Thursday, October 23, 2014

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

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

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

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

But, first, to back up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

God give us eyes that see and ears to hear.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

A New Courage in Community:
Living the Opposite of Fear

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thank and praise God.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks be to God.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Slow Church!
Reconciliation, Work, and Sabbath

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

Gospel Imagination
(A Guest Post by Justin Burge)

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

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Fear of Mice
Discovering Possibilities for Giving, Love, and Friendship

"Try to discover the gifts of other traditions ... Try to go out and discover the best in them." Br. Emile, in this outstanding video

To do what Br. Emile says here is likewise a great gift.

Gifts are strange things. Beautiful to receive. Requiring so much courage to give. The courage of gift-giving must overcome fears of rejection and the general propensity of our culture toward ingratitude. I very much doubt the genuineness of what I'm calling cultural ingratitude - insecurity wears ingratitude like a shield - which is to say I recognize that expressions of gratitude also require vulnerability and courage. Indeed, they are gifts, too. So both giving and receiving gifts well require the courage and love belonging to self-offering. This is why gift-giving is more than a byproduct of loving community. The exchange of gifts creates loving community, the Eucharist being the most true occasion of this (indeed, the occasion that makes all the others true).

Pope Saint John Paul II often talked about the way the exchange of gifts functioned at the heart of ecumenism and reconciliation - indeed, at the heart of every friendship. The trick, he said, is to discover within oneself gifts for the other that the other can also recognize as gifts. It is important, he said, to identify (and avoid) what he called "dead mouse" gifts - gifts like the gifts of a cat for her owner. At the same time, Brother Emile reminds us that many times there exists an untapped possibility for charity in the gracious reception of unfamiliar gifts. As Br. Emile observes earlier in the video linked to above, much ecumenical work is no longer doctrinal, but is also - if not chiefly - psychological, choosing to love the ones we have trained ourselves not to love. Of course, these possibilities are possible only with the help of God.

Jean Vanier makes this last point this way when, in Community and Growth, he writes that the person who enters the community for any reason other than to forgive and be forgiven seven times seventy-seven times will soon be disappointed.

I am thinking about gifts today, in part, because the UW Episcopal community is preparing to welcome and receive Bishop Oscar and his wife, Agnes, in worship and fellowship over supper. (It's actually an open event - October 12, 5 p.m. at the St. Francis House Episcopal Center, and one aimed at bringing all Madison-area young adults together with the Bishop and Agnes.)  Anyway, I've been anxious because part of hospitality means giving a gift, and I want to give a good one - both a meaningful token of new friendship, and also by the hospitality of our community.

I am also thinking about gifts because of a recent conversation with young adults in which we wondered together why gifts can be so hard to own. Fear of the appearance of boastfulness prevents many of us from naming and owning our gifts, we decided. Also, and in the other direction, to claim a gift is to become accountable to one's community for "coughing up the goods." Sometimes the fear of this accountability reflects an externally unfounded personal insecurity, that the gift is not good enough to give. Many friends, however, have also experienced the church as a place that will seek to trap or tie down gifted individuals in the place of their gifting. A dear friend of mine once shared with me that he was ambivalent about his new appointment as the organizer of the lay readers in his local congregation because, he observed, all of his predecessors in that position had died their way out of it.

To the latter fear, we must pray that the church rediscovers a proper gratitude for the gifts of her members, demonstrated in the acknowledgment that gifts develop, change, and find new seasons. To receive well the gifts of our members requires that the church promote and preserve the conditions necessary for those gifts to be given, freely. Seasons must be celebrated.

I sometimes wonder if the other primary concerns raised by my students - pride and inadequacy - require a deeper appreciation of the gifts we have to give. That is, our gifts are first gifts of God to us before they are gifts of ours to others; God gifts the community through the gifts of each member. If I believe this, boasting is straight out. Interestingly, though, so is inadequacy, for even my desire to give in a particular way or to develop to a place where I might give in a particular way becomes a gift to receive from God and honor with humility. As Br. Emile says near the end of the video, Br. Roger found himself constantly encouraging young people not to way, but to act on the little bit of faith they had received, trusting that the rest will come.

