Friday, December 26, 2008

the Day AFTER Christmas

Well, today the rest of America seems to be winding down from Christmas. Parts of the country (including my part of Idaho) were hit by a big winter storm yesterday, and in some parts of the country (like Omaha) it's obscenely warm. 

Christmas and Christmas Eve were such big days for the church. For so many people, Christmas (and maybe Easter) is all they get for an encounter with God. Whether it be guilt, family tradition, or maybe even a wish to hear about the baby Jesus, something pulls people into church on that day. 

I've been thinking about it a bit, and at first I was rather annoyed by it. These people aren't here in the bad times of the church with arguments about budgets and other things that take up the church's time. There's not here to support the church the rest of the year. 

But then I realized how poor that kind of life is. Whether it be because church has hurt them in the past or they get tired of the failings of the people of the church or because they forget or ignore the church most of the year, this little service has to support and nourish them for a year. People who come but once or twice a year have to get along without the continual nourishment from God that comes from the Church. 

So Christmas is still an offering the church makes to a hurting, lost world. We offer and invite people again and again to meet Jesus (whether in the stable, on the roads of the world, on the cross or as the resurrected Christ). Some may accept this invitation once every year, some may come more frequently, and some may not come at all. We have to continually witness to Christ, to show and share the love of Christ with the world, knowing that some can't or won't receive it right now. I know that I sometimes refuse to accept Christ's love, and I go to church every Sunday. 

Accepting the invitation is hard, but God continually offers it to us. We'll never be late to the wedding banquet on God's holy mountain; God has put no deadline on the RSVP. God invites us to share in his love and his life every moment of our lives. We can accept, decline, accept again, hesitate, fully accept... you get the idea. God is the kindest of hosts; he won't refuse you if you accept, even if you rejected all the other invitations. In the same way, the Church can embrace that hospitality. Invite again and again the people of God. 

Friday, December 5, 2008

On the outside, looking in

As part of my internship, we have spiritual direction every other week.

The week before last, my spiritual director encouraged me to look at how I'm an outsider. I'm on the outside at my parish because I can't be open about my sexuality. I'm on the outside in the house because I'm such a baby Episcopalian. I'm on the outside in much of the gay community because I'm Christian. I'm on the outside in South Omaha because I'm pretty, well, white.

This isn't to say that I'm a complete outsider; I'm definitely part of these communities in certain ways. I'm fairly Anglo-Catholic, so I'm a good fit for my parish. I'm Episcopalian, so I'm on the inside in the house. I'm gay, so I'm part of the gay community regardless. I support South Omaha in its efforts by coming in not as a leader but as a helper, so I'm in a way part of South O.

However, I still sit on the outside in some ways. This has helped me to understand my parents' hesitation to go to church: "won't I be judged because I don't know a lot about the Bible? Or because I'm not wealthy?" I realize now that not everyone is as passionate as I. Some people are afraid of judgment for whatever reason, and it takes a lot of courage to overcome that fear of being rebuffed.

When I first started my process of converting to Christianity through the UCC, I wasn't about to let anyone come between me and God. The pastors had to answer my every question about whether my being gay would be a hindrance to them.

I had been standing outside, and I wanted to come in to see Jesus. It's like those scenes where someone bursts into an office, bypasses the secretary and storms into the boss's office to speak her mind. Or when the Rev. Troy Perry burst into the hospital administrator's office to demand that the staff go in and feed a dying AIDS patient whom they were neglecting. God's call sometimes requires us to rush in and disregard all sorts of protocol and niceties so that God's will can be done and God's grace be known.

Demanding a place at the table has been a huge part of the LGBT Christian movement. Standing on the outside when people seem happy to ignore your existence is extraordinarily painful. If our whole beings (including our sexuality and gender) cannot be a part of the rich tapestry of the church, then can we give our whole beings to God? The powers and bishops can say and do what they wish, but they do not necessarily speak God's word or do God's will. Sometimes Christ had to harangue the clerics who stood in the way of God. In this way, Christ stood as an outsider looking in; like the prophets, he stood on the outside of the group in order to condemn their sins and call them to repentance.

Then there's being invited in. If not done from a position of power ("oh, I guess we'll let you in") but from a position of hospitality ("come in and have some wine and bread with us!"), then that invitation shows us the real power of God's grace. It is a time of celebration and a time to rejoice in the wholeness of the Body of Christ. Christ called so many people to share in God's kingdom. The outcasts, the Pharisees, Samaritans and Gentiles were all called to do God's will and to love him. In this way, Christ was the insider looking out. He issued the wedding invitation, and we all should get ready to go.

By being both insider and outsider, Christ calls us all to wholeness and reconciliation. If I stand inside and pour contempt on the outsider, then Christ will be there to judge me. If I stand outside and look inside with despair at what I do not have, then Christ will be there to invite me in.

This isn't to say that we should have no boundaries or rules or that healing and reconciliation should come easily. In everything we should be turning to Christ. As the inside group called 'the Church,' are we building people up who don't know the first thing about the Bible or Christianity? My parents aren't knowledgeable about the Episcopal Church, but would they be invited to share in the Eucharist and be invited to share their knowledge? I hope so. Would the congregation condesendingly teach my parents about "the faith once delivered to the saints" or would it joyfully and lovingly teach my parents about "our living hope through the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ"?

And as outsiders: are we proclaiming the truth, or are we sitting on the outside festering in hatred or despair? Are we jealous for what the people on the inside have? Or do we work for justice and reconciliation?

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Depression, pt 1.

I'm talking about depression not in the economic sense but in the psychological one.

As someone who's struggled with depression for many, many years, it's always kind of scary when it creeps up on you.

