Sunday, April 27, 2014

Darkness, Doubt, Failure, and Death
(And Other Things We Thought Would Keep God From Loving Us)


Alleluia! Christ is risen! Turn and tell a friend, ‘He’s still risen!’ For reals. Turn and be an encouragement to a sister, a brother. Hear it from someone else. “He’s still risen.” Amen! It’s good to be together and worship the risen Lord.

It was the simple observation of a student, Amy, at Compline, on the third night of our Spring Break trip to Austin; with quiet amazement, she noted that the Taizé service we had just shared with the Episcopal community of the University of Texas had been filled with songs of alarming honesty, even doubt and darkness. Just quickly, let me share two of the lyrics Amy probably had in mind: 

Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away, that never dies away.

Lord Jesus Christ, your light shines within us. Let not my doubt or my darkness speak to me. Lord, Jesus Christ, you light shines within us. Let my heart always welcome your love.

How amazing, she said, that the songs we sang spoke of darkness and doubt and the fire of God - the presence of God - all in one breath. 

That honesty was echoed by Brother Emmanuel - one of the brothers of Taizé - in conversation with our community following the service. Brother Emmanuel did not shy away from, but put real flesh and blood on, particular challenges of the life of faith, talking openly with us about things like belonging, passion and sexuality (even as a celibate brother), the existence of suffering, desire for God, and fears of rejection, especially the fear of each one of us - born of experience - that we might, in the end, be found unworthy of love.

Amy said she was both surprised and encouraged by the evening. She marveled at the possibility of a prayer not afraid of the darkness - prayer in which darkness and light were acknowledged as sometimes occupying the same space. Light unafraid of naming the darkness. Christ unafraid of naming the darkness. In our debriefing over Compline that evening, it was observed that one way to describe the Christian life is that we are learning to sing songs in which we dare God to find us and love us.

I do not think St. Thomas wrote or was the first to record the song on daring God to find us. But he’s certainly the artist most remembered for the song, reviving an old favorite for new generations of ears to hear. Think with me here. Think Whitney Houston’s cover of Dolly Parton’s I Will Always Love You. Likewise, Aretha Franklin’s rescuing of the Otis Redding original that may not have scored the RESPECT it had coming, until she made it her own. On a personal note, I shudder to imagine my own childhood without They Might Be Giants and their epic rendition of Istanbul (Not Constantinople), originally recorded by The Four Lads. Who? Exactly.

No, Thomas didn’t write the song on daring God to find us, but he sang it with a boldness we’d never heard before - a bold desire that could only be satiated by the risen Christ himself: "Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Daring God to find him. And then, from the heart of darkness and bitter loss, in the midst of his grief and deep disappointment, against all odds and all signs to the contrary, God does find him. The risen Christ finds and loves Thomas. And, so, a few verses later, Thomas adds with equal boldness, “My Lord, and my God.” 

We are learning to sing songs together in which we dare God to find us and love us, sometimes in spite of ourselves. Like Thomas, we are learning to trust God to surprise us.

The best part of Thomas’ story is that his story is not unique. Thomas’ life is a parable for humanity - for every of us and all of us together - a microcosm of Easter, a microcosm of God coming to Israel and the rest of humanity exactly in our darkness. Not understanding. Not comprehending. Not knowing. Not ready. Just like when the risen Christ came to Paul, then Saul, and overwhelmed Paul’s certainty about himself and his God on the road to Damascus. Just like when the risen Jesus stood before Peter and healed the wounds of Peter’s denial with the charge that meant forgiveness: “Feed my lambs.” Just like, last Sunday, when Mary stood at the grave and, overwhelmed by her grief, looked Jesus in the face, and supposed him to be the gardner. She did not recognize him, and yet he came to her.

