What is Our Work? Thinking about Adaptive Challenges in the Age of the Technical Fix

On Tuesday, July 11th at 7pm, and then again on Sunday, July 16th, Saint Julian’s will participate in a formal “Listening Session”. The primary question behind these sessions is to start to explore the question, “What is our Work (as a parish)?” Put differently, “What is God already involved in, and are we being invited into that work?”

Bishop Robert C. Wright through Ron Heifetz  divides work into two categories: Technical and Adaptive.

Technical Work: is work not involving shifts in values, norms, loyalties and world views. This work has a clear diagnosis and clear solution. This work is accomplished by logic and authority. There is already considerable expertise in the system to complete this work.

An Example of Technical Work is as follows: Mr. Jones has a heart attack. Mr. Jones goes to his doctor. His doctor determines that bypass surgery is needed. Mr. Jones undergoes bypass surgery and the heart starts to function at full capacity again.

Adaptive Work (on the other hand): is work that intends on shifting norms, world views, loyalties and values. Diagnosis is complicated and solutions are not easily found because there are no clear solutions. Part of Adaptive work consists of identifying the gaps between the Current Reality and the stated Aspirations of an institution, community or family. Adaptive work is often misdiagnosed as Technical work. Adaptive work requires the unique resource of leadership behavior.

Remembering our above example of Mr. Jones – After the heart attack and surgery, Mr. Jones examines his lifestyle choices (i.e. eating, drinking, and exercise habits). He realizes he is eating too many fatty foods, drinking alcohol in excess, and not exercising with regularity. Mr. Jones makes a decision to eat healthier foods, curb the alcohol usage, and make exercise a part of his regular routine. This adaptive work, combined with the technical know-how of his doctor’s expertise changes the reality of Mr. Jones in new, healthy ways.

One more: What’s an example of an adaptive challenge that is misdiagnosed as Technical work?

Let’s look to the life of an imaginary parish from the 1990’s: The aging church congregation looks around and sees there are no young people and young families attending the church. Traditional work and financial giving is at an all-time low. This is the problem diagnosed; however, the congregation chooses to apply a technical fix to what is really an adaptive challenge. They say things like, “Young people want a more contemporary style of worship. Let’s get a few guitars and a screen and put it up. While we’re at it, let’s ask the pastor to throw on some skinny jeans. They’ll start coming then.” Instead of actually getting out there and speaking to young families in (mostly) informal ways –  listening to what their dreams, hopes, and challenges are as well as what they desire in a church community, the congregation thinks in stereotypical ways and purchases a few of those guitars, a screen, and the jeans. And guess what? Nobody shows up. Why? They’re trying harder, but they’re trying harder and their energy is contained in an echo chamber instead of going outside their doors and listening, watching, and discerning.

Adapting to the way and work of Jesus asks us to be open to letting the work of Christ form and shape us into who God already knows us to be (as individuals AND the Body of Christ). For certain there are technical challenges (i.e. a light bulb is out, the yard needs mowing, the toilet needs fixing), but if we can all agree that the life of a disciple of Jesus is ongoing, adaptive work (on God’s part and ours), we can all support one another in our individual journeys as well as with the parish as a whole.

What I’ll personally be looking for on Tuesday and next Sunday are reoccurring themes as well as distinguishing between technical and adaptive work. After the listening sessions, I will take all that I have heard, and the Vestry and I will be separating our work as a parish into those two categories (Technical/Adaptive). It will then be the Vestry’s continued work to focus on the adaptive challenges facing us, and in their teams/subcommittees calling on each and every one of you to step into the work that is needed. A lot of the work will be technical, but some of it will require us to “shift our norms, world views, loyalties and values.” This is exciting work for the Vestry because so much of our time in monthly meetings these past three years have been discussing technical work (i.e. changing out light bulbs, repairing this and that). This will no longer be the work of the Vestry, and I’m proud of them for being open to these past few months at adapting to a new form of behavior – that is – the work of the Vestry and other leaders of various ministries here at St. Julian’s will be to diagnose adaptive challenges. It will be the role of the subcommittees and teams associated with the Vesty and other ministerial leaders to do the technical work.

What is our Work (as a parish)? What is God already involved in, and are we being invited into that work? Come Tuesday night, or Sunday afternoon and let’s discern these questions together (and with God’s help).

~Fr. Brandon

In The End Love Remains

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MawMaw and I dancing at my cousin Tony’s wedding a few years back

Romans 6:12-23

When those who are close to us die, or are actively dying all the pettiness of life with its distractions and annoyances are disregarded like a heavy coat. The living suddenly awaken to shed inconsequential irritations in the name of love. This may be the last lesson from the dying to the living. When those whom we love have died, reflecting on all our silly habits, the way we spend our time, and the people we have ignored or left unforgiven are all revealed. The dead and dying gift us with new, living eyes that expose our trivial ways. In the end, we are all left with nothing just as we had nothing upon entering into life. Why do we spend large amounts of time, energy, and money seeking things that will pass away? In the end, love remains. Love brought us into the world and it stays with us in the end.

In today’s Epistle, St. Paul is promoting new life; but this new life – this new beginning – is only revealed when we have bumped up and against death. When we face death, we see the things we should have seen all along. We remember love. We see beauty. We experience gratefulness, and even regret. The regret (I suppose) comes from bumping up against the truth – the truth that love was always there, and is always an option. It is not inconsequential. Being able to see these things anew can make one regretful of their past sins.

