Freedom in-Dependence

Today is July 4th. Independence Day. Hundreds of years ago, our forefathers fought to free themselves and future generations from state sanctioned tyranny, control, and abuse. Today is a day to celebrate. Today is a day to let loose, and let go.

If today is a day for Americans to remember independence, it is also a day for American Christians to remember their dependence – dependence upon their Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier for even in our freedom we rely on God.

This dependence is first learned in the family. A child is totally dependent upon her parents to nurture, care, and to receive love. There is very little freedom for the child (not to mention the parents as well), and everyone involved is utterly dependent upon love. As we get older, we are introduced into a new family: the Church family. It is here where we learn about the greatest freedom of all: the freedom to love as God has loved us. Even in this grace, we find a total dependence upon God like a child with her parents.

Today, I will celebrate Independence Day with my fellow Americans, but I will also continue to pray and contemplate on how dependent I am upon my Savior. It is only in this paradoxical dependency that I am free to love as I have been loved.

The Questions Epiphany Bring

During Epiphany we remember three miracles: The baptism of Jesus by John in the River Jordan with the voice of God the Father giving approval for this act, the wedding feast in Cana where ordinary water was turned into extraordinary wine; and finally, the star that led the Magi to Bethlehem. These Epiphany miracles remind us Jesus’ ministry has begun. They also foreshadow his death and resurrection, and how we are compelled to take up our crosses and follow him. The Season of Epiphany invites us to find the miraculous in the mundane, and to walk alongside Christ as a disciple.

During what is sometimes referred to as the “Octave of Christmas” – those 8 out of the 12 days of Christmas – the Church’s calendar begins to reveal what following Christ truly entails. December 26, the day after Christmas, is St. Stephen’s feast day. The irony in the placement of this feast is clear. On December 25th, we remember the birth of Christ, the Messiah into our world, and the very next day we remember the death of Stephen, one who followed him. St. Stephen was the first martyr of Christendom, and revealed what the cost of discipleship can sometimes entail. The 20th century theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this about discipleship: “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.”

On the second day of Christmas, we remember St. John the apostle and evangelist. John takes us away from martyrdom for a moment and helps us focus on Calvary’s cross in a very intimate way. From the cross, Jesus looked down and saw his Mother Mary; he then looked to John, and again at them both and said, “Woman, here is your son.” Then He said to the disciple, “Here is your mother” (John 19:26). A classic interpretation of this story is that Mary represented the Church. John was to be joined to her, and the Church to him. Christ compels us to do the same through the graces his Church offers.

The third day of Christmas is the Feast of the Holy Innocence. Here, we are reminded that those who stand in the way of the State (represented by Herod in the story) will be punished and even killed for the sake of Truth. It is Jesus Christ that is King of Kings and Lord of Lords, not emperors, kings, congress, or presidents. Historically it is the State that is willing to sacrifice the least of these in order to gain power; whereas, Christ lifts up the least of these as the ones who will inherit the true Kingdom founded upon Him.

Finally, on the octave of Christmas the Church remembers Christ’s Holy Name. Here, we remember the name the angel gave him – the name Emmanuel – which means God with us. This name is important because if the call to discipleship is to loose our self for the sake of Christ (again, represented in St. Stephen) then Christ (as Emmanuel) is always with us. He’s with us in our joys and our sufferings. He’s with us corporately in His Mystical Body – the Church. He’s with us whether we are Jew or Gentile as St. Paul reminded us in his letter to the Church in Ephesus (Ephesians 3:1-12).

God is with us is a great Christmas truth that continues into this season of Epiphany. In two weeks, we will celebrate the Confession of St. Peter, the apostle. Peter confessed to Jesus that he was indeed who he said he was. Jesus is the Christ, and Peter would spend the rest of his life stumbling around trying desperately to figure out what following him meant. Peter, in other words, is very much like you and I.

