Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Luke, Lemons, and Grocery Stores:
The Beginning of the Spontaneous Singing Revolution

Sermon preached on Advent 2 at St. Francis House. You can find the Sunday's lessons here

A friend of mine, at the church Bek and I attended in grad school, one time confessed his great dream for the Church and for Christians. His dream was that Christians would make the world brighter and truer by regularly breaking into spontaneous songs. Spice things up √† la Julie Andrews. When pressed for details, my friend described an imagined scenario in which he was shopping in the produce aisle at a neighborhood grocery store and, unexpectedly, as he lifted up the perfectly selected lemon (not too soft, not too firm), he burst into song, extolling the lemon’s virtues. But that’s not all. In this scenario, having noticed this singing man with his lemon, other shoppers would look up and begin to sing, too - harmonizing their accompaniment. In this friend’s dream, people would learn to sing together and follow the cues of each other’s joy. Like every cheesy Disney musical come to life. 

Interesting question: if you did this, if you lived by the rules of musicals, taking your cues from Disney throughout an ordinary week, stopping to sing at moments that gave you joy or perplexed you or broke your heart or filled you with rage or spilled over with laughter - or if you joined in with others where you saw them doing the same - where in your life would you sing?

My friend thought that Christians were in a unique position to introduce the spontaneous singing movement to the world because Christians have been given the psalms. He often wondered why people who have been given the psalms did not sing more often! How is it, he wondered, that people encounter these Scriptures without having their relationships - of all kinds, but not least with God - more obviously shaped by them? But it happens. For example, it is understandable, but still strange, that people who read the psalms every week are nevertheless reluctant to voice their honest anger and disappointment to God. The psalms are our permission to find such a voice! They are also our permission to sing.

Part of the problem, or challenge, is that Scripture now comes in a book. Once upon a time, the Bible was a collection of scrolls. That the Bible is now a book means that, most of the time, people do to it what they do to other books - read it silently - as opposed to speaking, hearing, or singing it. Interestingly, reading books silently is not what people have always and everywhere done with books. Augustine of Hippo, 4th century bishop of the early church, once wrote this about his beloved mentor, Ambrose: 

"When he read," said Augustine, "his eyes scanned the page and his heart sought out the meaning, but his voice was silent and his tongue was still. Anyone could approach him freely and guests were not commonly announced, so that often, when we came to visit him, we found him reading like this in silence, for he never read aloud.”

Alberto Manguel elaborates: “Eyes scanning the page, tongue held still: that is exactly how I would describe a reader today, sitting with a book in a cafe across from the Church of St. Ambrose in Milan, reading, perhaps, Saint Augustine's Confessions. Like Ambrose, the reader has become deaf and blind to the world, to the passing crowds, to the chalky flesh-colored facades of the buildings. Nobody seems to notice a concentrating reader: withdrawn, intent, the reader becomes commonplace.

To Augustine, however, such reading manners seemed sufficiently strange for him to note them in his Confessions. The implication is that this method of reading, this silent perusing of the page, was in his time something out of the ordinary, and that normal reading was performed out loud. Even though instances of silent reading can be traced to earlier dates, not until the tenth century does this manner of reading become usual in the West.”

Aside from making interesting trivia, Augustine’s observations about silent reading tell us that, very likely, no part of Scripture was written to be read that way. Again: the psalms are a whole book meant entirely for singing. And the psalms aren’t even close to the only songs in Scripture. There are close to two-hundred songs altogether, three of which occur in the first two chapters of Luke, surrounding the occasion of Jesus’ birth, making Luke’s gospel the gospel most likely to become a Broadway show in our lifetime. 

The first song belongs to Mary; it is her response to Elizabeth, when Elizabeth blesses Mary for believing the promise of God. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” it begins, “and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” The second song belongs to Zechariah, John the Baptist’s daddy. It’s the canticle we read today, and it’s the work we see John doing in the gospel lesson. Halfway through this second song, Zechariah spells out his son’s vocation as the forerunner of the Messiah: 

“And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High;
    for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways,
to give knowledge of salvation to his people
   by the forgiveness of their sins.”

The third song is the most commonly known for those who regularly pray Compline or the Daily Office. It’s the Song of Simeon. Simeon sings his song in the moment Mary presents her son and puts him in the old man’s arms:

Lord, you now have set your servant free *
    to go in peace as you have promised;
For these eyes of mine have seen the Savior, *
    whom you have prepared for all the world to see;
A Light to enlighten the nations, *
    and the glory of your people Israel. 

That’s the case, if you want to make it, for renaming Luke’s gospel “Luke, the Musical.” Three songs in two chapters. None of the songs are original, not completely. Mary learned her song from Hannah, who sang something very like it years before her in 1 Samuel. Zechariah took his opening line from the psalms. Simeon borrowed liberally from the scroll of Isaiah. All the great jazz artists do this: lifting phrases played before them, finding the life in them and then, in their turn, giving the phrases new life. For Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon, the songs that they sing are responses, harmonies, movements toward the song God sings to them. And Christ is the song God sings to them. 

Christ sings to you, too. To me. And while a lot of faith happens in our heads, faith finds roots and branches and buds of fruit when we stop reading in silence; when we risk vocal vibrations and raise melodies - both metaphorical and musical - up from our lips. 

