Deschooling

Since our oldest first started attending elementary school, our family was used to a Monday through Friday drop-off at 7:30 A.M. with a 2:30 P.M. pick-up. At once, the school served as both an opportunity for education and childcare. For us, childcare officially ended at 2:30, but the education continued. After an early afternoon break, the rest of the afternoon and evening was set aside for homework, study, and reading. Like mom and dad had a full-time job, so the logic went, for our oldest, education was his current vocation. This ideology changed somewhat when we decided to homeschool, and when I first discovered the concept of deschooling.

Home School Mom defines deschooling as “the adjustment period a child goes through when leaving school and beginning homeschooling. To fully benefit from homeschooling, a child has to let go of the private or public school culture as the norm. Together, these norms are called deschooling, and it is a crucial part of beginning homeschooling after time spent in a classroom.” I soon discovered parents had to deschool and let go of norms as well.

Time and schedule were the first things on our deschooling list. When, exactly, were we going to homeschool? At first, our default went to the norms held in brick and mortar schools. We soon discovered our old conceptions of time and schedule did not work, so we started asking questions around time. “What is the best time of day for our oldest to learn?” “Where was he comfortable learning (table, desk, couch, outside/inside)?” “What were his default learning styles?” What were our natural teaching abilities?” “Do we want to learn together?” “Do we want to teach one another?” With these questions and others like it, we soon discovered a natural teaching/leaning cycle in the morning with lighter activities in the early afternoon. We also learned that if we only have one hour of substantial learning time one day while doing four hours the next, there is no harm. Finally, we got rid of the Monday through Friday mentality; instead, teaching around work and life schedules. Sometimes we take the weekend off. Sometimes not. Sometimes homeschooling happens several days in a row. Sometimes there’s a needed break in the middle. We all had to learn that every hour of direct one-to-one instruction far exceeded the time in a classroom full of other learners. For example, if we need to spend a whole hour on something difficult, we do so. If we solve a problem in 10 minutes, we move on, pushing the learning hour to its limits.

The concept of deschooling also gave us the freedom to experience learning in all aspects of family life. We’re now cooking more together, visiting exciting places during the week, checking out more books from the library, discussing the candidates for President, watching documentaries, playing board games, and getting curious about the world – together. We listen to music while we study, play chess, and memorize Shakespeare. We pray Noonday Prayer out of The Book of Common Prayer. Learnings mostly occur at our home, but they also happen in car rides, family walks and trips to the swimming pool.

Homeschool has permitted all of us to take charge of where, how, and what we learn. It gives us a sense of awe and joy for the world around us while nodding to humility as we realize that we are standing on the shoulders of all the saints and sinners who came before us. My wife and I no longer check homework because the work is done at home, in the car, around the dinner table, and on walks. We no longer rely on the brick and mortar school to provide an education as well as childcare. We’re caring for one another in new, different, and more profound ways. The choice to homeschool has brought us closer, and for that, I am grateful.

To read more about deschooling and to find many books on the subject click here

This is an ongoing blog about the ups and downs of homeschooling. For my previous posts on the subject click here and here.

Mind Mapping

As I mentioned in my first post on homeschooling, our family has chosen the three principals of prayerwork, and study taken from St. Benedict’s Rule of Life to guide each day. These three principals provide balance and purpose. Like the North Star, they order the day. Their guidance helps to answer questions like, What is a balanced life? What does purposeful living look like? How do we pray? Why do we work and study? These are weighty questions to tackle for a 4th grader. These are profound questions for anyone. Creating a mind map began this process of inquiry.

A mind map is simply a tool to get the creative juices flowing. (Back when I was in elementary school it might have been called brainstorming). We were interested in creating a routine that was at once, orderly and flexible. We already had our guiding principles (prayer, work, and study). Now, we just needed to flesh out what those meant at the time of the mind map, and with the understanding that reality will help form new ways of living into this Rule.

Under the Rule of Prayer, we agreed upon three practices: prayer at meals and at bedtime, reading the Bible, and celebrating The Lord’s Supper. Currently, prayer is sporadic, as is Bible reading, while celebrating Holy Eucharist has been with my oldest son and me. These are new practices for our family underneath the same roof. I’m starting to realize how I relied on other contexts (church and Sunday School) to reinforce prayer practices. Now the full burden is on me. Prayer begins in the family. Church and Sunday School strengthen practices in a Christian home. I hope to report our family’s progress in prayer at a later date.

Using the mind map, we translated Work as simple household chores: cooking, cleaning, taking out the trash, washing the dishes, setting the table, etc. Thus far, our oldest now wakes up, eats breakfast, makes the bed, brushes teeth, and gets dressed for the day. As the year passes, I hope to add taking out the trash/recycling and setting the table, among other things.

