Thursday, April 12, 2018

Pentecost Quiz

UW's International Student Services asked St. Francis House to make a short quiz to help people learn about Pentecost, as part of a larger, educational diversity project on campus. Thanks to those on FB who lent inspiration to the quiz, which is made to teach as much or more than stump. How'd you do?

1. The Christian feast of Pentecost is sometimes called the _________ of the church.

A. Annual Audit
B. Facelift
C. Birthday
D. New Year

2. According to the book of Acts in the Christian New Testament, bystanders at the feast thought Peter and the other disciples were drunk because, although the people were gathered from many countries, 

A. Each person heard the disciples speaking in their own language.
B. The disciples slurred their words.
C. The disciples danced without inhibitions.
D. The people were given over to prevailing stereotypes typical of the time.

3. According to the gospel of John, Jesus' giving of the Holy Spirit is linked to the gift of 

A. Fire
B. Forgiveness
C. Foresight 
D. Fasting

4. In Acts, on Pentecost the disciples are said to have received the Holy Spirit, which alit on their heads like

A. Small, tame animals
B. Jars of oil
C. Loaves of bread
D. Tongues of fire

5. In the book of Galatians, all of the following are named as fruit of the Spirit EXCEPT:

A. Love
B. Joy
C. Peace
D. Forbearance
E. Kindness
F. Self-Righteousness
G. Goodness
H. Faithfulness
I.  Gentleness 
J.  Self-control

Answer Key:
1. C
2. A
3. B
4. D
5. F

Friday, March 30, 2018

One and Only Noble Tree (a Good Friday meditation)

Once upon a time there was a forest full of trees, but it wasn’t so much the trees but the one tree that caused the trouble. You know the story. The woman; the fruit; the man. Serpentine transgressions. Was it gluttony, lust, or pride, I wonder. Selective hearing, maybe. In any case, they mistrusted both his words to them and his love for them. It is hard to know which breach was greater: the eating or that, afterwards, they hid themselves from God. Exile, swords of fire.

A friend of mine said, “avocado.” Avocado? Yes, he said, the fruit it must have been or would have been for him; the food that marked the sin. He was probably projecting, but I wonder sometimes what fruit would be ripe enough, enticing enough that I would forget God’s voice to me; that I would dismiss God’s voice to me.

Before too long, the man and woman, formerly of the garden, became fruitful themselves, found with child, but that had long stopped being an obvious good thing. Sibling rivalry. You know how that goes. Fruitfulness turned sour. Competing sacrifices. Because if loving God isn’t a game you can win over and against your sister, your brother, your neighbor why play? That counts as sarcasm; there are good reasons. But it’s fruit again, the parent’s sin, the cry of Abel’s blood. And Abel’s blood’s still crying. Good God, is Abel’s blood still crying.

And every night on channels one through nine, you can see him, you can hear him; they call him different names, but you can still hear Abel’s blood.

And it’s Abram and Sarai, Moses, Elijah, David, Elisha, Jonah, God bless him, and Nahum and all of God’s prophets, God’s judges and kings, the high priests of the people, trying to give God back Abel's blood.

Sometimes I pray when I hear it, and sometimes I laugh when I hear it; other times, when I hear it, I sink into my sofa and drip through to the ground, the weight of the sadness slaying my tears and as heavy -- oh, as heavy -- as the flickering light is blue against the wall.

They sprinkled blood, not Abel’s, on their beaten, wooden, doorposts that first, black night called Passover; that first last night in Egypt, just as God commanded. Prefigured Lamb of God. The Egyptians were howling; God, God was faithful, and the Hebrews walked out on dry land. Pillars of cloud. Columns of fire. And the Hebrews walked out on dry land.

But college freshman everywhere will tell you, when they’re talking to you at all, that unexpected freedoms are the hardest kind to handle. And the people who walked free from their mud bricks in Egypt had a hard time believing that the One who had freed them from their mud bricks in Egypt, would keep them, could keep them, from their mud bricks in Egypt. That they would be cared for. That God would bring them home.

And so, in an ironic twist, somewhere along the wandering road, somewhere among the endless, numbered, days that followed, the people who wandered and followed griped one time too many, and God brought back the snake. You know, the one that started the whole mess in the first place. He brought him back. With friends. Snakes to bite their heels. Some of the people were dying.

Moses cried for all of us, “God, make it stop!” and God had Moses fashion a separate snake, this one made of bronze, and put it on a pole; the people were told to look on the pole in order to be saved. And the ones who did were saved. And some millennia later, the disciple Jesus loved, the one called John, he saw that snake, and called it Christ.

