Sunday, December 25, 2011

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas!

It's the most wonderful time of the year! Except that the local Christmas music station stopped playing Christmas music at noon today... today still being Christmas. Of course, it must be that once all the gifts have been unwrapped and the veritable orgy of consumeristic delight and gift-giving and feigned thanks for yet another tchotchke has ended that Christmas is truly over.

At this time of year, every year, we have two main currents set in opposition to each other. One current is the consumerist strain that traditionally begins the day after Thanksgiving, although that is changing. The other current is the counter-current of "Christmas is about family / caring for others / hope and love." These currents oppose one another even though one always wins.

If everyone seems to agree that family /caring for others is the most worthwhile part of Christmas, its true spirit, then why does consumerism always seem to win? I think, at its heart, it's about the struggle of Christianity in a different light. Christianity was a religion that was oppressed by the political and religious authorities of its day and saw itself as a 'counter-cultural' movement. Early Christians were to be the leaven of the world. When Christianity was tolerated and then made the state religion in Rome, however, that changed. How can you be a counter-cultural movement when you are de facto the culture? It's about like when a 28 year old in the business world finally realizes that he is no longer fighting 'The Man' but is, in fact, 'The Man' as he covets that promotion and that corner office. He has become something he often derided and swore he never would be.

Being the 'counter-culture', the leaven, the oppressed minority has a purifying effect. Because you can change little, you cannot be blamed for failure, and your oppression shows the rightness of the cause. When you are no longer the minority, however, you have power. You can be blamed for failure, and the rightness of the cause can be corrupted by political necessities and being "practical."

In America, consumerism is our culture. The news has covered sales reports as a gauge of the true health of our nation; we are only as strong as our impulse to buy everything that we are told that we need. The counter-current of "Christmas is not about the gifts, it's about family / joy / caring for others" provides a nice feeling that we are truly righteous and it gives us a battle to wage. It is a unifying effect. People can nod to each other in the store, fellow comrades in the battle against the degradation of Christmas by consumeristic forces while at the same time getting that 'must have' gift item. We get to play both sides of the fence, enjoying the comforts of consumerism while feeling vindicated by the rightness of the cause.

But oh well! Christ has been born, and our Savior reigns!

Merry Christmas!

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Less than Saint Augustine (Retreat 2011 reflections pt 3)

St Augustine of Hippo was smarter than you and me.

Well, most likely he was. He was a gifted theologian with a very deep spirituality in the early ages of the Church. His writings were strongly influenced by the work of the Greek philosopher Plato. His theology has influenced the Western church to the present. He is titled a "Doctor of the Church" for his wisdom and his influence on the Church.

Back to my first sentence, then. He was probably a lot smarter than both you and me combined.

That's not an insult at all, though. Why should it be? That's like saying that Einstein was smarter than the both of us combined. Or that Gerard Butler is more handsome than I. Or that Drew Brees of the New Orleans Saints is a better quarterback than I am (and he is, by far). It's a simple statement of fact.

In our world, we are pressured to be the best. "If you ain't first, you're last," as Ricky Bobby, the Nascar driver character from the movie Talladega Nights would say. If someone says to me that I'm not athletic (which is true), then I jump to telling myself that I'm at least smarter or kinder or less judgmental than them. If I can't beat 'em in one category, then I will in another!

Why do we do that? Because humility is not fun. Humility is to admit the truth, to concede that I'm not close to being a Super Bowl-winning quarterback or that I'm not writing an essay in theology so original that it causes a whole religious movement. Ain't gonna happen. Someone can do what I can only dream of doing, and they might be capable of more than I could do even if I had years of training or education. There's not automatically a category in which I beat them by default.

That's not going to make me sad, though. I'm not sad that I won't be cast in a remake of the movie 300.  I'm not beating myself up over it. Why? How can humility, how can admitting your shortcomings, not make me sad?

Humility means stepping back from the judgment game. There's a subtle jump from admitting that Drew Brees is a far better quarterback than I would be (true) to admitting that he's a better human being than me because of it (not necessarily true). The first statement is just a fact. He has had years of training and plenty of passion to become a great quarterback. I have not, and being a quarterback isn't really high on my list of personal priorities. We are different people, and yet he is not more of a person for being a great quarterback nor am I less of a person for not being one.

On my retreat I read Dom Cuthbert Butler's Western Mysticism: Augustine, Gregory and bernard on Contemplation and the Contemplative Life. Quite an interesting read, and it addresses the different approaches to the contemplative life as it explains what the contemplative life is. In it, Butler explains how relatively unoriginal Gregory's thought is compared to Augustine. Gregory wasn't as eloquent as Augustine (especially since Augustine was a teacher of public speaking in his younger days), his theology wasn't as piercing or creative. He was smart, of course, just not Augustine-level smart.

At first that sounds like a backhanded compliment. But how is it? How is it truly insulting to say that Gregory wasn't as smart or original as Augustine? Gregory didn't need to be as smart as Augustine; Gregory was as smart as Gregory. He put together concrete rules for pastoral care and is responsible for the Church music known as Gregorian chant. He was smart enough to do all that. Comparing him to Augustine would be silly now.

Of course, I might then say, "Still, Gregory accomplished all that! I'm not as smart as Gregory, either..." That also may be true. But what of it?

Each of us has a mission from God. We're sent into the world with a backpack of skills and talents and asked to make the most of them. Some of us will have tons of advantages, skills, talents, resources. Some of us will have less. Some of us will have very little. Having little is not an insult unless we refuse to accept what we have. I am glad that others have talents that I do not, and I am glad that they have them in greater measure than I do.