Each of these, in their turn, followed the footsteps of their forbearers in unbelief: Sarah, who laughed at the promise of a child; Abraham, who lost his nerve and went off script a time or two, for fear that God might not deliver, might hang Abraham and his wife out to dry. Moses, who doubted his ability to do what God was calling Moses to do. Zechariah who doubted that his future could bear a child, a sign, capable of announcing the salvation of God. On and on. It should go without saying, then, that Jesus’ disciples weren’t unique in their doubts. Least of all Thomas. But neither were they unique in their experience of the miracle of faith: the God they dared to find them found them. The God they dared to love them loved them. Called them. Surprised them. Even sent them, in God’s time, to sing God’s song of unexpected love for others.

So we find Peter this morning. The denier. The coward. The “I don’t know the man” goat of Good Friday. God hadn’t failed Peter; Peter had failed Peter. And having failed or disappointed oneself can be the hardest kind of doubt to overcome. 

But disappointment and darkness were not, it turns out, Peter’s to overcome alone. The risen Christ appears to Peter and the others. And then to Thomas. Nothing can separate them from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Not even themselves. This is the love we discover in Christ. So Peter this morning is standing, addressing the multitude, proclaiming of the One he’d forsaken, of the One he had doubted, “This Jesus God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” Two chapters later, Peter will add that he can’t keep from speaking about what he’s seen. 

Only when Jesus shows up does the Church discover we have something to say. But when Jesus shows up, we can’t help but speak. To say something. To share what we’ve seen. So St. Paul writes to the Church in Corinth: “…we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness,’ who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.”

Did you hear it? There it is again: light shining out of darkness. Hope where reasonable people have given up hope. Reasonable people like you and me and Thomas, who know that the dead stay reasonably dead. Except when they don’t. “My Lord and my God,” Thomas cried.

As it turns out, doubt isn’t the worst thing in the world, because doubt names the razor’s edge of our imagination for what is possible. When Jesus extends his hands and shows Thomas his wounds, he’s also extending an invitation to a new imagination for what is possible. He’s inviting Thomas to step forward into a new imagination for the possible.

So we, like Thomas, find our imaginations renewed. Gathered by the risen Christ, we confess we don’t know what’s next. This much we know: Christ is risen. The God we dared to find us found us. The God we dared to love us loves us. Calls us. Even sends us, in God’s time, to sing God’s song of unexpected love for others. We are learning, together, to sing songs in which we dare God to find us and love us. And the miracle of faith is, God does.


Glory to God whose power, working in us, can do infinitely more than we can ask or imagine:  Glory to him from generation to generation in the Church, and in Christ Jesus for ever and ever.  Amen.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Wendell Berry's Reflections for Christians on Earth Day


Reflections for Christians on Earth Day, by Wendell Berry, taken from Dr. Ellen F. Davis' wonderful and challenging book, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible.

From the beginning of the chapter entitled, "Leaving Egypt Behind: Embracing the Wilderness Economy":
The industrial era at climax... has imposed on us all its ideals of ceaseless pandemonium. The industrial economy, by definition, must never rest.... There is no such thing as enough. Our bellies and our wallets must become oceanic, and still they will not be full. Six workdays in a week are not enough. We need a seventh. We need an eighth.... Everybody is weary, and there is no rest.... Or there is none unless we adopt the paradoxical and radical expedient of just stopping.
From the Forward (excerpts):
The Bible, as Professor Davis reads it, is a book about religion; it is a holy book, properly so-called. But she reads it also as a book dealing exactingly with the story of a gift. According to this story, the descendants of Israel were given, not a land, but the use of a land, along with precise instructions for its good care. They could keep the land only upon the condition of their obedience. By their disobedience they were estranged from the land and the covenant by which they received it, and were removed into exile. What we have, then, is a story and a discourse about the connection of a people to a place. This connection is at once urgently religious and urgently practical. It is urgently religious because the land is understood, never as a human "property," but as a part of an infinitely complex creation, both natural and divine, belonging to God. It is urgently practical because of the strict conditions of gratitude and care enjoined upon its users.  
The Bible is not an easy book to read. It is often hard - if not, when it apparently contradicts itself, impossible - to understand. It customarily requires almost too much of us. Its estimate of human nature is hardly a comfort. And it leads us repeatedly into the temptation to use it selectively to excuse our ignorance, to justify our wishes, or to condemn people unlike ourselves.
. . .  
The more an American reader thinks about the Israelite religion as a local practice honoring both God and the land, the more that reader will be aware of the ironies of our own religion and history, and of their present clamor for resolution. We Americans readily saw the parallel between the Israelites' entrance into the land of Canaan and our own westward expansion. We adopted the simple nationalism of the old story along with its "promised land" idea of ownership prior to settlement - we called it "manifest destiny." But we conveniently ignored the elaborate agrarianism and ecological stewardship implicit in that story's insistence upon the land's sanctity. The result, still continuing, has been desecration and destruction of the land, as well as the destruction, dispossession, and exile of the American Indians who, like the Israelites and unlike most white Americans, believed the land was holy.
. . .   

