Monday, May 8, 2017

What the Beard Remembers:
Our Miscarriage & Making Room for 'Real'

In just less than two months, on July 7, 2017, my beard will turn one year old. That I'm two months out of a "yeard" means it has been about six months since Rebekah and I learned she had suffered a miscarriage. The realization, at the time, that my newbie beard would become a yeard about the time we would have met our child became an important personal part of my beard journey. I don't know what has led me to mark the time in beards, but it doesn't make less sense than the loss itself.

I say "about six months" not because I don't remember the details, but because the miscarriage was excruciatingly and unexpectedly protracted. Rebekah began spotting on November 11, her birthday, and it wasn't until a week later on November 18, my birthday, that a doctor's test results confirmed our fear. Even now it's hard to find words for the hell of a week of not knowing and the visceral, physical, wildly embodied grief that followed for months.

Research shows that between 10 and 25% of all pregnancies will end in miscarriage. Before November I wouldn't have been able to tell you that statistic, but Bek and I have never taken pregnancies for granted. We have walked with and prayed for many dear friends whose courage, vulnerability, steadfastness, and love through miscarriages, infertility, and other struggles have inspired us and challenged us to new imaginations for what holy friendship looks like. We have made a practice of sharing pregnancy news with certain people early on, partly to keep us accountable for needing them and not walking alone should something happen. After November, the love of friends kept us standing.

As we told family and close friends about the miscarriage, a significant number of them shared that they had also suffered miscarriages. Many times, this news was shared in loving ways that sought to honor and not diminish the particular pain Rebekah and I felt. The kinship of suffering opened existing friendships to new conversations in ways that nourished the souls of both parties. Other times,  people told us their stories in ways that felt like invitations to suck it up, get back to being a person who didn't cry in meetings, and join them in the good and noble practice of carrying pain in secret. Even now, I'm not sure what made the difference in how I heard the invitations.

For my hearing the invitations differently, I don't fault any of our friends. God knows we needed them all. I especially don't judge anyone for not having the words they wanted to have. God knows I didn't. More than anything, I think our society's culture of concealing hard things became the context for how I received the words differently on some days than others.

I don't think The Culture of Concealing Hard Things thinks too hard about perpetuating itself, because it has the benefit of occupying the default position. Instead, it takes thoughtfulness and courage to make room for real in the land of the scripted. Here's the closest thing, then, this reflection has to a thesis: in the land of the scripted, Christians and churches should be pioneers of making room for the real.
"Here's the closest thing this reflection has to a thesis: in the land of the scripted, Christians and churches should be pioneers of making room for the real."
In advocating for the real, I want to say that no one should feel an obligation to share their story or their suffering out of turn, before they are ready. That said, as a Christian, I do think it is a tragic mistake to presume that I can know when I am ready, much less to know my self and my story, by myself. In any case, it has taken me six months to sit down and write this and, I'm not sure what makes this day different than the ones on which I did not sit down and write. I think I write in part out of trust and gratitude for others who have blessed me by sharing their hearts. I know I write in part because every experience of suffering, my own or another's, leaves me holding the question for which I have no good answer: "Why do we spend so much of our waking hours pretending that our lives are less vulnerable, fragile, and beautiful than they are?"

When we do not feel like real life has the bandwidth to carry the suffering of others or our own - in other words, when we experience another's burden as an interruption to be overcome - we must ask ourselves, "Of what do we imagine the uninterrupted life consists?" You know, after all the real is gone.

We carry lots of things that fill the real: the challenges of parenthood, the challenges of being parented in unsatisfactory ways, alcoholism,  poverty, sexual assault, racism, discrimination of general and very particular kinds, God's presence, God's absence, depression, the unique burden of PTSD on men and women of the U.S. military, the three big things you would add next, and a million others, and every corresponding emotion and experience of it. For most of us, we share so little of what we feel. But I for one am not convinced that a world in which people don't cry in meetings is a good or worthy goal.

There are clearly political dimensions to each of these realities, with corresponding actions we can and should take to improve the situation of people in pain. But/and/also, there is also so much good to come from being present to one another even when we cannot resolve each other's pain. I thank God for so many friends who were present to us in this way. I marvel that among the many things it means to be called God's friends are bearing others' burdens and having burdens borne by others, too. The gift of presence that walks with, bears hard things, listens well, and makes room for even our pain to be a publicly admissible part of ourselves is a gift that communicates as little else can the unsurpassable love of God made known in Jesus Christ.

Thank you for showing up in the vulnerable space of love that walks with. Thank you for risking love without a script, where neither of us claims to know what comes next and so we relent and trust God together. Maybe improvisation like this is what it is to love without fear.



Saturday, April 8, 2017

Love the Fish: A Wedding Homily for Sarah & Tony

A rabbi had a friend who remarked, over a shared dinner of fish, how much he loved fish. The rabbi looked at his friend. “You love fish, huh? You loved the fish so much you took it from the river, boiled it, and ate it. You don’t love fish. You love yourself. You love how fish makes you feel.” 

Tony and Sarah, I give you the secret you already know to the fullness of joy in your marriage: love the fish. Love one another.

Some important clarifications before we go on: 1) you, of course, are not fish, and 2) the rabbi was not necessarily endorsing a vegan lifestyle. For our purposes today, let’s call it a metaphor. Love the fish. Love one another.

How will you know when you are loving the fish? That you are loving each other for more than how the other makes you feel or meets your needs? I am not asking this question rhetorically, because I know you both well, have come to count you good friends, and I know that this question is one you already cherish and already live. This question is one you are ready and prepared to answer with your lives, even when you don’t have all the answers in your life. Sarah, Tony, your generous, self-giving love for each other and the world around you is obvious and evident and inspiring and, yeah, sure, a work in progress, and yes, also, a thing for which all of us today in this space thank the living God. For such a love is surely God’s good gift.

