For Good

John 15:9-17

**Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.** 

In 1995, author Gregory Maquire published his novel, Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West. The book contained an alternative plot to L. Frank Baum’s 1900 novel, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, later made famous by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer’s 1939 film, The Wizard of Oz. In Maquire’s telling of the land of Oz, the protagonist is not Dorothy Gale but Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) and Glinda – the Good Witch. According the Wikipedia, “Wicked tells the story of two unlikely friends, Elphaba (the Wicked Witch of the West) and Galinda (whose name later changes to Glinda the Good Witch), who struggle through opposing personalities and viewpoints, rivalry over the same love-interest, reactions to the Wizard‘s corrupt government, and, ultimately, Elphaba’s public fall from grace.” If Baum’s novel was preserved by Hollywood, then Maquire’s novel was immortalized by Broadway for in 2003 it hit the world like a sonic boom winning 3 Tony’s and 6 Drama Desk Awards with the original cast receiving a Grammy.

Toward the end of the musical the song, For Good, plays out like a farewell discourse between Elphie and Glinda. One Wicked fan described the song For Goodlike this: “For Good” stands as one of the most iconic songs from Wicked… It stands as an anthem of forgiveness and also gratitude for the ways that other people can influence us and change our lives. Before the song starts, Elphaba gives Glinda the Grimmerie, a magic book of spells. Glinda says she does not know how to read it, but Elphaba trusts her to keep it safe. Although the song begins with a fight, Elphaba and Glinda come to forgive each other, sharing their final farewells. They ultimately wish each other well in their futures.” It’s a touching song because the audience knows the rest of the story – for the genius of both the novel and the musical is that we ultimately know what happened to both Glinda and Elphaba in the land of Oz. Hearing the song, one can’t help but think of how Dorothy Gale would one day stand in the middle of these two – two persons that were once friends. I’ll share the lyrics (and a link to the performance) to the song below, but first let me tell you a story.

When I was a hospital chaplain working in the Long Term Acute Care (LTAC) unit, many patients came to that unit in need organ transplants. Sometimes it was a lung. Other times it may have been a heart or a kidney. No matter what organ was needed, there was always the same sort of tension. The tension was in the waiting – a waiting game that was anything but tepid. The tension was sometimes spoken. Sometimes not. The reality that a physical part of someone else would have to be sacrificed for the benefit of their loved one whether by the death of a stranger (who was an organ donor) or matching a friend or family member for the donation – it did not matter. The tension was thick. Life required sacrifice. Sometimes it is partial. Sometimes it is fully present.

In 2007, this everyday hospital waiting game happened in an extraordinary way (here’s a link to the entire story). The Campbells of Horsehead, New York, had an 11 week-old son, Jake who was not going to make it. After a family consult with the hospital staff the Campbells made the hard decision of accepting the death of their son while at the same time wanting life for someone else to continue. Jake’s Mom, Holly, later reflected on that moment with these words, “Jake’s life was ending, but this does not have to be the end.”

Eight hundred miles away in Iowa, 2 week-old Beckham needed a heart. Because of Jake and his family’s sacrifice, Beckham got the heart he needed. These miraculous stories happen everyday, but this story did not end there. Several years later the families met one another, shared their stories, and the two Mom’s (Holly and Kim) realized they had something in common: They both loved the musical Wicked. Not only did they love the musical, but both unknowingly sang the song, “For Good” to their boys. Holly sang the song to Jake just before he died, and Kim sang the song to Beckham after he received his new heart. This beautiful story and reunion of Jake’s heart was told and retold at Golisano Children’s Hospital. To top it off, both Holly and Kim were able to sing the song, “For Good” at that gathering and in honor of their two very brave sons (again, here’s the link). As promised, here are the lyrics to the song (Music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz. Performed below by: Kristen Chenoweth & Idina Menzel)

[Elphaba]
I’m limited
Just look at me
I’m limited
And just look at you
You can do all I couldn’t do

[Glinda]
So now it’s up to you
For both of us
Now it’s up to you

I’ve heard it said
That people come into our lives
For a reason
Bringing something we must learn
And we are led
To those who help us most to grow
If we let them
And we help them in return.
Well I don’t know if I believe that’s true
But I know I’m who I am today
Because I knew you.

