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.

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.

 

 

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.

The Varieties of Religious Experience

~3rd Sunday of Easter and a Reading from Luke 24:13-35

Emory University Hospital chaplains share overnight barracks with doctors working the 7PM to 7AM shift. These quarters are located in a small corner of the hospital in what is referred to as the Annex Building. The Annex Building of Emory’s hospital is set up much like a college dormitory. There is a common room with a television, phone, and lockers to put one’s earthly possessions. The sleep rooms are nothing to write home about. They have a humbling twin mattress, a thin comforter, and even thinner sheets. During the winter months the rooms are furnished with a portable plug-in heater that fits nicely in the corners of the virtually monk-like cells. Chaplains, like the on-call doctors, are to sleep in these cells with their phones on in anticipation of an emergency call. Unlike the doctors whose likelihood guarantees a call at some point during the night, chaplains are not given such high probabilities. This leaves the chaplain in a state of anticipation – be it holy or not. Regardless, the stress of expectancy makes for many a sleepless night.

Before the chaplain retires to the Annex Building, they are to go on night rounding. This means visiting all the ICU’s in the hospital as well as the emergency department, and the in-house hospice floor. The chaplain checks in at each nurses’ station introducing themselves as the night chaplain, and asking if the nurses anticipate any event that would require the chaplain’s presence. Most nurses would tell me not to worry, and to have a goodnight. I would respond with similar accolades, be it hesitantly, knowing in my heart that God likes to interrupt plans for the evening.

One night while visiting the hospice care unit located on floor five, the nurse informed me that a family was set to arrive from out of state in order to visit their loved one in room number two – we’ll call the patient, Mr. Jones. “Mr. Jones,” the nurse quietly said, “is waiting on his family to arrive. He understands that they are on their way, but I have a feeling,” she continued, “that once they arrive, he won’t last for very much longer. I will give you a call once they are here.” I thanked the nurse, told her both she and Mr. Jones would be in my evening prayers, and made my way back down to the Annex Building.

Hospital chaplains are privy to the thin places in this life, and when you get two or more talking, the subject of death – and when he visits – becomes speculative conversation. At the beginning of my time as a chaplain one of the supervisors informed our chaplaincy group to be aware of 3 am. The morning hour of three, so it seemed, was a time when death liked to make his rounds. So, it was no surprise when around 2:30 in the morning, I received a call from Floor 5 – the hospice floor. The family from Alabama had arrived, and they requested the night chaplain. I quickly got dressed, grabbed my prayer book, and as I made my way through the corridors of the hospital to the 5th floor elevator, I said at least two Our Father’s.

By the time I had arrived at the threshold of Room #2, Mr. Jones’ family was gathered around his bedside keeping vigil. Hushed voices and quiet tears were the evening’s oblations. Solemnity was the prayer. This calm was slightly disrupted by a young woman, probably Mr. Jones’ granddaughter. When she saw me, she quickly asked if I could get some water. “Sure,” I said. I’m happy to do so. Would you like tap, or bottled?” “No no no,” she protested. “It’s for his baptism.” I was taken aback. I didn’t quite understand. “His baptism,” I inquired? “Pappi would like to be baptized.” I looked up at the nurse who I had spoken with earlier in the evening, and she simply nodded.

At this point in my ministry I was very green. I was in the middle of discerning whether or not I wanted to be a priest. I certainly was not ordained, and I had yet learned the riches of the prayer book that at the time I was tightly holding onto, hand sweating. I don’t know if I’m allowed to do this, I thought. What will I tell my discernment group? Will this hinder me from becoming a priest? Can Mr. Jones even speak letting me know he does, indeed, want to be baptized? As these stressors entered into my brain, I made my way into the break room where I would find a simple bowl and the tap. As I placed the bowl under the facet and turned the nozzle, all my anxiety the moment before stopped as the water started. The water – the element that gives us life, cleanses us, and with God’s grace sets us free. I had bathed in this water before, and now God was asking me to bathe another.

