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.

The Passion of the Christ

The Passion narrative is unlike any other reading about Jesus we have throughout the year. For one, we do not imagine Jesus sermonizing on a mount, or teaching in synagogues and Jewish homes. We do not imagine him debating with other rabbi’s, healing the sick, or instructing his disciples. Instead, we bear witness to Our Lord’s suffering, pain, and death – our hearts closing in like the sealing of the stone over his tomb. Perhaps, the Passion narrative is unlike any other remembrance of Jesus because the Passion of Christ demonstrates to all that the teacher has become the teaching. For example, Jesus taught forgiveness. He said, “Pray for those who persecute you.” His Passion revealed this teaching when he prayed, “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.” Jesus taught, “There is no greater gift than to lay down one’s life for their friends.” His Passion revealed this teaching from his cross at Noon that first Good Friday. For Christians, Jesus’ teachings are not ideologies; instead, they are truths pointing to the ultimate Truth that Jesus is Lord. The Passion narrative painfully draws the conclusion that the world would rather destroy Truth rather than be in relationship with It.

Perhaps, the Passion narrative is unlike any other reading about Jesus because we are reminded of our own capacity for great evil. Nihilism, narcissism, and pride make their home in the basement of our souls. Anger, greed, and sloth seep through the cracks of these basements seeking to destroy us one drip at a time. In order to overcome these, we must first acknowledge them as Jesus did, and with His help we can cut off the life of these sins by sacrificing one’s pride for humility, choosing forgiveness over revenge, and kindness instead of envy. Our death to these parts of ourselves ultimately comes when we realize we cannot live into the virtues of Christ without God’s help. “Save yourself,” may be the mantra of the world, but I am with you always is the promise of God.

The Passion narrative is unlike any other reading about Jesus we have throughout the year. Perhaps this year, it calls to you with new insight and depth. Like the teacher becoming the teaching, it may be inviting you (the reader) to become the read-ing. What characters within yourself, and in and around your world do you need to acknowledge as Pontius Pilate, the angry mob, or the Roman soldier? Where is grace to be found in the messiness of life? Where is relationship when isolation wants to spend the night?

Finally, this week is unlike any other week we have throughout the year. As you enter into the truths of Holy Week be open to what God may be revealing to you. Be accepting that Jesus made the ultimate sacrifice for all. Live into your questions with God at your side. Lastly, do not fully concentrate on the Easter destination, but be present where the journey of this holy week will take you. Take the time to pause this week. Make the time to consider why this week – above all others – is unlike any other throughout the year. Do this in remembrance – of Christ.




What is Holy Week?

Holy Week begins Sunday, and is often called Palm Sunday or The Sunday of the Passion. The Passion [of the Christ] biblically follows Jesus’ last moments through Jerusalem, the Roman courts, and the streets on the way to the cross. Holy Week is exactly what it says: It is the holiest season within the Christian calendar.

On Palm Sunday, many congregations will gather outside the doors of the church with literal palms in hand and will welcome The Messiah – Jesus Christ into the city of Jerusalem through a Biblical reading, as well as with songs and shouts of Hosanna’s, King of Kings, and Lord of Lords; but once the congregation enters into the space of the church building the drama will heighten around the reading of the Passion of Christ (This year’s reading comes from the Gospel according to Matthew). Listening to this Gospel, one will quickly notice the joyous Hosanna’s sung outside have turned into angry shouts to ‘crucify him’ on the inside. Although the joys of The Lord’s Supper will continue to be celebrated on this day, the liturgical service will end somewhat solemnly as those gathered remember that our Lord was betrayed [into the hands of sinners].

Next comes Maundy Thursday – the first of three services that make up what is referred to as The Triduum. Although there are three different services on three different days, don’t be fooled into thinking they are separate services. The Triduum is one service divided up into three parts (Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and The Great Vigil of Easter). Think of The Triduum as a three-act play where each act has its own theme, but points to a greater whole.

Act I is Maundy Thursday. Maundy Thursday is the 38th day of Lent, and sets the tone that the end [of Lent] is near, and resurrection is on the horizon. Traditionally, Maundy Thursday celebrates the initiation of the Church’s Holy Eucharist – a.k.a. Holy Communion, and this supper is the last communion before Easter. Maundy in Latin means command, and this day the Church remembers Jesus’ command to his disciples to, ‘Love one another as I have loved you.’ His command ‘to love’ is made explicit in the service of The Lord’s Supper, as well as when those gathered participate in foot washing – a further reminder that Jesus acted as servant to his friends, and asked his followers to never forget this (‘Love one another as I have loved you’). Finally, the evening ends with the stripping of the Altar. All the fashions found in and around the sanctuary will be taken away – symbolic of the clothes and dignity that were stripped away from Our Lord. After the Maundy Thursday liturgy is concluded, some churches hold an all-night vigil until Good Friday morning where the remaining bread and wine that was consecrated (or blessed) on Maundy Thursday will be consumed Good Friday morning. Stations of the Cross (another tradition within the church) usually takes place at Noon, Good Friday. The symbol here recollects the Passion of Christ once more, and the hour in which this liturgy takes place is the traditional hour of Jesus’ time on the cross.

Act II is Good Friday. There is no Eucharist because there is no Lord. Put bluntly: God is dead, and this service is a day of great solemnity, devotion, self-examination, and prayer; however, it is also a day of restrained anticipation, promise, and hope (to paraphrase Bishop J. N. Alexander). It is also a day the Church remembers the cross in all its messiness, and at the same time its glory pointing us heavenward.

Act III is the Great Vigil of Easter, but before this evening service begins a small morning service called Holy Saturday is administered. Holy Saturday is a service asking us to simply slow down and take all of what has happened and is happening into consideration before we participate in the Vigil. The evening Vigil is a long, but a powerful liturgy in 4 parts: 1. There is the Service of Light. 2. The Service of Lessons. 3. Christian Initiation (a.k.a. Holy Baptism). 4. The Holy Eucharist with the administration of Easter Communion. I won’t go into detail about this service, but it is one not to miss. To me, the Vigil captures everything that is good, holy and beautiful about Christianity and Christ’s one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. If you are curious about any of these services, I invite you to read them before hand. They can all be found in the Book of Common Prayer. The Palm Sunday liturgy begins on page 270. A link can be found here.

This is a small introduction to the ceremony, liturgy, drama, and pageantry of Holy Week. It is truly a gift of the Church, but words and descriptions of the services do not do it justice. To truly get a feel for its beauty, you have to participate in it for yourself, and let each day help to mold and make you into who God already knows you to be. May Holy Week remind us all of the mystery of Christ and His Church, and that there is still mystery wrapped up in the world around us.