When singing Sunday hymns is as much about listening to your neighbor’s voice as it is about singing from your own, holy music is made. When friends get together and share with each other the stories of God at work in their lives, holy music is made. When one friend seeks out another with a heavy burden and says, “I love you too much to let you carry that weight by yourself,” holy music is made. Every time you shout back - with enthusiasm! - “Therefore, let us keep the feast! Alleluia!” that’s singing holy music. When a white person shares her broken heart at the death of a black man with her mostly white community of faith - not on Facebook - and stands up and says “this person was important to me,” that’s the tune of holy music. In the hard tears and embrace of forgiveness sought and received, you sing the holy music. When an image of Scripture comes to you, finds you, grabs you, and gives you the courage to reach out to a stranger in love, you take your place in the chorus of the love song that moves the sun and the stars. 

It’s funny, you can read to yourself and by yourself, even when you are surrounded by others. And you can also sing by yourself, but you cannot sing to yourself, that is, silently. That’s thinking, not singing. To sing is to risk the possibility of sharing; the vulnerability of being heard. And only when we take that risk can we accompany one another.

Friends - like Mary, Zechariah, and Simeon - we were made to sing. You don’t have to be original; you may only sometimes be the melody. The only thing I can promise you for sure is that you will not sing alone. God’s song has split the silence. The first risk goes to God, where there is no fear but love.

Interesting question: if you were to follow, acting out your trust of the Song, taking your cues from our Savior throughout an ordinary week, stopping to sing at - or otherwise publicly tend to - moments that gave you joy or perplexed you or broke your heart or filled you with rage or spilled over with laughter - or if you joined in with others where you saw them doing the same - where in your life would you sing?

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

The Unexpected Green Leaf:
Advent Practices for 2 or More to Share

"A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit." Isaiah 11:1

A stump with an unexpected shoot - an inexplicable green leaf - frames and centers the season of Advent. Before we see the leaf, the stump names our hopelessness, our knowing better than to look for life in places that have been purged of life. There are many places in which it is easy to believe that growth is not possible. We encounter people and places and situations (incarceration, climate change, Syria, the neighbor who won't shovel the walk, ourselves). It can even become easy to go to church forgetting that the promise is always deeper, always wider. Not just a solemn act of obligation performed, but an expectation of encounter that leaves a mark. But then we see the unexpected green leaf.

One form of the Prayers of the People in the Episcopal Church's Book of Common Prayer includes the following bidding: "I ask your prayers for all who seek God, or a deeper knowledge of him." As a child, I found this bidding perplexing, because I assumed that we all would pray for deeper knowledge. At what point do we grow content? Or resigned? Or defeated? At what point do we forget the child's earnest petition, "More, please." Advent allows us to speak the world's dead and daunting spots honestly, still we dare not forget the green leaf, which is the emergence of Christ, the Good News that God is for us and with us; that God's heart is for our flourishing. The waters that flow from the crystal stream are moving.

One way we are remembering the green leaf of Advent at St. Francis House this year is by the commitment to engage one another and others who are important to us in weekly conversation around the following questions. We hope the practice will help us lean into the expectation of God's movement and growth - in the world around us, our faith community, and ourselves. We share the practice questions here for those who would like to learn this leaning with us, and because God has made us each and all for joy.

Happy Advent!


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Abraham, Sarah, and the Trinity
(A Tree at the Heart of St. Francis House)

The icon of the Holy Trinity (above) hangs on the west wall of the St. Francis House chapel and is an anonymous gift of friends of St. Francis House, given in honor of Fr. White, Bishop Hallock and his son, Peter, and Mrs. Yvonne Otto, longtime housemother at St. Francis House. The icon will be dedicated as part of the community's 100th anniversary celebration, on the weekend of April 23rd.

The beautiful new icon in the St. Francis House chapel tells the story of Abraham, Sarah, and the three visitors they welcomed in their home under the oaks of Mamre (Gen 18). The icon-writing tradition is notoriously reluctant to visually depict the persons of the Trinity together, but the tradition finds a lone exception in depicting this visit to Abraham and Sarah. 

Just after he hung the icon in the chapel, the iconographer - Drazen - explained what he considered to be the key features of the icon. He started with Christ, the central of the three figures. The meal of the three individuals at the table prefigures the Eucharist that, weekly, the icon will oversee in the chapel. Drazen moved from Christ directly to the napkins. "The napkins?" I asked. "Yes!" he said, with a broad smile. Drazen explained that, in Middle-Eastern culture, to eat with neatly folded napkins in one's lap is to express dissatisfaction with the hospitality one has been offered. To keep too neat a napkin is an indication that one will not come to a given home again. The napkins in the figures' laps are emphatically not neat. The hospitality has been gladly accepted, Drazen explained, and the figures express their intention to continually visit the home. This is both a profession that "Christ will come again" and a communication of what happens in the Eucharist, as God gives God's people the food - God's own self - that we need. Finally, it is noteworthy that in many icons of the Trinity, Abraham and Sarah appear off to the side or not at all. Here, in keeping with the scriptural account, they are serving at the table. In their service, they have taken their place in a circle of friendship with God; it is a circle that the viewer completes, as one who stands on the fourth side of the table.

The story of Abraham, Sarah, and the Trinity carries a special significance for the faith community at St. Francis House today. Everywhere in the House, you will find pictures and metal sculptures of trees, recalling this story in which the welcome of the stranger became an occasion for encounter with God. It is a story that lifts up the baptismal promise to "seek and serve Christ in all persons," and which well fits a community whose doors are continually open to the thousands of students, faculty, and staff, to whom we daily extend our hospitality and for whom we gladly open our lives.