The following week, we have the Feast of the Conversion of St. Paul. Paul’s story is a conversion story in the extreme. It was he who by persecuting the Church was persecuting the very Body of Christ. Christ appeared to him and told him this. Paul repented of his sin, and followed Christ. He then went on to produce most of the canonized letters found in the Bible’s New Testament.

On the 40th day after Christmas, and really the day that ends the Christmas stories, is the Feast of the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple. Here, we remember Jesus being presented by his parents to the priest; and yet like Anna and Simeon who were waiting on him in the Temple, we too must ask how we are to present ourselves to him. Again, do we fight against him and recollect our egos like Herod; or do we die to our egos, take up our crosses and follow him? These are short questions, and the Church gives us 40 long days in which to contemplate them.

After tomorrow, which is the Baptism of Our Lord, the Church will change its liturgical colors from white to green. Green signifies growth, and Epiphany truly is a season in which we are invited to grow into the likeness and image of Christ. Will you be like Peter this season, proclaiming Christ is Lord, yet wondering how to follow him? Will you be like Paul, in need of conversion from this or that in order to truly follow in his path? Ponder these questions that the Church naturally gives at this time, then live into their answers knowing God as Emmanuel is always with you.

Mary – Mother of God

Luke 1:26-38

An electric anticipation fills the air as we celebrate the fourth and final Sunday of Advent. We can guess what this afternoon, evening, and tomorrow may hold; yet this morning take a deep, collective breath before plunging into Christmas. May I suggest looking to Mary, and observing (with her) how the angelic messenger of God transformed her world from the ordinary into the extraordinary? For a moment, may we too give a loving ‘Yes’ to God, and with Mary stand perplexed and pondering, “What sort of Advent greeting this may be?”

The greeting named Mary “favored one.” This title was such an existential shock to Mary she had no words in that moment. She allowed the angel to proceed with his words while humbleness took over her disposition – Again, “She pondered.” Once the angel finished his divine proclamations, revelations, and prophesies it was Mary who did not let the truth found in these statements overwhelm her. Instead of being called into Heaven, she brought Heaven to Earth with her practicality –  “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Didn’t see that one coming, did you angel?) It’s quite possible the angel fumbled a bit, and tried to relate, taking a different approach with his next set of sentences. Perhaps he sat down, took at deep breath, and compared Mary’s miraculous birth with her relative, Elizabeth’s. It may have been a bit of a stretch, but being a good Jewish woman, Mary might have taken the angel’s counsel of her own pregnancy, and compared it to her ancestors Sarah and Hannah. Were impossible pregnancies just something that ran in her family? Again, the answer was ‘Yes’ and in perhaps the most beautiful poetic response to any angel’s musings, Mary said, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” The scripture says that the angel simply went away (possibly relieved). The message was signed, sealed, and delivered. Mary, in that moment gave herself away to something greater than herself. She became a vessel of God – a vessel for God – a vessel to God.

Fun Fact: Mary and Pontius Pilot are the only historical persons besides Jesus who are mentioned in the Creeds of the Church. Where Pontius Pilot would later ask Jesus, “What is Truth,” not knowing that Truth was standing before him, it was Mary who held Divine Truth in her very being, birthing it into a world that desperately needed it. Perhaps this is our calling as well? Sunday after Sunday we gather here on the Lord’s Day proclaiming what we believe (credo).

“We believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only son…He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate.”

What are we to do with this statement?

I think we are to ponder it in our hearts. I think we are to say ‘yes’. I think we are then called to be vessels of the truth. We are to imitate the great saint of Advent – Mary, the Mother of God. When we say Christ was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary, we are reminding ourselves to purify our hearts, minds, and bodies so that God’s Spirit will be revealed through us, dare I say, birthed into being through us. Truth is able to make itself known when we say, “Let it be to me according to your word.” When we don’t do this, truth suffers under Pontius Pilate again and again and again. We hold the truth within us instead of giving it away. We allow States, Caesers, Emperors, Kings, Congress and Presidents to possess so called self-evident truths and realities, when the only reality I know of in Heaven and on Earth is Christ. Put Christ up alongside those brothers above, and they pale in comparison. They just don’t hold up. Mary knew this too. Today, choirs across the world sing her song:

He [Christ] has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.

