Sunday, February 23, 2014

We Refuse to Be Enemies:
Daoud Nassar and the Tent of Nations

At worship tonight, I read an except from Tyler Wigg-Stevenson's book, The World Is Not Ours To Save. You should buy it and read it, which is why I'm not reprinting the excerpt here. That, and it's really long and would be as hassle to type, and I'm lazy. The except is titled "We Refuse to be Enemies." It's the story of Daoud Nassar and his family's struggle as farmers "on the last remaining Palestinian-owned hilltop in West Bethlehem." Daoud's story is a powerful, beautiful, challenging picture of what love of enemies can look like for followers of Jesus. So go find the book. Also, here's the story in video form, from the Tent of Nations' website.

Whether you are American, Israeli, Palestinian, Russian, or Swedish, the question still remains: 
"Will you love your enemy for the sake of Christ?"

Saturday, February 22, 2014

Sports Guy, Mark Cuban, and the Different-Thinking God:
a self-indulgent post on economics, the Dallas Mavericks, and steps toward abundant life

Last July, I stumbled almost by accident onto what I've experienced as a wonderfully life-giving strategy for how to be Church in the world:

All kinds of theological and Gospel reasons to try this anti-methodology. And today "The Sports Guy" explains - via the example of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban - the intuition of an anti-methodology in economic terms, too:
Cuban’s zigzag theory: If a growing cluster of NBA teams are trying to execute the same strategy (in this case, keeping their cap unclogged, avoiding that no-man’s-land range of 39-45 wins, stockpiling picks and maybe even semi-sabotaging their current team for ping-pong balls), then common sense says it’s better to zag the other way because you’ll find inefficiencies just by thinking differently (emphasis mine). 
That's right: sometimes the only reason you need for an uncommon approach is that it's opposite the most common practice. You don't even have to understand or have identified the unseen efficiencies you will discover and/or which will move you farther toward your goal. Writes Simmons:
In this case, there might be hidden value in targeting contracts for quality starters ranging from $7.5 million to $10 million — Jeff Green, Thaddeus Young, Jeff Teague, Arron Afflalo, Taj Gibson, Whatever Gordon Hayward Gets Paid Next Season, etc. — because there’s no real market for these guys. So if you’re getting them for 60 cents on the dollar, that’s great: You just got a quality starter for 60 cents on the dollar. I gotta say, I like this line of thinking.
Of course, the Church has greater goals than profitability. Or rather, profitability is not purely (or even primarily) financial for the Church. Defining those goals, specifically, in the context of this anti-paradigm is no doubt useful for the Church, but it's work for another day - and maybe another writer. My purpose in sharing The Sports Guy's observation is mostly to give you courage in a future particular moment to go, live the Gospel you've seen and heard, even - and maybe especially - when the rest of the world - and even the Church - runs counter. 

In the moment of your courage, you'll feel silly and foolish (that's okay), and you may want to quit. Don't quit. Remember, you may be opening the unseen possibility with which God will bless and surprise us all.

"Love your enemies," anyone?

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Reconciliation, Race, and Reimagining Ashes to Go:
The End of a Trilogy

Yesterday at St. Francis House, our midweek discussion was about reconciliation, what it is, and how we live it as Christians. At the end of the conversation, I asked students to pair up and write out themes of reconciliation in haiku form. These remarkable haikus appear at intervals throughout this post, which itself is my attempt to put to paper my recent reflections on race in Madison and Ashes to Go.

Our conversation began with a review of those times "reconciliation" appears in Scripture and the Book of Common Prayer. In that beginning, we identified reconciliation as 1) a gift of God in Christ, 2) the ministry of all Christians (BCP, 855), and 3) established in the Paschal mystery; baptism into the death and resurrection of Jesus is central to how Christians live and learn to live as reconciled people.

The cross is mercy
People coming together
reconciled to God

I offered the observation that the Episcopal tradition is very, very, richly equipped with language and understanding for engaging the work of reconciliation. Indeed, our history is full of examples of this good work in some of history's important moments. And yet, the Episcopal Church's unofficial motto, "The Episcopal Church welcomes you," - while reflecting a posture of hospitality we undervalue at our peril - is, at bottom, passive in ways that stop short of the reaching out reconciliation will at times require of us. The welcome of the Episcopal Church names the hospitality another will receive on our turf, once our church has become sufficiently interesting/accessible the other. Reconciliation, though, risks interest in the other, even before the other's interest, and always beyond the place of my comfort zone. It is not enough to be a place of welcome.