Suddenly you realize that you aren't happy. It takes twice the energy to get out of bed, to do your work, and sometimes even to eat. Everything is draining. People go on happily around you, frequently not noticing your pain. You're all alone in suffering.

In that time of isolation the thought would frequently come to me: I don't deserve to be happy. That would be my brain's mechanism for keeping me depressed. Everything would be a sign that I wasn't good enough, attractive enough, smart enough. When it takes a ton of energy just to keep going physically, it takes even more energy --energy I don't seem to have-- to challenge that kind of thinking, and, besides, it seems wrong to say that I'm not fundamentally and absolutely evil and despicable.

Those are very dark moments. Happiness is but a fleeting memory, and it sometimes feels like a sin to smile (when you can even muster up the energy to smile).

It is in those moments that I have learned a lot about the Gospel and grace. Instead of seeing myself as lower than a worm, I reflect on God's immense love for all. There is nothing that I can do to earn that love. Nothing at all! I'm not good enough, attractive enough or smart enough to merit God's love, as God's already given me his love. God won't withdraw love because I say something stupid or have a bad hair day.

I also recall Christ's command for us to love our neighbors as ourselves. I know that I am called to love my neighbor, but I'm also called to love myself. I can't hate those whom God loves, right? Just as I am not allowed to sit in judgment over others, neither am I allowed to sit in my own judgment. Strangely, being humble means submitting to God's judgment in this case. Self-hatred is not piety.

I'm sure that I'll never 'get over' depression. Whenever I think I'm doing fine, it will be there for a brief moment to remind me that I'm not healed from it. It brings me to tears, but it is a pain that can be my cross not as divine punishment but as a blessing to others. Suffering from depression teaches me that many, many people suffer from isolation, abandonment, and mental illness. While I can't ever understand exactly what they're going through, I do know what incredible pain depression causes me in my own life. No one should have to suffer rejection because of their mental illness; it is horrible enough to be your own worst enemy and to hate yourself. My own pain teaches me sympathy and empathy, and it calls me to (with the help of God) share God's grace with others. God's grace is our rock, our safe port in the storm.

PS As you can probably guess, I have been dealing with a bout of depression recently. Things are going better now, but I ask your prayers for all those who are currently suffering from depression, especially those who do not know or believe the immense love God has for them.

Interfaith relations, pt 2

Yesterday was another meeting of the local interfaith organization's committee planning for the big tri-faith event in the spring.

We were working on the liturgies that would be used for that evening. I was heartened to see the rabbi and the Muslims insisting that we all do authentic prayer. Nothing was to be hidden or sugar coated to minimize or hide our differences. The Christian Evening Prayer was to be not that different from what would offered in your regular Episcopal parish. The Shabbat service (notably shortened) was to include all the things that make it Jewish. The Muslims started working out the logistics of prayer; would women be present? Would there be a screen to separate men from women?

This shows the real discussion going on in the Islamic community here in Omaha. There is no monolithic "Muslim" perspective; some see no reason to separate men from women, some are concerned about modesty.

Instead of glossing over differences, the creative tension and debate brings us to understanding. Hiding things leaves them unexamined. It leaves them to fester underneath a pleasant exterior. We can pretend that only little things divide us, but that's untrue, and hiding those differences means we don't end up learning from each other. I trust that I am secure enough in my faith and others in theirs that me being authentically Christian doesn't diminish their personhood just as their religion doesn't diminish my personhood.

I'm really excited for when we start working on preparing the book for the liturgies. The religion nerd inside me can't wait to start working on the commentaries to the worship services.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008


Yesterday was a staff retreat. We were asked to talk about some hopes and dreams for the upcoming year.

One thing that I'd like to get started is a weekly Evening Prayer service. I think it's important for the cathedral to be a house of prayer for the city and the diocese. The cathedral should resound and be sanctified by the continual prayers of the people.

To that end I'm going to try to learn how to sing the prayers. That involves overcoming a lot of fear and insecurities I have. I've always been a little timid when it comes to singing, but when it comes to singing prayers I need to be bold. Pick a note and run with it. Chant done well lifts the soul to incredible heights.

Interfaith relations, pt 1

Omaha will be hosting an interfaith event in March of next year. The Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church will be presentas well as the chief rabbi of the Reform movement and the head of the Islamic Society of North America. It'll be an exciting time here!

It's all being put together by a local interfaith organization. The director of my internship program said that such great cooperation between local congregations of the Abrahamic faiths (to the point that they plan on buying property together and building houses of worship there) is only possible here in the Midwest, and I can see why.

There's a degree of hospitality that's unique, it seems, to the region. From what I hear (and have yet to experience), even the rabid Husker fans won't boo or harass the opposing team. Husker fans tend to be devoted to Nebraska football but aren't so fanatical that they'd go so far as to denigrate others.

This might be food for thought in our multireligious country. Can we be hospitable to others without giving up our identity and devotion? Can we be gracious to others without worrying that they'll think we're insane Huskers fans?

Monday, November 10, 2008

Community and Annual Council

This weekend was the diocesan council here in Nebraska.

Since I wasn't a delegate, I didn't have any votes or anything, but it didn't seem to matter much. There was only one session of balloting, and the other votes were taken viva voce. There was just one resolution (which was about the environment), and it wasn't discussed or debated at all.

At first I thought it was silly to not have any real 'business.' It felt like a great waste of time to just get together, many people driving long distances (the drive for me was eight hours) to get there.

Later on, though, it became apparent that 'business' wasn't really the point. Yes, it had to be done; numbers had to be presented, ministries celebrated, and the usual courtesy resolutions; however, there was a lot of community building going on. I got to spend time with the delegates from a very small church in a very small town. Council brought us together for fellowship. I would never have had the chance to just sit and talk with people from far across the diocese if we were focused on 'business.' After fierce wrangling over resolutions or budgets, would we have had enough good will and energy to share table fellowship?