Like a comet pulled from orbit
As it passes a sun
Like a stream that meets a boulder
Halfway through the wood
Who can say
If I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you
I’ve been changed
For Good.

[Elphaba]
It well may be
That we will never meet again
In this lifetime
So let me say before we part
So much of me
Is made of what I learned from you
You’ll be with me
Like a handprint on my heart
And now whatever way our stories end
I know you have re-written mine
By being my friend.

Like a ship blown from its mooring
By a wind off the sea
Like a seed dropped by a skybird
In a distant wood
Who can say
If I’ve been changed for the better?
But because I knew you

[Glinda]
Because I knew you

[BOTH]
I have been changed
For good
______________________________________________

Jesus said to his disciples, “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love…I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete. “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 

Respond to Evil with Good

Last night in my Ash Wednesday sermon, I challenged us to respond with evil by doing a charitable act. In the Litany of Penitence we prayed to God to, Accept our repentance for the wrongs we have done: for our blindness to human need and suffering, and our indifference to injustice and cruelty. In light of the tragic shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in South Florida yesterday, we can live out this prayer in tangible ways.

The first step is to look within asking such questions as,

How are you charitable to yourself, or not?
Who do you rely on to give you grace when you fail to live up to your own standards?

The second step is to look outside with such questions as,

How do I respond/react to things that don’t go my way?
What am I indifferent to? Why?
What do I try to control? Why?

The third step is to ask God for help, praying a prayer like,

“Lord God, I am helpless in this situation/act/addiction. Help me.”
“Lord God, I am overwhelmed. Comfort me.”
“God, let me simply rest in you.”

One of the reasons we are violent and have a violent society is because we are not charitable to ourselves as God has been charitable to us. We forget God’s love and compassion; thereby forgetting to find God’s love and compassion in the “other” the “stranger” the “neighbor, and the “enemy”. We take a short-cut and “label” instead of doing the hard work of building relationship.

Lent is a time to name sin and to name evil. Lent is also a time to admit that we are helpless to counter sin and evil in our lives without God’s help. Today, be kind to others by first being kind to yourself. Give this tragedy to God in order to free yourself up to be charitable to self and other. Above all, “walk in love as Christ loves us.”

A Prayer: In Times of Conflict (BCP, 824)

O God, you have bound us together in a common life. Help us,
in the midst of our struggles for justice and truth, to confront
one another without hatred or bitterness, and to work
together with mutual forbearance and respect; through Jesus
Christ our Lord. Amen.

#growforlent

 

 

 

 

Not Only With Our Lips, But In Our Lives

Matthew 25: 14-30

Earlier this Fall I came upon an old commentary on St. Matthew’s gospel by the great 13th-century theologian, Thomas Aquinas. In Aquinas’ book, he takes the early church fathers and mothers’ own commentary of this gospel, and lays them side-by-side. Today, I wanted to look briefly at Matthew 25: 14 -30 through the interpretive lenses of these early fathers and mothers, trying to put some of their teachings into the context of our culture today.

5 Talents
What struck me about these early writings were the various interpretations on the literal number of talents, and what their spiritual meaning could possibly point. For example, the 5 talents were theologically represented as humanity’s 5 senses. From our senses, we are able to experience the world; and yet, without the acknowledgment of God’s spirit within our senses (i.e. our bodies) we cannot possibly experience the kingdom of God. The doubling of the 5 talents into 10, mystically represents an infusion of this spirit with flesh. Put theologically – the 10 talents represent an incarnational faith. Put philosophically – they represent the good life.

The 5 talents were also interpreted as the 5 Books of Moses. Keep in mind this is Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus was often represented as “the new Moses”. Jesus Christ, as the very incarnation of Torah and Spirit, revealed to all that his Spirit and resurrected flesh was the way, the truth, and the life.

