Tuesday, July 28, 2015

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 27, 2015

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

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

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

There are endless weeds to pull.

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

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

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



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

Welcome to campus ministry in the summer.

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

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

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

Friday, July 3, 2015

Campus Ministry and the Liturgical Calendar:
The Odd Couple of Christian Discipleship

Campus Ministry (L) and the Liturgical Calendar (R) make a better couple than you would think. But a full appreciation for the pairing takes time to acquire.
After five years of ordained ministry in the parish, this August will mark the beginning of my fourth year in campus ministry. The number four is significant, because it signals the start of my second trip through the lectionary on this campus. (Luke, here we come!) This personal lectionary anniversary makes me think that clergy should probably take a page from dogs in determining their RCA (Real Clergy Age). Dogs, of course, multiple their years by seven. A two year old puppy is really a moody adolescent. Similarly, clergy should count divide their years of ordained service by three. Twenty-one years in ministry is seven trips through gauntlet. Seven trips to be enthusiastically celebrated.

With the average age of seminary graduates still hovering near forty-eight, I suspect many will welcome my proposed RCA - with its invitation to a younger age - so long as the HAC number is unaffected (admittedly no sure thing). But I digress.

Anyway, this is why I'm pumped for this lectionary anniversary:

I vividly remember the clergy friend, now retired, who shared his excitement for me when I told him about the new call to serve with students. He, too, had served as a campus minister for a number of years, prior to my knowing him. The best, he said, was when the liturgical and academic calendars began speaking to each other and, together, to the preacher. He warned that this takes a few years, to discern the annual pattern of faith that the community at St. Francis House would experience together, such that we would engage that pattern toward flourishing, and not frustration.

Campus ministries, of course, never celebrate Christmas together. If we played by the wholly good rules of the Advent purists (like my dad), we'd never sing Christmas hymns! Imagine - four years together without one "Joy to the World!" That's all before you reckon with the fact that Holy Week is frequently Spring Break. (Easter is Low Sunday.) And Pentecost sometimes catches graduation weekend, but largely falls into the summer. Summer, for its part, is either a mix of Eucharist and evening prayer with whomever is still around or, as this year - with a significant number of the community interning elsewhere - we designate the student center as fallow cropland. In lieu of Sunday worship, students are invited to weekly meals at the Melton home, praying Compline together after. Some weeks, there are as many as thirteen or fourteen on hand, earning me a long glare from my wife (to whom I had promised dinner attendance would be minimal). Other times, my family eats alone. Such is summer.

While we give up a lot, we get a lot, too. "Ritual observances" include the annual house blessing of the student center, fall and Province V retreats, pumpkin carving at the Meltons, St. Francis celebrations - all animals on deck, the spectacularly awesome pre-Christmas hymn sing, student graduation reflections, game days, lock-ins, and the rest. It's a give and take. Weekly Compline by candlelight has become a transformative part of my own rule of life.

As weird as the student Christian's liturgical calendar can be, it has this much for it: the community is reminded at every turn that the point is living the life of faith beyond these walls. If there's a point to being a part of an Episcopal community on a university campus (and there is!), that point has to include the connection of what we do together to everything we don't do together - all that happens somewhere else. Because a lot of life happens somewhere else.

That a lot of life happens outside of student centers is, I believe, why student communities are such fertile soil for mission mindsets. "Go!" Students are always going. The missional movement adds to that motion the primary conviction that God is already present to and active in the places to which you go. Among other things, to be a Christian is to be learning to see and name God at work in seemingly ordinary, pedestrian places. (Pedestrian here has the double sense - run of the mill and walking - because, God knows, if nothing else, to be a student is to walk your legs off.)

So when I sat down at a coffee shop this morning to sketch out the gospel lessons assigned for the first month of the fall semester, I had to fight back the goosebumps. Mark's gospel starts, "Jesus went..." He doesn't even have a posse yet. There is no church. The movement starts with his movement. Jesus walks into the neighborhood. The second gospel starts, "Jesus went, with his disciples..." People follow Jesus into the neighborhood because, in him, they see God at work there. The third gospel starts, "Jesus and his disciples went..." Three weeks in, Jesus' followers join Jesus as the subject of the sentence; they take an active share in the ministry.

Yes, I thought. Absolutely. Of course this is where and how the student Gospel begins.

Of course, in that beginning there's a lot yet to build on, unpack, listen to, talk about, and practice in our community. But my joy this morning came in that stand-alone and long-ago conversation remembered: my old friend's promise come true - the lectionary and her unyielding rhythms had finally started speaking Jesus in the venacular of the campus. I can't wait to hear what comes next.

