Monday, March 23, 2015

Alan Alda On The Basis Of Good Communication
(Hearing So That Others Can Hear You)

Alda (right), with Gary Burghoff ('Radar')
Recently, one of my favorite actors made a surprise appearance on one of my favorite podcasts. The point he makes there applies to church leaders - clergy and lay - at least as much as it does to the scientists for whom he makes the point. Anyway, here's Alan Alda - in the Freakonomics episode This Idea Must Die - talking about the importance of improvisation, relating, and "reading the other" for good communication:

"I love science, and I love to read about science. And so I’m very concerned about how science is communicated. And for the last 25 years, I’ve spent a lot of my time trying to help scientists communicate about their work so that ordinary people like me can understand it. And now at the Center for Communicating Science at Stony Brook University we train scientist in kind of unusual ways. We train them to relate to their audience first of all by introducing them to improvisation exercises. And that is not to make them performers, or make them comics, or get them to invent things on their feet, which is what we usually think of in terms of improvising. It’s to get them to relate, which the improvising exercises all do. They make you, they put in you in a position where you have to observe the other player, and you have read the other player’s face and tone of voice. In a way you have to read the other person’s mind. And that’s, I think, the basis of good communication. You’ve got to know what’s going on in the mind of the person listening to you to know if you’re getting through to them or not."

Find the entire transcript here. Or listen here.

Sunday, March 22, 2015

You Make the Music Visible
(The Miracle of Beautiful Lives)


Homily preached the 5th Sunday in Lent, year B, with the St. Francis House community. Readings assigned to the day were these: Jeremiah 31:31-34Psalm 51:1-13Hebrews 5:5-10John 12:20-33.

I listen to a lot of music. Podcasts, too, but mostly music. I use headphones throughout the day when I’m in coffee shops or trying to keep a quiet and welcoming space here for others. Sometimes, when I’m alone with my headphones, I’ll give myself the freedom to, well, it’s not quite right to call it dancing so much as moving to the groove without inhibitions. Exaggerated foot stomps at one of the standing tables turned desktop in the lounge. Head bobs of the soul. You know the stuff. 

But then, inevitably, in the midst of an especially compelling groove, the phone will ring and the headphones come off. I come out of my musical cocoon and enter the real world of ordinary silences and socially constrained, limited-range-of-motion, self-conscious movements. Sometimes the disconnect is jarring. I notice all the people passing on the sidewalk, through the window, totally oblivious to the raging party just a moment ago blaring between my ears - now reduced to a distant whirring buzz from the table top in front of me.

It’s a strange thing when, in a given moment, you realize you are moving, connecting, grooving to a song that no one else can hear. 

Dancing to the groove that no one else can hear has had me thinking a lot about Philip this week. Jesus and his friends are at a festival, and some Greeks come to Philip with an incredible request, “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” Yeah, I think. Hey Greeks, get in line. Don’t we all! Don’t we all want to see. It’s the prayer of the saints - to, at the last, behold the face of Christ. What, then, is notable or new or even mildly interesting about the Greeks’ request of Philip?

Well, for one, the honesty. Simple. Direct. Aware of their own desire. Speaking their wish, opening their longing to public scrutiny. I mean, I suppose they could be saying it differently than I imagine. Maybe they aren’t talking openly, soul-baringly to Philip. Maybe they are talking like criminal detectives with a case to solve, stating to Philip, matter-of-factly: “Sir, we wish to see Jesus.” 

But I’ve never heard it that way. 

Always with a longing. A childlike eagerness. An innocence. The kind that takes lifting your eyebrows to express.

Which leads me to the second thing that’s notable about the Greeks’ request: the great mystery as to why they think Philip can help.

Lots of possibilities, most of them speculative. Maybe the disciples all wore the same t-shirt. You know, something incredibly catchy that said something witty like, “I’m with him!” or “Security.” Maybe Philip is wearing the shirt and he just happens to be closest. Maybe, because Philip is from Bethsaida, they think he speaks Greek. Maybe he does. Or maybe that’s why he goes to get Andrew - he’s embarrassed that he doesn’t. The language possibility seems reasonable, but there would need to be additional probable cause, I would think, to approach Philip - some reason to suspect that Philip knew the guy they wanted to know. You don’t go around Rome asking locals to connect you to the Pope just because they appear to have a basic working knowledge of Latin.

Haven’t you ever wondered: how did Philip’s life physically indicate, or otherwise communicate, his relationship with Jesus? 

The Greeks had heard of Jesus, but presumably had never heard Jesus. However, when they saw Philip, they recognized the possibility of hearing the one they had heard of.

“Sir, we wish to see Jesus.”

And it’s just then, in their notice of him, that Philip realizes he is moving, connecting, and grooving to a song that no one else can hear.

Maybe you can relate to Philip. Maybe your minding-your-own-business living out of the life of faith has, from time to time, unexpectedly attracts the interest of others. “What are you doing? What music are you dancing to?” they ask. Perhaps a curious bus passenger catches you reading a comically large Bible edition on your way home from work. Maybe your friends ask you why you are giving up some of your free time to meet with the others to pray. Maybe your family wonders out loud why you aren’t pursuing the most lucrative of the job possibilities your career track affords you, but have instead begun exploring other ways to offer your skills for the least of the sisters and brothers around you.

Then again, maybe you don’t relate to Philip at all. Maybe you’ve gotten good at suppressing the groove the music would otherwise inspire in you, what with all the unwanted attention that dancing can bring. After all, you aren’t putting on a show for anyone. You are trying to live your life for God! Maybe you want to get closer to hear Jesus yourself - the song that is Christ! - such that you find the continual tapping of others on your shoulder incredibly irritating. You’re still looking yourself and trying to pay attention - you want to see Jesus - and you have a hard enough time keeping quiet your pride without these new strangers thinking you’re special for being there. You stand still, hear the music, but don’t dare dance. And yet, even your stillness betrays you. The others see you, out there in the world, straining your ears in the silence and somehow they know - they detect - your stillness comes from God. They see you listening to the song. 

And sometimes it’s joyful, right? The music, the dancing. And sometimes the music is sad, even soulful. Sometimes it’s tears and a head on your shoulder. Sometimes its learning to dance the cry of God’s justice out loud for the pain of your sister. 

The song of Christ is always playing.