For their part, Sarah and Tony tell me to tell the rest of you that they blame you for imparting this self-giving love to them. To ask them, the love to which they are committing today is their partaking in a gift they steward because of the love and example of a great cloud of witnesses of which each of you is a treasured part. A great cloud of witnesses, seen and unseen, has made this love real for them. 

I do not know how you taught Tony and Sarah by your lives to love the fish, but if I had to guess, I would guess that it was by imitating your giving and forgiving. Learning through your lives generosity and forgiveness; sharing the space of life with you as you gave of yourself and received gifts from others with humility and grace. You taught them to love the fish, too, when you forgave others and received forgiveness in turn, when you saw and named that you had grieved another person, and in that moment you put your love for that person above yourself. 

These two ways of being, generosity and forgiveness, which are really one way of being, are twin lights that illumine the love of God in this world and they reside near the hearts of all those who know that the love of God knows them. So generosity and forgiveness name the love of Christ that invests in another’s flourishing, even at the cost of other lives you might have lived instead.

And that’s marriage, right? And certainly parenthood. Not unlike monastic life, marriage is choosing to surrender choices and so to let go of other lives we might have lived. The good and unexpected news is that there is freedom and joy in choosing fewer choices. But the freedom of fewer choices doesn’t come in marriage’s being easy (spoiler alert: it isn’t), but freedom and joy come in learning to trust that the number of choices in our lives is not the most important thing about our lives. The freedom of fewer choices is the freedom of knowing God’s love and coming to trust, more and more and together, your identity as beloved of God with all your life. So, years from now, don’t just reread the Song of Songs nostalgically as a story into which you both rightly inserted yourselves on your wedding day. But read it frequently, yes, as a picture of your love for each other, but also as a picture of God’s love for each of you and both of you together. Read the parts we didn’t read today, and let it make you blush. Remember that the same Jesus who says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” is the Jesus who springs for fancy wine at the end of the party. And who delights in you both and who shares your joy today.

Sarah and Tony, continue to let the love of the Winemaker be the source of your own. Let his love challenge and delight you. Let the cup of this table continue to sustain you in the good work of loving each other and others.

Finally, a different rabbi also had some friends over for a shared meal, a different meal, a breakfast of fish on the beach, and he remarked, over breakfast, how much he loved them, how much he loved his friends. He held out his wounded hands and breathed God’s peace and forgiveness on them. “Love one another,” he had told them days before, “Just as I have loved you.”


Amen.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

An Interactive Way of the Cross on the Campus of UW-Madison

A prayer walk for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, bringing prayer and local history together, using the stations of the cross and prayers from the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services, 2003. Each location has been matched with prayers from the BOS; those prayers appear as the last photo for each location.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

The Impossible Possibility of Faith: Bearing the Cross that Feels Light

A particularly important (and beautiful) passage from Rowan Williams' Silence & Honeycakes, which I'm re-reading with friends this Lent.
Jesus says in Matthew 11:30 that his yoke is easy...but we can hardly forget that he also tells us to pick up and carry the cross. To see - to feel - the cross as a light load is the impossible possibility of faith: letting our best-loved pictures of ourselves and our achievements die, trying to live without the protections we are used to, feels like hell, most of the time. But the real hell is never to be able to rest from the labours of self-defence. It is only very slowly indeed that we come to see why the bearing of the cross is a deliverance, not a sentence; why the desert fathers and mothers could combine relentless penance with confidence and compassion.
A friend shared the following video with me the other day, and it powerfully captures what Williams calls resting from the labors of self-defense. Crucially, Christians are called to recognize the ways our labors of self-defense often take the shape of violence toward our neighbors. In other words, I think it is a profound mistake to hear Manning's words as purely private. To confess self-defense is to confess how we daily embody our mistrust of God in our relationships one another and others. There is such truth and mercy in the Lord's Prayer when the petition for daily bread, trusting God for the "just enough for today" (à la manna in the wilderness), is immediately followed by a petition for forgiveness.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Refugees, Sanctuary, & the Church in 2017


This is a resource post, which means I promise fill it with what I hope are useful links for you. It also means that the post will be even better if you share additional resources in the comments below! 

My first sustained attention to the concept of "sanctuary" probably came with the release of the 1996 Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I was fifteen years old. I had been raised, though, in an Anglo-Catholic tradition that emphasized the absoluteness of the confessional's confidentiality, which seemed to me to be consistent with the concept. Still, even multiple film viewings didn't mask the incompleteness of my education.

I start with Quasimodo because, with the return of the sanctuary movement in 2017, my recent experience in conversation with local leaders is that many of us carry a heart for the work while simultaneously carrying holes in our knowledge of the movement and so also what we're getting ourselves into. There's good news here. Presbyterian minister John Fife didn't know what he was doing, either, when he started the sanctuary movement in the early 1980s. As it turns out, sanctuary means lots of things. As it turns out, caring and showing up to the conversation is a good enough place to start.

But history helps. Which is why I can't commend enough two short podcast episodes from 99% Invisible:
99% Invisible is a podcast "about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world." The show has been criticized by some for departing from its stated mission to produce these two episodes, which is a fascinating and, I contend, misguided critique. For surely the political involvement of the United States in the governing of other countries constitutes "unnoticed architecture and design" that shapes our world. Which is why the history helps.

History is also what John Fife and his peers turned to when they began the sanctuary movement. They turned to the Underground Railroad movement of the early and mid 19th century in which Christians (and especially Quakers) were also instrumental as a template for their work. Just as the podcasts above provide a helpful history when considering the sanctuary efforts of 2017, history helps as Christians continue to grapple with the legacy of slavery. An excruciating documentary I can't recommend highly enough in this regard is 13th, which documents the constitutional transition from slavery to the systemic incarceration of African-Americans in the United States. 