From an ecological and agrarian point of view, the most urgent problem of agriculture, as of the human economy as a whole, is that of local adaptation - that is to say, of making a beneficent and conserving fit between work and place. As Professor Davis shows, this problem is paramount also from the point of view of the Bible. From an agrarian point of view, the Exodus was a movement from the flat, easily tillable land of Egypt to "the narrow and precariously balanced ecological niche that is the hill country of ancient Judah and Samaria." The people of Israel had to re-make their economic life to conform to a landscape that allowed "only the slightest margin for negligence, ignorance, or error."  
Local adaptation, then, is authentically a scriptural issue and so an issue of religion. It is also the issue most catastrophically ignored in the economic colonization of American landscapes and in the industrialization of agriculture. Now in the presence of much destruction, we must ask the questions that this book makes obvious: Was not the original and originating catastrophe the reduction of religion to spirituality, and to various schemes designed exclusively to save the (disembodied) soul? Could we have destroyed so much of the material creation without first learning to see it as an economic "resource" devoid of religious significance? Could we have developed a reductionist science subserving economic violence without first developing a reductionist religion? What would America be now if we white people had managed to bring with us, not just a Holy Land spirituality, but also the elaborate land ethic, land reverence, and agrarian practice meant to safeguard the holiness of the land? 


Sunday, April 20, 2014

Christ Is Risen!
(6 True Words About God)

A short homily for Easter Day, April 20, 2014, preached at St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center.


We made it! We made to this day. All of Lent with all those sacrifices. You’re back to eating chocolate or whatever you gave up. It all seemed so long in the midst of it, but now, you’re here. Praise God. I’m so glad. We’re here.

In Lent, and particularly in the mysterious days of Holy Week, God shows us God’s self as God is. Nothing more and nothing less. Just God’s own self, in Jesus Christ. So, to recap, what by this week do we learn about God?

On Palm Sunday, we learn that we worship the deserted God. The disciples all fled. Jesus reveals God deserted. On Maundy Thursday, we learn that we worship the betrayed God. Judas and the kiss. Jesus shows us God betrayed. On Good Friday, we learn that we worship the crucified God. Jesus on the cross. Jesus shows us God crucified. On Holy Saturday, we learn that we worship the forgotten God. Jesus out of sight. Jesus, by his absence, shows us God forgotten. And today, Easter Sunday, Mary and the stranger in the garden, something we didn’t expect: we learn that we worship the unrecognized God. In her defense, it was early in the day, predawn, and still dark. She didn’t know who he was.

So add these to the list of godly adjectives you were taught in Sunday school - adjectives like omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent, all the rest. Add these to the adjectives you know about who God is: deserted, betrayed, crucified, forgotten, and unrecognized.

This is who God is.

But there’s at least one more word to add to our list: risen. Jesus today is risen from the dead. Alleluia! Deserted, betrayed, crucified, forgotten, unrecognized…and risen. Risen from the grave. Alleluia!