Christians believe that Christ’s death was and is a gift. His death is a gift because we are asked to join him in his death, and in doing so we get to shed those parts of ourselves that keep us from loving – that keep us from His Love. The good news of Jesus Christ is that death is not the end, but a new beginning in Him. Just as Christ has died, we will die (in him) but just as Christ has risen – we too are called to newness of life. St. Paul put this way, For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23). What Paul may be saying here is that we can do nothing apart from God. God is with us when we are dying, dead, and done. God is with us when we are living, alive, and experiencing life eternal. We cannot get away so why not choose life (in Him); and if we choose this life Paul says we are set free. Free to love. Free to forgive. Free to be forgiven. Again, all our pettiness passes away and the road to freedom is made clearer.

What then, do we do when we remember the freedom of Christ and at the same time forget it? Paul answers this with a fancy word. He says, the advantage…is sanctification (Romans 6:22). Sanctification defined is simply being made holy in and by and through God. In other words, you can’t be made holy on your own. Holiness comes from God; therefore, we are only holy when God’s holiness is shining and showing through us. This may be Paul’s argument in a nutshell, but what does it mean for us today?

I believe it leaves us with two choices: To get busy dying, or to get busy living. For Christians, however, these two choices become one reality when we realize we are constantly dying to ourselves in order to experience more of the eternal found within us. This is what’s called a life in Christ. Christ unites the dead to the living and at the same time transcends both. So again: What does this mean for us? Here in lies the brilliance of God: It has nothing to do with “us” and everything to do with Christ. In other words, God is asking “us” to get out of the way, and to be receptive to his love, forgiveness, mercy, and sanctification. This is such a hard lesson because we always want to do something. St. Paul is saying we don’t do anything; instead, we let go, and let God.

On Friday, I personally had a let go and let God moment or two. I got a call from my Mom letting me know that MawMaw (my 99-year-old maternal grandmother) was having post-operative complications. She was non-responsive; her blood pressure was dangerously low, and nobody (including the doctors) knew if she was going to pull through. Listening to my Mom’s retelling of her last 24 hours put me into two different mindsets. One was that MawMaw was simply ready to go. She had lived an amazingly full life, and her time was immanent. The other thought was more selfish: What about her 100th birthday party? So many people, including MawMaw, are so looking forward to it, but like the above example that referred to choices of life and death these too were transcended in Christ, and I remembered God’s transcending power. I remembered that ultimately these things have nothing to do with me, and everything to do with God.

This afternoon, Henry and I are driving to Texas. For Henry, it’s a planned trip where he will get to see his MeMe and Papa. For me, it’s an unplanned trip where I may be saying a last goodbye to my MawMaw or not. As of yesterday, she has perked up and is doing better. Also, we still have plans to celebrate her 100th birthday in August, but for now thanksgiving and gratefulness are made present in my heart, and what will be will be when August 20th rolls around. In fact, what will be will be at any old time. This whole experience has awakened me to pay a bit more attention to the things that matter most in my life. It has also given me the chance to reflect on my own life and to focus on what’s important and what to let go. Finally, it has allowed a part of me to fall away and to remember that it is not all about me. It’s about Christ, and relying on him to do what he always does: To hold the balance of life and death in Himself, yet transcending it all, awakening the heart to trustworthiness in His Love.

MawMaw&Henry MawMaw and my son, Henry, in her sunroom

 

 

 

A Review of Rod Dreher’s, The Benedict Option

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In Rod Dreher’s new book on Christian ecclesiology, The Benedict Option, remembering the holiness of order paves the way for Christians to direct their lives through regular prayer, fasting, repentance, and the holy sacraments. These ancient practices are orthodox, but Dreher argues that Christians have forgotten that these practices are vehicles that point to the Divine. They are holy technologies that ground the practicing Christian in faith, hope, and love.

Intentional community is where Dreher spends the bulk of his book. Here, he lifts up the importance of orthodox teaching, preaching, theology, and liturgy in today’s churches. Also, nothing is left out for the individual, family, or community; all aspects of life are to be ordered around following Jesus Christ. Anything other than a reordering of one’s life to Christ calls into question one’s seriousness toward Christianity, its tenants, and its founder.

The ongoing metaphor of the book is found in the story and image of Noah’s Ark. The church, Dreher argues, is both “Ark and Wellspring – and Christians must live in both realities. God gave us the Ark of the church to keep us from drowning in the raging flood. But He also gave us the church as a place to drown our old selves symbolically in the waters of baptism, and to grow in new life, nourished by the never-ending torrent of His grace. You cannot live the Benedict Option without seeing both visions simultaneously” (238). The church as Ark is to keep the orthodox teachings and liturgies alive and well, and not to water down theology for the sake of progress. The church stands as a symbol counter to the culture around it. If the church simply mirrors society, it ceases to be the church. The church as “a place to drown our old selves” is an aged old teaching, first by Jesus Christ himself, then by St. Paul. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39). The dying to self metaphor is more clearly in Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life…” (Rom 6:4).

Christianity has always been a religion of paradox; the main paradox being that dying to self brings newness of life through Christ’s resurrection. I believe Dreher is arguing that life is found in Christ through the church and through the Spirit’s holy ordering. The world has forgotten the ordering; thus progresses along with an eventual death by nihilism and narcissism in its various forms and technologies (i.e. individually, corporately, institutionally, and systematically). This begs the question: Is God’s creation good? Well, it certainly was “in the beginning,” but what and how do we experience goodness now? Jesus famously said, “None is good but God…” (Mark 10:8). This may be our answer, and ultimately Dreher’s point: If nothing is good but God, why not order all aspects of our lives toward the entity that created goodness? After all, is God not the creator of truth, beauty, and goodness?