So, in 2016, former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman said in an interview with Harper's writer Dan Baum
We knew we could make it illegal to be either against the way or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about drugs? Of course we did.
The sanctuary movement was similarly subjected to the interest of the government, which enlisted informants to pose as sanctuary volunteers who recorded meetings and even worship services as evidence later used to indict leaders of the movement. In the trials that followed, prosecutors successfully filed court motions that disallowed the defense from presenting arguments about, among other things, the enforcement of immigration law and religious freedom. Maybe read that sentence again. Most fundamentally, it was refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador, countries whose dictators were propped up by the U.S. government as part of Cold War posturing, who were being denied access to this country under existing asylum laws (because to do would require formal acknowledgement of evils enacted by the governments the U.S. was propping up). It is impossible to separate questions of justice from questions of design.

_____


When I was called to be the chaplain at the St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center in 2012, I knew I was stepping into a rich history of pronounced social awareness and activism. My predecessors transformed the Episcopal Center into a medical clinic for protesters during the Vietnam War resistance, for which the University of Wisconsin-Madison was something of an epicenter.

Charley Taylor, speaking at SFH's 100th anniversary event in October, 2015. 
For more on Madison and the Vietnam War, check out 
the stellar documentary The War at Home.

In the 1980s, too, St. Francis House provided sanctuary to refugees of Guatemala and El Salvador, with families sharing rooms and spaces traditional reserved for students. When people talk about the sanctuary movement today, it is usually this historical moment to which they refer, when the Christian community openly challenged the federal government's enforcement of asylum laws. 

Like many churches, St. Francis House has changed since 1980. Not in its commitment to justice or the service of Christ in all persons, but as an institution, as a building, even. As the university landscape is always changing and evolving, so too with us. The rooms refugee families inhabited in the 1980s were torn down some years ago to make room for the adjacent student apartment building. It was a brilliant and visionary move to maintain an Anglican/Episcopal presence at the University of Wisconsin, and the change of space will not prevent St. Francis House from carrying the sanctuary mantel again in 2017, but the change does mean that carrying the mantel will not look exactly like it did, and not just for St. Francis House. In 2017, sanctuary is not just a movement among churches. Cities, counties, and other institutional structures also claim the commitment. So the imagination will be new, and that is good and right. But that the imagination will be new does not mean that we must start from scratch. The history of the designs of injustice and their resistance (and sometimes faithful defiance) are there for us. They are our conversation partners and our cheerleaders in the work ahead. We should keep their stories close and cherish the chapters we have the privilege of living. 

Wednesday, March 1, 2017

Lent & Learning How to Die


Today we begin the season of Lent. Here, on day one, we stand forty days, give or take, from the earliest, most ancient holy days of the Christian church: days that remember the death and resurrection of Jesus - Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. When we say that Christians are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are also saying that Christians are baptized into those ancient days and, therefore, into God's time. So Lent is the season by which Christians remember our baptism and rediscover our place in God's story.

Contrary to prevailing narratives, Lent (or Christianity, for that matter) is not about self-improvement or becoming better people. Lent is about learning how to die. That makes the preacher's task on a college campus difficult because, God willing, none of you are dying anytime soon. In fact, you are in the middle of establishing personal and professional identities through which you will experience the bulk of your life to come.

Your personal and professional development matters; it is full of loving gifts from God to be lifted back up in love to God, but none of them matter as much as, or apart from, the identity God first gives you through the waters of baptism. So Lent is not about disparaging your other vocations; it is about lifting up this first one, sometimes digging it out from the bottom of the pile or retrieving it from out of the dustbin, so that you can see all the others by its light. Lent is remembering that, no matter what else life holds, you are never less or more than the child dearly loved by the living God whose Son's life, death, and resurrection make it possible for you to lose your life in love without fear, for the glory of God and the building up of God's people.

Now, if (like me) you were baptized a longtime ago, you might not remember the words. But at your baptism, the Christian community invited the Holy Spirit to hover over the waters, and it was like a reenactment of the Spirit hovering over the waters back in the beginning, the book of Genesis, at creation. It was the same, but different. This time, the Spirit and the waters announced God's new creation. Then the water found you and a voice spoke these words over you, "I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit." And later, "You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ's own forever." And these words count more than all the awards you will ever accumulate and all of the failures you can possibly manage.

The question that drives Lent is what trusting God's love for us and our neighbors above everything else, even our best accomplishments, goodness, and deserving, can mean. So Lent is about learning to die.

A dear friend of mine, Evelyn, spent the last of her eighty-plus years in an assisted living center. Though she would occasionally lament that the view through her window never seemed to change much, she was, on the whole, an infectiously positive woman. "I am thankful!" she would say every time I'd visit. She was thankful for her family, which included her church family, and all that her eighty-plus years on this earth had meant. More than anything, she was thankful for God. One day, though, Evelyn carried a sadness into our visit. I asked her about it. "I am thankful," she said, "and I have had to give up so much. I am thankful for my family, but I don't see my family as much as I'd like to. I am thankful for my memory, but I can't remember as much as I want to." Then she pointed to a ball of yarn and two needles. "My eyes are dim and my fingers hurt. I can't knit. And I loved to knit." She pointed around the room at her handiwork. It was true, knitting everywhere. "Tell me," she said. "Why would he take that from me? I think I am ready to die; I am not afraid to die. But why would God take that from me?"

Baptism reminds us that, just as Jesus was stripped at his earthly end, we too will be stripped. Sooner or later, there will be a day when strength and memory fail, when even the assurance that we have made a difference in the world might not make a difference to us. At that moment, will we have lost our worth before God? Through the waters of baptism, the Spirit cries, "No! God forbid!" And neither have those you do not recognize as worthy of love lost their worth before God by our negligence and self-interest: those with dementia and mental challenges, those we exploit for personal gain in this country and across the globe, the obviously unsuccessful, the prisoner, the outcast. Stand with these and you will discover the gift of God's love without condition, the Spirit's breath and mercy. In this light, as it claims God's love, baptism is the gift of dying before your death.