A few weeks ago the Gospel reading was the parable of the talents where a ruler gives his slaves various sums of money. My co-teacher in Sunday School and I each re-wrote it to explore the meaning behind it. I changed the ending to explore how the slave who just buried his money might have fared had he chosen a different course:

A powerful king was leaving his country for a year, leaving his ministers in charge of the affairs of the nation. But to three of his slaves he personally handed them sums of money; to one slave $500,000; to another he gave $250,000, and to the last he gave $50,000. To them he said, “Take this money, make me wealthier upon my return.”

The first slave rushed to the marketplace and quickly obtained a quantity of cloth, threads and silk, and hired women to make fine garments. The first slave knew that the ministers and their rich friends would be eager to have new clothes to show off their new stature in the nation. From the inferior cloth the first slave had suitable garments made for those of lesser means, and gave the scraps away to those who had nothing. This slave soon had a thriving business in the city and earned his master money.

The second slave took his money and hired himself a teacher so he could learn to write and read. This slave made detailed records of the goings-on in the palace and watched closely the courts of justice. He spent time debating with court scholars and learned the finer points of rhetoric and logic. Upon hearing of his master's imminent return, this slave rushed around, trying to find some profit in what he'd done. His master had demanded to be made wealthier upon his return, had he not? He had not spent all the money but he had earned little back. He soon took to teaching others in the palace for money, but did not recover all the money he had spent nor earn any extra for his master.

The third slave, upon receiving the money, trembled in fear. He was not shrewd like the first nor as wise as the second. He knew no trade well. Why had he been entrusted with anything, let alone such a sum? Looking out the window he saw the streets below. The sick, the hungry, and the poor struggled out there, while he had this princely sum. He knew he would make no money in whatever he did. In one year he could easily spend this money, and then he could face his master's wrath, but in this year he could do good for someone. He took this money, bought food and clothes and paid for the care of the sick. He couldn't keep track of what he'd spent, so the second slave occasionally helped him see what he'd done. The first slave would hand him scraps of cloth and pay for one of his workers to make garments for the poor, and the third slave gladly handed them away. Whenever anyone asked about his work, he would smile and say, “The king asked me to care for you and gave me money before he left. Our king is a good man.” He trembled when he would say that, for he knew the king was a harsh man.

The year concluded, the king returned and called his three slaves in immediately. The first presented the king with the vast amounts of money he had earned, and the king nodded in appreciation. The second handed over what was left and then pointed to the servants in the hall carrying the records he had made. “My king, here are learned servants with the records I kept while you were gone. The ministers spent lavishly, but I kept track of every thing they spent of your treasury.” The king took the tablets, and, reading them, barely covered his rage at their work.

The third slave then started to tear up as the king's fiery eyes landed on him. “My king, I am not a wise man like my brother here, not a shrewd man like my brother there. I was afraid when you gave me that money, so I took it and spent it on the poor in the streets in your name. I knew this day would come when you would find me lacking, but at least the poor for one year would find life better and know it came from your hand.” He stared down at the floor. The king was silent for a moment. To the first he said, “You, slave, you have done well. You shall serve me well in years to come. Enter into the joy of a new future.” To the second he said, “You, slave, have earned me no money, but you kept watch over my household that it may be managed justly and fairly. The wicked ministers shall meet their end, and you shall take their place. Enter into the joy of a new future.” To the third he said, “Slave, you knew your limits. You knew your failures and weaknesses. You were afraid from the moment I placed some of that money in your sweaty palm. You, however, took what little I had given and gave it away in my name. The honor of a man is a good name, and you have ministered in my name to those in the streets. You have many years ahead, my good and faithful servant.”  

So when you're feeling down that you're not as smart/attractive/interesting/clever/athletic/funny as someone else, just remember that you are you. Make the most of yourself for the honor and glory of God. 

Monday, December 5, 2011

Co-Creators (2011 Retreat Reflections part 2)


Sarah and Hannah knew that pain. In a culture that valued children for carrying on the husband's lineage and reputation, not being able to have children was an incredible pain and shame. Sarah and Hannah probably both cried themselves to sleep at night, wondering, "What's wrong with me?"

Sarah was old by the time the promise of offspring was given to her. "Too little, too late!" She probably snorted out in a teary huff. "What kind of sick joke is this?"

Hannah was tormented by her husband's other wife. "Look at my children, they shall inherit your husband's name and fortune!" Hannah was deeply loved by Elkanah her husband. He would give her a double serving of the offering because he loved her.

For cultures that placed a high premium on offspring, imagine the tears that would flow for being loved deeply by a husband even if the wife were unable to have children. "What good am I at all? Why would you love me?"

We often put our worth in terms of our usefulness. I'm worthwhile because I am a devoted husband / a caring father / a brilliant writer / a great something. We have to bear some kind of fruit in order to be worth anything, so we think.

While our culture doesn't focus as much on having children, it does see singleness as an incredible problem. Can you be truly happy as a single person? Our culture would assume that you would be having meaningless, random sex or be crying at home, longing for someone to hold you, tubs of Ben and Jerry's ice cream on the coffee table. To be single has become a sign that you are a failure.

For me, it's been tough facing the real possibility of living a life of celibacy, without the intimacy of marriage. Admittedly, I'm not old yet, and, if I am accepted as a postulant for the priesthood, then I am not bound by vows of celibacy (though I must be chaste until marriage), but it's still very possible that I won't find someone 'special' to share my life with. Being gay and finding someone is tough, and now add in the fact that religion is an extraordinarily important part of my life, and the odds seem to get slimmer.

