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.

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?

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.

A Review of Rod Dreher’s, The Benedict Option

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In Rod Dreher’s new book on Christian ecclesiology, The Benedict Option, remembering the holiness of order paves the way for Christians to direct their lives through regular prayer, fasting, repentance, and the holy sacraments. These ancient practices are orthodox, but Dreher argues that Christians have forgotten that these practices are vehicles that point to the Divine. They are holy technologies that ground the practicing Christian in faith, hope, and love.

Intentional community is where Dreher spends the bulk of his book. Here, he lifts up the importance of orthodox teaching, preaching, theology, and liturgy in today’s churches. Also, nothing is left out for the individual, family, or community; all aspects of life are to be ordered around following Jesus Christ. Anything other than a reordering of one’s life to Christ calls into question one’s seriousness toward Christianity, its tenants, and its founder.

The ongoing metaphor of the book is found in the story and image of Noah’s Ark. The church, Dreher argues, is both “Ark and Wellspring – and Christians must live in both realities. God gave us the Ark of the church to keep us from drowning in the raging flood. But He also gave us the church as a place to drown our old selves symbolically in the waters of baptism, and to grow in new life, nourished by the never-ending torrent of His grace. You cannot live the Benedict Option without seeing both visions simultaneously” (238). The church as Ark is to keep the orthodox teachings and liturgies alive and well, and not to water down theology for the sake of progress. The church stands as a symbol counter to the culture around it. If the church simply mirrors society, it ceases to be the church. The church as “a place to drown our old selves” is an aged old teaching, first by Jesus Christ himself, then by St. Paul. In Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples, “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt 10:39). The dying to self metaphor is more clearly in Romans, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life…” (Rom 6:4).

Christianity has always been a religion of paradox; the main paradox being that dying to self brings newness of life through Christ’s resurrection. I believe Dreher is arguing that life is found in Christ through the church and through the Spirit’s holy ordering. The world has forgotten the ordering; thus progresses along with an eventual death by nihilism and narcissism in its various forms and technologies (i.e. individually, corporately, institutionally, and systematically). This begs the question: Is God’s creation good? Well, it certainly was “in the beginning,” but what and how do we experience goodness now? Jesus famously said, “None is good but God…” (Mark 10:8). This may be our answer, and ultimately Dreher’s point: If nothing is good but God, why not order all aspects of our lives toward the entity that created goodness? After all, is God not the creator of truth, beauty, and goodness?

How one responds to Dreher’s questions (and thesis) will depend on one’s theology, the church one attends, and even how one reads the Bible, and taking Dreher at his word is to fall in line with one expression of Christianity over another; however, in a world that is more and more polarized, knowing what “the other side” says, or has been saying for millennia is important when approaching the debate table. After all, what brings all Christians to the table in the first place is Christ, and arguing over what is best in any given tradition may ultimately be a matter of unity over and above uniformity.  I would recommend this book to both my conservative and liberal Christian friends. It’s an honest look on how Christians can live into the goodness of God with the gift of the church, community, and prayerful discipleship. I agree with Dreher that many have forgotten what relationship with God, self, and neighbor looks like, and it is up to Christians to get this ordering right. It’s an option worth considering. It’s an option worth practicing. It’s an option worth living, even in the midst of death.

The Church at Work

~Those who had been baptized devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers…and [by] distributing the proceeds [of sold goods] to all, as any had need. ~Acts 2:42

From the very beginning, Christ’s Church has been involved in teaching, community, worship, prayer, and care for others.[1] It’s easy to feel nostalgic while looking back on this early Christian community from The Acts of the Apostles. It also may be a bit disturbing to our libertarian notions that (at least in theory) these early Christians deemed it important to hold “all things in common.” If we compare our small parish to such devotions, there may be a sense of both admonishment and envy – Who do they think they are behaving in such utopian sensibilities? Whether one perceives nostalgia or disturbances, it is important to remember God’s Spirit of grace working through the early church. It is also important to remember that that same Holy Spirit continues to breath new life into the Church today.

As Episcopalians we could easily puff ourselves up and use the characteristics of the early [Jerusalem] church to pat ourselves on the back; after all, Anglicans claim apostolic succession through our bishops; our liturgies make room for teaching and for the breaking of the bread every Sunday; and although we do not hold all things in common like our monastic brothers and sisters, we do pool our time, talent, and treasure together for the mission of the church. So what are we to do with this reading from the Book of Acts this morning?

