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

Change Your State of Mind

**Sermon preached on the 4th Sunday of Easter by The Very Rev. Brandon Duke.
For a video of the sermon, please click here.**

Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. ~ Acts 2:42

 American movies and music have always been influential to me. When I was young I was obsessed with Christopher Reeve playing Superman. I wanted to be him. I had the blue pajamas fit with a detachable red cape. My family had the VHS tapes that I would watch over and over compulsively, and the John Williams’ soundtrack to the 1978 film was epic to my little imagination. When I was a teenager, there was a 9 out of 10 chance that I would be revving my car engine in the parking lot of the cinema plex after seeing The Fast and the Furious or the latest James Bond film. Music has had a similar hold on me. The 1990’s Country Music star, Clint Black, wrote this chorus to one of his songs:

“Ain’t it funny how a melody
can bring back a memory.
Take you to another place in time
completely change your state of mind.”
~Clint Black, “State of Mind,” 1993

Children are excellent teachers in presenting this new state of mind. If art imitates life, then children imitate their surroundings, specifically their parents and siblings. If mommy is stirring the pot in the kitchen, baby wants that spoon. If brother is playing Nintendo, baby wants his controller. Maybe the child is seeing mom or brother having fun, and he wants in on the game? But if he’s notallowed to be in on the game, watch out. Crying happens. Fussiness ensues. There’s potential for breakdown. What now? I don’t believe it is a young child’s responsibility to stop fussing. Little kids fuss. That’s what they do. Instead, I believe the onus is on the parent to recreate the child’s environment so that the crying abates and all is well – at least for that moment. Instead of the child trying to get on the level of the parent, why not have the parent get on the level of the child? Children are constantly looking up at things and people that are larger than they. They get confused when daddy’s not paying them attention. Here lately, I’ve noticed a complete change in disposition when I simply crouch down and get on my child’s level; or better, get on the floor and play a while. If anything, a fussing child is inviting the adult in their life to play. “Sit down with me and stay a while, Daddy, let me “take you to another place in time…completely change your state of mind.””

In The Acts of the Apostles, Chapter 2, verse 42 we get a glimpse into how the early church lived into Christ’s state of mind. Through the waters of baptism, they were changed. Not just for that moment, but for eternity. Because Jesus Christ had modeled for the disciples how to live, move, and have their being they were the first ones to imitate their spiritual father. It was Jesus who showed them how to preach, teach, and heal. It was Jesus who taught them how to pray, and when breaking bread to remember him. It was Jesus who came down to their level and washed their feet. His eyes looked up and into theirs. Not the other way around. In fact, a quick scan of the Gospels may reveal Jesus either looking up or into the eyes of all the people he encountered as he met them where they were. The only time when Jesus actually looked down at his followers was when he was hanging on the cross giving the world the ultimate sacrifice out of pure (Fatherly/Motherly) love.

Even though today’s churches look and feel different than the ancient one, all Christians at all times and in all places are still called to remember one’s baptism. We’re still called to devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. When Christians do these things we’re like children imitating good parents. What child doesn’t like to play in the bathtub? Baptism is the church’s way of playing in the water. What younger child doesn’t look up to his older sibling? The apostles’ teaching and fellowship is like playing in big brother’s (or sister’s) room. Christian devotional practices bring “back the memory” of Christ. Not only this, it is Christ who gets down on our level loving us, comforting us, remembering us.

I wonder…How or when do you remember Christ best? What spiritual siblings and saints do you look up to? Do you believe that there are others who are looking up to you? What is the spiritual soundtrack to your life? Has Christ completely changed your state of mind?

Praying through Parenting

Our youngest son turned 6 months today. In honor of my time with him on summer paternity leave from work, I’ve written down a few questions and lessons he has taught and continues to teach me.

What if God enjoys rocking us in rocking chairs? This was a reoccurring thought over this past summer’s paternity leave. What if God enjoys rocking us in rocking chairs?” God knows when we’re tired, anxious, fussy, hungry, and upset. Like a compassionate and aware Father, God receives our cries, our wailing, and our screaming as potential prayer. Our Father names and validates these cries for us when we do not have the language nor the where-with-all to pray them properly. Perhaps our Heavenly Father simply rocks us with love showing us we are more than our fear. We are more than our anxiety. God knows this truth; and God knows we are wonderfully made inviting us into the rhythm of the rocking chair. “Let go,” he says. “Sleep soundly.”

What if God holds the baby bottle until we can hold it for ourselves? While thinking out loud, Jesus revealed to his friends that there were many things in which he wanted to teach them, but could not reveal all he knew because (in his words) they couldn’t handle it (Jn. 16:12). The timing was off. They weren’t mature enough. Jesus wasn’t anxious about it. He simply named the truth in love trusting that all shall be well in time. He invited his friends to cast their cares on him, for soon and very soon he would have to convert these cares into responsibilities. Until then, he would be the one holding the baby bottle.