Monday, November 9, 2015

On Going To Church Because We Have To
(When Shame Drives the Church and How To Pull Over)

I came across this article, entitled WE CAN’T DO GOLD STAR CHRISTIANITY ANYMORE – CLINGING TO THE WRONG TRAPPINGS, via a good friend and colleague. Notwithstanding the author's gratuitous use of caps-lock urgency - Good Lord, deliver us! - the article helpfully engages in the kind of honest and thoughtful struggle that will accompany fruitful movement toward a flourishing future for members of the Body of Christ. 

Especially useful is the article's invitation for local faith communities to charitably enter into the changing social and cultural expectations faced by young families today. These expectations explain in part - the author suggests - why time honored incentive structures, like gold stars for perfect attendance, no longer get the job done. The article then goes on to offer good questions for rediscovering just what "the job" is.

Because all of the above is good and needed and forward leaning, I hesitate to make the observation the article doesn't make. I suspect the article doesn't make the observation because the author wants to keep the conversation constructive and positive. I do, too, but I think the observation still needs naming: if we accept the author's thesis that gold star Christianity isn't working in 2015, and if that acknowledgment leads us to ask good questions about what "the job" is, we must also evaluate and consider the extent to which "the job" was successfully accomplished in the past. The author largely gives the past a free pass on this score, seemingly content to accept that another name for doing the job well in the past was the production of attendance numbers higher than those today's churches currently enjoy. 

But what if numbers don't always capture the extent to which a given job was achieved? After all, Willow Creek famously "repented" when a self-initiated study revealed that, despite ever-growing numbers of attendees, underlying goals of discipleship and Christian formation were not being realized. If it is possible for Willow Creek to produce things other that what they set out to produce, what about the Gold Star system?

The friend who shared the Gold Star article did so alongside his own reflection, as a gold star child:

As a kid, I collected "Gold Stars" for Sunday School attendance. There were charts in every room with students' names and strings of stars beside each name. I remember the year I got sick in December and had to stay home on a Sunday w/a fever. I cried because I wasn't going to get my perfect attendance award... I asked my mom if Jesus would still love me. She assured me that he would.
It's not revelatory to say my friend is not alone in this experience. As a parish priest, I regularly ran into parishioners - grown adults - in the grocery store that served our shared small town. Often, my attempt at a friendly, "Hey friend! How are you doing?" was lamely met with, "I'm sorry I wasn't there Sunday. Something came up. I'll be there on Sunday. I promise." Time and again, shame and shame's patterns supplanted opportunities for furthering the kind of relationship God intended for us both. 

By contrast, a student recently told me that he was learning to trust God's love for him as the foundation of his identity. I asked him how his life was different because of that trust. He thought a moment before saying, "I wouldn't still be with this community. I've been so inconsistent. Even though this is a place of joy and life for me, I would have shamed myself away from ever coming back. I would have walked away from a place where I actually experience God's love and new life in Christ."

While it is no doubt an overstatement to say that the church built a 20th century empire from the bricks of shame and should, it is hard to say by how much. Where congregations and preachers have appealed to shame and fear to bolster participation, we cannot completely lament the decline of more robust numbers in Christian communities. To push the point, and writing as a fellow gold cross / perfect attendance recipient, it is not just that gold star Christianity isn't working in 2015, it is that the church may need to repent of some of the methods that produced the "successful" numbers she enjoyed in the past. After all, my friend did not cry because he was missing a Sunday school class that he loved (though he may have loved it); my friend cried because to not attend Sunday school opened the question of whether he was loved by God. 

Of course, the last thing I want to do is shame the church for invoking shame-based methodologies. It is a miracle for which I thank God that fruit of joy and love, forgiveness and mercy, have been conveyed and felt in every age of the church. Indeed, I owe the even ability to make this critique to the faith communities in which I was formed, and for which I remain deeply grateful. It is out of that gratitude, and with deep love, that I raise the issue of shame - both spoken and silent - in congregational life, in the hope that doing so can break the ice for fruitful and creative spaces in our common lives for healing toward flourishing in the Gospel. I pray this post can open such a space.

In his book The Soul of ShameCurt Thompson writes 

I need the community in order for my mind to be integrated, and with a more integrated mind I will be more able to work toward a more integrated community, which reinforces the cycle. Shame both actively dismantles and further prohibits this process of integration, leading to disconnection between mental processes within an individual's mind as well as between individual members within a community.
If Dr. Thompson is correct in the above - and his is hardly a novel presentation of shame and its effects - churches that find evangelism, for example, difficult should consider that the difficulty isn't wholly about introversion and class (though for sure those count, too), but that shame - inherited and passed along through generations - is surely also at play, insofar as symptomatic isolation and disintegration - enemies of community - go unnamed and untended. Put positively, I do not think it is an accident that the Most Rt. Rev. Michael Curry took as the theme of his inaugural sermon, "Don't worry, be happy." In doing so, he was not channeling a hippy vibe so much as giving what is in many places a dying church permission to put down her shames by appeal to - and lifting up of - the resurrection of Jesus Christ - the victory that shame would be glad to have us forget.

In addition to the family, just trying (often unsuccessfully) to show up on Sunday, shame is at play 1) in the lay person who can't get the new blood fired up about old positions and so faces the reality that she will be the last at the helm of a much beloved and generations-old ministry, 2) in the vestry that would rather stomach the fiscal hit quietly than go out to the assembly on Sunday and name the need - one more time - and ask for help, 3) in the cleric who, after years of pouring out her heart and soul, can't seem to budge the overall numbers, even she has come to suspect that what the congregation really means by "church growth" is helping existing members get the rest of their families to church with them on Sundays - all the while self-aware that its the burden of her salary on the congregations that keeps her from out and out refusing that impossible and life-less expectation, and 3) in bishops who, in the face of declining numbers, congregations, and staffs, sometimes feel responsible for culture realities they cannot change, while fighting reactionary temptations to continually justify the existence of their offices.