Bishop Wright, in his For Faith Friday message wrote these words when contemplating Christian worship and prayer; he wrote, “Fellowship without the meal lacks sustenance; the meal without the work is superficial.”[2] The bishop’s statement, I believe, may be a nice place to start. First, fellowship without the meal lacks sustenance.

I would consider myself a son of the South. What I mean by this is that I take my cues on all things regarding manners from both of my southern grandmothers – from my Memom and from my (soon-to-be-100-year-old) MawMaw. Both sets of grandmothers taught me to take my hat off when I’m inside. Once indoors, to participate in polite conversation, and to eat or drink whatever is placed in front of me out of respect for the hostess. To this day I try to uphold these various behaviors along with other unspoken modesties as a tribute to these two southern ladies. But what would happen if all these pleasantries were suddenly turned upside down? Could we still find fellowship in it all? Is there something sacred in the mundaneness of a meal? To help explore these questions, I’d like to reference a line or two from Lewis Carroll’s, Alice in Wonderland, specifically, Chapter 7 – A Mad Tea-Party.[3]

`Have some wine,’ the March Hare said in an encouraging tone.

Alice looked all round the table, but there was nothing on it but tea. `I don’t see any wine,’ she remarked.

`There isn’t any,’ said the March Hare.

`Then it wasn’t very civil of you to offer it,’ said Alice angrily.

`It wasn’t very civil of you to sit down without being invited,’ said the March Hare.

`I didn’t know it was your table,’ said Alice; `it’s laid for a great many more than three.’

`Your hair wants cutting,’ said the Hatter. He had been looking at Alice for some time with great curiosity, and this was his first speech.

`You should learn not to make personal remarks,’ Alice said with some severity; `it’s very rude.’

The Hatter opened his eyes very wide on hearing this; but all he said was, `Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’

`Come, we shall have some fun now!’ thought Alice. `I’m glad they’ve begun asking riddles.–I believe I can guess that,’ she added aloud.

`Do you mean that you think you can find out the answer to it?’ said the March Hare.

`Exactly so,’ said Alice.

`Then you should say what you mean,’ the March Hare went on.

`I do,’ Alice hastily replied; `at least–at least I mean what I say–that’s the same thing, you know.’

`Not the same thing a bit!’ said the Hatter. `You might just as well say that “I see what I eat” is the same thing as “I eat what I see”!’

This back and forth goes on and on until at last, Carroll concludes with Alice saying,

`At any rate I’ll never go there again!’ said Alice as she picked her way through the wood. `It’s the stupidest tea-party I ever was at in all my life!’

For the record, Alice was offered tea and breads throughout the conversational nonsense, but she never had any thing of substance. Also, it may be a stretch to say that this is a good example of fellowship. Although philosophy and clever rhetoric are used throughout, and these two devises usually carry us into deep conversation, at this tea-party contemplation remained surface level. I wonder what would have happened to the conversation if the table were set for 3 instead of for a banquet? I wonder what would have happened to the fellowship if tea and bread were actually consumed? Literary critics point out that this scene could quite possibly be an interpretation of what a child experiences when invited to such adult functions that cater only to grown-ups.[4] All the ways in which adults pose and posture with one another must seem silly to our little ones. Here, in lies the wisdom from the early church. It is childlike not to posture. It is childlike to want to play and eat. It is childlike to accept others as they are. And are we not asked to accept Our Lord and Savior as a child? God doesn’t want us posturing in our pretentiousness. He wants a playful faith filled with wonder for all God’s creation. I believe the early church had it right. Fellowship and the sharing of a meal must go together. But let’s not stop here.

Bishop Wright’s second point is this, the meal without the work is superficial. While it can be argued that the word “work” here has to do with the work of the people (lived out sacramentally in the liturgy), I am reminded by The Reverend Julia Gatta that the work found in our sacred meal begins and ends in Christ. In other words, both the work of Christ and the supper of Christ is His “gift and action among us.”[5] This propels us into the realm of grace; and out of this grace, and out of the work that Christ has already done for us compels the church to baptize, to teach, to fellowship, to worship, to pray, and to care for others.