You can be told that you're wonderful, kind, sweet, all those things, but does it mean much if you're still single? As in there is some deep-rooted flaw that keeps me from being loved in that way, something that keeps me from being seen as a friend AND a lover. It takes a lot of trust to even believe that maybe, just maybe, in a different situation maybe you'll find the right person. Maybe.

But that trust can't hinge upon a delayed happiness. I can't just accept that I'll be unhappy until, as in romantic comedies, the right guy just walks in, our eyes lock, and we have a series of comic mishaps until marriage. That leaves me miserable today, and tomorrow, and every day until that magic event happens.

But to be truly happy today as a single human is odd. To be happy as a single person means facing the fact that happiness comes in many forms and that singleness is not necessarily loneliness. Christian saints through the centuries have shown themselves to be single and happy, and no one would call the Dalai Lama a "lonely old man"!

But now it comes to the next problem: what's the meaning of a single life? By having children or at least a partner, there's this sense of fruitfulness. A life has been made or a life has been enriched with love through partnership. But a single person?

That's where I start to feel sad. Will my life be barren if it doesn't have sexual and emotional intimacy as in marriage?

The answer is definitely no.

My life already has been fruitful in some of the relationships and friendships I've had. In some small measure I have made a positive impact in some lives already; that's definitely fruitful! By God's grace some of the things I have done will have continue long after me in some way, much as the works of my ancestors (both my ancestors in the family and my ancestors in the faith) continue to resound today even if the saint responsible is unknown.

The Society of St John the Evangelist uses the language of 'co-creating' with God. From their chapter on Celibate Life:

Each of us will pass through different phases in our lives of celibate chastity. At times we will be glad of our inner solitude, which fosters prayer, and the diversity of relationships we enjoy in community and with friends; at other times we will feel loneliness. While others are enjoying the consolations of community life, some brothers may be missing the solace of partnership, the joys of sex and the satisfaction of having a home of their own. There will be seasons of contentment in our singleness; there may be days of testing and confusion if we fall in love, or become strongly attracted to another.
Struggles will come at different stages as we break through to new levels of integration; the challenges faced by young religious will not be the same as those that come with the onset of middle age. Old age may bring its own trials of doubt. Only if we share these different experiences in candor and trust can we offer one another genuine support.
At times many of us will miss having fathered children. We shall need to open the poignancy of this loss to Christ in prayer. He will show us that in union with him our lives have been far from barren. As we nurture others in Christ, and bring them to maturity, we shall discover that fatherhood has found expression in our lives. In prayer, meditation, our thought, our work and our friendships, we are called to fulfill our deep human urge to be creators with God of new life, and to bear fruit that lasts.
I may not be completely responsible for the work done (God is doing most of the work in helping, guiding, sustaining others), but I have my part. A small part, a big part, whatever part God gives me.

And God is with me every step of the way. He who knows my heart, my every emotion, who loves me more purely and thoroughly than anyone else could ever. He knows my pains and every longing sigh. Nothing is hidden from him.

Though I may be single, God can make wonderful things spring forth from me. How wonderful and amazing! How glorious is our God!

Friday, November 25, 2011

Carbonated Souls (2011 Retreat Reflections Part 1)

Silence is a constant source of restoration. Yet its healing power does not come cheaply. It depends on our willingness to face all that is withing us, light and dark, and to heed all the inner voices that make themselves heard in silence. (From Chapter 27, "Silence," of the Rule of the Society of St John the Evangelist)
It's been a week and a half since I've returned from my retreat to the monastery of the Society of St John the Evangelist (an Episcopal monastic order). Since I'm a member of the Fellowship of St John, their association of lay and ordained oblates who pray for the work of the Society and try to live in harmony with the SSJE's rule of life and since going on retreat to Catholic monasteries leaves me unable to fully participate in the Holy Communion, it was the best place to go.

I made my reservations and plans months ago. I packed my bags, threw in some books from the library and off I flew. There was nothing specific I wanted to meditate on or contemplate beyond, "Maybe I should be a monk..."

Anxious about arriving on time, anxious about navigating Boston's public transit system with baggage in tow, anxious about walking through Cambridge in the dark, I arrived at the door of the monastery and was kindly greeted by the guesthouse manager. He showed me to my room. We passed by the chapel where Mass was already being celebrated and I could smell the incense. How I wanted to be there for the sacred mysteries! I plopped down my bags, washed my sweaty face and waited for Mass to be over to go to dinner. Dinner was taken in silence save for a brother reading a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and soon after was Compline, the bedtime prayers of the church.

The next day was a retreat day for the brothers; the noonday Mass and Evening Prayer were to be the only services conducted, leaving me plenty of time to nap. The brother in charge of guests said he'd meet with me after the brothers' retreat day.

For that day and a half, I was immersed in silence. Other than chanting the prayers and psalms, silence reigned. And in that silence I found myself bubbling with anger, judgment and discontent. In that holy space I was overcome by emotion that was taking me farther away from God than I'd been before my arrival. In realizing what was going on, I recognized that God had been making plans where I had not. I hadn't been planning what I'd be studying and reflecting on during my retreat, but God sure had. God wanted me to take in some lessons about humility, letting go, and embracing joy.