No Pontius Pilot in history has ever sung that song!

It is only by the merciful rhythm of Christ that we can even begin to dance to this music, to experience its graceful melodies, to have the eternal laugh of Sarah, Hannah, Elizabeth, and Mary. What God calls us into during the seasons of Advent and Christmas is none other than history itself. God invites the credo of our hearts to be made manifest in his creation: Spirit with flesh, and flesh with Spirit. When this happens, new music is made. We get to play jazz because we have learned the truth, and the truth has set us free. This is Mary’s eternal song: Playing jazz with a people named Israel, its prophets, and its future apostles all the while Christ is being brought forth, truth is being brought forth, beauty is being brought forth, goodness is being brought forth and we are caught up in the moment, caught up in the history of it all.

As the music of Advent fades, and we turn up the volume on Christmas, may God’s truth reverberate throughout history. The true song is the song of Mary. The true reality is Christ. The true vessel is the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church. We say, proclaim and believe these scandalous things each and every week (for some of us, each and every day). May we use the music of this season to wake us up to these gifts that we have been given so that we may share them with a worn and weary world crying out the eternal question of Pontius Pilate, “What is Truth?” God has an answer to this question. This afternoon, this evening, and for the next 12 days may we celebrate this eternal truth who has come into the world.

Maranatha. Come, Lord Jesus.

Intimacy Requires Commitment

Matthew 25:1-13

Today’s Gospel focuses on two things: Preparedness and Intimacy.

Five of the bridesmaids were prepared to participate in the wedding banquet. Five were not. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus teaches what preparedness “looks like” in the form of new commandments. A good Jew would have followed Holy Torah starting with The Ten Commandments. Jesus took this Divine teaching a step further, and gave us the Spirit behind the commandments that are captured ever so beautifully in The Beatitudes and The Sermon on the Mount (Matt 5). In other words, to follow God is to be prepared by following his commandments, and living into the graceful Spirit found within them. But wait; there’s more!

Jesus offers himself fully to us – his life, death, and resurrection. This truth is captured ever so eloquently each and every time Christ offers his Body to us during Holy Communion. Like a bride offers herself to her husband, and a husband offers his body to his bride, Christ offers his very flesh to us in this very intimate act of communion and consummation.

We are wise when we recognize this intimacy, and commit fully to Christ’s redeeming love by accepting his grace as well as living into his Holy Commandments. We are unwise when we expect intimacy, yet are not committed to everything that goes along with the graces found in intimate relationships.

All are invited to the intimacy of the wedding banquet. Don’t be turned away for lack of wisdom.

 

 

By Erasing Art We Forget Our Flaws and How it Mixes with God’s Grace

Art evokes many things: Truth, beauty, goodness – emotion, controversy, pleasure, and contemplation. Artists can be a bit more complicated. They can be mystics, manic-depressives, manipulators, or murderers. They have been lovers, fighters, pedophiles, perverts, and prodigies.

Often times we equate the work of art to the artist (think Michelangelo’s paintings in the Sistine Chapel) but this oversimplifies the complexities of the human condition. Michelangelo, for example, not only painted and sculpted masterfully, he also ate, drank, slept, had relationships, emotions, and longings. By virtue of being human he also made mistakes. You might say Michelangelo was flawed even though his work (arguably) was not.