So a world-renowned author went to a spiritual friend and said she was having a hard time deciding what to give up for Lent. She had no obvious vices, and was loathe to take on meaningless spiritual busywork. After a thoughtful silence, the friend asked the author, "What if you gave up reading?"

I don't know if she did, but there was likewise once a wealthy man who stood before Jesus and said that he, too, had no obvious vices. After a thoughtful silence, Jesus asked, "What if you gave up your wealth?"

I wonder, if Jesus wanted to tug this Lent on an equivalent thread of trust in your life, questioning that which you have come to rely on as a primary basis of your identity, a sign of your goodness and deserving, of a worth that has taken the place of your baptism, what question would Jesus ask you? Would you be willing to pull on that thread this Lent, if it could mean the emergence of a renewed trust in God?

Lent is about losing everything we thought made us the wonderful people we are until there is nothing left but God's love for us and the call to trust God's love and mercy to the end. Such a trust will involve turning from some actions toward new ones, because we will be given the gift of seeing how many of our actions toward each other are different ways of protecting ourselves from the need to trust God. This is one reason why you cannot do Lent by yourself, because trust of God and love of others belong to the same equation. You can measure the one by the other. Trust in God goes with generosity and vulnerability toward the outcast and stranger. So Christians learn trust together and discover that trusting God turns us into God's gifts for each other and gives glory to God. Like Israel's wanderings in the wilderness, Lent will call us to walk with God together, because the Christian life is not about impressing God by moral performance, being good, but trusting God, sharing communion with God and all those God loves, forever and to the end, in ways that become our thanks and praise.

Amen.

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Blogging 'Silence & Honeycakes'

Hey friends! Wanna join me in a good ol' fashion virtual book read for Lent? Comment below and we'll be in touch!



Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Forgiveness Resources for Faith Communities & Families

On this Valentine's Day, I'm reminded of the best marriage sermon ever. It's a 10 point sermon with just one point: forgive. While Jesus' words in this coming Sunday's gospel about loving enemies may instinctively call up imagines of political opponents and/or citizens of countries we fear, the best marriage sermon ever reminds us that marriage, also, is one of God's gracious means of giving us enemies to love. 

I mean that last part humorously and truly, but not cynically. After all, to call someone my enemy is not to say that it is their fault and not mine we are enemies. Our conflict may expose my own difficulty in loving that which I don't control or loving beyond the boundaries of my personal self-interests. Moreover, to take Jesus seriously, to call someone my enemy is to clarify the nature of a faithful response to them; it is to commit to love them. 

Most people don't want to have enemies, much less love them. But if the naming of enemies is the first step toward love and forgiveness, maybe our reticence to have enemies is a kind of guarantee that they stay that way. Maybe the naming of enemies, in the spirit of Jesus' commandment, is a kind of moral achievement, if it calls us back to the work of forgiveness and love. 

Dietrich Bonhöffer and Jean Vanier have both said that the main work of the church, the community of faith, is to forgive and be forgiven. But it is sometimes hard to know how to prioritize this work. Remarkably, Dr. Robert Enright, professor of educational psychology and founder of the International Forgiveness Institute, is working to help faith communities, schools, and families normalize and constructively engage the good work of forgiveness. With his permission, I am sharing links to some of his resources at the end of this post.

If you or your faith community would like to commit to cultivating a culture of forgiveness in your context and utilizing aspects of Enright's work, would you comment here or otherwise let me know? I am working with him to help communities of faith become "Forgiving Communities," which is to say communities that publicly express their intention to live forgiveness, so that we can become resources to one another and others who might benefit from the example of those who are a few steps farther down the road.

____

All resources by Dr. Robert Enright, shared in the hopes of identifying faith communities that might resource one another and others:

The Church as Forgiving Community: An Initial Model is a wonderful resource for developing a culture of forgiveness within a church.


Curricula







Thursday, February 9, 2017

Beautiful Beards (& Other Good Things that Grow By Doing Less)


My barber makes sure I don't get a big head about my beard. "You know," he says, "people will tell you you're growing a beautiful beard, but the truth is you've just decided to stop not growing one. It's weird that the verb goes to the person who has decided not to act. I mean, it's the clean-shaven look that takes the daily commitment to do something, but nobody ever says to those folks, 'Hey! I see you've decided not to grow a beard today!'

Of course, my barber is right. Growing a beard has become a source of humility for me, just to the extent that people are impressed by something I decided not to do. I didn't grow the beard, I just stopped not growing it.

Paradoxically, "stop" is a verb, too, and ceasing action is a kind of action. Still, that "stop" might be the most important action one can take to make room for a beautiful, new thing is a profoundly humbling realization.

I know it's true, though, when some action of my kids pushes me over the edge and I nearly lose it, or I do lose it, but then I stop my verbal exasperation, drop to their eye level, ask their forgiveness, and we embrace. I know it's true when, after a friend has finished talking, I stop the standard back and forth pattern meant to ensure we will each fit approximately the same number of words into the conversation and instead double down and say, "It sounds like you're hurting. Tell me more about that." I know it's true that when you play fewer of the strings for a given chord, that's when you hear the harmonies most clearly.

"Stop" is a verb, and ceasing action is itself an action. And some stopping can be fruitful.

If the beautiful, new thing born of non-action, requiring non-action, is humbling, in 2017 it is also heretical. Most of us carry powerful computers in our pockets to make sure that we do not have even a single unproductive moment. We want to change the world and make things better. Never mind that this approach carries with it an impossibly high opinion of the things we produce; whatever it is must be better than an empty moment, right?

Maybe.