And this last word, risen, trumps all the others. Or, better, it reclaims the others as true signs of God’s love. Love, because you may at some point in your life begin to wonder if this day is meant for you. If you’re worthy of it. If God’s love is for you like it is for the others. Maybe, on that day, you will be keenly aware of your having deserted God or, worse, betraying God. Maybe God will someday seem dead to you. Or maybe you’ll wake up from an impossibly long and dark season that seemed like a bad dream and, now, looking back, you see you’d simply forgotten. Maybe you look back now at moments in which God seemed distant or absent and see, like Mary, that God was in front of your face, but you could not recognize him.

Deserted, betrayed, crucified, forgotten, and unrecognized are all true words about God. But risen is also a true word about God. And this last word, risen, trumps all the others. Or, better, it reclaims the others as true signs of God’s love. Risen is the word that overcomes our fears about ourselves. Fears of desertion, betrayal, crucifixion, forgetfulness, and blindness. Risen is the voice of the gardner - not defeated by your inability to grasp him, comprehend him, understand him - clearing his throat and speaking your name. Risen is the truth about God’s love for you - not defeated by death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither our fears for today nor our worries about tomorrow - not even the powers of hell. Risen is God’s believing you to be the pearl of great price and giving all that God has to find you. Risen is the truth that you are God’s child, and so God’s love of you has become a true word about God. And also of you. So the true word ‘risen’ shows us both who God is, and also who we are in his Son.

Praise God! Wonderful, Good News. Christ is risen from the dead. 

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
The Lord is risen, indeed. Alleluia!

Amen.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Sun's Light Failed
A Meditation on the Last Words of Jesus


A homily delivered April 18, 2014, as part of Luther Memorial's annual three-hour reflection on the last words of Jesus.

It was now about noon, and darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon, while the sun’s light failed; and the curtain of the temple was torn in two. Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, ‘Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.’ Having said this, he breathed his last (Luke 23:44–46).

This is the hour of the death of our Savior. Jesus gives up his spirit and breathes his last. “Father,” he says, “into your hands I commend my spirit.” The Son of God has died.

This moment belongs to darkness, to the chaos of the spirit that, once upon a time, had hovered over waters, untamed and raw; the darkness that predated those first words of creation: “Let there be light.” In this moment, this chaos, that sunlight fails, and the failure of the sunlight identifies the One who speaks the words, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” For this prayer comes from the lips of the very Word first spoken over all of creation in the beginning, his spirit now surrendered. Creation grieves her Lord.

Strangely, it is the darkness, foretold by Amos, announced by Isaiah, that is the sign by which the we finally see, by which we learn the truth about this man. This man who calls God, “Father,” and pours our his spirit for us and the world, birthing hidden, new creation. “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.”

As the cry of God’s Son to the Father, these words and this prayer are, on the one hand, utterly foreign to us. They do not belong to us; instead, the cosmic darkness of this day confirms the distance we rightly perceive between ourselves and the Crucified One. We feel displaced. 

And yet, the words Jesus speaks are familiar, even intimately known to us, coming from Israel’s psalter, the song of the psalmist, repeated in the prayer book tradition’s prayers for the end of each day, in the prayers we call Compline. In the context, the rhythm, of these daily prayers, the words have become almost comfortable. “Into your hands, O Lord, I commend…” Even so, coming as they do at the end of day, before the necessary surrender that is our sleep, these words signal a daily preparation for death, our own deaths, recalling - if implicitly - Christ’s death, this prayer, this day, and this hour - and our share in the same. Not for nothing does the beloved antiphon of Compline borrow language from the grave: “Guide us waking, O Lord, and guard us sleeping; that awake we may watch with Christ, and asleep we may rest in peace.” 