We’re about to dance through the heart of the song, in case the words or melody have grown fuzzy in your mind - or whatever part of us it is that carries our songs. Palm Sunday through Easter. One week from today. The Savior’s crucifixion. The self-emptying of God. And Thursday’s supper with his friends, the subsequent betrayal - this will be the song. Good Friday and its total darkness, death - every bit, will be the song. And from the depths of a silence so real it makes you wonder if the song isn’t, in fact, over, the music will begin the slow crescendo no one thought was possible through the Vigil fire that breaks the darkness and the Easter stanzas, in their glory.

The point, the good word, today is not that the life of faith beat would or should cause you to tap dance through life every day - or ever - but that the new life Christ inspires in you - however that moves you - already is coming out through you - in joy, yes, equally in sadness, in the heart broken after God’s own, in speaking up for the plight of the forgotten and downtrodden - either way, joy or sorrow, the dancing, the listening - for you, as with Philip - it erases the hope of the possibility for anonymity. Because the Greeks notice. Though they don’t hear the music, they see that, like Philip, you are dancing.

Oh, to be Philip. Did you know you are Philip? That your life physically indicates, somehow otherwise communicates, your relationship with Jesus? What a challenge. What a joy. It’s a strange, wild thing when, in a given moment, you realize you are moving, connecting, grooving to a song that no one else can hear. 

Sometimes, when Annie catches me dancing, I take one ear bud out and share the song with her. My first instinct is to get her her own set of earphones and her own music device, but that would be impractical. Of course, I have another option, one I sometimes choose: I can pull out the plug that keeps the music hidden from others. It would be rude to do this in certain settings, like libraries, but - when the Greeks are on your shoulder - it is a possibility. Pulling the plug from the iPhone, the room fills with sound. The music finds the ears of everyone in the room. And this is, after all, the only real way to share the song. Together, I mean. Apart from a youtube link sent days later, via text. The shared headset solution comes close, but usually one or the other has to sacrifice the bass line that way, and that's too great a loss for good music. The only real way to share the song, completely, is to unplug the headphones from the phone. Not always. But sometimes. You know, when the Greeks come and find you, and say, 

“Hey! You! I see you dancing. 

"Friend, would you help me? 

"I want to see Jesus.”

Amen.

Friday, March 20, 2015

"What's the Purpose of Campus Ministry?"

"Why is campus ministry important in this day and age? What's the purpose?" 

This question came across my inbox via my campus ministry google group today. The group is a collection of campus ministers, mostly - but not all - from the Episcopal tradition, and the question is the second in a survey series from a reporter. 

The first question concerned funding campus ministry. Nut and bolts. Essential. "How is your ministry funded?" You have to ask this question. 

The essential-ness of the other question - the question of 'why' - is not as universally appreciated, so the 'why' question gets asked less often. Also, there's a little bit of necessary challenge in the question. Richard Rohr has suggested that mainline Protestants may have a bit of the conflict avoider in us, so it's good to name that we may ask 'why' less because we are afraid others will find the question threatening. When asked in the spirit of truth telling, clarity, and the desire to flourish and grow, however, there are few more helpful things to ask. As I've watched the answers of my colleagues come across via 'reply all' today, I have been inspired. As helpful as their answers are, they are even more beautiful.

Without further rambling, then, what follows is my answer to the question that found my inbox today: "Why is campus ministry important in this day and age? What's the purpose?" 

__


I love this question! I hope my answer is worthy of it.

The purpose of campus ministry - all ministry - is to be present to those God also loves. In the case of Episcopalians our tradition has raised, we are acting with and on behalf of the larger church to keep the promise we make at each one's baptism to "do all in our power to support these persons in their life in Christ." I love becoming friends of the churches whose young people go off to college and find our ministry, because our communities discover how we need one another to keep the promises we make, especially to our children.

Many times, campus ministry - uniquely - is a student's first time to experience the Christian community in a) the absence of parents, family, etc. and b) the presence of many peers. Campus ministry oftentimes offers, therefore, a first opportunity to lean more fully into the love and trusting of the community of belonging God's love for us makes possible.

In the case of those who would self-identify as outside of our tradition, campus ministry lives out the vocation of presence primarily through the example of its own community and the conviction that God is active and interested in the life and work of the university, faculty, students, and staff. Here, the connection is to the baptismal promise to "seek and serve Christ in all persons," with the promise's remarkable assertion that Christ is there, in each one, to be found.

It is not a small thing to witness that God is active and interested in the work of those around you - specifically, in the special case of campus ministry, that God is active and interested in the work of the university. Such a witness is necessarily marked by generosity and humility, which combine to help make possible reconciliation and new friendships. 

The witness that God is active and interested in the work of the university is also a challenge to Christians - students, facility, and staff - who might otherwise compartmentalize their work and subsequently view the work of the student/university/department as fundamentally separate and disconnected from the life of faith. Such a challenge asks how every aspect of the Christian's life might be reimagined as a part of living and actively responding life with God.

It is significant that the purpose of the campus ministry, to both those within and without the tradition, is grounded in the baptismal promises of the Christian community. That baptism is the foundation of our purpose, even to those not baptized, is the reminder to campus ministries and the whole church that mission is not just about good news for the others: Christians seek and serve others through mission to proclaim the good news of Christ crucified and risen; seek and serve Christ in each person; strive for justice for all people; eat, pray, and grow in the apostle's teaching and fellowship; forgive and discover our own need for forgiveness; and subsequently to discover that our own salvation's flourishing requires the presence of the "other" ones God also loves. 

As the desert fathers remind/warn/promise us: "Our life and death is with our neighbor."

Peace.
Jonathan

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

An Episcopalian's Defense* of Contemporary Christian Music

I drove to Milwaukee last Saturday night to hear my brother perform: Matthew plays bass for Christian singer/songwriter Chris Tomlin. (Rend Collective and Tenth Avenue North opened.) The show was stellar - really great - and, without caveat, inspiring. I have always been beyond words proud of my brother. It is a joy to watch his joy in his music, and to see how God is present to his work and the work of those with whom he finds joy playing.
My brother, in the blue lights.

My friend Seth went with me. Seth is a priest, too, and so - perhaps predictably - our between-set conversation veered toward the theology of the songs. The Christian music world is a primarily evangelical music world, though notable exceptions exist (Matt Maher, for one, is a devout Catholic).

