Saturday, May 16, 2009

Westboro, Day 2

Today was the second day of Westboro "Baptist Church" protests in Omaha (or so I think). Today they were protesting at the graduations of two local high schools. 

Our mission was to be focused not on countering their message but providing a completely different one: Congratulations to the graduates! Instead of making the young adults have to suffer because two groups of people were fighting over God, we change the rules of the game. We provide cheering and loud congratulations to the graduates and their families so that they remember it as a great day when people came to support them. 

It was great to more or less ignore the Westboro group's message and give a message of joy and love to the graduates. Plus, we got to have fun. 

Of course the Westboro group's heart didn't seem to be in it; they're in town because one of them is due in court in Sarpy County because of flag desecration. They weren't really enthusiastic about being there. They didn't taunt, they didn't do much at all. But that definitely was a win for the graduates. 

Friday, May 15, 2009


In this strange time when I'm getting ready to leave Omaha and my internship behind, I'm plagued by a good amount of sadness. I'm leaving behind friends who are close to me, friends who have been there in times of joy and sadness. The mere thought of not seeing them again (whether it be for a long time or for the rest of my life) is incredibly difficult to bear, even though I've been down this path before in graduating college and high school. 

Our relationships are in a state of change all the time. When we're with someone we learn more about each other and grow together as friends. When we're far apart from someone, our relationship changes, too. It can grow colder and distant, or it can be just distant. Sometimes we have such powerful friendships that time and distance do not destroy the relationship; when we see each other again we know that the love there hasn't died one bit. 

But we have no guarantees of that. We can't be certain that the friends we have now will still be our friends in the future. 

In leaving friends behind, I ask, "Will they remember me five years from now? Will it be a fond memory or just a recollection of who I am and what we did together?" No one likes to be forgotten. We all want - and hope - that we have made a significant (and hopefully good) impact in others' lives and that somehow the memory of who we are will continue. 

I can't help but think of a couple of scenes from the gospels that illustrate this. The woman who anoints Jesus in Mark's gospel (14:3-9) is honored for all eternity because the story will be told in memory of her (though, sadly and ironically, her name is forgotten). And one of the thieves asks Jesus to remember him when he comes into his kingdom (Luke 23:42).

"Remember me!" the thief cries to us down all these centuries. His cry rings in our ears because we want the same thing. We want to be remembered. We want stories told about us when we die: stories of the funny, stupid things we did that made others laugh; stories of the good things we'd done to help others; stories of our failures and how God's grace was present (or absent) in those times. We want our stories to be told again and again to the glory of God. And we want our dear friends to remember us because we remember them. When we love others we can't help but hope that they love us, too. 

That's probably why Jesus wanted us to celebrate supper with him, the bread and wine in memory of him. It's one of the reasons we give things to others when we part: we hope that the little token will remind them of us and hopefully call up good and pleasant memories. 

Each Sunday in the Eucharist we communally remember Jesus in what is called the anamnesis, the "not-forgetting." We tell the story of God's work in Jesus. We recall his life, death, resurrection and ascension so that we and generations to come might hear the story of salvation and sanctification. We want Jesus' story to be told again and again so that we might remember God's mighty acts in history and hope for God's mighty acts in our lives and the world. 

In all our desire to be remembered, though, we have to realize that God remembers, too. God does not forget our friendships, joys and failures. All of these are, in a way, eternal in the sight of God. We live on in God for that reason alone because our story does not die with us but will live on forever. 

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Westboro protests, day one

Today was the first of the Westboro "Baptist Church" (I don't think they qualify as Baptist or a church) protests here in Omaha. They've decided to protest at the high school graduations this weekend and decided to kick it all off by protesting at South High School this afternoon. 

As part of the church contingent (we're very much concerned because one, the graduates, students and their families do not need this stupidity and hate, and two, the cathedral's right across the street from where the graduations will be held), I went down to help de-escalate things. The Westboro people know how to provoke people and want to see people react. It's pretty sick, really. 