When I met with the brother the next day, he remarked that there was a marked shift from the day before. The day before my anger and judgment were displayed on my face, but the next day it seemed lighter. In working to find an explanation for myself about why I'd felt so angry, I remarked that it felt "like I was a bottle of soda which suddenly had no cap"; in the silence all the emotions and feelings and bad habits that had been kept inside by sheer force of pressure and busy-ness came floating to the surface.

I had had an inkling that those feelings were there. They popped up in some form every once in a while, but I didn't expect that they'd launch such a strong assault! And on retreat, no less! I was supposed to be enjoying a refreshing break, a holy silence, an enlightening period of meditation and prayer. I was supposed to be better than that.

That's not how soul-work goes. In the midst of retreat I had no image to protect. I had nothing to do (the monks didn't care if I read my meditations, my friends didn't know what books I'd packed along, and I was more than capable of napping most of the time while I was there). No responsibilities at all. With all this nothing suddenly I was alone in the presence of God, surrounded though I was by the Church. In this one-on-one with God I could start to let go of things, but first I had to know that there were things I was holding onto unexpectedly.

In silence we might just get a glimpse of the Holy. We might just see ourselves in a mirror, and if we wisely refrain from judgment we might get a chance to be born anew. When I noticed how strongly the anger, judgment and frustration were affecting me, God had me look at myself without judgment (or, well, with less judgment than I am capable of). I had to laugh- God certainly had to laugh at watching me fold my arms in silent indignation while I was judging in my heart.

Certainly the jet lag had a role in my state. Certainly being a stranger in a strange land had a role, too. And suddenly being silent and alone in my thoughts had a hand in it, too. Those might have been just the right kinds of pressure to crack the seal on my lid so that some of the negatives that had been dissolved in me could bubble up and out.

Now the struggle is to dissolve something else in me; who likes flat soda all that much? I wonder: who could make me joyously effervescent and bubbly, a refreshing drink made from the waters of life and the breath of the Spirit?

Jesus Christ, the Soda Bottler? The Carbonator of Faithful Souls? Apt image, maybe.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

All Souls' Day - But Which Souls?

Today is All Souls' Day. It follows on All Saints' Day, when the church remembers all the faithful departed who have stood out to us for lives that especially gave us glimpses of the Holy.

All Souls' Day, then, is for everyone else in the church who has died. People who have struggled to live the faith, those lured by the temptations of the world, those whose faith is known to God alone. Today we remember that the assembly in Heaven will be larger than those on the "official" guest list we have on Earth. Who knows who might be there! Will it be many? Will it be few? I can only imagine that Heaven will be full because God is gracious and loving, merciful to the least of us.

But what about animals?

Today I read a heart-breaking story about a dog, Duncan, who saved his owner's life by barking to alert him to a fire. Duncan, sadly, did not survive; he was found curled up in his master's bed where he went when he was afraid. The thought of this dog, so faithful to his owner, dying in fear as flames surrounded him filled me to the brim with sadness. Duncan was also a boxer mix, and boxers always have a soft spot in my heart.

But what about Duncan?

For those whose Heaven is small, Duncan has ceased to exist. Because he was not human, he had nothing eternal in him. He was not in the image of God; therefore he is no more. Their Heaven is too small for God to fit.

For others, Duncan sits waiting at the "Rainbow Bridge" (Wikipedia article), waiting for his master to come. His afterlife is incomplete until his owner, Scott, has passed into death. Duncan is happy, except for one thing: he misses his owner. As kind as this image is, it leaves Duncan incomplete. His joy is half-finished, and it leaves God out of the picture. God loves Duncan deeply.

So could he be in Heaven?

Yes, yes, yes. In reading the Psalms the praise of God's mercy shines through. Psalm 145 declares that "The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made" (v. 9). Psalm 147 reminds us that God gives all the animals their sustenance; God's grace is over his entire creation.

Jesus preached, "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten in God's sight. But even the hairs of your head are all counted. Do not be afraid; you are of more value than many sparrows" (Luke 12:6-7). Yes, in the hierarchy of values humans are worth more than animals but that is far from making animals without value! Why else would God make a covenant with not only Noah but with all the animals saved in the Ark (Genesis 9:8-17)? God cares for the fate of all creation, not just humans.

Humankind may be special in God's sight for our capacity to create, to choose the Way of Everlasting Life, to live into holiness and kindness right now, but all creation is still loved by God. If God did not love all creation, it would only be for our sake that creation endures. It would only be because humans still existed that God did not extinguish creation like a candle flame. God's plan is to redeem and consecrate his creation.

We human beings mourn over the death of beloved animal friends and pray for them. That is a glimpse of God's deep well of mercy. To pray for the fate of a humble dog? To attribute to him human characteristics of love, loyalty, devotion, fear, to make this dog a he and not an it? In our best moments, our animals participate in our humanity. They become friends with personalities. They participate in our humanity by our invitation and therefore take on the "image of God" that God has created in us.

Does God ignore it when we pray for others? Could God possibly ignore a plea to remember his humble creation who seemed to live a more Godly life than we do? Of course not.

God loves his creation deeply and will not abandon it to death. Death will not have the last answer; the fear that Duncan had in his final moments will not be the end of it. No, no, I refuse to even consider that terror and agony and isolation will ever have the final say. Christ takes this agony and terror and abandonment into himself and took it to his grave. It is all brought to God. But Christ rose from death on the third day and is robed in glory and majesty to wipe the tear from every eye! "To the only God our Savior, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, power, and authority, before all time and now and forever! Amen!" (Jude 1:25)

So, Duncan, canis Dei, rejoice now, and enter into Master Jesus' rest.