2 Talents and the 1
The early church teachers taught that the 2 talents represented understanding and action, while the 1 talent represented understanding only. This is a significant teaching because faith requires both. It requires an understanding of the law and the commandments of God on one hand (i.e. Torah), and on the other it activates the spirit of the law through thought, word, and deed. What the early church fathers and mothers were trying to teach – and quite possibly what Jesus was trying to teach – was that faith does not end with understanding – It begins there, and action follows.

With Great Gifts Come Great Responsibility
One of the final teachings on this passage within this ancient commentary has to do with responsibility. Responsibility was placed on those who had been given much, and were represented in the persons with the 5 and 3 talents. When the responsible faithful start to understand much has been given, and much can be taken away (think here the story of Job) those 5 talents begin to take shape, and lead with a posture of humbleness, humility, and prayer. Perhaps those with the 5 talents could also be interpreted as the Church, and how it proclaims God with us in a different way (i.e. no longer in the physical body of Jesus, but in the resurrected spirit of Christ). The Church (as the spiritual body of Christ) further proclaims the resurrected Jesus will come again in glory judging the quick and the dead. Finally, within this proclamation of the church are the 2 talents calling on those individual members who make up the Church helping them to understand the commandments of God, and to act on them accordingly – mainly loving neighbor as self, or loving the other as we have been greatly loved by God.

Application
Quite a lot of burying one’s talents in the earth is going on right now in popular culture – Is it not? What many of us thought were great men of talent, buried their talents in the desires of the world, and are now making excuses and/or apologizing for their pridefulness, lust, and deceit. We are tempted to go along with their excuses because of the great works they have given us – in politics, comedy, movies and music; however, these men that were once considered bigger than life now seem fearfully small when their actions are put against the light of truth.

So much is being uncovered right now. So much that has been drowned through the years is bubbling up to the surface. As Christians, we are called to forgive knowing that judgment is for God – and God alone. We can hold steady to the Rock of our Salvation. We, as the Church, can counter the culture by infusing spirit with flesh and flesh with spirit. In other words, we can pray – not only with our lips – but in our lives. By giving up ourselves to the service of Christ, and by walking before God with humbleness and gentleness of heart.

We could proclaim the cerebral Amen, and stay fixed to our comfortable pews once a week, or we can translate Amen into tangible acts of mercy, goodness, and justice. This ebbing and flowing of Amen and action, action and Amen mimics the very movement of God made flesh – Torah with Spirit, Understanding with Action, Repentance with Forgiveness.

On most days when I read the news, I am struck not only by the 7 deadly sins that cover most of the front page every morning; I also become anxious as to how rapid and liquefied society has become. Classic institutions, morality, tradition, and even reason seem to be evaporating before our eyes. I once believed that politics could solve many of societies ills because politics had traditionally relied on an informed public, and the art of reasoned argument. Emotionalism, relativism, and the loudest voices in room have now destroyed this classical construct. Historically (at least in the West), politics has been infused with a morality and ethics held together by Judeo-Christian teachings and values. And what about the institutional church? If the Church is to survive and give an answer to the polarities of politics, it is to do the responsible thing and not be anything else than the Church – The Church of Jesus Christ. It is to hold up for the world the life, love, and light of Christ found in the Gospel, Holy Eucharist, prayer, and spiritual action – with God’s help.

Honestly, there are some days when I want the Church to be like Noah’s ark who brought in all those creatures in order to save them from the flood – In order to save them while the rest of the world destroyed itself (See here Rod Dreher’s argument for this approach). Then there are times when I want the Church to embrace its newfound role – that is – a subculture that counters the ways of the world by injecting the world with its Divine Truth with a hope that one day God will make all things new. On my better days, I believe our work as the Church of Jesus Christ is a bit of both: It holds to its three-fold ministry of scripture, tradition, and reason while at the same time recklessly scatters the love of God to an un-loving world.

Right now, in our time and place, we have great responsibility and knowledge, understanding and Spirit that are counting on us to invest – invest in the eternal attributes of God, the eternal teachings of God, and the eternal gifts of God that make us people of God. Jesus Christ is still on mission. He’s still calling disciples, and he still upholds his promise that he is with us – even to the end of the age. In this age, may we never forget these promises, and at the same time may we never forget that our Amens are constantly calling us to Action – with God’s help.