What if the prayer of the parent asks God to sanctify our weaknesses? With the addition of a child or children to a family, worlds are turned upside down. Rules and rituals get a readjustment. Parents quickly find themselves un-knowing the feelings, emotions, and culture they believed they knew. They must relearn what they think they thought. There were so many times when I had to eat a hardy piece of humble pie. I always thought I was a patient person, slow to anger, and empathetic to those in my care. God, with the help of my son, showed me the real mirror of my soul thus shattering the outdated one I always thought so highly of.

When Daddy’s driving the car, why does the baby always have to be screaming in the back seat? How very uncomfortable and overwhelming it must be for a child to not know what is going on, where Mommy and Daddy are, or in what direction they are taking. A child is constantly seeking safety. Safety in that rocking chair. Safety and comfort in the baby bottle. When these things are taken from him – objects that remind him of his parents – feelings of helplessness well up. Perhaps it’s the first lesson on God’s Providence? That is, with time and deeper experiences of trust, what will be revealed is that Jesus has the wheel and knows the destination. Soon and very soon all will arrive together safely. Until this understanding is lived into, however, the screaming and holding on continue.

Why do babies cry when their diapers are being changed? So many times I had to stop and remind myself that an infants are not rational beings – at least not yet. When a parent changes a child’s diaper it is for the child’s own good. For a few moments of discomfort a wealth of well-being lies just beyond the horizon. Why can’t they see this, I would wonder? It reminded me of going to my priest for the sacrament of reconciliation. I’ve confessed to him before. I’ve received forgiveness and a clean slate, so why do I pitch a fit beforehand? Why can’t I envision what lies just beyond forgiveness?

Babies cannot communicate with language, but communicate they do. Parents also find new ways of communication with their children finding out fairly quickly that children have a sixth sense about such matters. For example, if I was stressed, the baby could absorb this negative energy. There were many times when I had to pray The Lord’s Prayer with the intention that God would take away any negativity from our relationship. This was another lesson in prayer for me because I realized that like a good parent God meets me where I am in my own thoughts, words, and deeds. His presence reveals to me who I am now (in my fussiness), but also who I have the potential to be in the future. God, like a parent, sees the potential in his children, and steers them in the best direction in which to live. Theologically speaking, our capacity lives within God’s will: Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done is the most powerful of prayers. In The Lord’s Prayer we’re desiring an alignment (and a readjustment) to what God desires for us in life. It’s frustrating and disappointing when our children (of all ages) do not remember the way in which we raised them, or forget a lesson taught. But we should never give up on praying for them in the midst of our pain as well as theirs, having faith that God is somewhere in the mix of it all. Which brings me to the importance of community.

Sister Joan Chittister, a Christian monastic and expert on St. Benedict of Nursia has written, “Benedictine spirituality is about caring for the people you live with and loving the people you don’t and loving God more than yourself. Benedictine spirituality depends on listening for the voice of God everywhere in life, especially in one another and here.”[1] The core of Christianity is relationship – relationship with God, self, and neighbor. Within Christianity what you will not find is a mythos of rugged individualism, the proverbial ‘pulling yourself up by your own boot straps.’ What is discovered is that I need you and you need me, and together we all need God. My time with my son was a time by myself; yes, but also with family. Being around my parents, spending more quality time with my wife, as well as letting our two boy’s experience more of their aunts, uncles, and cousins helped me to remember my own roots. I was honestly able to be thankful for the sacrifices my own family has made for me through the years. I couldn’t see this without being a parent myself. What I also discovered was for all the love I have for my parents there comes a time in a person’s life when we all must travel east of Eden leaving the creature comforts of the nest. What we carry with us are the teachings, morals, and ethics our families pass down, as well as the traumas that need to be dropped in order to make the load a bit lighter. We soon find ourselves challenged and bumping up against other ideas of morality and ethics, and if we’re open enough find ourselves listening with holy curiosity to the stranger, neighbor, and others in our midst. We find friends, lovers, and communities of faith that hold us up and hold us accountable. They become proxy families, wanting what’s best for us. I think it is this that I want for both my sons:  I want them to learn from my wife and I. I want to pass down those virtues that were passed down to me understanding that some of my own vices must be separated and discarded along the way. I think what I’m trying to say is that I have discovered (or maybe rediscovered) that life is a gift, and I am blessed. I have also discovered that blessings are not meant to be kept close, but to be given away – always. Some days I’m better at living into this truth than others, and there are certainly days I forget to share who I am as well as whose I am. For these moments I ask forgiveness knowing that God (like a good Father) will give me another chance.

It’s my hope to continue my prayer of rediscovery. A prayer that asks where God shows up in my own life, as well as how life truly is a practice – a practice in caring for the people you live with, loving the people you don’t, and loving God more than yourself.[2]

[1]               Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for the 21stCentury, (New York: Crossroad, 2016), 298.

