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.

Open Doors, Open Hearts

The parish where I serve as priest is named, Saint Julian’s Episcopal Church. We have a parish hall where members can gather and rehearse choral music, cook up delicious food in the kitchen, and fellowship while breaking bread with one another. St. Julian’s also lends meeting space out to community groups like political parties (Republicans and Democrats), Master Gardeners’ of Douglas County, and the Girl Scouts of America. This past “Super” Tuesday, St. Julian’s was a polling place, and about 600 folks walked past the church and into the parish hall where they could cast their ballots in the presidential primary race. This was not unusual. St. Julian’s is normally a polling place in Douglas County. What was different; however, were the doors of the church. They were not closed. They were opened. Not only were they visibly opened up, I parked myself outside the doors of the church on one of our porch benches dressed in my cassock and clergy collar reading a book. I was not there to suggest anything political. I was just present; and the doors of the church were simply opened up for any and all who passed by to get curious, wonder, and possibly explore a space that had not been opened up to them before. Through this simple act, I was able to listen, overhear, and take part in conversations and actions that I never would have been gifted had I decided to read my book behind the doors of the church that day. Below are a few of the things I witnessed. Thank you for making my Tuesday truly a “Super” one. I am forever touched.

“May we come in? We’d like to see how your church compares with ours.”

“Can I stop in and pray?”

“Beautiful day, isn’t it?”

“Look, the church doors are open. Maybe we should go in and pray?”

“I need all the prayers I can get.”

“This country needs all the prayers it can get.”

“Can I stop by and clip off some fresh rosemary next time I’m cooking?”

“God bless you.”

Someone, upon seeing me in a cassock,

“Are you from this country?” She then continued, “I am from Paris, France. I joined a Roman Catholic convent to escape the Nazi Army in WWII. They had us wash their clothes. They were nice to us, but not the Jews. My husband is Episcopalian…how do you say it…Episca?… Epis??…such a hard word…Oh well; now, we’re both Baptists.”

“Now that’s what I like to see…a man of God outside the walls of the church. Good for you, brother.”

“Nice socks…my mom would love them…they are her sorority colors…have a blessed day.”

“I think what you’re doing is just great.”

One man, upon seeing a hopscotch board outlined on the pavement in chalk, jumped through the game like a child in play. He then turned to me, and simply smiled, waved, and went on his way.

Finally, what a little girl said to her mom while pointing to the building, “Mommy, what is that?” Her mom replied, “It’s a church, sweetie. It’s a church.”

Even though the people I came into contact with on Tuesday were truly amazing, if I am completely honest about that day, I would have to say that I’ve been haunted by the image of those open doors. I’ve been haunted by them because although I would like to say that the doors of the church have always been open; in reality, I know that they have not. Upon deeper reflection of those doors, I’m reminded of the Church’s long, long history of shutting out, shutting down, and shutting up prodigal sons and daughters everywhere. This saddens me, but I also have faith and hope in the Church’s future. Here’s why:

We now finds ourselves in the Season of Lent. Lent calls us to repentance, but it is also begs us to remember: To remember all the isms and phobias and illusions we create that separate us from God, ourselves, and others; but like the doors of an open church, we are also called on to remember that God’s grace and mercy are the same grace and mercies that can be given out and gifted to ourselves and others as we try to live into the abundance of God’s love; or better, to live into the reality of God’s love. True repentance is turning from what we are doing, and turning to God. Turning around, and with God’s help, we are called to the discipline to contemplate how we possess, and try to be possessive (and controlling) of others – How we label others as “less than” in order to build ourselves up because our illusions of scarcity might be mitigated by fear, anger, and anxiety. Once we start contemplating these things, we are invited to pray for forgiveness, and once we start praying for forgiveness, we are then invited to start practicing forgiveness, grace, and mercy as we listen to others tell their stories, come together and work for social change, and take prophetic action against racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia, and all the rest.

Last Tuesday was a day to remember, to seek forgiveness in a stranger’s smile, and to practice loving like Jesus loves. For a moment, the world was not divided up into parties, tribes, or ideologies. For a moment, tender hearts were opened, and new doors remained unlocked.