Thursday, July 2, 2015

Leadership, Laughter, and Michael Curry:
Why a Playful Presiding Bishop is Serious Good News for the Church

A younger me and Rebekah, with Presiding Bishop-Elect Michael Curry,
on the occasion of Rebekah's confirmation (Easter Vigil, 2005)
In addition to Michael Curry's many and other gifts (see here), Michael Curry makes folks laugh. We Episcopalians don't laugh much in church. No judgment there, just observing. The real gift of Michael Curry, however, isn't just that he's funny; it's that he looks like he's having fun. As if the space, the place, where God in Christ meets God's people - even the church! - gives him joy and life and hope for a world in need. Like he'd preach all day, if he could. Like he really loves Jesus and people. Like he's glad to be there: glad to be with Scripture; glad to be at the Table; glad to be with the people; glad to be following the Jesus who leads us out of fear and sends us into the world God sent God's Son to save. As if to be so sent is the very best of all.


Karl Barth once wrote that "Laugher is the closest thing to the grace of God."

The truth is, seriousness is not the lone, responsible response to difficult challenges that require our total engagement, no matter what our parents told us (or their parents told them). In fact, Family Systems Theory has long asserted that seriousness can be a form of reactivity born of stuck-ness in anxiety. Such stuck-ness is exhibited in the coach who is always shouting "Just try harder!" and reflected in corporate cultures that answer every problem with exhortations to be "serious" and subsequently eliminate what are perceived to be elements extraneous to said serious pursuit of the goal. By contrast, says Family Systems Theory, when systems are capable of engaging challenges in a spirit of playfulness, unhooked from anxiety, new and unseen possibilities - new creativity, innovation, and better solutions - emerge. In other words, it's smart to be playful.


Most Playful CEO 2011 - Rob DeMartini, New Balance from Playworks on Vimeo.

To repeat the main point, seriousness is not the lone, responsible response to difficult challenges that require our total engagement. Thriving organizations insist on single-minded pursuit of their goals and approach these goals in ways that are in equal turns serious, playful, instructive, inspiring, structured, creative, and life-giving. We must, it seems, remember why we're here and know that thing to be an obvious source of joy. When we do, we're both more productive and more empowered. When we find ourselves unable to laugh, by contrast, we are not just failing to enjoy ourselves as we go about our work, we are failing the work itself; we are sacrificing a forward-moving future for a reactive climate of fear; we are exchanging thriving for surviving. When we forget to laugh, we forget our animating story. 

Michael Curry does not forget his animating story. I suspect that's both why he looks like he's having fun and why it's fun to be around him. That the story that animates him is the story of Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is seriously good news for the church he has been elected to lead.

Dead Flies and Church Plants
(On the Hazards of Electrical Attraction)

First, I listened to this podcast from the Episcopal Herald. I did so because it 1) was hosted by my good friend and 2) promised to speak to a topic near to my heart as a missional campus minister: church-planting. So far, so good.

Then, I proceeded to watch a fly flirt with death around a spider web for the entirety of the podcast. Little known fact: spider webs send out electric signals weirdly made from the beating of a fly's own wings. The signal - what is called electrical attraction - calls out like a siren's song to the unsuspecting fly.

In other words, a fly gets deceived into chasing life in literally the only place where life isn't - a dark, small, corner of the building - even when God-fearing souls open the windows, which I tried, not because I like flies but because I'm conflict avoidant, generally.

All of which is more or less what happens to churches that don't listen to the guests on this outstanding podcast. The moral, as always: don't listen to the electric song; get out of the building. That's where the life is.

Filed under #GrimIllustrationsFromTheWorldOfCampusMinistry


Wednesday, July 1, 2015

A Labor of Love:
Recipes for Vegan, Gluten-Free Communion Bread


Last October, I shared on this blog the story of a student's idea and commitment to do the good work of making one bread for the community to share on Sunday evenings. For our community to share one bread means that the bread has to be both vegan and gluten free. (See A Story of New Bread and New Creation: My Joy Behind the New Communion Bread at St. Francis House.) 

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

As a campus minister (whose congregation worships on Sunday evenings), I have regular opportunities to visit other congregations on Sunday mornings, both in and beyond my diocese. So I encounter many creative and compassionate ways to make sure that dietary restrictions do not become obstacles to the receiving of the Eucharist. Until Emma started making bread for our community, however, I had only seen provisions for those who could not receive the "usual" bread. I had never heard anyone suggest that the "usual" bread be  one that everyone could share. 

The night Emma first proposed making the bread, she alluded to St. Paul's words about the unity of the body and the bread. Her instinct named the holy communion our community was praying to more fully learn and share as sisters and brothers in Jesus. Her willingness to give her gifts for the life of the body both embodied the Offertory moment and became a witness and model for our whole community.