The last principle under our Rule is Study. As parents, this means lesson planning and seeking out teaching opportunities within life’s daily routine. It is giving our oldest the freedom to study and learn where he wants (kitchen table, his room, on the porch, couch, outside, etc.). We’re also learning how to navigate formal learning time with downtime, and develop boundaries around screen time versus leisurely reading. For a 4th grader, 1 to 4.5 hours of instruction/learning/exploring four days a week is recommended. Our family is staying within this rubric based on everyone’s schedule. In our four weeks of homeschooling, not one week has looked the same. Our routine is flexible enough not to worry about tight scheduling. It’s also let us experiment with having a day or two off in the middle of the week because we all worked hard over the weekend (homeschooling is not a Monday – Friday gig).

Starting with the mind map has helped us focus. It also begins to show us the tensions of chaos and order, or love and law. My next post will explore the topic of deschooling. 

On and Off the Court

Matthew 15: 21-28

It’s been said, “There’s a thousand different entryways into the life of the Church.” For some, it was having the privilege of baptism at an early age – being born into the Church through a parent or grandparent by the providence of God. For others, it was a harder road of conversion. Maybe you came to Christ later in your life, finally acquiescing to the Spirit’s call, and saying ‘yes’ to discipleship. Still others may have found themselves coming to the Lord through the classical expressions of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. The truth of the Gospel came to you from unexpected quarters – music, a novel, a play, or philosophy. Perhaps a swim in the ocean, a walk in the woods, or an attempt to climb a mountain allowed for transcendent beauty to ravish your senses taking you out of yourself and into something beyond. Still, an entryway into the life of the church could have been the greatest action of all time; that is, love – the kindness of a stranger, an act of unconditional care, the touch of a beloved. All of these are one of a thousand ways in which God reaches in and reaches out to us beckoning us into the good life.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus shows us yet another way into the life and into relationship with God. It may be categorized as wrestling – wrestling and persevering with God. Like Jacob who wrestled with an Angel of the Lord, finally pinning him down, and demanding a blessing, today’s Canaanite woman begs for mercy, does not receive it immediately, but intellectually spars with Jesus in one of the greatest one-liners in the Bible, and in her perseverance finally receives not only mercy and blessing – but an increase in faith. Jesus, acting like a good coach doesn’t (initially) give her what she wants. He allows her to persevere in prayer which gives her the confidence she needs. Jesus, acting like a good coach calls her a derogatory name she’s heard all her life knowing she doesn’t really believe the name-calling. Jesus wasn’t tired. He wasn’t grumpy, and he certainly wasn’t prejudice. Jesus knew that she knew where mercy came from. Jesus knew that she knew where dignity was planted. Jesus knew that she knew the faith, and like an original coach with unorthodox methods, he drew these out of her; perhaps even surprising them both in the process.

I’m currently watching the sports documentary, The Last Dance on Netflix. It’s about the lead up to the 1997-98 NBA playoffs with the iconic Michael Jordan and the Chicago Bulls. MJ’s second-hand man was Scotty Pippen back then. Next in line was the controversial figure, Dennis Rodman. The coach was Phil Jackson. Phil certainly had an unorthodox style of coaching, and this is clearly seen in the way he coached Dennis Rodman. Dennis was always in the news for being a bad boy. He liked to party. He liked women. He liked to gamble. Overall, he liked to live life on the edge. From time-to-time, and in public cries for help, Dennis would disappear. His team, coach, and organization didn’t know where he went and because of his battle with anxiety and depression they often worried about him. Dennis would allow his bad boy persona in the media to get the best of him during these times of despair. He was liked one day, and judged and hated the next. On the other hand, and for Dennis, basketball was very simple. It was ordered. It had rules and boundaries – something he never was really fond of outside the court. Phil Jackson understood the tension within Dennis. Phil knew Dennis knew that he was something far more greater than any reporter could ever write about him – on the court, as well as off it. Phil took him under his wing, and worked with Dennis’ dignity as a way of making him a better basketball player. He wouldn’t allow Dennis to believe what others said or thought about him.

This coaching posture is exactly what I see Jesus doing in relationship with the Canaanite woman. He saw her for what she was even though he names for her what other people (falsely) said she was. He challenged her. He gave her test. And she passed. With flying colors. Her perseverance in prayer paid off. Her daughter was healed, her faith was increased, and her relationship with God deepened.

Who are those coaches in your own life who wouldn’t let you get away with what others said you were? Who are those voices who have told you with their words as well as their actions that you are a beloved child of God, and don’t you forget it? Who were those voices who didn’t say such things, but allowed you the space to figure that out on your own? How, perhaps, have you challenged God to remember you, and to remember your needs as well as your wishes? Is your relationship with God mature enough that you’re willing to wrestle, to wonder, to persevere, and to get clear on things with faith as a backdrop?

This week, reread this story with Jesus as that coach asking yourself, “What deeper things is God calling me into – on the court, as well as off?”

A Pivot in Priorities

Each morning I read a section of St. Benedict of Nursia’s Rule he established for his monastic community 1,500 years ago. I follow his writing with commentary by Joan Chittister, O.S.B. (A link to her book can be found here). In this morning’s selection, Chittister says,

The spiritual life is not a set of exercises appended to our ordinary routine. It is a complete reordering of our values and our priorities and our lives.

