is not the Great Commission but the way we have, says this scholar, sometimes read and militarized the Great Commission in ways that forget that the one who gave it in the first place had holes in his hands when he said it, and that the ones to whom he gave it were the ones he had to first forgive.

When we remember that the one who is with us is the crucified and risen Jesus; when we remember that the one who is with us came back to those who left him because he loved them; when we remember that the one who is with us calls the merciful blessed and the peacemakers children of God; when we remember that the one who is with us put a tax collector and a zealot in the same room together in his posse of friends and called that the Kingdom of God; then, and only then, can the action verbs of Matthew’s gospel reclaim their true selves again. For, read in this context, we cannot imagine going to others apart from an ocean-deep longing to seek and serve Christ in them, joyfully anticipating God’s meeting us in realms beyond ourselves; read in this context, we cannot imagine making disciples apart from reconciliation, which may involve our own confession of sin - sometimes “mission” means saying, “I’m sorry” for the ways we’ve put our own conditions on the unity of the Gospel; read in this context, we cannot imagine baptizing as anything other than delight in the sheer grace of God, not a power of ourselves; read in this context, we cannot imagine teaching, for example, forgiveness, apart from living lives of public gratitude and trusting that we ourselves have been forgiven. And read in this context, we cannot imagine remembering the ongoing presence of Christ as validation for what we’ve done so much as the truth about who we are and who we will become. The truth about who you are is deeply loved by God. The truth about who you will become is reconciled to God and all things, all things, reconciled to God in Christ. Go, make, baptize, teach, remember. Live the mercy you’ve, in Christ, received. Live a trust with God and all God’s friends.

It is helpful tonight to remember that the Great Commission is given by Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, the one and the same Jesus who spoke the Beatitudes, because only then can we begin to make sense of a priest and pastor like Oscar. Oscar is not a colonizing presence; Oscar loves CPE! Oscar is gentle. Moreover, Oscar is gentle not in a vaguely polite, pseudo-Christian kind of way but in the way Paul talks about gentleness: as a witness to the nearness of the Lord. Oscar loves Jesus, and is committed to speaking the truth to and for all those Jesus loves and receiving the truth from the same. This does not mean that Oscar is perfect, but that Oscar knows and cherishes his need of God’s Spirit. There are few greater gifts. 

Live the mercy you’ve, in Christ, received. Live a trust with God and all God’s friends. Go, make, baptize, teach, remember. 

Oscar has told me so much about the ways you at St. Luke’s and in the LECM live this mercy already and are seeking to grow in holy friendship with those around you. Reconciliation is close to your heart. Look at you: Lutherans and Episcopalians - reconciliation; young and not so young - reconciliation; around fire pits and dinner tables - reconciliation; in countless conversations at so, so many coffee shops - reconciliation; in the newly planted dream for an interfaith chapel to be a place of welcome for all people - reconciliation; in coming efforts to organize communities of faith around dialogue and support of LGBTQ communities - reconciliation. At every turn, living the mercy you have received. Learning and living a trust with God and God’s friends. You go, make, baptize, teach, and remember every time you engage Christ’s work of reconciliation in this world, giving and generously receiving gifts in God’s Name.

But if the preacher’s word so far is to demilitarize Matthew’s Great Commission and read it less as marching orders and more as an invitation to live into the reconciling community called together by the crucified and risen Christ, we need, before we’re done, to say a word about courage.

In tonight’s Old Testament lesson, the LORD tells Joshua to “Be strong and courageous.” The context, this time, is military invasion, but the courage required of Joshua is not the traditional, stoic courage of the warrior; it is the courage of one God has promised to be with, so it is a courage not of self-sufficiency and might but of trust and surrender. It’s the same promise God gave Moses, when Moses told God that he’d rather be a slave in Egypt than free apart from the presence of God. It’s the promise God first gave Moses, in that awkward, somewhat clumsy, first-date elevator pitch beside the burning bush. Moses objects, “Who am I for an adventure like this one?” “You are,” says the LORD, “the one I am with.” From that moment on, Moses is asked to find his identity and take his courage only from the promise that he does not go alone.

