Thursday, June 25, 2015

Summer Reading Rec

Just in time for the beach - or road trip, long flight, lunch break, or downtime at GC - it's Jonathan's book rec for the summer of 2015: Be Friends of God: Spiritual Reading from Gregory the Great.


With short chapters arranged for daily reading, this collection of writings represents an impossible combination of accessibility and depth, infused with Gregory's characteristic scriptural insight and profound acquaintance with humanity's whole and varied landscape, toward which he is both unfailingly charitable and appropriately challenging.

Last night, the following passage especially caught me in its desire for God and love of the neighbor:
Let us enkindle our hearts, my friends, let our faith again grow warm in what it believes, let our desire for heavenly things take fire. So to love is to be already on the way. We should not let any adversity call us back from the joy of this inner festivity. No difficulty of their journey alters the desire of the people wanting to reach some particular place. You must not let any seductive good fortune lead you astray: they are foolish travelers who see a pleasant meadow and forget where they are going. We must let our hearts yearn for our heavenly home with all our desire; let them seek nothing in this world which they must leave quickly. If we are truly sheep of the heavenly Shepherd, and are not arrested by any delight along the way, we shall be satisfied with the eternal pastures on our arrival there. (30)

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

A Campus Minister's Request of the 78th General Convention


You are the church. Not the building, not the clergy (alone), not the committees (by themselves). You. You are even the church on Monday. You are the church in your workplace, especially when your workplace isn't attached to a sanctuary. You are the church in your homes, as students, as strangers, as friends. Your eyes are trained to see God at work in the world around you, and the God who freed Israel from Egypt and raised Jesus from the dead *is* at work in the world around you. You are the People of God. Not alone, sure, but still YOU. The Church is the People, you are the people, and that's a good thing. To sing God's praises as God's people is the very best of all.

A mentor once said all priests have just one sermon. I rolled my eyes at the time, but I now think he is right. In my ministry as a priest, the above is the daily sermon that, for me, fills the cracks between the Sundays. (In addition to whatever else, it has at least the benefit of brevity.)

So here's my lone request of this year's General Convention of the Episcopal Church: help me preach this sermon.

Before going on, I want to make clear that I am a fan of GC. I'm obviously a fan of the Episcopal Church, and I'm a fan of the many friends from across the country who are sacrificing two weeks of their time (and summer) to do this good work of the church. If nothing else, GC reminds us that Christians are not gnostic, and that regularly sharing communion in the flesh is a good and godly thing. GC reminds us of the truth that relationships take work and tending. GC represents the commitment to hold on to one another, even across distance and difference, especially when it sometimes feels easier to let go.

My request, then, comes not from any fault found in the task of GC; my request comes from an awareness that the necessary form of any convention poses a threat to the sermon that says "you are the church," if you is meant to be inclusive of all who find a home in the Episcopal Church. 

Impossible though it may seem, not all Episcopalians know what General Convention is. Some of the ones who know, care. Within that caring core, a smaller fraction will ever attend one. So the newcomer (or long-timer) is not out of place to ask questions like these when told about the prestigious gathering in Utah this July:

What is it? 
Where? Who? 
Why?
What do they decide?
What will they decide about x, y, or z?
Who decides who decides?
Why does it matter to me?

Again, I want to reiterate that I am emphatically for the work of GC and even GC itself. What I am attempting to name and engage is a phenomenon some business folks call perspective ignorance, where folks on the inside intentionally consider what the inside looks like to folks who don't share an inside understanding. While ignorance generally carries a negative connotation, in the business world, perspective ignorance is an essential and hugely important thing, because it connects the work that is done in leadership with the people for whom the work is done. Failure to take the step of exploring perspective ignorance disconnects leadership from its reason for being. 

So there's this formal dynamic that is a part of conventions, connected to the questions someone on the outside might ask, above. When it comes to GC, this dynamic and these outsider questions can lead to an invisible / visible distinction in the church unlike any Augustine ever had in mind. As if the "real" church - apart from the not *quite* real church you and I attend every Sunday - is at long last convening.

Again: I don't know anyone attending GC who believes the small brick chapel is not the real church. The point is becoming aware of the church's unintended signals - or signals that require special knowledge to interpret. When the sum of parishioner engagement with GC can be summarized as 1) be aware that it happens, 2) pray for it, and 3) maybe one day you'll be elected to it, the signal we send is that this gathering is the stuff of "real church." 