[To be sure, generous hospitality is central a central piece of even risk-taking reconciliation. It is a risk to let a stranger into one's midst. Rebekah and I were invited this past Sunday to attend worship at Christ the Solid Rock Baptist Church, an African-American congregation near our home. The welcome we received was overwhelming and humbling. Hugs from strangers. Introductions and welcomes throughout the service. We did not take for granted the risk it was for strangers to welcome us so openly. At the same time, the commitment to radical hospitality exhibited by the congregation both honored and assumed the risk-taking required of those who would leave their comfort zones to meet them there.]

That reconciliation risks interest on another, beyond one's own walls, is why I have come to believe that one of the greatest gifts the Church has to offer the world is her interest in the world, which is a share in Christ's love and interest in the world. Of course, interest in others outside of ourselves is not easily lived out, because the distances between us oftentimes represent real wounds, our own sins. That reaching out might mean naming our sins is precisely why mission must include the repentance of the missionary.

I have become convinced that mission is primarily about reconciliation. If mission is about reconciliation, then mission is about seeking forgiveness for the obstacles to holy friendship I and my people have placed on the path of peace.

Bridges have been burned
We come together in Christ
To heal hurts we cause

Which brings us to Ashes to Go. I first reflected on the practice of administering ashes to passersby on Ash Wednesday a couple of years ago. I wasn't at all comfortable with the practice, but took seriously the counters of good and godly friends. A year later, I wrote this piece, which, looking back, was an attempt to expand on this concluding paragraph from my first reflection:

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

That conclusion, as it turned out, was the seed of an instinct that good friends and the Spirit have watered in me, making it possible to reimagine Ashes to Go in a way that takes seriously the place of forgiveness seeking in the mission to which all Christians are called. 

So, I am reimagining Ashes to Go this year, which is to say I am participating for the first time. What will that look like at St. Francis House? Two priests on our block. I'm partial to the chapel steps. Cassocks. A sign (but then, you knew we'd have a sign). And before offering or administering the ashes, I'll ask some version of the question I've waited my whole Christian life to ask: 

Friend, is there anything for which I or my Church need to ask your forgiveness? 

One more poem:

Sorry, Jonathan
I could not write a haiku
I really tried though


Sunday, February 16, 2014

Mister Popular:
The Uncomfortable Problem of Jesus and Scripture

Jesus (left), seen here with the Bible (right).
Homily preached at SFH, 2.16.14.
I was talking to a good friend the other day. My friend told me about a recent conversation she had had with some of her friends about Jesus and the Bible. These friends really liked Jesus, she reported, but they were considerably less sure about that somewhat unseemly collection of writings called Scripture. The gist was this: Jesus is kind. The Bible is, well, kind of strange. Jesus is grace; the Bible is graceless. Jesus calls you by name; the Bible is full of names no one can say, much less remember. Jesus is generous. The Bible is judgment. Jesus loves me, this I know, and the Bible has, well, all those rules. If Jesus and the Bible go together - and these friends, at least, weren’t at all sure that they did - they only “go together” like good cop / bad cop. Or sweet and sour. Or Beauty and the Beast. Or that one time Patrick Swayze teamed with Chris Farley for an SNL skit in which they were competing for a final spot as dancers at a Chippendales night club, and Swayze, curiously, only narrowly edges his mightily overmatched counterpart.

All that baggage. All those rules, alas, has holy Scripture. But Jesus - just Jesus - now there is a spiritual reality with which we can connect.

So, Jesus, why don’t you come on up here, come and accept your trophy - the People’s Choice - in the sub-sub-sub category of faith, Christian, mainline, American, Protestant. Yes! Come on up, Jesus. Anything you’d like to say?

“Thank you for this award. It is the realization of a dream. I’d like to thank my parents, Mary and Joseph, my twelve, I mean, eleven friends. Um, the children. Of course, my enemies. Thank you all.

“Oh, and one more thing: 

“If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell.

“Thank you all so very much.”

Super. Thanks, Jesus. Wait. What?