Four days after Easter Sunday on April 20th, 2017 death-row inmate Ledell Lee was executed via lethal injection by the state of Arkansas. As has been customary sense at least the middle ages, those sentenced to death by the state are given a last meal. Ledell refused his last meal, and instead opted to receive Holy Communion. Although what Mr. Lee was convicted of was a heinous crime and is inexcusable, I cannot help but be reminded of the thief on the cross next to Christ. St. Luke captured him in this way. The thief cries out to both the other convicted criminal and to Jesus saying, “And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” It can be assumed that Ledell Lee was baptized, and that he was familiar with the breaking of the bread. We can also assume that at some point in his reconciliation he discovered the teachings of Jesus and the prayers of the Church. Like the thief on the cross, I like to imagine Ledell Lee experiencing the grace of God in his last moments, choosing to turn to Jesus in a gesture of faith. I do not tell you this story to make a political statement on whether or not the death penalty is just. I tell it to you as a reminder of God’s grace in fellowshipping one with another while also finding sustenance from Christ’s Body and Blood. I tell it to you because the work of Christ is to be honored among his followers through tangible acts of forgiveness, mercy, and love.

In a moment, we will do what the Church has always done. We will receive, experience, and know Christ in the breaking of the bread. At the end of this ritual, we will pray these words, “And now, Father, send us out to do the work you have given us to do.” And what is this work? “To love and serve you as faithful witnesses of Christ of Lord” (BCP, 366). The work is already there just as the meal is always here, and each points us to Christ our Lord. Together, let us devote ourselves to these things, and by doing so finding the grace in it all.

[1]                 The Jewish Annotated New Testament, NRSV, Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler, Ed., Oxford University Press: New York, 2011, note 2.42-47, p. 203.

[2]                 Bishop Robert C. Wright’s For Faith Message (5/5/17): https://connecting.episcopalatlanta.org/for-faith/?utm_source=Connecting+e-newsweekly+and+For+Faith+blog-updated&utm_campaign=56712adf63-For_Faith_preview__0624166_23_2016&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_065ea5cbcb-56712adf63-108305893

[3]           Taken from: https://www.cs.cmu.edu/~rgs/alice-VII.html

[4]                 http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/alice/section7.rhtml

[5]                 Julia Gatta, The Nearness of God: Parish Ministry as Spiritual Practice, Morehouse Publishing: New York, 2010, p. 43.

Christian Leadership

Sermon from 5th Sunday after the Epiphany focusing on Matt. 5:13-20 & Isa. 58:1-12

When I was in high school my Dad got a promotion that required us to move. Even though the place where we settled was only about 40 minutes away, the culture of moving from suburbia to rural was shocking. At my old middle and high schools, I was only involved in a few extra-curricular activities (band and soccer). At the new rural school and with a class size of less than 50, I could do pretty much whatever I wanted. Through my three years at Harmony HS, I was involved in band, drama, choir, basketball, track, and Beta Club. I seemed to be friends with just about everybody, and was at least respected by those who didn’t necessarily want to hang out with me. My wife, Ann, always jokes that she so would not have dated me in HS because of my Brady-Bunch-like interests but I say, “To each his own.”

Maybe it was because of all the activities I was involved in, maybe it was because my Dad was now a training manager for the company he worked for, or maybe it was a little of both; nevertheless, he got me interested in thinking about leadership. Dad had about a 35-minute commute to work, and on many of those driving days he would listen to leadership books on tape. At the time, Steven Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People was popular, as well as anything by Tony Robbins, and the old-time Texas transplant, Zig Ziglar. Dad got me hooked on these leaders’ thought processes, and challenged me not to ever be a follower in life, but to instead, lead.

Nowadays I am still drawn to leadership books and seminars, but have narrowed down the pile somewhat. Out of seminary, I took at two-year leadership course the diocese offers for new priests that focused on what’s called, adaptive leadership. While in seminary, I studied family-systems theory through the lens of Edwin Friedman, and here lately I’ve been interested in thinking about Jesus Christ as a leader with the help of Henri Nouwen. It’s this latter author I want to speak on today because Nouwen has helped me to totally flip my idea and ideas about Christian leadership – something all baptized Christians are called to live into.

In his book, In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership, Henri Nouwen makes this argument, “[Jesus] asks us to move from a concern for relevance to a life of prayer, from worries about popularity to communal and mutual ministry, and from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people.”