Shifting Foundations

Sometimes signals that once worked no longer work because the foundation beneath them has shifted. I think this is the case here. The gradual dissolution of church guilds, for example, exacerbates the challenge of connecting the work of conventions to local faith communities. It used to be that the average Episcopalian had at least 50% odds of participating in a ministry - Daughters of the King, Cursillo, etc. - with regional and national leadership, of which she/he was at least marginally aware. That is, the thread that connected the national to the local - connecting GC to the particular ministry of an individual in her local faith community - was more readily visible. Anymore, such threads are harder to locate, which I take to be, in part, why this GC will consider among other things the dissolution of provinces. In our context, dissolving provinces both 1) makes sense and 2) highlights the present challenge to connect the work of GC with the work of those who will never attend it and who must never forget that, even so, you are the church.

It's understandable - and good! - that we get excited for General Convention. What is needed is a General Convention just as excited for, empowering of, and enthusiastically pointing back to, the work of the local church, in word and deed. The word part, I think, happens. We all say it and mean it. The deed part is harder because any gathering of leaders invariably encounters the temptation to justify itself - you know, to make the two week celebration worth the cost. But just to the extent that leadership falls prey to this temptation, the divide grows further between leadership and the people leadership serves.

In what follows, then, one example of the problem, one encouragement, and one positive example:

An Opportunity Missed (A Simple Example)

Among other things, this General Convention will propose a reimagining of the church's calendar. There are several things to commend in the proposal of the calendar subcommittee specific to the present topic: in affirming as central the prayer book's calendar of feasts, the proposal shows a useful restraint, emphasizing only saints with direct New Testament mentions and/or connections, allowing an ambiguity "appropriate to the range of theologies around sainthood and holiness within the Episcopal Church." Even better, 
“A Great Cloud of Witnesses” represents the desire of General Convention for a revision of the calendar of the Church that reflects the lively experience of sainthood, especially on the level of the local community. In this way, “A Great Cloud of Witnesses” is a tool for learning about the history of the Church and identifying those who have inspired us and challenged us from the time of the New Testament down to the present moment.
So far so good: an example of leadership that remembers and honors the local church as real church and seeks to make space by a strong but minimal structure for the life of that church within a common faith.

Better still, the proposal helpfully offers seven criteria for the local commemorations for which it makes room: historicity, Christian discipleship, significance, range of inclusion, local observance, perspective, and combined remembrances. 

With so much to commend it, why list the calendar proposal as an opportunity missed? 

Here is the whole post, so far, in a point: it is not the content but the form of the proposal that undermines the content of the work, especially in its attempt to make room for the work of the Spirit in local communities of faith and so to affirm the local church as the real church. Specifically, the calendar proposal is formally flawed to the extent that the tool by which it proposes to make room for the movement and awareness of the local church is a published book, approved by GC.

What If

But what if the proposal of the calendar subcommittee had not been another published book, approved by GC - albeit with a nuanced articulation of sainthood relative to its forebears - but instead was itself an embodiment of that nuanced articulation of sainthood and an honoring of the Spirit at work in the local community? What if what the calendar subcommittee proposed was not a book at all, but an open-source website, following the same criteria, and monitored as a formal project of the church and overseen by one or more seminaries of the Episcopal Church?

(For those trying to imagine the open-source website, think a hybrid of Wikipedia and Zappos, where one clicks boxes in a sidebar to focus results. So, for example, one could simply type in a name OR one could search "women," "southern hemisphere," "19th century." Throw in searchable maps, a lá Google Earth. For kicks, we could borrow the Amazon feature, "More Like This" - but I digress...)

To make the church's calendar of optional commemorations a special project of a seminary and the newly minted digital mission field - of which I'm a huge fan - makes the proposal more than an aid to ministry; the proposal itself becomes ministry, creating a dynamic bridge between seminarians, local faith communities, and the church at large. As a campus minister, I can invite my students to contribute to the educational work of the national church. Moreover, the online project allows members of the church with no desire to serve on delegations opportunities to weave new threads for the 21st century between the life and witness of the local and national church. To restate an earlier point: there is no point or purpose to GC apart from these threads of connection.