Which brings us to a second tree that caused the trouble. One tree from the forest. You know the story. A man. With some women. And some men. They found him in a garden, with their torches, flaming swords. Sound familiar? Exiled Son of God. Or at least that was the goal.

The disciples had swords, too, but there would be no battle here. No repeated spill of Abel’s blood, at least not come from him. The cup first drunk at Passover, now come before the Lamb, and he names his willingness to drink it. And Peter, who would have fought for him, would not, will not, die with him, and the cock crow names the hour.

They gave the man a trial, the people did. Or close enough to one for their intentions on that day. And they dressed him like a king, and pranced before the powers, and the powers lost their power to the madness of the night. The night as dark as blood. The day that looked like night. And they crucified our Lord.

Once upon a time, this mother, she could smile. But darkness knows no friend.

Two trees by which to see the grief, to hear the cries and taste the blood of wars that will not cease. The rivers flowing blood. Our attempts to hide from God. Infernal blue light flickering. But eyes to see and ears to hear pick out a pin-prick hope against the darkness, even on this day, even here amidst the blood, if faint, if far off, glinting. And this is the pin-prick hope -- God’s own happy sadness -- the moment despair loses hope, becomes futile -- this is God’s secret: the two trees are one tree and his wounds heal the first.

The flaming sword extinguished now, Life’s tree holds high its fruit; and Christ himself, pressed, crushed, for us, becomes the very wine of heaven.

Heaven prepares the table for the feast. Even now, heaven prepares the song.

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

The Past is Present by Tom Waselchuk

The following is a guest post by Tom Waselchuk, St. Francis House 1982-1990. I share it on the heels of yesterday's post, detailing St. Francis House's continuing involvement in the Sanctuary movement in 2018. Also, check out this post from a year ago that provides some additional historical context for St. Francis House's role in beginning the Sanctuary movement in the 1980s. Tom's article comes from that formative time. In this season of Lent, in which folks either prepare for baptism or are invited to reconnect with what it means to have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, I find Tom's story and invitation to action to be beautiful expressions of what it looks like to belong to each other as sisters and brothers in the Body of Christ.

In the mid-1980s St. Francis House joined a nationwide, faith-based coalition called the Sanctuary Movement, the primary goal of which was to provide shelter and support to political refugees fleeing the widespread violence of civil wars in Central America. In the summer of 1984 one of those refugees, Carmen Maria Garcia, fled her home in El Salvador and, though seven months pregnant, waded across the Rio Grande, linked up with an “underground railroad” network that brought her to Madison and St. Francis House. Carmen’s son Dalton was born that October, and Carmen lived at SFH for about a year.

My wife Dana Johnson and I were deeply involved in the Sanctuary program, supporting and helping to resettle Carmen and other refugees while giving them a public forum to bear witness to the horrific conditions from which they fled. My intent here is not to go into great detail about the turmoil in Central America during those years. Rather I hope to shine a light on a history we, you and I, share by virtue of our connection to SFH and to ask you, dear reader, for material help for Carmen and Dalton.

In order to introduce you to these two amazing people, a little background into the conditions that caused Carmen to flee her home is warranted. The Salvadoran Civil War began after a 1979 military coup brought the Revolutionary Government Junta to power. Catholic activists protested against the junta's oppression of impoverished citizens. ├ôscar Romero, the Archbishop of San Salvador, was assassinated on March 24, 1980, while saying Mass. On December 2, 1980, four Catholic missionaries from the United States working in El Salvador were raped and murdered by five members of the El Salvador National Guard. In December 1981 the Salvadoran Army brutally murdered over 800 civilians in the village of El Mozote. The details of all of these and other crimes are public record; suffice it to say that activities of the Salvadoran government, army, and National Guard created chaos, terror, and a flood of political refugees.

Dalton and Carmen
So, having escaped and begun a new life at SFH, Carmen and Dalton moved to the Pilsen neighborhood of Chicago where Carmen became an active member of St. Pius V Catholic Church. She married and bought a house in Summit IL, and life unfolded. But then a series of misfortunes befell her. She was forced to quit her job in order to care full time for her husband who had suffered a brain hemorrhage following a fall. He died in 2007. Then the 2008 financial crisis hit and destroyed the equity in their home. Attempts to refinance were unsuccessful. After years of mounting debts, taxes, inflexible bankers, a freak flood (with crippling damage to the home), Carmen and Dalton lost their home in February 2017. Up against the wall, they decided their best option was to walk away from the crushing debt and start over.