 

Look for the Helpers

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”
― Fred Rogers

It’s been quite a week. Americans have been reading and watching sparrows caught up in the aftermath of a hurricane. We’ve seen death and destruction; Mother Nature’s wrath, and political posturing from the usual suspects. Often times we are tempted to focus on the evil – those “scary things in the news” – but Fred Rogers’ quoting his beloved mother has stayed in my mind all week. I continue to challenge myself to “Look for the helpers” and heroes who rush to the danger in order to save. This week, I hope you took the time to seek out the people who were and continue to be helpers. Some of them were in uniform, but most of them looked a lot like you and me: They had their boats and rafts. They had a spare room, or directions to shelter. They donated food, clothing, or money. Strangers have been helping strangers, neighbor looking after neighbor, and this helps us all remember our common humanity, and the dignity that we are all gifted.

Ministry Resources

The Sound of Silence

~Now there was a great wind, so strong that it was splitting mountains and breaking rocks in pieces before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind; and after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake; and after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire; and after the fire a sound of sheer silence.~1Kings 19:11-13

A Responsorial Psalm 

The wind is my breath, says the LORD.
It is partially me, but not all of me.
The earth quakes at my presence
Because I AM its Creat-or.
The earth is my crea-tion.

Fire is a technology of creation,
And like the earth and wind it is not me.
It is my crea-tion.

Earth, wind, and fire.
Even though all three are my creations;
And they are good, I AM ultimate Good.
All will pass away, but I WILL remain
Like the sheer silence that is there,
But isn’t there, so I AM.

Man is tempted by creation
And the technologies grounded in creation.
The temptation is to worship them like Baal
And to try and possess them as if they are man’s.
Creation cannot be possessed; it is gift.

Can you capture the wind?
Can your feet remain steady while the earth quakes?
Are you not burned by fire?

Man is also tempted by the gods
Even though the masks of old have
Long been removed.
Choose now whom you will serve.
Make steady your mind;
Shield your face, yet keep your eyes open.

Put good things (but not The Good)
Out of your mind. Exit your silos and
Leave your caves. You fall in love with
Your own voice that echoes off their walls.
Follow me to the edge and listen. Listen.

There is truth in the world. But I AM ultimate Truth.
You will find me when you find Love;
You will recognize me when you experience Beauty;
You will fall to your knees when you discover
The sheer sound of silence. I AM in it all; yet beyond it all.

There are no words;
There are no technologies;
There are no-things that can capture me.
Listen for me. Listen to me. Listen with me.

And when you listen know that I will not
Ask little from you, but much.
I desire your life not as a slave but as liberation.
My creatures and creation are partial.
I AM absolute. Do not divide me up but
Seek my unity found in my life-giving Love.

Do you not remember my Son, the Beloved, and
How he walked in Love? By his very gait he
Welcomed the earth as his own.
With his calm stride he brought ease to the tempest, and
In his touch brought fire to the dis-eased.
He did not worship earth,
Wind, and fire. He did not bow down
To hunger, eros, or power. He revealed
These aberrations as idols and
Illumined the heart readying it for repentance.

If you cannot remember my Son,
then at least my Spirit?
My Holy Spirit continues to move in His Bride
–The Church – and yet her Body has become divided.
She has left the opening of the cave
Where she once listened for my voice and has
Retreated back into its chamber.

Why do you withhold my Truth from the world?
Why do you admire the ringing of your own voices?
Have you forgotten sheer silence?

I have not forgotten you. I AM with you.
I AM waiting for you. Come back out and
Into the open. I will no longer distract you
With earth, wind, and fire – I never have.
These were gifts as you are gifts to me.
Come back out to me and quiet rest I WILL give.

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.

A Reflection on Forgiveness

Read Luke 23:33-43. After reading this passage, reflect on Jesus’ words,”Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” After reflecting on Jesus’ words, then reflect on the thief’s words, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

After the above meditation, ask yourself the below questions. Spend some time with God as you live into these questions. Afterwards, you are invited to write down your own thoughts, feelings, and reflections about forgiveness.