Her phrase “complete reordering” struck me in the context of COVID-19. With this pandemic, the world will undoubtedly go through a complete reordering – spiritual and otherwise: Valleys are being raised, and mountains made low (Isa. 40:4). At the same time, wheat is being torn away from the chaff (Matt. 3:12).

Pre-COVID, my wife and I were doing what many people our age do: working hard in our jobs and raising children. She’s one of two pharmacists whose specialty pharmacy serves those diagnosed with HIV-AIDS. Her clinic also provides preventative care for those most vulnerable to this virus. After a long day of work, she’s usually greeted by our 9-year-old and 18-month-old clinging to her side until bedtime. Dinner’s prepared, books read, then lights out.

My job as a minister had me working conventional and unconventional hours each week as I made myself available to the people I serve more on their time than my own. When I arrived home after a long day, I would see my kids for a few hours before bedtime. If I had a meeting at night, it was up to my wife to put the kids to bed.

All this busyness changed with the pandemic. Suddenly pharmacy schedules were staggered (5 days in the pharmacy/5 days working from home). Church services, as well as meetings, were all moved online. No separation from children as school became virtual, and preschools closed—a work/life balance – nonexistent.

However, what did exist amid all this bustling chaos was my ability to listen. Thinking about Chittister above, I suddenly began to question what I valued, where my priorities lay, and how I spent my time. Put differently, I was invited into a reordering of my life.

St. Benedict’s Rule is grounded on three principles: prayer, work, and study. Suddenly, I was praying more and invited the parish I serve to do the same, not-to-mention, my own family. I started to view work as an ongoing extension of prayer. If I’m stuck in the house, I would say, perhaps housework and the raising of my boys could be a more intentional way of living and praying. As far as studying went, I picked up those books I had meant to read, and I read them. As a family, we went on more walks together. Some days we sat at the kitchen table for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. There was a new rhythm, and I was starting to like it.

Out of this new song, my wife and I started to talk about school. Our 9-year-old was clear that he did not like virtual learning and wasn’t getting anything out of it. I tended to agree as I watched him struggle in those first few months of the pandemic. As a family, we finally discerned that we would be homeschooling him this year. Within Georgia, the pandemic is not under control, but we decided that we could control what was under our roof as a family. We could honor and live into the truth that spiritual life is not a set of exercises appended to our ordinary routine. It is a complete reordering of our values and our priorities and our lives.

In a family meeting, we began our own intentional Rule centered around the Benedictine principals of prayer, work, and study. We did a “mind mapping” exercise together, categorizing what each of these realities looked like within our context. Then we began.

Through this blog, I hope to record some of my thoughts, experiences, givings, and misgivings about the homeschooling experience. I’m excited about living in this new adventure as I genuinely believe it to be a reordering of vision, values, and priorities for my family and me.
Please pray for us, our community, state, and nation as old things pass away while all things are becoming new (2 Cor. 5:17).

To read the mind mapping blog click here.
To read about the experience of deschooling click here.

The Church as Ark

Matthew 14:22-33

Since the pandemic began I have found comfort in the image of St. Peter keeping his eye on Jesus, for in doing so he’s able to walk out and greet Our Lord. When Peter allowed his focus to shift to the winds of anxiety and waves of despair he began to sink. I also find comfort in his frailty for there have been many times when my own misery desired tempestuous company. Throughout these many months I’ve also been humbled by my own limitations, and have dug deep within my soul to give mercy to others who may not be able to acknowledge their own.   

For these past four months, I’ve also watched as institutions and their leaders have given way to a spirit of fear allowing their foundations to fall like houses of cards while truth revealed them for what they really were. I’ve observed power struggles between institutional and ideological tribes that seek validation for their very existence, when all they are really doing is crying out for their dignity to be acknowledged. How tempting it is to be distracted by the unnecessary and seduced by slogans. How tempting it is to ignore the peace that is right in front of us whose very eyes search our own.

Within Biblical imagination, the boat represents the Church. Like Noah’s Ark, it is a place of comfort, safety, and order stowing away the values and necessities of life for a time. Once the time for remembering eternal virtues is formally over, the doors of the ark open, and the gangway is placed allowing for the disembarking to occur. During COVID-19 I’m finding comfort in the Church as ark. There is order and discipline within the Church’s prayers and practices, along with providing safety to others in Her works of mercy. While Her disciples are found around dinner tables instead of altars these days, the Church’s corporal and spiritual works of mercy are being administered (physically) in neighborhoods and (virtually) online.

As we continue to weather the storms in our lives, how do you maintain your gaze upon Jesus? What mountaintops do you climb in order to pray to the true Son of God? How has the Church provided comfort, safety, and order to you and your family? In many respects, COVID-19 has opened our eyes to many things – good and bad. Today’s Gospel compels us to keep a steady eye not on the wind and the waves, but on the one who has true power over them. Come to Him today. Come to Jesus.