When I reentered Mr. Jones’ room I had my prayer book at the ready. I had noticed grape juice and crackers in the kitchen, and had asked the nurse to bring those in as well. She set the table up for me while I bent down to Mr. Jones’ ear and whispered the question, “Do you desire to be baptized?” He was not able to speak, but nodded slightly. I then asked the family to answer on behalf of him when it came to the part in the baptismal liturgy where questions would be given. They agreed, and gathered around the prayer book. We began with St. Paul’s words, “There is one Body and one Spirit. There is one hope in God’s call to us. One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism; One God and Father of all.” After the baptism of Mr. Jones, the family and I concluded the liturgy with Holy Communion where wine was substituted with Welch’s grape juice, and bread with Saltine crackers. After the family thanked me, and we had said one final prayer, a very large man (maybe Mr. Jones’ son?) grabbed hold of me, and gave me a huge bear hug before I departed the room. I add this detail to my story only because it was at that moment above all others where I sincerely felt the presence of Christ. I found God through that embrace. The world had stopped for just a moment, and Christ was letting me know he was in the room. He was there in the midst of death, in tap water, crackers and juice; and in that life-giving, loving embrace. At around 3 in the morning, I left the room thankfully broken before God – my heart burning with His Presence.

In this 3rd Sunday of Easter, we are no longer gazing dumbstruck at the empty tomb; instead, we are telling stories of God’s presence. The Church bears witness to our storytelling in the same way those disciples on the road to Emmaus were witnesses to Christ’s company. Scholars will tell us that St. Luke’s story of the walk to Emmaus narratively signifies the Holy Eucharist. The first part of the liturgy – the Word portion – is represented narratively when Christ opens up the Word of God to his friends so much so that their hearts burned within them. The second part of the liturgy – Holy Communion – is represented narratively when Christ was made known to them in the breaking of the bread; and look what happened after the liturgy. The disciples went to share their story with the other disciples, thus making God’s presence and story real to others.

Persons often speak with one another revealing stories of religious and spiritual experiences. Some of these stories are interpreted through the lenses of the Church. Others are not. Regardless if you have ever had a spiritual experience like the above does not matter. What does matter is that each and every one of you gets to experience Christ within Holy Eucharist – in the Word spoken, and in the breaking of the bread. If you have never had a religious experience where the thin places of this dimension and the next were laid bare for you, don’t worry. You are invited to have a religious experience with the Risen One every time Mass is said and divine elements are taken in. But don’t get so hung up on the experience itself that you forget the most important part: To go and share your storied experience about the Risen Christ in whatever form or action he chooses to reveal himself to you. Tell His story, and if you need some help let the Church guide you through her holy gifts for holy people.

The Reality of the Resurrection

A redacted sermon preached on Easter 2 and inspired upon readings from 1 Peter 1: 3-9 and John 20: 19-31

The word liturgy literally means, “The work of the people,” and participating in the liturgy – specifically the Holy Eucharist – gives us a glimpse of what it means to live into the reality of the resurrection. At its best the Eucharist will show us how to remember resurrection reality out and about in the world, and gives Christians a model of how God participates in His creation. For a moment, let us focus on the reality of the resurrection through the lenses of relationship, renewal, and resurrection as Ultimate Reality.

Resurrection Reality through the Lens of Relationship

Many of you know my affinity for spiritual direction. Put simply, spiritual direction is the art of holy listening, and when invited, the spiritual director offers questions and suggestions as to where God may be present in the directee’s life. Like the disciples who locked themselves up in a room out of fear, persons often come to spiritual directors with locked hearts. Just as the resurrected Christ bypassed the locked doors and offered His peace, the spiritual director reminds the directee of the peace of Christ found in the midst of locked doors, fearful storms, and broken hearts. The peace of Christ is always there; however, we need faithful friends in our lives to remind us of this reality. Any spiritual director will tell you there are some people who find the peace of Christ through the lens of faith, while others have the healthy skepticism of Thomas within them. Whether by faith or something more tangible, the peace of Christ is found out of the relationship that is grounded in Christ.

