Sunday, November 28, 2010

It's Not Light Yet, But It's Getting There (Advent I)

One of my favorite songs on Bob Dylan’s album, Time Out of Mind, is entitled “It’s Not Dark Yet.” Since you may not all be Dylan fans (and even if you are, you still might not understand a word he is singing), here is how it goes:

Shadows are fallin' and I've been here all day
It's too hot to sleep and time is runnin' away
Feel like my soul has turned into steel
I've still got the scars that the sun didn't heal
There's not even room enough to be anywhere
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.

Well, my sense of humanity has gone down the drain
Behind every beautiful thing there's been some kind of pain
She wrote me a letter and she wrote it so kind
She put down in writin' what was in her mind
I just don't see why I should even care
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.

Well, I've been to London and I’ve been to gay Paris
I've followed the river and I got to the sea
I've been down on the bottom of the world full of lies
I ain't lookin' for nothin' in anyone's eyes
Sometimes my burden is more than I can bear
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.

I was born here and I'll die here against my will
I know it looks like I'm movin' but I'm standin' still
Every nerve in my body is so naked and numb
I can't even remember what it was I came here to get away from
Don't even hear the murmur of a prayer
It's not dark yet but it's gettin' there.

I love that song in a haunting sort of way. And I have had moments in my life when I’ve felt that way; perhaps you have, also. If you pray through the psalms, you will find that the same feelings and emotions being expressed in Dylan’s poem can also found in many of those psalms of disorientation where the poet feels alone, afraid, and in trouble. For example:

- Save me, O God, for the waters have risen up to my neck. I am sinking in deep mire, and there is no firm ground for my feet. (Psalm 69:1)
- My spirit shakes with terror; how long, O Lord, how long? (Psalm 6:3)
- My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? (Psalm 22:1)

It can, paradoxically, be a first act of faith to cry out to God when we are in pain: we dare to cry out to God about our awareness of God’s absence precisely because we yearn for and need God’s presence. The cry “My God why have you forsaken me?” is the cry of a faithful person who needs to be assured of God’s presence with them when they are in trouble, not the cry of an unbeliever.

So when Dylan sings that he can’t “even hear the murmur of a prayer” he is, in the true spirit of Biblical spirituality, actually beginning a prayer. When we pour our hearts out to God — even in desperation — that is prayer. When it is dark out (or dark within), crying out about the darkness is the murmur of a prayer.

Turning the calendar from November to December can be a time when many among us feel this way. Perhaps we suffer from Seasonal Affect Disorder or depression. Or maybe we are grieving the loss of a marriage or a loved one or a job, and while everyone around us seems to be dreaming of a white Christmas and humming “have a holly, jolly Christmas” that frivolity can feel like someone is rubbing salt into an open wound. Sometimes it helps us in those times to know where to find those complaint psalms, so we can get it out of our systems, so we can cry out. And if the psalms aren’t handy, then perhaps we can sing along with Dylan: while everyone else is roasting chestnuts over an open fire we can sing: I don’t even see why I should care; it’s not dark yet, but it’s getting’ there.

The First Sunday of Advent always catches me a little off-guard. I know how Lent begins: with that stark reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. In Lent we are invited to contemplate our own mortality as we journey for forty days toward the good news of Easter morning and abundant, resurrected life. Along the way we are meant to re-discover that nothing —not even our own dying—can separate us from the love of God in Christ.

Advent begins in a similar, but far more cosmic, vein: with these reminders that the whole cosmos is dust. Especially in this northern hemisphere, in late autumn, there are signs of endings all around us. And then we come to Church and hear readings about the end of the world, readings that hardly seem to have been chosen to put us in the Christmas spirit. Whether the world ends with a bang or a whimper, such thoughts often come into our minds when it feels like “our soul has turned into steel” and “our sense of humanity has gone down the drain,” when we feel like “every nerve in our bodies is naked and numb.” It’s not dark yet, but it sure feels like it’s getting’ there.

But here is the thing, and it's easy to miss if we are not very careful. It's easy to miss because we no doubt are living in dark times. Nevertheless, Advent One turns it all inside out, and that is either an act of denial or a profound leap of faith. St. Paul says to the Church in Rome—in Rome at a time when the best days of the Roman Empire were clearly in the past and the future looked very bleak indeed - that it is not nighttime but morning. That it's time to “wake up.”