Dana and I have kept in touch with Carmen from the very beginning. We are godparents to Dalton. We have, over the years, been able to help with small amounts of money to help with various expenses, school supplies, heating bills, rent payments and the like. The Garcias have never been what most of us would describe as “well off,” and we have always wished we could do more. In addition to offering them direct help, we’ve now organized a GoFundMe campaign to help put them on a more solid financial footing and get them back into a home of their own.

Dane Johnson, Tom Waselchuk, and Carmen Maria Garcia
For Dana and me, the past is indeed present. If you’re reading this, you too have a connection with St. Francis House. Perhaps you were around to witness the struggles and excitement of the Sanctuary Movement. More likely you weren’t, and you see this as a bit of history unrelated to you. Either way, we ask for your help. In a world of such desperate want and need, I feel almost sheepish to ask for this help from you. We are strangers to each other. But to quote Rev. Tom Woodward, pastor at SFH during the Sanctuary years, “While we have no legal obligation to assist Carmen, she was so critical to the church's witness through St. Francis House that we want to be of support for her at this time.”

I could not have foreseen this moment 35 years ago, but the past is indeed present and I want to bear witness to Carmen and Dalton, to assure them that memories remain and love of God’s people abides.

Here’s how to help. Donations can be made directly to Carmen and Dalton via this link.

There is also more information at the site about the specifics of their journey and their plans for finding a new home. You may also contact me if you have any questions about this effort.

Thank you.
Tom Waselchuk:

Tuesday, March 13, 2018

Diversity Work on Campus, the Sanctuary Movement, and Other Good Gifts of this Tuesday

Today at Hillel, the professional organization of religious workers on campus (the aptly named University Religious Workers) enjoyed at our monthly gathering a rich conversation with Thomas Browne. Tom is Senior Assistant Dean for the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences (CALS) as well as the Minority/Disadvantaged student coordinator for CALS. 

Tom shared candidly, clearly, and generously about the on-campus realities that result in some students leaving their UW experience as "Badgers for life" while others leave beaten down, noting that students and faculty of color are disproportionately likely to find themselves in the latter camp. Though hopefully not news to the gathering in the "new" sense (because it's not), Tom illuminated the conversation with historical references, a clear summary of current university structures and initiatives, and areas for growth - including ways communities of faith on campus can support and share in this work.

Tom highlighted the support of Chancellor Becky Blank with respect to the work of diversity and opening the resources of the UW to all people. In particular, he drew attention to the following statement for which the hope is "that it becomes a part of the fabric of the UW."

The statement's language about excellence and its pursuit, and their relationship to diversity, called to mind the following quote of St. Francis de Sales that has been rattling around in my heart for the last come of weeks:
the Church is a garden patterned with countless flowers, so there must be a variety of sizes, colors, scents — ​of perfections, after all. Each has its value, its charm, its joy; while the whole vast cluster of these variations makes for beauty in its most graceful form.
There is both the variety of perfections and that perfection that requires our God-given variety.

Later on in the day, some interfaith and ecumenical colleagues and I met at Pres House with Rabbi Bonnie Margulis to talk about the Sanctuary movement in Madison, in which St. Francis House played an important historical role. Again, as with the university's desire to weave the commitment to diversity into the life of the university, we found ourselves imagining what it would look like for especially communities of faith on campus to make visible the communication of safe spaces, not just or even primarily in a residential sense, but spaces that visibly communicate a space made safe for conversation. Early in the day, Tom Browne had characterized such spaces my mutual trust and genuine respect: i.e., "I respect your background, and you respect I don't get it, but I'm here."

In the conversation with Rabbi Bonnie, we observed that the commitment to be people and places of sanctuary is very often in place, that is, is oftentimes already embedded within the faith traditions to which we adhere. What is needed then, says my friend and director of the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry Ulrich Rosenhagen, is intentional connection to the peculiar aspects of our traditions that bring us into these conversations. These aspects for solidarity are, of course, diverse. So, for example, Episcopalians might point to the baptismal promise that Christ is there, in each one, to be sought and served. But how is it that people of faith who possess such foundations find it difficult to give them voice? Is there, somehow, a beautiful opportunity in the invitation to solidarity and partnered diversity exactly the possibility of reconnecting with each tradition's peculiar variety of perfection? In other words, what if Christian identity is not preserved in isolation, but rather quite the opposite?