One of the first spiritual directors in my life was my Memom (my paternal grandmother). Every time I speak with Memom she always tells me, “Brandon, I pray for you every day.” In my younger days I said to myself, “Yea Yea, that’s just what Memom does. I’m thankful, but maybe not as grateful as I should be.” These days I’m extremely thankful and grateful for her faith, and for her prayers. What I did not realize back then that I see today is that Memom prays for me and my family everyday because of her thankfulness and her gratefulness for Jesus Christ. She has a relationship grounded in love through Christ that each and every prayer is not only an extension of her love, but is an extension of Christ’s love for all. In other words, my Memom’s prayer life is grounded in the reality of the resurrection. My Memom’s prayer life is grounded in the reality of her relationship with Ultimate Reality. In her life, in her prayers, and in her very being I experience the peace of Christ.

Resurrection Reality as Renewal

From our reading out of I Peter, the author writes, “By [God’s] great mercy [God] has given us a new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead…” What does it mean to have a new birth into a living hope? Hope, so it seems, is alive and well through the resurrection of Christ, and if we are participating in the reality of His resurrection, then cannot new births happen all the time? The truth of the resurrection is that love has conquered death, and because of this we are born anew in that same love which Christians boldly proclaim as Christ. Ultimate renewal is found in and by and through our relationship with Christ. When we display these renewals in the form of peace, forgiveness, or mercy then God is revealed through us.

Getting back to my relationship with my Memom: I said that her relationship was grounded in love through Christ (so much so) that each and every prayer is not only an extension of her love, but an extension of Christ’s love for all. Putting this in the context of renewal: Anytime we pray (or through our actions) we bring forth peace, forgiveness, or mercy, those small renewals of peace, forgiveness, and mercy point, reveal, or renew our sense of Ultimate Peace, Forgiveness, and Mercy. In other words, these acts remind us that what is ultimate is Resurrection. What is Ultimate is Love. Through these tangible acts and through the lens of faith, we pull back the curtain and true reality is revealed to us. That’s why the love of God is a peace beyond our understanding. We understand it through the action of resurrection, but we do not fully understand this reality. The moment we seem to grasp it is the moment in which it disappears leaving us longing for something that cannot be explained except with prayerful words, liturgies, and actions of faith.

Resurrection Reality as the Ultimate Reality

I strongly believe that there is homelessness, hunger, war, famine, and exploitation (to name a few) in the world today because we forget, “He is Risen.” We forget love has already conquered death. Roofs over heads, bellies that are satisfied, peace, conservation of the earth, and the dignity of every human being can be a reality now when we choose to remember the reality of resurrection. Did you know that the word “sin” comes out of the archery community? When an archer pulls the arrow back with the help of his bow, takes aim and fires, he either hits his target, or he sins. Sin literally means missing the mark, or missing the target, and like the arrow forgetting its bull’s-eye, humanity is constantly forgetting resurrection. Humanity is constantly sinning. The mark is already there. The mark is Christ. The mark is Love, and Love is the Ultimate Reality. When we try to tackle the problems of our world without an eye on Love, we also miss the mark. We cannot solve the problems of the world on our own. We need Jesus. We need his teachings. We need his healing. We need to remember His resurrection.