And of course that wasn’t the worst of it. The unedited version of this culturally tone deaf acceptance speech - the extended version cut off by the strings of the orchestra pit as they cut to commercial - had matching paragraphs 1) equating anger with murder, 2) coercing reconciliation with the threat of prison time, 3) decrying divorce and its evils, 4) linking lust to adultery, and finally 5) closing with instructions on swearing, by either heaven or earth, namely, that one should never do it. All of this prefaced by last week’s disappointing corrective, when Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have come not to abolish but to fulfill.”

Oh Jesus. We liked you. We did. But you’ve been hanging around that unsavory “Bible” character again, haven’t you? Why can’t we seem to free you, Jesus, from your chains?

We had imagined Jesus as fixing what was wrong with the law or, better yet, erasing the broken parts altogether. And, truthfully, we hadn’t dismissed the possibility (or hope) that the whole of the law was broken, might be erased. But here, Jesus reveals the law as but the preliminary sketches of the Kingdom he fulfills.

And now, this is terrible. It’s not divorce that’s the problem, but lust. It’s not murder, but anger. It’s not actual unfaithfulness, but considered unfaithfulness. What does he care what I think, what I consider? As long as I can clean up my thoughts by sun up, so long as the unholiness stays suppressed in the inactivity of my mind, so what if my thoughts are less than God’s own? Didn’t God say something somewhere to the effect that they would be? I mean, if thoughts count, what does that do to the future of cynicism? I love my cynicism. 

Jesus’s unhappy remarks about “fulfilling the law” threaten to bring to an end the many games by which, as individuals and as a society, we relativize our missteps and misdeeds by saying, “at least I’m not like the others” - the ones in prison, the murderers and thieves - thereby cultivating lives of self-deception; the games in which we obsess on the rightness or wrongness of the next decision before us, as if our next sin, our next misstep, will be our first of any consequence. As if the danger lies not in the reality of our present sin, but in the unrealized future in which we might, if we aren’t careful, someday sin. 

But my next sin won’t be my first. For me to say that my next sin won’t be my first is the beginning of truthfulness in me. 

The community that Jesus calls together around himself is a community made able to speak truthfully in a world where truth is so many times equivocated. This is why, where the Torah gives the instruction not to swear falsely, Jesus gives the instruction to not swear at all, because the people he calls around himself are never not called to truth, and so have no reason to make a special guarantee that these or those particular words are truthful, by means of an oath; all of their words are to be truthful. The words of Christians are never more truthful than when they preach the fullness of God known in Jesus; that, in Christ on the cross, God reveals the truth about God.

When we begin at the cross, questions like, “What does truthfulness have to do with lusts and angers that are really, we think, none of Jesus’ darn business?” and, “what has truthful speech to do with hunting down my rascal brother before I come before the altar?” become questions about the reconciliation St. Paul tells us God has accomplished for us on the cross in Jesus Christ. For example, anger is less a sin against the law because it could lead to murder and more a sin against the truth that God has made it possible for us to be reconciled with one another. We do not fear the law, but we long to live into the reconciliation of Christ, which is the truth about God. We long to live Christ’s reconciliation truly.

I wonder if there are places in your life where you feel morally stuck. Binary categories like good and bad are increasingly unhelpful. I wonder how you receive the news that God gives you the gift of reconciliation as the backdrop, lens, and sole criterion for even your hidden thoughts.

I wonder how the lens of reconciliation changes, or reframes, life’s challenges for you, because the goal is no longer winning and the threat is no longer losing, but the promise is that all will be made one in Christ. I wonder, for example, how the backdrop of reconciliation transforms questions of racial tensions. Madison is facing a crisis of race, disparity, and a city-wide call to a new equality. What does reconciliation capture that diversity, alone, cannot? I wonder, too, how a kingdom perspective with reconciliation at the center opens up new ways to think about familial estrangements, your own campus life, and even the mission and outreach of the people of God - Church growth, for example, not as a problem of advertisement and strategy, but as a call to reconciliation, a binding of the wounds that divide us. I wonder what it would look like, feel like, if God’s people approached each encounter and every moment with the lived conviction that the first truth is that Christ has come to heal us. We are reconciled. That Christ is making us, all of us, whole.

Christ comes to fulfill the law. So we do not stop at keeping the law, but we long - and are learning - to live into the reconciliation of Christ, which is the truth about God and, in him, the truth about ourselves and one another. And this truth, my friends, is very, very Good News.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

Living Candles

Homily, 2.9.14. 

