Dust Your Self Off and Try Again

Last year I suggested to the parish I serve not to create New Year’s resolutions. The gentle challenge had a practical application: Most New Year’s resolutions end in failure, and what follows is personal guilt and blame. Instead, I recommended taking on New Year’s experiments. Experiments, by definition, welcome failure in order to learn something new. There is no guilt involved – only an adjustment or tweak here and there to run the experiment again. The message got through to some, and throughout this year I have had several parishioners share with me their various experiments, and what seemed to work or not.

As I ponder 2016, and look towards 2017 I will be running some new experiments of my own as well as continuing some of the experiments I ran this past year. I’d like to share a few of these with you, and challenge you to come up with your own.

My first experiment I will be continuing into 2017 is to read and listen to the “other side”.

Last year during the season of Lent and Easter, I challenged myself to read books on conservative thought, as well as to bend my ear towards many of my politically conservative friends. The immediate result of studying the history of conservative thought in England and America was that my political leanings drifted from the left into the middle. For me, this is a good place to be since my vocation lends its ear to those who wept during the presidential election (Democrats) and those who rejoiced (Republicans). Although the president-elect does not necessarily fit into the traditional mold of American party politics, through my reading and conversation, I have a better grasp of where his proposed policies or political appointments stand on the spectrum of the conservative/liberal spectrum.

Where I will continue this experiment on into the new year is to get my news from newspapers and in-depth books – not social media, or television. For 2017, I have subscribed to two local papers, The Douglas County Sentinel and the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. I have also subscribed to The New York Times and The Washington Post. These newspapers not only hold to the code of sound journalism, but by subscribing to them, I am also supporting this important medium of news reporting. Thus far, my reading and understanding of the issues that are important to my community and our world have been enlightening.

My second continuation of 2016 experiments is to read fiction and poetry.

Reading is a life-long love of mine, so this will probably never change; but as I get older I am realizing more and more the power of novels, poetry, and short-stories on the imagination, the soul, and how they can inform me in totally different ways than a newspaper ever will. I read 28 books this last year. I’m challenging myself to do 30 for 2017.

My final experiment is to continue to practice my vocation of the priesthood.

This means praying the Daily Office everyday, reading and studying the Bible weekly, writing sermons that challenge, loving the parishioners I serve, as well as serving ‘the other,’ ‘the stranger,’ and ‘the neighbor’ outside the walls of the parish. I feel all of this begins at home. I practice my calling to the priesthood by practicing my vocation to marriage and parenting. This translates into all walks of my life; so to be a good father, husband, and son means being a good priest and visa-versa. I thank God for my family (and extended parish family) everyday. This gratitude is something I want God to remind me of more and more in the coming years.

These are simple, yet doable experiments, and please take notice that none of my experiments have anything to do with fear or anxiety. These two vices played roughly in 2016, but will be sidelined in 2017 as far as I’m concerned. I have no time for them.

In closing, these are experiments – not resolutions. I won’t necessarily complete them in the way I may imagine them now, but that’s okay. I will dust myself off and try again. So, here’s to 2017 – another year to dust your self off and try again – And try again we must.


Balancing the Bigger Picture of Christmas

And the Word became flesh and lived among us. ~John 1:14 

“Take a step back,” my Dad called out to me. “You’re standing too close. Take a step back, and you can see it better.” We were visiting the Art Institute of Chicago, and what IT turned out to be was Georges Seurat’s famous painting, A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The painting’s iconic because up close one realizes the whole piece was painted with little dots. Artists call this technique pointillism, and at the time I wasn’t so interested in the bigger picture. I had studied this painting in school, and I wanted to experience the dots myself, so my face was as close to the painting as I could possibly get without making the security guard standing to my left suspiciously nervous. I eventually backed away, marveled at the size and scope of the painting, but for some reason, I kept focusing in on those silly dots.