Some friends and I were talking about the idea/commandment of sabbath the other day. We talked about practical considerations; for example, keeping the sabbath allows introverts time to recharge and acknowledges that human beings aren't as productive over time when we work without rest. But we also talked about some of the more challenging (i.e., less obviously productive) aspects of sabbath keeping:
  • Times of intentional rest confront us with the extent to which we find our identity and worth in our work and call us back to trust of God's love for us and the identity in God we receive as God's gift.
  • Sabbath locates our narratives within the larger narrative of God's work and action; we remember that we are prophets of a future not our own.
  • Visibly trusting God's love for us makes us, also requires gentleness with one another. 
We did not mention it that day, but I feel like Walter Brueggemann would insist on including the truth that, scripturally speaking, sabbath keeping has always been about the land, too. Imagine the beard the earth might grow if we weren't always cutting it back as far as the blade can be pushed.

In all of these things, there is humility again. There is William Cavanaugh's reminder of the possibility that the assumptions that we know enough, are good enough, and are powerful enough to affect positive change do not always hold, and that "When you're standing on the edge of a cliff, progress is defined as a step back." There is, additionally, the humility that comes with trusting God and one another to meet us in the spaces we do not control and cannot fill with more of our good intentions.

Importantly, to say that God gives the growth is not an argument for complacency or passivity. Far from it! The most significant political act of the last two weeks has been a federal "stay" on an immigration order - a crucial call and action to non-action! A ceasing as doing. Part of what needs doing, says Cavanaugh, is to engage the world with the humility that knows that we are not God.

Finally, then, there is a real sense in which I am growing a beard. That is, what I first conceived of as inaction has proven to be anything but inactive: I have put down the blade. I have made room for new possibilities. I have exercised patience. I have looked for what God is doing (we're talking in metaphor here). I have asked for help when I've needed it. I have waited. I have oiled and balmed. I have received what I've been given. I have been grateful.

As it turns out, sometimes you have to move to be still. We will not find the humility proper to us by riding the raft of the society's status quo.

In addition to all the other things not shaving has meant doing, I have also grieved and remembered.

On November 11, my wife's birthday, she became concerned that she might be experiencing a miscarriage. On November 18, my birthday, the doctor's test confirmed it. At one point, I realized that the beard I had begun in July on a whim would be a year old (a "yeard" in beard parlance) about the time the baby would have been born. Though I am still not sure I will let the beard grow for the full year, remembering is why it has lasted this long. Mine has not been a melancholy remembering, but an honest one, because we faced a reality I could not change, but desperately wanted to. I was simultaneous confronted with the limits of my actions and invited in a new way into the difficult and beautiful space of humility and trust of God: the God of the cross, and the God who makes all things new.





Wednesday, February 8, 2017

The Lives Our Children Interrupt (finding life and joy in Christ in spite of ourselves)


Helpful background: the Episcopal tradition I'm a part of assigns passages of Scripture for each day, and we're invited to read them as a part of morning and evening prayer, either in our faith communities or at home.

So today I'm reading the daily lectionary readings, and I skip ahead to the gospel, just to see what it is. Immediate laughter ensues. It's a two-part reading, and the second part is the more famous of the scripture siblings: it's the account of the time some people bring children to Jesus, and the disciples try to stop them, which turns out to be a bad idea. Jesus calls out his dutiful disciples in the now famous words, 
Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.
These words are so famous, they usually get quoted on their own; we don't always think about them in light of scripture sibling A, which is too bad for comedy's sake. But here's the full scene: 

Scripture sibling A is some Pharisees asking Jesus what he thinks about marriage and divorce. And they're probably trying to trick Jesus, but he's taking the question seriously, opening the scriptures, setting up an impromptu mini-seminar, and it's not clear that he's ready to end it when these kids show up. And every parent knows this feeling. Every parent covets the experience of even one uninterrupted sentence spoken and heard at the dinner table. OF COURSE the marriage seminar would be interrupted by children! Once Jesus started talking, it could seemingly end no other way.


Full disclosure: I'm a parent of a 7 and 5 year old. My wife and I are constantly getting interrupted, and (I won't speak for her) I am not always gracious receiving them. We're talking going on eight years of broken communication. For comments. For questions. For spills. For bodily injuries. For disturbingly accurate (and unsolicited) assessments of our weaknesses. For fart jokes and bugs. So I laugh at Mark's take on Jesus' failed marriage seminar, but importantly my laughter is empathic, not cynical. After all, and as any parent knows, it's the interruptions that make us holy. Of course, children make their parents holy not by any of the adorable things that end up as photos on Facebook walls (guilty as charged) but by exposing and then transforming the limits of what we had formerly called our self-sacrificing love. 

The presence of children, even when the prayer for those children has been a longtime coming, inevitably (and sometimes uncomfortably) reveals the control we would like to have over those whom we love. Holy, as it turns out, is less about giving off golden auras and more about learning to love more than you'd like to. Indeed, William Cavanaugh observes that commitments like marriage, the religious life, and family are (communally discerned) choices that cut off a whole range of other choices (Field Hospital, 93) and so "make it possible to achieve the options that really matter" (ibid., 91).  Such commitments require habits for their living out, where a "habit is a way of relieving us from the burden of having to make choices. When we develop good habits - Thomas Aquinas called them 'virtues' - we don't even need to spend time thinking about whether we might steal or commit adultery" (ibid.).