This semester, the teacher of my daughter's primary class is playing the guitar for her class every day. Ms. Melissa doesn't know how to play the guitar; she's just begun learning. But Ms. Melissa has come to believe that the vulnerability of sharing her learning and love of music is itself a gift for the class. (In fact, she believes this gift is a more valuable gift than her playing the flute, at which she's already very good.)

If even inadequacy can be a gift for others, we trust God's love to perfect the exchanges that create and constitute our friendships. We begin to relent, to surrender our own selves, to the community - the communion - of love, even the church, which God gives as the first gift of the mystery of Christ.

Slow Church: The EpiscoBadger Conversation Continues!

Tonight, the UW Episcopal community will gather at 1011 University Ave (St. Francis House) at 6:30 p.m., for a shared meal (free!), prayer, and continued conversation on the book Slow Church. This is the 3rd of 4 conversations, but fear not! Each conversation is made to stand alone. For the interested, here are last week's notes. Notes from the first week are here. These notes are adapted from the online study guide, which is available here

Slow Church: Cultivating Community in the Patient Way of Jesus
Part I: Ethics

I. Taste (Terroir)

We taste and see *and* “it is partly through through the church that the world tastes God.”
Matthew 5:13  Jesus said, “You are the salt of the earth.”
“Salt has a tendency to dissolve, and there is something of Christlikeness in that” (Phil 2:3-7).
Coffee and the Eucharist (57-58).

Questions: What things - for instance, people, practices, convictions - define your [faith community[ and give it its distinctive taste? How can we celebrate these things in a way that does not vainly “puff up” but rather bears witness to the transforming work of God?

What things bring the greatest joy to your [faith community]? Which celebrations are most anticipated each year? Why are these celebrations met with great joy, and how did they come to be so?

II. Stability

The Wisdom of Stability for Churches. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Slowing down in relation to place, people, requires attention to others *and* self. To stay put is to be open to vulnerability and forgiveness. (What are we running from?)

Questions: Where do the members of your church live? What things is the church doing (or could the church be doing) to connect members who live in close proximity? How might members be able to share life together on a daily (or several times a week) basis?

Where are the third places—neither home nor work—where people gather in your neighborhood(s)? Are there members of your congregation regularly engaged in those places? How can they build stronger bridges between your church and the neighborhood? If not, who in your congregation might be called to become engaged in that third place?

“God is transforming creation. If we slow down and stay put long enough, we too will be changed into the likeness of Christ. The scope of our vision will also be changed. Instead of speaking in broad generalities about changing the world, we will find ourselves free to imagine in more specific ways the transformation of our own particular places. We can trust that God is orchestrating the renewal of all creation and that God will raise up people in other places who will care for those places as much as we care for ours.” — Slow Church, p. 74

III. Patience

John 14:5-11 (NRSV)

Questions: In what sorts of situations do you find yourself most impatient? Why are you impatient? How do you deal with your impatience?

Reflect on times when you have acted impatiently as a congregation. What was driving your impatience? What were the outcomes of your impatient action? What would you do differently if you were faced with a similar situation now?

Are there things that you believe are worth pursuing (or protecting) “by any means necessary”? If so what? And why?

If Jesus is not only the person that we are to embody together in our neighborhood but also the Way in which we are to do so, then who do we understand Jesus to be? What did he teach? How did he live? And how are these questions related?

What practices of confession does your church have? Are there stories of when that practice has worked well and benefited the health and well-being of your congregation?

Eugene Peterson says, “A Christian congregation, the church in your neighborhood, has always been the primary location for getting this way and truth and life of Jesus believed and embodied.” (see p. 92). If Peterson is right, what might this mean for the ways in which we share life together?

In what ways do you as a church enter into the sufferings of others in your church or neighborhood? Tell stories of times when you have failed to enter into (or to enter fully into) the sufferings of others.

All I Need Is Everything

Slow down. Hold still.
It’s not as if it’s a matter of will.
Someone’s circling. Someone’s moving
a little lower than the angels.
And it’s got nothing to do with me.
The wind blows through the trees,
but if I look for it, it won’t come.
I tense up. My mind goes numb.
There’s nothing harder than learning how to receive.
All I need is everything.
Inside, outside, feel new skin.
All I need is everything.
Feel the slip and the grip of grace again.

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...