The best part of this proposal? It's the logical extension of the old proposal's rationale, only now we're talking about an ambiguity that can be engaged.

An Encouragement

In a memoir, Pope John Paul II confessed apprehension when he was formally charged with his first local church. He was the guy now - the one put in charge of running the meetings! He quickly realized, he says, that his power to lead would come from the questions he asked, and he quickly decided on two set questions for every issue/challenge:
  • What light does the Gospel shed on this issue?
  • Who can we ask for help?
Note that the first question is a question of "why" that assumes an answer from Scripture (at my former parish, we'd ask of each project - without sarcasm - "Why in God's Name are we doing this?") and that the second question gives leadership the power to empower the people. The second question also wonderfully reminds us that all issues before the church are fundamentally a part of Christ's one ministry of reconciliation. As the desert fathers were fond of saying, "It is impossible for one Christian to say to another Christian, 'I have no need of you.'"

A Positive Example

I mention Pope John Paul II and his advice to himself upon being put in charge of a church because the questions he learned to ask are examples of leadership that do not carry the burden of self-justification and so can be free to empower others. 

The empowerment begins as soon as the questions are asked. A campus ministry colleague and good friend recently suggested that the secret to his leadership is knowing when to walk out of the room, take a phone call, visit the bathroom, and let the answers come from elsewhere. That's his understanding of leadership: making focused room for the Spirit in the life of the community of faith.

In such a shift, Why?(1) becomes a more helpful question than What? Behind What? is a task to be delegated and performed. Behind Why? is an imagination that connects to a person's own intrinsic energy(2) to be a part of something special in the Kingdom. Altar guild is the best example I can think of here. The What? is pretty straightforward: wash, iron, fold. It's laundry and dishes. To the one who has asked and dwelt in the Why?, however, washing and ironing and folding have found true and sacred meaning; indeed, altar guild members are some of the great contemporary saints of the church. 

A colleague and good friend of mine just recently wrote a worthwhile post for GC, in which she breaks up the word revitalization, as it is used by the Episcopal Resurrection group in the group's own proposal to GC, into the separate and more clearly defined words she thinks the ER folks have in mind when they use it:
  • Revitalization: a renewed focus on spiritual growth and Christian formation within the church as a whole and the life of each parish and diocese.
  • Evangelism: finding fresh ways to proclaim the good news of God’s love, to be ambassadors of reconciliation and wholeness, in the world around us.
  • Recruitment: reaching out to add new members to our congregations. 
  • Mission: getting out beyond our walls to serve our neighbors, and to join in God’s work of healing, reconciliation, justice, mercy, feeding, healing, nurture and advocacy in our communities and cities.
I love these distinctions. I would suggest that a GC that did nothing more than pray, share fellowship, and ask in as many ways as possible the Pope's two questions - finding God's Why? in Scripture and mapping out resources, networks, and friends to ask for help - will have done more than enough to relieve its need to justify itself. Then, post video summaries of people telling about what they saw and heard and put those voices in conversation with folks on the ground. Yes, parameters are needed, and there are concrete goals to achieve, but then let the people back out on the field. Ask why we do what we do until the answers sing back in our souls. 

More than satisfying its reason for being, such an approach will have - best of all - led in a way that makes me intelligible to my students when, in the fall, I welcome a new class to campus and, in the midst of new friends and some fun and the feast comprised of Word and Table, persuade them again, "Hey! You! You are the church."

_________

(1) From 'The 60 Second Leader': 











(2) John Kotter, quoted from (again) 'The 60 Second Leader':

Sunday, June 21, 2015

12 Holy Things I've Learned from Dad


* Whether throwing the ball, casting a line, or kneeling in prayer, you don't have to talk to be present. (Talking is not a reliable indicator that you are.)

* Stand up for truth. Remember that truth requires those who see and think differently than you.

* The way is worth enjoying.

* Learning and remembering your family's stories and the places where those stories happened is a task worthy of the time it takes.

* Not everyone can be 6' 10", but defense and free-throws aren't more complicated or evasive than putting in the work.

* You don't have to know it all. Expect to be always learning.

* Healing is a part of faith.