How one responds to Dreher’s questions (and thesis) will depend on one’s theology, the church one attends, and even how one reads the Bible, and taking Dreher at his word is to fall in line with one expression of Christianity over another; however, in a world that is more and more polarized, knowing what “the other side” says, or has been saying for millennia is important when approaching the debate table. After all, what brings all Christians to the table in the first place is Christ, and arguing over what is best in any given tradition may ultimately be a matter of unity over and above uniformity.  I would recommend this book to both my conservative and liberal Christian friends. It’s an honest look on how Christians can live into the goodness of God with the gift of the church, community, and prayerful discipleship. I agree with Dreher that many have forgotten what relationship with God, self, and neighbor looks like, and it is up to Christians to get this ordering right. It’s an option worth considering. It’s an option worth practicing. It’s an option worth living, even in the midst of death.

Noticing the Holy

Henry and Brownie
Above: Henry and Brownie

2nd Sunday After Pentecost: Matthew 9:35-10:8

At the end of winter and the beginning of spring, Ann, Henry, and I got a dog and named him Brownie. Brownie is a Morkie, or a cross between a Yorkshire terrier and a Maltese. In other words, he’s super cute. Ann and I have never been dog people, but every time we visited friends with dogs, or came across dogs on evening walks our hearts softened towards them. This softening of the heart combined with Henry telling us he wanted a dog made us finally give in and get our little Brownie. Since Brownie has entered into our lives, I have observed something about our family. We have started to notice more. Perhaps having a dog in one’s life helps us to cultivate a slower pace of life? This slowing down and noticing happens on our evening walks with Brownie, and going for a stroll has helped to cultivate at least four things. Walking a dog helps to cultivate mindfulness, responsibility, beauty, and compassion.

Mindfulness

When we are out and about in our neighborhood, and when the walking pace is slow and steady, I start to notice the smell of the air, the softness of the breeze. Ann may notice a new house for sale, and that Henry has his shoes on the wrong feet – again. Brownie is aware of the grass. He makes no distinction between the tall or the freshly cut even though humans are drawn to the order of a well manicured lawn. Also, voices in conversation sound different outside, and even if we have seen each other all day long, there is something about changing the context that makes conversation fresh, new, and rewarding.

Responsibility

The second thing noticing cultivates is responsibility. Mondays are the neighborhood trash pick-up days. After pickup, many times trash bins are left in the middle of driveways or dangerously close to the road. Lids could be in yards, and left over pieces of paper may be wet, sticking to the sidewalk. Henry has told us that littering is ‘rude’ so he’s drawn to the paper. Ann may go for a lid, and I go for the actual trashcan. We often find ourselves noticing the disorder, and try to order it in our own little way. Who knows, maybe it helps the next walker or jogger going down the sidewalk? Maybe it helps the neighbor?

Beauty and Compassion

Noticing also cultivates beauty and compassion. There’s beauty in slowing one’s pace down that enhances compassion for one’s self and others. Since our family has added Brownie to it, we have met more of our neighbors than ever before. We’re stopped by moms with strollers, jogging dads, and walking couples. We exchange names, talk about local schools, and brag on our children, grandchildren, and animals. There is great beauty in small talk, and being able to notice this has increased my own capacity for compassion.

Matthew 9:35-10:8

Today’s scripture has Jesus walking. He’s walking around first century Palestine preaching and teaching. He’s curing diseases and healing the sick. This is classic Jesus. This is what he does, but looking at the text a little closer, I couldn’t help but notice what he noticed. Listen to the text, “When he saw the crowds, he had compassion for them…” This isn’t an ordinary type of seeing (the crowds), or even looking (at them). Instead, I believe Jesus was noticing them (maybe for the first time). There is a different between seeing and noticing. When we see something, we usually name it, or make a snap judgment about it, and seeing in this way stays at the surface. If I look out and see you, I may register your name and make a quick observation: “That sweater Joe is wearing is red. It looks warms. I’m cold. I wish I had a sweater.”

Noticing is all together something different. Noticing goes below the surface of things where there is an emotional connection that has the potential to lead to compassion. Joe may have that red sweater, and it looks warm to me, but I get to go deeper when I take a moment to remember a conversation we may have had earlier, or know that Joe is in church because he shared with me that he is searching for God in his life again. I am then moved to compassion out of simply going deeper in my noticing.

When we intentionally see others with an eye of empathy, we also start to notice things within us that need attention. For example, when Jesus noticed the crowds, he also noticed that he needed help ministering to them. Maybe he was overwhelmed by the neediness of the crowd. Remember what he said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few.” He realized that his preaching, teaching, and healing ministry was not sustainable on his own. He needed helpers, so he called the Twelve and gave them authority, not only to preach and teach, but gave them permission to notice – specifically to notice the harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. The disciple’s ministry became part of Jesus’ ministry, and Jesus’ ministry was grounded in a holy noticing. Jesus’ instructions to his disciples were to proclaim the Good News: “The Kingdom of heaven has come near.” This proclamation expanded the ministry of Jesus to the people. In other words, not only are the disciples to take up the ministry of noticing, but also the people were invited to notice the kingdom found in Jesus and one another. The people not only were invited to notice this, but also were healed by it. Jesus, as head of this kingdom welcomed the crowds into it through his healing ministry. When one was healed by Jesus in body, mind, or spirit, they became part of this kingdom. They became part of his story, and other people started noticing.

For Us

What have you noticed in your life and in the life of your parish lately? In Lynda Barry’s book, Syllabus: Notes from an Accidental Professor, she shapes an interesting exercise in noticing. She has the one noticing draw a cross. After drawing the cross, and in the upper left hand corner she asks you to write down 5 things that you saw today. In the upper right-hand corner, she asks you to write down 5 things you overheard today. In the bottom right corner, she asks you to complete this sentence “Lately, I’ve learned…” and you write a sentence or two about what you’ve learned. Finally, for the lower left corner, she asks you to doodle or sketch something you saw today. What a great exercise in noticing. What a great exercise in remembering the kingdom of heaven. What a great exercise in cultivating an awareness and compassion for the world around you.