May all the souls of the faithful departed rest in peace. Amen.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

The Ten Commandments

Earlier this month, our bishop made his annual visitation. A core part of his sermon dealt with the Ten Commandments. He pointed out the beauty of the translation of the Ten Commandments in the Book of Common Prayer's catechism. The commandments are less "Thou shalt not" and more "Thou shalt". We can't just go down the list and mutter "Nope, haven't done that one! Or that one! Guess I'm good!" The Prayer Book's catechism focuses on the positive- it gives us guidance as to what to do.

Commandments (and the rest of the Law as given by Moses) have a strange place in Christianity. On one hand, we have St Paul reminding us that we are saved by God's grace in Jesus Christ; we can't earn our life with God because it is a gift.On the other hand, we have St James reminding us that if our relationship with God doesn't translate to our relationships with others, then we aren't really living the Gospel.

We can take St Paul's theology too far and wrongly interpret him as saying "It's all good! Jesus will wash those sins away. Sin away!" Does this characterize the modern American mindset? For some it does. The acceptance of homosexuality and birth control are just two signs that "All is acceptable." They believe that the modern age's moral compass is "Does it feel good?"

Then some see Christianity as a set of frozen, lifeless rules and obligations, most of which are broken by hypocrites in the church.

Christianity can't be lifeless rules, but it also isn't "Do what you like." It's a path walking to and with God, and we need guidance for the road.So then the Ten Commandments (and the rest of the Law) are guideposts for Christians. They sit alongside the road directing us toward the destination and help us from getting lost and confused, but it isn't in keeping those commandments that we are saved. The path means nothing if it doesn't bring us closer to God, but we do need some light to help illumine the path.

Here's a litany for the Ten Commandments. It is based on the catechism and the penitential order from the Prayer Book. 

Litany of the Ten Commandments

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

O God, you have given us the Law to be a lantern to our feet and a light upon our path, and through your commandments we gain understanding. But we sin against you; we do not keep your decrees because of the foolishness and malice of our hearts. Through your Son, Jesus Christ, you have redeemed us and freed us from sin and made us heirs of your eternal kingdom. Your Law gives light and guidance; your Son gives redemption and grace.

The first and greatest commandment is to love you, the Lord our God, with all our heart, and all our soul, and all our mind.
Lord, have mercy on us, and incline our hearts to keep your Law.

We are to love and obey you and to bring others to know you.
Lord, have mercy on us, and incline our hearts to keep your Law.

We are to put nothing in your place, to let no one but you in the temples in our hearts.
Lord, have mercy on us, and incline our hearts to keep your Law.

We are to show you respect in thought, word, and deed, to respect the holiness of Your Name.
Lord, have mercy on us, and incline our hearts to keep your Law.

We are to set aside regular times for worship, prayer, and the study of your ways.
Lord, have mercy on us, and incline our hearts to keep your Law.

The second great commandment is like the first. We are to love our neighbors as ourselves.
Lord, have mercy on us, and incline our hearts to keep your Law.

We are to love, honor and help our parents and family; to honor those in authority and to meet their just demands.
Lord, have mercy on us, and incline our hearts to keep your Law.

We are to show respect for the life God has given us; to work and pray for peace; to bear no malice, prejudice and hatred in our hearts; and to be kind to all the creatures of God.
Lord, have mercy on us, and incline our hearts to keep your Law.

We are to use our bodily desires as God intended, for we are members of the Body of Christ and share in his eternal priesthood.
Lord, have mercy on us, and incline our hearts to keep your Law.

We are to be honest and fair in our dealings; to seek justice, freedom and the necessities of life for all people; and to use our talents and possessions as ones who must answer for them to you, O God.
Lord, have mercy on us, and incline our hearts to keep your Law.

We are to speak the truth and not to mislead others by our silence.
Lord, have mercy on us, and incline our hearts to keep your Law.

We are to resist temptations to envy, greed, and jealousy; to rejoice in other people's gifts and graces; and to do our duty for the love of You who has called us into fellowship with the Holy Trinity.
Lord, have mercy on us, and incline our hearts to keep your Law.

Almighty God have mercy on us, forgive us our sins through our Lord Jesus Christ, strengthen us in all goodness, and by the power of the Holy Spirit keep us in eternal life. Amen.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Entering the Discernment Process

Tonight was the first official session of my discernment process for Holy Orders (ordained ministry). It's been a long time coming, and the painful experiences which had dissuaded me from it a long time back have helped me to grow as a person and as a Christian.

Below are some thoughts that occurred during and after the meeting, take from them what suits you: 

  • Tonight was the process of sharing spiritual autobiographies. If you compare autobiographies, mine seems awfully unimpressive. My delivery of that autobiography was also rather sub-par tonight.  That fear of being judged less-worthy (or even worthless) popped up in full strength. Comparison is a dangerous thing. Comparison works well for buying the better of two apples; however, comparing between our personal faith against that of another person is a quick way to extinguish the gifts of the Holy Spirit present in all our lives. Heaven knows that seeing myself as less (less attractive, less intelligent, less spiritual, less gifted, less everything) has worked to diminish God's gifts to me. We humans see ourselves always on a continuum, a sliding scale of more versus less. Some have more, some have less. God really doesn't work in sliding scales, though. Even Moses who considered himself a horrible speaker said a lot more of value than eloquent false prophets.
  • Seriously, a great metaphor for the work of the Holy Spirit is soda pop. The carbon dioxide represents the Spirit, we the flavored water. The carbon dioxide infuses the water, remains in it under pressure, but always flows outwardly. That water, however, is changed; it is not just water but carbonic acid. So it is with us. The Spirit frequently becomes most infused in us with careful attention, prayer, and trials, but always finds its way to spread outwards. We are thus changed by the Spirit- the Spirit takes what was before and changes it.
  • When given the opportunity and the right scenario, people are eager to share how God has worked in their lives, and it is a real beautiful thing.
  • Bagpipe players and bell choirs make two very different kinds of music, but all of it is beautiful. Bagpipes are funnier, though.
  • Faith that God is present and that God will bring good out of the dark things in life is one of the hardest lessons to truly believe. It isn't an intellectual exercise that, through mental gymnastics, you can force yourself to believe. Sometimes people with stronger faiths have to have faith on your behalf so that you can keep going on.