* What you know/understand is not a measure of what others don't; it is a gift meant for others. Share what you know/understand generously and charitably.

* It's okay not to settle for superficial.

* Thunderstorms are meant for the front porch, homemade vanilla ice cream, and a healthy splash of kahlúa.

* Remember who and whose you are.

* Make making time for your kids look easy, because that your children appreciate you even more than they appreciate the things you set aside is the very best of all.

Happy Father's Day, Daddy - I love you!





No More Hiding:
Crazy Enough to Trust God's Love

Homily preached June 7, 2015. Readings for the day are Genesis 3:8-15Psalm 130Corinthians 4:13-5:1; and Mark 3:20-35.

In the gospel’s opening scene this morning, Jesus has gone mad. That’s what we’re told. Or, in the customary restraint of the Revised Standard and King James versions, he is “beside himself.” He’s crazy. They think he is. His family starts to wonder. His friends think he’s in cahoots with the devil. There’s whispering behind his back. 

That Jesus’s friends think he is crazy comes as an unexpected, maybe pleasant, surprise for most of us. Be honest, some of you had given up hope for a faith this interesting! To Jesus’s family and friends, however, Jesus is not merely interesting. Jesus is frightening.

But presumably this is the same Jesus about whom we rightly learned to sing as kids, “Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so!” Hardly sounds fear-inspiring. 

The troubled reactions of Jesus’ family and friends invite us to peel back the photoshop filters of faith with which we sometimes paint our Jesus blue eyed, blonde haired, and more or less like us. Jesus is strange. Moreover, Jesus is not just strange to our contemporary, 21st century, eyes and ears. His own family finds him difficult. 

What did they see? What have we missed? Why all the worry and fear from the kinfolk this morning? What has Jesus done up to now, to make the people think he’s crazy? 

It must have been good. Terrifying and good. Fire from the sky, talking animals, unicorns, and dragons. Some cross between Mad Max and The Exorcist. I bet it was wild.

So we pick up the Bible; we flip back a few pages. 

Huh. Just before they call him a mad man, Jesus calls some disciples. Pretty ordinary stuff. Twelve friends to drag along for the ride. I mean, they were an odd group, sure, but “crazy”? What came before that? 

Before his family calls him crazy and before he calls some friends to follow him, Jesus gathers a large crowd. Fills the church up on Sunday. So to speak. Strange, maybe, for a rural preacher from the country, still short of amazing. Hardly crazy. 

At the start of the chapter, Jesus heals a man with a withered hand. Ah! Here we go. People hear about the hand, which explains the large crowd, and some of the ones in the large crowd, coming to Jesus for healing, have unclean spirits, we’re told.

Even weirder, the spirits know him. No one else in Mark’s gospel knows him, but these unclean spirits know him. They call him God’s Son.

Okay, that’s strange.

Still, he’s casting the spirits out and healing the people caught up by demons. That’s a good thing, right? Yet the people here are only presented as fearful, where we might expect them to be hopeful. Or, at the very least relieved. Why be afraid of the healer? The line between fear and hope, it seems, is thin.

I think it is sometimes the same way with us. Caught up by demons. Met by Jesus. Presented with the impossible possibility that we might be made whole; that, through the waters of baptism, rhythms of Word and Sacrament, and the life of the way of the cross, more is possible. I want to be hopeful, but still I am afraid. Sometimes, like Jesus’s neighbors, I am even afraid of the One who gives me hope. It is a vulnerable thing to take even small steps in the direction of hope.

My high school history teacher liked to say all the time, “A ship in the harbor is safe, but that’s not why they build ships.” I suspect that this saying needed saying because it is a scary thing to risk open waters. The same waters that hold great promise are uncertain - and the harbor, with no great promise of hope, is at least predictable. It’s the dilemma Peter faces, a few chapters on, when Jesus walks on the water and invites Peter out; it’s Peter’s fear of the waves combined with the stability and his trust of the boat. It’s only a dilemma because Jesus is on the open waters. Eventually, of course, Peter steps out into life.

It’s funny the things we’ll fear and the things we’ll choose not to fear. 