I believe the Church (not just our own) but all churches throughout the world are going through some birth pangs right now, and are about to experience renewal, rebirth, and resurrection. The Church of the past was tied up in the culture. The Church of the past was part of the establishment and status quo. I believe the resurrected Church must always be counter to the culture or else it miscarries. What this means for liturgical churches such as ours is to do liturgy – to do the work of the people on Sunday – as an example of how to do the work of God Monday through Saturday. Parish churches can no longer exist for the purpose of self-preservation. Parish churches must exist for the purpose of reminding the world “He is risen.” We cannot do it on our own, so small churches must join other small churches, dioceses, and provinces that extend beyond denomination. Through partnerships with religious institutions, non-profits, and philanthropists small churches can make big differences in the lives of people that extend beyond their walls. We do this together and through our relationship with the Resurrected Christ. The world can no longer rest in dogmatic formulas that only assure the faithful as to the resurrection of Jesus Christ; instead, the world needs Christians who actually live into this belief, this love, and this reality. The future Church is a missional church grounded in the relationship (and resurrection) of Jesus Christ. The future Church will worship joyfully, serve compassionately, and grow spiritually, and by doing so live into the resurrection reality here and now.

This Easter and beyond let us all use our imaginations, our gifts, and our relationship with Christ to truly be a liturgical church doing the work of God with our hands, hearts, and minds. Let us seek out partners who proclaim in thought, word, and deed, “He is Risen.” The reality of the resurrection is now. Together, may we never forget.

A Lenten Meditation

Step 1: Find a cross. Notice that it is made up of a vertical beam and a horizontal one. Meditate on one beam at a time. Let the vertical beam represent your relationship with God. Let the horizontal beam represent your relationship with the world (family, friends, God’s creation)

Step 2: Read John 3:1-17

Step 3: Read the below meditation. What sentences are vertical relationships with God? What sentences are horizontal relationships with God’s creation?

When we encounter Christ as Nicodemus did, we are offered an invitation to deepen our relationship with Christ. What at first may start out as a surface level relationship can be extended out deeper and wider within us as we learn how to trust and obey God. With the deepening of the relationship, greater healing and wider faith is extended from our hearts to having a heart for others. For God so loved the world… God loves the world because it is God’s creation. Because we are part of creation, this must mean that God loves us, and when we can acknowledge that we are not the center of the universe, the love God has for His creation can be easily found within each one of us. If this is the case, we are called to love as God loves us. This may seem simple enough at first, but if we look at the world within us and around us, it is anything but simple. For starters, when we enter into relationship with God, we are inviting God into all aspects of ourselves –those parts we acknowledge and are proud of as well as those parts we dismiss and are ashamed or fearful of. God penetrates our hearts and souls so deep that it takes our senses, our faculties, and our brains a very long time to even register God’s healing presence. What can be experienced as ambiguous and partial on our end is made whole in Christ. In other words, we don’t see the whole picture, but only a part of the puzzle. It takes faith to trust and obey God wherever he may be leading our bodies and souls. Mystics call this experience of God a deep knowing that is very different from knowledge. Put simply, it’s a difference in knowing God rather than knowing about God. When this type of knowing is experienced, God gets to view the world through us, and visa-versa. Everything has changed in these moments; yet everything is the same. It’s as if a shift has happened in our very perspective, and God has settled in nicely to a comfortable warm heart. This was the deeper invitation Jesus was extending to Nicodemus. Nicodemus was impressed with the knowledge of God represented in the signs Jesus was performing; however, his spirituality was arrested and he could not move past the signs. He stayed in the flesh instead of moving deeper into God’s Spirit.

Let this be a lesson to us, and the lesson is this: God is constantly calling us into deeper ways of knowing and being in relationship with Him. Why not let go, give in, and say, ‘Yes.’

Step 4: Call to mind the cross in Step 1. What do you believe your default beam to be – the Vertical or Horizontal one? Is your relationship with Christ where it needs to be (regular prayer, worship, accountability group/mentor(s)) represented by the Vertical Beam? Is your relationship with the world where it needs to be (you, your family, your society – God’s creation is taken care of in your neck of the woods) represented by the Horizontal Beam?

Step 5: This Lent, work on the beam that is not your default one. Notice when the two beams are joined a cross is made, and a center formed. Crucify your self/ego on the cross. What remains is only Christ in the center of your life calling you into further relationship with him and his creation.

 

Graceful Time, Graceful Prayer

A Meditation on Keeping a Holy Lent – delivered at St. Julian’s Episcopal Church this Ash Wednesday.  