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Sermon for May 22, 2010

Below is the text of my sermon for this past Sunday. You can look up the readings I'm talking about on
5th Sunday After Easter

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31: 1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14: 1-14

In the name of the + Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. AMEN.

When Pastor Susan asked if I wanted to preach this Sunday, my heart's reaction was swift: wait, what? It's not as if I haven't preached before, but it was mostly during the midweek service where even the worst sermon can be forgiven.

No, Sunday morning is different and the recipe a bit stricter: two cups of entertaining story, a tablespoon of theology and an ounce of good morals, all mixed together with the readings and baked on the fire of the Holy Spirit. Voila, a proper Sunday sermon.

What story could I possibly tell that would link the martyrdom of St Stephen, St Peter's letter, and Jesus' statement that he is the Way, the Truth and the Life? These are not light readings.

Each one of these readings strikes first with questions: why are they so upset with Stephen? What's Peter saying? What can Jesus possibly mean?

If I were following the recipe for a Sunday sermon, it seems that I would be adding much more than a tablespoon of theology, and theology is hard to digest outside of discussions and books. It's no wonder that the Apostles always seem a little confused- they listened to Jesus preach and didn't have the benefit of reading it again a few times and then writing a paper on what Jesus meant.

Sermons, speeches, proclamations. They all demand careful listening in real time. There's no stopping to re-hear the sentence just before this one to catch a missed word or phrase. It's very easy to hear something very different from what the speaker meant. The spoken word seems so error-prone.

But the spoken word is what got Stephen into trouble. See, Stephen spoke with grace and power and truth. He didn't hesitate to tell his persecutors that they were acting just like the people who murdered the prophets before him. He wasn't shy about God and he wasn't shy about telling others about God's wonderful work.

His great crime, though, was that he proclaimed the vision of Christ standing at the right hand of God. His persecutors didn't ask him to repeat himself for fear that they had misheard him- they reacted. They covered their ears, dragged him out of the city, and hit him with rocks until he died.

The spoken word is not for the faint-hearted or the inattentive.

Stephen was condemned to death for his proclamation about Jesus, and yet that wasn't the only word he uttered. He prayed for Jesus to receive his spirit and he also prayed that his persecutors would not have that sin held against them. I wonder where Stephen learned to pray for his murderers. I'm sure that he heard someone explain how important it is to pray for your enemies.

What did his persecutors hear when he prayed for them? Did they get angry? Or did they even hear his prayer on their behalf?

Probably not. They heard his words and reacted violently, so I can't imagine that they'd pay attention to anything else he said.

That's the danger in speaking- will the words I say be heard at all? Will they be misheard? Will they anger or hurt the person I'm speaking with? Will the person listening think I'm crazy? I can only control the words coming out of my mouth, but I can't control how the words will be heard.

I started off this sermon by telling you the anxiety I had just getting started, and now I'm telling you the risks that the preacher faces each time he or she gets into the pulpit. Preaching is dangerous business.

Faced with these risks, what do we do? Do we stop telling the truth? Do we keep from sharing the loving acts of God? We can't. We just can't. Once we've been called out of darkness into God's marvelous light we simply must continue proclaiming and praying. It's in our blood- we're God's people, a holy nation, a royal priesthood. Our baptismal covenant finds a good model in St Stephen- serve the poor and downtrodden, proclaim Christ crucified and risen, and pray for the Church and the world.

During the AIDS crisis in the 1980s, a frequently used slogan was “Silence Equals Death.” To be silent meant that people would suffer from a deadly disease in despair and isolation. Ending that silence saved many lives by bringing the crisis to light. People had to open their hearts when they saw brothers and sisters dying alone and abandoned from a horrible disease. Of course some people were angry, furious that anyone dared talk openly about it, but we must not be silent in the face of death- especially if it means the death (physical, emotional, or spiritual) of another.

Or what about domestic violence? For so many families, home is not a safe place. Emotional and physical abuse still plague American families, and silence does not help. The abused need to hear that they do not deserve to be hurt- emotionally, mentally or physically. And we must be quick to teach each other that violence is not acceptable. Younger generations especially need to hear and see that no one should be shamed into silence and that our families and churches are places of healing even in the most painful and dark of times.

Today, what proclamation needs to be heard? What truth do we need to share? Who needs to hear the message about Christ, the way, the truth and the life?

In our community of Idaho Falls, is there a burning truth that needs to be preached? Do any suffer and need our voice? What will we do if no one listens- or what will we do if they get mad? What will we do if they judge us for our faith?