July 1st will be my 3-year anniversary serving alongside you in Christ’s ministry. In order to honor our time together, and to take the time to notice God’s Spirit at work in the world, I want to invite you to 1 of 2 listening sessions. The 1st will take place on Tuesday, July 11th at 7 PM, and the 2nd one on Sunday July 16th after the coffee hour. Please choose 1 of those dates and come to the listening session. I will share with you what I have noticed over my 3 years with you, and where and what I believe God is calling us to pay attention to. I will then stop noticing, and ask you to share your own thoughts as to where you believe we as a parish are being called. In the Winter I sent out a parish-wide survey asking for feedback on topics like Leadership, Stewardship, Fellowship, Discipleship, and Worship. I will report back on some of those findings and these topics will also guide our conversation and time together. In the meantime, if you want to use the above Lynda Barry exercise I just shared with you, and tweak it to fit in with our parish context, please do so. Like Jesus, I hope to foster a church culture that notices a whole host of things – be they virtues or vices that need our attention, love, mercy, and compassion.

Until then, I challenge you to start noticing more because the world is anything but boring, and as you are noticing, take the time to proclaim this good news – the kingdom of heaven has come near.

 

Taking Bible Verses Out of Context is Bad Theology – Please Stop Doing It

“I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life,” said Jesus, “No one comes to the Father, except through me.” ~John 14:6

In Sunday schools, ecumenical gatherings, and living rooms all across America there have been arguments about what this one verse says, or doesn’t say. It is such a controversial statement to so many, and for this reason, let’s take a hard look at it. In order to do this, I am not going to treat Jesus’ statement as a sound bite. Instead, I’m going to put it into the context of the entire passage (John 14:1-14), as well as within the overall theme of John’s Gospel.

First, let’s look at what Jesus is not saying. Jesus is not making a statement for or against one religion. In fact, this passage has nothing to do with religion. Through the years, and when this passage is read in Bible study settings, it is inevitable that someone in the group will make the leap of what is actually said by Jesus (which is a statement about himself) to the religious realm. Usually this person (or persons) are uncomfortable that Jesus would make such an exclusive statement, thus leaving out every other major religion in the world. “What happens to them?” (read Jews, Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists here) it may be asked, and after such a question the Bible study is led down a rabbit’s hole where the text is forgotten and speculation rules the day. Let’s be clear. This “I am” statement is not about religion (Christianity or otherwise). If one wants to discover Jesus’ various attitudes toward religiosity, there are plenty of other passages in which to explore. This is not one of them.

That being said, what this text can lead to is far more interesting in that it takes the believer to a deeper understanding of Christ through our questioning and prayers. First, John Chapter 14 and following is a farewell address from Jesus to his friends. When people say ‘goodbye’ to one another, and the goodbye is a permanent one, naturally we grieve. This grief was expressed with Thomas’ question, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?” (John 14:5) Jesus gives the famous answer, and famously his disciples do not understand. Take a moment and ponder if you yourself have not said some variation of Thomas’ question at a funeral? His question is painfully human. Secondly, and pulling the camera back from this scene scanning the whole of John’s Gospel, Jesus (you’ll remember) is the Word made flesh (John 1:1). All of creation flows through Christ (the Word), and out of Christ (the Word), we recall the Way, the Truth, and the Life. How could Christ be otherwise? From John’s scene today, God’s Word in the person of Jesus the Christ was displayed in his very being as the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The Way, the Truth and the Life is not just a theological statement; it is the same reality in which our own prayers live, move, and have their being “in the Father.” Finally, St. John’s theology is often referred to as “insider language” and rightly so. Jesus Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life only makes sense to the believer – nobody else.

Next time you’re in your small group, Bible study, or batting theology around and this passage comes up, understand

  1. Jesus is saying goodbye to his friends.
  2. His “I am” statement is in response to Thomas’ grief.
  3. His statement belongs to those who believe in him and pray in his name.

Hope this helps.

 

Jesus as Mother

Hear the words and wisdom from Lady Julian of Norwich.

A Song of True Motherhood
~Julian of Norwich
God chose to be our mother in all things
and so made the foundation of his work,
most humbly and most pure, in the Virgin’s womb.
God, the perfect wisdom of all,
arrayed himself in this humble place.
Christ came in our poor flesh
to share a mother’s care.
Our mothers bear us for pain and for death;
our true mother, Jesus, bears us for joy and endless life.
Christ carried us within him in love and travail,
until the full time of his passion.
And when all was completed and he had carried us so for joy,
still all this could not satisfy the power of his wonderful love.
All that we owe is redeemed in truly loving God,
for the love of Christ works in us;
Christ is the one whom we love.
~Taken from Enriching Our Worship 1 – Canticle R

God Desires to be Seen, Sought, Expected, and Trusted

If you pray Morning Prayer out of the Book of Common Prayer you may have noticed the collect for guidance found on page 100. This prayer reads, “Heavenly Father, in you we live and move and have our being: We humbly pray you so to guide and govern us by your Holy Spirit, that in all the cares and occupations of our life we may not forget you, but may remember that we are ever walking in your sight…” St. Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, wrote these words, “In Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ” (Gal 3:26-27). The imagery of being found out in Christ, discovering Christ in our very being, and being clothed with Christ are all beautiful, ongoing images within Christianity. Lady Julian of Norwich, whom the church remembers each May, picked up on a similar theme as well. Listen to her words,