It may have felt like we weren't getting anything done, but connections and relationships were made, repaired and strengthened.

That isn't to say there's no risk in handling convention this way; it could be that healthy debate is stifled for 'unity.' Given that I've only been here for a handful of months, I can't say either way for certain, but from my limited perspective it seemed that people were happy to come together.

Thursday, November 6, 2008


This morning I attended the meeting of the local downtown business/residents association. A parishioner attended with me to help me get acquainted with some of the important people down there. It was hard trying to meet and greet as many people as possible as I'm quite new to the whole 'networking' thing. I don't know how to work a room.

After the meeting, she took me out to breakfast at her favorite little cafe downtown which she goes to every week for lunch. When we were about to sit down, another parishioner who will be moving back east soon entered and we invited her to sit with us. She's having a hard time leaving the congregation she's been a part of for over thirty years, and it was nice to have her sit and eat with us.

The parishioner who took me out to breakfast is going to celebrate her 85th birthday tomorrow. The owner of the cafe then brought out a cake to give to her in honor and as a gift to a frequent
customer. At 10:00 this morning, I was eating a slice of Italian cream cake dessert after a delicious breakfast.

In all of this, I realized part of my work here in Omaha is about hospitality. The downtown organization was fairly welcoming to me as a lowly intern from that one church off Capitol Street. We were welcoming to a parishioner who was having a hard time leaving us. The cafe owner was welcoming to someone who might otherwise be seen as 'just a customer.'

How is the Church welcoming? And how does the Church accept the hospitality around her?

What do we do with those people who show up one Sunday and never come back? The problem could be that we assume that they'll never come back anyway, so why bother? Or maybe we're over-enthusiastic, overwhelming them?

And today's Forward Day by Day meditation talks about bread. Delicious bread: it's both a staple food and also one of the most delicious things ever made. Perhaps we should have a fresh loaf on hand to give to new people. Maybe we should also take a piece off the loaf so they remember that we have broken bread with them and that our house (well, God's house) is open for them.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

My first Homily

Today was my first attempt at delivering a homily. The Tuesday Eucharist is usually low-key with just a handful of people attending, but my supervisor thought I was ready to start off with the larger crowd that comes for All Souls' Day.

I have to say that I think it went well. I didn't give a real sermon but instead encouraged the congregation present to really grieve and feel their pain; God was with them in it. I started off talking about the image from Isaiah about the banquet: it's such a fine scene and a great way to think about our life with God after the resurrection. We don't live at that time, though. We still experience pain and suffering. While our hope is in the resurrection and this divine banquet, we will grieve over our loved ones and know a lot of pain.

Our hope does not diminish our feelings or negate them but instead calls us to lift them up to the one who came to us, who lived and died with us and now sits at the right hand of the Father: Christ. We don't lose our pain but must instead live our pain. It doesn't make us un-Christian to mourn or to experience pain. We're human, after all. God, though, wants to be with us in our pain.

My parting sentence:

"And when the banquet is ready, we can appear with our tear-stained cheeks, knowing God will wipe them away. Then we can rejoice with God."

I'm still not sure whether it was good, bad or mediocre, but it was my first attempt at a homily. I can only hope that the right words landed in the ears which needed to hear them. In the words of a priest I know, "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer."

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Was it worth it?

Now that I'm an adult I'm starting to reflect on the experiences of our youth. I'm ready to admit I'm old now at my early twenties.

On Friday was a youth summit here in Omaha. It was oriented toward youth at-risk for gang involvement; we brought in local service agencies and speakers as well as a representative for an organization in LA which helps gang members leave gangs and build a bright future.

Leaving behind a moment all the struggles and petty squabbles that plagued the process, it was good to see a community come together for the youth. There is a growing gang problem here in Omaha, and it's becoming racially charged. Bringing together the middle schoolers, the social service agencies and the speakers I think was helpful.

But then there's the nagging feeling that the youth didn't take anything away from it. I know some kids were excited that it was a day away from schoolwork (Hey, I thought the same thing in school sometimes). Did we reach them? The saying I heard some of the planning committee members share was "If we reached one of them, it was worth it."

I wonder whether it would have been worth it. Would the local university have been so generous? Would we have worked so hard? Would the keynote speaker have flown in? Would the social agencies have been present?

At its best, humanity will do a lot for the individual. But just one person? If only one person took away from that meeting a feeling of hope for the future and a greater respect for him or herself, then some might not be so generous. Their resources could've been spent in a different way, given to someone more open to it. Given to someone it might have actually helped.

Can we think of God in the same way? I've often wondered whether the crucifixion was worth it. Think about it: God died on the cross that fateful day. God. The divine incarnation called Christ Jesus was nailed to a piece of wood and died. And it was all for us!

Now, I'm not arguing a specific theology of the cross or doctrine of salvation here (though a strict Calvinist notion is not what I have in mind). I'm not exactly sure how Christ's death on the cross brings us our salvation, but I know it does.

If only one person were saved by the blood shed on the cross, would it have been worth it? If only one person truly turned to God through the witness of God's love for humanity as made present on the cross, should God have died for that one person? Certainly the indignity of it, the pain and suffering of the cross, certainly it was too much for God to have to suffer for one person?

Yes. I can't imagine how any number of people could make up for the indignities cast upon God during his ministry, his trial, and his crucifixion. We're talking about God here!

What is telling, though, is that God suffered and died for less than one person. Christ died for the hope that someone would turn and be saved. God works through us and our free will. God does not seize slaves but calls us to be children and servants.