Teenagers are also not known for being calm, cool and collect in the face of such outrageous behavior, but I was delighted to see them exercise their energies on a sizable counter-demonstration on the other side of the street. I'm so happy to see them stand up and use their voice. The Westboro people were pretty quiet today, too, so that helped. Oh, yes, it was also raining. I'm pretty sure God had a hand in that one. 

The fact that it went off without a hitch, without any loud shouts or much baiting, is nice. It was quiet and it gave me the chance to get a look at the Westboro people more closely as they returned to their van. It was scary to look at those faces. They looked like they should be normal, sensible people, but beneath that facade lurked undeniably evil hatred. I don't use the word 'evil' lightly- look at the Westboro website if you want a glimpse into the pure hatred which permeates every word. It's disgusting, and it cannot come from God. 

But their faces! They weren't contorted or ugly or anything. Nothing would distinguish them from anyone else if it weren't for those signs and their words, and I guess that is a glimpse into what we call "the banality of evil." It doesn't bear nice marks to distinguish it, nothing to set it apart. It looks and seems to act like one of us. Now it sounds like "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" or something.  

So, friends, can I ask your prayers and thoughts for the young people (and the Jewish community) of Omaha this week? They all need strength in these times. 

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Live in Christ as he lives in you, and bear fruit for the glory of God

Yesterday was my last day at the cathedral here in Omaha and I had the honor of giving the sermon. The text of it will be at the bottom of this post. 

Last week I was having the hardest time writing my sermon. We had two baptisms today, so using the lesson from Acts about the baptism of the Ethiopian court official seemed the most natural. But nooooo, whatever I wrote turned out badly. It was completely uninspired. Finally I gave up trying to write a baptism/farewell sermon and instead wrote a sermon focusing on the Gospel lesson for today from John about abiding in Christ and bearing fruit. 

The process of writing this sermon wasn't much better, but I didn't feel dismayed upon reading my sermon notes so it was the sermon I went with. It came haltingly and almost a little formulaicly. 

Yesterday morning with fear and trepidation I ascended the pulpit and delivered this sermon. At the early service I stumbled a bit, paused a bit too long in places, and rejoiced that I had notes to bear me along. I didn't feel happy about it at all. But after the service people told me that it spoke to them, so I had to be happy that something of use was in it. At the second service it came more naturally and flowed. I asked for it to be recorded, so I've listened to my sermon and found that it was much better than I'd thought even though it needed more work and skill (which comes from much, much more experience of preaching). 

Yesterday I was also admitted to the Fellowship of St John, the associates of the Society of St John the Evangelist (a monastic order of the Episcopal Church). Upon the Fellowship's cross which was bestowed on me today are the words, "Abide in me and I in you." After realizing that the words there were the same ones we read today, I saw that the Spirit was telling me to pay attention to my own sermon; I wasn't allowed to preach on the other texts because God wanted the words to be about abiding in Christ, not baptism or anything else. 

The Scripture:

John 15:1-8

Jesus said, "I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples."

The Sermon:

The words from John's Gospel we heard today are some of the most beautiful words he wrote. They're very mystical. "Abide in me as I abide in you." It calls forth a union with God, a quiet awareness of just how close God is to us. 

The language of abiding in Christ though seems to be a little, well, inactive. It suggests that it's all about a quiet meditative awareness of God's closeness, something only monks and nuns whose vocation is to such stillness can achieve with regularity. 

The word 'abide' though doesn't seem to get to the heart of what Jesus is asking of us. He's calling us to something more active than just sitting there. 'Living' might be a better way of latching onto the concept. This living in Christ consists of more than just that quiet awareness of God's presence; living in Christ also consists in prayer and listening. Our prayer life is an important way through which we are joined to God. We are listening to God when we pay attention to the words God gives us through others, even strangers. In listening we are open to not only God's presence but God's words for us today. 