Note: The service proceeded in the usual manner, but all in darkness, from the first moment on. At the Gospel Sequence, candles were handed out by a student, and the Gospel was processed to the center with one, small lit candle as we sang. Students lit candles from the central candle, and then the gospel lesson was read. Sitting in darkness, flames in our hands, is the immediate context for this word.

Jesus said, “You are the light of the world.”

You are living candles. What the candles in your hands are to you, you are to others, even if you do not see it. You are the light of the world.

You are light that is seen: you are the star that is followed across the darkness of the sky, by which lost and weary travelers find direction and the assurance of companionship. You are light that is seen, and just as much you are light by which the world can see. For the world to see truly requires the gift of the light of the people of God, a people kindled with the fire of the Spirit and the light of Christ for the world. You are God’s people, God’s Church. As you illumine the world, the true outlines of the world come to light. Sin is seen and scattered, and the most surprising, unexpected beauty is revealed.

You are the light of the world. You are both visible and making things visible. 

To be visible to the world is to be different from the world; it is to be an alternative to the world. Jesus says your light witnesses an alternative in which poverty of spirit, mourning and meekness, hunger and thirst for the righteousness of God, the merciful and pure in heart, the persecuted and the peacemakers, find and receive the blessing of God.

You are the light of the world in so very many ways. You are the light of the world when you gather here, as God’s people, for worship, and when you leave this place of worship, in the name of Christ. You are the light of the world when you shine your light on others and make them visible. When you see them and say so. They had grown convinced of their invisibility, but your light is causing them to doubt their insignificance. 

You are the light of the world when you give your gifts for others. You are the light of the world as you take the passions and gifts God has given you and commit yourselves to developing them for others by your studies. You are the light of the world when you are generous, when you are gentle, joyful, and good. You are the light of the world as you seek to embrace the faithfulness, love, patience, self-control, and peace of Christ. 

You are the light of the world when you look for God in the world around you and find signs of his redeeming hand at work. The world’s vision is dark and its hearing muted, but you pray for eyes to see and ears to hear, and occasionally you do see and hear things of unspeakable wonder. You are the light of the world when you share what you’ve seen and heard. 

You are the light of the world as you work and serve and play. I wonder if you realize how much light you give the world when you play and when you laugh. This world is enslaved by its own deadly seriousness; its fear and conviction that it has no one but itself to save it. This is why you are never more the light of the world than when you pray. And when you sing, both together, in this place, and in the world; when you sing even in those places and moments in which you are tempted to believe you are alone. You are not alone. And you are the light of the world.

You are even the light of the world in your brokenness. When you fall short and ask forgiveness and when you receive and believe God’s forgiveness of you. When you hurt others and disappoint yourself and, maybe not until much later, remember your dependence on God alone, you are the light of the world. You are the light of the world in your vulnerability, which is another word for the courage necessary to risk relationship, even when you are most aware of your weakness. In your demonstration of Christ’s reconciling mercies, you are the light of the world.

You are the light of the world when you listen and seek to understand; and you are the light of the world when you speak the truth in love, especially the truth that Christ came to save the world he loves. When God gives you a vision for God’s kingdom on earth, and you step forward, toward that vision in ways that take you outside of your comfort zone and into a future you cannot control, you are the light of the world. When you refuse to give up on others, even when the chasm seems wide, because you know and remember that the God of Jesus has not given up on you, you are the light of the world.

You are the light of the world when others look on your life and glorify God.

You are living candles. You are light that is seen, and you are light by which the world can see. Your light scatters darkness and awakens beauty. Your light is an alternative. In praise and in prayer, in blessing one another and receiving blessing, in noticing others and God at work in this world, in laughter and listening, in your longing for Christ, you are the light of the world. And the light that is in you is Christ. 

You are living candles. What the candles in your hands are to you, you are to others, even if you do not see it. You are the light of the world.

Jesus said, "You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hid. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”

Let God’s people say, “Amen.”

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Sharing Good News Without Fear

Waiting at the table.