In his book, The Cost of Discipleship, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” To be confronted by Christ’s death with our own mortality and death is to see rent in two the veil of the illusions we live out a thousand times a day and so many more across a lifetime - illusions that we might yet be our own salvation, that perhaps we *have* been saving ourselves and the world all along - one good deed, one well written email, one politeness, one achievement at a time - assurance of our self-importance. But salvation is to look on the One we have pierced and to have no hope but him. To have no prayer but him. To hunger and thirst for a share in Christ’s prayer to the Father. And Christ himself is our share in that prayer. So we, like St. Stephen, the Church’s first martyr, are learning to pray, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” 

In this way, Jesus is the Father’s Psalm for us, the prayer by which is opened new life and belonging in the heart of the Father. Light in the darkness. Fire in the night. New dawn. New creation. The psalm by which the whole of creation will learn by these days to sing God’s praises, will learn, in God’s time, to call this Friday “good.” And even now, in the hour of darkness, curtain torn, illusions shattered, his body dead as hell - even now the melody is forming, voices rising. Even on this day and in this hour, heaven prepares the song.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and our souls, now and in the hour of our death. Give mercy and grace to the living; pardon and rest to the dead; to your holy Church peace and concord; and to us sinners everlasting life and glory; for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, now and forever. Amen.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

Why Even Clergy Pray For Joy
(Thoughts on an Acolyte Festival, Holy Week, and Serving with Glad Hearts)


The Diocese of Milwaukee recently hosted her first-ever Acolyte Festival, and it was my great joy to serve on the leadership and organization team. (The team exhibited as much fun and commitment as any team I've ever served on.) The event itself went amazingly well. I'm told something like a hundred folks attended. The youngest was six. The oldest was north of seventy-five. The day itself was full of singing, laugher, and Bucky Badger, culminating with the Holy Eucharist - over which our bishop presided and which featured one of the most marvelously long processions I've ever witnessed - at the end. The Rev. Tom Warren, priest of the Diocese of East Carolina and our guest speaker for the day, framed our day with candor and humor (which are of course not unrelated), and also with love for our Lord.

In the first morning session, Tom guided us along our theme, "Serve the Lord with gladness" (Ps. 100:2), and one of Tom's many great and honest observations was that we sometimes serve the Lord with other things. Following his lead, the acolytes supplied a great list of other things we sometimes serve with, including - but not limited to - eagerness, tiredness, ambition, sadness, excitement, and boredom. 

So there it was, said out loud for honest ears to hear: the reality that joy and gladness, in the service of the Gospel, are not givens. And yet, in the simple naming of this truth, this community of acolytes was also given a permission, it seemed, to name that, somewhere in the simultaneously mysterious and quotidian responsibilities that belong to acolytes, many - most - had encountered the joy and gladness that belongs to devoted followers of the risen Christ.

A highlight of the day for me came in the context of the Eucharist, in that moment just following the Gospel. In lieu of a sermon, small groups from every age group were invited to share their responses reflecting on what acolyting meant to them and their relationship with God. One group of youths stood together and talked about the deep friendships that the service of acolyting had literally made possible between them. Another group talked about the new perspectives - literal and figurative - serving around the altar had opened up for them around the life of faith. Craig, a young man with Down Syndrome, gave an impromptu - and deeply moving - benediction over the Assembly. The response of one woman still rings in my ears. She stood up quietly and thanked God for acolyting, which she called "a service of joy."

In the days before my ordination to the priesthood, I went searching for priestly prayers to say at the time, prior to the service, in which one puts on the vestments. Vesting prayers. Of course, vesting prayers vary, but most are recognizably related. In the set of prayers I use, there are seven petitions. Most of the petitions share some form of the rhythm, "God, give me this, so that I may obtain that." And the interesting thing is that the only that that repeats (for which we pray twice) is joy.

Why do we clergy need a double-petition for joy?

I can imagine plenty of cynical and/or practical answers to that question, but surely the primary answer is that for this Christ has come, that "my joy may be in you, and that my joy may be complete" (Jn 15:11). Generous participation in the joy of Christ is the heart of the Gospel. By "generous," I mean a participation that is not rivaled, but is rather perfected, by the participation of others. Joy of this kind sings the abundance of the Resurrection Life. So Karl Barth can write, “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God," and also, "Grace exists...only where the Resurrection is reflected."