Sometimes, prayer is like an inside joke between you and God. An inside joke between lovers – A pillow talk intimacy – A full disclosure of full-er grace. Jesus doesn’t ask us to dress for success in order to please others, but to please him. “Why are you spending all your time trying to impress this group or that group,” he might ask? “Why are you defending the indefensible? When you give, when you pray, when you fast give all of it, your whole lot and life of it to me. Loose yourself in me,” says Jesus.[1]

The Season of Lent is a time to re-order one’s life; a time to think where one’s priorities might lay. J. Neil Alexander once wrote, “I used to believe that the important thing was what I believed about God. I have discovered that the really important thing is what God believes about me. I used to believe that the purpose of being a Christian was to learn to live a good and righteous life. I now believe that I am good and righteous, not of my own doing but as a gift of grace by faith in Jesus Christ. I used to believe that if I said my prayers and lived an obedient life, when I died I would inherit eternal life. Now I believe that eternal life begins at the [Baptismal] font and goes on forever. My experience of God has shifted from fear to love, from conditional to unconditional, from judgment to mercy. I used to believe that being a Christian was about me…I’ve discovered…that being a Christian is about God. That’s grace.”[2]

Grace. Maybe that’s at the heart of our inside joke between the two lovers – A history of giving and receiving grace in one another so that grace might be extended out and about to others. May Lent this year be for us graceful – further learning how to give it, how to take it. Remember, don’t flaunt it. Instead, let it be an inside joke between you and The Divine.

[1]           Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21

[2]           J. Neil Alexander, This Far by Grace, A Cowley Publication Book, Lanham: 2003, 6.

Remembering Baptism

Matthew 3:13-17 – Year A – The Baptism of Our Lord Jesus Christ

“Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity. Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God.” ~Richard Rohr

 “[T]o understand baptism, we must understand the reality, the physicality, of being human, and what it means to say that God saved us by becoming just like us.” ~Steven D. Driver

Throughout scripture, mainly in the writings of St. Paul, we learn that who we really are and why we are has everything to do with Christ. We live, move, and have our being in Christ. We love and are loved in Christ. We forgive and are forgiven in Christ. It was Jesus – The Christ – who taught these things, and lived out these things in His own ministry. By taking on the mind of Christ, and through imitation of Him, we practice His ministry when we, walk in love as Christ loves us. So it is no surprise that many first century Jews and Gentiles imitated Christ through the two sacraments Jesus instituted: Baptism and Communion. Two sacraments we will remember and renew today. Two sacraments that take meaning out and into the world every time gathered Christians are dismissed to go forth in the name of Christ (BCP, 366).

It’s been said imitation is the first form of flattery, and I would argue that humans have been trying to imitate God ever since the beginning. Our ancestors first imitated God by creating. God, the Book of Genesis reads, created the heavens and the earth [and] the earth was a formless void; yet, God formed something out of this void. Likewise, the first humans formed something out of a void through the act of procreation. It can be argued that the family was one of the first expressions of humans creating, and how mind boggling this must have been for earth’s first mother. First there was nothing – then (for Eve) – there was something. A true miracle; and, like all creation God and mankind use what they have around them to create, and in doing so create a new thing.

John the Baptist was creating a new thing out of a very old thing. Just like the Spirit of God hovered over the waters of creation, John the Baptist would wade into the waters of the Jordan, and invite others to do the same. He intuitively knew that water cleansed, that water washed, that water nourished, and anyone who wanted to participate in this new/old thing were welcomed. By baptizing, John’s intention was to publicly name (right then and there) that this person (or persons) have repented. But then, Jesus wades into the waters. They must have been familiar to Him; after all, if we believe in a Trinitarian God, then Christ was present in the very beginning hovering over the face of the deep dark waters. After Christ swept over this water, then God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light. Similarly, Jesus told John, “Let it be so now,” then, the Gospel reads, John consented, Jesus was baptized, and God (yet again) created a new thing. Going back to the book of Genesis, God said that the newly created light was good. Then Matthew’s Gospel reads, that [God] was well pleased with His Son. God always sees the good in His creation and is well pleased with His creativity. God the Father always loves His Son through the Holy Spirit. God, at all times and at all places is constantly inviting us to participate in His goodness. God saved us by becoming just like us. It was a new thing. It was a good thing. It was a holy thing.