God's grace is so, well, gratuitous! God would give up so much to be with us, to suffer with us, to die for us. Christ's blood was shed freely on the cross for us to receive. We can't "make it up" to God by being good folk, by giving to the church or to a charity, by being upstanding moral people; we could never make it up to God for the indignities in the sense of satisfying an obligation, but we can live in that abundant and excessive grace by trying to live as a redeemed and redeeming people. God's love should animate us, should make us whole and should become known to all the world. May people all over the world give thanks to God for the love which comes from God and is known through us.

In this way the suffering of God on the cross is preserved and brings us to a greater appreciation of God's grace. It should not be used as a way to shame or guilt us into 'being better people.' Appreciation of grace isn't like feigning thanks for that sweater your nearly blind, arthritic aunt knit for you that's two sizes too big and in a style that was last seen when Airplane! was in theaters. No, appreciating God's grace is more like wearing that sweater. Taking God's grace into ourselves and realizing that we can't pay God back for it but we can live it.

It's in those moments in life when I'd like to think God smiles and says, "It was worth it."

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Let me do it gallantly...

Today was my first day assisting at the altar at the 8:30 service. Fun!

But today was special- all the deacons were gone at 8:30. One's on vacation, and the other at a local parish that needs some lovin'.

The dean of the cathedral was going crazy, worried that everything was going to fall apart. Last year that is exactly what happened, to such an extent that the three priests present were compared to the Three Stooges. Some members of the congregation took cardboard cutouts of the stooges and dressed them up in chasuble, stole and other priestly garments.

It didn't help that one of the other LEMs was serving as acolyte for the first time. That meant she not only had to help the priest prepare the table but also do the washing of hands and other things.

My problem was that they normally only use two LEMs at the early service. I was the third LEM. No one was really all that sure what I was to be doing. They didn't even discuss where I'd be sitting (I sat on the chair that's technically reserved for the bishop's chaplain). When I got to the altar, part of a prayer that I pray most mornings came to mind:

"And if I am to do nothing, let me do it gallantly."

I wasn't ringing the sanctus bells, I wasn't assisting the priest in setting the altar, I wasn't washing hands. I got to stand there and look fabulous and holy while doing so. Sometimes half the role of the cleric is to stand there like it's all intentional. And sometimes doing nothing is just as important as doing something. My standing there became part of the Mass just like the prayers and distribution of the elements.

I did bear the chalice (and using the correct side of the purificator this time) and took the Gospel book off the altar before the Eucharistic prayers, so I didn't end up doing nothing. But I didn't have a role for a good deal of the Mass. But by standing there as if standing there were intentional, I was able to serve God. And not look silly.

I really, really love bearing the chalice. That's a mighty powerful cup and mighty holy drink we give. And all of my standing there at the altar became consecrated when it was directed toward bearing that cup of salvation.

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Dancing the liturgy

Today was my first day serving at the altar. I had to get all dressed up in cassock and cotta, learn where to genuflect, bear the chalice. As my supervising cleric says, it's a dance. There are a lot of subtleties and rules that only make sense once you start dancing the liturgy.

As scary as it was to be in front of the congregation, I wasn't the focus. Most people were focused on the prayers; some might have been watching the priest very closely and watching all his little acts. And in that I could rest easy. My little errors, my hesitations, my imperfections were all brought into the dance. The other ministers, lay and clerical, all experts in the dance of liturgy, could lead me along.

I also learned today that it really is the blood of Christ. Giving the chalice to the people is a powerful, most holy experience. Watching people kneel at the altar and handing them this cup of wine showed me how real God is. In serving them, in holding the chalice to their lips or dipping the bread in the wine, it felt like, well, communion.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Credo in Unum Deum...

Today for theological study we had to compose a brief statement of our beliefs. We could format it like the Nicene Creed or like something else. I didn't get to finish it, but I thought I'd go ahead and do so:

I believe in God the Sovereign Creator of all, the Lover of all, and the One in whom all have their being. God the Lover burns with compassion and devotion for us even when we turn away. God the Lover's justice is powerful and calls us all to repentance and restoration, yet God the Lover's mercy is what restores us in repentance. We adore you, O Most Holy Lord God. Hear our prayer that you may abide with us!

I believe in Jesus Christ, God-among-us, the Eternal Word who joins humanity and all creation to God. Christ, called God the Beloved, is the source of all our hope and all our strength. For our salvation, the Eternal Word was born of the Blessed Virgin Mary and was named Jesus. He proclaimed the Reign of God, calling us to turn to God and to serve our neighbor. In Christ the weak are strong, the blind see, the poor are filled, and the imprisoned are set free. Because of his immense love for God and humanity and because of our human frailty, Jesus was crucified. He suffered and died. God the Beloved suffered and died. On the third day God overcame the powers of death, fear and destruction and was resurrected. God the Beloved walked among the disciples, eating with them and teaching them. God the Beloved then ascended into Heaven and awaits the day in which creation will be judged and purified. We adore you, O Christ. Hear our prayer that we may abide with you!

I believe in the Holy Spirit, God the breath that sustains and preserves us. The Holy Spirit is the source of love and is therefore called Love itself. God-who-is-Love sancitifies us and proclaims the truth to all generations. We adore you, O Holy Spirit. Hear our prayer that we may abide in you as you abide in us!

I believe that God has consecrated a pilgrim people to be the abiding witness to the Gospel in the world and that this people is the Church. The Church finds its being in the continued sustaining presence of the Holy Spirit. The One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is the Body of Christ in creation: One, because it has one God, one Lord, one Shepherd; Holy, because it is continually consecrated to God in eternal union and brings the light of Christ to creation; Catholic, because God is sovereign over all the universe; Apostolic, because through the laying on of hands, through the Holy Eucharist and through baptism are the worship, faith and teachings entrusted to new generations since the time of the Apostles and because the Church is called to proclaim the Gospel. The Church awaits the resurrection of the dead and the eternal life in God's presence.