From morning prayer today: 
Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect. Hebrews 11:39-40
The "all these" in Hebrews 11:39 refers to the litany of characters the author has described to this point through the lens of faith: Abel, Enoch, Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, the people who with Moses passed through the Red Sea, Ra'hab, Gideon, Bar'ak, Samson, Jeph'thah, David, Samuel, the prophets, women who "received their dead by resurrection", and wanderers "in deserts and mountains, and in caves and holes in the ground."

Then the author says a preposterous thing: the "better" thing for which "all these" have waited - the thing God had promised, not realized in their lifetimes - was that they would not be made perfect apart from us.

All these.

That Henri De Lubac, that wonderful and provocative Cardinal of the Catholic Church, once said something similar should not be surprising, I guess. De Lubac lived and breathed holy Scripture and the witness of the early Church in a way few others have. What he said was this: that the saints before us sit at the table of the heavenly banquet, in the presence of God, the feast in its fullness before them. But they do not eat. Not yet. They wait. For us. For everyone. Because "they would not, apart from us, be made perfect."

I have heard it said lately that, when it comes to evangelism, the Episcopal Church is at a comparative disadvantage to our Evangelical sisters and brothers, because, less inclined to appeal to fire and brimstone, Episcopalians lack the urgency necessary for action with respect to others and "their" salvation. 

But it simply cannot be true that appeals to fear are necessary for the work of being compelled evangelists. That is, Episcopalians determined not to threaten our sisters and brothers with fires of hell have not, by the fact of that determination, gotten ourselves off the hook for proclaiming the Kingdom's Good News with enthusiasm.

As an alternative driving force for evangelism, we Christians would do well to wonder together what De Lubac and the author of Hebrews see and describe as the interdependence of salvation. As Rowan Williams likes to say, in echo of the desert fathers, "My life and death is with my neighbor." Even those already seated at the table wait, with patience, for the promise of creation reconciled, restored, brought near to God.

In the same way, we who meet God in the Eucharist carry from that table the longing to have our salvation perfected by reconciled relationship with one another and others. We long to hear the voices of others make our own song more beautiful, because the God whose love makes us beautiful has given us God's Spirit to love one another. Thus our proclamation is marked by humility and service, but these describe, rather than replace, our zealous proclamation.

For the author of Hebrews is clear: in sharing this beauty of God - in inviting and waiting for others with patience - I am not simply asking to be joined, but to be perfected. We will be made perfect in the full assembly of God's saints.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

The Chaplain's Smack-down Challenge

Beginning next week, St. Francis House is unveiling a ridiculous project we call "The Chaplain's Challenge." Here's how it works:

Every Sunday, the Chaplain (that's me) will reveal one challenge for the coming week. Since we're just starting the game, we'll play the first round open-hand:

So, for example, on Sunday, February 9, I'll announce that that week's Chaplain's Challenge is to play a game of ping pong with the Chaplain. No extra points or prizes for beating the Chaplain; you "win" simply by taking up the challenge. For each challenge, you get a "point." Points accumulate throughout the semester. Points can be used to get for FREE THINGS that otherwise would cost you money, like the 2013-2014 SFH t-shirt (5 points). The point leader at the end of the semester will have the opportunity to accept a spectacular end-of-year challenge the SFH community's end of year gathering.

As an added wrinkle, points earned in consecutive weeks are worth more than points accumulated in non-consecutive weeks. How does that work? Take a look:

                                 Bob                   Nan
Week 1
Week 2                        *                        *
Week 3                        *                    
Week 4                                                  *
Week 5                        *                        *
Week 6                        *                        *

TOTAL                      4                        5 (4 points + 1 bonus point for accepting
                                                                  challenges in 3 consecutive weeks.)

In the example above, Bob and Nan each took on 4 challenges over 6 weeks. Each received 1 point for each challenge, for a total of 4 points. Nan edged her friends's total, however, because for every 3 challenges accepted in consecutive weeks, a bonus point is awarded.


1) How do I accept a challenge?
After the week's challenge has been announced, you can come by St. Francis House during that week's open hours. Walk-ins are welcome; equally, if your schedule is tight and you need to know you can get your challenge in right away, you can text the Chaplain [608-514-6580] to reserve a time.

Challenges will not be accepted in the hour leading up to Sunday's worship, but will be accepted after Sunday dinners and before and after Wednesday night programs.

2) Can anyone participate?
Anyone can participate. Points accumulate for young people under 31.

3) And - what's the point?
Fun is underrated.