This Epiphany, ask yourself what it means to imitate God, to take on the mind of Christ, to live into the waters of creation. Marvel in the miracle of new life, new birth, and new opportunities to co-create with God. Remember your baptism, renew it with Christ’s Body and Blood, then you will be invited to “go forth in the name of Christ. Thanks be to God.” AMEN.

 

 

A Cry in the Wilderness

It’s been said John the Baptizer had one foot in the past and another in the future. The foot held in the past was not one of pure nostalgia, but of integrity – integrity that realized the work of God in the lives of God’s people in spite of themselves; and, for that foot in the future, John (like the prophet Isaiah) worked as an artist that envisioned a new age, a new city, a new dawning. This New Way was made explicit in the very location of John’s preaching. Matt. 3:1 reads, “In those days, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness.” All you studious Biblical scholars out there can remind us that the Hebrew people appeared in the wilderness, and it was there that God revealed God’s Holy law, or Torah. It was also in the wilderness that the people ebbed and flowed in and out of their faith, and were either judged or blessed by God according to their thoughts, words, and deeds. It was in this wilderness and through its struggles that the Israelites grew in holiness with the help of God and Torah. The people would later be led out of the wilderness into the Promised Land where the great City of Jerusalem would be built, and eventually God’s Holy Temple with it. This new city would be central in the lives of the Jewish people.

Matthew’s Gospel takes this beautiful history of The Exodus, and does a clever role reversal. Instead of the people going into the central city of Jerusalem; instead of the people making sacrifice and confession with the Temple priests; instead of the clergy staying in Jerusalem – Matthew has them all going out into the wilderness. Going out and into the margins where a strange looking artistic, itinerate preacher was preaching repentance and baptism. Like moths to a flame, the people came. Why – Maybe because preaching repentance worked – Maybe because baptism worked? Dare I say both still work today?

It’s in this literary and liturgical structure of repentance and baptism that Matthew introduces a Third Way. This third way wasn’t an act on their part. It wasn’t even a belief. Instead, the third way, the new center, the new city is found in a Person. “A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse” (you’ll remember Jesse was King David’s father), “and a branch shall grow out of his roots [and] the spirit of the Lord shall rest on him” (Isa. 11:1). In Matthew’s Gospel, the family tree of David gets expanded in the person of Jesus Christ, and this tree is firmly planted not in a centralized location, city, or state; but on the outskirts of town, on the margins of society where if you come to see it, it does not discriminate whom seeks comfort among its shade. “Come to me all who are weary and burdened, and I will give thee rest” (Matt. 11:28). It is underneath the shade of this tree, and later the shadow of its cross where helplessness found hope, and meaninglessness discovered its significance.

One of Bishop Rob Wright’s favorite lines when he is among clergy is that, “all the answers are not found at 2744 Peachtree Road.” (This is the address of the Bishop’s offices and the Cathedral of St. Philip). Instead, he empowers us all to seek out answers and innovations from one another. There’s a great collective wisdom within the room that is our diocese, and a lot of that wisdom is OtP (Outside the Perimeter). The Church is best when it worships joyfully, serves compassionately, and grows spiritually; when it loves God, self and neighbor (in that order), and understands that going out to the margins and marginalized of society does not necessarily mean going into the big city. There is wisdom in the wilderness. In fact, one of the reasons I personally love this Gospel passage is because of Matthew’s portrayal of John the Baptist. Matthew, I believe, pegs John as an artist. He’s a very talented artist in performance (i.e. preaching repentance) and with his props (i.e. water). And what do good artists do? They draw people to them and to their work; but John was not only a good artist, he was a great artist. And what do great artists do? They point beyond themselves, and even beyond the art, itself. The people from the center of the city go out to John believing they are there to see and experience him and his ministry; but when they show up John tells them, “it’s not about me.” Great art never is; instead, it is a vehicle and vessel that is used for transcendence. That’s some creativity.