It's actually quite fascinating to write down what we would say is our own personal creed. What would you write?

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

The love of money...

... is the root of all evil in the church?

I had a fantastic discussion with my fellow interns last night about money. How much are we beholden to money in parish ministry? We worry about the building, the ministries of the church, the future of the community.

"It isn't money that's evil. When we love it, yeah, that's the problem, but money's a useful resource. Without it can we really do ministry?"

That's an unjust paraphrase of a friend's comment last night. On its face it seems absolutely reasonable. It's the reasonableness of it all that makes it that much more dangerous.

No, I'm not arguing that the church needs to sell all it has for the poor and oppressed. I think Jesus taught us that lesson in rebuking Judas for wanting to sell the ointment instead of 'wasting' it on Jesus. It's not a waste if it's done properly, 'properly' being an awfully vague and unhelpful modifier.

What concerns me is that we forget the real reason the Church can exist at all: the Holy Spirit. A friend of mine always says her favorite holiday is Pentecost since it's the birthday of the Church. The Church in Acts did not have endowments or capital campaigns, yet it survived. It flourished!

The same friend protested: "But the world has changed a lot since then. You can't seriously think that we should go back to that model?"

No, not at all. What concerns me is that our attachment to the status quo is what endangers our relationship with God. We all like having money saved up so the church lights can stay on. It's not an entirely ignoble want. I just wonder if people from the cathedral here could walk away from the stained glass, the beautiful altar, the sanctuary hallowed by a century of prayer and still feel God. And maybe even rejoice while walking away!

In our saving and building up of church finances, do we try to insulate ourselves from a desert fasting experience which could build up the church even more?

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Accepting God into our lives

I have been absolutely blessed here at my new parish by their generosity. Admittedly, I am an intern for them, but their gifts of food and attention is remarkable.

In accepting their gifts I was sort of overwhelmed; how could I accept those gifts when I hadn't done much to earn them? I was just one of their new interns. I hadn't given a great sermon and neither had my fellow interns. I hadn't said a comforting word in a hard time. We hadn't been in town for more than two days when we were all introduced to the parish.

I wanted to stop them, to tell them to give me a few days to prove myself. Why would they want to give us stuff if we hadn't shown them we deserved it? We could be a bunch of annoying, self-centered young adults. We could be irresponsible or lack a robust spiritual grounding. We had to accept their gift, though, and accept it without anything to return.

God's grace is the same way; we do nothing to earn it, yet we must accept it. It is in those moments when we cannot give anything that we can learn the depth of God's love. We have nothing to give in return. We can't offer to mow God's lawn in exchange for a casserole or offer to drive an elderly God to the grocery store in return for a box of cookies.

God's grace is undeserved, yes. It's a story most of us hear at one time or another. We don't get to say the rosary daily for a month to get God's grace, and we can't really say a magic prayer to get forgiveness. We have to give up all hope of returning God's grace in order to really understand the real gift we have.

Some people, though, don't have that kind of a conversion story. They didn't have that moment when they were able to feel God's love in the depths of despair or anything of the sort. They never had to walk up to God, empty-handed, and open themselves to God's love so radically. God's always been there, and they've felt it.

But both kinds of people, those with radical conversion stories and those without, both have to recognize their own poverty before God. Those who knew despair have nothing to boast about. An impressive story, an inspiring tale of coming to God, yes, and those kinds of stories can be extraordinarily helpful to those looking for God.

On the other hand, we have a lot to learn from those who didn't have that kind of experience. They don't have that kind of inspiring story that can be sold in a book. They have the boring, prosaic kind of story we still need to hear. It's about growing in God's grace and about living after that conversion. That spiritual high is a great feeling right after conversion; I've converted to multiple faiths and have had that experience over and over. A few months down the road, how much more spiritual are we? Have we grown in religion, have we learned how to live what our religion teaches us? Can we live without the highs of religion after the novelty wears off?

THAT is what the non-converted can teach us. People who have always had God in their lives can teach us a lot about just living in grace. Now, of course, some people have just the trappings and not the substance of the faith just like some people don't truly convert from the depths of their souls but convert for the free toaster. We must sort out the truly inspiring stories of the saints from the dime store inspiration novels. But in listening to converts and cradle Christians we can learn a lot about God's presence in our lives.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Golden Grove

I stumbled upon a lovely litany written by the Anglican cleric Jeremy Taylor. I will try for the next few days to discuss the various petitions of the litany. Taylor's feast day was the thirteenth of this month. The full text of the litany is available here: Letanies for All Things and Persons

The first section (I think in this case it would be called the invocation) is as follows:

O God the Father of Mercies, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, have mercy upon thy servants, and hear the prayers of us miserable sinners.

O blessed Jesus, the Fountain of Peace and Pardon, our Wisdome and our Righteousness, our Sanctification and Redemption, have mercy upon thy servants, refuse not to hear the prayers of us miserable, sorrowful, and returning sinners.

O holy and divinest Spirit of the Father, help our infirmities, for of our selves we know not what to ask, nor how to pray, but do thou assist and be present in the desires of us miserable sinners.
This invocation of the Trinity grounds us in an essential quality of God: mercy. God the Father is the Father of Mercies. God the Son, who is the source of both our repentance and redemption, graciously hears us even though we turn to him again and again as sinners. God the Spirit strengthens us and helps us pray to God.

Note that both God the Father and God the Son are implored to have mercy upon us, but God the Spirit is asked to help us implore both the Father and the Son for mercy. Our relationship with the Spirit has never been characterized by judgment. The Son may come down to judge the quick and the dead and the Father may sit in heaven on his throne, judging us, but the Spirit does not sit in judgment. The Spirit, sent to the Church on Pentecost, does not live on in popular imagination as a wrathful, judgmental God.

