Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Diary of a Spring Break in Texas

The inevitable failure of my words haunts my attempt to tell you about seven remarkable days traveled with five students in Austin, Texas, for the Taizé Pilgrimage of Trust. A friend of mine has it right, I think. He says that, for really important things, he's given up on words altogether. "If someone pushes me for a deeper explanation, these days I'll just say, 'Follow me. Come and see.' It worked for Jesus. It's the only way I've found to do the adventure of faith any kind of real justice..."

But another friend tells me that a story only becomes a story when you tell it. So I'll try.

We arrived in Austin late Monday afternoon and settled into our accommodations for the week at the Episcopal Seminary of the Southwest. The Taizé event didn't begin until Friday, but our trip the year before in Pine Ridge, South Dakota, had taught us that Taizé gatherings are about reconciliation. Living with the Lakota in Pine Ridge for four days, it was not hard to see both the wounds and the place for reconciliation in our common life. Texas would be more difficult, I thought, not because there wouldn't be wounds, but because there would be so many, some prominent, others less obviously visible. So we came to Austin early to learn a context for reconciliation.

The Oscars have nothing on our Spring Break team and Br. Emile!
Weeks before our arrival, a friend of mine who lives in Austin had listened patiently as I explained our group's desire to put reconciliation in context. "Immigration, incarceration, and homelessness," she said after some thought. My friend has experience working in a couple of the downtown ministries; she helped us begin to piece together a plan.

The plan is how we found ourselves the first morning at Trinity Center, a dignity-restoring ministry run out of St. David's Episcopal Church, serving the 7,000-plus neighbors in Austin experiencing homelessness. With so many homeless neighbors, Trinity Center is clear about its mission: not ending homelessness, but respecting the dignity of every human being and loving their neighbors. The result is a ministry made for human flourishing: meeting basic needs, yes, but also providing for things the outside world might view as luxuries in the context of homelessness. Art. Music. Choices that empower.

So it was that, while on a tour of St. David's, we met Roger - one of the neighbors - who played a gorgeous, impromptu concert for us on the church's grand piano, for which he has access whenever he wants, for reasons immediately obvious to anyone lucky enough to hear him play.

Pursuit of reconciliation is also how we came to spend a morning preparing and serving over 300 lunches at Caritas, a non-profit that regularly serves hundreds of meals each day, all free, no questions asked. Reconciliation is what led us to seek out the George Washington Carver Museum, dedicated, says their mission, "to the collection, preservation, research and exhibition of African-American historical and cultural material." As in Wisconsin, incarcerated populations in Texas are disproportionately African-American. Reconciliation took us to El Buen Samaritano, where we spent an afternoon building modest compost structures and mowing grass in the neighborhood's community garden.

Working at the community garden at El Buen Samaritano
We spent time relaxing, too. (It was Spring Break, after all!) We ate as much Tex-Mex as we could and spent as much time outside as we could, shaking off the Wisconsin winter and stubbornly wearing our sandals and shorts, even on days ordinarily not warm enough to warrant them. 

On Wednesday, the Episcopal campus ministry at the University of Texas invited us over for dinner and treated us to homemade fajitas, guacamole, and queso. My heart overflowed. 

After dinner, Brother Emmanuel, one of the brothers from Taizé, led the combined UT/UW group in worship and spoke a message that challenged us to broaden our understanding of reconciliation. Reconciliation must mean reconciliation with God and our neighbors, of course, but also - he added - reconciliation in one's own life, with one's own self. One student later asked the message in a question, "Are you on speaking terms with yourself?" 

On a free day, some of us scored a boat tour of Lake Austin through a local friend's generosity. We watched the bats emerge from under the Congress Avenue bridge. We ate more tacos. 

The following day, after hiking Enchanted Rock, we arrived at the site of the Pilgrimage of Trust. Several hundred young adults gathered principally for the purpose of prayer. Something like 5 hours of prayer over a 24 hours span, the rest of the time committed to workshops and friendships, old and new.

Two themes stay with me from our pilgrimage of prayer: 
  • friendship with and in Christ, and 
  • the surprising possibilities made open to us by the Gospel.
Three icons lined the front of our worship space. The first two were familiar: the crucifixion of Jesus on the left; the resurrection of Christ on the right. But there, in the center, an icon I'd never seen. Jesus and an unknown man. Staring back at us. The man next to Jesus looked bewildered, but the most surprising aspect of this icon was the fingers on the other side of the unknown man's shoulder. Jesus had his arm around the man. For an icon, the image was alarmingly affectionate. 