Lord, in your mercy; Hear our prayer.  

Release

Our youngest, J., chooses to wake up between 6:30 & 6:45 AM. I’m already up by then and welcome the opportunity to get out of the house and walk down to the local elementary school. Since March, the school has been unoccupied due to the COVID-19 virus. At the beginning of the pandemic I started noticing the newspapers piling up near the entrance to the school. We are not subscribers, but I took it upon myself to gather up the discarded papers and recycle them – reading the headlines or an occasional article that piqued my interest before doing so. Later, I emailed the principal to let her know who was taking her papers. She blessed my efforts, dubbing me the elementary school’s official recycler.

 On Tuesday of this week, J. and I were making our way to the school when I saw a cardinal land on a high wire singing its song. All of a sudden, I felt an immediate need to pray the prayer for the dying called A Commendation at the Time of Death found in our prayer book.[1] There was a stillness to the air that seemed to be inviting me to ‘come along.’ There was an ineffable hope and promise that ‘all shall be well.’ Who was I to question this invitation? I prayed the prayer and kept walking, making my way to the school and the news of the day. Peace was now me and my son’s companion as we were reassured that death and life are not opposed to one another.

 On Sunday, my mother-in-law asked my wife and our family to come and say our goodbyes to my father-in-law, Chuck. It was another invitation to come along, to say hello/goodbye, and to freely walk into those thin places of paradox. Unlike the cardinal, Chuck’s song was not a surprise. He’s been battling the debilitating disease of ALS for over 2 years now. Throughout these years he’s been fighting back death as best he could, but this week and for reasons only the angels know, he’s decided to acquiesce.

 Before making the journey to my in-law’s home, J. needed his afternoon nap. We’re a liturgical family and like our patterns. We’re raising both J. and H. to recognize these as constants among the chaos. As is our custom, we read a few books but always end with Margaret Wise Brown’s “Goodnight Moon.” It’s always amazing to me how her words meet our son’s yawns. Each page makes their eyes grow heavy as their bodies long for the rest of their beds. This time, and as I was reading to J., I intuited that I was also reading to Chuck. I was already saying my goodbyes to him – first with Tuesday’s Commendation at the Time of Death, and now with a children’s author who has long asked little ones to go to sleep by letting go. “Let go of the moon, and the bears in their chairs.” Say goodnight to the “toy house and young mouse.” Listen to the “old lady as she whispers, hush.”

 Perhaps J. was more tired than usual because he started flipping the pages to the last. He loves that final page in the book with its soft (eternal?) flame in the fireplace along with the moon and the stars begging for a final glance above – one last time before sleep. I suppose I imagined something similar for Chuck. “Release” was my new prayer companioned with peace.

 “Goodnight stars. Goodnight air.”
“Goodnight noises, everywhere…

 “Goodnight, Chuck.”    

 

[1]            Depart, O Christian soul, out of this world;
In the Name of God the Father Almighty who created you;
In the Name of Jesus Christ who redeemed you;
In the Name of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies you.
May your rest be this day in peace,
and your dwelling place in the Paradise of God.
~The Book of Common Prayer, 464

 

Steadfast Hope

Inspired by Psalm 26:1-8

At the date of this writing eleven weeks has passed since I have celebrated Holy Eucharist. Eleven weeks has passed since the congregation I serve have participated in any formal sacrament. Like the lamenting Magdalene who cried out twice, “They have taken away my Lord, and I do not know where they have laid him” we call out to the authorities of the church as well as to God in our disorientation (Jn 20:2, 13). By now disorientation has slowly turned to disillusionment with the bishops of the church continuing to preach steadfastness while the resurrected Lord remains to reveal the world his wounds. St. Paul promises that our sufferings (disorientation & disillusionment?) grounded in a life of Christ “produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us” (Rom 3b-4). The bishops are right in preaching steadfastness in the faith because it allows us the audacity to hope. But hope for what? Hope to regather and celebrate Communion? Yes. But that’s not all. If indeed, the resurrected Lord continues to reveal his wounds to the world, and our faith calls us to participate in Christ’s sufferings, then the sacramental life (right now) is revealed to us in our own brokenness. Like the Magdalene, we cry out, and God answers us by calling our name (Jn 20:16). Once Mary’s name was heard she “went and announced…“I have seen the Lord”” (Jn 20:18). Once we name our own laments, God calls us each by name to wake us up to the reality of resurrection still found in his wounds intimately joined to our own. This is the Body of Christ broken for you, and at once we are forgiven and free to proclaim hope within the sufferings of the world.

What does steadfastness tangibly look like? For the Psalmist it looked like washing one’s hands (Ps 26:6a). Only when we (as the priesthood of all believers) wash our hands in innocence may we go in procession round the Lord’s altar (Ps 26:6). When we wash our hands we are at once acknowledging our past as well as preparing for the future. We do the hard work of self-examination (confession, forgiveness, discernment) in order to go around the altar of the world in a spirit of hope, praise, mercy, justice, and compassion.