As a kid I would go and visit my grandparents quite often. At the time, my Memom and Granddad were attending a small Missionary Baptist church on a farm-to-market-road in East Texas. Getting to this tiny church, where most of the cemetery was made up of my relatives, we would pass by other small churches. Since it was a very rural part of the state with no neighborhoods, I wondered why there simply wasn’t one church? Why did it have to be 3 or 4? It seemed to me that if people pulled their resources together, they could come up with a centralized church that saw one another as family and supported each other in the good times and the bad. (I guess even as a kid, I felt a strong pull to a more centralized church – how very Episcopalian of me). Serving in Douglasville has brought back some of this childlike curiosity. There seems to be a church on every corner in this county. Why aren’t we talking with one another? Or maybe we have, but we haven’t been invited to the party in a while?

Are churches guilty of self-preservation so much so that coming together, and sharing our assets and resources not a priority? I often times wonder what a town like Douglasville would look like if all the churches got together and tackled one major community problem each year? What if we all got together and started asking artistic questions that pointed beyond ourselves, and our egos? I have a feeling that important conversations would get started if we came together around common causes. Perhaps the teenage pregnancy rate would go down? Perhaps the thousands of kids in the foster care system would find homes? Perhaps no family would go hungry, and no child would be left behind to recycle their family history of poverty?

John the Baptizer was a big burly man who revealed simple truths in an artistic way that made God the center of everything no matter where one resided. Of course God was in Jerusalem, but God was also in the margins. Of course God is at 2744 Peachtree Rd, but He’s also at 5400 Stewart Mill Road along with the hundreds of other churches found within this county who have more similarities than differences…who still believe (collectively, and like John) that repentance and baptism work. I do honor the differences in theology, and in worship, and in the reading of scripture (this is good art), but don’t you think God gets tired of the same old arguments denominations and ‘nondenominations’ have with one another? The one thing that brings us all together is not found in a theology, in a city, or in a song, but in a Person – the person of Jesus Christ who Christians boldly claim is God. And if we’re all reading the same book together, I believe God tells us to love. And God tells us to give. And God tells us to serve, and the person of Jesus Christ lived and continues to live out these virtues of the Spirit within all of us.

Saint Julian’s Episcopal Church is a little church on the margins surrounded by other denominations. We’re also a little church that’s part of the bigger Episcopal Branch of the Jesus Movement. Let’s continue to balance love of self and focus on our parish community, its building and its people alongside the people out there. Let’s get curious with the greater community. I can’t do it on my own. You can’t do it on your own. We need one another. We need to better define our neighbors. We need to repent of apathy, and we need to remind the world it still needs Jesus. This was John’s message. This has always been the Church’s message, and this is society’s message as well as its cry for help out in the wilderness.

Happy Advent

The Advent Season

What is Advent, and what does this transitional season represent to Christians? How do the traditions, liturgy, and prayers of the Church allow hearts to be transformed during this time of year? Why does the Church caution Christians not to jump into Christmas after Thanksgiving Day? Let us live into these questions as we remember the counter-cultural expression of this beautiful season called Advent.

Traditionally, the Season of Advent represents the preparation and coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ. In fact, the word, Advent, literally means, Coming, and its readings, liturgy, and music all point to Christ coming into the world with three different expressions: We remember Christ coming into the world at Christmas, within our hearts, and the expectation of Christ coming again at the end of time. The mood of the season fills the soul with great mystery, tension, and anticipation. For four weeks, hymns, prayers, and Bible readings grace the liturgy with metaphor, simile, and prophetic signs. Words such as restoration, prophecy, and repentance will help to enhance this tension filled season. There will be reminders to keep awake – to not get distracted by all the noises around us – and to remember and reflect on the eternal. Advent invites all to melt into its spell where senses develop an awareness of light and darkness, evergreen trees and deciduous ones, mountains and valleys, the future and The Now.

