Tuesday, June 20, 2017

How to Pray for Camp (& Other Things)

When I was a kid, we loved visits with Granny above just about everything else. Leaving “Camp Granny” was hard, but always came with one of Granny’s all-engulfing hugs, which was a pretty good consolation. Then, as we headed out the door, she’d say, “Be sweet to yourself,” and some version of “Stay safe and have fun!” If Dad was with us, he would chirp back in response to this last line, “Well, make up your mind!” And we’d laugh our way out the door.

I later learned that Granny’s ritual “Stay safe and have fun!" had begun in Dad’s own childhood. Predictably, his response came shortly after. From generation to generation, the exchange, “Stay safe and have fun!” and “Well, make up your mind!” has marked our leave-taking of one another.

On the most basic level, this exchange conveys our family’s love for each other. We want each other’s joy, which is not a small thing. Of course, fun and joy are not everywhere synonymous, but I believe my Granny’s desire that we have fun stemmed from the love that longs for another’s joy. There are plenty of places in this world where wanting the joy of the other person is not a given of being in relationship. In such places, we need to be ready to demonstrate what longing for another’s joy looks like. Likewise, with safety. Parents, for example, pray that our children will have friends who value the dignity of each person, along with the safety that attends that respect and dignity, exactly because we know that that respect is not a given in all relationships. 

My dad’s objection - “Well, make up your mind!” - takes this familial expression of love and exposes the tension between the twin desires for fun and safety, especially as read through the lens of an immortal adolescent.

When it comes to fun and safety, I am decidedly in the pro camp. I think fun and safety are mostly good things, with the caveat that Christians are called to lives of which self-sacrifice is a part, so safety cannot mean the absence of risks or loss inspired by love. (Such lives would not be “safe” but devoid of trust.) But, then again, God’s love can so ground and secure us that we become willing to risk and lose in love for God and the world God also loves. Score one for true safety.

It’s an interesting thing to think about the things you hope for people who are about to leave you and, equally, the hopes we have for the journeys on which we ourselves are about to embark. Fun and safety are good and right. Are they exhaustive? Probably not. Exhaustive is a pretty extreme word. Putting aside exhaustive, then, are fun and safety at the normative center of our hopes for our journeys? Maybe, depending on the context. What other hopes would be in the mix?

St. Paul’s list would want to add, if not lead with, “that God would be glorified,” and “that the others would be built up.” 

I’ll be honest, when I imagine my family holding hands in the car and praying before a family vacation, if I imagine us praying for a) safety in our travels, b) fun along the way, then adding c) that God would be glorified and d) that we would build up in everyone we encounter and especially our sisters and brothers in Christ, it starts to feel in my mind like a prayer from outside of the Episcopal tradition. 

When I keep thinking about it, though, the truly strange thing is that an Episcopal prayer tradition that contains as many as 15 opportunities to recite some version of “give glory to God” in one day of prayer (Morning Prayer, Evening Prayer, and Compline) might produce Episcopalians who are not more instinctively shaped (myself first among us) to pray that God would be glorified in the activity we are about to undertake.

But here I am at camp. What does it mean to glorify God in a game of crazy kickball? What does it look like to glorify God in the Gaga pit? And after this week, what does it look to glorify God in all manner of meetings and appointments at which God won’t be mentioned? What does it look like to glorify God in my grocery shopping? In my relationship with my wife? My kids? What will it look like to glorify God and build up others on a summer’s vacation? Where will I speak up and give voice to the claims of the Gospel in the place where God would not otherwise come up? Alternatively, where will I ask God to quietly shape my presence in such a way that nonetheless conveys the conviction that the love of God matters for and peculiarly informs how I go about the work?

I want to stay safe and have fun. I want you to stay safe and have fun. But, my sisters and brothers, I want so much more for us than that.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever. Amen.