In his marvelous little book, Being Christian, Rowan Williams writes that
...baptism means being with Jesus 'in the depths': the depths of human need, including the depths of our own selves in their need - but also in the depths of God's love; in the depths where the Spirit is re-creating and refreshing human life as God meant it to be
If all this is correct, baptism does not confer on us a status that marks us off from everybody else. To be able to say, 'I'm baptized' is not to claim an extra dignity, let alone a sort of privilege that keeps you separate from and superior to the rest of the human race, but to claim a new level of solidarity with other people. It is to accept that to be a Christian is to be affected - you might even say contaminated - by the mess of humanity. This is very paradoxical. Baptism is a ceremony in which we are washed, cleansed and re-created. It is also a ceremony in which we are pushed into the middle of a human situation that may hurt us, and that will not leave us untouched or unsullied. And the gathering of baptized people is therefore not a convocation of those who are privileged, elite and separate, but of those who have accepted what it means to be in the heart of a needy, contaminated, messy world. To put it another way, you don't go down in to the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud!
When we are brought to be where Jesus is in baptism we let our defences down so as to be where he is, in the depths of human chaos. And that means letting our defences down before God. Openness to the Spirit comes as we go with Jesus to take this risk of love and solidarity..." 
None of this can be taken for granted or taken as obvious, least of all for Christians. In her thought-provoking book Disunity in Christ Christena Cleveland cites research that suggests that Christians can be more favorably inclined toward Christians who are different from themselves, by focusing on primary identities, like baptism. Alarmingly, being so inclined often results in harsher treatment toward non-Christians. This reality is so true as to likely be the Christian's basic experience and also the non-Christian's experience of Christians. In other words, the act of being present and connected to the unique perfections is necessary both because it will ground us and because the world is not accustomed to articulations like these in the name of Christ.

Lord, open our Lips. And our mouth shall proclaim your praise.

Tuesday, March 6, 2018

"Why are you surprised when the weak turn out to be weak?"

The reflection below came as a gift  to me in the course of my week in Minneapolis. The week's gathering was hosted at the St. Jane House, a fabulous urban retreat center and a ministry of the Visitation Sisters of Minneapolis. The House takes as its motto a short quote from St Francis de Sales (1567-1622): "Be who you are, and be that well." In conversation with Brian, who keeps the house, I expressed appreciation for de Sales. He loaned me some books for the rest of my stay, including the book in which the following appears,“Set your heart free,” freely adapted into modern English by John Kirvan and published in 1997.

Lift Up Your Heart - But Gently!

Why are you surprised
when the weak turn out to be weak,
and the frail, frail?
When you turn out to be sinful?

When you fall 
be gentle with your frail, weak heart.
Lift up your heat gently,
accept your failure
without wallowing in your weakness.
Admit your guilt in God's sight.
Then with good heart, 
with courage and confidence in his mercy,
start over again.

It is tempting to condemn 
yourself with harsh words and even harsher feelings. 
But it does no good to lash out at yourself.
Seek instead to rebuild your soul calmly, 
reasonably, and compassionately.

Speak to your heart in understanding words: 
“Rise up my heart there’s still another time. 
Put your trust in God’s mercy, 
so that you will stand stronger in the future. 
Do not be discouraged, 
God will help and guide you.”

Pray with the Psalmist: 
“Why are you sad my soul, 
and why do you disquiet me?
 Hope in God: for I will still give praise to Him; 
the salvation of my countenance, and my God.” (185-187)

Soil Science and Salvation: the Dirt on Last Week's Trip to MN

Last week in Minneapolis I met with friends, colleagues, and leaders from around the Episcopal Church. We shared ideas, questions, images, and learnings from our various work in campus ministry, traditional churches, and community organizing. Here's a week-later sketch of some of what that productive time occasioned for me.

On the first night, we discovered a rich blend of hope and sadness. Hope, for the ways we have encountered God on the margins, in the cracks of the pavement so to speak, etc., which is to say the ways God continues to move and act in this world, surprising, sustaining, healing, restoring. Sadness, for the difficulties presented by an institutional decline we cannot fully lament.

At last year's national gathering of young adult and campus ministers, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry named some of the difficulties. The naming itself, by the Presiding Bishop, was inspiring and encouraging to many of us, as was his insistence that the stakes were not the existence of the church, but that part of the church sustained by the ways the church had accommodated itself to certain expressions of wealth. Additionally, Bishop Curry named the church's responsibility to protect the current generation of clergy from personal financial failure. I cannot overstate the helpfulness of this framing. After all, the years-long ordination process required many of us to assert that we could do no other than be clergy; if we had imagination for other careers, we were to do that, instead. Now, it is not uncommon for those in the process to be asked what else they will do to support (pay for) their vocations. It's different, not bad. And the ability of the Presiding Bishop to name the current reality while proclaiming his honest anticipation for the church to come is essential to leadership of the national church in 2018.