“God does not despise what he has made…For as the body is clad in the cloth, and the flesh in the skin, and the bones in the flesh, and the heart in the trunk, so are we, soul and body, clad and enclosed in the goodness of God. Yes, and more closely, for all these vanish and waste away; the goodness of God is always complete, and closer to us, beyond any comparison. For truly our lover desires the soul to adhere to him with all its power, and us always to adhere to his goodness…For it is so preciously loved by him who is highest that this surpasses the knowledge of all created beings. That is to say, there is no created being who can know how much and how sweetly and how tenderly the Creator loves us…God wishes to be seen, and he wishes to be sought, and he wishes to be expected, and he wishes to be trusted.”[1]

For a moment, let’s focus on this image of God desiring to “be seen, sought, expected, and trusted.” I don’t want this to be an exercise in individualism, or have any pietistic notions. Instead, I want us to imagine God desiring these things through us as a community of faith, a church, a holy fellowship. So a first question to ponder might be, “How does God wish to be seen through the parish?” Two Sundays ago we walked down the road to Emmaus together where God was made known in the breaking of the bread. Jesus, you’ll remember, also wanted to be seen in Holy Scripture; however, the story did not end there. After Jesus disappeared, the disciples who were just with him went and told others about their experience. The lesson that Sunday was simple: God is made known to us through the liturgy of the word, and the holy sacrament of Eucharist as well as when we “go tell it on the mountain” so to speak – when we reveal the love and presence of Christ to others. So again,

“How does God wish to be seen through the parish?” God wishes to be seen through liturgical worship and Holy Eucharist; but another question to ponder is, “How do we as a community of faith see and share our stories of his presence?”

God wishes to be seen, and secondly, God wishes to be sought. “How does God wish to be sought through the parish?” There’s that great verse from the prophet Isaiah, “Seek the Lord while he wills to be found; call upon him while he draws near” (Isa. 55:6). Lady Julian wrote, “For truly our lover desires the soul to adhere to him…” “How might a faith community assist in the realization of God’s desire [to be sought]?”[2]

Third, “How does God wish to be expected through the parish?” There’s a sense of expectation very similar to hope here, but there’s also a reality of the eternal here in the Present. Put another way, there’s the expectation that God will one day unite heaven and earth together, consummating all creation to himself, while at the same time living in a time and place where that vision is currently taken on faith as hope. God has redeemed the world; yet, there’s still some expectation that there’s more to come. What can a parish do to acknowledge this paradox?

Fourth and finally, “How does God wish to be trusted through the parish?” “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding” (Prov. 3:5). Many persons have issues of trust through their own experiences of someone abusing trust. This mistrust eventually forms an understanding of the world that was not intended by God; therefore, God calls out to us like a mother to her child to trust again with all the heart because our own understanding has been damaged by sin. “How does God wish to be trusted through the parish?” “What does trusting in the Lord with all of our hearts look like?” Are we brave enough, do we trust enough to ask such questions?

I’ve briefly laid out these questions for us all to ponder. How might we, as a faith community, assist in the realization of God’s desire to be seen, sought, expected and trusted? I invite you to take these questions with you to your small groups, to your Bible studies, to your prayer circles, to your families, and beyond. If these questions sparked your own imagination around living into these desires of God as Lady Julian imagined, make your comment known below.

Julian’s legacy lives on in her writings. From these we can ponder questions both individually and communally. As we look forward to celebrating the birth of the Church on the Day of Pentecost, let us ponder these questions in our hearts asking God to reveal himself to us in tangible ways as we grow into His Son’s likeness. As the prayer for guidance stated earlier, “God, in you we live, and move, and have our being.” Let us pray this prayer of guidance together as a community of faith.

[1]           Lisa E. Dahill, 40-Day Journey with Julian of Norwich, Augsburg Books, Minneapolis, 2008, p. 22.

[2] Ibid., 22.

The Church at Work

~Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…and [by] distributing the proceeds [of sold goods] to all, as any had need. ~Acts 2:42

From the very beginning, Christ’s Church has been involved in teaching, community, worship, prayer, and care for others.[1] It’s easy to feel nostalgic while looking back on this early Christian community from The Acts of the Apostles. It also may be a bit disturbing to our libertarian notions that (at least in theory) these early Christians deemed it important to hold “all things in common.” If we compare our small parish to such devotions, there may be a sense of both admonishment and envy – Who do they think they are behaving in such utopian sensibilities? Whether one perceives nostalgia or disturbances, it is important to remember God’s Spirit of grace working through the early church. It is also important to remember that that same Holy Spirit continues to breath new life into the Church today.

As Episcopalians we could easily puff ourselves up and use the characteristics of the early [Jerusalem] church to pat ourselves on the back; after all, Anglicans claim apostolic succession through our bishops; our liturgies make room for teaching and for the breaking of the bread every Sunday; and although we do not hold all things in common like our monastic brothers and sisters, we do pool our time, talent, and treasure together for the mission of the church. So what are we to do with this reading from the Book of Acts this morning?

Bishop Wright, in his For Faith Friday message wrote these words when contemplating Christian worship and prayer; he wrote, “Fellowship without the meal lacks sustenance; the meal without the work is superficial.”[2] The bishop’s statement, I believe, may be a nice place to start. First, fellowship without the meal lacks sustenance.

I would consider myself a son of the South. What I mean by this is that I take my cues on all things regarding manners from both of my southern grandmothers – from my Memom and from my (soon-to-be-100-year-old) MawMaw. Both sets of grandmothers taught me to take my hat off when I’m inside. Once indoors, to participate in polite conversation, and to eat or drink whatever is placed in front of me out of respect for the hostess. To this day I try to uphold these various behaviors along with other unspoken modesties as a tribute to these two southern ladies. But what would happen if all these pleasantries were suddenly turned upside down? Could we still find fellowship in it all? Is there something sacred in the mundaneness of a meal? To help explore these questions, I’d like to reference a line or two from Lewis Carroll’s, Alice in Wonderland, specifically, Chapter 7 – A Mad Tea-Party.[3]

`Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.