I surprised a parishioner one day when I told her that others in the faith community thought she was doing a particular weekly job (with which she secretly wanted to be done) because she wanted to being do it - because it gave her joy. When I said this, she couldn't hide her disgust. "Why would the others think that?" she asked. This parishioner felt the shame of being trapped and wanting to walk away. 

I suspect that folks in lay and clergy ranks - on vestries and even bishops - all find themselves thinking to themselves from time to time - about the assumption others have that they want to be doing what they are doing in a given moment - "Why would the others think that?" When we feel trapped, we project our shame at feeling trapped by something that we are supposed to want onto others in belittling ways, usually ways that end in some variation (singular or corporate) of

  • I am not good enough / cannot do enough.
  • I am not enough.
  • There is something wrong with me.
  • I am bad.
  • I don't matter.
At the heart of all of these shames is the forgetting of what Michael Curry would have us remember: that Jesus Christ is risen from the dead. It's the answer to the "Why would the others think that?" So Karl Barth said, "Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God," and Wendell Berry invites us by our laughter to "practice resurrection." If there is a constant in the many types and forms of practical atheism rampant among Christians today, it is undoubtedly the shame that presents itself as bigger than the God of our risen Savior.

Where/when does your congregation most laugh? 

What ways has your faith community found to effectively name and relieve long-standing and secretive shames? 

This post is the beginning of an exploration and - most importantly - a conversation. Where might this conversation go next, in ways that would most flourish your family, community, and yourself, in relationship with the living God and one another?

Sunday, September 27, 2015

I Dreamed a Dream:
5 Fruitful Questions for Christians to Ask Other Christians to Regularly Ask Them

I woke up this morning in the middle of a dream that I don't quite remember. I do remember a great deal of energy around the embrace of fruitful questions for Christians to ask one another to ask themselves. We were in the middle of asking those questions in several contexts at St. Francis House when I woke up. I don't remember the questions in the dream (or if my subconscious had any concrete suggestions to offer). Here are five questions I think would make a good start. What are yours? (Comment below!)

1. What about Jesus/the Gospel do you most love right now?

2. How's your prayer life? Are there ways you would like to grow your prayer life, either individually or with others?

3. How are you giving yourself for others in the community of faith in this season?

4. Who are you being present to outside of our faith community on behalf of this community?

5. Where do you most see the fruit of the Spirit evidenced in the common life of this faith community right now?

Sunday, September 20, 2015

Moving on without Jesus:
Greatness, the Disciples, & Mistrust of the Cross

In Sunday's gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that, "The Son of Man is to be betrayed into human hands, and they will kill him, and three days after being killed, he will rise again." Moments later, the disciples are on the road, arguing among themselves about which one is the greatest. It's a bizarrely abrupt string of events. Even for the disciples, to pick this moment to size each other up seems like an unprecedented case of "not getting it." This particular plot-flow has always been perplexing to me.

But today I heard it differently. The disciples may not have understood what Jesus was on to, but I think I understand now what the disciples were on to. Jesus is about to die. He told them so. They don't follow the logic of it, but they take Jesus's word for it; the disciples believe that Jesus will die. So of course they're talking greatness. They're lining up an heir apparent. The disciples are arranging the next successor in the Jesus movement.

That the disciples are planning for life without Jesus explains their embarrassed silence at his question, "What were you talking about on the road?" Being caught in gossip about greatness is one kind of embarrassment. Making plans post-Messiah is an embarrassment of another order altogether. Most civilizations in human history have called it treason. Can't they find the decency to wait until he dies?

For his part, Jesus seems less offended and more concerned that the disciples have missed the boat regarding the character of the kingdom of God. The disciples are looking for a leader greater than Jesus, which is just to say they haven't yet accepted that the cross might be anything other than a colossal failure. Theirs is a fair concern. But Jesus is adamant. "Whoever wants to be first must be last of all and servant of all." 

In other words, the form of Jesus' life is more than incidental to his Messiahship. In the words of the Wisdom of Solomon (and I encourage a slow re-reading of the entire passage), "his manner of life is unlike that of others, and his ways are strange." Thus gentleness - of all things - becomes a witness to the nearness of the Lord (Philippians 4:5). Both the Wisdom of Solomon and James' letter say as much today, with the former concluding that mistrust of the life that leads Christ to the cross is to "not know the secret purposes of God," and therefore not to hope "for the wages of holiness, nor [discern] the prize for blameless souls."

To hope for holiness and prize the blameless soul, to "call the last end of the righteous happy" - these are hard sells to exchange for the ambition and envy that come so easily to us and our world. But the reminder today is that there is no leadership in the kingdom that can be exempt from trust of the One who goes to the cross. There is, in this kingdom, no not needing the crucified Christ. There are no shortcuts but to seek and follow the one his own disciples would replace - the one who

"though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness (even a child!).
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross" (Philippians 2:6-8).

Sunday, August 30, 2015

Happy New Year!
(Believing is Seeing & Seeing Changes the Way We Move)

Sermon for St. Francis House, Aug 30, the first Eucharist of the fall semester.

Happy new year! (Fire the confetti popper!)

It’s 1st Eucharist Sunday! Good to see you. Time to celebrate! Fireworks on the patio after the blessing. If only, right? It’s not that straightforward. At least that’s what the fire marshal told me on Thursday. 