As it turns out, the icon is a 6th century Egyptian icon of Abba Menas, a beloved saint of the Coptic Orthodox Church, standing next to Jesus. In the Louvre, where the icon hangs, the icon's title is simply "Christ and his friend."

There, in the mysterious space between cross and resurrection, friendship with Christ. Surely the alarming possibility of friendship with Christ rests at the heart of reconciliation. And this is how I find myself transformed at Taizé gatherings: every stranger - and there are strangers from all over the world - is regarded as simply a friend not yet made; the possibility of friendship born of desire for Christ.

The brothers talked openly about the difficulties of seeing and receiving the possibility of reconciliation and the subsequent new life reconciliation makes possible. Quoting Kierkegaard, Br. Emile observed that "we can be affixiated by necessity." But "to pray is to breathe, and possibility is what oxygen is to breathing." 

When we returned to the bus stop from which we had first departed, not much appeared to have changed. Yet so much had changed. In the week we shared together, so much was beautiful. Without diminishing for a second the gift of warm temps and tacos, if our week was a true breath of fresh air, it was surely because of the God who met us again and again and again in rhythms of daily prayer, in rhythms of the possible, in the compassionate gaze of Christ.

Wednesday, March 5, 2014

An Accessible Forgiveness
(Reflecting on Ashes to Go, Reconciliation, and Neighbors)

What a gift to share this day with my good friend, the Rev. Don Fleischman.
Many of you know of my initial reluctance to participate in Ashes to Go, and some of you have read about my later conversion, which was not quite to Ashes to Go, but to a modified version of it: to the opportunity to seek forgiveness of others in public liturgy (see below). The Orthodox Church does something similar, within its own community, in what is called Forgiveness Sunday.

The gift of engaging forgiveness-seeking outside of one's church walls is clear: sometimes we ourselves are the obstacles to another's finding peace within our walls, to another's ability or willingness to enter through our doors. This is why mission and evangelism are always, at their heart, of one piece with the work of reconciliation. Ecumenism, too, is not merely the working out of theological technicalities, but learning to say, "I hurt you, and I'm sorry," in ways that the other can hear and receive.

Thus one advantage of taking forgiveness seeking to the streets is that we discover the opportunity to ask forgiveness of our sisters and brothers of different denominations, whose own observances of Ash Wednesday will likely relegate them and us to different spaces during the times of our "official" worships. 

So it was that I found my heart deeply touched and humbled as the Rev. Franklin Wilson walked over to our Ashes to Go station this morning. Franklin is the head pastor at Luther Memorial, St. Francis House's next door neighbor. The Lutherans were outspoken in their opposition of the building project that led to St. Francis House's relocation and the building of the X01 student apartment complex. While the groundwork for the building project predates my time at St. Francis House, I think it is fair to say that, in the end, both sides made compromises and both sides experienced frustrations and hurt at the hands of the other. 

Franklin came up to us smiling. "I saw you out here and couldn't not come out. Brothers, may I ask your blessing?" We welcomed Franklin, explained the short prayers, and began. Quickly we were there at the question: "Friend, in light of the reconciliation Christ has made possible, and before sharing these ashes, I ask you, is there anything for which I (or my church) need to ask your forgiveness?" 

Franklin mentioned how he and his church wanted to build up the friendship between us more than had happened. More than they'd like to have done. "No," I said, "this is for us to ask your forgiveness." He looked up and smiled, put his hands on our heads and said in Latin, with a laugh, "I absolve you!" We all laughed.

Of course, this moment doesn't stand in isolation from other moments. It does not stand apart from my gratitude for Brent, the Lutheran campus minister, and his friendship; does not stand apart from the high fives Franklin and I shared when Rebekah and Jude spent a morning interviewing at the Lutheran Preschool or the kindness of his welcome then; doesn't stand apart from the (sometimes difficult) honesty of the conversations to which Franklin has long committed; doesn't stand apart from my daily prayers for our neighbors, my more regular visits, or our shared dreams for occasional partnerships; does not stand apart from daily, intentional commitments to live toward each other. But...

It was a moment we needed. All of us. Each of us.