What I feel the need to say out loud after last Saturday's concert is this: while distinct theological tan lines continue to mark the underlying evangelicalism of much contemporary Christian music, the days when "Jesus my girlfriend" could be received as a compelling critique of contemporary Christian music - usually at the hands of more liturgical traditions - are long gone. Times have changed, and a rhetorical soundbite that may have been rightfully merited twenty years ago paints the one who would invoke it today as out of touch.

Saying this, I realize that it is probably equally out of touch to assume that pockets of liturgical traditions - like Episcopalians - continue to hold a universal hard line against contemporary Christian music. My own impression is that the hard line has gotten much softer in theory than it has in practice. Even in practice, however, times are changing: a good friend and campus ministry colleague told me today that his Episcopal community had - reluctantly, yet with profound effect - given up contemporary worship music for Lent!

Even so, my experience suggests that the exceptions prove the rule. Consider, then, what follows to be, if nothing else, a bunch of good links to name the continuing advance of contemporary Christian music into theologically articulate (1), grounded-in-the-ancient, and liturgically informed praise - with a vulnerability from which the Episcopal Church might rightly be called to learn.

_


Far from the exaggerated individual emphasis that plagued evangelicalism for years, the songs I heard last Friday repeatedly referred to "church" - God's gathered people - as the basic unit of faithfulness and ached with the psalmist's desire - shared by the most ardent social activist - to see the redemption of God in this life. One song was impossible to hear apart from the student discussion I attended on Friday about white privilege, Tony Robinson's death, and the longing of those black Christians present to see white Christians use our voices for justice; in response, white students named a fear and insecurity at speaking up that both surprised and angered some of their black sisters and brothers in Christ. This conversation on my heart, I was deeply struck by the way the song simultaneously affirms God's love for the hearer in light of a dubious past and calls the hearer into the more of the new possibility God in Christ has opened for us.
Me and Matt Maher's back.

My friend Seth put the last point more simply: "These songs invite our brokenness and weakness to be a part of the life of faith."

Now, before you - or I - get carried away, let's be clear. I'm a child of the Hymnal 1982.  I was born during Dad's first semester at an Episcopal seminary, and I grew up memorizing hymn numbers during sermons. I owe most of my spirituality to the rich tradition of Anglican hymnody.

And.

This is exactly why I would caution my liturgical family against, in the Episcopal instance, a bias toward the blue book: when we hear our sisters and brothers from different traditions moving toward theological themes at the heart of the life of faith we have discerned in Christ, our stubborn reluctance to receive the gifts these traditions bring becomes our sin.

And, when we see contemporary Christian music naming ancient truths in ways more simply and accessibly than our own tradition has managed, how can we keep but thanking God for the gift of unexpected surprises?

I am sad that it is still cool in some Episcopal circles to disparage contemporary Christian music of the radio kind. I am sad that part of the legacy of the Reformation is the felt need/obligation to honor the divisions of the past. I am sad that smugness in these matters might blind Episcopalians to the shortcomings of even our own beloved blue hymnal, and so also to unseen aspects of the reconciling adventure of the Gospel, to which Christ continually calls us.

But/yet/and/also,

I rejoice.

I sing a song and rejoice in the unexpected new thing God is doing in the praises of God's people, in all places, everywhere, and sometimes even together.

To borrow a favorite phrase of my one-time mentor and the new bishop coadjutor in West Texas,

"Let the ones with ears use 'em."

______________________

* Not that contemporary Christian music needs defending, least of all from me. I do want to nudge my Episcopalian sisters and brothers, because I believe nothing short of the church's unity is at stake in developing mutual respect and appreciation for God at work in the other.

(1) Of course, one can still find bad theology in contemporary music, but don't get me started on some of our favorite Christmas hymns. God forgive us when/if we find ourselves using theology to justify our existing biases. Theology is important and we are called to be more honest than that.

Silence and the Serpent
(A Reminder that Lent is for Healing)


A homily preached at St. Francis House on the 4th Sunday in Lent, for which the following lessons are appointed in year B: Numbers 21:4-9Psalm 107:1-3, 17-22Ephesians 2:1-10John 3:14-21.

Today's reading from Numbers - the Israelites grumbling in the desert - always reminds me of the old joke about the restaurant patron who asks to complain to the manager. "The food here is terrible!" he says, "and such small servings!"

Classic.

That we read this story from Numbers at all reminds us that we Episcopalians are a people of the lectionary. ("Lectionary" being a fancy way to say, "you and I didn't pick these readings out.") I say, “a people of the Lectionary,” and not “the people of the Lectionary,” because other denominations and traditions use lectionaries, too. In fact, the lectionary we use on Sundays - called the Revised Common Lectionary - is shared by over 40 national churches across a range of traditions and denominations. Broad participation in the RCL means that you are I are reading these readings today with a lot of other Christians. Millions of others. The moral, as always, is that, as you live the life of faith, you are not alone. We are not alone. 

One of the big gifts God has given us across the church is one another, both within this particular community, and also outside it. Right relationship with God is not a closed book test! You don’t have to write all of your notes on a 3 x 5 card, in microfiche. The Christian life is a living practice, in which all resources are available to you. Friends. Priests. Scripture. Sacraments. Even your enemies, so that you can have someone to practice loving where loving comes with greater difficulty. Some of you have asked me to hear your confessions this Lent. Praise God! This is use of the resources available to you for your flourishing. For, in the Christian life, no bonus points are awarded for going it alone.

All of this is the long way around to notice that, with millions of others today and for the second week in a row, we are reading from John’s gospel. That we are reading John’s gospel is significant, because the Revised Common Lectionary has three years: one for Matthew, a second for Mark (that’s this year), and a third for Luke. John doesn’t get his own year. Instead, he’s summoned from the bullpen every year, at especially important moments in the church’s life.

So today, as we read from John’s gospel alongside millions of others, we are reminded that this is an especially important moment in the life of the church. We are officially more than half-way through the season of Lent. We are more than half-way through our approach to the great feast of Easter. 

It’s one of the funny and strange things about desert wanderings like Lent and other parts of life (semesters and the far of promise of graduation come to mind): that we are called to be present to each step, each moment, every day, still not to lose sight of the ultimate end. It’s the paradox the musician Iron and Wine calls Our Endless, Numbered Days, when it seems like we’ll never get there, but then, before we know it, we are there, on the edge of the end. For Christians, our days are numbered toward both the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Christ is our beginning and our end. Your end is new and unending life in him. 