Emphatically, this emphasis on Resurrection doesn't mean that we abstain from joy even in Lent and/or Holy Week. In one of the two Proper Prefaces assigned to Lent, we learn to pray 
You bid your faithful people cleanse their hearts, and prepare with joy for the Paschal feast; that, fervent in prayer and in works of mercy, and renewed by your Word and Sacraments, they may come to the fullness of grace which you have prepared for those who love you (emphasis mine).
We do not prepare only for joy, says the prayer, but even with joy. Even in the midst of wandering, suffering, in the face of death. In this way, we discover the beginning of the new and unending life Christ has made possible for us, even now: a joy that recalls the longing of the psalmist to be a fruitful tree with vibrant leaves, planted along streams of water; a joy that is not an abstract or unrelated reward for cleansing, but which is illumined in the very moment and space of our cleansing as the return to the One for which we were made, the realization of our deepest longing: to be loved and held by the living God. This joy is at the same time the gift of the Love for which we had long hungered and the unexpected possibility that never stops surprising our hearts.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

The Way is Made by Walking:
An Invitation to Holy Week


The Way Is Made By Walking" is the name of a book, the travel diary of Arthur Paul Boers, who walked Spain’s famous, well-traveled, and five-hundred mile Camino de Santiago - the Way of St. James - over the course of several weeks. It was Rebekah who first read the book. She passed it on to me later. I never finished it, but not for lack of interest. Just one of those things, I suppose. And truthfully, even as I read the early chapters of the book, my mind - my attention - never moved beyond the title of the book. Its simplicity and truth stayed with me. The common sense of the words haunted me and seemed to be opening a gritty possibility not just for the pilgrim path leading to the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, but also for the life of faith: the possibility of a tremendous distance achieved by one step. One step made over and over and over and over. Before they were called Christians, the earliest followers of Jesus were called followers of the Way. And the Way is made by walking. One faithful, painstaking step at a time.

Some of you will rightfully wonder why I marvel at this book’s title. On the one hand, how else would the Way be made, if not by walking? On the other hand, how often do we - do I - look for shortcuts to life with God that might spare us the tedium? That might bypass the mundane, non-glamorous, and all too ordinary tasks the life of faith requires? That might spare my feet the blisters and that do not ask of me something so all-consuming as - for example - a moment-to-moment commitment to seek and serve Christ in all persons? 

The prevailing culture will not fault you a life lax in daily prayer. Neither will it begrudge you the occasional  (or frequent) miserly act of self-indulgence made at the expense of your sister or brother in Christ. And surely there is mercy in the heart of Christ so that you need not fear that your failures or broken attempts to walk in the Way will disqualify you from the Kingdom. But to be reminded that the Way is made by walking is to be asked to consider both the Way and our actions, to take stock of the distance between our lips and our lives, to discover again a hunger and thirst for righteousness that God alone might satisfy, and to feel our next step directed by this hunger, nearer to God.

Sometimes the Way can feel so daunting that we despair of its possibility, and so we play at being faithful. But the Kingdom of God is not an impossibility for us. Christ has opened a way; he himself is the Way; and the Way is made by walking. The real life action of following Christ: foot lifted, extended, and brought back to earth. Over and over again. Not alone, but with the others Christ has called, with one another: feet lifted, extended, and brought back to earth. Over and over again.

Our Scriptures today are all full of walking and movement. In both readings from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus’ first word to his disciples is “Go!” He sets them in motion. And, of course, Jesus himself is in motion, going to Jerusalem, where he will be killed. 

The Way is made by walking, by movement, by step after step after step. Not by intellectual mastery; not even by beautiful prose (says the preacher); not by the accomplishments of one hour or one day, however shiny those accomplishments may be; not by comparison of oneself to the ones who have tried and appeared to have failed; not by faultless adherence to every rule of the Law; not by having a perfect past. The Way is not even made by purchasing power - present or future - secured as a safety net against slow or stalled progress along the pilgrim’s path; is not made by any other measure of success we’d vainly hope to substitute for the Kingdom and the King that we hail on this day. The Way is made by walking.