The dramatic lead up to Jesus’ birth is found in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. Within Luke’s Gospel, we have the angel, Gabriel, visiting Mary and revealing she is with child; while in Matthew, we take a step back from the pregnancy and begin with the genealogy of Jesus. (Mark’s Gospel has no birth narrative. It begins with the baptism of Jesus as an adult). It is only with the Gospel according to John where the largest step away from the nativity scene happens. From its angle, the bigger picture, the idea, the point, and the revelation all stand revealed. John steps all the way back to the genesis where we discover that God, through the person of Jesus Christ, has always been and always will be. (What a picture John paints for those who believe). And what is this belief? The belief is what theologians call the Incarnation, what the prophets of old named as Emmanuel, and why worshippers celebrate Christmas. God took on flesh and walked among us. This is the Christmas miracle. This is the new beginning.

If we contemplate this theological space of new beginnings, the world opens up its mystery to us. We begin to experience within us and all around us those creative aspects found in God’s creation. A sense of awe, wonder, and imagination pricks the senses as we surrender ourselves to truth, beauty, and love. John’s Gospel reveals that God’s master plan has always been incarnation; and now, with the living breathing person of Jesus his mark on the painting is now complete. It is God’s most important point. The one holding the whole picture together; and yet I find myself torn between wanting to focus my whole attention on the dot that is Jesus Christ while at the same time feel compelled to take a step back and see the bigger picture. In that delicate space of contemplation is where the greatest mystery opens itself up to me. It is in the tension of the manger where I also find the cross of Christ. It is in the details of Jesus’ life where God is fully revealed to me. In this Christmas season, I know that I am called to the one who will feed the hungry, heal the sick, and forgive our sins. I know that I am called to love like Jesus for in doing so I realize the same love God finds within me is found in the other, the stranger, and the neighbor. These are crucial and oftentimes overwhelmingly crushing details where I feel compelled to take a step back and remember the larger picture. I wonder if that is the point of Jesus? That is, to remind us how to love, while at the same time pointing us in the direction of Love itself? I suppose it is a balancing act for us. A discernment. A knowing and an un-knowing all at the same time.

This Christmas, marvel at the point on the picture. Take notice that the security guard standing to your left is supposed to be a bit nervous. After all, institutions and those in charge do get nervous when we all start taking our art, our religion, and our Lord Jesus Christ seriously. Get close to the dots and at the same time don’t forget the picture as a whole. Each dot is important. Dare I say we can find our own dot within the picture, for in doing so, we discover God within us. How humbling it is to know incarnation was part of the plan the whole time. How sobering it is to know we are all part of the bigger story – a story within a story – the art and painting of God.

A Cry in the Wilderness

It’s been said John the Baptizer had one foot in the past and another in the future. The foot held in the past was not one of pure nostalgia, but of integrity – integrity that realized the work of God in the lives of God’s people in spite of themselves; and, for that foot in the future, John (like the prophet Isaiah) worked as an artist that envisioned a new age, a new city, a new dawning. This New Way was made explicit in the very location of John’s preaching. Matt. 3:1 reads, “In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness.” All you studious Biblical scholars out there can remind us that the Hebrew people appeared in the wilderness, and it was there that God revealed God’s Holy law, or Torah. It was also in the wilderness that the people ebbed and flowed in and out of their faith, and were either judged or blessed by God according to their thoughts, words, and deeds. It was in this wilderness and through its struggles that the Israelites grew in holiness with the help of God and Torah. The people would later be led out of the wilderness into the Promised Land where the great City of Jerusalem would be built, and eventually God’s Holy Temple with it. This new city would be central in the lives of the Jewish people.

Matthew’s Gospel takes this beautiful history of The Exodus, and does a clever role reversal. Instead of the people going into the central city of Jerusalem; instead of the people making sacrifice and confession with the Temple priests; instead of the clergy staying in Jerusalem – Matthew has them all going out into the wilderness. Going out and into the margins where a strange looking artistic, itinerate preacher was preaching repentance and baptism. Like moths to a flame, the people came. Why – Maybe because preaching repentance worked – Maybe because baptism worked? Dare I say both still work today?

It’s in this literary and liturgical structure of repentance and baptism that Matthew introduces a Third Way. This third way wasn’t an act on their part. It wasn’t even a belief. Instead, the third way, the new center, the new city is found in a Person. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (you’ll remember Jesse was King David’s father), “and a branch shall grow out of his roots [and] the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him” (Isa. 11:1). In Matthew’s Gospel, the family tree of David gets expanded in the person of Jesus Christ, and this tree is firmly planted not in a centralized location, city, or state; but on the outskirts of town, on the margins of society where if you come to see it, it does not discriminate whom seeks comfort among its shade. “Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give thee rest” (Matt. 11:28). It is underneath the shade of this tree, and later the shadow of its cross where helplessness found hope, and meaninglessness discovered its significance.