The same line of thinking could be said for all mankind. No matter what one’s vocation may be, that vocation does not ultimately define a person – it’s simply a part of the person, an extension of the (flawed) self. For example, popular characters from the Bible – Moses, King David, and the Apostle Paul – were all murderers in their lifetimes; yet, for billions of Jews and Christians these are three of the most respectable men in the Bible. Moses freed a people, King David ruled with valor, and Paul wrote masterful letters to the early Christian communities. Again, these were flawed individuals, but (arguably) their life’s work was not.

Could we not make the same argument for the founders of this country? They most certainly were flawed, but their life’s work was not. Taking down statues, plaques, stained glass, and other works of art that depict the founding fathers forgets the complexities of being considered great (and flawed) all at the same time.

  • Augustine was a sex addict; yet because of his work is now a saint. Should we burn his writings?
  • Lewis Carroll was a pedophile; yet because of his work his stories are read in nurseries around the world. Should we ban “Alice” from “Wonderland”?
  • Martin Luther once suggested a child with a mental disorder be drowned because he had no soul. Should all Protestant Christians return to “Mother Church”?
  • Jesus Christ often told parables where many of the characters were slaves. Should we edit these stories out of the Bible because Jesus did not object?

Why do we leave the statues, plaques, stained glass, and other works of art that depict the founding fathers up? I would argue – You leave them up because of grace – amazing grace, dare I say?[i] You leave them up to help people and parishioners remember that great women and men make mistakes – sometimes huge – yet grace and mercy are still available. And if grace and mercy are still available to them, then they are available to us as well. Personally, I like remembering flawed people because I am a flawed person. I especially enjoy remembering them and their work knowing that they were sinners just like me; and yet, by the grace of God they were also loved.

As a Christian, I don’t define myself solely on who I am, but whose I am. In other words, I am a child of God. That is what ultimately defines me. The same can be said for Moses, Augustine, Washington, Jackson, or Lee. We can choose to label them good or evil, but ultimately they too are children of God – warts and all. As citizens in our country debate tearing down, building up, or leaving art where it stands, consider your own flawed nature compared with the goodness of God. Nobody stacks up; therefore, it is by grace that we can all be called children of God.

[i]           Slave ship captain, John Newton, wrote the song “Amazing Grace”. Should we get rid of his music in our churches too? Sterilizing history is a slippery slope. At what point do we cross the line?

Angels and Demons

Friday was The Feast of St. Michael and All Angels. Below are some musings on the subject; but first, take a look at the exorcism portion of the liturgy in the sacrament of Holy Baptism. This section, found in the Book of Common Prayer is sometimes called the renunciations and affirmations section of the baptismal rite.

Q.  Do you renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness that rebel against God?
A.  I renounce them.

Q.  Do you renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God?
A.  I renounce them.

Q. Do you renounce all sinful desires that draw you from the love of God?
A.  I renounce them.

Q.  Do you turn to Jesus Christ and accept him as your Savior?
A.  I do.

Q.  Do you put your whole trust in his grace and love?
A.  I do.

Q.  Do you promise to follow and obey him as your Lord?
A.  I do.

When a priest is ordained, he takes vows to be pastor, priest, and teacher. All three constructs aid the archetype of priest; however, I’ve come to believe there is one underlining metaphor that unites these offices. A priest is a journeyman – not in the sense of journeying alone – but rather, as someone who ‘journeys with’. A priest has been called (by Christ and His Church) to journey with others; and not as the hero, but as a companion along The Way. Put differently, and in the context of parish life, the priest accompanies his parishioners along the hero’s pathway.

I am at my best when I see the parishioners I serve as heroes. I can easily forgive in this mindset. I remember compassion. I do not forsake love. You might say a priest is more Sam Gamgee rather than Frodo Baggins from The Lord of the Rings. Sam was right there by his friend’s side every step of the way. He spoke as needed, but knew the supremacy of silence. He evoked the power of metaphor at times, heard confessions, and gently corrected his hero when necessary. In a variety of situations and quests evil was fought, spirits were restored, and persistence remained.