Perhaps this is due to the Spirit's lack of imagery. We show the Spirit by a dove or fire, but those aren't nice, human images. We can imagine Christ coming down from heaven as a terrifying human figure, and we have painted pictures of a bearded man upon a throne in heaven striking terror in the hearts of sinners.

A dove or flame can't inspire that kind of fear or awe. Doves aren't all that terrifying (imagine a dove cooing and telling us each and every one of our sins!). Fire, while destructive, is wild and indiscriminate. It will destroy everything just and unjust.

Perhaps this is for the best. We already imagine judgment from two persons of the Holy Trinity; the Paraclete, our Advocate and Guide, is with us without judgment.

But before we get carried away about the judgment of the other two persons, let us return to Taylor's litany. The terrible images I described are not present here; our merciful Father and the Fountain of Peace and Pardon are the images used for the God the Father and God the Son.

I think at times when we confess we have in mind the judgmental imagery too much. From my experience it is very easy to feel the burden of God the Father shaking his mighty head in fury and disappointment. Christ's fiery eyes can easily pierce my soul. If we think of the final judgment as a courtroom, we can easily imagine God the Father as the hanging judge, Christ as the prosecutor demanding to know why we haven't accepted him into our hearts and why we have continued to sin, and we're left with a little bird for our defense.

But that courtroom is not how God works in our lives. From Taylor's litany we see God's merciful nature which builds us up. Mercy is not restrained judgment or a lighter sentence in this case but encouragement to grow in God's love and grace.

Sunday, August 17, 2008

The blind reading to the deaf.

This morning a blind gentleman read the Tanakh lesson from a braille copy.

I finally realized that there's a problem with the bulletins that list the lectionary readings for the day. Instead of listening to it, people read it instead! What was the point of reading it aloud if people were going to read it instead of listening?

Of course, people who are hard of hearing or deaf need to read it to understand it. This post isn't addressing that. I also don't think congregations should stop giving the lectionary readings, either. I read them before the service to know what stories we'll be learning about in the sermon.

The ritual act of reading aloud seems to be losing its importance, and that is what I'm concerned about. Certainly when people were illiterate (though many still are in different degrees and dimensions) it made sense to read Scripture aloud. It was sometimes the only chance some people got to understand the Bible. Now that people are, by and large, literate, listening doesn't seem to have that same appeal.

"Why listen to it when I can read it faster?"
"It's there to read, so why not read it then?"

While people may certainly be listening as well as reading the passages during the service, I think people are forgetting the importance of the lectionary readings.

The lectionary readings aren't just to prepare us for the sermon. The sermons serve the readings, not the readings the sermon. We listen for God's voice in the readings, then we have a sermon to help us understand the readings better.

Reading the scriptures is one thing. We Christians should be more conscientious about studying the Bible; however, reading is only one way of being open to the Spirit. Listening offers us another opportunity to be open. We hear the rhythm of the words. Our reader may emphasize a word or phrase which we would've skipped in reading.

I'll admit my own difficult in actually listening to the readings. My mind wanders. I speculate about the sermon's topic. I worry about the future. I wonder whether I'll ever find a husband. In other words, I do everything I'm not supposed to do during the Holy Eucharist. In all the prayers I'm present, lifting my voice with others to praise and petition God. I listen intently to the words of the priest while he raises the chalice and the paten. I sing with the congregation to our God. But in the readings I feel free mentally to wander away from God's worship.

But just as we receive the Body and Blood of Christ in the bread and wine, so too do we receive God through Holy Scripture. The readings help us to know God and to unite with Him just like the prayers help us to abide in God and to trust in Him.

While the mass is the work of the people for God, it is also a means by which God comes among us. Why pass it up? Listening to the readings is a chance to set aside ourselves and our distractions in order to open ourselves to God's presence in history.

I kind of envied that blind man reading to us today. Does he have similar distractions during the readings? I'm sure he does. But I can hope that he knows just how beautiful and important listening to the readings is.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Familiarity Breeds Contempt

Luke 6:32 "For if ye love them which love you, what thank have ye? for sinners also love those that love them."

We all know that loving our enemies is crucially important. It is hard to love those who annoy us whenever we see them, or those who have a lot of needs they want us to meet, or those who are for all practical purposes unlovable. Yes, for us humans the unlovable exist.

Probably we all feel that twinge of guilt when we're unfriendly to a stranger or to that needy neighbor. "I shouldn't have done that..." we all say to ourselves. Sometimes we're given the chance to remedy that by keeping love at the forefront of our minds when we see them again, or, as is the case with the stranger, we try to make a conscious effort the next time to care.

Putting aside all discussion of love and like (we can love those we don't like), another thought came to me.

Do we really love those who love us?

At times being near someone makes us feel we have license to be cruel or to ignore them. A joke that goes too far or maybe an angry word when they interrupt our "me" time. Rolling our eyes when they come to us with the same problem again and we can't muster up the ability to even pretend to listen. Or maybe they need a word of encouragement or admonishment and we don't want to give it because they're being needy, annoying or dramatic like a soap opera character.

At times even those who love us drive us batty, and sometimes it's even worse than those we dislike.

It could be that those we love and to whom we are close know how --exactly how-- to press our buttons. Or maybe we don't have boundaries with them because, well, we love them, too and want them to share their feelings with us.

It's those who love us that sometimes we hate or ignore more. They can do more to hurt us, and they can demand more of us. We're their friends, family, housemates, close colleagues.

While certainly we need to love those who don't love us, we also need to make sure we're loving those who love us.

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Why do we minister?