[2]               Ibid.

An Adjustment of Love

5th Sunday of Easter Readings

 In 2011 I started watching NASCAR. One of the things that intrigues me most about stock car racing is what happens at the pit stop. From the race track, the driver signals to his crew chief that his car is either too tight or loose. This diagnosis, determined with driver and chief calls for a much needed adjustment. When the driver pulls in for his pit stop, his pit crew make the necessary alignments, and off the driver goes –  back onto the racetrack to report new findings within the cockpit of his car.

When a pit crew makes an alignment they are adjusting the suspension of the racecar. A car’s suspension is an intricate system of “tires, [air pressure of those tires], springs, shock absorbers, and linkages that connects [the racecar] to its wheels allowing a relative motion between the two.[1] According to Wikipedia, “Suspension systems must support both road hold/handling and ride quality, which are at odds with each other. The tuning of suspensions [therefore] involves finding the right compromise.”[2]

Communities, like racecars and pit crews, have their own suspension that allows for a relative motion. Within community, the motion is relationship; and adjustments to relationship happens when persons are able to communicate freely and effectively. Ask any child which parent is more likely to buy them ice cream, and one can immediately take a guess as to which adult is the disciplinarian in the family based upon their answer. Ask a teacher which student they would put in charge if they needed to leave the classroom for a moment, and we might be able to infer something about that teacher’s values. Ask anyone what truly brings them joy, and we start to experience hearts opening up.

The relative motion in a church community is Christ, and depending upon the community each church has its own suspension engineered into it. Just like a Ford’s suspension is different from a Chevy’s, and is different than a Toyota’s, the suspension of The Episcopal Church (TEC) is different from a monastic community is different from the Roman Catholic Church. However, even though the suspension differentiates between brands of cars the goal is always to get from point a. to point b. with relative security. We might add that even though churches are broken by denominationalism they all claim Christ as the goal. For example:

We might say the suspension of TEC is reliably grounded on Scripture, Tradition, and Reason whereas our RC sisters and brothers find its authority through Scripture, Tradition, and the Magisterium (made up of the Pope and his Bishops). In Joan Chittister’s commentary on The Rule of St. Benedict she shows us what the suspension looks like underneath the hood of a Benedictine monastery. There are four essentials to monastic life in these communities of faith:

  1. The Gospel.
  2. The teaching of the prioress or abbot.
  3. The experience of the community.
  4. The Rule of St. Benedict itself. Chittister writes that:
    • The Gospel
      • “gives meaning and purpose to the community”
    • The Teaching of the abbot
      • “gives depth and direction to the community”
    • The Experience of the community
      • “gives truth to the community”
    • The Rule itself
      • “gives the long arm of essential definition and character to the community”

She continues, “No matter how far a group goes in its attempts to be relevant to the modern world, it keeps one foot in an ancient one at all times. It is this world that pulls it back, time and time again, to the tried and true, to the really real, to a Beyond beyond ourselves. It is to these enduring principles that every age looks, not to the customs or practices that intend to embody them from one age to another.”[3]

In each of our readings this morning, the Church gives us Biblical examples of what an adjustment to the suspensions of our hearts looks like. For St. Peter, he had to adjust who he thought was included and excluded within the Kingdom of God. He had to rethink what was considered clean and unclean, as well as sacred and profane. He’s reminded by God that all of God’s creation is good; therefore, “take up and eat.” He’s also reminded not to make a distinction between Jew and Gentile, but to remember them with the love of Christ whose cross is for all. Then in St. John’s Revelation new adjustments to the created order help to align a new heaven and a new earth where the destructive powers of death are no more. Finally, Jesus asks his disciples at the Last Supper to align themselves with love. In doing so, he says, “everyone will know you are my disciples.”

I wonder if you could name what the “enduring principles” within your own family are? Could you perhaps name these principles at your work, or school, or within your politics, and within your practices? Put differently, Who’s in your pit crew? Once we start to honestly probe the depths of our hearts alongside the enduring principles found in our pit crews of influence and our communities of faith we can better adjust the suspension of our souls aligning ourselves with Christ; thus aligning ourselves to the way, the truth, and the life whose north star is always love. This week, pay attention to how your engines are running, and how your suspension feels. Then reach out to your pit crews to not only report what is going on within you, but to also listen to their suggestions, observations, and realignment advice. Together, and with God’s help, your heart (as well as the heart of the community) will be filled and full for another lap or two ’round the track of life.

[1]          Wikipedia article accessed on 5-18-19. Article refers to: Jazar, Reza N. (2008). Vehicle Dynamics: Theory and Applications. Spring. p. 455. Retrieved 2012-06-24.

[2]               Ibid.

[3]               Joan Chittister, The Rule of Benedict: A Spirituality for he 21stCentury, (New York: Crossroads, 2016), 55-56.