Although priests are as much flesh and blood as the next person, scripture and tradition teach that there are also spiritual companions to help guide and protect along The Way. Actually, that’s putting it nicely. Angels (who we are celebrating this feast day) are better described as warriors, or maybe even secret-service agents that shield and defend us from the powers and principalities that corrupt our world. Humanity has always had a fascination with good and evil. Judeo-Christian thought has classically personified it. Roman Catholic Bishop, Robert Barron says this about evil incarnate:

“What are his usual effects? We can answer that question quite well by examining the names that the Bible gives to this figure. He is often called diabolos in the Greek of the New Testament, a word derived from dia-balein, to throw apart, to scatter. God is a great gathering force, for by his very nature [God] is love; but the devil’s work is to sunder, to set one against the other. Whenever communities, families, nations, churches are divided, we sniff out the diabolic. The other great New Testament name for the devil is ho Satanas, which means “the accuser.” Perform a little experiment: gauge how often in the course of the day you accuse another person of something or find yourself accused. It’s easy enough to notice how often dysfunctional families and societies finally collapse into an orgy of mutual blaming. That’s satanic work. Another great biblical name for the devil is “the father of lies.” Because God is Truth, truthfulness—about oneself, about others, about the way things really are—is the key to smooth human relations. But how often we suffer because of untruth!””[1]

St. Paul, in his letter to the Romans suggested that nothing, neither death, nor life, nor angels [fallen or otherwise] nor rulers…nor powers…will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Rom 8:38-39). In other words, evil (like death) has lost its sting; yet, that’s not the end of the story. As Christians, we remember his death. We proclaim his resurrection. We await his coming in glory (BCP, 368). We’re still living in the midst of the first two statements, and until Christ comes again [whatever that looks like], those powers of evil (which paradoxically have no power at their root) still persist to tear us (and our world) apart.

These days, a preacher (especially in The Episcopal Church) may get a scoff or two preaching a sermon on angels and demons. “How silly”, they might say. “Fr., haven’t you heard of myth and metaphor?” But I say unto you, “Haven’t you heard of Holy Eucharist, Confession, prayer, the Bible, and spiritual direction, to name a few?” Classically, these have been the tools of spiritual warfare within the world of the Christian. These gifts of the Church not only open us up to God’s love, grace, and goodness; they also protect us from evil like a devouring lion scattering and tearing our souls, communities, and families apart. We have Christ. We have His Church. We have the Angels. We can call on God’s Spirit to help us discern. We can use the sacraments and spiritual tools of the Church to strengthen us. We can call on St. Michael and his army to defend us. All of this is orthodox. It’s nothing new, but modernity casually puts it aside.

As I look around the catholic church today, I often wonder if we have forgotten how to see. Are we invested in too much of the modern spirit that we forget the Spirit of God? Are we so set on ‘not offending’ that we mirror the culture instead countering it? Are we so immersed in the ideology of inclusion and tolerance that we have forgotten Love? Love in the sense that not every idea, behavior, or thought should be given equal value or consideration. Put Biblically, we must practice discerning the spirits. We cannot do this on our own. We need the sacraments. We need prayer. We need study. We need God’s help.

In the story of Jacob’s ladder, we find Jacob wrestling with the angel. Afterwards he proclaims, “Surely God is in this place, and I did not know it.” That may be postmodernity’s mantra. God isn’t in the sacraments. What you need is additional counseling. God isn’t in nature. You only need to study biology. God isn’t real. Mankind created Him. But aren’t these classic temptations from the ‘father of lies’…who desires to violently divorce, separate, dis-order, to set one against the other and God?

Let me go on record and say: Good is real. Sin and evil are real. They reside in us, and in the world. To give into the modern religion of relativism is to claim that there is no Truth, and taking this ideology to its final argument will show that there is no meaning to life. This leaves one in a state of perpetual nihilism that is very hard to overcome. As Christians we claim that these dualities (good and evil; black and white) are finally reconciled in and by and through Christ. We are made one in His Love. In the end, we are not separated because of His Love. Remembering this oneness, and living into this Truth gives us (and the world) hope. It may be an audacious hope, but our faith tells us it’s there.