`There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.

`Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.

`It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.

`I didn’t know it was your table,’ said Alice; `it’s laid for a great many more than three.’

`Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

`You should learn not to make personal remarks,’ Alice said with some severity; `it’s very rude.’

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

This back and forth goes on and on until at last, Carroll concludes with Alice saying,

`At any rate I’ll never go there again!’ said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. `It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!’

For the record, Alice was offered tea and breads throughout the conversational nonsense, but she never had any thing of substance. Also, it may be a stretch to say that this is a good example of fellowship. Although philosophy and clever rhetoric are used throughout, and these two devises usually carry us into deep conversation, at this tea-party contemplation remained surface level. I wonder what would have happened to the conversation if the table were set for 3 instead of for a banquet? I wonder what would have happened to the fellowship if tea and bread were actually consumed? Literary critics point out that this scene could quite possibly be an interpretation of what a child experiences when invited to such adult functions that cater only to grown-ups.[4] All the ways in which adults pose and posture with one another must seem silly to our little ones. Here, in lies the wisdom from the early church. It is childlike not to posture. It is childlike to want to play and eat. It is childlike to accept others as they are. And are we not asked to accept Our Lord and Savior as a child? God doesn’t want us posturing in our pretentiousness. He wants a playful faith filled with wonder for all God’s creation. I believe the early church had it right. Fellowship and the sharing of a meal must go together. But let’s not stop here.

Bishop Wright’s second point is this, the meal without the work is superficial. While it can be argued that the word “work” here has to do with the work of the people (lived out sacramentally in the liturgy), I am reminded by The Reverend Julia Gatta that the work found in our sacred meal begins and ends in Christ. In other words, both the work of Christ and the supper of Christ is His “gift and action among us.”[5] This propels us into the realm of grace; and out of this grace, and out of the work that Christ has already done for us compels the church to baptize, to teach, to fellowship, to worship, to pray, and to care for others.

Four days after Easter Sunday on April 20th, 2017 death-row inmate Ledell Lee was executed via lethal injection by the state of Arkansas. As has been customary sense at least the middle ages, those sentenced to death by the state are given a last meal. Ledell refused his last meal, and instead opted to receive Holy Communion. Although what Mr. Lee was convicted of was a heinous crime and is inexcusable, I cannot help but be reminded of the thief on the cross next to Christ. St. Luke captured him in this way. The thief cries out to both the other convicted criminal and to Jesus saying, “And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It can be assumed that Ledell Lee was baptized, and that he was familiar with the breaking of the bread. We can also assume that at some point in his reconciliation he discovered the teachings of Jesus and the prayers of the Church. Like the thief on the cross, I like to imagine Ledell Lee experiencing the grace of God in his last moments, choosing to turn to Jesus in a gesture of faith. I do not tell you this story to make a political statement on whether or not the death penalty is just. I tell it to you as a reminder of God’s grace in fellowshipping one with another while also finding sustenance from Christ’s Body and Blood. I tell it to you because the work of Christ is to be honored among his followers through tangible acts of forgiveness, mercy, and love.

In a moment, we will do what the Church has always done. We will receive, experience, and know Christ in the breaking of the bread. At the end of this ritual, we will pray these words, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do.” And what is this work? “To love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ of Lord” (BCP, 366). The work is already there just as the meal is always here, and each points us to Christ our Lord. Together, let us devote ourselves to these things, and by doing so finding the grace in it all.

[1]                 The Jewish Annotated New Testament, NRSV, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Ed., Oxford University Press: New York, 2011, note 2.42-47, p. 203.

[2]                 Bishop Robert C. Wright’s For Faith Message (5/5/17): https://connecting.episcopalatlanta.org/for-faith/?utm_source=Connecting+e-newsweekly+and+For+Faith+blog-updated&utm_campaign=56712adf63-For_Faith_preview__0624166_23_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_065ea5cbcb-56712adf63-108305893

[3]           Taken from: https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~rgs/alice-VII.html

[4]                 http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/alice/section7.rhtml

[5]                 Julia Gatta, The Nearness of God: Parish Ministry as Spiritual Practice, Morehouse Publishing: New York, 2010, p. 43.

The Varieties of Religious Experience

~3rd Sunday of Easter and a Reading from Luke 24:13-35

Emory University Hospital chaplains share overnight barracks with doctors working the 7PM to 7AM shift. These quarters are located in a small corner of the hospital in what is referred to as the Annex Building. The Annex Building of Emory’s hospital is set up much like a college dormitory. There is a common room with a television, phone, and lockers to put one’s earthly possessions. The sleep rooms are nothing to write home about. They have a humbling twin mattress, a thin comforter, and even thinner sheets. During the winter months the rooms are furnished with a portable plug-in heater that fits nicely in the corners of the virtually monk-like cells. Chaplains, like the on-call doctors, are to sleep in these cells with their phones on in anticipation of an emergency call. Unlike the doctors whose likelihood guarantees a call at some point during the night, chaplains are not given such high probabilities. This leaves the chaplain in a state of anticipation – be it holy or not. Regardless, the stress of expectancy makes for many a sleepless night.

Before the chaplain retires to the Annex Building, they are to go on night rounding. This means visiting all the ICU’s in the hospital as well as the emergency department, and the in-house hospice floor. The chaplain checks in at each nurses’ station introducing themselves as the night chaplain, and asking if the nurses anticipate any event that would require the chaplain’s presence. Most nurses would tell me not to worry, and to have a goodnight. I would respond with similar accolades, be it hesitantly, knowing in my heart that God likes to interrupt plans for the evening.