The gift of engaging forgiveness-seeking outside of one's church walls is clear: sometimes we ourselves are the obstacles to another's finding peace within our walls, to another's ability or willingness to enter through our doors. This is why mission and evangelism are always, at their heart, of one piece with the work of reconciliation. Ecumenism, too, is not merely the working out of theological technicalities, but learning to say, "I hurt you, and I'm sorry," in ways that the other can hear and receive.

Monday, March 3, 2014

Terror on the Mountain
(How to Need a Miracle for Lent)

Homily for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, preached at Trinity Episcopal Church, Wauwatosa, and St. Francis House. March 2, 2014.

[Good morning! It’s wonderful to be with you. My name is Jonathan Melton. I am the the Chaplain at St. Francis House, the Episcopal student ministry at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. UW-Madison, whose notable alumni include Frank Lloyd Wright, Ron Dayne, Olympian Suzy Hamilton, Pulitzer prize winner Eudora Welty, film maker Errol Morris, and - squarely on the list - Kyle and Kristin Oliver. Other Badgers - raise your hands. Y'all look around. 

Shady characters, I know. And what a joy for St. Francis House to share with Trinity a legacy like this one. 

True fact: Joanne Oliver, Kyle’s mother, and Jill Paradowski were the very first first people to show up at the newly opened St. Francis House, ready to lend some order - some much-needed TLC - to the heart of any campus ministry: the kitchen. Joanne and Jill spent a full day sorting through and organizing our new kitchen. I am also particularly grateful for the friendship of your Rector, Father Gary, who has been a good friend and encouragement to me in my year and a half now as Chaplain. So it’s good to be here, worshiping the living God with you this morning and, being with you, to be among friends.]

We Episcopalians are a scripted people. A Captain Obvious thing to say, perhaps, but it is easy to forget the uniqueness of one’s own tradition. It’s not everywhere the way it is here, and that’s good to remember. But we Episcopalians are scripted: we like our prayers in books and our liturgies in our hands, out in plain view, where we can read the prayers closely and the worship can be kept honest. Don’t let God sneak anything by you. If we were playing the Family Feud with friends and the question or clue was “Denominations most comfortable with ad libs in worship,” Episcopalians probably don’t make the top five. This isn’t good or bad; it just is. At our best, we embrace this. There is wisdom in the script. And this Sunday in particular has its own special script; and the script for this Sunday goes something like this: 

(Help me fill it out.) Today is the Sunday that belongs to the week of this Wednesday. This coming Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, which means 1) we’ll all eat too much this coming Tuesday, and 2) next Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent. Because next Sunday is the first Sunday of Lent, this Sunday - by definition - is the Last Sunday after the Epiphany, at which the Gospel of the Transfiguration is always read: Jesus transfigured on the mountain. 

Transfiguration, according to the script, gives us a light, a picture, to hold onto as we prepare for the darkness of Lent. One last vision to remember before we hit the wilderness. When Jesus on the mountain is revealed as Jesus really is, we are meant to find in the vision courage and strength for the pilgrim journey that will take us to the cross and, in God’s good time, to the glorious light of that first Easter dawn. So today’s episode with Peter, James, and John on the mountain with Jesus both anticipates the Easter light and braces us for Lent. Don’t be afraid of what you’ll see in days ahead, says the gospel; you already know who Jesus really is.

In keeping with the script, a few minutes ago we asked in the collect that God would “Grant to us that we, beholding by faith the light of his countenance, may be strengthened to bear our cross.” That’s the script in a nutshell: we behold this light and are strengthened to bear our cross. Behold the light. Be strengthened to bear. Behold and be strengthened.

It’s not unlike the practice this time of year of looking back at pictures of yourself from better times last summer. Pictures of you in your t-shirts, with shorts, surrounded by sunlight and this mythical green vegetation that, as you look out the window today, you think can’t possibly be true. And these pictures aren’t from far-off places like Florida; you look at the picture, and it’s here. Your own home. The one right now covered in snow. Like a dream. But it is true. The picture’s in your hand. And so you know what the future will hold, despite all present evidence. Look back at the light. Be strengthened to bear. That’s the familiar script.

It’s not a bad script. The wisdom of the script is its anticipation of Easter. Anticipating Easter is what Christians are about, especially as we enter the season of Lent. God forbid we take on the disciplines of Lent as projects in self-improvement, as apart from the eager longing for the “Alleluia!” shout of Easter morning.