Moses and Joshua remind us that courage, to be courage, doesn't require the absence of fear, but courage does require the trust of the company with which we travel. Another word for such a trust is friendship. In Christ, we have been made friends of God and one another. So the same Christ who gives the great commission sends them out in pairs, as friends. Courage, of course, involves the trust of those around you - that they will be with you and for you and tell you the truth - and also of those behind you - that they will protect you in your blind spots as you go forward beyond what you can see - and of those before you - that, in the moment of your testing, the training you've received from the communities that raised you will be sufficient for the task at hand - and of those who follow you - that the sacrifices you have made, or are about to make, will be valued and furthered, and not rendered inconsequential. 

Such trusts, of course, takes time. Oscar, be patient. With others and yourself. God has given you all the time in the world to grow in this trust. Cherish the time. For Christians, there is above all the deep trust that God will provide, beyond all imagining and asking, even God’s self. We believe this because we have seen, in Christ, how God loves us. And somewhere in that space where God invites us to a trust of this love, we likewise discover that all fear's been cast out, and there is more than enough. Do not be afraid. Be strong and courageous! Wait on the Lord. 

And, finally then, taking our cue from St. Paul - and on a night like tonight, how could we not? - Rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 


Amen.

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Reformation Sunday, Young Adults, and Prophetic Infidelity (to Our Divisions)


"What's the most important law?" they ask him. And this Sunday he'll answer, as he always does, "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, and strength. And there's a second law just like it: Love your neighbor as yourself."

A fair chunk of churches across the gambit of Protestantism will be celebrating Reformation Sunday in a couple of days. There are special readings assigned for that day, and they'll be reading from John's gospel. The rest of us will be reading the text of the above paraphrase from Matthew. Read on Reformation Sunday, Matthew's gospel can't help but be read with a sadness informed, on the one hand, by the insistence of some to celebrate the church's divisions, and, on the other hand, the smugness of those who know better than to do the same, while no less committed in our own different ways to maintaining separation within Christ's Body.

Of course, that all of us will, in different ways, find ourselves at odds with the Gospel we proclaim this Sunday should not in itself be an impossible problem for us. To find ourselves at odds with the Gospel is the Christian's daily predicament and also her hope. That we know ourselves to be at odds with the Gospel can only mean that God has given us grace first to see the wounds which the Great Physician, with infinite mercy, stands ready to heal.

But, first, to back up.

To say that Reformation Sunday is a context which names our at-oddness with Matthew's gospel is to make the admittedly arguable case that he visible disunity of the Christian church represents a failure to love.

I say the case is "arguable" because I know many Protestant sisters and brothers, good friends, for who see these divisions as natural and necessary extensions of faithfulness. Nevertheless, it is difficult to imagine that Christ's ministry of reconciliation is most faithfully engaged by the perpetuation of separations that make difficult the recognition of gifts in each other.

Added to this difficulty is the observation of Brother Emile of Taizé that, while some of the separations between communities of faith are doctrinal, substantial, and over self-understandings of faithfulness, others of these separations are psychological, as, for example, in the contention of some scholars that Vatican II essentially addressed the grievances Luther first brought before the Catholic church, but that a subsequent identity of "not being them" had, by that time, taken inextricable root in many reformed communities.

Of course, the heart of the Reformation was not a static end - not the once-in-time correction of a single list of flaws - so much as, in its development, a posture of continual return and critique. Here too, though, it is difficult to see how a process of critique that continually results in greater separation from others has ever successfully managed to critique itself. To refuse reconciliation with a neighbor is to stave off reconciliation within oneself.

But even where we discover the divisions are within us, even here, Brother Emile's hopeful words to the gathering of young adults at Pine Ridge hold true: "We are not compelled to be faithful to our divisions."

To take seriously Brother Emile's invitation to refuse obligations to our divisions is to lay hold of Paul's conviction that
...[Christ] is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone (Ephesians 2:14-20).
God's love, which the Gospel would have us know as the truest thing about ourselves, invites us to approach our neighbors, even our estranged sisters and brothers in Christ - that is, other Christians - and enter with them into a vulnerable exchange: the giving and receiving of gifts. The exchange to which we enter is not that of what Pope John Paul II called "dead mouse" gifts,  but of gifts from and for the other that each of us is able to receive as a blessing, with thanksgiving.