One night while visiting the hospice care unit located on floor five, the nurse informed me that a family was set to arrive from out of state in order to visit their loved one in room number two – we’ll call the patient, Mr. Jones. “Mr. Jones,” the nurse quietly said, “is waiting on his family to arrive. He understands that they are on their way, but I have a feeling,” she continued, “that once they arrive, he won’t last for very much longer. I will give you a call once they are here.” I thanked the nurse, told her both she and Mr. Jones would be in my evening prayers, and made my way back down to the Annex Building.

Hospital chaplains are privy to the thin places in this life, and when you get two or more talking, the subject of death – and when he visits – becomes speculative conversation. At the beginning of my time as a chaplain one of the supervisors informed our chaplaincy group to be aware of 3 am. The morning hour of three, so it seemed, was a time when death liked to make his rounds. So, it was no surprise when around 2:30 in the morning, I received a call from Floor 5 – the hospice floor. The family from Alabama had arrived, and they requested the night chaplain. I quickly got dressed, grabbed my prayer book, and as I made my way through the corridors of the hospital to the 5th floor elevator, I said at least two Our Father’s.

By the time I had arrived at the threshold of Room #2, Mr. Jones’ family was gathered around his bedside keeping vigil. Hushed voices and quiet tears were the evening’s oblations. Solemnity was the prayer. This calm was slightly disrupted by a young woman, probably Mr. Jones’ granddaughter. When she saw me, she quickly asked if I could get some water. “Sure,” I said. I’m happy to do so. Would you like tap, or bottled?” “No no no,” she protested. “It’s for his baptism.” I was taken aback. I didn’t quite understand. “His baptism,” I inquired? “Pappi would like to be baptized.” I looked up at the nurse who I had spoken with earlier in the evening, and she simply nodded.

At this point in my ministry I was very green. I was in the middle of discerning whether or not I wanted to be a priest. I certainly was not ordained, and I had yet learned the riches of the prayer book that at the time I was tightly holding onto, hand sweating. I don’t know if I’m allowed to do this, I thought. What will I tell my discernment group? Will this hinder me from becoming a priest? Can Mr. Jones even speak letting me know he does, indeed, want to be baptized? As these stressors entered into my brain, I made my way into the break room where I would find a simple bowl and the tap. As I placed the bowl under the facet and turned the nozzle, all my anxiety the moment before stopped as the water started. The water – the element that gives us life, cleanses us, and with God’s grace sets us free. I had bathed in this water before, and now God was asking me to bathe another.

When I reentered Mr. Jones’ room I had my prayer book at the ready. I had noticed grape juice and crackers in the kitchen, and had asked the nurse to bring those in as well. She set the table up for me while I bent down to Mr. Jones’ ear and whispered the question, “Do you desire to be baptized?” He was not able to speak, but nodded slightly. I then asked the family to answer on behalf of him when it came to the part in the baptismal liturgy where questions would be given. They agreed, and gathered around the prayer book. We began with St. Paul’s words, “There is one Body and one Spirit. There is one hope in God’s call to us. One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; One God and Father of all.” After the baptism of Mr. Jones, the family and I concluded the liturgy with Holy Communion where wine was substituted with Welch’s grape juice, and bread with Saltine crackers. After the family thanked me, and we had said one final prayer, a very large man (maybe Mr. Jones’ son?) grabbed hold of me, and gave me a huge bear hug before I departed the room. I add this detail to my story only because it was at that moment above all others where I sincerely felt the presence of Christ. I found God through that embrace. The world had stopped for just a moment, and Christ was letting me know he was in the room. He was there in the midst of death, in tap water, crackers and juice; and in that life-giving, loving embrace. At around 3 in the morning, I left the room thankfully broken before God – my heart burning with His Presence.

In this 3rd Sunday of Easter, we are no longer gazing dumbstruck at the empty tomb; instead, we are telling stories of God’s presence. The Church bears witness to our storytelling in the same way those disciples on the road to Emmaus were witnesses to Christ’s company. Scholars will tell us that St. Luke’s story of the walk to Emmaus narratively signifies the Holy Eucharist. The first part of the liturgy – the Word portion – is represented narratively when Christ opens up the Word of God to his friends so much so that their hearts burned within them. The second part of the liturgy – Holy Communion – is represented narratively when Christ was made known to them in the breaking of the bread; and look what happened after the liturgy. The disciples went to share their story with the other disciples, thus making God’s presence and story real to others.

Persons often speak with one another revealing stories of religious and spiritual experiences. Some of these stories are interpreted through the lenses of the Church. Others are not. Regardless if you have ever had a spiritual experience like the above does not matter. What does matter is that each and every one of you gets to experience Christ within Holy Eucharist – in the Word spoken, and in the breaking of the bread. If you have never had a religious experience where the thin places of this dimension and the next were laid bare for you, don’t worry. You are invited to have a religious experience with the Risen One every time Mass is said and divine elements are taken in. But don’t get so hung up on the experience itself that you forget the most important part: To go and share your storied experience about the Risen Christ in whatever form or action he chooses to reveal himself to you. Tell His story, and if you need some help let the Church guide you through her holy gifts for holy people.

The Reality of the Resurrection

A redacted sermon preached on Easter 2 and inspired upon readings from 1 Peter 1: 3-9 and John 20: 19-31

The word liturgy literally means, “The work of the people,” and participating in the liturgy – specifically the Holy Eucharist – gives us a glimpse of what it means to live into the reality of the resurrection. At its best the Eucharist will show us how to remember resurrection reality out and about in the world, and gives Christians a model of how God participates in His creation. For a moment, let us focus on the reality of the resurrection through the lenses of relationship, renewal, and resurrection as Ultimate Reality.