Let’s look at the first point, “[Jesus] asks us to move from a concern for relevance to a life of prayer…” Before my family made that move from suburbia to rural Texas, the Baptist Church, the Church where I was raised and that introduced me to Jesus Christ, was concerned with relevance and being relevant. In the 90’s I heard my youth ministers tell me not to listen to certain types of music because similar styles of rock or heavy metal or rap music could be found with a Christian message. For many years, I heeded their advice, went to Christian concerts, bought Christian CDs, and did what I was told because I respected my leaders. This was also the time in the church where suits were ditched for skinny jeans and t-shirts, and a minister wasn’t cool if he didn’t have a goat-tee, tattoo, and crazy stories of redemption. All things considered, and for me, the church was relevant. It made sense to my teenager mind, and I trusted those who were trying to lead me. In hindsight; however, I don’t know if my youth director or even my senior pastor ever taught how to pray. Prayer, and how to pray stays with you, but certain types of music, fashionable clothing, and even a cool story fades with time. While in college, I would ditch all these fads still not knowing how to pray, and take up other things to fill the time – mainly girls, alcohol and parties.

Nouwen makes a compelling argument that the present and future church doesn’t have to be relevant to survive; instead, its leaders must always have a solid life of prayer, and be able to teach that to Christians of all ages. My friend and colleague, Fr. Greg Tallant, has often said that there is something to be said about boring old church. There’s something to say about people still gathering together, praying for one another, and creating fellowship through the person of Jesus Christ. I tend to agree. The Church and her rituals have been around for millennia, and through them we are taught to pray and to remember one another in thought, word, and deed. The question, “How do I pray?” can always be on the minds of Christians, and living into its answer is a journey out of relevance into that of relationship.

Let’s turn to Nouwen’s second point, “[Jesus] asks us to move from…worries about popularity to communal and mutual ministry…” Here, he is specifically calling out ministers whose ministry revolves only around them and their celebrity. Through other leadership resources I have learned that good leaders make people believe in them, but great leaders make others believe in themselves. Put in Christian terms – instead of top down ministry, why not operate from the bottom up? What are the gifts and talents of everyone? If you could choose one gift or talent you possess and could teach it to someone else, what would it be? Well, whatever it is could be your ministry, or at the very least, plugging into a group or organization that is already living similar gifts out.

Churches grow, and ministries expand not out of a great priest or bishop. Instead, they grow and expand when resources are pulled together based on need – yes – but also based on gifts and talents. Again, what is it you can do that is also teachable? Great! That is your ministry. The future of the church will not revolve around its paid clergy so much so as it will revolve around all the baptized living out their mission and ministries in the world.

Nouwen’s final point, “[Jesus] asks us to move…from a leadership built on power to a leadership in which we critically discern where God is leading us and our people.” My Dad was half-way correct when he gave me the advice not to be a follower in life, but instead, lead. A Christian leader, I would now counter, is perfectly comfortable being led because they are being led closer to God through a life of prayer and community, which in turn, allows them to not only lead people, but to have the humbleness to be led by Christ and others. Nouwen writes, “It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, easier to own life than to love life…The long painful history of the church is the history of people ever and again tempted to choose power over love, control over the cross, being a leader over being led. Those who resisted this temptation to the end and thereby give us hope are the true saints.”

These three attributes of a Christian leader: not worrying about relevance, not worrying about popularity, and learning how to be led by God (I believe) can best be lived out in a small parish like ours through its ministries, through its liturgies, and through its fellowship. In today’s Gospel lesson Jesus says that we are the salt of the earth and the light of the world. When we forget this, we loose our taste and get lost in the dark. The Prophet Isaiah gave specifics around this. He said God wasn’t interested in your piety. Stop being relevant to your religion, and reveal your relationship with God to your neighbor (Isa. 58). How do you do this? “Share your bread with the hungry, bring the poor into your house, and to cover the naked.” Just last week, the prophet Micah preached, “act justly, love mercy, walk humbly with your God.” Being just doesn’t seem to be relevant these days, loving mercy is certainly not popular, and walking humbly with God isn’t mainstream leadership material. So what are Christian leaders supposed to do? I like what Isaiah said, “Shout out, do not hold back! Lift up your voice like a trumpet! We are most prophetic, we are light and salt, we are leaders when we pray, when we form relationships, when we fellowship, when we are led by God. I believe the Church is best when it’s boring…when it’s doing exactly what its mission is. When we worship joyfully, when we serve compassionately, when we grow spiritually, the church is simply doing what the church does. It may not be relevant to the world, but it is relevant to God. It may not be popular, but that’s okay…Jesus said The Son of Man has no place to lay his head. It may not raise up leaders the way the world defines leadership. That’s okay, Jesus taught us to pray saying God, Lead us not into temptation: The temptation to be relevant, to be popular, to be powerful. Instead, let us empty ourselves, let us serve others, and let us focus on Christ.