No, the academic new year is more parts restraint than splash, and for some good reasons. It’s not just that the new year on campus occasions excitement and challenge in equal measure; the return both to rhythms of friendship and disciplined routines of study - there’s some natural anxiety that comes with this beginning. It’s also that we’re not all in town yet! Classes don't start until Wednesday. The RSO fair is the week after that. Kick-off is still two weeks away. Fall retreat, a whole month from today. So has your chaplain jumped the gun?

No. Definitely not. Well, maybe. Especially if I have to sweep this all up by myself. I mean, it’s possible. I don’t think so.

Yes, it is the case that our beginning tonight looks less like New Year’s Day and more like Advent - less ball drop in Times Square and more an Advent wreath on a family table with just one candle lit - but it’s still a beginning. Every oak tree needs its acorn and every virtuoso learned a first major chord. 

Beginnings are like this. Like an angel’s conversation with a teenage girl that no one else can see. Mary. Like work and prayer without a spotlight, requiring a heart of faith and patience. A first step is not a journey but every journey has first steps.

So the new academic year begins. And you wait. Wait for old friends to arrive and new friends to be made. Wait for the start of classes and their attending syllabi. Wait for work and school schedules to fall into place. Wait for the weather to change. Wait, no. Don’t wait for that. Soak it all in. Dinner tonight on the Terrace!

Here’s the point, though: just because we are waiting doesn’t mean we're not already beginning, because - and you know this - the best beginnings aren’t always big. They seldom are, actually. Five loaves and two fish. Twelve disciples. A handful of women with some incredible news. A mustard seed. Bread and wine in a red brick chapel. Innocuous, mundane. As ordinary as eating. Mixed in with the everyday earth and dirt of life. There, in the mud, the unexpected movement of God, the beginning of something that, years later, you will look back on and say was the moment, an encounter, that changed everything.

God shows up before things get big. Before we feel ready or have ourselves put together, God is there. The first words of Scripture are, “In the beginning, God…” Even before things begin, God’s on the job. All things belong to God. Even better, as James reminds us, all things are beloved of God. Even the seemingly insignificant place, person, or moment belongs to God. And, in the economy of God, nothing is wasted. My mom would yell out at my brothers on me (on well-deserved occasions), “What, were you born in a barn?” No, but Christ was. Nothing is God's economics is wasted.

To begin to trust that God is with us before we are with it is to pray to see things differently. So Christians ask, even in small and ordinary things, how is God at work? Believing that God is at work. We ask God’s help to take our time differently, in our tasks and with one another. We promise, with God’s help, to live and move and breathe distinctly in this world. To love our neighbors. Our enemies, too. To pray. To serve. To forgive. To ask for and trust God’s forgiveness of us. To walk gently in this world; because we are beginning to live in the world as God is teaching us to see the world. As God sees the world. C.S. Lewis once wrote, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” 

So most nights, Rebekah goes to bed before I do and turns out the lights in the house as she goes, long before I get off the couch to begin my own bedtime routine. She usually leaves one light on, with instructions to turn it off last. The tricky part of that simple instruction is that that last light is still three rooms from our bed, which leaves a couple of ominous corners for me to maneuver in the dark. So I can attest to the fact that seeing things changes the way we move. When the lights are on, I am a picture of elegance, grace. A better looking Fred Astaire. When the lights are out, my goals quickly become more modest: don’t break the furniture, or my nose. I walk like a zombie: arms out and no elbows. Lights on, different story. But lights off, it’s bad news. It is sometimes said that seeing is believing but Christians have also long said the opposite: that believing is seeing. And seeing changes the way we move.

Each of our readings today, in separate ways, ask Christians to consider whether we will allow our worship and religious practice to change the way we move: to open up our hearts. It’s possible, say the scriptures, to go about life with locked arms and no elbows. Even in church, to show up to be seen - by others or God - and to lose sight of the dance to which God invites us. And there’s a beautiful reminder in even that sad possibility. The reminder is that our worship on Sunday is meant to inform and connect to our movements on Monday, on sidewalks, with neighbors. Sam Wells writes about the Eucharist as a game of fetch with God in which we bring a tennis ball, covered with bits of earth and dirt and saliva and life - all that we are - into this place and lift it up high with our hearts in thanksgiving to God. God blesses these bits of earth and dirt and life and transforms them in the presence of Christ and then - the best part - the deacon sends us back out, launching the ball out into the world again, where we’ll go out and find it, caked with new bits of earth, and bring them back here to this place. For the worshiping community, worship isn’t a performance for the impressive, it is the first part of the rhythm of breathing with God: the inhale of praise joined to the long, slow exhale of daily life, lived in relationship with God. Worship helps us see the world the way God sees the world, and the way God sees the world is meant for joy as beloved of God.

An example of this forming process at work. In the epistle today, James wants to help us see better, by resurrection light, and so he directs our attention to our speech: the words we speak. James thinks words and those who speak them should be generous because every good gift comes from God. So James thinks worship of the God who, in Christ, poured out God’s self in love for us on the cross, should make us generous, especially toward those on the margins of economic viability. James is talking about habits - like speech habits - the instincts that reveal the inner disposition of the heart, suggesting that these are worth tending and cultivating. Eucharist can be practice in giving away your life.

James’ concern, like Jesus’ in the gospel, is that observances meant to open our hearts sometimes disconnect from our non-Sunday lives, where God also has plans. Observances can turn into passive nouns for people of faith. As in, I’ll observe from a distance. I’ll watch. Or I’ll perform the act but keep closed my soul and the rest of my life. At their best, though, the observances of Christians are more than either watching others passively or performing for others vainly; when Christians come with hands outstretched to life up our hearts and beg our bread, to find new life, these living observances can align one’s life with what one sees and receives.