When we ask for forgiveness, are we not really asking God, our friend, our family member, the one wronged, to remember us…to remember who we truly are in spite of ourselves at moments of weakness?

Can forgiveness be both an act in itself, as well as a state of being?

When we actively forgive, does it free the forgiver up more than the one receiving it, or is there an equal exchange of forgiveness?

Did Jesus open himself up to being able to forgive the unforgivable, or does he simply swim in the stuff?

Why do we often times put conditions on forgiveness, but God does not?

Is it okay to forgive, and not forget?

Why is it easier to see and judge the wrongs of others; yet so hard to turn the mirror in our direction?

When the mirror is turned in our direction, why even then, is it still hard to acknowledge our faults? Is this pride? Is it spiritual blindness? Is it then necessary to practice how to forgive ourselves?

If I practice forgiveness, will it make me less judgmental?

Is it healthy to fake it before I make it?

There are so many questions. Jesus, will you remember me when you come into your kingdom?

 

Identity Politics in The Body of Christ

Today at the 110th Annual Council meeting of The Episcopal Church of Atlanta in Middle and North Georgia, Resolution 16-7 passed after a two-hour floor exercise that included countless amendments, amendments to amendments, debate, anxiety, and opinions.

Let me go ahead and show my cards on matters such as these, and say I oppose the Church involving itself in what is sometimes labeled, ‘identity politics.’ The Episcopal Church’s slogan is, “All are welcome,” and I have come to the simple conclusion that all means all when it comes to welcoming the stranger, the neighbor, the enemy, and the other. Where I felt a ping of sadness was that the Church felt it necessary to specifically name and label groups of people instead of letting “all” stand as is. Let me give you some background and context for my sadness.

I believe the Church’s genesis point of where we meet one another in Christ has shifted. It has shifted from experiencing each individual person as divine mystery, created in the image of God to a group identity politic. The original identity politics held the Church as the Body of Christ, with Christ being the head (Col. 1:18). The telos of Christ’s Church, then, was to allow the Body to grow into the likeness of Christ (2 Cor. 3:18). Put another way, we used to believe in the content of one’s character instead of the color of one’s skin, one’s sexual orientation, one’s disability, one’s rights, etc. I sometimes wonder… What if The Episcopal Church got out of the rights business and back into the relationship business?

I understand the context of why Resolution 16-7 was written. The United States is still recovering from a tumultuous election, and half the country is in a panic. The proposal wanted everyone to know that the Episcopal Church welcomes all no matter what, but with acknowledged  skepticism, I wondered if the resolution would truly get outside the echo chamber that is The Episcopal Church.

One of the problems with allowing so much energy and resources to filter into identity politics is that groups, by definition are exclusive; whereas, the Church of Jesus Christ is inclusive. There is a certain groupthink that takes place, and anyone outside the groups’ normative ways of thinking is dismissed as a racist, homophobe, bigot, etc. Why would the Church support a construct such as this?

I desire the Church to get back to the basics of Holy Scripture, Tradition, and Reason as a catalyst for furthering our relationship with God, self, neighbor, creation, other, and enemy. At its best, the Church lives into this day in and day out; however, I am growing weary with The Episcopal Church and its strange social justice bedfellows. There are other options, and ways to live, move and have our being in this important work of reconciliation, but I believe the starting point is not with rights. It’s with relationship.

Now that I showed my own biases, and in conclusion, let me simply say the hard work I experienced in the room today was beautiful and inspiring. The way Bishop Robert C. Wright held the tension, yet allowed and made room for the Spirit to move was truly impressive. All the Christians who stood up, spoke from the heart, and truly listened to one another. I believed we experienced one another as the Body of Christ. I believed compassion and spiritual health was strengthened. I believed all were truly welcomed, and why not? Although I disagree with the results of this resolution, I am forever grateful for the journey into deeper relationship one with another, and for that I say, “Thanks be to God.”