In a dream last night I got into an argument with a woman who insisted that, at times, we get into ministry for ourselves instead of for others. I fiercely insisted that ministry was all about others and not about ourselves.

So why do we minister, especially those ordained to ministry? Is there always a little hint of hubris and egotism that goes into the process of donning a little white collar? Is there any way to ensure that we are seeking God's will and not our own when it comes to ordination?

I can't really say anything as I'm not ordained and not even close to it, but I think it's a good question to ask. At some level, do we have to think we are special and are worthy to be an ordained minister?

The question also comes from the experience of the diocese searching for a new bishop. Listening to speeches about why they'd make a good bishop feels, well, egotistical. Not humble at all.

I don't think we have laity anymore pushing people into ordination like in "the old days" (I'm thinking about St. Ambrose... I think).

Is it true humility to resist ordination, fretting about our worthiness, or is it false humility? Can someone seek ordination and be humble at the same time?

Monday, August 4, 2008

Spiritual consumerism

Buying is such an American pastime. Where else can going to the mall be an actual activity instead of a simple necessity when we actually need a new shirt or pants?

But the buying impulse can include more things than the latest gadget or clothes. It can take such the form of buying too many books or spiritual items, and that is the problem I struggle with frequently.

As my previous post indicated, I was much into pick-and-choose religion during my teenage years. If I thought the book was interesting, I'd buy it. If it looked "deep" or thoughtful, I'd buy it. Most of these books were related to some kind of spiritual idea like the I-Ching or the book was written by a beloved writer such as the Dalai Lama. Each new book promised that I'd find a beautiful spiritual gem inside or some new way of thinking about the world.

Two problems arose: one, frequently I wouldn't actually read the book; second, I'd get nothing of lasting value out of it.

The first problem, not actually reading the book, seems really silly. Why buy a book and not read it? We buy a lot of things we don't actually use, though. The latest gadgets which boast all these features we don't really know how to use or that one exercise machine which will finally get us in shape... we buy those with great frequency, so why isn't it that strange that someone would buy books and not read them? At least with books I can pretend I'm a great reader and be able to point to the bookshelf as proof.

This problem is rooted deeply in sloth. I'll admit it: I can be horribly lazy, and there's a lot of other stuff I'd frequently rather be doing. Sitting and reading a book sometimes is less appealing than watching yet another episode of Law and Order: SVU. It's true.

The second problem, getting nothing of value, shows that not all things are necessary, good or beneficial. There are good, useful books and there are silly, nearly worthless ones. I've bought "New Age" books filled with pop spirituality and with the lingering odor of a scam or cult. There are lots of books which promise a more fulfilling life but which give us little in the way of new or truly inspiring thoughts (a lot of stuff which passes for 'inspiration' is much, much too saccharine to be truly inspirational).

This problem is really about being a smart consumer. Instead of buying right into the promises which any product gives, we should look for a few things.

One is good word of mouth. For books and spiritual items, we should see how tradition has treated them. If it is strongly rooted in our Christian tradition, then it might be something of value. If it's a "fly by night" project or a spiritual fad, it might not be of great value even if it has good word of mouth right now. It's sort of like the admonition in Acts: if it lasts, it's of God. Such a good rule of thumb!

The second is to read what people you agree with and people you disagree with say about the book or spiritual item. Find the pros and cons from a variety of perspectives. If you're Anglo-Catholic, read what an evangelical has to say about it. Or a charismatic. Of course, just because they disagree with you doesn't make them or you automatically right. Someone could be seriously misled, so do some research and fact-finding to verify claims.

The third is to not buy it. I'm serious! For example, instead of buying a book on the rosary with the intent to integrate it into your spiritual practice, find free resources on the internet and try out the rosary first. If it becomes a strong part of your spiritual practice, then buy the book if you still need it. Or if it's a rosary itself you have your eye on, don't buy it right then. It might be a simple case of "Ooh, pretty, I want it!"

A lot of these would've saved my pocketbook. I myself have a lot of books I have yet to read, even after I converted to Christianity. The rest of Tillich's Systematic Theology goes unread while I buy a book on Aelred of Rievaulx.

Now I try to buy only as much as I need. I want to finish my birthday books before I even think of buying new books, and even then I want to work on some other books I own but have yet to read.

Do you have any experiences in spiritual consumerism?

Saturday, July 26, 2008

Adventures in Religion

Even at my tender young age, I've been part of many different religions. While reading Barbara Brown Taylor's "Leaving Church," I was reminded of my long religious path because she, too, was an "ecclesiastical harlot." She leapt from church to church, denomination to denomination before asking to be confirmed into The Episcopal Church.

My path, though, has been a bit more winding and confused. Like Mother Barbara, I was not brought up in a particular religion. My mom talked about God and Jesus some and gave me my grandmother's Bible, but we didn't go to church or anything. Matthew's Gospel was my primary source of religious education.

Because I started asking a lot of questions (as a curious child tends to do) my family decided to start going to church. My parents were baptized Mormon, so that obviously was the choice. I was instructed in the basics of the LDS faith and was baptized and ordained a deacon. I then started asking a lot of questions and found the church to conflict with what I was taught by my mom (who had converted before I was born) so I asked to be excommunicated. Big deal for a high school student.

I then studied Wicca but maintained some iota of faith in Christ. Amazingly, there are Christian Wiccans, and I'll talk more about this later. But, suffice to say, Wicca was my religious practice and worldview for a few years. It gave me, more or less, a consistent cosmology, and the branch of Wicca I studied allowed for solitary practice.

Later I discovered Buddhism. It gave me an intellectual challenge and provided a system of ethics which I adored. But meditation's really hard on its own, let alone without a community. I didn't meditate all that much; my religious practice was more or less prayers to Avalokitesvara. But I did start compiling a prayer book, which speaks volumes about why I became Anglican.

