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

 

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?

Rising to the Occasion

**Sermon preached on the 2nd Sunday in Easter by The Very Rev. Brandon Duke.
For a video of the sermon, please click here.**

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Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd
~Acts 2:14

This was the same Peter who only last week was bent over, cowering with a combination of fear, shame and anger. Who was he cowering to? Was it the mob mentality of the crowd? No. It was a little girl who asked him a simple question, “Do you know Jesus? I’ve seen you with him. Are you not one of his disciples?” Peter’s answer was the same when he was asked two more times. “The answer is no. I do not know the man.”

What a difference a week makes. For today, Peter is not cowering in shame. He’s standing with the eleven. He’s their voice. He’s their preacher. He’s been chosen to speak on their behalf. He raised his voice. He didn’t mumble under his breath a lie. No. He addressed the crowd with truth. No. Today, Peter rises to the occasion, represents his constituents well, and gives the crowd the prototype of every sermon that has ever been preached since then: “This Jesus…God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.” For millennia Christians have said this liturgically as well: “Christ has died. Christ is Risen. Christ will come again.” Christians have confessed it in the creeds of the church, “He was crucified, died and was buried. On the third day he rose again.” We sing it. We pray it. We proclaim it, and we summarize it with that beautiful word, “Alleluia.”

How do we as Christians boldly proclaim that same “Alleluia” to a world that still finds herself in Good Friday? What goods and gifts do we have to address the crowd, and like Peter to rise to the occasion?

First, we have God’s word. We have the Bible, and in God’s holy word we find wonderful stories of the faith and faithful people like you and me. These are ordinary people who were asked to do extraordinary things on God’s behalf and they said “yes,” or “Lord, here I am”, or “Send me.” Most of these people were flawed in so many ways, but if we look at the pattern of God (and to quote our bishop) “So many times God takes our garbage and turns it into gold.” God takes our weaknesses, our burdens, our failures, and uses them for God’s purposes. Quoting Peter again, “Jesus of Nazareth, a man attested to you by God with deeds of power…you crucified…but God raised up.” That’s the story of our life in Christ, right there in a nut shell. Our purpose is the proclaim in thought, word, and deed the risen life found in our savior Jesus Christ. We have God’s word to help us with this. We have God’s word who was made flesh to guide us through this. Use this time to dive into the Exodus story, the Noah story, the Jonah. Use this time to remember Sara, Rebecca, and Ruth, the two Marys, and all the other flawed saints found in God’s holy word. We are a part of a great cloud of witnesses. May they witness to us once again in our own time of exile and uncertainty.

Secondly, we have a gift in the form of our prayer books. I love the image of Anglicans and Episcopalians down through the ages who held Bibles in one hand and the prayer book in another. Now is the time to get reacquainted with your Bibles and your prayer books. In fact, 3/4ths of the prayer book is the Bible put in a prayer and liturgical formats. The whole of the Psalter is in their too. There’s been a cartoon going around social media that has the devil and God sitting at a table together. With a smirk on his face, the devil claims, “I finally closed the church!” With a compassionate smile of his face, God counters, “On the contrary…I opened up one in every home!” Let that image sink in as it pertains to our moment in history. God has opened up new churches at breakfast, lunch, and dinner tables as well as beside every bedside. Did you know the prayer book has prayers for morning, noonday, evening, and night? These are invitations for us to stop what we’re doing, and to pray with the prayer book in one hand and our Bibles in the other. I’ve been modeling this method on Facebook Live every morning and evening for you for the past few weeks. So, do what I do. Pray. If these prayers are a bit overwhelming to you, the prayer book can calm your anxiety because there are simple prayers for individuals and family devotions. These are meant to be prayed around the breakfast, lunch, or dinner table before the family meal. They’re short, concise, and to the point. Fathers: Teach your family to pray in this way around the breakfast table. Mothers: Teach your family to pray in this way around the lunch table. Children: Teach your parents how to pray in this way around the dinner table. Live and lean into your baptisms during this time. Live and lean into God’s holy word. Combine this with what’s been handed down to you in the form of the prayer book. May the family in all its forms, shapes, and sizes be a little church gathered together in Jesus’ name.

Like Peter, and thirdly, we rise to the occasion when we face reality head on. The reality of the resurrection for Peter kindled a boldness that he could not find within himself only a week ago. He let his grief get the best of him back then. He forsook hope. His ordering was wrong because he was disrupted, disordered and disillusioned. Sound familiar? The order is this: Face and name reality first. Then out of the grief found in that reality, name what has been lost even as you hope for what is to come. Put differently. Be truthful. Be bold. Be hopeful. I invite you to name those things that are real for you right now. I invite you to name those things that have been taken from you right now. I invite you to grieve your losses as well as to imagine a real and hopeful response.

Let me put some hope in the room: Over the past month I’ve been encouraged by so many of you. I’ve been encouraged by those of you who put your head down, go to work, and get the job done – even when it may cost you something. I’ve been encouraged with your imagination and the hopefulness in your voices when you call me up and say I have a check, or a giftcard, or food (I even had someone check in with me who had furniture) to give away as a response to the common reality we are all facing. I’m encouraged that more phone calls to one another are being made, that new technologies are being discovered and implemented for the common good. I’m encouraged that many of you have learned that you can’t do everything, but you can do something. Some of you are encouragers. Some of you are joy-filled. Some of you are numbers people. Some of you are artists. Some of you are teachers, prophets, and providers. Some of you are healers, peacemakers, and have the gift of generosity. Did you know that these are gifts of the Spirit? Did you know that when you use the gifts God has given you, you’re facing reality and leaning into hope? I’m encouraged by you. I’m inspired by you.

One of my own realities is that my sacramental ministry as a priest, has been taken from me. I can’t baptize. I can’t hand you our Lord’s Body and Blood. I can’t lay hands on you, or anoint the sick or the dying with oil. A priest takes vows to be a pastor, a priest, and a teacher. One of those – the priestly, sacramental aspect of my call – has been put on hold. I can mourn that. But I can also see it as an invitation to lean into the ethos of pastor and teacher, and that’s what I’ve decided to do. Some of you may be surprised that we’re praying Morning Prayer at both the 8:30 and 10:30 services. Why aren’t we having Holy Eucharist today, you may ask? Because, Holy Eucharist is a liturgical rite best expressed when we are together physically. It’s best expressed when we can all ask God’s blessing upon the bread and wine as God consecrates them into his very self. It’s my belief (as well as the church’s belief) that this cannot be done virtually, but what can be done virtually is to share in our common prayer practices. In our tradition that translates into Morning and Evening Prayer, or the Daily Office. From now on we will be praying in this way as a recognition of our reality that we all share in our common life as Christians. We will pray this way until we can meet again in our physical building and with the physical elements of Christ’s Body and Blood. As your priest, and as your pastor I feel it is best that I stand in solidarity with you and abstain from Holy Eucharist until we meet again. I will mourn the Eucharist. Her words captivate me, as well as the way she moves. Until then, I remain hopeful. I remain encouraged. I remain steadfast in the faith that St. Peter preached on that day so long ago, and has been preached 2000 years since then. Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed the crowd. We, standing on the shoulders of the saintly giants in our tradition, get to raise our voices around the new churches that are being formed around supper tables as a way to address the noise of death, disease, dying, and posturing in order to boldly proclaim, “This Jesus…God raised up, and of that all of us are witnesses.”

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.