Loss, Intentionality, and Grace – Part II

I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” ~Isa. 65:17

Last week’s blog was really Part I of II. You are invited to read it here. I spoke of grief and loss, and how it is vitally important to allow the natural processes of grief to take hold. I also spoke of intentionality, and how a life well lived (also called the good life) can be defined by how one makes intentional efforts to better the self, and in doing so bettering society. I ended last week’s message with a quotation from Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15).

Somewhat reading the tea leaves and anticipating passions being expressed about last week’s Congressional and Presidential elections, I knew that in Part II of today’s blog, I wanted to gift you with tangible ways of evolving one’s passions into com-passion. Put another way (and in question form) “How can we internalize and work through our passions, but with the ultimate goal being to release and transform our passion into compassion?” What helps me is to think about the breath: We breathe in our passions and the passions of others (coming at us from all sides), and if we hold our breath like we hold our anxiety and fear, then our body shuts down, or our bodies get sick. If we work (breathe) out our anxieties and fears with the help of Spirit, then new possibilities open up and compassion for self and society are realized.

I’m currently reading Richard Rohr’s new book, The Divine Dance: The Trinity and Your Transformation. In it, he helps break down the complicated language of defining God as Trinity, and he gives example after example of how Trinity is best thought of and experienced as – relationship. Not only can we think of God eternally relating and loving God’s self, but Rohr reminds us that God is constantly inviting us into the relationship as well. We are gracefully invited to banquet and be with God in every aspect of our lives. In fact, Rohr argues, this invitation is all around us in the form of God’s creation from the subatomic particles of an atom – proton, neutron, and electron all gaining energy because of how they relate one to another as they orbit around the nucleus – to the planets in our solar system orbiting around our sun, and while the sun orbits around the Milky Way galaxy every 230 million years. He gives an example of how destructive it is when the subatomic particles stop relating one to another. If they suddenly stop relating and the atom is split, then a nuclear reaction takes place. Put in a different context, when relationships are broken, compromised, and dishonored, all too often divisions, detachment, fear, and separation are the results.

On Tuesday night, the poll numbers revealed how split we are as a country. But if we are honest with ourselves, didn’t we already know that? Didn’t we already know, or can we now confess that our society is virtually composed of tribes? We have the Tribe of MSNBC, the Tribe of Fox News, the Tribe of Republicans, and the Tribe of Democrats. There are even tribes within the tribes: Are you a conservative, moderate, or progressive Republican/Democrat/Libertarian/Green/Independent? Are you a one-issue voter, or not? Research has even shown that the social media platforms we use that are supposed to bring us closer as a society (like Facebook and Twitter) use algorithms that keep us in our own bubbles and echo chambers so that any thought, word, or deed that is open to debate is kept far, far away from us out of “respect” for one’s personal simulation of the world in which the self, the ID, the me/me/me/me has created. These tribes, bubbles, and echo chambers make us literally forget what it means to be in relationship and harmony with God, self, creation, and neighbor. Put differently, we are creating a reality in which we create God in our own images. We are the Hebrew people, and our tribal golden calf is based upon the illusion that the ego is the one, true self (Exodus 32).

My friend and colleague, Fr. Zachary Thompson, Rector of the Anglo-Catholic parish in Atlanta, Church of Our Savior, had a passing thought on what some term as ‘identity politics’. He said, “We often use categories such as boomers, millennial, urbanites, conservatives, liberals, ivory tower intellectuals, activists, keepers of the status quo, secularists, fundamentalists etc. etc. to speak of cultural phenomena; and too often we can use these categories to dismiss certain people so that we can advance an argument that is suitable to our way of thinking. We need to be careful to remember that we are talking about particular human beings made in the image of God with fears, hopes, dreams, and failures. A more interesting way to think of ourselves (and one another) is in relation to our development in sanctity, holiness of life, humility, meekness, kindness ([these are] degrees of deification [or] growing in the likeness of God).”

So how do we mend our brokenness and division? How do we allow God’s love to enter in through the cracks? How do we compassionately respond to God’s grace that is constantly being gifted to us?