The Advent Wreath

We can thank our 17th century German sisters and brothers for the development of the Advent wreath (Bishop J. Neil Alexander, Celebrating Liturgical Time, 44-45). What started out as a domestic devotion was later adapted (and adopted) by the Church as its own countdown clock (Ibid.). That is why there are four candles in Advent wreaths representing the four weeks of this season. The Advent wreath, like the Tenebrae services of Lent, reveals humanity’s fascination with the lengthening and shorting of days (Ibid). Advent occurs during the Winter Solstice where the earth’s Northern hemisphere tilts from its sun making the nights longer and the days shorter. Advent is a transitional season anticipating Christmas where the son, or the light of the world will be revealed making His light more abundant on earth, and within the hearts of mankind.

Advent wreaths are made up of evergreen tree branches. Evergreen trees are symbolic of eternity because they do not change with the seasons. They are firm, steadfast, and constant year round. When Christians put Advent wreaths on their doors or in their homes, they symbolically point to both the eternal and the now – or better – the Eternal Now.

The Readings of Advent

In the readings from Advent I, we symbolically remember what it is like to experience the daytime (light) and the nighttime (darkness). Paul says, in his Letter to the Romans, “salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day” (Romans 13:11). Jesus echoes this when he teaches, “Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matt. 24:42).

The Experience of Advent

You know those vacation or holiday nights when you’re visiting a friend, relative, or loved one you haven’t seen in a long time, and you stay up all night talking and catching up? You might have a good drink in your hand, and a fire going on in the fireplace. Table lamps are lit instead of overhead lights. There’s some soft music on in the background that mixes with your moments of conversation yet leaves room enough for those still small moments of nonanxious silences. “You say it best when you say nothing at all” yet when a word is spoken your beloved, perhaps, says it better than you because they know you…you have a history together, and being in the moment is more important than being right. It’s with this revealing picture that I envision Paul and Jesus’ words. Even though it’s dark outside, even though the world is a big fat mess, and when I’m out in it (half the time) I’m distracted by competing voices, for this moment and with my friend, I’m living in the light of Now with God, with my loved one, with the music, and I’m soaking up every simple yet complex thing because for that moment I’m awake. I think that that’s a different type of anticipation, a different type of tension where one can honestly and in the moment stomp on fear and anxiety because there is no fear and anxiety. Something deeper is going on. These are Now moments of anticipation where everything has changed; yet, everything has stayed the same. In Advent, we say that Christ has come into our lives…that the light of the world has come into our hearts yet again. The world is still the same; yet the world is vastly different. And that’s as much as I can describe (with words) the experience of Advent. Paul did it one way. Jesus another. Me another; and you have your own as well.

An Invitation

This Advent, contemplate the mystery of God in your life. Look back on where God seemed to have been holding you, or carrying you, or even dragging you along life’s path. Observe the novel that is your life. Observe the song, or the hymn that is your life intricately wrapped up in the life of the Divine. We only have four weeks, so let’s use our time wisely, anticipating where we know we will be distracted, and don’t be (with God’s help). It’s only four weeks. Instead, focus and occupy your mind, your body, your soul on God, self, and neighbor. Who is God? Who am I? Who is my neighbor? These questions provide an appropriate meditation for a few weeks that could start out for 4, and turn into a lifetime of living into those questions: Who is God? Who am I? Who is my neighbor? Advent, by it’s very nature of light and dark, mystery and metaphor, comings and goings will enhance these questions, question your answers, and help you find that friend you have (perhaps) always been searching for, and longing to stay up the whole night chatting and catching up. As today’s Collect reminds us to pray: “Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life… [and] in the life immortal.” Happy Advent!