So our Lenten wanderings have begun to feel more strongly the pull and orbit of the great Easter feast and the tomb-cracking pascal shout. We are two weeks from Palm Sunday - also, Spring Break - cue the bullpen! Bring in John’s gospel. 

And there are so many familiar images we might have been given today from John’s gospel - the good shepherd, Jesus the bread of life, Jesus the Way, the Truth, and the Life. We have beautiful hymns composed for each of these! But we are given none of these. Not today. Instead, a bizarre image: it’s Jesus the snake, on a pole. “Jesus said to Nicodemus, ‘Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.’”

There are no catchy hymns about Jesus the serpent. At least none that I can find. Indeed, without the Old Testament reading today, this verse in John’s gospel would make no sense at all. But Numbers tells the story of the time, in their wandering, when the Israelites grumbled about the food and the water and the uncertainty of their situation and their growing sense that none of their searching was leading anywhere, and God sent snakes to bite their heels. The people repented, but they were still sick. So Moses made a serpent of bronze and put it on a pole, and whoever looked to the serpent on the pole would live. 

John says Jesus is the serpent on the pole.

As the joy of Easter nears, we are reminded that, having repented, the promise is not just that we will be made into good people - that is, into people capable of acknowledging that we have messed up or been ungrateful or whatever else, but the promise is that we will be made into God’s people; that we will be made more than capable of not doing bad things; we will be healed and made whole. No more duct tape self-applied, but healing from outside ourselves, at the hand of the One who first made you. 

An author I deeply admire recently reported how a bishop once told him that 90% of the sermons the bishop had ever heard could be boiled down to 2 words: Try harder.” Try harder.

Not so, says this gospel. Not so! In your commitment to come near the cross this Lent, you are not left alone. Even we millions are not left alone. The word to you today is not try harder, but to look to the one there, on the cross, lifted up for us. Look on this one. His promise is healing, and even the death we cannot overcome by ourselves has been vanquished by the victory of his glorious resurrection.

As strange or obscure or bizarre as Jesus the serpent may feel to us, the image has a contemporary corollary with which we are all familiar: the twin snakes on the staff with the wings on the top, forming the logo of the American Medical Association and borrowed from ancient Greek mythology. John, today, would invite us to understand the Word made flesh, Jesus, as the true fountain of healing and life, the new and unending life we receive in the Sacrament. Christ comes for healing. Indeed, John will later write to his readers, in the book of Revelation, that the leaves on the tree of life, rooted on the banks of the river that runs through the city of God, are for the healing of nations. 

We see how our nation, our city, and our world, ache for this healing. Precisely this healing is the purpose of God. 

This healing is available to you: restoration, reconciliation, renewal. Physical. Emotional. Spiritual. Visible. Invisible. Relational. Love of God and love of neighbor. For all of creation! And you. Healing. For this Christ comes.

Silence, shared among friends in the presence of God, can be healing. Our prayers of the people and confession today, will be silence, for healing. During that time, I ask you to write down on slips of paper those things for which you would ask God to heal. You can be thinking about them now. In your life. In your love. In your relationship with God and others. In your future. In your uncertainties. In your hopes. In your fears. In our world. In this city. In our families. Across chasms of life and death. For forgiveness. In our churches. On this campus. In and on your heart. 

Silence. 

As you ready your prayers, bring them here, and we will burn them. The incense is the fragrance of Christ, which meets us in our brokenness. Incense has been, from the earliest days of the church, a sign and symbol of the prayers we lift to God.

In the silence, if you would also like to receive prayers for healing with the anointing of oil, another tradition from the earliest days of the church, you may meet me at the side of the altar. You can tell me what you want prayers for, but you do not have to. God knows, and God heals. Let us look to God's Son, and be saved.


Amen.

Friday, March 13, 2015

4 Things Jesus Gave (and Gives) His Friends

It is interesting to think about the things we ask and expect of God. This past week, I got to wondering: what if Jesus primarily trades today in the currency he most often gave his first friends, that early band of twelve?

This question got me thinking.

So I did what any good campus minister would do: I found a goofy font and asked some friends in my community.

Lots of Times, Jesus Gave his friends one of 4 things. Find examples of each to share.

stories

questions

Challenges

Love


what do you look for Jesus to give you? Has he shown you any of these 4 things lately?

Quick aside: what I discovered before anything else is that this exercise, shared with a couple of good  friends, is a tremendous way to remind yourselves of - or rekindle - your love for Jesus, the gospels, and God's love for you. Stories, questions, challenges, and examples of Christ's love, recalled from every season of life, flooded the page in our gathering's reflective silence.



Here's a not-even-CLOSE-to-an-exhaustive compilation of what came up.

Stories: "The Kingdom of heaven is like..." pearls, parties, seed scattered on a path. Like a woman who lost a coin and a shepherd who can't find his sheep. Like a net full of fish. Like disciples who won't admit to not understanding it all. // Two guys who went up to pray. A brother runs off with the family cash.

Questions: Which one was neighbor? What do you want me to do for you? Which one of them will love him more? Who is left to condemn you? Do you believe because you have seen? Whose face is on the coin?

Challenges: Go, sell your possessions, then follow me. Take up your cross. You give them something to eat. Stay awake. Don't worry about your life. Don't be afraid. Love your enemies.

Love: The rich man, again - how he loved him. The woman caught in adultery. Jesus calling his disciples his friends. Washing their feet. "This is my body." Come away, by yourselves, to a quiet place, and rest awhile. The power that went from his robe and healed the woman no one had noticed. "Today, you will be with me in paradise."

Of course, what Jesus seldom gave his followers is what we most often ask of him: clear answers, certainty, protection from suffering and/or those who suffer. 

If Jesus does talk today in the same ways he was inclined to talk to others before his death, it is probably worth our time to take a few minutes each day to quietly reflect on our encounters, circumstances, opportunities, and prayer life, and 1) ask by way of inventory about God's presence in the stories we notice - what they show us about God - and also to 2) collect the questions God imparts to us, 3) name the sometimes unwanted challenges God puts before us, and 4) reflect on the moments of love God has shown us. 