So here’s the million dollar question: what do you see and receive when you look at Jesus? If you were able to gaze upon Jesus and sustain that gaze - throughout an hour, a day, a life - and then align your life with what you saw, what would you become? What has the Eucharist taught you to see about God and the world? What has the community of faith, here or back home, given you that helps you to seek and serve God in the world more clearly?

What God has shown you, what God has given you to see God and the world by, is a treasure to be tended. Don’t take it for granted. Take time to know it. Keep tokens of Christ’s joy in you always at hand. After all, dynamic observance - or aligning one’s life - is not about whether or not you have achieved the end of perfect love - as if love was a test you or I could take once and pass - a video game level to complete. Instead, observances that grow the life of faith are about the daily act of showing up in love, beginning each day in conversation with God, noticing and taking a single faithful step ten thousand times across a lifetime, keeping the tennis ball in play. This kind of observance is not about what you’ve done up until now or what you will do with your degree once you’ve got it; it’s about how God is inviting you to follow Jesus today; is about tuning your soul in each moment to the seemingly insignificant place, practice, or person before you, that belongs completely to God.

A single step. Made over and over again. In love. Without fear. Because, - and here’s the best part - you, too, belong to God. By the waters of baptism, you are Christ’s own. You are God’s beloved.

Thanks be to God. And happy, new year.


Monday, August 24, 2015

Washing Feet Out Of Season
(When Every Day Is Maundy Thursday)

My daughter Annie's foot. I've washed it more than any other, save her other one and my own.
God knows she's poured her balm on me as well.
Christians wash each others' feet. Symbolically. Metaphorically. Once-a-year literally. As a kid, the once-a-year occasion was the one I most remembered. The church, all in shadows, all awash in the singing of hauntingly beautiful song. The church leader bent over on one knee, expectant, towel in hand. The approach, the sitting there, the embrace. Then cheeks flushed with fire. A slight tremble at the miracle of another's foot held in my hand. Cleansing a child of God. Pangs of unworthiness. Another embrace. The life God intends for the people of God's table. The pathway to Easter.

Later, in college, I took a summer job as a residential counselor for the physically and mentally challenged. I learned to feed paraplegics and assist campers in tending to basic bodily rhythms in ways that were profoundly holy, entirely ordinary, and most decidedly not once-a-year. Every minute was service. The posture of a heart bent to serve and towel in hand became less act and more disposition. That summer was at once impossibly difficult and one of the greatest privileges I have ever known.

Years later, Rebekah was stretched out on the floor of our birth-instructor's home, with a dozen other women and their partners. I held my hand to her back as we breathed to relax while our leader conveyed the message with which she began every class: "Remember. You are about to give birth to a twenty-four hour a day need." More than once since that day, I'm smiled, cried, laughed, and/or screamed at that truth. "Parenthood. Where it's always Maundy Thursday," I sigh.

Last night, my three-year old son comes into the dining room with mud-covered feet. A day well-lived, I think to myself, smiling. My son's not amused. "I want a bath!" he demands. "You've had a bath and a shower the last two nights..." I offer. "I WANT A BATH!" "You're clean!" I shout back like a madman, "You don't need a bath. A clean person doesn't need a whole bath. Just your feet - " Huh. Maundy Thursday, indeed.

On the Thursday before Easter - Maundy Thursday - Christians gather to do two things that, on the night before he died, Jesus asked his first disciples to do: 1) we celebrate the Eucharist, the holy meal of bread and wine at and in which Episcopalians (not uniquely) believe Christ is present and 2) we wash each others' feet. In the course of the Christian year, we'll celebrate the Eucharist a lot: most of us do so every Sunday, plus at other feasts and occasions throughout the week. Foot-washing, however, is mostly reserved for Maundy Thursday, with the possible exception of youth retreats like Happening, which is awesome and - if you're a teenager - you should totally go.

Because Episcopalians log disproportionate reps at the communion rail relative to the foot washing basin, we sometimes act awkwardly when it comes time to strip off the socks and get our soak on. Everyone's a little nervous because we don't wash each others' feet in church often enough to do it without a few hiccups along the way. Of course, infrequency of practice has the primary benefit of  drawing Christians into the Holy Week story of Christ's death and resurrection intimately and thereby conveying a holy reverence. We don't have the luxury of taking the act for granted. Scarcity of practice, with its attendant clumsiness, instills a sense of nervousness and the act's importance.

My children have taught me, however, that an act's importance does not hinge on its scarcity. Witness the realization of the Book of Common Prayer 1979, when its compilers made the Eucharist normative for a faith community's principle weekly worship. Contra the practice of the Middle Ages and even the 20th century church prior to the BCP 1979, sometimes reflective of concerns that frequency of practice would dilute the significance of the act and/or the readiness of the recipient, the BCP 1979 asserted the constancy of weekly Eucharistic practice, habit, and formation.

I sometimes wonder what would have happened had the Episcopal church opted - as some denominations in the Christian tradition have from time to time opted - from the two commandments Christ gave that night, to make of foot washing a weekly practice, too. What if, instead of a once-a-year occasion that elicited quiet pre-service chuckles about how gross our feet are, the practice was so common as to be assumed. This is what we do. We bare our feet for each other. We sit in the humility of grace received from another. We hold onto each other. Christ's words in our ears, his example before us, Christ's Spirit upon us, we pour out the pitcher for our sisters and brothers again. And again. And again. And again.

With prayer book revision now on the table, is weekly foot washing an open possibility?