At that gathering last year in Austin, our worship included this song:

Chief among the acknowledgements that have attended confronting the church's institutional challenges is that we may have been measuring the wrong things. ASA (average Sunday attendance), for example. It's not that ASA is a bad number, but at best it's a number that needs another number. That is, it is not clear, exactly, what ASA measures. Faithfulness? Guilt? Consistency? Mission? The ability to find jobs with flexibility? Your guess is as good as mine. Plus, ASA completely punts more nuanced interest with respect to participation in the church. If, for example, forgiveness scholar Robert Enright is correct in his assertion that few people go to church to grow the church (my paraphrase), then we should always be theologically interested in a person's presence at church: "What does her presence reveal about how God is moving in their life, here and now? What is God showing them that leads them into the assembly of the faithful today?" I say "theologically interested" because I think theology informs how we read such moments. If Augustine, for example, is right that even gradually discovered awareness of our distance from God is a gift from God, then the story of a person's presence is also the story of the generous movement of God.

Back to the question of the things we measure. My friend Steve, who convened our Minneapolis gathering, brought to our time together the image of seeds and soil, along with the observation that it is naive to tend to church "plants" and the like without also tending the soil. Soil health may turn out to be our most important work. Steve shared this video:

After watching the video, I thought about how often the church is described as the thing we are building - the plant - such that prayers like this one become the exceptions that prove the rule. If, however, we are at least as much about soil health, then we'll plant some things, like kale, not because they will endure, but because they will remove toxicity from the soil. Likewise, other plants will benefit the soil as they become compost for it. In all of these things, we don't necessarily measure the plant lifespan but the quality of the nutrients each contributed to the health of the soil. In other words, compost adds a beautiful and encouraging dimension to drip castle descriptions of ministry.

Of course, all of this did nothing to diminish my long-time affinity for this beautiful poem by Wendell Berry, Manifesto: the Mad Farmer Liberation Front.

The soil / seed discussion is an important part of Bishop Curry's aforementioned discussion in Austin because the personal failures from which he notes the church is right to guard clergy are not purely financial. They are also the stress that results from the unrealistic matching of resources and objectives; they are the issues of self-esteem and identity that belong to those who are told it would all be different if only they did or were x, y, z, etc., when there is no proof or truth that any of this would be different if they did or were x, y, z, etc. Rediscovering the soil opens space for God's people to be in touch with the nutrients at the heart of the faith, and in a way that makes room for compost, that is, in a way that is capable of fruitful, God-open grief.

There's no denying that the church is changing. And also no denying that God continues to be seen in the changes and in the cracks where our institutions and individual identities grow weak. Indeed, this has been the promise all along. May God give us grace to follow in the way of the cross and find it to be the way of abundant life and peace.

More food for thought. "Can we manage it as an ecological system, instead of a crop?" (See below.)

Monday, February 19, 2018

The Bow Is Turned Around: Freed for Conversation and Conversion

Guest post! This is the closing homily from this year's Province V young adult retreat, for which I had the privilege of serving on the design team with an incredible group of folks. One of those folks, the Rev. Beth Scriven, preached this beautiful word at our closing Eucharist.

Spiritual ninjas.

We haven’t talked a lot about that overarching theme this weekend, but it’s been present on my mind. Early in the planning process I remember Jonathan saying something about how if you’re a ninja, you have to have more than one move, right? And that’s sort of what the life of faith calls for, and even the idea of fierce conversations - every conversation can’t be identical. You need different moves for different situations.

So as we’ve gone through this weekend, there have been a number of moments when those different ninja moves have come up for me, from Courtney’s “hiding from feedback” move to the variety of kinds of fierce conversations that Jesus has in the different scriptures we’ve read, to one of my favorite memories from when my nephew W was really little.

When he was about 18 months old, we put on some music we could sort of ignore while he played and we did the adult thing of sort of half-talking to each other and half-playing with him. Until we tried to figure out why he was suddenly turning himself in circles, around and around, and realized it was the song from the musical Cotton Patch Gospel where Jesus is teaching things like “if someone asks you for your shirt, give him your coat as well” - and the chorus playing was “Turn it around, turn it around. Surprise ‘em a little, start shifting the ground. To get right side up, turn upside down. Now is the time to turn it around.” We weren’t listening, but he was. Turn it around. Turn it around.