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Love and Weakness and the Life that Leads to God


Homily for the 3rd Sunday in Lent, preached at Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Sun Prairie, WI. These are the the lectionary readings assigned to the day: Exodus 20:1-17Psalm 191 Corinthians 1:18-25John 2:13-22.

Good morning! My name is Jonathan Melton; I develop ministry at the University of Wisconsin, at the Episcopal student center called St. Francis House. I don’t know know all of you, but I do know many of you, and I look forward to meeting more of you. I am profoundly grateful for the friendship St. Francis House shares with Good Shepherd, and I’m delighted Fr. Mike invites me to join you here from time to time. Many of you, also, have spent a Sunday evening with us on campus at some point along the way. If you’ve never been by, please know you are always welcome. It’s a blessing to be with you this morning and, together, to worship the living God.

Today we are reminded that it is not always easy to worship. It was going to be hard enough, with the daylight savings time adjustment (congratulations, you made it!), but now our communities have been confronted with an extraordinary grief: Tony Robinson, shot and killed in an altercation with police, this past Friday. The incident happened on the same street where, about ten hours earlier, my son and I had been buying groceries for this coming week.

Tragedy is the word for it. We don’t know yet what happened, but we do know that one citizen of our city lost his life in the efforts of an officer of our city to protect the people and the law entrusted to his office. We know this death is especially painful for our sisters and brothers who notice its resemblance to others like it in recent months, across the country, in which young African-Americans have died. We know we would have rather had this thing not happen. It did.

I realize that this tragedy is of great importance to some, less importance to others, and that it’s brand new news to still others. We are, this morning, in both the same place and lots of places just now. I won’t preach this tragic incident, at once raw and unknown. Not directly. I do name it this morning, because each of us will find ourselves carrying especially heavy burdens at difficult moments in this life, and I do not want to leave you with the wrong impression that this holy space is not big enough for what burdens you. For this Christ died. You who are burdened are in the right place. And, who knows, maybe this old, good Book has some Good News, yet, even for our most difficult burdens.

So. Meanwhile. This morning. Paul was rattling on - of course he was - in his letter to the church in Corinth. And, if it wasn’t already, now my head is really filling up. Go ahead and glance down at your reading a second to refresh yourself. Don’t re-read it, exactly, but skim it enough to jog your memory, get it back in your head. 

Ready?

So here’s my first set of questions:

If God’s weakness is stronger than our strength, should we be trying to be weak, like God? Is that what Paul is saying? What would that even mean? Since when does being God-like involve being weak? God-like abilities are things like stopping time and raining fire - smiting the undeserving. God-like weakness sounds like my Granny, who used to say to my brothers and me as were leaving her house, “Have fun! Stay safe!” We would always yell back, “Make up your mind!” How can God-like and weakness be essentially the same thing? 

A second set of questions:

What standards are we holding God to, when weakness becomes a word we use for God? On what grounds do we say God is weak? Shouldn’t we come out and say that those standards, whatever they are, are really our gods, instead of the God we measure by those standards? 

I always thought being God-like took effort. But I am weak, Paul says, even when I fail to be weak. My strength is outmatched, exposed, by God’s weakness. 

And it feels to me like there is this game of tug of war going on, for Paul: a push and pull for a new imagination of what it means to live a good life, a godly life, a life that leads to God. 

If God’s strength is made known in our weakness, does that mean the good lives, the godly lives, the lives that lead to God, are the lives who know their weakness? Do you know your weakness?

And I don’t mean in your head, where weaknesses twirl on perpetual spin cycle, drenched in some mix of guilt and regret. Do you know and love your weakness? What I’m really asking, I guess, is have you seen God meet you in there, in weakness? Have you been able to love it for God’s presence to it? After all, we worship the God who promised, “My strength is made known in your weakness.”

Recently, the UW Episcopal community, St. Francis House, and UW’s Catholic community started talking to one another. It turns out, being right with God is a hard thing to do by yourself. So this Lent, community members from St. Francis House and St. Paul’s have arranged to attend some of each other’s prayer services, as a way of appreciating the gifts of one another’s traditions - things we think the other guys do better than we do - things we can learn from each other. So we found ourselves all together a couple of weeks ago, over dinner, a small group of us, talking about Lenten disciplines and bemoaning the fact that we Christians don’t - by and large - make a bigger deal out of Easter - you know, the whole fifty days of it. We talked about needing, well, you wouldn’t call them “Easter disciplines,” like in Lent, but joyful actions or something. Fifty days of enjoying resurrection in concrete ways, with real practices. “Why don’t we do more of that?” someone asks.

Just then in the conversation, my Catholic brother pipes up: “I don’t know about you, but I enjoy the hot showers.”

What??

I ask him to explain: “Well, I take cold showers the rest of the time. Except for Sundays and in Easter season. It’s my way of reminding myself at the start of the day that my sense of right relationship with God doesn’t depend on my controlling the day or getting it right. Things will go wrong, some things might go right, but I’m not trying to win the day or impress the world. I’m not the star of the show. I’m trying to walk with God. That’s the most important thing.” (1)

So - let's get this straight - my friend gives up perfection to start his day, because he sees how pride in even his desires to please God can get in the way of his attention to God. He gets out of bed and hits the first swing off the tee into the rough, on purpose, to get the temptation out of the way. Because my friend desires to be a friend of God, my friend desires to be a friend of weakness.

Weakness, at its best, is another word for knowing one’s need of God and one another. It’s a reminder the people of Corinth needed to hear, because some of the Christians in Corinth had started to wonder if they couldn’t get farther down the road if they weren’t always waiting for the ones who slowed them down. They had started to say to one another with their lives, “I have no need of you.” So it is not surprising that Paul would remind the Christians in Corinth of their need of God and one another, of their need to be friends of weakness. 

The surprising and remarkable thing, says St. Paul, is that God has become a friend of weakness, for us. Thus, Paul reminds the Corinthians that “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.”

Paul doesn’t leave the conversation about weakness abstractly hanging in the air. Paul is pointing the Corinthians, and us, to the particular weakness of the cross. In a slightly more flowery way, Paul is revisiting, today, Jesus’ dispute, from last week - the "Get behind me, Satan!" episode - with Peter, where Peter refused to believe that the way of the cross was a way worth following. Peter was stubborn, not stupid. And the cross seemed like a stupid place to go for new and unending life. But this, says Paul, is exactly where God in Christ has gone. If we would follow Christ, the cross is where we will go. 