This post is not an argument. I am convinced that a church that doesn't wash feet weekly is as fully capable of faithfulness and brokenness as any other. I suppose I'm writing a question mixed with imagination. I write it because, while Jesus gave us the instructions that night to "do this," he was admittedly vague on the particulars. Thus, I'm also not married to literalism: my new deacon and I will walk over to Porchlight - a neighbor non-profit serving men and women transitioning out of prison and homelessness - in a few minutes to talk with the organizers there about more regular rhythms of connection between our two communities.

Of course, the danger is that the literal or metaphorical foot washing act, done weekly, loses its pizazz over time. I would argue, however, that losing pizazz is not the same as losing meaning. Granted, the meaning we discover in the rhythm of the practice may well be different from the one we first thought it would be or the one we first wanted. Maybe, despite our best efforts, the line between act and disposition gradually blurs inside us until we, ourselves, are no longer our own to control, but we are lost to the service of Christ in our neighbor. That was my experience as a camp counselor at summer camp, and it is certainly my experience as a husband and parent. As a priest, also, and as friend and brother in Christ. On my good days, loss of that control names my thanks for my life as a Christian:

"This is the life God intends for the people of God's table. This is the pathway to Easter."

Friday, August 21, 2015

In Defense of Church Shopping

A couple of young adults - and good friends - in different parts of the country have recently and separately asked me about church shopping. Honestly, the integrity with which my friends have grappled with a question I assumed many young adults simply dismissed surprised me. In replying to one of my friends, I thought it might be useful to share a portion of my response (below). As is clear in what follows, I have a lot of personal ambivalence about the question, though not without some strong inclinations. That's all to say I'd be grateful for your own thoughts, insights, etc. in the comments at the end. Thanks!


To my friend, just moved to a new city:

"I'll be honest, I find it confusing when the church at large chides Christians for church shopping - not because I'm for church shopping, but because I wonder how else people are supposed to make sense of the existence, for example, of 6 Episcopal faith communities in Madison, a city that stretches 6 miles, end to end. If 2 churches are equidistant from one's home, it seems arbitrary at best to say one is obligated to only attend the church first produced in the google search. I don't have a good reason for why the church is structurally at adds with its admonitions against church shopping, unless the admonitions really mean loyalty to the Episcopal brand, which I'm all for but which is, in practice, increasingly an illusion of vestries and other denominational leadership. Even if that's the case, the idea that church shopping only refers to denominational infidelity is nowhere reflected in the way most denominational churches regard and/or record membership. 

"So, yes. Church shop. What it means to church shop well becomes an interesting and valid question for me, and I don't pretend to have anything like a satisfactory answer for that one beyond 'shop to buy.' My own short list would be a community 1) centered on the waters of baptism (i.e., Easter Vigil) and the Eucharist, and their attending rhythms of prayer, 2) with Christ the center of the preaching, related to a love of Scripture, 3) in which the gifts of the laity are visibly lifted up and encouraged, 4) and where youth are visibly valued and invested in. Even there, I'm probably forgetting something that puts me close to heresy. My experience does tell me that when most people talk about 'being fed' they mostly mean feeding others - finding a place for their own gifts to bless and serve others in and outside of the community, which is an important part of finding belonging and is probably another name for the opportunity to love and be loved.

"Pragmatically, studies show that - absent a dogged loyalism - most folks also need 6-8 friends in a community in order to call a given church a longterm (more than six months) home. And all of this assumes a monogamous relationship (one person + one community of faith). My brother and his friends attended 6+ youth groups back in the day, which at least calls into question the assumption of ecclesial monogamy as normative. Myself, I'm all for ecclesial monogamy and I am sympathetic to Brother Emile of Taiz√© and his contention that 'you are not obligated to be faithful to (the churches') divisions.'"

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

That Time I was Mistaken for a Mormon Priest...Twice
(Reclaiming Ordinary Symbols of Faith)

A few years ago, I made the decision to walk home for lunch during the season of Lent. I was serving a faith community outside of Corpus Christi, and I lived about a mile from the church; the roundtrip commute would take thirty minutes I figured, leaving another thirty minutes for lunch. Easy enough. I've written elsewhere about the intention and learnings of this Lenten exercise as spiritual practice. Today I am writing to tell you about a surprise discovery along the way.

The surprise came quickly, on the first day walking home, when a red sports car slowed to a crawl and came up alongside me. The passenger window came down and a man's voice called out to me from inside the car: "Hey!" He wait for me to stop. I stopped.

"Are you a Mormon minister? You know, a priest?"

I put my hands on my knees and leaned over to find the face of the man in the car, glad for the conversation but confused by the question. I realized I was wearing my collar. My mind began frantically scrolling through a mental rolodex of early morning conversations with my best friend from high school - a Mormon. Nope. No Mormon priests in there.

"No," I said. "I'm an Episcopal priest. We're a part of the Protestant tradition, but share a lot with Catholics, too. I work at the church over there." I pointed.

"Cool. Very cool. I could of sworn you were a Mormon priest!"

We exchanged pleasantries, said good bye, and the man drove off.

Quirky. Strange. An occasion to laugh. The I didn't think much about it, until two days later when it happened again, this time after lunch on the way back to church. A neighbor came out from his garage and asked the same question: "Are you a Mormon priest?" Weird.

That's when it hit me: by their steadfast practice, Mormons have been more successful claiming walking as a symbol of faith than Episcopalian clergy have been successful making the same of the collar. In these two men's minds - ordinary, workweek, lots of things going on minds - walking and religious person equalled "Mormon" faster than walking and collar equalled "any of the denominations that have collars or priests." Yikes.