Two chapters after Jesus’s friends call for his impromptu psych evaluation, Jesus is on the other side of the lake, and he comes across a man possessed by a legion of demons. The man comes out of the tombs and he’s covered with chains. Mind you, the demons didn’t cover him with chains. His neighbors did, in an effort to control him, to lock him up. “Subdue him,” is the word they use. So the man rattles his chains around in the tombs, howling at night and cutting himself on the stones. Homeless. Incarcerated in the prison of his soul, which the people around him gladly decorate with more chains.

But no one is afraid.

Then: this man meets Jesus, the demons go and drown themselves in some pigs at the bottom of a lake, the demons are gone, the man is free, finally, from the shackles on his hands and feet; he’s “in his right mind.” NOW the people get fearful - afraid - and beg Jesus to leave. That’s crazy!

Who knows, though. Maybe the pigs were a loss to the local economy. Maybe, now that the man is in his right mind again, folks will worry that there aren’t enough jobs. That he’ll come after their’s. Maybe Jesus inadvertently exposed the hidden ways in which the life of the town was built on its demons. Maybe it’s the story of Genesis, the serpent, and the apple all over again: maybe we people, humankind, aren’t as good at hiding from God as we thought. What if, more than anything else, you and I are afraid of being caught - of God’s catching us? What if we’d rather not be healed at all than to be found out to be sick, to be found in need of help and healing?

A friend of mine one time confessed that she could wrap her head around unconditional love; she just didn’t want it. “I want God to love me because I’m the best one,” she said. I’ve never met anyone since who was willing to say what my honest friend said, you know, out loud. And I’ve never met anyone since - including myself - who didn’t, for at least a little bit of each day, live out in their lives what my honest friend said.

The people weren’t afraid when they crucified Jesus, hurling insults as they hung the Son of God on a cross. They were afraid when he rose, three days later, to meet them: when God’s love for God’s people defeated their sad attempt to be refused.

It is funny what we’ll fear and what we’ll choose not to fear. If the line between fear and hope is thin, the name of the line is trust, especially the trust that we can be truthful with God. No more hiding. 

I wonder: what are three of your biggest fears in the week to come? Maybe they don’t involve God at all. Even so, maybe especially so, I wonder what it would mean to believe that God’s love for you is more true of you than your very worst fears come to life. I wonder how it could feel to more fully trust that the hope and freedom of the ones for whom Jesus became strange to his own family to heal - and to forgive - is hope and freedom also for you. I wonder what it looks like to live, together, as if you can lose nothing that would mean the loss of God’s love, in Christ Jesus, for you.

*shrugs* Crazy, I know.


Amen.


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Beyond Inclusion:
Resources for Thinking about Race, Power, and Jesus

A while back, I wrote a post called, "When Inclusion is not Enough: Toward a Theology of 'Included')". I was aware, even then, that those reflections had room to grow. I've recently encountered two resources that are fruitfully furthering that growth:


Somewhere, probably in many places and many times, Gentile Christians got tired of remembering that they were a thinking margin that had been included in Israel’s promise. They decided—we decided—that those who followed Jesus were the only people of God and that Jewish people, Israel in the flesh, were no longer the people of God. We also decided that we should look at the world as though we were at the center of it and not at the margins with a Jew named Jesus. We forgot we were Gentiles, the real heathens. A Christian world was turned upside down and remade in our image.

  • Also, a sermon by Sam Wells - The Stone that the Builders Rejected - in which Wells reminds us that inclusion is "not quite" the right word for what happens in his church. After naming the paternalistic and condescending qualities that usually form the shadow side of the word "inclusion," Wells wonders whether "whole idea of a sorted and normal center" - on which the notion of inclusion rests - "was profoundly flawed all along." He goes on to observe that

"The Church is down in the dumps because it thinks it needs to be full of big and strong and powerful people, but Jesus was the stone the builders rejected and in his ministry he surrounded himself with stones that the builders had rejected. 
"Jesus didn't found the church on the so-called center: the sorted, the normal, the benevolent, and the condescending. Jesus assumed the Church would always need the work of the Holy Spirit: the work of miracle, of subversion, of turning the world upside down. Nothing has changed, except - for a lot of the intervening years - the Church has forgotten who Jesus was and whose company he kept. 
"We're not talking about a bland and affirming insight, that a lot of people who've been overlooked in life turn out to have some important things to contribute. That's true, but what Peter sees in Acts chapter 5 is much more radical than that. The stones that the builders rejected didn't find a place in the wall somewhere by being thoughtfully included, like a last-minute addition to a family photo. The rejected stone became the cornerstone, the keystone, the stone that held up all the others, the crucial link, the vital connection. That's what ministry's all about. Not condescendingly making welcome alienated strangers, but seeking out the rejected precisely because they are the energy and the life-force that will transform us all."
That last bit reminds me of a suggested spiritual discipline in Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals, which is to enroll in a Bible study taught by someone with less education than yourself. The first time I read it, I thought the suggestion was absurd.