~The Rev. Brandon Duke proudly serves Saint Julian’s Episcopal Church in Douglasville, GA. In this season of the Church, he is trying to #GrowForLent and #LoveLikeJesusEDA.

Remember Your Beloved Dustiness

~Remember you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

Remember you…

Remembering is both blessing and curse. We want to remember the good, and forget the bad. We want to pay attention to those happy details in our lives, and dismiss the depressing. But is remembering really that simple? Is life truly divided into good and bad, happy or sad? I suppose for some it is, but during the Season of Lent, the Church invites us to remember with humility, integrity, and sobering honesty. Remembering in this way blurs the lines a bit, and we are called to walk in the gray for 40 days.

are dust…

Take out the biblical truth that we are all created in the image of God, and this will only lead to despair. Lent is a time of holy remembering, and this means that we remember alongside our Creator. We are dust, yes; but we are beloved dust – dust that breathes in the breath of God’s Spirit. During these 40 days, take the time and remember God deemed all creation good.

and to dust…

Holy remembering, and side-by-side with God gives us another partner along our Lenten journey. That partner is the Church. Through the Church we remember that we need forgiveness, and also remember to forgive others. There’s a corporate and cooperative element to our beloved dustiness, and the Church delivers the 40 days of Lent helping us to recall forgiveness together.

you shall return.

During Lent we return to another season of upright reflection that does not stand for individualistic navel gazing. Ultimately, Lent reminds us of our own mortality. We are stricken by the truth that in the end, we all shall return to the ground. We intuitively know this, but do we remember it? The season of Lent implores us to remember. Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.

What Should We Do In Our Culture of Fear?* A Lesson from Luke 3:7-18

What then should we do?” The question, coming from a people to a prophet. I can tell John the Baptist is indeed a prophet, not a philosopher, because he does give the people something to do. He gives them a word, and invites them to make it flesh. Isn’t that what any prophet, or preacher, or even a politician desires? That the people whom they serve will actually live into that which they have been called? The trick, I believe, for any prophet, preacher, or politician is to examine themselves, and make sure before they say, or proclaim, or preach, that they are indeed doing the things that they are asking other people to do. They preach what they practice, and they practice what they preach, in other words. Society formalized this practicing what we preach in the form of liturgies, ceremonies, and services. And somewhere in the middle of these ceremonies an oath, or a vow is taken. It’s not taken in private, but in front of God and everybody else. This morning, I thought it be fun to look at a couple of vows and oaths that professionals take. I tried to keep it in the context of today’s story. So, for example, the question, “What then should we do?” Was asked by a crowd first, then specific professionals within that crowd. We have a tax collector and a soldier that forms part of that crowd. Since crowds don’t usually take oaths, I took the artistic liberty to think that maybe there was a couple in the crowd who was married. So, this morning, I’ll be reading marriage vows, an oath of office for a tax collector, and an oath of enlistment for those serving in the United States Army, and finally, since this group has been in the news so much this year, I found a police officer’s “oath of honor” to read to you this morning.

The Marriage Vows (Taken from the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 427)

In the Name of God, I, N., take you, N., to be my wife, to

have and to hold from this day forward, for better for worse,

for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to

cherish, until we are parted by death. This is my solemn vow.

Each tax collector before entering on the duties of his office shall take and subscribe to the following oath in addition to the oath required of all civil officers:

“I, , tax collector of the County of , do swear that I will

faithfully discharge the duties required of me by law as tax collector, and

that I will diligently collect all taxes required by law for me to collect

and faithfully pay these over to the persons authorized to receive the

same. So help me God.” (http://law.justia.com/codes/georgia/2010/title-48/chapter-5/article-3/part-2/48-5-121).

The wordings of the current oath of enlistment [in the United States Army] are as follows:

“I, _____, do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.” (Title 10, US Code; Act of 5 May 1960 replacing the wording first adopted in 1789, with amendment effective 5 October 1962). (http://www.history.army.mil/html/faq/oaths.html).

Police Officer’s Oath of Honor. Slightly different than the oath taken at office. (http://www.iacp.org/What-is-the-Law-Enforcement-Oath-of-Honor).

On my honor,

I will never betray my badge,

my integrity, my character,

or the public trust.

I will always have

the courage to hold myself

and others accountable for our actions.

I will always uphold the constitution

my community and the agency I serve.