Yesterday in our discussion of prayer as a fierce conversation with God and last night during our wrap up session, I heard people name the ways that fierce conversations and our practicing for them felt like confession, like repentance, like turning around and, by the grace of forgiveness, starting anew. And it reminded me of little W, turning around and around - and of the God of humankind’s early years, turning around and around as well.

“Never again shall all flesh be cut off by the waters of a flood, and never again shall there be a flood to destroy the earth… I have set my bow in the clouds, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between me and the earth… When I see the bow in the clouds, I will remember the covenant I have made with all flesh on earth.”

We are so accustomed to the rainbow as a sign of God’s promise that it is easy to forget that it is so named because it is God’s bow, and the purpose of a bow is to be a weapon. But God has turned that bow away from the earth. If it were to fire now the arrow would simply fly up into the heavens. The bow set in the clouds, turned away from the earth, reminds God - reminds God! - that while a fresh start can help, God has promised not to start fresh in quite that way again.

So God finds new ways to pursue justice and mercy, righteousness and peace, new ways to start fresh without destroying all flesh. Every time God sees that the wickedness of humankind is great, and is grieved in the Divine Heart, as I have to believe God must be fairly often, God sees also the the bow has been set in the clouds. The bow has been turned around.

And from this point on, God turns largely to conversations. Through patriarchs and matriarchs, God continues to make and keep the covenant of love and relationship. Through judges and prophets, God continues to renew the covenant. Through the very Word of God becoming flesh and living and conversing among us, God renews the covenant of love.

Again and again, the bow is turned around. Again and again, we are invited, we are urged, we are tempted - just as Jesus was - to become chained to the way the world is. The world requires that you feed yourself, protect yourself, secure your own position, because you cannot help the world if you don’t play by the world’s rules.

And again and again and yet again, Jesus turns that reality around. Yes, nourishment is important, but I will find it from God. Yes, I am God’s Son, but I don’t have to prove it on your terms just because you asked for it. Yes, I love these peoples of this world God has made and loves, but real love is of God and casts out fear. Their redemption is in God and not in the power of this world.

Again and again and again, the world forges weapons and chains and terror; but again and again and again, even in the midst of God’s grief, the bow is turned away from the earth, the swords are beaten into ploughshares, the chains are broken, and justice and peace are brought together by this love so fierce and unyielding that it can afford to find and meet us where we are (and if you have not yet spent time with this window here entitled “Our Human Struggle” I encourage you not to miss this incredible visual summary of the gospel of love).

Again and again, we are changed by the conversation. Gradually, then suddenly, we are shaped by justice, by love, by compassion. We are converted, as we will hear at the Eucharist, from the patterns of this passing world, and freed to become part of how God now loves and liberates our struggling, painful world.

As that perfect love casts out our fear, we are freed to have the real conversation - one ninja move at a time. As loving conversation changes our hearts, we are brought back home to rest in love.

Again, and again, and again, God is faithful.
Again, and again, and again, we are changed.
And this is the sign of the covenant between God and all flesh: a bow that has been turned around, a broken light that has been made beautiful in its brokenness.

My prayer for each one of us as we go out from here is that we might see and remember that we too have been made beautiful in our brokenness and equipped to renew and pursue loving relationships, one fierce conversation at a time.

The Rev. Beth Scriven is in her third year at Rockwell House Episcopal Campus Ministry, a ministry of the Diocese of Missouri serving the campuses of Washington University and St. Louis University.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Remembering Baptism, Learning to Die: a homily for Ash Wednesday

I was honored and humbled to be asked to preach this year's noonday Ash Wednesday service at Luther Memorial Church, our next door neighbor. While, wonderfully, we were joined by other sisters and brothers in Christ, the ecumenical moment was coordinated by Geneva Campus Church, St. Paul's Catholic Church, St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center, Luther Campus Ministry, and Luther Memorial, who extended characteristic warmth and hospitality. I thank God for the gift of so many genuine friendships collected by the occasion. These are the readings for the day.

Happy Valentine’s Day.

I wrote you a poem.

Roses are red,
Violets are blue,
Remember you’re dust
And you’ll return to dust, too.

You’re welcome. I count myself as standing just now in the great, proud tradition of Anglican poets.

Today’s readings give Christians somewhat conflicting instructions for how to proceed on Ash Wednesday: the Old Testament says to sound the alarm, blow the trumpet. The gospel says to go to your room and lock the door. In a strange kind of compromise, you ended up here. Lutherans, Catholics, Christian Reformed, and even, Lord have mercy, Episcopalians. And, make no mistake, this is God’s mercy. It is a gift to be gathered together as we set out on this Lenten journey. For those of you who don’t identify with one of the four organizing faith communities today, your presence is all the more gift for that - you show us in a special way the generous heart of Christ. Jesus prayed for gatherings like this one. I thank God for you.