Monday, February 3, 2014

My Weekend As An Abbot, Part II
(The College Retreat @ Camp Allen)

Read Part I here. Part II is my homily for the closing Eucharist of the College Retreat at Camp Allen.

Here we are. In the place where we started. Around an altar. At the end of a wonderful weekend. I’ve got to thank you for your generous welcome of this Sconnie in your midst. Matt and Alex did a terrific job leading our weekend. Beth, the Matts, and others of you made the job of abbot both easier than it had any right to be, and a lot of fun. Thank you all for your friendship and conversation and the shared rhythm of prayer throughout this weekend. You have done far more than talk about relationship - you have lived it graciously. Most of all, thank you for making the college retreat t-shirt Wisconsin red and white, so I can wear in back home on campus. Go Badgers! I go home with a heart full of stories and encouragements to share.

It’s been a wonderful weekend, and this is the end. But it’s not the end, is it? And it’s not really another beginning, either. So where are we? Just now in this moment, we are gathered for the Eucharist - to partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus - and so we can only describe the moment in which we are as the center, where God’s presence and ours meet in a special way. With the help of the Spirit and sometimes in spite of ourselves, here we are, standing at the center of it all. 

Gathered for the feast, we listen to words of the gospel, and we find in its words an unexpected, kindred spirit. [The occasion is one of two feasts - I'll let you guess: Groundhog Day or the Presentation of Jesus. Of course, it's the Presentation, that time when Jesus came out of the temple, saw his shadow, and we got an extra six weeks of Lent. That's right, isn't it?] It's the presentation of Jesus, and in the gospel we meet two characters, Anna and Simeon, given over, as we have these three days, to praise and expectation. Simeon, an old man, staring at Mary and Joseph and the babe in her ams with a kind of joyful disbelief. Disbelief that this moment might mean encounter with God. 

The holy family has come to him, in the temple, to be purified and to present the infant Christ; Simeon only wants to see Jesus. He wants to see the child with his eyes and hold him with his arms. Simeon wants to see God’s face. Long before Thomas famously demanded to put his hand in the side of the crucified Lord, Simeon asks God if, too, he might touch and behold the Messiah of God. Simeon’s prayer was an echo, an ache, of thousands of years of Jewish prayer before him: to hold in his hands the promise of God. 

And then the most remarkable thing happens: he does.

With the child in his arms, he sings (Luke's gospel is better titled 'Luke: the Musical') the song we’ve been singing all weekend, “Lord, you now have set your servant free.” For Simeon, it’s another way of saying that he’s ready to die. He's free from fear of death. Having seen and held the Christ, Simeon is okay dying because there is no more important thing in his life than this moment - this promise and its fulfillment. To see and hold the salvation of God is the single greatest prayer of his heart and that of his community.

Like Simeon, all weekend in our own monastic community, we have been anticipating this moment, learning to live as if the moment we are about to share - the Eucharist - is the most important moment in our life. I wonder if you have ever thought of the Eucharist in that way. That the reason you wouldn’t dare answer your phone if it rang, or check the box score on your app as you put out your hands is because, for followers of Jesus, there is no moment more compelling, more sufficient, more true. This is glimpse and foretaste: “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Like Simeon, we know that to see and hold - to touch - the salvation of God is the most important thing about us.

And then, an unexpected thing happens. 

The unexpected thing is that seeing and holding the most important thing about us does not, as we thought, make the rest of our days unimportant. To meet the Lord at his table does not leave us despising all our other meals. On the contrary, we sit down at a random mealtime over hot dogs and smile, because the memory of this meal is fresh on our hearts. We show kindness to the stranger, because we know that she, too, is beloved of God, destined for a higher seat, even, than ours at this table. We grow hungry to share the song and the feast with all those for whom the table has also been set. We long to hear their voices make our own song more beautiful. And we sing and we laugh in places the world has taught us are not places proper for singing and laughter, because we are learning to believe that we have been freed from the fear of death and the life-sentence of saving ourselves and the world. We are learning to believe that love poured out in impossible places is not, by any means, wasted.

In a world desperate and anxious, at the same time given to fantasies of self-importance and terrified of its own insignificance, we have seen and held the one who has saved us from our desperation and anxieties, taken our attempts to be salvation for ourselves, and placed in our hands, instead, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus: the Body of Christ. Touching the body, we feel ourselves reoriented in relation to the world by a new kind of gravity, an orbit of forgiveness, a hope made possible by God’s mercy.