A final observation, then, from the perspective of a campus minister. What the church has sometimes perceived and/or articulated as the reluctance of young people to fully commit to a community of faith may turn out to be the prophetic witness of young adults toward an imagination for an unregistered community of faith unmarked by our divisions. Increasingly, I see and affirm young adults who avail and invest themselves of and in the resources and relationships of multiple faith communities, both inside and outside of a single denomination.

Indeed, at the UW Episcopal Center, we are intentional in giving students permission to make St. Francis House their spiritual home and, equally, to let the Episcopal Center be a supplement to a life of faith rooted elsewhere, be it another Episcopal Church or a church or campus ministry of a different denomination. In other words, you do not have to be faithful to the church's divisions to be welcome here. At the same time, as a community, we have come to understand and articulate the simple truth that the life of the community is enriched when each one of us shares and invests our gifts, and we recognize that only investing oneself, risking one's gifts, in community allows for the fullest experience of acceptance and belonging in a community of faith.

In other words, at the UW Episcopal Center, 1) we are honest about the incredible gift of knowing and being known in a community of faith, 2) I personally believe this Christ-centered community is an incredible community of remarkable young adults to know and be known by, and 3) we will seek together to name and appreciate the gifts we find in one another and other communities of faith, and 4) we believe, in the giving and receiving of gifts - God's gift of God's Son chief among them - God has given us all that we need, and there is more than enough joy for us all.

In the lives of young adults unfaithful to the church's past divisions, I see an imagination for a world in which the resources of faith-based community are readily accessible in local neighborhoods and through grassroots friendships. In this desire, I see faithful young adults scattering seed after our Savior's example: generously, lavishly, recklessly. When these young people fail the institution's standard for denominational fidelity, I thank God for what I take to be a not yet articulated - but profoundly prophetic - witness toward an imagination for the community of faith unmarked by our divisions.

God give us eyes that see and ears to hear.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A New Courage in Community:
Living the Opposite of Fear




Exactly because people often talk about opposites as "clear to see" - as in the video above - I've always found the examination and articulation of opposites an especially fruitful and rewarding practice. Sometimes the opposite of 'up' is clearly 'down,' but other times false polarizations leave two seemingly opposite sides blind to the assumptions they share in common and, as a result, likewise blind to their uncanny resemblance to the other, which drives them both mad.

For example, the two sides in last Sunday's gospel - for simplicity's sake, let's call them Rome and Revolution - that produce the tension in the religious leaders' question to Jesus - about whether or not to pax taxes to Caesar - share the common assumption that authority and claims of truth / divine right are legitimated by violence and victory expressed through power over the other.  

If only examples of false opposites and their side-effects were more readily accessible in the present day... 

*sigh* 

Consideration of opposites, however, need not always be so dramatic. Sometimes the distinctions that arise are subtle, nuanced, and quietly instructive toward the honest speech necessary for the life of communities undergirded by the love and belonging of God revealed in Christ Jesus.

Take, for example, a favorite song of mine, "Song of Praise (from a Recovering Cynic)," from the Church of the Beloved, in Seattle. Each verse in the song follows a simple formula, 
  • affirm a virtue or gift of the Spirit, 
  • consider the difficulty of living out that virtue or gift in this world by naming the virtue's opposite, and finally 
  • thank God for the gift, with the rarity of the gift invoked as witness to the virtue's value, before
  • closing with an exhortation to continue in the gift.
In case you haven't clicked on the link yet (WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?), here are the lyrics:
There’s nothing wrong with Joy though so many are sad.
 So thank you God for Joy. Live joy.
 
  
There’s nothing wrong with Hope though so many are despair.
 So thank you God for Hope. Live hope.  

There’s nothing wrong with Faith though we're so cynical
. So thank you God for Faith. Live Faith.


  
There’s nothing wrong with Love though ambivalence reigns.
 So thank you God for Love. Live Love.  
We will not give up on love.
The simple success of the song depends on the truth with which the writer sees and names the opposites, or true impediments, to particular characteristics of the community of belonging. So joy is paired with sadness, hope with despair, faith with cynicism, and love with ambivalence. If even one of those pairs surprises or reminds the hearer and/or leads her to recall or reconsider the nature of any of those four gifts - if even a single presupposition is noticed, for the first time or again - the song will have served the hearer well, opening up a new imagination for the world, pointing to the alternative to the old imagination of the world that the Kingdom of God must be.