When Christians make room for the interruption called children, whether in the family or in the church, old habits and orientations are challenged. Where old habits and orientations are not challenged, it can be fairly asked whether a family or church has really made room for children in any meaningful sense.  Such a determination is not a condemnation, but an opportunity to invoke new habits that would overcome our natural disposition. The difficulty, writes Godly Play founder Jerome Berryman, is that
Ignoring children in the church is an unrealized defensive act. Children present a powerful challenge to what adults conceive of as spiritual maturity....We have an unspoken theological heritage of ambivalence, ambiguity, and indifference toward children that still outweighs our understanding of children as a means of grace (The Spiritual Guidance of Children: Montessori, Godly Play, and the Future).
Understanding children as a means of grace means, at least, discovering a reciprocity of spiritual guidance. As Berryman puts it,
Children require adult spiritual guidance, because they need the permission and means to develop their spirituality. Adults require children's spiritual guidance, because by being who they are, children can refresh and recenter spiritual growth in adults. Without this mutual blessing children and adults are likely to lack the dynamic wholeness and authenticity they were created to enjoy (ibid.)
In all of this, Berryman aims to cultivate the ability to "speak Christian" and, with this gift, "to make existential meaning, to find direction in life and death, and to celebrate what truly matters" (ibid.) This aim to speak the faith well calls to mind a verse from the first scripture of today's appointed readings; it is God's promise to God's people from the book of Isaiah:
And as for me, this is my covenant with them, says the LORD: my spirit that is upon you, and my words that I have put in your mouth, shall not depart out of your mouth, or out of the mouths of your children, or out of the mouths of your children's children, says the LORD, from now on and forever.
At this point, I'm hoping at least a few of you patient readers have thoughts of your own that would bless me and the others. Would you take a stab at one or more of these questions in the comments below?



  • What does formation in your faith community look like? What are the community's goals for the formation of each person? 



  • When have you been a part of a community for which children were at the center? What did it look like?



  • What makes the inclusion of children as a) whole persons and b) occasions of spiritual guidance most difficult?



  •  When have you experienced a one-way relationship turned reciprocal? What made the turn possible? What did such a turn require of the parties involved? What did you learn you had to give?



  • What habits help you love those you don't control?



  • What else? 





  • Tuesday, February 7, 2017

    4 Good Links: Toward Love of Neighbor, Humility, & Hope


    Dr. William Cavanaugh spent two days with a bunch of Christian communities on campus last week, and the timing could not have been better. The immigration ban was yo-yo-ing its way through the media and our news feeds, I was two weeks into despairing of a pastor's ability to write a sermon before 2 AM and a last twitter check on the night before the day of one's preaching. As my friend Greg commented the day before the first event, "There is almost no one alive I would rather hear explain the world right now than William Cavanaugh." 

    I live-streamed one of Cavanaugh's talks, The Politics of Humility, which I've embedded at the end of this post. The other links are resources I have come across since then, and which I think belong to the conversation, along with a brief word from me about the connection I see.


    We need each other in this moment, and we need a new imagination, increasingly even to access each other. Thankfully, God in Christ gives us both. History may repeat itself, but it is silly to pretend any of us have lived this life before. I don't think, either, that Cavanaugh pretends to know exactly what to do next. And I think that not pretending is exactly the beginning of the new imagination to which Cavanaugh points. What do you say? It'll be more fun together. 


    "The Displaced Person: Reading Flannery O'Connor in the Age of Islamophobia" 

    A timely grappling with "the radical command to love our neighbor as ourselves, to be like the Good Samaritan who sets aside deeply engrained bigotry to minister to the needy." Grateful to my friend and local poet Rita Mae Reese for pointing me to this article.

    How to Have a Difficult Conversation: 3 Practices

    In his talk, Professor Cavanaugh observed that having a conflict is a moral achievement and that our social and political moment desperately needs more conflict. This article is a good start for Christians toward taking up Cavanaugh's challenge.

    How the Family is Essential for Evangelism

    Cavanaugh spoke about unplugging from the rage machine, which named an emotional need nearly every person with whom I've spoken in the last three weeks has also expressed. It's also a need that is hard to know how to manage responsibly. After all, ignorance is not really bliss. Rightly, we recognize that the ability to unplug (depending on how we understand the verb) often correlates to one's level of privilege. However, Cavanaugh's example of what constitutes unplugging for him - he and his family weekly share meals, games, and social outings with a family of Muslim refugees in their neighborhood, whose friendship was arranged through his church - makes clear that unplugging need not be synonymous with complacency, apathy, and/or passivity. His family's experience echoes this video's emphasis on the family as a "little church," which opens up new imaginations for Christian faithfulness.



    "The Politics of Humility," a lecture given by Professor William Cavanaugh last Friday at Upper House, co-sponsored by Geneva, Pres House, InterVarsity, Badger Catholic, Upper House, and St. Francis House.



    Sunday, February 5, 2017

    Audio Sermons

    The Story of Brother Roger & Taizé (an invitation to St. Louis)
    January 29, 2017, at an Ecumenical service hosted at Pres House.
    Welcome: The Rev. Mark Elsdon; Reading: Jake McClanahan; Sermon: The Rev. Jonathan Melton


    Isaiah, Ahaz, and the End of the Beginning
    December 18, 2016


    The Story of the Stump (& the God of the God-forsaken)
    December 4, 2016


    Welcome to Advent (Preparing for the Unknown End)
    November 27, 2016


    Jesus: The Season Finale
    November 20, 2016


    Love and the Ending After the Temple Falls
    November 13, 2016


    Seeing and Being Seen By Jesus (text unavailable) 
    November 6, 2016


    Proclaiming God's Peace in all Things
    October 23, 2016


    Beard Balm, God, and Other Good Things to Expect
    October 16, 2016


    Tennis Balls & Fetch with God (text unavailable)
    October 9, 2016


    "My Life is Worth More than Yours" (And Other Lies that Lead to Hell)
    September 25, 2016


    The Feeling of War & the Promise of God (A Homily on the 15th Anniversary of 9/11)
    September 11, 2016


    Wearing Christ & Laying Down Arms (On Parables that Stretch Us
    September 4, 2016


    Good Seats at Swank Parties: Lies of the Anti-Kingdoms & the Joy of the Feast
    August 28, 2016

    Monday, January 23, 2017

    Why Christians Should Question How We Think About Fishing (Especially If You Don't Fish)


    I like to tell about a favorite church sign I saw one day in North Carolina, at a church in a small coastal fishing town. The sign read, “Be fishers of people. You catch ‘em, I’ll clean ‘em. - God.” 