As we see and touch the salvation of God, we receive the freedom to love without fear, because the most important thing about ourselves has already been determined; it’s not ours to botch. The Kingdom of God has come near - ready or not - and with it the knowledge that you are loved by God in a world beloved of God. And we, with the world, were made for praise.

“Lord, you now have set your servant free.” Free to sing the praises of God for the life of the world. Free to serve and love, even in the face of situations the world has learned to call hopeless. Free to live out the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Free to put on Christ. For this you were made: praise God!


Sunday, February 2, 2014

My Weekend As An Abbot, Part I
(The College Retreat @ Camp Allen)

Abbot (me) and Minstrel (Matt Wise) together.
I was recently invited to serve as the "abbot" for the Spring semester gathering of over 75 students from campus ministries across the state of Texas.   The idea to have an abbot was the amazing brainchild of Matt and Alex, the student leaders who planned the weekend. Alex and Matt had a vision for a weekend without a guest speaker, but ordered by the daily rhythms of prayer. From Friday evening to the Sunday Eucharist, the community gathered for worship six times. When we weren't worshiping, the community enjoyed free time, meals, and workshops focusing on different aspects of being in relationship. The overall effect was a retreat program that belonged, in every sense, to the whole community of the faithful.

Before I left Madison for the weekend, I had a chance to ask the prayers of my community at St. Francis House. Those prayers were deeply felt. Much of what I shared as the one responsible for the weekend's worship was a sharing of our rhythm at SFH. Indeed, the Service of Light on Saturday evening is the service our community developed this past year in response to the students' desire to continue worshiping throughout the summer. 

I told the students at SFH that I think Henri Nouwen got it right, when he insisted on bringing members of his community with him on speaking engagements. I am not sure my reason for wanting this is the same as Nouwen's, but I figured the presence of holy friends who knew me well would protect me from the temptation to be other than myself. I am deeply grateful that the community at SFH is composed of many such friends. Alas, it wasn't feasible to bring them along. However, I am delighted to share that SFH will be doing the next best thing: a sizable group of us will be traveling to Austin over Spring Break for a week of service, relationship, and the Taizé Pilgrimage of Trust. To be blessed with the opportunity to further share these friendship with the community of St. Francis House is a gift beyond anything I could have hoped for.

What follows is my introduction to the students on the first night of the Camp Allen retreat.

The Lord be with you. 
And also with you. 
Let us pray.

Strange Lord, who would rule your creation through the crucified Son of a carpenter, make us workers in your kingdom. We want to work, but so often our work turns out to be nothing but busyness. We think that if we are busy we must be doing something that you can use. At least being busy hides our boredom. Yet we know you would not have us busy, having given us the good work of prayer. Help us, in our busyness, learn to pray - so that all our work, all that is our lives, may glorify you. In a world that for so many seems devoid of purpose, we praise you for giving us the good work of praise. Hallelujah and amen. (Hauerwas, Stanley. Prayers Plainly Spoken, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1999.)

Howdy, y’all. It is so good to be with you! My name is Jonathan, and I’m the the Episcopal campus minister at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. Where it is not *quite* this warm. I bring the greetings of the campus community at St. Francis House and the Diocese of Milwaukee. It is wonderful to be with you.

Having said I live in Wisconsin, before I disappoint you with my inability to say things like “Minne-SO-ta,” I should tell you I was born in Austin, grew up in Dallas, and served two parishes in West Texas before moving up to the tundra to work with students. I am in my eighth year of ordained ministry, and my second year on campus. It’s work I dearly love. I should tell you, also, that I am married to a wonderful woman, Rebekah, and we have two amazing children, Annie and Jude, who are 4 and 2, respectively. Later on, this fact will explain my inability to say anything intelligible after 9 o’clock. And, if you’ll humor me for one moment… *take pictures of the group* 

The kids are so excited for me to be with you, and they’ve heard stories about you for weeks now, they know to be praying for you and for us, and they will get a real kick out of seeing you. Other things: I love to knit, hike, drink coffee, read Garrison Keillor anthologies out loud, and pray. I know some of you, but haven’t met many of you. Please come up during a break and  say, “Hey, I’m Bob or Sarah.” It’ll help if that really is your name. Tell me something about yourself. That’s just to say you don’t have to have a particular reason or deep question or thought to say ‘hey’. I really look forward to getting to know you.