As we begin this Holy Week, join me in walking the story. Walking the story is why we all share different parts in the gospel reading today. We are learning our place in the story that belongs to God. Walk the story with Christ. Walk the story with this community all through this Holy Week. Walk the prayers of Wednesday night - the Stations of the Cross; walk the Passover supper, walk Maundy Thursday with this community as we visit St. Andrew’s; walk and wash one another’s feet, in obedience to our Lord; walk Good Friday here and learn the self-emptying love of God; on Saturday, walk the Great Vigil of Easter with this community at Holy Wisdom Monastery, as we encounter the beating heartbeat of the risen Lord and so also of our faith. Walk Easter Day and the joy and the glory, the risen Lord standing in the midst of his friends. Walk and walk and never stop walking. 

Yes, it’s more prayer than we’re used to. Yes, the movement will make demands of us. We might even get blisters on our souls. Sometimes the worship will move us, unexpectedly, in our depths, but we might also, if we’re honest, find ourselves bored. Like the disciples, we might fall asleep. To be sure, by the  movement of this week, we will not escape the ordinary or mundane. Rather, we will learn God’s determined and surprising commitment to exactly the ordinary, even to us: the real life movement of Christ toward the cross: foot lifted, extended, and brought back to earth. Over and over again. 

Come. Come and see how the Way is made by walking. Come, walk with Christ to the cross and new life.


Amen.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Into Darkness Without Fear
(The Unfathomable Depths of Love)


"Within our darkest night, you kindle a fire that never dies away, that never dies away." 
From a song of Taizé

It was the observation of a student at Compline, about midway through the St. Francis House Spring Break trip in Austin. With a quiet amazement, she noted that the Taizé service we had just shared with the UT-Austin Episcopal community had been filled with songs of alarming honesty, an honesty Brother Emmanuel had echoed by his example in conversation following the service. The songs spoke of darkness and doubt; Brother Emmanuel, too, put flesh and blood on particular challenges of the life of faith, talking openly about things like belonging, passion and sexuality, the existence of suffering, and fears of rejection, especially the fear of each person that we might, in the end, be found unworthy of love.

The student marveled at prayer not afraid of the darkness - prayer in which darkness and light are acknowledged together. Light unafraid of naming the darkness. To be a Christian is to learn to sing songs in which we dare God to find and love us in the candor of our darkest nights.

And the miracle in which we have come to believe is, God does: "Lord God, you love us, source of compassion."

Meeting the God who loves us, says Brother Emmanuel, is the joy of the silence to which we are invited in prayer: the joy of the revelation that God desires our love and that we are loved by God.

"Within our darkest night..."

Perhaps with Taizé and Spring Break on my mind, this past Sunday's gospel - the raising of Lazarus - touched me with a tenderness I had not noticed before. Initially, of course, Jesus' deliberate calm stands in unflattering contrast to the pain of those around him. Mary is too mad to come out and see Jesus. She has poured out her wealth and reputation for Jesus; her brother is dead. The bystanders, on the whole, side with Mary. While Martha is spouting credal formularies, Mary's friends foreshadow the mockery that will follow Jesus to the cross: "Could not he who opened the eyes of the blind man have kept this man from dying?" The words of Jesus' invitation to his first disciples - "Come and see" - are splashed back in his face by his mockers like hot water. 

But then, overlooking the intent of their barb, Jesus surprisingly does what they ask: he comes and sees. He follows them into their darkness and doubts. And there, from that place, he calls forth new life.