What does a revealing of Christ’s wounds to the world tangibly look like? For the Psalmist it looked like a house built upon a foundation of Love (Ps 26:8). In this house the “wonderful deeds” of God are the topics of conversation (Ps 26:7). We vulnerably admit that our hands have been dirty, and like Christ are invited to show the world their redeemed wounds. At once, the world sees its own past as well as a hopeful future where God, table, and house become the place “where [God’s] glory abides” (Ps 26:8).

Over the past several months, kitchen tables have replaced altars, and houses have become little churches. The sacraments have been administered, only this time in the form of kindness, patience, compassion, justice, and mercy. These are not easy times, but they are hopeful times. Like Mary Magdalene, “I have seen the Lord,” in new and exciting ways. He is [still] Risen. He is Risen, indeed! Come, let us adore Him in our own brokenness alongside a broken and redeemed world.

Welcoming the Questions

Preached on the Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – June 28, 2020. For a video of this sermon, please click below. 

In Matthew Chapter 10 Jesus says this, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” As I take a look around my neighborhood, zip code, city, state, country and world I find myself being invited and welcomed into a whole host of conversations. I’m also being invited to listen, to get curious, and to wonder where both my place as well as the church’s place is being called to engage in these conversations. It’s some hard work, this discernment. There’s a lot of loud voices out there all competing with one another. I’ve never seen so many banners in yards, and bumper stickers on cars in my life, each and all pointing in different philosophical and creedal directions. So what are some of these conversations? I can think of four right off the bat. Economists are warning that the United States is either in (or soon and very soon will be in) an economic recession. It’s also an election year here in the U.S., and pride and presumption are on full display in American politics – on both sides of the isle. There’s social unrest unlike anything I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. Those of you I have talked to about this, and are old enough to remember, are having flashbacks to the 1960’s. Finally, there’s still a global pandemic infecting and killing large populations of people. The numbers are especially distressing in our own beloved country. How are these overwhelmingly complicated topics welcoming? Or better, what are these overwhelmingly complicated topics welcoming us to participate in? Here’s how I answer that question: I believe what these realities welcome is a chance for deep introspection and self-reflection grounded in our relationship with Christ.

Many of you have shared with me how your own relationship with God has deepened during this time. You’re praying more, getting rid of stuff you don’t need, and contemplating on eternal things that we all need and long for. You’re working in your gardens, going on more reflective walks, and listening to that still small voice inside like you may have never done before. Even though many of us are being tempted with the demons of despair and his friends – loneliness and anxiety – through your prayers, in your gardens, and every time you hit the pavement you’re reminded of how God has your back, suffers alongside you, and guards your heart as you learn and practice trusting God, yourself, and your neighbors. All of these learnings are holy and good. They call us out of ourselves and into deep conversation, confession, forgiveness and repentance.

I had someone share with me this week that they are missing Holy Eucharist. They are missing the Body and Blood of Our Lord; and yet, they are finding Christ’s Body and Blood everywhere they look – in the bodies of people whose skin is a different color than theirs, in their neighbors, and even hints of Christ’s Body in their enemies. It’s been said that if you can’t find the Body of Christ in the bread and wine, you probably won’t be able to find it in your neighbor. In not participating in Holy Eucharist for so long, I’m beginning to wonder if this statement is backwards? I wonder now that if I cannot find Christ’s Body first in my neighbor, stranger, and enemy then can I really ever accept Christ as bread and wine? And what about the very purpose and meaning of church as Christ’s Body? Jesus said today, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” The ‘you’ he’s speaking to is a collective ‘you.’ The ‘you’ he’s speaking to is none other than his followers – his church. Jesus once said that you are the light of the world. Light doesn’t exist for itself. It exists in order for us to see things by it. Jesus also said, “You are the salt of the earth.” Salt doesn’t exist for itself either. It preserves and enhances meat and other foods. In other words, you/me/the church do not exist for itself. It exists as light so others can come to the eternal light of Christ. It exists as salt to preserve and enhance the spiritual virtues and values worth preserving. This is good news. This is welcoming news.

Getting back to my earlier question: What are these overwhelmingly complicated topics welcoming us (the church as salt and light) to participate in? How can you/How can we/How can the church shed light, for example, on the economic hardships that happen because of greed, corruption, and indifference found in our economic systems, while also addressing the greed, corruption, and indifference found within our own hearts? How can you/How can we/How can the church be salt in our political systems where pressure is put on politicians and policy makers to preserve truth over victory, and sacrifice over self-interest while asking and modeling these same principals ourselves? How can you/How can we/How can the church continue to shine light on social sins so that justice and mercy may be cultivated in conversation, and tangibly brought forth in personal, spiritual, and collective action? Finally, how can you/how can we/how can the church find new imaginative and innovative ways of loving neighbor during COVID-19?