    That sign invoked Jesus' promise to teach his followers to fish for people, but the sign also changed - if just for a moment - my picture of God. Suddenly, God Almighty was down on the river, under the shade of bald cypress trees, decked out in camo, sitting on the back end of a pickup truck, grinning with a big filet knife and a Coleman cooler filled with bagged ice and canned beer. The image raised for me all kinds of questions, like, “Where does God get God’s koozies?” And “What do they say on them?”

    It’s a great reminder that, lots of times, our cultural experiences inform our first responses to Scripture. The Texan imagines camo and coolers. The Wisconsin fly fisher maybe gets excited at the prospect of fly tying with Jesus. We start with known categories, and all the more if we don’t fish. The non-fishers among us will want to reduce the metaphor to the basics: hook, line, and sinker. We’ll draw on secular fishing grammar: idioms like, “She took the bait,” which translates roughly, “I fooled her.” Or “bait and switch,” which means I promised them one thing and substituted another. Or “We hooked him,” which indicates that even we haven’t persuaded the other person, we’ve at least hit his emotional triggers in such a way that we can manipulate his energies. 

    That most of our pictures for fishing involve baited hooks and deception conveniently fits the narrative many Christians and non-Christians have constructed for what Jesus is asking his disciples to do when he invites them to become fishers of people. Evangelism is an activity many people do not trust. Evangelism, the thinking goes, is a practice designed to get someone to do something they didn’t want to do in the first place, either by fooling them into it or changing their minds in ways they didn’t ask for or invite.

    The mistrust of evangelism as unwanted meddling in other people’s lives further reinforces secular categories of the private and public, where religion is decidedly private. Religion is fine to have, but it’s best kept out of sight. Which is a terrifying expression of political power, when you think about it, because you’re talking about the power to make visible and invisible, where the lines demarcating “religion” from the rest of life are oftentimes arbitrary and decided by the state. If we defined religion as “that for which you’d sacrifice your life”, the military power of the state would show up in the search results, for example. If we defined religion instead as “that which commands our fullest attention and devotion,” the Green Bay Packers would trump the Catholics and Lutherans combined in this state. Can you imagine a secular agreement by which it is acceptable to be a Packers fan in a purely private sense?

    But I digress. I think it’s enough to say that the militant relegation of religion to private categories is both founded on mistrust and somewhat arbitrary in where the line gets drawn. While some of the mistrust of religion has been earned, it is also true that this mistrust of religion is sometimes exploited to justify agendas we would not accept if society called them religious.

    So Jesus hands us the promise of evangelism in a fishing metaphor rife with hooks and a cultural mistrust of religion, and we smile and nod our heads in the way a boyfriend or girlfriend smiles and nods to be polite to his or her significant other when, unbeknownst to the other - but well known to everyone else - we are already seeing someone else. He can say what he wants. We see that he’s kind and means well. But we’re not really interest. We’ve moved on.

    But. Well. This won’t change everything, but what if we took a step back. You know, before we projected our cultural understanding of fishing onto Jesus’ conversation with his friends. After all, fishing for Jesus’ friends was different from the fishing granddad did with us. There were no hooks or lines or beautifully crafted ties of one thing made to look like something else. Admittedly, the gospels aren’t fishing manuals, but every time we see them at it, they’re casting nets. They’re gathering fish. They’re bringing what was scattered in the water together. And I wonder if this changes how we hear Jesus’ invitation to fish for people. In other words, what if it’s not about deception, the bait and switch, or emotional hooks and manipulating others. What if it’s not about giving people a change they didn’t want or didn’t ask for? What if it’s about gathering and being gathered? What does it look like to be a part of God’s work of gathering all people to God?

    Lots of things that sharing the gathering work of God could mean, but three things I see when I look at the disciples to whom the invitation was first given. When we ask what difference the metaphor makes, we look to the lives of Jesus’ disciples, what they did, when they did become fishers of people. They lived it 
    • by forgiveness, received and extended, 
    • by telling their own personal stories of being noticed and called and loved by God, and 
    • by going out in pairs to heal and preach, in other words, by risking vulnerability and loving others in the same way as the one who loved and sent them. By love that lays down life for one’s friends. 
    If we describe the phrase retroactively, by the lives of the first disciples, that’s what it is to fish for people. So evangelism now includes saying, "I'm sorry" and working to make things right. Evangelism includes the spiritual practices that will help us better attend to God's presence in our lives, to discover and better tell the story of God's love for us and the world in our own words. And evangelism includes being made into seamless garments, who are the same people on the streets that we are in the churches. As Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has said, "Don't try to be hip. You're Episcopalians! Just be that. Don't stop being who you are." 

    Evangelism becomes less us for them and more us with one another, because my salvation is caught up with yours. And it's hard. And vulnerable. With the potential to change all parties involved. It's honest. And demanding. And beautiful. And exactly what Jesus promised.

    Sunday, January 22, 2017

    Marching & Imitation of Mary:Toward Faith That Is More Than Words



    Sermon preached January 22, 2017, at St. Francis House. The readings for the day, by the Revised Common Lectionary, were these: 
    Millions of women and others marched yesterday. I bet you’ve already seen the breathtaking aerial photographs. The pink hats with pointy ears. Signs of both inspiration and opposition. Millions of people discerning the shape of resistance. Maybe you were among the marchers! Maybe you weren’t. Maybe the shape of your discernment is different, even where you share many of the marchers’ values, hopes, and concerns. I want to say that that is okay. In 2017, there is an unprecedented amount of secular pressure to be on the right side of a thing, even from what appears to be the same side of a thing, and our impatience with one another quickly turns to shaming and the assumption that we must be in the same place to share the same space. But because Christians seek and serve Christ in one another and others, Christians resist impulses to shame. We speak truth in love, even challenge each other, but we also listen and learn from one another, as if Christ himself was there to be known, because Christ himself is there to be known. And so we recognize that the lives of saints constitute a diverse tapestry of faithful witness and response to the challenges Christian face. And we recognize our need of one another. I both am glad many people marched and trust the wisdom of those who didn’t. Truth be told, the marchers weren't all of one mind, either, but love makes room for each other. 