I started out this blog by musing on the metaphor of a priest as journeyman. Together, let us journey with one another with God in our hearts, and all the angels and archangels, and with all the company of heaven forever defending us, protecting us, and fighting always for the Good.

[1] Bishop Robert Barron, Word on Fire Ministries, https://www.wordonfire.org/resources/article/revisiting-the-spiritual-warfare/448/

Statement on #Charlottesville

Every Lord’s Day, we gather as a community of faith to proclaim what all Christians believe. The Nicene Creed begins, “We believe in God, the Father Almighty.” When we claim that God is “Almighty” we reveal a very powerful God (God of powers or Lord of powers may sum up “Almighty” well). Yet, this all-powerful God chose to relinquish all power and became powerless in the form of a human child. This child eventually grew up and taught us how to “walk in love”. We know the rest of the story: The world rejected his teachings, sought truth elsewhere, and “He suffered death and was buried.” But in a twist of fate, look what happened: “On the third day He rose again.” That’s a surprise, and is still surprising today if we allow its truth to sink into our bones. What this means is that love has won and death has been conquered.

Living into the faith of the Christian Creed sneaks up on us. There are times when it is simply words, but at others God seems to reveal its words (and meaning) to us when we least expect it. In Charlottesville, VA this past weekend the worldly powers that be were on full display that reminded us of the mob violence that killed our Lord (“He was crucified under Pontius Pilate”). The Good News of Jesus Christ is that He set us free to love without fear. Any thing, group, ideology, or politic that does not allow freedom to love is anti-Christ. When we are shackled to hate, stereotyping, and ignorance we run the risk of binding others to us in a show of vengeful force. Ultimately, the chains can be released but only by the grace of God. It is by His grace that we are saved.

Pope (Emeritus) Benedict XVI once stated this about our All-Powerful God:

“The highest power is demonstrated as the calm willingness completely to renounce all power; and we are shown that it is powerful, not through force, but only through the freedom of love, which, even when it is rejected, is stronger than the exultant powers of earthly violence” ~ from his Introduction to Christianity, p. 150.

As Christians it is our duty to continue to seek, experience, and reveal this “freedom to love”. Everything else confines us to the powers of this world. Pray for those who are shackled by hate. Lift up those who have been injured or died. Renounce the “evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God” and instead “persevere in resisting evil, and whenever you fall into sin, repent, and return to the Lord.”

Remember: We protest hate, bigotry and violence by our very lifestyles. This week, style your life around the freedom to “walk in love as Christ loves us” and continue to pray for those who persecute this love. When we do this we are in heavenly company.

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.

What is Our Work? Thinking about Adaptive Challenges in the Age of the Technical Fix

On Tuesday, July 11th at 7pm, and then again on Sunday, July 16th, Saint Julian’s will participate in a formal “Listening Session”. The primary question behind these sessions is to start to explore the question, “What is our Work (as a parish)?” Put differently, “What is God already involved in, and are we being invited into that work?”

Bishop Robert C. Wright through Ron Heifetz  divides work into two categories: Technical and Adaptive.

Technical Work: is work not involving shifts in values, norms, loyalties and world views. This work has a clear diagnosis and clear solution. This work is accomplished by logic and authority. There is already considerable expertise in the system to complete this work.

An Example of Technical Work is as follows: Mr. Jones has a heart attack. Mr. Jones goes to his doctor. His doctor determines that bypass surgery is needed. Mr. Jones undergoes bypass surgery and the heart starts to function at full capacity again.