Many of my own, personal heroes and heroines, are the day-to-day people who put their head down, show up, and do the work that they are supposed to do. They don’t get a lot of praise, mainly because they don’t want the attention. Often times, they don’t even get recognized for the little and the big things that they do to make life a little easier for all of us. The people I’m referring to are definitely not the ‘brood of vipers’ that John is referring to. No. The brood of vipers was those persons and professionals who had forgotten the oaths that they took, had easily misinterpreted the vows that they made, or all together forgot who and whose they were. They were a people whom God had a covenant with, but for some reason, and somehow, they had forgotten this covenant, this promise, this peace. And along comes John the Baptist, and he calls them out. What a good friend John was for not letting the persons he was closest to get away with what they were doing, or how they were acting and reacting. In fact, he called them to repentance. And what exactly were they repenting of? They were repenting of their self-centeredness, their egotism, and narcissism. They had forgotten the oaths they swore to uphold. And what do oaths represent? They represent something that is huge. Some thing that is bigger than us. Something that is bigger than the person taking the oath. The sin (or at least the temptation) is to identify us as It. “I am the one true soldier/tax collector/citizen; therefore, I can take the law into my own hands. I can choose to share when it’s convenient for me. I can do whatever I want.” But like an oath that is bigger than we are, and will be around long after we are gone, John points to the ultimate promise, the ultimate covenant, and the ultimate peacemaker. He points to something paradoxically outside himself, but somehow and some way experiences it as a part of himself; and not only a part of himself but also a part of his brothers and sisters. He points to the Messiah; the anointed one; the Christ: Who was and is and will be forever and ever. Repentance reminds us that we are not It. We are not the center of the universe. That part’s already covered for us. So, when I feel unworthy, I look to God who is worthy. John reminds us of that. When I have forgotten the vows and oaths that I have taken, I turn to God who is still keeping His side of the deal. This is good news. This is grace. This is promised to all. And what a relief. Instead of pushing people to do what you think is right; you are invited to walk alongside of them. “Don’t just do something – stand there,” Bishop Neil Alexander used to say. In other words, pay attention. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none.” How can we tell who doesn’t have a coat if we are caught up in the cult of busy-ness? “What should we do,” was asked three different times, and John did give the crowd something to do or something not to do, but it was not for the sake of busy-ness. It was for the sake of Being: Being that which God already knew one to be, as well as standing there and living into the oath, the vow, the covenant one had promised to uphold.

In a moment, we’re going to renew our Baptismal Vows, our Baptismal Covenant (found in the Episcopal Book of Common Prayer, 292) or promise that we make and made to God, self, and one another. Are there times that we have broken, damaged and dismissed our side of the deal, or even ignored it all together? Are there times when John the Baptist might have called us a “brood of vipers.” Yes. I think so. I’m as guilty as anyone else in this room. But where I find confidence is in remembering who and whose I am. These vows help me to remember this, and challenge me to be on guard, to repent, and to turn to God time and time and time again. And on those weeks where I don’t renew my vows formally, I’m invited to the altar. I’m invited to the table of the Lord to receive something that I am unworthy to receive, yet I do receive it because I worship a God who is worthy. That’s what the people listening to John needed, and that’s what we need right now. Not a politician, policy, or procedure. Not a law, politically correct language, or luxuries. What we need right now is the Savior, the Messiah, the Christ to snap us out of our narcissistic ways, to take us by the hand and walk alongside of us in our day-to-day, moment-to-moment mundane lives. “He coming”, says John the Baptist. “I’ll wipe away your sins with water, but he’ll burn them in the fire of justice.” “I’m unworthy to untie the thong of his sandals, but he’s worthy, so pay attention, be alert, snap out of it, sleepers awake…he’s coming.”

Now, I don’t know about you, but when the whole world is scared, and anxious, and fearful, and falling a part. When hearts are hardened instead of softened, and the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, I (for my own sanity) have to look outside myself – not to a politician, policy, or new law, but to Jesus – my Savior. Why? Because there is no fear in him. There is no anxiety about him. He is walking alongside of me, and sometimes in my deepest anxieties, he is carrying me, holding me, and loving me. And it’s funny to say I go outside myself, because really I don’t. I go inside myself, to my inner room, to my heart of hearts where Jesus is whispering to me that everything is going to be okay.