Isaiah Chapter 65 might give us a clue to some of these questions. The context for the chapter is this: We have a broken, exiled people returning to their homeland, but when they arrive home the brokenness, anxiety, and fear continues. The Temple (which was destroyed before the exile) was still in ruins. The cities were still in crumbling disarray, but the compassionate voice of God through the prophet Isaiah uses the language of creation to give hope to God’s people. God says, “I am about to create new heavens and a new earth” (Isa. 65:17). This throwback to the scene East of Eden permits the people to reimagine a New Jerusalem, a new city, a new homeland. These words of God also extends an invitation to the people to remember how to relate with God, self, and neighbor. Mary Eleanor Johns sums up this passage from the prophet Isaiah with these words,

“[W]e seek to participate in God’s new creation not as a means of earning it, but as a way of responding to God’s grace extended to us. Through our restored relationship with God and our relationship with all of God’s creations, we are given new lenses of hope by which can experience a foretaste of the new creation that Isaiah prophesies” (Feasting on the Word: Year C, Vol. 4, p.294).

The key word for me in Mary Eleanor’s insight is the word, “respond”.

May our prayers this week ask for the grace to know the difference between re-acting and re-sponding, and passion from com-passion. May God also soften our hearts, and guide us in developing an intentional life that grows in sanctity, holiness of life, humility, meekness, and kindness. May our fears turn not into realities as we seek further relationship with God, neighbor, and enemy.

Loss, Intentionality, and Grace – Part I of II

A sermon (somewhat redacted for this blog) that was preached on Sunday, November 6 at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, GA. The lesson was Luke 20:27-38.

Loss

The Christian tradition teaches God has gifted humanity with great freedom. We have agency (sometimes referred to as free will), but agency does not necessarily translate into control (Gen 1:27-29; Gen 2:16-17). Rules, laws, and boundaries are created, but as any parent, or grandparent, or citizen knows, control of the situation is oftentimes an illusion, a farce, a wicked game that demands loss. Ironically, with the various experiences of loss, we find ourselves not only like broken containers – emptied; yet full – full of grace: A grace not dependent upon ourselves, our faculties, or our resources, but a grace utterly dependent upon God. It is at those times when we begin anew, and create out of the chaos new ideas, new evolutions of the Spirit that point us to transcendence, yet include what is important here and now (Gen. 1:1).

The fallacy of the Sadducees’ question was that their hearts were in the wrong place (Luke 20:27). Jesus saw right through their questioning. They were more concerned with the technicalities of the Law of Moses instead of the Spirit of the law. These technicalities led to a morbid sense of the finality of death; yet as Jesus pointed out, “God is the God not of the dead, but of the living” (Luke 20:38).

The Christian Church is a church that honors death, and allows those who must mourn to mourn. Mourners are gifted with prayers, liturgies, rituals, and an intentional community to walk alongside. These are technicalities that do indeed help, but at the end of the day God has the final say. When the noise of loss finally settles, and silence starts to stir, one gets the feeling of utter abandonment (Luke 22:42; Matt 27:46). It is with this feeling of loneliness where; ironically, God is closest to us. The Scriptures reveal that, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning,” but those of us who understand significant loss oftentimes pray not for joy, but for relief (Psalm 30). When we find ourselves on the opposite end of grief, there is a childish temptation to give advice to those who mourn thinking your good word, deed, or even intentionality will be enough to stop the pain. This way of thinking reveals an ignorance of the self instead of the other. Any family, church, or society that does not let the mournful grieve, will be hindering the griever more than helping. Again, it goes back to God – not us. Just about the time we think we cannot take more, our empty and cracked container, our broken heart begins to be filled once again. Relief seems to come from outside ourselves and a sense of peace beyond our understanding is graced upon us (Phil 4:7). “I am with you always,” Jesus said, “even until the end of the age” (Matt. 28:20). Hope, grace, gratefulness, and yes – maybe even joy – start to return once our sense of God has been restored, or better, deepened through our experiences of grief and loss.