One of Bishop Rob Wright’s favorite lines when he is among clergy is that, “all the answers are not found at 2744 Peachtree Road.” (This is the address of the Bishop’s offices and the Cathedral of St. Philip). Instead, he empowers us all to seek out answers and innovations from one another. There’s a great collective wisdom within the room that is our diocese, and a lot of that wisdom is OtP (Outside the Perimeter). The Church is best when it worships joyfully, serves compassionately, and grows spiritually; when it loves God, self and neighbor (in that order), and understands that going out to the margins and marginalized of society does not necessarily mean going into the big city. There is wisdom in the wilderness. In fact, one of the reasons I personally love this Gospel passage is because of Matthew’s portrayal of John the Baptist. Matthew, I believe, pegs John as an artist. He’s a very talented artist in performance (i.e. preaching repentance) and with his props (i.e. water). And what do good artists do? They draw people to them and to their work; but John was not only a good artist, he was a great artist. And what do great artists do? They point beyond themselves, and even beyond the art, itself. The people from the center of the city go out to John believing they are there to see and experience him and his ministry; but when they show up John tells them, “it’s not about me.” Great art never is; instead, it is a vehicle and vessel that is used for transcendence. That’s some creativity.

As a kid I would go and visit my grandparents quite often. At the time, my Memom and Granddad were attending a small Missionary Baptist church on a farm-to-market-road in East Texas. Getting to this tiny church, where most of the cemetery was made up of my relatives, we would pass by other small churches. Since it was a very rural part of the state with no neighborhoods, I wondered why there simply wasn’t one church? Why did it have to be 3 or 4? It seemed to me that if people pulled their resources together, they could come up with a centralized church that saw one another as family and supported each other in the good times and the bad. (I guess even as a kid, I felt a strong pull to a more centralized church – how very Episcopalian of me). Serving in Douglasville has brought back some of this childlike curiosity. There seems to be a church on every corner in this county. Why aren’t we talking with one another? Or maybe we have, but we haven’t been invited to the party in a while?

Are churches guilty of self-preservation so much so that coming together, and sharing our assets and resources not a priority? I often times wonder what a town like Douglasville would look like if all the churches got together and tackled one major community problem each year? What if we all got together and started asking artistic questions that pointed beyond ourselves, and our egos? I have a feeling that important conversations would get started if we came together around common causes. Perhaps the teenage pregnancy rate would go down? Perhaps the thousands of kids in the foster care system would find homes? Perhaps no family would go hungry, and no child would be left behind to recycle their family history of poverty?

John the Baptizer was a big burly man who revealed simple truths in an artistic way that made God the center of everything no matter where one resided. Of course God was in Jerusalem, but God was also in the margins. Of course God is at 2744 Peachtree Rd, but He’s also at 5400 Stewart Mill Road along with the hundreds of other churches found within this county who have more similarities than differences…who still believe (collectively, and like John) that repentance and baptism work. I do honor the differences in theology, and in worship, and in the reading of scripture (this is good art), but don’t you think God gets tired of the same old arguments denominations and ‘nondenominations’ have with one another? The one thing that brings us all together is not found in a theology, in a city, or in a song, but in a Person – the person of Jesus Christ who Christians boldly claim is God. And if we’re all reading the same book together, I believe God tells us to love. And God tells us to give. And God tells us to serve, and the person of Jesus Christ lived and continues to live out these virtues of the Spirit within all of us.

Saint Julian’s Episcopal Church is a little church on the margins surrounded by other denominations. We’re also a little church that’s part of the bigger Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement. Let’s continue to balance love of self and focus on our parish community, its building and its people alongside the people out there. Let’s get curious with the greater community. I can’t do it on my own. You can’t do it on your own. We need one another. We need to better define our neighbors. We need to repent of apathy, and we need to remind the world it still needs Jesus. This was John’s message. This has always been the Church’s message, and this is society’s message as well as its cry for help out in the wilderness.