Still, the script is misleading, I think, in one crucial respect. The shortcoming of the script that says you will be strengthened for the valley by the glory of the mountaintop is that this script doesn’t know what to do with my mother-in-law. My mother-in-law hates mountaintops. My father, too, is afraid of heights - really of anything more that about ten feet high. And, let’s be honest, you’re not here, living in Wisconsin, because you love climbing mountains, either. One time, in the Badlands of South Dakota - a far cry from mountains - a hike-gone-wrong left me prematurely reflecting on mortality and the limits of my very bodied self as some combination of ash and ground slipped out from under my feet, and I grasped for anything - root, rock, or vegetable - that might allow me simply not to fall. Forget finding level ground again. I’d given up all hope of that. I’d settle for “not falling to my death.” I will hold onto this root forever. Collapse me to the soil, where gravity’s effects are less a matter of negotiation. 

That’s just to say that mountaintops don’t always inspire. Mountaintops can be treacherous places. And because mountaintops can be treacherous places - hard to get to places - mountaintops can be lonely places. Mountaintops can be frightening. One unexpected surprise can send you reeling. 

The disciples in our gospel know these things about the mountaintop. The glorious, so-called mountaintop experience in Matthew’s gospel leaves the disciples convulsing face-first in the dirt, cowering on the ground in fear. Sure, the surprise appearances of Moses and Elijah had been impressive, but the disciples quickly transition from impressed to confused when Jesus rolls his eyes at Peter’s ill-conceived capital campaign suggestion. Then the Sunday school celebrities disappear. It’s just Jesus and the cloud. The terrible cloud. And that voice, raining down. And there’s no one else to hear. That’s when they lose their composure for good. They’re alone on the ground, and they’re terrified.

And indeed, this isn’t the first time God’s glory on a mountain has proved too terrible. Moses, on Mount Sinai, came down with the law, glowing like a lightning bug, and the people were afraid, not comforted. The glory was too great. They asked him to hide his face, and he did. 

Seeing the terror of the disciples and remembering Moses and the people, it occurs to us that maybe comfort or strength has never been the mountaintop’s intent. Rather, the terror of the mountaintop stands as a reminder that the living and life-giving God is not the disciples’ possession to control. We see this same tension earlier, just a chapter before, when Peter calls Jesus the Messiah of God, only to be reprimanded seconds later for forbidding the death of the Messiah of God. While we can understand the love that motivates Peter’s outburst, we realize, too, that Peter’s objection has revealed his own unnamed expectations for who, in Peter's life, God is allowed to be. 

And I wonder what ideas you have for who God, in your life, is allowed to be.

Read in light of Peter’s earlier confession, the mountaintop, at least, marks progress. For example, when Peter makes his bizarre offer to build three booths, he adds in Matthew’s gospel, “if you wish,” as if to say, while he still thinks his own ideas are pretty darn good, he’s beginning to see the place of the prayer, “Not my will, but thine be done.” The more Peter learns about the Messiah of God, the less he presumes to know about the Messiah of God. And there’s a loneliness, a disconnect, that enters his relationship with God.

Maybe, then, the mountaintop is not the glorious and inspiring counter to the ghastliness of Lent that we first thought it was. Maybe, instead, the mountaintop is the very thing that makes Lent possible. Maybe the mountaintop is where the disciples learn to let God be the terrifying God they cannot control, even the God who will die for them and the world on the cross. In any case, now the disciples have died to themselves. In the presence of the God they cannot control, they are lost without hope, buried in the dust of the mountain. That’s when the miracle happens.

Jesus comes over to his friends and touches them. “Get up,” he says, but the Greek is better put “be raised.” “Be raised and do not be afraid.” Nearness to God had shown the disciples that they did not really know who God was. But Christ now shows them that not fully knowing who God is is not as crucial as their being known, their being touched, by the living God. Be raised and be not afraid! These are words for the mountaintop. These are words for surrender. These are words for life’s treacherous, lonely, and hard to get to places. Places where the vision of God has buried you in the dirt.

I wonder if you’ve known a mountaintop like that. I wonder if you are on one now.  

“While Peter was still speaking, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!’ When the disciples heard this, they fell to the ground and were overcome by fear. But Jesus came and touched them, saying, ‘Get up (be raised) and do not be afraid.’”

O, believer! Do you know that Jesus still comes and touches his disciples?


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