    I saw one photo of women protesting from a ship in Antarctica. My favorite sign had an icon of the Virgin Mary on one side. It said, “I’m with her.” On the back was quoted a portion of Mary’s song, the Magnificat. Luke 1:52: “Cast down the mighty from their thrones and lift up the lowly.” 

    I think all marching, at its heart, is trying to imitate Mary. Like Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel - who appeared before Mary and laid out the plan before nervously adding, “So, what do you think?” - marching is an attempt to say “yes” with our bodies. It’s a yes that says no to the thing being protested but also no to the remaining lip service in one’s life. Marching says yes to living it out. Marching sings Mary’s song. And marching sings the 1991 chart topping hit by the hair metal band Extreme, inviting us to a moral imagination that is “More Than Words.”

    Whether yesterday or some other day, maybe you’ve known first hand the feeling, the change that happens, when a conviction of the head moves south, to the heart, yes, but then it keeps going. The conviction keeps going until it lands on your feet. And feet were made for moving. Maybe your feet started moving you even before you recognized the fact of it. Maybe you were just trying to keep up with others and movement that began with your feet only later traveled north to your head and your heart. There is wisdom in bodies and the imitation of holiness.

    Moving feet to the beat of faith does not always look like marches on capitols. In fact, as many of yesterday’s speeches attested, most days marching will look far less dramatic. Most days, marching will look like day in and day out showing up to your life. Loving God and your neighbor. Caring beyond the fences of your obvious self-interest. At first making room for the interruptions of others and then, over time, interrupting your own self when you see, when you spot, the new possibilities, how a thing might become otherwise with sacrificial love. 

    Joseph found himself marching with Mary and a newborn Jesus to Egypt when, by faith, he refrained from an apparently justified divorce. That’s right, marching that day took the profoundly unremarkable shape of not divorcing. Joseph knew the script, what to do, what he was entitled to do, what the rulebooks called for. But he took heaven’s cue and went off-script. He decided to show up the next day anyway. He decided to stay; to love. Marching, at first, just meant not leaving. The footsteps of faith are supremely ordinary steps taken over and over again in sacrificial love.

    Speaking of ordinary steps.

    Matt Klein saw me write most of another sermon on Thursday at Johnson Public House over a fine vanilla latte. It was a fine sermon about Jesus calling his followers to become fishers of people. About how the way we think of fishing - which is nothing like the way Jesus’ friends, with their big nets, would have fished - gives evangelism, faith sharing, today a bad rap. About how fishing is not bait and switch or hook, line, and sinker, deception and/or manipulation but gathering and being gathered together in nets, about being made whole. When we ask what difference the metaphor makes, we look to the lives of Jesus’ disciples, what they did, when they did become fishers of people. They lived it by forgiveness, received and extended, by telling their own personal stories of being noticed and called and loved by God, and by going out in pairs to heal and preach, in other words, by risking vulnerability and loving others in the same way as the one who loved and sent them. By love that lays down life for one’s friends. If we describe the phrase retroactively, by the lives of the first disciples, that’s what it is to fish for people. 

    So far, so good.

    But then, yesterday, with all those feet and all those hats and all that hurt and all that beauty and hope, and even imperfect and unfinished as resistance goes, a prayer of a beginning, it occurred to me that becoming fishers of people didn’t start with the disciples’ even mostly understanding what they would become. It started with a simple “yes” to “follow me.” It started with sand covered steps in sandals and “Good bye, Mom.” It started with movement. Someone today says to a preacher, “Your sermon moved me,” usually it means the sermon evoked an inner emotional response. Bad pizza can do that. But when was the last time the Gospel moved you, not just in an inner sense, but in a feet under your body sense, in a “I’d still be doing some other thing over there, but now I’m here, if not for that Good News” sense, in a “I realize that, without Jesus, this whole thing looks crazy” sense? In a, “I was lost but now am found” sense? In a “How else was I gonna get close enough to see Jesus?” sense? I do think that movement leads followers of Jesus to the space of forgiveness, storytelling, and sacrificial love, but I also trust the wisdom of the body, and yesterday reminded me of the wisdom of bodies, and I wonder what the movement of your faithful feet has shown and taught you about the goodness and mercy of God.

    Finally, a last word. It would kill me if exploring marching as a metaphor for the Christian life the day after the Women’s March was somehow read as my equating participation in one party or another with Christian faithfulness. Let me be clear: I am not the first and won’t be the last thoughtful person to denounce the idolatrous patriotism of the president’s inauguration address, and I won’t be the first to observe that the cure for idolatrous patriotism is not fulsome allegiance to the other - or any other - political party, however much we might share with and learn from them. The cure for idolatrous patriotism is sustained and loving collective attention to and movement after the voice of the one who first said, “Follow me,” and who today says it still. Because justice begins with right relationship to the God who created us for the praise and worship of God. (This is why Compline has us say, “Glory to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Spirit…” like three billion times. Because justice is human creatures giving glory to the God who made and saved them and acknowledging the giftedness of all things for the flourishing of all people.) 

    Christians don’t follow a donkey or elephant, Christians worship the Lamb. And the lamb says, love your enemies, bless the other side, put down the swords, share what you have, give glory to God, love one another. Following this one will not make our lives apolitical but will show us the fullness of the alternative to the powers of this world we have been given in Jesus Christ. It may take you to St. Louis! To move with this one is to move toward love without fear not just of losing, but love without fear of giving, love without fear of forgiving, love without fear of being forgiven, and love across all fences of our obvious self interests.

    Pray the Spirit so moves God’s people! Not in the pizza sense, but really moves followers of Jesus, as in, with their feet, toward the glory of God and love for each other. Let the Song of the Lamb be the song that we sing as we walk together with our own sand covered feet the Way of our Lord Jesus Christ.

    Amen.