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 these 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, or at least what I was taught as a kid, 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 university campus difficult because many of you are students and, God willing, none of you are dying anytime soon. In fact, you are beginning to establish personal and professional identities through which you will experience the bulk of your life to come.

Your personal and professional development matters; your education is full of loving gifts from a loving God to be lifted back up in love to God, but none of these gifts 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 very 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 God 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 whom 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 proclaims God's love before all else, 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 what she considered spiritual busywork. You know, giving up things like chocolate and sodas. After a thoughtful silence, the friend asked the author, "What if you gave up reading?"

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, your love-ability, 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 our moral performance, being good, but by trusting God, sharing communion with God and all those God loves, forever and to the end, in ways that become our thanks and praise.


Monday, February 12, 2018

Monday Musings: Colbert Theology for the Church

"Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God." Karl Barth
"Don't be afraid." Jesus 

I finally found some (not even remotely close to) actual research-based backing for my heretofore mostly ignorant instinct that most churches would be well served by space for more laughter: check out Colbert, below. (I skipped to the relevant portion in the link. If you don't offend easily - politically - the first part is great, too, just not relevant to the fear-fending function of laughter).

I found it helpful. I think UW forgiveness scholarship Robert Enright is mostly right when he says that no one goes to church to grow the church (paraphrase). So laughter can also reconnect folks to the joy through which God first spoke abundant life to them.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

As One with Authority: A Closer Look at How Jesus Spoke

Sunday sermon for Good Shepherd, Sun Prairie, and St. Francis House, at UW-Madison. Here are the appointed readings.

I’m not much for dictionary definitions, but when I asked Google, it told me that authority was “the power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.” This matches, more or less, my free associations with the word. I think of things like the toll booth authority and TSA, please remove your belt and shoes. In the exception that proves the rule, this one time, waiting in the security line at an airport, the lead TSA agent called out, “Keep your shoes and belt on! Your government trusts you. I don’t trust you, but your government trusts you.” These aren’t the standard instructions. I suppose they were in a hurry. I was surprised, though, to discover honest to goodness tears in my eyes at the assurance of my government’s trust. Authority. The power or right to give orders, make decisions, and enforce obedience.

I am a Texan, and Texans, of course, don’t like to have our obedience enforced. I suspect Texans are not unique in this. [As a kid, it was drilled into me that, as a former Republic, Texas had the legal right to fly its flag at the same height as the national flag.] So, near where my parents used to live, about an hour outside of Austin, the state put in this toll road that promised to greatly reduce travel times in the area. The only problem was that Texans, especially South Texans, don’t drive on toll roads. Because, authority. It's complicated. So the state kept bumping up the speed limit, every other year or so, 5 mph at a time, to incentivize travelers and tempt them into trusting their government. Last time I checked, the limit was up to 85 miles an hour, and still no takers. The road is mostly empty. As it turns out, power of the government kind is hard to trust.

My first job was at a True Value hardware store, in high school. Authority in that context was my boss. He was kind to customers and cranky to employees, probably operating under the not unreasonable assumption that his high school workers (including me) weren’t the most thorough workers. The first time I was charged with sweeping the aisles and the floor at the end of a day, a co-worker warned me that it would not be unlike our employer to put a small pile of sand in a corner. A trap. Be thorough, he said. That’s right, the boss would make the mess worse just to keep us honest. It wasn’t a question of being comprehensive. It wasn’t a question of cleanliness. It was a question of not being caught. My boss thought we would apply ourselves better to the work if we feared him and doubted the adequacy of our abilities.


When we are told today that Jesus talks with authority I suspect that most of us aren’t surprised. It figures. We might have predicted that “God is great” turns out to mean God is the biggest boss with the biggest hammer. Polish your shoes, brush your teeth, or cover your tracks and run for cover. Adam and Eve knew the drill. In the absence of perfection, hide. Most of us have spent a fair bit of our lives hiding from one thing or another. Because maybe we deserve what we’ve got coming. Maybe we don’t. Doesn’t much matter when you don’t have the hammer. And it’s a problem for us, that we assume God is this way because, as pastor Greg Boyd puts it, “Your love and passion for God will never outrun the beauty of your picture of God.”