Jesus also used the images of salt and light to warn his followers that salt can lose its saltiness, and light can be hidden under baskets. In other words, the salt and light forget why they were created, as well as why they exist. When these things forget their purpose, food begins to rot and people bump into the furniture trying to rediscover the light source. I sometimes wonder if the institutional church is not salty enough? I sometimes wonder if the church hides the light of Christ behind its piety? I sometimes wonder if the church has become too domesticated?

Jesus once told a story about a man on his way to church who crossed the road in order to practice his piety instead of attending to the robbed and beaten man in the ditch as a way of practicing his faith. The institutional church may know that this is the story of the Good Samaritan, but the church founded and grounded in Jesus Christ doesn’t care what the name of the story is. Jesus never named the story. Jesus lived that story and asked his followers to do the same. Again, “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” How are we welcoming, really? What do we believe, truly? What is our purpose, and what is our mission, right now with the doors of the church closed, but the Body of Christ resurrected? We don’t have pews, but we have prayer. We don’t have communion, but we have compassion. We’re not saints, but we can suffer alongside fellow sinners. How can we be a bit more salty these days and worship God instead of worrying. How may we be light, and collectively speak truth? How can the church emphasize a life of holiness instead of posturing. These are just some of the questions I’m having now. As you think about the church’s purpose in these times, as you wonder what welcoming looks like what images come to mind for you? What innovations and experiments might we run? What is the welcoming work God is calling us to do right now? I invite you into the conversation, and into prayerful discernment as we continue to live in this new reality with God, neighbor, and world.

The Church Has Left the Building

How lonely sits the city
that once was full of people!
How like a widow she has become,
she that was great among the nations!
She that was a princess among the provinces
has become a vassal.
~Lamentations 1:1

One definition of sin is that it’s a twisting of the truth. Like a conspiracy theory there’s just enough facts on the ground to get through the door, but once inside the place is crawling with lies. Sin is deceptive and dissonant. Like an addiction or a bad habit we grow accustomed to it until eventually an apathetic attitude of amnesia creeps in. What was once shunned is now welcomed, and there’s no effort to get shut of it. Every now and again something drastic happens that wakes us from our slumber. Our eyes are opened, and our ears can suddenly hear that the music just isn’t right. We adjust our glasses while turning the dial to find another station wondering why we ever tolerated that song in the first place.

Currently, the United States is revealing its lesser angels to the world. It’s a superpower that has been brought to its knees in the wake of COVID-19. We’ve lost over 100K souls in the short span of 3 months due to this virus. Racism, riots, poverty, perpetual war, and unemployment (to name a few) sadly reveal the moral bankruptcy of empire. Ideologies are being destroyed like golden calves while society falls in on itself in self-destructive behaviors. We’ve condemned ourselves and thrown away the key. Our city’s in ruins.

There is a blood red circle
On the cold dark ground
And the rain is falling down
The church door’s thrown open
I can hear the organ’s song
But the congregation’s gone

My city of ruins
My city of ruins
~Bruce Springsteen

The Boss may be onto something. Churches are empty these days, but our ears remember “the organ’s song.” At once “the congregation’s gone” because the city is in ruins; and yet, could the pews be empty because the church has left the building? Perhaps the church finds herself walking alongside and listening to others in the ruins, waiting for the appropriate time to reveal the organ’s song? But what is this song? From where does it come?

“A riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? … It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”
~Martin Luther King Jr.

The song, according to Dr. King, has only been heard by a few; or worse, the wrong songs have been taught to the masses. Like bubble gum pop, these songs hold up “tranquility and the status quo” like it’s Gospel. The better songs go deep into the human condition and can be hummed by everyone. They’re laments. They’re bluesy. They’re real. They’re freedom songs. They’re songs that remind us to do justice. Love mercy. Walk humbly with our God.

We’re getting daily reminders to call on our higher angels. Keep awake. Keep listening. Keep praying. Keep acting. Keep advocating for truth, justice, and mercy. If we can agree that the church has left the building, then where does the church find herself these days? May we all recognize the ruins lamenting them with our neighbors. May we all keep awake. It’s time to rise up, church. Come, Holy Spirit. Our city’s in ruins.

My City of Ruins – Bruce Springsteen & The E Street Band – Live in Dublin, 2007

In Your Mercy, Hear My Prayer

**Sermon preached on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, 2020 by The Rev. Brandon Duke, Rector of St. Julian’s Episcopal Church. To see a video of this sermon click here.** 

 “Filled with the Holy Spirit, Stephen gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God. “Look,” he said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!” But they covered their ears, and with a loud shout all rushed together against him. Then they dragged him out of the city and began to stone him; and the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul. While they were stoning Stephen, he prayed, “Lord Jesus, receive my spirit.” Then he knelt down and cried out in a loud voice, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” When he had said this, he died.”   ~Acts of the Apostles 7:55-60