Of course, the darkness of despair - or cynicism - can come from many places, not only from within oneself. Which is to say that sometimes we feel the "our" more nearly than others. Sometimes we may, as Brother Emmanuel suggested, struggle to love ourselves, but the struggle to love the world and others can be every bit as real and difficult. In every case, the confidence that Christ will meet us in whatever darkness with the possibility of the new life we did not expect is the same. Everywhere we discover the possibility of joy where hope for joy had been abandoned. So Brother Roger writes in The Rule of Taizé that God has made it possible for us to follow the One who follows us into darkness without fear; that we have been invited into joyful imitation of Christ:
Purity of heart can only be lived in spontaneous and joyful forgetting of self, in order to lay down one’s life for those one loves. And this self-giving involves consenting to one’s feelings being often wounded. There is no friendship without the purification of suffering. There is no love of one’s neighbour without the cross. The cross alone makes known the unfathomable depths of love. 

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

The Day I Asked My Son To Bless Me


For the last few weeks at St. Francis House, the student community and I have been kicking around the uncomfortable hypothesis that "an Episcopalian can live a lifetime as an Episcopalian and never feel comfortable and or competent praying with/for another Christian out loud." While this hypothesis doesn't come without a deep love and appreciation for the many and wide-ranging blessings of the Episcopal tradition, naming this reality has allowed our community to seek the possibility of becoming pray-ers for one another with greater intentionality. Becoming a person able to pray for another will not happen by accident, and prayer for a sister or brother in Christ is one of the great gifts we have to give one another in the Church: not just the commitment to pray for, but the patience and courage to pray with.

Last Wednesday, we spent some time around the question, "What obstacles can make it difficult to feel able and/or comfortable to pray with another?" Tonight, we'll spend time around the question, "What obstacles can make it difficult to ask another person for prayer?"

Of course, it is relatively easy to talk about these things. Easy, perhaps, even to lead students in conversations about these things. Still, every once in a while, the Spirit whispers an unexpected possibility into a well-worn corner of ordinary life that transforms the conversation with clarity and joy.

I was putting Jude to bed the other night, and we enacted our evening ritual. "Jude," I said, "You know that Mommy loves you, Daddy loves you, Annie loves you, and God loves you. And God is with you." Then the words a priest and mentor had taught me, even before Annie was born: "Thank you, Jesus, for Jude." I traced the sign of the cross on his head as I spoke. "Amen."

The priest had taught Rebekah and me this short blessing, explaining that even now - in retirement - this blessing is how he and his children greet one another, and how they say goodbye. "Start now," he said, "it's a blessing that will come to define your relationship: thanksgiving for one another in Christ." I was sold.

Except.

Well, four years since we started, it's been kind of one-sided. I've traced more crosses than I can count. The kids are happy to only receive. Don't get me wrong, they've blessed stuffed animals, dolls, and one another. But Mom and Dad, not so much. I didn't take it personally. Truthfully, it felt like a selfish thing to wish for, much less resent. But then, one day, the Spirit whispered into my longing and my reticence. I finished tracing the cross on Jude's head, and I looked up at him. "Jude?" I asked. "Will you bless me?" In the moment that followed, I was awash with vulnerability and embarrassment. Then his eyes lit up.

"Bless Daddy!" He smiled as if a long-awaited privilege had been granted him. He put his two extended hands out in my direction and finally landed on my forehead. "God and Jesus, bless." My heart was filled to bursting. Now, each night, I can't imagine not asking for his prayers.

Looking back, it is strange to me that my first instinct was to feel selfish in asking. When a newly elected Pope Francis stood on his balcony before the throngs and asked the people's blessing, the act was intended and read as one of unprecedented humility. To ask another's prayers is to surrender a kind of control, express vulnerability, even weakness, and also to affirm the work of God in the person one asks for prayer. With each of us, when we are asked to pray - and even if we fear we may not have the words - it is as if a long-awaited privilege has been granted us.

I wonder if you know that your longing to be prayed for intersects deeply with another's true longing for the privilege of praying for you. I wonder what makes this intersection of longings hard for us - hard for me - to remember and/or believe. What a gift, that in God's love for us - and in the love God has given us for one another - our joy is truly made complete.