It’s hard to follow Jesus in a culture of fear. It’s hard not to give into the temptation to hate, to suspect, and to ignore. And even though I said that my heroes are the ones who put their heads down, show up, and do the work that they were given to do, I also know that sometimes you just have to be, and let be. Sometimes we have to remember that we can’t figure all of this out on our own. That’s giving into our own narcissistic tendencies. Instead, we go outside our egos by going inside our hearts and discovering that still small voice who’s inviting us to keep alert, to keep awake, to be still and know that I am with you…with you [Brandon, Saint Julian’s, United States of America, Syria, Paris, Charleston, San Bernardino, in your cancer, in your broken family, in your loneliness, anxiety and fear]. I am with you always, says Jesus…even until the end of the age.

*Sermon preached at Saint Julian’s Episcopal Church on the Third Sunday of Advent.

Question(s) on Suffering *

So much hate, violence, and overall uncertainty have been going on in the world around us this year. Our culture seems to wake up to nightmares daily instead of floating on a midsummer night’s dream. As a priest just finishing my first year of parish ministry, I have buried twelve persons, and counseled countless souls who are lost in grief, anxiety, and despair.

While I’m not an expert on suffering in the world, I have noticed a few things in my first year that gives me hope. Even though life can feel like the experience of a sparrow in a hurricane, those persons who approach the twister at the right angle seem to be the ones who are forever wounded, but also forever changed – forever changed (and wounded) for the better. It is a deep change full of humbleness, grace, and faith that start with the same question, but then upon realizing the madness in it, they administer an about-face, and proceed to march with a much nobler question in mind.

The problem that drives persons crazy is the question of “why”:

“Why is their suffering in the world?”

“Why do bad things happen to good people?”

“Why isn’t God listening to me?”

“Why aren’t things getting better?”

These are the “go-to” questions when it comes to suffering. They are the default position in the human psyche, but the default question seems to me to be the wrong one, or better, the question of “why” should follow at a later time – once the dust has settled, once the air has been cleared a bit, after everybody has gone home. “Why” is a great and profound question, but it is the starting point for the scientist, not the existentialist. I don’t know anybody who comes into my office asking, “why their mother died,” expecting me to say, “because she had cancer.” It would be cruel and ridiculous of me to answer in that way because the grieving person in front of me asking that question does not expect an answer in return. They simply want someone to ask it to – a personal sounding board, a lending of an ear.

The question of “why” might be humanity’s default pathway into the forest of our lives, but the road less traveled is a question of “what”:

“There is suffering in the world. What (if anything) am I going to do about it?”

“Bad things happen to good and evil people. What do I do when bad things happen to me?” “What are my patterns?” “What is my mindset?”

“God doesn’t seem to be listening to me. What can I do to reframe the question, the prayer, or even my life to get the sense that God is still here?”

“Things are not getting better. What do I need to refocus on in order to see life at another angle?”

Asking the question, “What” instead of “Why” takes away some of the sting from thorns found within the flesh. Asking the question “What” instead of “Why” brings us back to the present moment, to the here and now, to where we need to be. Instead of asking the initial question of “why” – “Why did Aunt Sally die?” what if we started with, “what?” “What am I going to do now that Aunt Sally has died?” Well, for starters you can cry. For starters, you can grieve. For starters, you can ask for a hug. You don’t have to take life ‘day-to-day.’ By asking the question of “what” you can take life ‘moment-to-moment’, a position much closer to our hearts than some future point within the day.

As a Christian, I believe we get closer to God by asking the question, “What” instead of “Why.” Starting with “Why” makes God seem so distant and isolated that we get the sense of our own distance and isolation from God. The question of “What” brings God closer because we can open our Bibles and tangibly see what Jesus was like. Then our eyes are more open to tangibly see the breadth and length and height and depth of Christ’s love in our world today when we see ourselves and others acting like him. In other words, we are reminded of God’s love for us every time we get to experience love ourselves. I don’t have the answers to why there is suffering in the world, but what I do have are the questions. Lord, help me to ask the right ones.

*The following was an excerpt from my sermon preached Sunday, July 26, 2015. To read the full sermon, click here.