My recent reading of the late Brother Roger of Taizé and also of Jean Vanier of l'Arche have combined to occasion just such a reorientation of imagination for me. Over and again, they write of fear and its opposite. But of course, they don't write about the opposite to which my mind, despite knowing better, has for the longest time been trained with respect to fear; that is, they don't write about courage. Instead, they write about trust. The opposite of fear, they say, is trust. The reminder is simple, intuitive, and also ever-instructive. 

So writing, Brother Brother and Jean Vanier remind us in their own ways that to be made in God's image is to be made for relationship and belonging; they remind us that we need others even to be ourselves. In this reminder, moreover, we discover that courage has everything to do with asking for help and exercising a vulnerable trust. Only in the giving and receiving of gifts is the lived experience of belonging for which the community exists possible. 

In Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus, which our community has been exploring these past four weeks, the authors highlight trust over against fear in a specific way, as a key to embodying abundance. In the context of challenging the pervading scarcity mindset of the dominant culture, the authors name scarcity as the fear that there isn't enough and trust as the lived conviction of the provision of God. 

The opposite of fear is not the stoic's courage to forge on alone but the trust that will open each one of us up to the gifts of the Spirit, from God, and offered, many times, through one another. Of course, in the knowledge that we are not alone, we find a courage, but it is courage of a particular kind: it is the courage of two people, sent out by the community into a world outside each of their comfort zones, trusting that together they have all they will need for an adventure neither would have accepted alone.

Courage, to be courage, doesn't require the absence of fear, but courage does require a trust, which may be another word for holy friends. So courage involves the trust 
  • of those around you - that they will be with you and for you and tell you the truth - or 
  • of those behind you - that they will protect you in your blind spots as you go forward beyond what you can see - or 
  • of those before you - that, in the moment of your testing, the training you've received from your community or others will be sufficient for the task at hand - or 
  • of those to follow you - that the sacrifices you are about to make will be valued and furthered, not rendered inconsequential. 
For Christians, in all of these, there is above all the deep trust that God will provide, beyond all imagining and asking. We believe this because we have seen, in Christ, that God loves us. And there, in the space where we discover a trust of this love, we likewise discover that all fear's been cast out, and there is more than enough. Even more, we are enough, and God's love likewise more than enough for the reconciliation the possibility of belonging, for the world and each one of us, must mean.

Thank and praise God.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Kenosis and Communion:
The Opportunity Cost of Being a Young Adult in the Episcopal Church


Earlier today, Bishop Miller gave his address to our Diocesan Convention, a highlight of our convention. The address began beautifully, in song, as the assembly stood and sang, "One Bread, One Body" together. Later, Bishop Miller told the story of Paul Stookey - of Peter, Paul, and Mary - and relayed Paul's observation that the progression of magazine titles across generations revealed a disturbing trend. "Life" magazine was replaced by "People" magazine, followed by "Us," to be succeeded, Paul surmised, by "Me." Less and less awareness for others and the world, Paul had his hearers infer. To Paul's insight, Bishop Miller further cited social media examples, like "MySpace," frequently associated with younger generations, to demonstrate this generational shift toward greater self-interest.

Paul Stookey would no doubt appreciate Jean Vanier's insight that even the longing for community is too often felt in our present day by people who have only the resources of individualism with which to approach its possibility. Thus Bishop Miller was spot-on in his subsequent observation that the life and mission of the community of faith requires the kenosis - the self-emptying - of each one of us; each one, awkwardly, imperfectly, imitating - with God's help and the help of the whole Body of Christ - Christ's own love for us and the world.

Exactly because of the truth arrived at in Paul's observation about generation magazines - a renaming of the gift and challenge of kenosis which constitutes the heart of the living community of faith - I feel the importance of separating out that truth from a possible and, I believe, unintentional generational bias implicit in Paul's remarks about the magazines.

(Full disclosure: I am a campus minister. I have been entrusted, on behalf of the church, with an immersion experience among young adults, Paul's predicted "Me" generation. I'm biased. But I've been placed here by the church to be so biased. Even so, I turn 34 in November and have a wife and two children. I write on behalf of young adults, but decidedly not as one.)