Emma has since developed - deliciously so! - the simple bread that occasioned the first post. In my travels and conversations with others about life with the St. Francis Community, I find faith communities that are both inspired by the story and eager to see the recipe. The truth is, there are many recipes. And, with Emma's gracious permission, I share them here, with all of her comments attached. 

Like all good recipes, I hope you'll share these, along with the story that birthed them. I pray that these recipes can be a resource and blessing to local faith communities seeking to embody in simple and concrete ways the love and communion that God, in Christ Jesus, has given the church.

Peace,
Jonathan

From Emma:

Hi Jonathan,

I would love to share my gluten free bread recipe! I know it is tough not to share one bread. The thing that I really wish they had, though, was a way to pass on the bread but acknowledge that you wish to receive the wine. If I go to another church, I receive a blessing and then the chalice bearer skips over me. Yet, we say that if you share in one, you share entirely.

Gluten free and vegan bread has so much to play with! There’s the flour, the sweetener for the yeast, the “milk,” and the “egg” (sometimes), and then of course the different kinds!

Here’s my recipe for non-rising bread:

1 part yeast mixture:
        1 part yeast
        2 parts water
        1 part honey or maple syrup. Our community likes honey better.
3 parts gluten free flour. Our community likes the garbanzo bean and potato starch flour blend, recipe below.

Mix the yeast mixture and hide for 10 minutes. Preheat the oven to 325. Add in flour. Let rise for 45 minutes. Mix to remove air and bake for about 45 minutes.

For our community, a “part” is half a cup.

I really like this recipe because it comes from the Parable of the Leaven, with one part yeast and three parts flour.

Rising bread:

1 cup warm rice milk or coconut milk (full fat or regular, but not “lite")
1/4 cup honey or maple syrup. Our community likes honey better
1 packet yeast or 2 heaping teaspoons yeast
1/4 (conservative) cup of coconut oil. I usually add a little less so that I can melt it in the microwave without over flowing it and making a mess. Also, coconut oil is much more “buttery” than butter after something has cooked, so if you are adapting another recipe, be sure to add slightly less.
2 vegan “eggs” made by adding 2T flax meal mixed with 6T warm water. Let sit for 5 minutes before using.
2 1/2 cup gluten free flour blend, see below.

Preheat oven to 325. Mix the first 3 ingredients and let sit for 10 minutes for the yeast to activate. Melt the coconut oil and make the vegan “eggs.” Let the vegan eggs sit for 5 minutes. Mix everything together all at once to avoid clumps. Bake for about 45 minutes.

Note: This recipe is a good guess of what I do. I’m not really sure that it is exact.

Bread from package:
1 gluten free bread mix from Bob’s Red Mill
Use rice milk or coconut milk as the milk
Use slightly less coconut oil than it calls for in butter or oil.
Use a vegan “egg” for 1T flax meal and 3T warm water for each egg. Let it sit for 5 minutes before using.
Follow the directions on the package.

On flours:
I like to use bean based flours because they are healthier and cheaper. I don’t like to use the rice based flours because of health concerns raised about high arsenic levels and because I don’t think they make very good products. Rice flour gluten free products are often very dry and have an “off” texture to them. They work well with crescent rolls or phyllo dough. The only thing that you have to be aware of with bean flours is that they need to cook thoroughly otherwise there will be a raw bean flavor that is rather unpleasant. Bean flour products are often moist and biscuit like. They make great cinnamon rolls.

Our community’s favorite flour:
5 parts garbanzo bean flour
4 parts potato starch
4 parts sorghum flour or other “medium weight” gluten free flour, like rice flour or oat flour. I don’t like rice flour.
Bean flour and oat flour can be made in a food processor. Grind dried organic garbanzo beans in a food processor until it is a fine flour. Only add enough beans to cover the blades; do not add as many as the food processor can take. Give it a nice break afterwards; it will probably be warm. For oat flour, grind gluten free oats until they are a fine powder. Then grind it some more, you probably didn’t grind it enough. I’ve never tried to make potato starch.

On adapting recipes:
Coconut oil is a great replacement for butter or oil, but round down.
Rice milk and coconut milk (full fat or regular, but not “lite”) are a great 1-1 substitute for cow’s milk.
Vegan eggs (1T flax meal, 3 T warm water and let sit for 5 minutes) are a wonderful binder in recipes where it calls for eggs.
The gluten free flour mix that I have above may not be 1-1 in all recipes. Experiment to find out.

“All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well” Julian of Norwich