Living in Christ is only part of the message. We have to bear fruit as well. Bearing fruit should come naturally from abiding in Christ; if we receive nourishment from Christ, it's only natural that we should share it. The 'bearing fruit' metaphor is more than just a nice turn of phrase. It points to the nourishing quality of the work. We're not just called to do good works but we're called to feed those around us with the love of God. 

The process of bearing fruit has a couple of parts to it. The first is preparation; our spiritual life feeds us, gives us spiritual gifts, disciplines us and gives us a deep well of wisdom from God. We have to be preparing our hearts for God all the time, so that is why listening is such an important part of living in God. We don't know when God will inspire us with something that will be helpful for someone else. 

The second step is serving. Strange, yes, that we go straight from serving to preparation, but whatever gifts God gives us we must be ready to just give away because serving is not about us, it is about the other person. We are servants for God, doing God's work. What we have prepared, what God has given us when we abide in Christ is then given away freely. 

The third is to rejoice! It is our joy to give thanks to God for all our gifts and for the opportunity to give them away. It's important to remember, again, that all good things come from God. The fruit we bear isn't really ours because the nutrients, the wisdom and love and grace, are from Christ. We just take them into ourselves and then give them away. All these good things, though, are gifts from God. God gives them just as freely as we do. 

The final step is to let go. The gifts are not our own but are from God, so when we have served others we must let go and let God do the work necessary. The other person has received a gift from God through us, and now God is at work in that person helping them to understand and to be nourished by that gift. Letting go frees us, actually. We get to stop focusing on what we've done to help and get to return to God. We're freed from the dangers of being egocentric and of holding the gift against the person. 

The process of bearing fruit does come naturally from living in Christ, but it also takes our own work. We have to contribute. But if we are truly living in Christ, then the abundance of God's gift should just spill over as we share our lives with others. 

While it isn't nearly as poetic as John's writing, here's a summary: Live in Christ as he lives in you, and bear fruit for the glory of God.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Leaving Omaha

Now that I have less than two weeks as an intern here in Omaha, I've started the process of saying my final goodbyes. 

Yesterday was my last day with the youth group. We went out for pizza and played kickball, and they presented me with a shirt, a picture of the youth group and a piece of the original slate roof of the cathedral. Today I was given a shirt and dog tag from the Boys and Girls Club. All these little gifts and mementos show me how much I've meant to others, and that's kinda humbling. 

But they're a reminder of the transitory nature of our relationships. Only a handful of people will remain very close to us (in distance and in friendship) throughout our lives; others will be part of it for just a little part of our journey and soon fade as time and distance come between. For me it's hard to handle. I love these people so much, yet my future is not to stay with them forever. I have to move on to a different place, and our friendship is not going to stay the same once we stop seeing each other all the time. 

It's also something that we can't help but live with. If we were to remain in one place all our lives and remain with only a handful of people for the rest of our time, we'd miss out on meeting so many others. 

While our friendships might be in flux and be just for a few brief moments, they're still friendships. Even if it seems to have grown cold, there can still be a fondness and many pleasant memories. 

So, to friends old and new, far and near, I love you all. 

Friday, May 1, 2009

Fortune cookie time!

Last night I ate dinner in my favorite Chinese restaurant. Normally I discard the fortune from the cookie after reading it with a short laugh at either how vague it is or how much it isn't me. 

I decided to start saving them, however, when I realized how frequently I was eating Chinese food. I would have a whole bunch of fortunes and I could look back on them and laugh. But either I'm getting superstitious or they're striking a good chord with me. 

Here are the two that are especially interesting. 

"Someone thinks you are wonderfully mysterious." 

If only that would be true. What could be better than being wonderfully mysterious?

And here's the one I got last night:

"Remember three months from this date. Good things are in store for you." 

So now I have to remember to think about what will happen in the time leading up to July 30.