In our world many people hear little of Christian preaching other than words of condemnation and judgment. First and foremost we are called to proclaim Good News to the poor, the downtrodden, those who feel so far from God. And what is that Good News? That God loves all people so much that he was willing to live among us and to die for us so that we could be made whole and live in joyful union with him. How many get to hear that life-giving message about Jesus? How many of us have really listened to that message, taken it to heart? We must listen to it so that we can preach it to others. That is part of our call as God's royal priesthood- it is our responsibility, lay and ordained, to proclaim the good news to the world.

No one says preaching is easy. No one says there isn't a risk of saying the wrong thing or saying it in the wrong way. No one says that there isn't a chance that we will be judged. Whatever we say needs to be firmly rooted in the love of God and the grace of Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit. Go, help people to learn of Christ and to love him.

May God always be in our listening, and may God always be in our speaking. AMEN.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Holy Monday

Aaaaand here's Holy Week. That high drama, the pageantry, the darkness. Oh, the darkness.

Yesterday was Palm Sunday, marking Christ's triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Thursday we commemorate the institution of the Eucharist (the "Last Supper" which we remember each week during communion). Thursday we also remember the Agony in the Garden and the Arrest. Friday is the trial and crucifixion of Christ. Saturday is the lonely day- we remember the agony and fear and confusion the Apostles felt. And finally Saturday night we hold a vigil, waiting to hear the blessed proclamation of the Resurrection.

The Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday of Holy Week, however, seem empty. Many churches will hold additional services to encourage devotion. There is one special service, Tenebrae (Latin for "Darkness") which consists of Psalms and readings which bring us deeper into the mystery of redemption. It ends in darkness and is one of the few services without a dismissal. A loud noise is all the ends the service. No comforting words. More on this tomorrow after I lead Tenebrae.

But back to Monday.

Holy Monday has no special liturgies in the Western church. It is still a fast day and it gets a special prayer (called a collect), but it does not get a special ritual.

The collect of the day is, interestingly enough, used in Friday Morning Prayer during the rest of the year in the Episcopal Church.

Almighty God, whose dear Son went not up to joy but first he suffered pain, and entered not into glory before he was crucified: Mercifully grant that we, walking in the way of the cross, may find it none other than the way of life and peace; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
May these quiet, strange days bring us peace and life as we walk toward Golgotha to stand watch with our crucified Lord.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Entering Holy Week

Ah, Holy Week. Tomorrow is Palm Sunday, a day commemorating Jesus' entry into Jerusalem. We also include the reading of the Passion, remembering that the triumphal entry leads to the crucifixion.

This is a beautiful yet dark time. From the literal darkness of the Tenebrae liturgy to the spiritual darkness between Maundy Thursday and Good Friday as we watch with the reserved sacrament, we are drawn into the depths. The depths of abandonment, despair, and hell itself.

This is Arvo Part's arrangement of Psalm 130, "De Profundis," which is Latin for "from the depths."

The English translation of Psalm 130:

Out of the depths have I called to you, O Lord;
Lord, hear my voice.
Let your ears consider well the voice of my supplication.

If you, Lord, were to note what is done amiss,
O Lord, who could stand?

For there is forgiveness with you;
therefore you shall be feared.

I wait for the Lord; my soul waits for him;
in his word is my hope.

My soul waits for the Lord,
more than watchmen for the morning,
more than watchmen for the morning.

O Israel, wait for the Lord,
for with the Lord there is mercy;

With him there is plenteous redemption,
and he shall redeem Israel from all their sins.

Thursday, April 7, 2011

A Lent of Taking Control?

Normally Lent is a time of giving up control to God and recognizing our limitations. It's a time of being still and taking stock of our sins. We repent, we fast, we take on disciplines.

It's also my favorite time of year. Odd, that a time of darkness is the time I feel closest to God. I've known God best in the darkness of depression than in the times of unspeakable joy. As we slowly make our journey to Golgotha and the Crucifixion of our Lord, we are entering into some incredibly dark time.

The word 'discipline' is not a word that seems friendly to many ears. It seems so dry and dead and ancient. This year I have focused on dietary discipline. Meat only once a day and never on Wednesdays and Fridays. Candy is out (except when I fail, which happens). The whole eating-for-God plan has worked well in unexpected ways.

For starters, I realized just how powerful food is. In our culture of abundance, most do not worry about from where the next meal will come. It's just there. Food is also powerful in our bodies. We break it down for energy, and it also makes our brains very happy.

As I've had to be very deliberate about my dietary choices for these past few weeks, I've noticed just how little I think about them. On feast days this Lent, I've suspended the discipline since, well, it is a feast! One morsel of chocolate leads to another and another. None of them really satisfied, but my brain would insist that one more piece, one more handful would be just dandy.

Mindful eating requires a lot of control and a lot of restraint, and it gets harder to restrain oneself once that first sweet has been eaten. Just one! I tell myself. But that one is unsatisfying without its brethren. They, too, must be eaten. Before long a container of delicious chocolate-covered marshmallow eggs is gone.

There's been some joy in discovering that I can say no to those impulses. When I remind myself of my discipline, it feels great that my mind does not revolve around that sweet I'm denying myself. When I fail, I have to dust myself off and try again. God doesn't get furious when I fail in my fasting; God wants me to take control of this part of my life so that it doesn't take control of me.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

To My Own Condemnation

As I sat in the cafeteria yesterday, eating some delicious beef teriyaki and reading Thomas Merton, a conversation I'd had with a good friend came to mind.

For most of my life I've been fat. Heavy. Chunky. Clinically, the term would be 'obese.'

My friend, on the other hand, is not even close to being fat. Never has been. Never will be.

Our desks are next to each other, and most of last year she'd give me her second cookie from lunch. Without thinking I would eat it.