 St. Stephen is the patron saint for deacons in the church. A deacon’s ministry imitates the role of Christ as suffering servant. Deacons inspire all the baptized to go where Jesus went, to live out his teachings, to offer healing, and to serve those whom Jesus served. In today’s reading from the Acts of the Apostles, Stephen had just preached a lengthy sermon to the Sanhedrin counsel where the chief priests and other religious elders gathered. It was a scene not unlike where Jesus found himself at the beginning of his Passion. Like Jesus, Stephen was condemned for his teaching, dragged outside the city by an angry mob and murdered. Like Jesus, Stephen, asked God to receive his spirit while at the same time begged God to forgive his executioners. Today’s story remembers the realities faced by the early Christian community, and the paradoxical experiences of grief and hope founded upon the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, it introduces a “young man named Saul” religious historians would label as the progeny for the spread of Christianity itself through his letters to various Christian communities in first century Palestine. Before any of these letters were penned; however, The Acts of the Apostles portray Saul as another King Herod hunting down the innocent and scapegoating them because of his own deep, unconscious insecurities and ignorance. Later, Saul would be confronted on the road to Damascus by none other than the living Christ. “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?” (Acts 9.4) The resurrected and ascended Jesus did not ask, “Why did you approve of Stephen’s murder,” or “Why do you hunt and kill my followers?” No. Jesus asked, “Why do you persecute me” and in doing so joined himself with all those who suffer from the injustices of this world.

This week, many of you now know the name, Ahmaud Arbery.[1] Mr. Arbery was a resident of Georgia, the state I call home. On February 23rd of this year in Satilla Shores, a suburban neighborhood about 15 minutes from downtown Brunswick, Ahmaud was out for his daily jog when he found himself being stalked, assaulted, and killed by racist vigilantes out of their own deep, unconscious insecurities and prejudicial ignorance. On February 27, the Brunswick district attorney recused herself from the case because of a professional tie to one of the perpetrators, Gregory McMichael. Then in early April, another prosecutor a town over (in Waycross) found no reason to charge Gregory and his son Travis claiming they were acting in self-defense. On April 13, the case was transferred to a third prosecutor who serves the Atlantic Judicial Circuit. It’s my understanding that this is currently where Mr. Arbery’s case resides. On Tuesday, May 5th of this past week a video circulated online that showed the visceral hunting, attacking, and murder of Ahmaud Arbery. The horrific video ignited cries for justice all across the state of Georgia and the United States, as well as revealed the hubris of local officials for not taking the McMichael’s into custody back in February. Because of the outcry, as well as the Georgia Bureau of Investigation stepping in, the McMichael’s were finally arrested two days later on May 7 – Thursday of this past week, over two full months since they murdered Mr. Arbery. On Friday, May 8, the Feast of Lady Julian of Norwich, runners all over Georgia and the United States gathered to walk and run 2.23 miles to commemorate Mr. Arbery as well as to remember what would have been his 26th birthday. Personally, I have been heartbroken over this story and horrified by those images found on the video, and deeply grieved that a modern day lynching happened so close to my own home. My heart aches for Ahmaud and the way he died. My heart aches for his family who have already born the burdens of intolerance, disinterest, and collective silence even before this case will be tried in a court of law.

What is the Christian’s response?

One of the reasons why “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” is because it ignores Christ.[2] When St. Stephen said, “I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God” the Son of Man referred to is Jesus Christ serving as the glorified heavenly judge. The scriptures continue with, “But they covered their ears [when they heard him say this], and with a loud shout all rushed together against him.” They couldn’t hear the truth. They were not interested. They held Stephen in contempt rushed upon him, and had him killed. After his death, the scripture reads that “the witnesses laid their coats at the feet of a young man named Saul.” In other words, they believed the murder of this man was justified, a reverent act of defense approved by the violent complacency of the pious. This piety was put on trial by none other than the heavenly judge himself. The will of God was revealed to Saul on that road to Damascus. His charge was persecution and murder of Jesus Christ himself (Again, “Why do you persecute me.”) His penitence was told to the disciple Ananias that “he (Saul) must suffer for the sake of my name” – the name of Jesus Christ. Saul was baptized Paul three days later and immediately began to proclaim Jesus as the Son of God. So again, “What is the Christian’s response?”

The Christian’s response is repentance, followed by tangible acts of mercy, justice, and healing grounded in the virtue of humility. When a Christian confesses their sins to God, we claim that our sins are against God and our neighbor. The two are so closely related that to deny the dignity of someone’s humanity is to deny the very ground being itself – that is, God. The reason why we confess is not to be condemned by God. We confess in order to be forgiven by God. The very act of confession frees us to get up, try again in imitation of Christ as the suffering servant. For over a thousand years recalling one’s sins has been the practice of generations of Christians. Through scripture, preaching, teaching, participating in the church’s sacraments, and fellowship, one is able to self-examine one’s life, which leads to a contrite heart, as well as the freedom found in receiving God’s forgiveness.

If you’re like me, it’s so much easier to see the sin in another than to turn that mirror upon myself revealing my own. Saul, for example, was guilty of the sin of pride. Pride defined, “puts the self at the center, and is not willing to trust or obey God; it holds oneself above or away from others and refuses to see oneself within the larger human family.”[3] Some subsets of pride are presumption, distrust, impenitence, and arrogance. When we disobey God by neglecting our neighbor, pride can also show itself with a resentful or retaliation-type mindset while malice, contempt, and domination are not too far behind. All of these prideful sins can be attributed to the McMichael’s from Ahmaud Arbery’s case. In fact, it is fairly easy to see these sins in them. The hard part is naming our own part of the mess.