How we think about God affects how we relate to God and each other in the church. When we project accusation-based authority onto God, the projection eventually falls onto us, such that we start to fear each other and loathe ourselves. For example, I’ve always loved living in close neighborhoods and, as a priest in these neighborhoods, I’ve loved running into friends and parishioners at the grocery store. Only, most of the exchanges haven’t matched the idyllic repartees I imagined in my head. A typical encounter might go something like this, “Hey! My friend, how are you doing? It's me. Your priest in a t-shirt.” “Uh. Say, Father Jonathan, um, fancy seeing you here, um, you know I woulda liked to have been there Sunday, but I was sick, or not sick but, you know the Sunday before, my kid was, um, I mean, work is busy, and weekends, well, you know how it goes, I’ll be there this Sunday. I PROMISE.” “Um. Okay. Sounds like life’s been crazy, maybe don’t promise. See you Sunday - or not. Anyway, it’s good to see you.” “Yeah, well, I’ll maybe see you Sunday.”

We don’t trust authority. My parents always said broccoli was good for me, but I always knew they were in the pocket of Big Broccoli. Somehow. Other motivating forces had to be at work. Nobody knows me. Nobody would actually want to know me. How could anybody in this world be genuinely for me?

He spoke as one with authority.

But then, over against all this world has taught me about authority, in his book Discipleship, J. Heinrich Arnold - leader of the Bruderhof communities from 1962 to 1982 - writes this:
When we speak about the authority of leaders in the church, it should be very clear that we never mean authority over people. Jesus gave his disciples authority, but he gave them authority over spirits - not people. In the same way, those of us appointed to lead in the church are given authority, but not over people. It is all too easy to forget this. We must seek for humility again and again.
At first, that quote struck me as strange. But then, I looked again at our gospel. Sure enough, the authority has to do with casting out spirits. We 21st century folks may not know what do with authority that has to do with casting out spirits, but not knowing what to do with it is different from having permission to replace it with our own definition. What I want to notice is this: where today’s dominant authority is authority of accusation, Jesus comes with the authority of liberation. Where the authorities we’re familiar with can lock you up, Jesus’ authority promises to open up. Jesus’ authority sets the prisoner free. Which, yes, means Jesus’ authority can be an unwelcome visitor to certain other kinds of wannabe authorities. It’s like a vineyard master coming home and putting the stand-ins on notice.

It’s the tension of this story in which Jesus heals a man on the sabbath in the synagogue. He breaks a law but makes a person whole. He breaks the law but fulfills it. You could even say he heals it.

Witness four chapters after today’s story, where Jesus comes to the country of the Gerasenes. He meets a man who lives in the tombs, covered in shackles and chains. The man has broken out of the chains so many times, the pieces now cling to him like appendages. Remnants of the so-called authorities. But the new authority does not lock up, does not apply new chains to bind him up. Jesus’ authority unbinds, unlocks, raises to new life, so he casts the spirits into the pigs and they run off a cliff. And the people - watch this - the people, the same ones who had put the chains on the man, content to let him cut himself on the stones of the tombs while they traded their pigs for money, they weren’t afraid then. But now, the man put in his right mine, the local pig economy drowned, now they’re afraid. Get out, they tell Jesus. 

Because he spoke as one with authority.

The Good News is bad news if you’re a pig farmer making profits on the imprisonment of others. But if you’ve ever longed to be told that you don’t have to hide anymore, this authority is for you. If you’ve ever prayed that the dead end just might not be, that your brokenness might be only the beginning, that the delight of the One who matters is mercy, then this authority is for you. 

And, alternatively, if you’ve ever found yourself among the controlling, the conniving, or those simply not convinced that the old powers’ best days are behind them, he offers forgiveness. In addition to casting out spirits, Jesus gives authority to forgive to his disciples in the upper room: freedom to become agents of the authority that builds up the body in his very same love and opens paths of redemption and flourishing for God’s children.

Homestretch now. St. Paul is the poster child for those who have accepted the forgiveness of the new authority because they discovered full on their need of it. Today, in the epistle, he says that, where the old authority hinged on knowing the most, knowledge, the new authority rests on love. You used to be able to hold on to your position if you could prove that no one knew more than you. But Paul suggests that to be right and not in right relationship is unimportant for citizens of Christ’s kingdom because he died for us! Because, on the cross, we learn that authority is not power over so much as love poured out. Authority is not power over, is not running the show, is not having the bullhorn, but is seeking and finding opportunities to love and so to live generously toward God and each other, in thanksgiving for our Savior.

May God show us what it is to live under the authority of the One whose love for us is forever. May God give us all we need to love God and our neighbors as those set free from fear.