Foolishness is Paul’s word for it. Worth it, adds Paul. Still not without its costs. Foolish and worth it. So every Lent the people called Church count the costs again and take on this impossible dare one more time: will we find the way of the cross be the way of life and peace, after all?

It’s more than cold showers, though it may begin there. Surely, the element of daily surrender is an integral part of the long walk with Jesus, toward Jerusalem. Equally, the costs we count include the question that Paul first spoke to the people of Corinth: the question of the weakness of others, their sisters and brothers, the neighbor and stranger, the person who always sat in their pew. As the question found them, so now it finds us, as we think of our weaker sisters and brothers: in whom have we given up finding God? We have learned in our baptisms that Christ is there to be sought and served in all persons. But that's in the book that was written way back in 1979! There are new persons now! What about the slower ones? Or those so fast we suspect they’re up to something? In whom have you given up finding God? Maybe they’re older. Or younger. Poorer or richer or forgetting their memories or from other countries. Maybe they don’t know as much as you do. Or, equally, maybe they’re too smart for their own stinkin’ good. Maybe you think you know what they think already, and it’s a waste of your time to go there. Foolishness.

But Christ is a friend of weakness! It is never a waste of your time to go there. 

By the end of this Lent, we will have arrived at the cross. Whether we travel the road to Golgotha alone or with friends, by the end, we will find one another, there, at the cross. We will find one another and all of the others outside of these walls for whom Christ became a friend of weakness. 

Since the cross is where we are going, and we are learning our own nervous trust of God’s weakness, I invite you, in one of the still and silent cracks that hold our worship together this morning, to ask God to help us live our need of the friends we will find there, on Good Friday, and certainly of the Christ who will die and open new life there. Ask God to steady your hand and anchor your heart as the cross turns upside down the imagination we once had for what it means to live a good life, a godly life, the life that leads to God. 

Amen.

(1) I'm clearly paraphrasing my friend here, but that was the gist of it.

Friday, March 6, 2015

Fully Alive!
A Window Into the 2015 Province V Young Adult Retreat
- A Guest Post By My Friend Karl Stevens



My good friend and colleague, the Rev. Karl Stevens (above), serves as Missioner for Campus Ministry with the Diocese of Southern Ohio and wrote the following reflection on the recent Province V Young Adult retreat at Grace Place, Chicago, IL. The weekend was a remarkable one in which 50 young adults from across our province - IL, IN, MI, WI, OH, and eastern MO - gathered together for a time organized around themes of improvisation and faith. John Poole wonderfully led the key note session, introducing the group to fundamental of improvisation through games and other practices. Other workshops explored themes of improvisation as it relates to music, worship, and sports. I am glad to share Karl's wonderful window into the weekend here, with his permission. JRM+

A line of people stood looking at a small table.  It was empty, but they’d been told that there was a television on it, and asked to describe that television.  “Use the phrase, ’it is,’ at the start of your description,” John Poole told them.  Hesitantly, people offered their phrases.  “It is black.  It is old.  It is a tube television.”  John then asked them to describe the television with the phrase ‘you are.’  “You are too far away from the couch.  You are heavy.  You smell like cigarettes.”  That last phrase stopped John in his tracks, it was so evocative of childhood, of grandmothers who set their ash trays on the top of warm TVs so that the stale smell of cigarettes rose like incense.  Finally, he asked them to describe the television with the phrase ‘thou art.’  “Thou art laughter when I’m feeling lonely.  Thou art conversations with my friends.  Thou art rest when I’m tired.”

We were in Chicago for the Fully Alive! retreat, practicing improv in the sanctuary of Grace Place church.  The retreat was the brainchild of myself and my colleagues Jonathan Melton and Stacy Alan.  Jonathan and I are both fans of Sam Wells book “Improvisation: The Drama of Christian Ethics.”  My own fascination with this book led me to Second City over the past summer, where I enrolled in a week long intensive course.  So Stacy’s suggestion that we shape this year’s Provincial Gathering around the theme of improv seemed like the continuation of a great and important pilgrimage.  At the same time, we knew that it would take some work to connect improv with Christian theology, while allowing retreat participants a chance to experience the joys of actual improv acting.  What Sam Wells needed a book to accomplish, we vaingloriously hoped to do in two days.

We were deeply fortunate to have John Poole there to teach and lead.  John has been an improv actor for years, and he chose exercises that illuminated the life of faith.  To call an object “thou art” is to invest it with meaning and power, and this leads to a sense of the sacredness of all things, even televisions and toasters.  More, it helps us to understand our relationship to the material world, and this deep awareness of objects and things is essential to Christian spirituality.  As Simone Weil said, “attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.”

John was a wildly inventive retreat leader.  He made up two important games on the spot.  One was a sermonizing improv game.  A handful of people stood in a line.  He asked the audience for a random suggestion, and someone shouted out “poodles!”  He turned to the line of people and told them that they would now preach a sermon about poodles.  Pointing at people in turn, he had them each add a word or phrase to the sermon, playing off of what the person who went before them had said.  He used the same method for a game in which participants pretended to be parents trying to argue their children out of becoming Christians.  Many arguments against Christianity were raised, many of which showed the shallowness of our culture and ended up making Christianity look quite good.  We were sharing Grace Place with the homeless community, who were eating breakfast downstairs.  One of the improvisers said, “If you become a Christian, you’ll have to hang out with the homeless, and might even get to know their names.”

We found, as the day went on, that we simply didn’t have enough time to do everything we’d hope to do.  We would have benefited from more time set aside for theological reflection.  The material was so rich that we needed a week of improv, not a weekend.  And we also needed time for relaxation and community building.