As Christians, we often stumble into the sin of irreverence. Irreverence defined is “being satisfied with religious feeling or sentimentality while not striving to know and do God’s will.” It’s so much easier to believe we are serving God by saying nice prayers than it is to live out the virtues found in those prayers and putting them to practice in our lives. We suffer from the sin of presumption when we “fail to recognize that our work, as well as our relationships are the means by which we serve God and forward [God’s] kingdom.” All of this can lead to a distrustful relationship with God and neighbor where timidity or cowardice are accepted more than the courage to face difficulty, suffering, or responsibility.” Finally, a slothful favoritism toward others who are just like us shackles one to “silence in the face of prejudice, abuse, bullying, or cruelty for fear or for desire of favor, or acceptance” within one’s group, family, or connections.

Put simply we combat sin by naming our sin. When we own up to our little messes in the midst of bigger messes, we’re able to be forgiven and move on. Saul, who later became St. Paul, said it this way, “Grow up. Grow into the full stature of Christ” (Eph 4:13). This leads us back to St. Stephen and the inspirational ministries of deacons. Again, a deacon’s ministry imitates the role of Christ as suffering servant. Deacons encourage all the baptized to go where Jesus went, to live out his teachings, to offer healing, and to serve those whom Jesus served. If the Christian’s response to sin is repentance, followed by tangible acts of mercy, justice, and healing grounded in the virtue of humility then we’re only going to find mercy, justice, and healing when we’re able to claim that we have received these gifts, and they are gifts to be given away. If you have received mercy in this life. Give mercy to another as a gift knowing exactly what it feels like to receive that gift. Do the same with the gifts and graces of justice as it leads humanity to healing and wholeness. Living out these virtues for the common good is Christian activism.

In a moment we’ll pray a small set of intercessory prayers simply called “Suffrages A” in the prayer book (BCP, 97).[4] These prayers speak of God’s mercy and salvation. We will petition God to afford us the privilege to be on the march for righteousness, joy, peace, and safety. The prayer then makes a turn to nation states, asking God to care for our nation and all nations guiding us in the way of justice, health, and truth. Finally, it ends with us petitioning God to help us not to forget the poor, and to clean and sustain our hearts by the power of God’s Spirit. Suffrages A is an active prayer which has the potential to lead to prayer in action.

This week, repent confessing your sins to God taking responsibility for your piece of the mess. Then, pray Suffrages A looking for those strong verbs that will compel you to get up, get out, and do something in the name of justice, mercy, and peace. Finally, try putting yourself in the mind of St. Stephen as well as Saul from today’s story. What comes up for you? Let that be your prayer. Let that be your meditation. Let that be your action and catalyst for change which leads to God’s deliverance.

Justice & Mercy Links:

Suffrages A [5]

V.     Show us your mercy, O Lord;
R.    And grant us your salvation.
V.    Clothe your ministers with righteousness;
R.    Let your people sing with joy.
V.    Give peace, O Lord, in all the world;
R.    For only in you can we live in safety.
V.    Lord, keep this nation under your care;
R.    And guide us in the way of justice and truth.
V.    Let your way be known upon earth;
R.    Your saving health among all nations.
V.    Let not the needy, O Lord, be forgotten;
R.    Nor the hope of the poor be taken away.
V.    Create in us clean hearts, O God;
R.    And sustain us with your Holy Spirit.

[1]                The sequence of events I used in the sermon are taken from “Ahmaud Arbery Shooting: A Timeline of the Case” from The New York Times found here: https://www.nytimes.com/article/ahmaud-arbery-timeline.html?action=click&pgtype=Article&state=default&module=styln-georgia-shooting&variant=show&region=TOP_BANNER&context=storylines_menu

[2]                Martin Luther King, Jr., “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” penned April 16, 1963: https://www.africa.upenn.edu/Articles_Gen/Letter_Birmingham.html

[3]                The following definitions and listing of sins come from Saint Augustine’s Prayer Book, Revised Edition, 2014, prepared by Forward Movement on behalf of The Order of the Holy Cross. The editor is The Reverend David Cobb and the liturgical editor is Derek Olsen, PhD. “A Form of Self-Examination Based on the Seven Deadly Sins” can be found on pages 122 – 132 in the book.

[4]                BCP is short for The Book of Common Prayer. An online version can be found here: https://www.bcponline.org/. Suffrages A can be found after the Justice & Mercy Links below.

[5]  “V” means “Versicle” which is a short verse from scripture (usually taken from The Psalms) sung or said by a leader of public worship. “R” stands for “Response” where the people gathered answer or continue the prayer begun by the prayer leader (called an Officiant in Morning & Evening Prayers).