I don't want to challenge the charge of selfishness in young adults, so much as point out the strong danger in connecting too strongly things like self-interest, younger generations, social media, and all the rest, especially by those who are not young adults. Four reasons for caution, not exhaustive, follow.

  • Alcohol provides a precedent for an Anglican moral interpretation of Facebook. Episcopalians have a wonderful legacy of affirming the initial moral neutrality - if not outright goodness - of things, which comes from a basic understanding of God's creation as good. Alcohol, for example, is not evil in itself, says the church; how you use it matters. Thus that all important Anglican watchword: moderation, which explains the strange breed of Episcopalians you can sometimes find across the South, Baptists allowed to drink. Episcopalians who drink alcohol cannot dismiss things like social media as inherently self-oriented. Rather, Christian love obligates us to explore how those sisters and brothers who are using these resources do so through the lens of faith. 
An example. At a recent conference of campus ministers, the Rev. Canon Anthony Guillén relayed to the assembly gathered the rich role of social media, relative to other demographic populations, among latinos, whose valuation of family and connectedness can find fruitful and life-giving expression via Facebook and other social media platforms. 
Among sisters and brothers of Christ, there can be no out-of-hand dismissal, not even of seemingly narcissistic magazines, at least not apart from relationship and conversation that seeks to understand the best qualities of the other.
  • Challenging the self-interest of others is often in my own self-interest. The myth of greater self-absorption in younger generations can be used to underwrite the self-interests of stake holders in the existing status quo. This dynamic is often expressed in the desire of older generations to see younger generations be "selfless" and step up into ministries for which neither generation has any existing energy, but for which the implications of abandoning a given ministry understandably involves a grief more profoundly felt by the generation that has past history and joy invested in the ministry.
  • Look for the log. Extended critique of one group by another should be matched, for the sake of Jesus' instruction in the Matthew's gospel (7:3-5), with vulnerable self-examination of one's one group (however one self-identifies) and, indeed, one's own self. Otherwise, even thoughtful critique can serve to further obscure the blind spots that belong to each of us. I frequently remember a good friend's remark: "If I could see 'em, they wouldn't be blind spots!"
The age of the average Episcopalians is 57; it is difficult to accuse any young adult still in the church today of a great tendency toward selfishness than is present in other populations. Any conversation with young adults, even before specifics of content are considered, might be regarded as a small miracle to which each of us in the church does well to attend. Further, it is difficult to imagine how any community of faith, whether comprised of young adults or not, would not be blessed by routinely asking of any opportunity before the faith community, "How can we act for/toward young adults?"
  • The church can learn from the kenosis of young adults in the church. The opportunity cost for a young adult who chooses to stay present to a congregation in which most folks are 35 years older represents a real self-offering that is too often taken for granted. Socially and in other ways, it takes greater sacrifice for a 25 year old to be an Episcopalian than for a 75 year old to be the same. A wonderfully appropriate question for a young adult with whom you have a trusting relationship is some version of "Why are you here?" or "What do you most love about Jesus?" "What about Jesus leads you to offer yourself in this community in this way?" Make clear that you're not asking these questions as a rhetorically sarcastic way. Ask like you would ask a child whose wonder has again made you childlike and from whom there are some soul-stirring things you can learn.
It is certainly the case that Christian communities of faith, locally expressing the communion which God in Christ makes possible for us, require participation in the kenosis of Christ. It is equally certainly the case that the Christ who has so self-emptied himself has done so generously, even in young adults, from which the whole church must be committed to listen, learn, and invest deeply, just as young adults continue to show up and invest in, listen to, and learn from the generations of Christians before them.

The signs of God at work in any people at any given point in time may be - and are frequently - difficult to see. But we Christians are called by the One who implored his disciples to pray for eyes and ears to see and hear. In Christ, we have been made members of God's community of belonging. Such a membership requires an offering of ourselves that may mean even our reception of a new understanding of kenosis from unlikely people in unlikely places. And each of us is an unlikely person in an unlikely place to someone else. To pray for an openness to hearing ears and seeing eyes marks a community's faithfulness to the baptismal commitment to seek and serve Christ in all persons. Those who seek, we're told, will find, even Christ in one another. 

Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

A Story of New Bread and New Creation
(My Joy Behind the New Communion Bread at St. Francis House)


"The difference between community and a group of friends is that in a community we verbalise our mutual belonging and bonding. We announce the goals and the spirit that unites us. We recognise together that we are responsible for one another. We recognise also that this bonding comes from God; it is a gift from God." Jean Vanier, in Community and Growth.

"Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread." St. Paul, 1 Cor 10:17.


This past Sunday at the Episcopal Center, we used a different kind of bread. Not wafers. Not a fresh baked loaf. Something in between. On the surface, probably not a big deal. An old Episcopal joke is that it doesn't take faith to believe that Jesus is present in the bread at the Eucharist moment so much as it takes faith to believe that the wafers we use are bread! But a friend later asked me about the unusual bread we shared this past Sunday. I told him the story and now realize it might be helpful to share this story with others - both those inside our faith community and outside it.

Last year, we moved the bread and the wine to the back of the church, and I explained the symbolism - how these were the offerings/gifts of the people and that this was our loaves and fishes moment: the offering of ourselves for the blessing of God. I reminded our community that these same gifts would be returned to us, changed. "The gifts of God, for the people of God." In this spirit, I talked openly about my desire to see a loaf of bread and a bottle of wine replace our beautiful cruet and ciborium. "Some people bring bread, others bring money with which bread is bought." In each case, I explained, we understand that the communion to which Christ calls us with the call to offer what we have, symbols of what we do and who we are. 

As the year went on, I continued my not subtle hints that if someone wanted to bring homemade bread, that would be awesome. This year, one of our leaders did bring homemade bread! It is not accidental, I think, that she did so this year, because our students have have recently initiated an emphasis on community and self-offering through the sharing of simple, daily tasks - like cooking meals, washing dishes, and baking bread. Through these acts, we have begun to "verbalise our mutual belonging and bonding" in a special way. The change has been palpable. As Jean Vanier says, "Using our gifts is building community."

Then, only a couple of weeks ago, a new member came to our community with severe dietary restrictions. Her first Sunday with us, she was unable to receive. The following week, I found myself preaching, "we who are many are one, because we all share the one bread." The newest member of our community wasn't present at this service, but my heart churned anyway as I said the words.

The next week, of her own accord, and without the benefit of this ongoing conversation, this student offered to bring bread, not just for herself, but for everyone. 

In the moments before our Sunday worship with this new bread, the student leaned in toward me and whispered as she handed me the bread, "It may have bits of unexpected crunch. Like a shell."

I smiled and suppressed, for courtesy, a laugh of joy.

A student's homemade gluten-free, vegan bread had just become the latest in a long line of celebrations of this remarkable new year: a community of new creation shaped by the sharing of gifts and the blessing of God as we offer these gifts to our Lord.

Yes.

Slow Church!
Reconciliation, Work, and Sabbath


Notes (below) from last week's Slow Church conversation at St. Francis House. Come to the Episcopal Center tonight for the 4th and final conversation! We'll be talking abundance, gratitude, hospitality, and dinner table conversation as a way of being church. If you haven't been to any of the others, our time together will still make sense and be fruitful for you. I promise. 6:30 p.m. at 1011 University, Madison.




Gospel Imagination
(A Guest Post by Justin Burge)