We got some of that on Saturday night, when we split up into groups and went off to dinner, and then to an Improv Olympics (IO) show.  We had gathered a diverse group of students and young adults together.  There were international students from India and China, music students from Wisconsin and Ohio, theology students and environmental studies majors from Illinois and Michigan.  We had artists and engineers, medical students and poets.  And we came from a diversity of religious backgrounds: Episcopalians, Lutherans, Pentecostals, Baptists, Buddhists, and Hindus, as well as those who think of themselves as spiritual but not religious.  The IO show was almost guaranteed to surprise and challenge assumptions.  For some, moments of crudity in the improv we saw was liberating, for others it was simply offensive.  When the improv troupe asked for a suggestion from the audience, someone from our group shouted out “eucharist!”  We were treated to a thirty minute show of improvisation around the theme of eucharist, and for me this became almost anthropological - I was fascinated by the way that the actors picked up the theme and changed it, exhibiting a variety of understandings of the eucharist, most of which were radically different from my own.  If you want to understand how the church is perceived by secular society, shout out “eucharist” at an improv show.

For several years now we have been working on making the Provincial Gathering more focused and thematic.  And I’ve been asking myself if there’s a model for a Christian community that comes together for a distinct purpose and a limited amount of time, and then dissipates in the knowledge that this specific community with these specific people will probably never come back together again.  Recently a very smart English professor suggested to me that these time-limited, focused communities are, and always have been, pilgrimages.  When we set out to create the Provincial Gathering, we were, in effect, planning a pilgrimage.  We didn’t reach the destination of the Fully Alive! pilgrimage - it was too far a distance to travel in the time we gave ourselves.  But, oh, the people we encountered and the discoveries we made along the way!

Thursday, March 5, 2015

*More* is not a Number

Before any of what follows, I want to affirm the two-word prayer my good friend and the prior at the St. Anselm community taught me to pray to God:

"More, please!"

"More, please!" is better than "Thank you." Better, even than "This meal's delicious!"

Of course, if "More, please!" is better than these things, it is because "More, please!" implies both of these things. Maybe better, "More, please!" embodies them. "More, please!" doesn't simply inform the giver that the gift has proven nourishing but demonstrates the act of being nourished, with all the trust and vulnerability and delight that act entails.

I am a fan of any prayer that expresses the gratitude and enjoyment of "More, please!" to God.

Now, to what follows. I want to distinguish the prayer my friend taught me from the Disease of More that is infecting and debilitating faith communities and, probably also, the larger society.

In eight years of ordained ministry, I have met, come alongside, consulted, and partnered with many people to whom God has given beautiful dreams that require growing into - from where they are to somewhere else. Oftentimes, as in a church community, the community will rightly recognize the help she needs to get to the new place, or that the involvement of a larger number of people and resources is a part of the dream God has given them. This makes sense. Christians, after all, have been made partners in Christ's ministry of reconciliation.

Here, though, is where things frequently bog down. When you ask people-with-dreams, the answer to questions about the money or physical presence of others necessary to realize the dream too often is only: "More."

More people. More young families. More staffing. More volunteers. More funding. More pledges.

Here's the problem with this kind of more: you can get more and still not have it. More, by definition, is that which you don't yet have. This kind of more acts in the opposite direction of "More, please!" gratitude. This kind of more is the more of desperation, and it plants the seed of the lie that there is never enough. This kind of more tells those around you that you will take everything they have and, very likely, still feel empty.

Campus ministers are especially vulnerable to the Disease of More because the larger church has historically underfunded campus ministry. If you say you need more, maybe the larger church will compromise and simply not cut your funding. Fair enough. More can be a useful bargaining chip. More can also feel tired and sad.

At a national gathering of Episcopal campus ministers, I listened to several colleagues talk about needing more money. So I began to go around the room, asking each person - without any context - what her/his ministry would do with a gift of $50,000. "Are you offering?" one asked me. "No," I said. "I am asking. I want to hear your dreams."

Last year, I led a team that organized the first Acolyte Festival in the Diocese of Milwaukee. At the next to last planning meeting, I asked the group, "Do we want to have a numerical attendance goal for this event?" The group said yes. We tossed numbers around before settling on 125-150. For an acolyte festival! What does that even mean? The number was ambitious, given the circumstances, but we decided we were up for the challenge.

"What do we need to do to take steps toward that goal?"

We decided to make phone calls to clergy and youth leaders. Multiple calls, with follow up. On each call, we'd explain that we were throwing an Acolyte Festival. We had done a lot of lead up publicity, so most people we talked to knew this already. We'd talk about how we imagined the day, what it was for, and some of our underlying goals - to bring youth and young adults together to celebrate their sometimes invisible service to the church and to introduce youth, especially, to the idea of campus ministry.

Then we shared our goal. "150 adults and young people." Skeptical laughter was not uncommon at this point. We'd continue: "There are approximately fifty faith communities in our diocese, so we figure that each church will need to bring three people for us to meet our goal. Of course, some will bring more, some less. But the goal for each community is three. Being realists, we think it would be great if 40% of the people who are invited by people they trust say yes and decide to come. So we're asking you to think of and invite 6-8 people who trust you to the event. We'll send you detailed information by email, and we'll call to follow up. If we can help in any way, please let us know."

We didn't hit 125. We did have a touch more than 100 attend! Even though we fell short of our goal, the event was a big success. Later, we learned we had scheduled the festival during the diocesan military academy's spring break. According to the chaplain there, he had thirty acolytes who would otherwise have been a captive audience. Ah well.

This is the point: having a specific number and a plan toward that number made our planning infinitely more relational and gave us a ton of opportunities to retell the story that had given each of us a heart for the event. We participated in over 80 one-on-one phone calls, asking for 400 personal invitations, relishing the chance to tell the story of the dream God had given us and to explain how we believed a goal that felt beyond us wasn't as beyond us as any of us imagined.

More doesn't build relationships or tell stories. More doesn't disclose the depths of the dream God has given you. More is easier because it takes less time to say. But more isn't vulnerable and doesn't hold you accountable. More doesn't invite you to consider what your dream looks like to the ones from whom you are asking participation or help. More doesn't ask the ones who believe in your dream to imagine their part in that dream, such that it becomes their dream too.

Of course, numbers can limit. If a goal is too small, the community might surrender the opportunity to be surprised by what God can do through them and the moment. And, fair enough, God's promise to Abraham and Sarah was a promise they wouldn't be able to count. My prayer for the next Acolyte Festival will be, "More, please!" And/but/then/also, I'd ask the leaders for a number. Not too limit us,  but to physically orient our leadership in the direction of the limitless promise of God - a step at a time, and in a way that compels us to risk the dreams God has given us with one another, in whose company those dreams no doubt will change, transform, and - with God's help - surprise.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

New Names & No Swords:
Trusting God's Promise to Sarah and Peter (and Us)


Homily for 3/1/2015, St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center.