But solitary practice is incredibly hard. While I might feel some "communion" with the universe while walking in a pasture or in praying to White Tara, there was no "communion" with other people. I had no one to talk to about religion who would agree or, best of all, disagree with me.

After coming out in college, I converted to a non-creedal Christian church. While, sadly, I was not instructed much in the fundamentals of the faith before baptism, I was quickly baptized and brought back to Christ (even though I would argue Mormonism isn't part of Christianity). I flourished in that church but soon grew distant from it theologically. It was very adamant about liberation theology, but the head pastor didn't seem interested in anything other than social justice. That's a poor foundation for the faith. What about Christ? It's a good question. Who Christ is influences the way our religion interacts with the world. "Theology" isn't nearly as abstract as it is made out to be.

Because I had to find a church back in Idaho, I had to again experiment with religion. That was where I found The Episcopal Church (kind of by chance, as I had just seen a TV ad for them). They actually responded to my email query and so I went.

The priest there was very much into liberation theology, too, but he was also pretty theologically reflective. The creeds and sacraments united the church, not just a commitment to social justice. The lifeblood of the church is in the sacraments. Long story short, I was later confirmed an Episcopalian.

~ ~ ~

Enough wandering. So what's the point of this post?

I think my spiritual journey explains part of the American fascination with Sheila-ism. If you don't know what that is, it's pick-and-choose religion. People find what's meaningful and use it and discard the rest.

It's really easy to do! Just peruse the "New Age" or "Spirituality" section of a bookstore or library and see the wealth of options available. Even atheists can find something spiritual. And, best of all, it doesn't require a group commitment! It's like bowling alone- why bowl on a league with all that pressure when I can go down on an afternoon and bowl by myself?

And I did pick and choose. I may not have been nearly as eclectic in my spirituality as some people, but I did not feel any limitations. I could be both Christian and Wiccan, Wiccan and Buddhist. While, in reality, religions do blend together, it becomes a real problem when it's driven by one's desires. If we can pick and choose our spirituality (I like Vipassana meditation, I like Sufi mysticism, so let's combine 'em!), we lose the element of challenge. My Wicca practice was more about controlling my environment and seeking a defense for my personality, the "way I am." I would put myself into a spiritual box. "Oh, I'm very inclined to the water element- to being emotional, kind, spiritual."

Because I got to choose these things, I wouldn't challenge myself. By focusing on "being"/my nature, I wouldn't examine "doing"/ my actions. "I'm kind" is incredibly limiting- what happens when I'm not kind? "I'm acting kindly" is freeing- when I'm not acting kindly I can correct myself.

This goes for a lot of the pick-and-choose elements. We readily choose that which agrees with our worldview and our view of our selves. We construct our cosmology, our ethics, our liturgy. And, I think, deep down there's probably a recognition of that construction. We've constructed a religious experience, but is it genuine? And can it challenge me as well as nourish me? Can a pick-and-choose religion guide me if it is made up of elements which already agree with me?

And the community element comes into play here. The community is necessary because it sustains, nourishes and guides us. It challenges us. It forces us out of our selves and into the universe. We may be forced to defend or, gasp!, change our opinions. It's not comfortable but it's crucial for spiritual development.

I wasn't brought up religious, yet I became religious. I later grew up and felt the needs for community and for the Triune God. Perhaps the church needs to articulate exactly why it is the remedy for this broken world? And explain why do-it-yourself religion feels good but doesn't bring us any closer, either to God or to our fellow creatures?

Friday, July 25, 2008

A completely unnecessary introduction

Yes, I'm a big gay Idaho Episcopalian. It's too much for one person, yes, but I manage to do it all with a touch of flair.

Because people I know might read this, this introduction serves to explain the purpose and rationale behind this blog.

The name I've chosen, "Karl Julian," is not my real name, of course. It reflects two very important religious thinkers whom I admire.

The first name comes from Karl Barth, the extraordinarily important Protestant theologian of the 20th century. His work reflects my theological priorities: the confession of Jesus as Lord in a world hostile to the realities of the Gospel. Now, I'm not a fundamentalist by any means, but I do get irritated with "liberal" theology which easily trades the Gospel for the warm fuzzies. The Gospel gives sobering truth to a post-modern world in which all things can be "truth" and in which any act which conflicts with church discipline, the Bible or tradition is deemed "prophetic." That said, I also am critical of "conservative" theology which makes the Bible the Word of God (which only Christ is the Word, thank you very much) or makes the preservation of the status quo (or the creation of a fictitious "1950's" America) into the church's only mission. Christ loves us, and Christ challenges us. For that reason I take "Karl" as part of my blog persona.

The other, "Julian," comes from Julian of Norwich. Whereas Karl Barth is highly academic and systematic and is therefore a great fit for my intellect, Julian of Norwich calls us to rest assured of God's love and God's power in our lives. In all the turmoil and confusion of this world, it's sometimes hard to just rely on God. To have faith is a radical act, and at that I fail frequently. Despair and anger lie at the door, ready to pounce and tear my soul to pieces when I realize that the world is broken, hurting, and frequently preparing itself for our destruction. It's incredibly hard to have faith in these days. Julian of Norwich wrote a very interesting book, "Showings" or "Revelations of Divine Love," title based on the translator's preference. To really trust God's promise "All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well" is downright impossible. God can bring good out of my suffering? God cares for me deeply and longs for me to be united with him? Those are almost impossible to believe, but Julian counsels us to have a real faith in God. Because I don't have that faith, I take "Julian" as the other part of my blog persona.

And the rationale behind this blog? Well, I'll have to say it's because my other blog is for my personal life. I want to muse more about religion than what the other blog I have will allow.

And that, girls and boys, is an introduction.