Justin is a good friend and fellow campus minister at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This post originally appeared on his blog, which you can follow here
The Gospel is the most captivating, inspiring, and compelling story ever told. It is the story of a perfect and righteous God, who spoke the world into existence, entering Human history to become present with His people and face the total punishment for all sin committed against Him past, present, and future.
He came not as a disembodied spirit. Rather, as a man.
A person.
A person who experienced the entire range of human experience.
From heights and depths of life to the final breath in death.
His name is Jesus and his name means, ‘God with us.’
Just sit and think about that for a moment.
God with us.
What would our life look like if we woke up each morning thinking, ‘God is with us.’
Maybe this reality of God with us is difficult to imagine.
Maybe the reality of God with us does not move us like we know it should. Maybe we want to believe that God is with us, but in reality we have strong doubts concerning the presence and activity of God in our present age. Maybe it is difficult because we are so busy we never stop.
Pause.
Rest.
In the awe and wonder of the incarnation of God.
When have you last stopped and given yourself permission to stand in awe of something? As a child you would do this all of the time. Noting the beauty of the world around you.
The breeze in your hair.
The clouds in the sky.
The joy in a rainy day.
It was once said that awe is the beginning of faith. If we no longer take the time to stand in awe; to feel the limits of ourselves and the beginning of something greater, can we wonder why we posses so little faith?
So, maybe it is here, in our forgetting.
The forgetting of ‘God with us’, that we have lost our Gospel Imagination.
Maybe we have exchanged the reality of ‘God with us’ for the idea of ‘God with us.’
And maybe the idea of ‘God with us’ has become:
Go to church.
Read your Bible.
Pray.
Be a good person.
Repeat.
We know we have been commissioned to tell the story of Jesus. But in exchanging the reality of ‘God with us’ with the mere idea of it, we find ourselves less than compelled to share the ‘good news’ of Jesus—which, when left as an idea, is not good news at all. And it is with this idea we instead find ourselves asking the questions of:
Why are we even at church this week?
Does it even matter if I take time to pray?
What does reading the Bible really offer to my daily life?
Shouldn’t every good person make it to heaven whether they know Jesus or not?
We ask these questions because our imagination of ‘God with us’ has become an impersonal to do list. And when we let these questions linger with our limited imaginations, we quickly find ourselves disillusioned with the church, prayer, the Bible, and the idea of faith.
So I ask again, “what does it mean to have God with us?”
What if the words, ‘God with us’ moved us to a place where we were able to truly believe in the reality of God with us?
Right now.
What if God is telling you: “(Your Name) I am with you.”
What does that inspire?
What does that reality do with your relationship with Him?
I cannot think of a more encouraging, equipping, empowering, and life-giving reality than that of:
“I am with you.”
The reality of God with us has inspired normal everyday people like you and I to do spectacular works for God. When Moses is confronted by God at the burning bush God tells Moses that he is to go to Pharaoh and demand the release and exodus of the Hebrew people. To this idea Moses replies to God with the question of, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh and bring these sons of Israel out of Egypt?”
Do you see that? Do you understand the weight of Moses’ question? Moses is wondering: “How is it that You, God, think that I, a runaway ex-murderer and nomadic shepherd could possibly go to Pharaoh and lead an entire people out of Egypt?”
Up until this point in Moses’ life, the imagination for his life seemed fairly minimal. It probably consisted of fending off wild beast, providing for his family, and staying alive. And in many ways we share the same imagination as Moses in our own lives where we find ourselves asking God, “Who am I?”
As you know the story doesn’t end there, and to Moses’ question God replies, “Surely, I am with you!” It is with this reality that Moses has the imagination to walk up to Pharaoh and declare, “Let my people Go!”
Moses leads one of the greatest exoduses recorded in all of history because he believes in the reality and the imagination that God is with him.
As the story unfolds Moses’ generation exchanges the inspiring reality and imagination of God with us for the toxic idea of God with us. The physical presence of God in the pillars of cloud and fire, the faithful supply of manna and quail, and water flowing from rocks was no longer seen as spectacular. Their lack of awe kills their imagination of conquering Canaan and reduces them to dwelling in the desert. This will be the death of this generation.
As soon as Moses dies God speaks to Joshua and declares to him. “Be strong and courageous; do not be afraid or discouraged, for the LORD God is with you wherever you go!” It is with this reality then, that Joshua, son of a slave, professional dessert wander, with limited military experience, has the imagination to become the commander of the Israelite army.
It is with this reality of ‘God with us’ that Joshua is able to rally his generation, a rag tag group of dessert wanderers, into believing in the imagination that they could actually invade and conquer Canaan.
This generation of Joshua’s is different than the previous. It is a generation who experienced the limitation of the previous generation’s imagination, and they are ready to carry that same imagination one step beyond what the previous generation could.