I was visiting recently with a priest in Waco, who was sharing with me his congregation's desire to process, liturgically, and live and move, physically, more and more outside the walls of the building. "The church that walks!" he joked. I laughed and told my friend what a great thing that could be, and I told him this story.

As a campus minister, the level of connection I feel to the life of prayer and the people around me is positively correlated to the number of steps I walk on campus. 10,000 is the goal, seldom reached, but failing by a few thousand has never felt so good. Theologically, this goal represents the missional conviction that God is there, to be found, in the neighborhood. Practically, the goal works against the temptation to perfect ideas for ministry apart from the community into which God sends God's people.

And yet, it is not just the walking. It is the identification of faith with the most fundamental, ordinary, and simple parts of life, I think, that makes strangers think of Mormons when they think of walking. An ordinary act performed countless times for others. Like parents and diapers. Like single moms and second shifts. Like daily prayer and petition for the world's deep wounds. Like priest and Eucharist. Like hands on heads and healing.

Of course, Mormons don't go around just walking. They walk in order to talk, and they talk, largely, with the aim of giving you a Book of Mormon. There are plenty of things they probably think they're about that are more important, in their own minds, than the walking. But it's the walking folks remember.

I wonder how it is the same with me, with my church. What truth names the difference between what I think is the point of ministry and the thing that God actually plants in the heart of the faithful. I wonder how God is daily alive in the ordinary in ways I am tempted to miss or discount. The rudiments of bread, wine, water, oil. Or Dix's "take, bless, break, and give." The assembly as it gathers, listens, lifts, and leaves. Christ as he gathers, speaks, touches, sends. The currents of prayer and Scripture that orient us in and around the life of the baptized, whose center is Jesus, crucified and risen.

My suspicion is that those times when I insist on an importance beyond these rudiments serve mainly to name my vanity. And likewise in my faith community and the larger church. For it is in simple acts lived to God with others, for others, that acts make clear their need, if they are to be intelligible, for God - and so find the freedom to become symbols of faith, pointing to the living God whose promise is not to be except to be with us.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Campus Ministry in July:
Pro Tips from Gregory the Great & Stephen's Colbeard

Campus ministry in the summer. The good life, I am told. Peace. Quiet. Unlimited parking spaces. Of course, it is good. At the same time, summer is challenging. Challenging because if you didn't get into campus ministry to be around students, you probably got some very bad career advice along the way. Note: there aren't very many students on campus in the summer.

Thankfully, if you are a campus minister in the summer, there is still good work to do. In the summer, there is finally time to give full attention to the key maintenance issues you've been punting since March. There are renovations to oversee and bylaws to review and, in our happy case, a 100th anniversary celebration to organize with the help of alumni, supporters, and friends. Lots of phone calls, preparations, and partnerships. Way back in June, we conducted a search process and welcomed a new office coordinator for whom the summer is an ideal time of introduction to the ministry.

There are endless weeds to pull.

In fact, summer ends up being a great time to regularly connect with the handful of students still in town. This year, Rebekah and I hosted weekly meals at hour home on Wednesdays, which have blessed family and students alike; the quality of conversation afforded by the summer is often unlike anything we'll have come fall.

Summer is likewise a great time to reconnect with colleagues across the country, whose lives and ministries breathe courage and vision into my own. This year, I had the privilege of accompanying the newly appointed prior of the St. Anselm Community at Lambeth Palace - a dear friend - on a weeklong series of meetings with visionary leaders with a heart for Jesus and young adults in Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio.

But, mostly, all of these only leave me waiting patiently - or impatiently - for the eventual gathering of the community without whom even the best summer ideas will never grow into anything else.

In a recent podcast, Stephen Colbert waxed philosophical on his network-necessary hiatus as he waits to begin his Late Show in the fall. Talking with his newly appointed band leader Jon Batiste - a jazz improv phenom - Colbert compared his own comedic improv art with that of the improv musician. The problem, Colbert explains, is that the instrument he plays is an audience, and the sound of his instrument is laughter. Which means right now he can do plenty of work - and there's lots to be done - but he can't really practice. "Until you're with an audience, you're not playing your instrument. And so I don't necessarily know how to make the great leap to a new show until I'm sitting there with the people who matter the most to me..." And later, "it's all just theology - it's not religion."

Welcome to campus ministry in the summer.

So I've grown my Colbeard, and shaved it off. Like Colbert, I've gone off the grid, only to come back with an eager zeal just a couple months too soon. I'll be okay. I'll wait. Hit the beach. Continue praying and preparing. I'll set out each day to be present to God in the moment before me. I'll enjoy the ease of parking. And, for all the reasons Colbert names, I still won't be ready in the fall. But I'll be ready to not be ready. I'll learn to wait on the Lord.

Here's a passage from Gregory the Great that came as a great consolation and joy the other day:
Summer is hard for me physically, and has brought about a long interruption in my explanations of the gospel. But because I've been silent my love has not ceased. I'm only saying what you all know within yourselves. Our expression of love is often hindered by other concerns; it remains undiminished in our hearts even though our actions do not show it. When the sun is covered with clouds we on earth can't see it, but it is still there in the sky. It is the same with love: it produces energy within us even if it does not reveal itself outwardly in our activities. But it is time now for me to speak again. Your enthusiasm is stirring me as I see you eagerly awaiting my words (Be Friends of God, 59).
I don't flatter myself that the students of St. Francis House are "eagerly awaiting my words," but God knows I am awaiting - and eagerly - the life and conversations we'll share as the people of God in this place; God's people reassembled, together, as we follow the risen Christ.

Um, Stephen, you forgot the "monkey tail."

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...