Truthfully, to be your abbot is both wonderful and a little weird. Most of my high school friends earned titles from their peers like “most likely to succeed,” “most likely to become a social activist or world changer,” even “most likely to be arrested.” Alas, my life has never been that exciting. My wife reminds me that a top music magazine recently dismissed my favorite band of all time, Matchbox Twenty, as “unremarkable dad rock.”

Similarly, “most likely to become an abbot” lacks a certain excitement. So I am glad that God does not need us to think we are exciting before God invites us to be gifts for one another.

The only way I can make sense of the remarkable invitation to be your abbot is that I love to pray with God’s people. I value praise with the people of God as much as anything in this world, because I believe we were made to sing God’s praise together. 

Admittedly, believing we exist to sing God’s praise together makes me a disappointing conversation partner for questions like “What should I do when I grow up?” (Which is a very good question.) It’s just that I think you already have the most important part of the answer: You should praise God with God’s people, all the days of your life. You should do it as students, as doctors, as teachers, scientists, thespians, engineers, musicians, and even as priests. You should start where you are, and you should avoid, on the whole, decisions that squelch praise in your soul. So I think it is an incredible thing that your leaders for this retreat weekend have decided to order our days with prayer. What a gift that is for us - to be free to do the thing for which we were made.

So, what is an abbot, anyway? “Abbot” is the traditional word for the head of a monastic community. If I am an abbot (and, to be clear, I’m not a real one, I mean, besides for purposes of this weekend) where is the monastic community? That would be all of you. A community of faith bound by a rule of life; held together by prayer. Matt and Alex have arranged over these three days for us to be a community 1) ordered by prayer and therefore 2) centered on Christ.

Our theme for this weekend is relationship. I want you to think just now of the kinds of relationships that are important to you. Relationships with old and new friends, one another, as a community (maybe your community back home), with other communities, with siblings and parents and significant others. All different levels of relationship. Some close. Others not as much. Your relationship to yourself. And your relationship with God. I invite you especially to approach our worship this weekend as the community’s commitment to relationship with God and one another; worship as relationship with God and, because we are made for worship, right relationship with ourselves.

Last thing. In Christ, we discover that relationship becomes real and makes us real in the giving and receiving of gifts, in the giving and receiving of ourselves. Toward that end, I want to give you two suggestions for flourishing the relationships of our worshiping community this weekend:

Don’t be afraid to ask each other interesting questions. I know, questions like, “Who do you like in the Super Bowl?” are tantalizing. Ask that. And questions like “What year are you?” are enlightening. Ask that, too. But also ask questions like, “What do you love to do more than anything? What’s encouraging you lately? What’s one thing that’s a challenge? Where are you finding life right now?” Sure, it’s a risk, but surely it’s a risk for which the baptized Body of believers has been equipped. Each of you has unspeakable gifts to offer our community. Ask questions that help one another give voice to these gifts.
Embrace the interruptions. You can’t pray four times a day without feeling interrupted. But if relationships are about sharing gifts, they are also about interrupting one another. In my family, we joke that we’re a show and tell family. Constantly interrupting each other with this or that that we can’t wait to share with the others. And sometimes it’s my turn to show and tell; other times it’s my turn to listen and receive. With my kids, especially, I don’t always get to choose when it’s my turn to receive. But I follow their lead because relationship, with one another and God, is a commitment to care about the things that the people we care about care about. When God interrupts to show us what God cares about, we rightly pay attention. This is why I love Scripture so much, because in it God shows us God’s heart. The gift of receiving is also why we will keep some moments of our worship in silence.

It’s a joy to be your abbot. I only have one goal, in the end, for our worship this weekend. When I was in college, I took this jogging class and, day one, our professor said, “My goal, when we’re done, is not that you would run marathons, or even half-marathons, but just that you would wake up the day after class is over, and have an inexplicable urge to run. And maybe, once you’ve crawled out of bed and scratched the crust from your eyes, some of you will.” That’s the goal. “Continue in prayer,” writes St. Paul, “and watch in the same with thanksgiving.” 

I will see you around the monastery!

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...