Intentionality

Last Monday, the Church marked its 499th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. This gradual and grace filled re-formation released the stranglehold of the status quo built around the illusion that the Church was “too big to fail.” The Episcopal Church’s theology is rooted in this protest, and is forever thankful for the reforming work of John Calvin, Martin Luther, and Thomas Cranmer – to name a few. Because the Protestant Reformation was such a fulcrum in world history, it is little surprise that another movement within the Church did not get the same historical attention; however, both contributed heavily and influenced all manner of life that brought about a Renaissance of art, culture, religion, economics, science, philosophy, and politics. The beautiful nation we live in today finds its roots firmly planted in this time period history labels, The Renaissance. But what is this other movement that does not get much play? Historians have labeled it the Counter-Reformation. The Counter-Reformation was a Roman Catholic response to the protesting Protestants, and the Counter-Reformation can be summed up with the phrase, “an inward turn” or as some like to say, “an inward move” (Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations, 336).

Carter Lindberg, in his book, The European Reformations sums it up this way, “What unites the various forms of Counter-Reformation spirituality can be said…to be the stress on the individual’s relation to God,…whose first object was not to ‘reform the Church’…but to order their own lives to the doing of God’s will and the bringing of the benefit to their neighbor. It was exacting, in that it demanded continuous heroic effort at prayer and self-control and self-improvement and good works.”

So how is the Roman Catholic Counter Reformation different from the Protestant one? Luther was more concerned with re-forming the theology of the Church. That was his starting point – if you will. The Roman Catholics put their emphasis on moral and ethical renewal. There was a desire to live a more devout life (Lindberg, 336). What branched out of this movement within Catholicism was a deeper look at the individual lives of the saints, as opposed to grouping them all together. Ignatius of Loyola, John of the Cross and Teresa of Avila all became extremely popular during this time (Ibid.). Also, the Counter-Reformation way of thinking eventually influenced Roman Catholics in this country within the 20th century. This movement, at the quarter of the last century, was called the Catholic Workers Movement, which emphasized the sanctity of the family, and how a healthy, working family is the basic building block towards a great society.

With all this in mind, let’s take a look at intentionality. Luther and the Protestants said intentionality begins with having the right theology. The Counter-Reformers said, ‘no,’ it begins with morals, ethics, and character because the individual has been baptized into Christ’s Church. To put it in philosophical terms: Each group was trying to describe the starting point for the good life. Catholics said the good life was lived out ritualistically through the sacraments of the Church that by their very nature teach us how to live. Reformers put more of an emphasis on faith and belief. Anglicans, with the help of Thomas Cranmer’s, Book of Common Prayer (1549) split the difference: Because of our turn to God through faith (i.e. Baptism), we participate in the Body of Christ through intentional acts of prayer, worship, and meditation that assist us in learning how to love God, self, and neighbor. Without the intentionality of living a life of faith through the rituals of the Church, and bearing witness to Christ through their actions, one was considered lost, one had forgotten God. Put another way, one was not living out the good life because it was a life stripped of intentionality.

With all this history in mind, I believe the Church at its very best models for society what it means to limit itself for the greater good. Within these limitations freedom is found, humility is remembered, and dignity is experienced. The Church can remind us to focus on what matters, mainly the eternal; otherwise, we’re like the Sadducees who got too caught up in the anxiousness of processes, speculation, and hearsay. “God is the God not of the dead, but of the living,” reminds us that a life of faith requires getting comfortable with loss, wanderings, and doubt, but when a life of intentionality is lived out, the good life also remembers resurrection, and teaches it to others through one’s own intentional actions. The very best evangelism a Christian can perform is through their actions, their morality, their character, and their faith. This is what both the Reformation and Counter-Reformation can teach us. Put this all in a biblical phrase from Matthew’s Gospel, “You will know them by their fruits” (Matt 7:16).

On Tuesday, our nation will elect its next president. On Tuesday evening, many in our nation will experience profound loss and grief. On Wednesday morning, Christians have the opportunity to show others what a grace filled faith full of intentionality looks like by answering the call to walk alongside our fellow countrymen as they grieve and heal. Put another way, make up your minds now to, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and to weep with those who weep” (Romans 12:15). Give one another space. Grant each other grace; and may Lady Julian of Norwich’s famous maxim that all shall be well start in our minds, and with time, love, and care reveal its truth within our hearts.