Wednesday, May 31, 2017

"Dear Senator": Addressing Gun Violence through the Lens of Taizé

A day after returning from the Taizé Pilgrimage of Trust in St. Louis, I received an email from the Wisconsin Council of Churches asking me, with other religious leaders, to write relevant state senators to oppose a bill, currently in committee, that would remove the legal requirement for a permit in order to carry a concealed firearm. I find it particularly challenging to make space to articulate distinctively Christian positions on legislative proposals like this one succinctly. Isn't it enough, some  would say, to simply register your voice as for or against? Of course the answer is "No, that is not enough. In and by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus, we have come to believe that more is possible. Come and see." Additionally, abandoning the public articulation of how faith informs these issues, like gun violence, only serves to underwrite the prevailing public assumption that faith is at the heart of problems like violence, an assumption that serves the interests of the State so well that the State would be foolish to question the assumption's veracity without prompting. This is my attempt to write my senator on the relevant bill and provide such a prompting through the lens of the Christian resources that shaped our time with the brothers of Taizé. 

Dear Senator Risser,

Grace and peace! 

My name is the Rev. Jonathan Melton. I am an Episcopal priest and the chaplain director of a campus ministry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, St. Francis House, a ministry with a long and active history of civic engagement. As your constituent and a person of faith, I want you to know how grateful I am for your service to the common life of this country and its people. I thank God for you, and I look for God in you.(1) 

I want you to know you and your work are daily in my prayers, especially at a time in which tensions across differences make dialogue and decisions that transcend the binary and reactive difficult. In such a time, claiming thoughtfulness and nuance that the soundbite cannot convey requires uncommon courage. I believe each of us is loved by a God who can call us into and sustain us in uncommon ways of being in this world, as reflections of God's love and for the good of one another. 

To that end, I am writing today to let you know that I oppose SB 169, the permitless concealed carry bill. Will you join me, and so many others, in opposing this bill? 

My colleagues have sent me talking points that they encourage me to include here. I'll include them at the end, in case they are right that statistics like this one - "since 2011, over 18,000 concealed carry permits were denied or invalidated because the applicant could not pass a background check or had violated state or federal laws" - are new to you. But I suspect these statistics are not new to you. 

I trust my colleagues who have been at this work longer than I have to know which statistics will command your attention, but I think we all - they, you, and me - long to set our sights higher. After all, what is a concealed weapon except an accessory of fear and mistrust against another person? As a person of faith, confident in the power of liturgical rituals to shape persons, people, and communities, I grieve the daily formation our communities undergo as bearers of concealed mistrust and fear. Every cleaning of such a gun, locking of such a gun, remembering to carry such a gun reinforces a posture of mistrust for one another. Yes, we should oppose this bill, but we should also engage every local and political opportunity to call out our habituated hates and suspicions and invite us into spaces of developing trust. 

Obviously, such a call is beyond the scope of this bill, and yet you cannot credibly call for such opportunities later after having supported this bill. What I am asking is that you consider your opposition to this bill as a first step in claiming trust as an essential part of the common good. 

I realize that naming a particular and positive vision of the common good requires uncommon courage. We're not just talking freedom from but freedom for - positive freedom(2) - and we are talking about the hard and patient work of building trust in our communities. And so I pray for you to the God of uncommon courage, who is worthy of our trust, and I offer my support as one committed to walk and work with you and our neighbors as you risk speaking a vision of communities of trust. 

In the joy of the risen Jesus, 



This bill would endanger the public by removing the common-sense protections that the Wisconsin Legislature put into place when it decided to allow people to carry concealed weapons. We should not remove reasonable requirements for background checks, training, and licensing for persons to carry concealed, loaded firearms in public places. 

Surveys show that most people, including gun owners, believe that a person should need to pass a background check and have training in order to get a permit to carry a concealed weapon. 

Without permitting requirements, dangerous, irresponsible, and untrained people would be allowed to carry hidden, loaded weapons in public. 

Since 2011, over 18,000 concealed carry permits were denied or invalidated because the applicant could not pass a background check or had violated state or federal laws. 

Educators and safety experts agree that allowing civilians to carry weapons in schools is not a good security practice. 

Please oppose SB 169 as a dangerous bill that would weaken the public safety protections that are already in place in Wisconsin's conceal carry permitting law.


(1) The Book of Common Prayer, p299

(2) William Cavanaugh on freedom (short video).

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.”


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.


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.


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?


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.