Search your heart today. Are you trying to be relevant or popular? Are you trying to lead, win an argument, or be on the right side of history? Instead, check yourself. What does your prayer life look like? What is a gift or talent you have but haven’t shared? Is God trying to lead you somewhere? If so, have you discerned where? The Collect from this morning says this, “Set us free, O God, from the bondage of our sins, and give us the liberty of that abundant life which you have made known to us in your Son our Savior Jesus Christ.” We are free when we love. We let go when we know someone is there to catch us, and we experience abundant life when we are led. May we live into this with a discerning heart this week, and find peace within us so that we can offer the peace of Christ to a merciless world. AMEN.

Dust Your Self Off and Try Again

Last year I suggested to the parish I serve not to create New Year’s resolutions. The gentle challenge had a practical application: Most New Year’s resolutions end in failure, and what follows is personal guilt and blame. Instead, I recommended taking on New Year’s experiments. Experiments, by definition, welcome failure in order to learn something new. There is no guilt involved – only an adjustment or tweak here and there to run the experiment again. The message got through to some, and throughout this year I have had several parishioners share with me their various experiments, and what seemed to work or not.

As I ponder 2016, and look towards 2017 I will be running some new experiments of my own as well as continuing some of the experiments I ran this past year. I’d like to share a few of these with you, and challenge you to come up with your own.

My first experiment I will be continuing into 2017 is to read and listen to the “other side”.

Last year during the season of Lent and Easter, I challenged myself to read books on conservative thought, as well as to bend my ear towards many of my politically conservative friends. The immediate result of studying the history of conservative thought in England and America was that my political leanings drifted from the left into the middle. For me, this is a good place to be since my vocation lends its ear to those who wept during the presidential election (Democrats) and those who rejoiced (Republicans). Although the president-elect does not necessarily fit into the traditional mold of American party politics, through my reading and conversation, I have a better grasp of where his proposed policies or political appointments stand on the spectrum of the conservative/liberal spectrum.

Where I will continue this experiment on into the new year is to get my news from newspapers and in-depth books – not social media, or television. For 2017, I have subscribed to two local papers, The Douglas County Sentinel and the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. I have also subscribed to The New York Times and The Washington Post. These newspapers not only hold to the code of sound journalism, but by subscribing to them, I am also supporting this important medium of news reporting. Thus far, my reading and understanding of the issues that are important to my community and our world have been enlightening.

My second continuation of 2016 experiments is to read fiction and poetry.

Reading is a life-long love of mine, so this will probably never change; but as I get older I am realizing more and more the power of novels, poetry, and short-stories on the imagination, the soul, and how they can inform me in totally different ways than a newspaper ever will. I read 28 books this last year. I’m challenging myself to do 30 for 2017.

My final experiment is to continue to practice my vocation of the priesthood.

This means praying the Daily Office everyday, reading and studying the Bible weekly, writing sermons that challenge, loving the parishioners I serve, as well as serving ‘the other,’ ‘the stranger,’ and ‘the neighbor’ outside the walls of the parish. I feel all of this begins at home. I practice my calling to the priesthood by practicing my vocation to marriage and parenting. This translates into all walks of my life; so to be a good father, husband, and son means being a good priest and visa-versa. I thank God for my family (and extended parish family) everyday. This gratitude is something I want God to remind me of more and more in the coming years.

These are simple, yet doable experiments, and please take notice that none of my experiments have anything to do with fear or anxiety. These two vices played roughly in 2016, but will be sidelined in 2017 as far as I’m concerned. I have no time for them.

In closing, these are experiments – not resolutions. I won’t necessarily complete them in the way I may imagine them now, but that’s okay. I will dust myself off and try again. So, here’s to 2017 – another year to dust your self off and try again – And try again we must.

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.