Adaptive Work (on the other hand): is work that intends on shifting norms, world views, loyalties and values. Diagnosis is complicated and solutions are not easily found because there are no clear solutions. Part of Adaptive work consists of identifying the gaps between the Current Reality and the stated Aspirations of an institution, community or family. Adaptive work is often misdiagnosed as Technical work. Adaptive work requires the unique resource of leadership behavior.

Remembering our above example of Mr. Jones – After the heart attack and surgery, Mr. Jones examines his lifestyle choices (i.e. eating, drinking, and exercise habits). He realizes he is eating too many fatty foods, drinking alcohol in excess, and not exercising with regularity. Mr. Jones makes a decision to eat healthier foods, curb the alcohol usage, and make exercise a part of his regular routine. This adaptive work, combined with the technical know-how of his doctor’s expertise changes the reality of Mr. Jones in new, healthy ways.

One more: What’s an example of an adaptive challenge that is misdiagnosed as Technical work?

Let’s look to the life of an imaginary parish from the 1990’s: The aging church congregation looks around and sees there are no young people and young families attending the church. Traditional work and financial giving is at an all-time low. This is the problem diagnosed; however, the congregation chooses to apply a technical fix to what is really an adaptive challenge. They say things like, “Young people want a more contemporary style of worship. Let’s get a few guitars and a screen and put it up. While we’re at it, let’s ask the pastor to throw on some skinny jeans. They’ll start coming then.” Instead of actually getting out there and speaking to young families in (mostly) informal ways –  listening to what their dreams, hopes, and challenges are as well as what they desire in a church community, the congregation thinks in stereotypical ways and purchases a few of those guitars, a screen, and the jeans. And guess what? Nobody shows up. Why? They’re trying harder, but they’re trying harder and their energy is contained in an echo chamber instead of going outside their doors and listening, watching, and discerning.

Adapting to the way and work of Jesus asks us to be open to letting the work of Christ form and shape us into who God already knows us to be (as individuals AND the Body of Christ). For certain there are technical challenges (i.e. a light bulb is out, the yard needs mowing, the toilet needs fixing), but if we can all agree that the life of a disciple of Jesus is ongoing, adaptive work (on God’s part and ours), we can all support one another in our individual journeys as well as with the parish as a whole.

What I’ll personally be looking for on Tuesday and next Sunday are reoccurring themes as well as distinguishing between technical and adaptive work. After the listening sessions, I will take all that I have heard, and the Vestry and I will be separating our work as a parish into those two categories (Technical/Adaptive). It will then be the Vestry’s continued work to focus on the adaptive challenges facing us, and in their teams/subcommittees calling on each and every one of you to step into the work that is needed. A lot of the work will be technical, but some of it will require us to “shift our norms, world views, loyalties and values.” This is exciting work for the Vestry because so much of our time in monthly meetings these past three years have been discussing technical work (i.e. changing out light bulbs, repairing this and that). This will no longer be the work of the Vestry, and I’m proud of them for being open to these past few months at adapting to a new form of behavior – that is – the work of the Vestry and other leaders of various ministries here at St. Julian’s will be to diagnose adaptive challenges. It will be the role of the subcommittees and teams associated with the Vesty and other ministerial leaders to do the technical work.

What is our Work (as a parish)? What is God already involved in, and are we being invited into that work? Come Tuesday night, or Sunday afternoon and let’s discern these questions together (and with God’s help).

~Fr. Brandon

In The End Love Remains

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MawMaw and I dancing at my cousin Tony’s wedding a few years back

Romans 6:12-23

When those who are close to us die, or are actively dying all the pettiness of life with its distractions and annoyances are disregarded like a heavy coat. The living suddenly awaken to shed inconsequential irritations in the name of love. This may be the last lesson from the dying to the living. When those whom we love have died, reflecting on all our silly habits, the way we spend our time, and the people we have ignored or left unforgiven are all revealed. The dead and dying gift us with new, living eyes that expose our trivial ways. In the end, we are all left with nothing just as we had nothing upon entering into life. Why do we spend large amounts of time, energy, and money seeking things that will pass away? In the end, love remains. Love brought us into the world and it stays with us in the end.