In all of this, a recurring theme - and what seems to me to be a natural consequence of my not being the center of my faith - is the conviction that God is at work in that part of the world that isn't me. Thus, we are called to trust and believe that God shows up in others. It is a peculiarly human phenomenon that being blessed by others is for us as much an act of discipline and humility as a generous gift to receive.

I was recently talking to a clergy friend about the emphasis St. Francis House places on holy friendships. My friend liked the idea, but asked about the need for a complimentary program component. "People need more than just a few more friends," he observed. He is right. "That's where the word 'holy' comes in," I offered. We seek to cultivate friendships of particular quality - praying for and reading Scripture with are two regularly mentioned criteria - such that life together becomes content-rich encounter with Christ and one another. In other words, what if - our friendships - we expect to meet Jesus?  

Of course, we have program/teaching nights, too, but we seek to purposefully exaggerate our participation in our baptismal promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, which we read as God's promise to be there for the finding in all persons, too. 

There, for me, is the real fruit of the evolving conversation: that what began - with inclusion - as a conversation about me and my church has become a conversation about the person of Christ and the activity of God. To be so de-centered is at the same time frightening and the only truly hopeful thing: to find our stories surrendered to the cruciform story of God.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

"May Our Children Not Unlearn"
The Behind-the-Scenes Story of Mother's Day

It is almost Father's Day, which maybe has you thinking this post on Mother's Day is a little late to be useful. Maybe it is. But, as I learned today in morning prayer, June 2 marks the original Mother's Day, as envisioned by Julia Ward Howe. So there you go. Right on time. Happy Mother's Day!

That Mother's Day has not, since its inception, fallen on the 3rd Sunday of May is one of a few new things my prayer notes taught me this morning. It is a lesson we both know and are always relearning: how history can unhook our days of remembrance from their accumulated sentimentalities. Put more positively: when the motives of another person or generation or project seem to lack depth (as when we dismiss holidays as "Hallmark occasions"), we have probably not sought to understand as deeply and charitably as we might. (I find it a good spiritual discipline to assume that others are/were at least as interesting as we consider ourselves to be.) In moments of potential dismissal, we are called to a deeper attention.


From Common Prayer: "On June 2, 1872, Julia Ward Howe began the celebration of Mother’s Day as a holiday to honor mothers by working for an end to all war."

According to CP, Julia Ward Howe made this proclamation on the first Mother’s Day,

Arise, then, women of this day! Arise, all women who have hearts, whether our baptism be of water or of tears! Say firmly: ‘We will not have great questions decided by irrelevant agencies. Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage, for caresses and applause. Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn all that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.’ From the bosom of the devastated Earth a voice goes up with our own. It says: ‘Disarm! Disarm! The sword of murder is not the balance of justice.’ Blood does not wipe out dishonor, nor violence indicate possession. As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil at the summons of war, let women now leave all that may be left of home for a great and earnest day of counsel.
On a holiday many clergy intentionally avoid for its secular ambiguity, Julia Ward Howe first invoked images of baptism, disciplines and training in the fruit of the Spirit, creation's vocal yearning for reconciliation and healing, and appeals to justice, peace and a non-violent future; moreover, she presented the rationale for a unified women's protest movement/voice 48 years before amendment to the U.S. Constitution finally allowed for women's suffrage. 

How ironic that Hallmark has not invented a holiday for our mothers but inadvertently hidden that holiday's Gospel character from the Church!

From CP, again:
Lord, help us assemble ourselves before you today through our acts of peace and reconciliation with neighbors near and far. Help us to teach the children in our communities what it means to be children of a God who loves us like a mother. Amen.