This is important to note because it becomes easy to criticize the previous generation’s lack of imagination. It is just as easy for the former generation to find itself critical of the next generation’s imagination. Humility and grace are required for each generation to understand that no matter the era, we will always have a limited imagination because of our humanness. The important thing is that we share the same source for our imagination: The reality that God is with us, even when it looks like the next generation might be walking away from Him.
David understands this reality and reminds us that God is with us no matter what. In Psalm 139 David writes, ‘”Where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence…If I say, ‘Surely the darkness will overwhelm me, and the light around me will be night,’ Even the darkness is not dark to You, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to You.”
David’s imagination of, ‘God with us’ allows for God to be present even in the darkest of situations.
A few years ago, I was studying aboard at Oxford University. I was with a few students in Queen’s college, waiting to go out to the club for the night, when suddenly an intoxicated girl stumbled into the dorm room.
It just so happened that moments before I had been discussing with those in the room the possibility of God. I found myself alone in my belief of such a reality due to a lack of evidence. And before I could open my mouth with some contrived argument this woman came crashing in.
Immediately everyone around me had transformed into a highly trained medical unit. The student who’s room we were in offered his bed for the night. Others grabbed the trashcan and held out for the woman, as she vomited. Others supplied her with fresh washcloths and water to drink.
So, there we were, tending to the care of a selfish drunk waiting for her to pass out.
For two hours.
During that time one of the girls who had been tending the trashcan apologized to me for the situation we found ourselves in.
It was in that moment I realized that God was with us and I had to share it.
As she finished her apology I said to her and those present, “It’s okay. Actually, this is amazing. The last two hours have been truly redemptive.”
“’Redemptive?” The girl questioned with a crossed look on her face.
“Yes, redemptive. Look, it is because of this girl’s great selfishness by getting drunk and stumbling into our room and making a big mess of things, that she elicited great good from us tonight.”
Looking around the room I began to point out what they had done.
“You just gave up your bed to this stranger. You held the trashcan while she was throwing up into it. You were serving her water and making sure she did no further harm to herself or anyone else. You sacrificed the past two hours you could have been enjoying at the club.
“I do not know many people who would have done what you just did, and because of that I just cannot help but think what a redemptive moment this is for her and how great it is we get to participate in it.”
The girl, with wide eyes, said, “Wow, I never would have looked at it like that. I just think this is what I would hope for the night I do something this stupid.”
And just because neither this girl, nor any of my other God-denying friends acknowledged it, God was with us. The imagination of the Gospel had penetrated the hearts of those who denied its very existence and redemption took place that night in a very real way.
Why?
Because God is with us!
Even the darkness is not dark to Him, and the night is as bright as the day. Darkness and light are alike to Him.
God is with us, whether we acknowledge it or not.
Our God is not a God who is content playing hide and seek waiting for us to find Him. No, He is a God who is in search of humankind and comes to earth as a man declaring:
“I am here!”
“I am with you!”
“I will never leave you!”
“I am sending my spirit to live in you!”
“I will be with you until the very end!”
Because of this:
“Go!:
“Go; declare to the world that I am with you!”
How do we go as if God is with us?
It begins by sitting in awe and wonder and sharing in it with those around us.
It begins by realizing the God of the universe lives within us.
We need to grab a hold of the imagination of our priesthood, fully equipped to serve one another in Christ Jesus.
What if the reality of ‘God with us’ allowed us to reimagine: church, prayer, how we read the Bible, and the way we live out our daily lives?
What if church was a place where the gospel was truly experienced, and in this experience the gospel would be declared. What if it were a place where we would come together and say to one another, no matter how dark, no matter how confusing, ‘I am with you!’
What if God is not looking for people to read the bible, or pray, or try to live good lives, but rather that He is in search of those who are desiring to rest in His presence, know His heart more, and be transformed to live the life only the reality of ‘God with us’ could inspire.
So what does Gospel imagination look like?
When it comes to specifics I do not know.
For some, you will be able to find this imagination in your current context, while others might be called to imagine something far more radical.
But at the end of the day I think it has something to do with us realizing that God is with us. And us declaring to each other, ‘because God is with you, I am with you!’
Moses never could have imagined the Exodus of the Hebrew people.
Joshua could have never imagined leading an unskilled army to capture Jericho.
The gospel imagination inspires us to go places we never would have dreamed of on our own, because the gospel never leaves us on our own.
It leaves us with the God of the universe saying, “Surely, I am with you!—Always! Now let us get going!”
Sign at the UW Episcopal Center this past Tuesday.