In today’s Epistle, St. Paul is promoting new life; but this new life – this new beginning – is only revealed when we have bumped up and against death. When we face death, we see the things we should have seen all along. We remember love. We see beauty. We experience gratefulness, and even regret. The regret (I suppose) comes from bumping up against the truth – the truth that love was always there, and is always an option. It is not inconsequential. Being able to see these things anew can make one regretful of their past sins.

Christians believe that Christ’s death was and is a gift. His death is a gift because we are asked to join him in his death, and in doing so we get to shed those parts of ourselves that keep us from loving – that keep us from His Love. The good news of Jesus Christ is that death is not the end, but a new beginning in Him. Just as Christ has died, we will die (in him) but just as Christ has risen – we too are called to newness of life. St. Paul put this way, For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 6:23). What Paul may be saying here is that we can do nothing apart from God. God is with us when we are dying, dead, and done. God is with us when we are living, alive, and experiencing life eternal. We cannot get away so why not choose life (in Him); and if we choose this life Paul says we are set free. Free to love. Free to forgive. Free to be forgiven. Again, all our pettiness passes away and the road to freedom is made clearer.

What then, do we do when we remember the freedom of Christ and at the same time forget it? Paul answers this with a fancy word. He says, the advantage…is sanctification (Romans 6:22). Sanctification defined is simply being made holy in and by and through God. In other words, you can’t be made holy on your own. Holiness comes from God; therefore, we are only holy when God’s holiness is shining and showing through us. This may be Paul’s argument in a nutshell, but what does it mean for us today?

I believe it leaves us with two choices: To get busy dying, or to get busy living. For Christians, however, these two choices become one reality when we realize we are constantly dying to ourselves in order to experience more of the eternal found within us. This is what’s called a life in Christ. Christ unites the dead to the living and at the same time transcends both. So again: What does this mean for us? Here in lies the brilliance of God: It has nothing to do with “us” and everything to do with Christ. In other words, God is asking “us” to get out of the way, and to be receptive to his love, forgiveness, mercy, and sanctification. This is such a hard lesson because we always want to do something. St. Paul is saying we don’t do anything; instead, we let go, and let God.

On Friday, I personally had a let go and let God moment or two. I got a call from my Mom letting me know that MawMaw (my 99-year-old maternal grandmother) was having post-operative complications. She was non-responsive; her blood pressure was dangerously low, and nobody (including the doctors) knew if she was going to pull through. Listening to my Mom’s retelling of her last 24 hours put me into two different mindsets. One was that MawMaw was simply ready to go. She had lived an amazingly full life, and her time was immanent. The other thought was more selfish: What about her 100th birthday party? So many people, including MawMaw, are so looking forward to it, but like the above example that referred to choices of life and death these too were transcended in Christ, and I remembered God’s transcending power. I remembered that ultimately these things have nothing to do with me, and everything to do with God.

This afternoon, Henry and I are driving to Texas. For Henry, it’s a planned trip where he will get to see his MeMe and Papa. For me, it’s an unplanned trip where I may be saying a last goodbye to my MawMaw or not. As of yesterday, she has perked up and is doing better. Also, we still have plans to celebrate her 100th birthday in August, but for now thanksgiving and gratefulness are made present in my heart, and what will be will be when August 20th rolls around. In fact, what will be will be at any old time. This whole experience has awakened me to pay a bit more attention to the things that matter most in my life. It has also given me the chance to reflect on my own life and to focus on what’s important and what to let go. Finally, it has allowed a part of me to fall away and to remember that it is not all about me. It’s about Christ, and relying on him to do what he always does: To hold the balance of life and death in Himself, yet transcending it all, awakening the heart to trustworthiness in His Love.

MawMaw&Henry MawMaw and my son, Henry, in her sunroom