That is, until two months ago when my doctor said that I'd reached the weight I swore I would never see again. I was heartbroken to see the digital readout.

For Lent, then, I'd sworn that I would cut out sweets, and even cut out meat on certain days. I would get myself back to a proper relationship with food. I would stop running to it for solace and strength.

In that conversation with my friend, I mentioned how I can get paranoid when I eat. When I eat in public, I start to think about what my food choices indicate to other people. Should it be the day that I indulge in something fattening, then other people are silently "tsk-tsk"-ing me for poor dietary choices and for being a 'Fat American.' Should it be that I'm eating anything other than a leafy salad, then I'm failing as a human being. Each bite I take is a bite to my own condemnation.

And each bite I take is yet more confirmation that I shall live and die unloved by any partner, for who would want to date this?

She looked at me strangely. She couldn't fathom how someone could think all those things while simply eating. She couldn't understand how much hatred and anger and shame and despair could be wrapped up in the simple act of eating.

Yet it's not just in the simple act of eating. It's in the simple act of being.

Walking around, catching a sideways glimpse of my reflection in the mirror, eyes focused not on my smile or my lovely beard but my gut. That damned gut. Every positive is quickly and effectively negated by that mass of fat I lug around in front of me.

To the gym! I should say. To healthy food and exercise! I should say. And so I try.

But that gut is obstinate and unyielding.

That gut has a greater power than I'd thought.

Where does it get such power?

From the opinion in pop culture that it is ugly and is a sign of worthlessness and sloth.

From the judgment that it renders me unfit for desire and sex, worthy only for what I can offer in mind and heart. It neuters me.

From the years it has sat there, giving me ample (pun intended) ammunition to judge myself.

It stands and sags as a sign of years of sin. Sins of sloth, sins of gluttony, sins of worthlessness.


Is it a cross to bear? I'd say so.

It's a sign of shame. It's been that way for years. It has changed me in many ways. My feelings of shame over my body have forged me into the person I am now. Daily I struggle with my body. My obsessions, my fears, my sadness. It mounts its assault on my self-esteem.

Is this what St Paul talks about? The thorn in his side that plagues him day and night? Something that breaks him day by day?

Can this lump of flesh bring me to rely more and more on God? The one God who loves me and cares for me and gives me wholeness? Yes, yes it can. Does it? Each day is a new day of new struggles.

Society and culture and other people cannot determine my worth. They can't. They try and frequently convince us that they determine our worth, but they can't. Their power is an illusion.

God, however, values us. Even the worst among us are held close to God's heart, if only we'd see it and feel it and open ourselves to it.

I may eat, and I may eat unworthily, and I may eat to my own condemnation. It is not God who condemns me, however, and so the verdict is, in the eyes of eternity, null. Nothing. Void.

I must feast on God, and in that eating there is no condemnation.

Monday, January 3, 2011

Martyrs and Prophets

Recently, the Episcopal Church put out a revised calendar of saints. It was meant to include more laypeople and people from different Christian traditions and to reflect more ways of being a Christian.

Thumbing through it, however, I notice something very interesting: the proliferation of people listed as "Prophetic Witnesses." The category is full of people who were inspired by the Spirit to challenge injustice or do some reform work. For example, the saint listed for today is a German Lutheran who revived the order of deaconesses and founded hospitals and church newspapers. What makes this "prophetic"? Because he tried to give women a special ministry in the church? A few years ago we would have called him a reformer, but I guess that's too boring.

By adding so many to that category, however, I think we're changing some very central notions of what it means to be a Christian. Firstly, we're diluting what "prophetic" means. It's being used for every little thing that seems to be a nice social/liberal agenda instead of those challenging the hierarchy. Prophets are few and far between and are widely vilified while they are alive because they challenge the culture around them and the religious and political hierarchies. How many of these prophetic witnesses can claim that?

Secondly, the abundance of "prophetic witnesses" is seeming to take precedence over martyrdom, which is the highest "rank" of feast days (for those who don't know, saint days are ranked in order of precedence- it's a complicated system). Martyrs are people who die confessing the faith on their lips, and people are still being killed for the Christian faith today (see the bombing of the Coptic church in Alexandria over this weekend). Martyrs are and always must be the vanguard of the church. Christ willingly walked to his death for what he was and what he preached, and so should we. We are to be living martyrs, unashamed of who we are and the God we follow. We are to be like St Stephen, caring for others, proclaiming the truth, and dying for God. Yes, even a martyr has to proclaim the truth like a prophet, but is not a "prophetic witness." The martyr's life tells us more about the truth than all the words of the "prophetic witness."

Being a "prophetic witness", however, will remind the world of the worst legacy of Christendom- telling people what to do. Instead of focusing on lives given completely to God even at death, we will focus on how much our saints told us the mind of God (something that we are quick to yell at fundamentalists for, by the way) and told us what to do. This is especially true for the clergy who stand in the halls of power yet decry privilege.

While I understand and appreciate the need for the Church to denounce injustice and oppression, we have to remember that we're not the only ones doing so. Many atheists and agnostics and people from other traditions condemn oppression and deceit and corruption, too. We're not unique at all in that regard. We're not even unique in caring for the stranger, the homeless, and the downtrodden. You don't have to be a Christian to emulate the "prophetic witnesses."

We are unique, however, in that we can live lives completely given over to Christ like the martyrs did. For whatever reason, they were murdered for their commitment to Christ. No one outside the Christian faith can do that. That is why the martyrs are front and center in the church... or at least they should be.