Abram and Sarai get new names from God: Abram becomes Abraham and Sarai becomes Sarah. 

And even not knowing the Hebrew - what’s behind the new names - it feels like the old names are now standing up straight. Like their backs are upright. A hidden muscle spasm of the soul has been released. Abram and Sarai are compact, hunched over. Not crippled, maybe, but crumpled. “Abraham and Sarah” feels expansive and full.

Sure enough, the language bears this image out: in the Hebrew, Abram is “an exalted father”; Abraham is a “father of many.” Sarai is a “princess”; Sarah is a “princess of many.” The emphasis, says God, is - yes - on the lineage Abraham and Sarah now stand to receive but also - and maybe more so - on the blessing God will arrange for others through them. Abraham and Sarah will be blessed to bless. The blessing they are given is in the context of a world in which their blessing, generously extended, will bring life to unexpected and barren places.

But that’s to skip ahead. The immediate import of God’s change of their monikers means that Abraham and Sarah will never again be able to hear their names called in a crowded bar without first thinking of the One who calls them up to make the promise: the Lord. It is the Lord who insists on the promise that makes Sarah laugh: Abraham and Sarah will have children of God; not one or two; not three or four or five. The descendants of Abraham and Sarah will be more than the sands that get stuck in your swim trunks and more than the stars that fill a clear North woods’ sky.

I was informed in sixth grade - in a junior high locker room before gym class (by a twelve year old who smelled like a predictably combination of deodorant, dirty socks, and sweat - and who could be counted, he assured me, as an authority in these matters) that one doesn’t give oneself a nickname. Only someone else can give you a nickname. Which is why most people are hesitant to tell you theirs: many times, nicknames represent embarrassing stories. Or strange encounters. Or secrets told in the confidence of a sheet fort at a slumber party. Or peculiar things about ourselves we wouldn’t have noticed or thought to say about ourselves. Nicknames - when you play by the rules of this twelve year old expert - are a bit like hearing your voice played back to you on a cassette or mp4 recording. You get a glimpse of how others see and hear you, and at best it’s surprising, and at worst it’s not flattering, and so we wonder if the names we are given in gym rooms by the people with whom we share such things really fit us very well at all. 

And it’s both good and bad, right? We are as likely to doubt the sincerity of a complimentary nickname as we are to fear the truth of those less flattering.

I am not surprised when we’re told, later on, that Sarah has a hard time accepting a name as beautiful as the one God gives her: the one attached to the promise she cannot believe. The new name - and the promise - must have felt a bit like wearing someone else’s clothes. 

Sarah does not surprise me, because I sometimes have a hard time imagining what it looks like to let God’s word about me be the most true word about me. I wonder if you can relate. The word that says that I am not my success or my status; that I am not my career or my country of origin; that I am not, even, first of all Texan. 

That, above all, I am loved. That, having put on the garment of Christ, I am attached to a promise I cannot believe. That we, in a true sense, have been given new names. That the Lord has extended the promise of Sarah and Abraham to you, and has likewise give you a new identity in Christ - this is the foundation and beating heart of your baptism, to which Lent calls each of us to reconnect.

Indeed, in prayer book formularies prior to our most recent prayer book, the BCP 1979, the relationship between naming and the moment of baptism was explicit. While ritual baptismal customs understandably and rightly change with time, the underlying truth remains: the name you received in your baptism is Christ’s own, and so you are a child of God’s promise.

Peter is one of the first followers of Jesus to receive a new name. His first name was Simon. In fact, in Matthew’s gospel, Peter gets his new name just seconds before the episode we hear Mark tell today and just after confessing Jesus as the Messiah of God. In Mark’s gospel, following Peter’s profession of faith, Jesus foretells his coming death and resurrection. The disciples get queasy at the mention of blood. Peter speaks up. Jesus and Peter throw down.

Unlike Matthew’s gospel, which ends the story on a high note, Mark’s gospel shows Peter, like Sarah, finding it hard to trust his new name, finding it difficult to trust through a plan that looks like the cross. “God forbid,” he says, to which Christ responds with his famous, “Get behind me, Satan” line, which I’m sure Pete appreciates in front of his friends. Like Sarah, Peter is in the process of being blessed to bless, to bring life to new and unexpected places. But Peter is no dummy, and the cross seems like a stupid place to look for new and unending life.

Later, we are given a vivid picture of Peter’s mistrust when a motley crew of soldiers, servants, and religious officials approaches Jesus at Gethsemane, to arrest him, and a disciple - John’s gospel says it’s Peter - draws his sword and cuts off a servant’s ear. 

If I am like Peter - like Sarah - like Abraham - like the others - if I am like Peter, I wonder what parts of my life still betray my mistrust in the promise that comes with the new name God has given me. Beloved. Child of God. Clothed with Christ. Blessed to bless. 

Maybe you, like me, are aware of true things about your life that make your body hunch over, like Peter’s, like Sarah's, crumpled in on itself, one hand clenched tight to the sword, you know, just in case? Maybe not violently. But certainly fearfully. After all, the sword here is more than a weapon of war; it is a symbol for everything we do to protect ourselves from our fear that God might fail God’s promise, or that God’s way won’t deliver - that God’s way won’t “work.”

But what life would be possible - what life would be open to you - if those hesitations in your body and those spasms of your soul could release? If belief in the Messiah could translate even a little more fully into the trust of your body toward the promise of God? What is it, exactly, you are afraid still of losing? Where do you imagine your greatest need for protection from trusting?

Today, let the sacraments, the Scriptures, and this community of faith conspire to remind you that, above all, you are loved. That, having put on the garment of Christ, you are attached to a promise that maybe you cannot believe. That you, in a true sense, have received a new name.

The emphasis, says God, is - yes - on the blessing you now stand to receive but also - and maybe more so - on the blessing God will arrange for others through you. Like Abraham and Sarah, you also have been blessed to bless. The blessing you have been given is in the context of a world in which that blessing, generously extended, will bring life to unexpected and barren places.

So, take heart. Take heart, and come. You who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus and have received a new name - “child of God!” - tonight, one more time, come to the table, and stretch out your hands and reach with your life toward the promise of God. Together, with me, let us put down our swords.

Amen.