Resurrection Reality through the Lens of Relationship

Many of you know my affinity for spiritual direction. Put simply, spiritual direction is the art of holy listening, and when invited, the spiritual director offers questions and suggestions as to where God may be present in the directee’s life. Like the disciples who locked themselves up in a room out of fear, persons often come to spiritual directors with locked hearts. Just as the resurrected Christ bypassed the locked doors and offered His peace, the spiritual director reminds the directee of the peace of Christ found in the midst of locked doors, fearful storms, and broken hearts. The peace of Christ is always there; however, we need faithful friends in our lives to remind us of this reality. Any spiritual director will tell you there are some people who find the peace of Christ through the lens of faith, while others have the healthy skepticism of Thomas within them. Whether by faith or something more tangible, the peace of Christ is found out of the relationship that is grounded in Christ.

One of the first spiritual directors in my life was my Memom (my paternal grandmother). Every time I speak with Memom she always tells me, “Brandon, I pray for you every day.” In my younger days I said to myself, “Yea Yea, that’s just what Memom does. I’m thankful, but maybe not as grateful as I should be.” These days I’m extremely thankful and grateful for her faith, and for her prayers. What I did not realize back then that I see today is that Memom prays for me and my family everyday because of her thankfulness and her gratefulness for Jesus Christ. She has a relationship grounded in love through Christ that each and every prayer is not only an extension of her love, but is an extension of Christ’s love for all. In other words, my Memom’s prayer life is grounded in the reality of the resurrection. My Memom’s prayer life is grounded in the reality of her relationship with Ultimate Reality. In her life, in her prayers, and in her very being I experience the peace of Christ.

Resurrection Reality as Renewal

From our reading out of I Peter, the author writes, “By [God’s] great mercy [God] has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” What does it mean to have a new birth into a living hope? Hope, so it seems, is alive and well through the resurrection of Christ, and if we are participating in the reality of His resurrection, then cannot new births happen all the time? The truth of the resurrection is that love has conquered death, and because of this we are born anew in that same love which Christians boldly proclaim as Christ. Ultimate renewal is found in and by and through our relationship with Christ. When we display these renewals in the form of peace, forgiveness, or mercy then God is revealed through us.

Getting back to my relationship with my Memom: I said that her relationship was grounded in love through Christ (so much so) that each and every prayer is not only an extension of her love, but an extension of Christ’s love for all. Putting this in the context of renewal: Anytime we pray (or through our actions) we bring forth peace, forgiveness, or mercy, those small renewals of peace, forgiveness, and mercy point, reveal, or renew our sense of Ultimate Peace, Forgiveness, and Mercy. In other words, these acts remind us that what is ultimate is Resurrection. What is Ultimate is Love. Through these tangible acts and through the lens of faith, we pull back the curtain and true reality is revealed to us. That’s why the love of God is a peace beyond our understanding. We understand it through the action of resurrection, but we do not fully understand this reality. The moment we seem to grasp it is the moment in which it disappears leaving us longing for something that cannot be explained except with prayerful words, liturgies, and actions of faith.

Resurrection Reality as the Ultimate Reality

I strongly believe that there is homelessness, hunger, war, famine, and exploitation (to name a few) in the world today because we forget, “He is Risen.” We forget love has already conquered death. Roofs over heads, bellies that are satisfied, peace, conservation of the earth, and the dignity of every human being can be a reality now when we choose to remember the reality of resurrection. Did you know that the word “sin” comes out of the archery community? When an archer pulls the arrow back with the help of his bow, takes aim and fires, he either hits his target, or he sins. Sin literally means missing the mark, or missing the target, and like the arrow forgetting its bull’s-eye, humanity is constantly forgetting resurrection. Humanity is constantly sinning. The mark is already there. The mark is Christ. The mark is Love, and Love is the Ultimate Reality. When we try to tackle the problems of our world without an eye on Love, we also miss the mark. We cannot solve the problems of the world on our own. We need Jesus. We need his teachings. We need his healing. We need to remember His resurrection.

I believe the Church (not just our own) but all churches throughout the world are going through some birth pangs right now, and are about to experience renewal, rebirth, and resurrection. The Church of the past was tied up in the culture. The Church of the past was part of the establishment and status quo. I believe the resurrected Church must always be counter to the culture or else it miscarries. What this means for liturgical churches such as ours is to do liturgy – to do the work of the people on Sunday – as an example of how to do the work of God Monday through Saturday. Parish churches can no longer exist for the purpose of self-preservation. Parish churches must exist for the purpose of reminding the world “He is risen.” We cannot do it on our own, so small churches must join other small churches, dioceses, and provinces that extend beyond denomination. Through partnerships with religious institutions, non-profits, and philanthropists small churches can make big differences in the lives of people that extend beyond their walls. We do this together and through our relationship with the Resurrected Christ. The world can no longer rest in dogmatic formulas that only assure the faithful as to the resurrection of Jesus Christ; instead, the world needs Christians who actually live into this belief, this love, and this reality. The future Church is a missional church grounded in the relationship (and resurrection) of Jesus Christ. The future Church will worship joyfully, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually, and by doing so live into the resurrection reality here and now.

This Easter and beyond let us all use our imaginations, our gifts, and our relationship with Christ to truly be a liturgical church doing the work of God with our hands, hearts, and minds. Let us seek out partners who proclaim in thought, word, and deed, “He is Risen.” The reality of the resurrection is now. Together, may we never forget.