You know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For 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...
It’s not light yet, but it’s gettin’ there. Paul invites us to live and walk as children of the light, to allow that light of Christ to shine through us because the world needs that from us now more than ever. In noticing the darkness to “put on the armor of light.”
“Everybody wake up, if your living with your eyes closed!” (Dave Matthews) It is not the time to turn off the lights and go to bed, but time for sleepers to awake, and arise. Advent marks the dawn of a new day; and we light that first candle not in despair but hope. It’s not light yet, but it’s getting’ there.

On this first Sunday of Advent, we gather together still sleepy from too much tryptophan. It is time, however, to wake up. We gather in a world that is worried about many things, a world that can feel very dark. We come apart to light our candles of hope, and love, and joy and peace. As we do that, we begin by contemplating cosmic endings, knowing that all created things are born and die; not just people but buildings, institutions, economies, nations, and even stars. And yet, with signs of endings all around us we remember the core of the gospel, answers the question: “can it be that from our endings, new beginnings you create?” with a resounding, Yes. Alleluia! As Christians we acknowledge endings not to instill fear but to rekindle hope.

And so we begin a new liturgical year together by remembering that only God is God. We begin where we do because rather than curse the darkness, we light one solitary candle and then another and another and another - until the birth itself lights up the whole world. We will not be afraid of the dark, because we do know what time it is. It’s time to wake up! It’s not light yet, but it’s getting’ there!
In days to come the mountain of the LORD's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths. For out of Zion shall go forth instruction and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

It’s not light yet. But it is getting there.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

The Stories We Tell

The stories that we tell ourselves shape the people that we are becoming. Think about two successful people, with very similar trajectories to the top of their chosen careers. It doesn’t really matter whether we are talking about athletes, college presidents, business executives, or nursing supervisors. One of the two focuses on all the people along the way who made it possible for her to achieve her goals, while the other focuses exclusively on her own hard work and determination. Obviously success requires some mix of both. But the story that each person tells will continually reinforce itself and inevitably shape the person each is becoming. One will become more and more aware of, and even grateful for, the support of others; the other is very likely to feel self-made and perhaps even self-righteous. It makes a big difference which part of that story is emphasized.

It’s not much different, I think, with the early history of this nation and the story that we remember tomorrow. As an elementary schoolboy I learned a highly sanitized and idealized story about the relationship between the people native to this land and the Pilgrims who arrived here from Europe. The story, as we all now realize, was not that simple. And yet this story, too, and the ways we tell and re-tell it, continues to shape the nation that we are becoming. It matters that we try to get it right, that we try to tell the truth; and also that we recognize that the truth is usually more complex and multifaceted than we first believed.

The stories that we tell ourselves shape the people that we are becoming. If this is true with individuals, and with nations, it is also true with families. Have you ever had the experience of adult children from a family each telling a story, about the same event, but from their perspective at the time as, say a sixteen-year old, a twelve-year old, and an eight-year old? Their stories may be wildly different not only because they experienced it differently when it happened, but because over many years of telling and re-telling, the story has become more solidified in each one’s brain—to the point where an outsider might find it impossible to discern what “really” happened. They get together, let’s say for Thanksgiving dinner, and it’s hard sometimes to believe that they grew up in the same family, because their narratives are that different.

We become, in a very real sense, the stories we tell. If we feed old wounds and grudges and those are the stories we rehearse over and over again in our heads, then if we are not careful they will form us into bitter, hostile people.

When we gather for worship, to break the bread and share the cup, we are saying "thank you God." That is what the Greek verb Eucharisteo means. This narrative means to define who we are, and who we are becoming: a thankful people who are dependent on God and neighbor. Gratitude is a practice, not a dogma; it’s an attitude; not a line in the sand. Gratitude takes us to the very heart of the Christian narrative and when we gather together to ask the Lord’s blessing, and to say thanks, we tell and re-tell a story that shapes the people we are becoming, with God's help.

This liturgical act of coming together to celebrate the Eucharist is about remembering our Baptismal identity - who we really are. We pause in the midst of a lot of competing narratives—stories we tell ourselves, stories our families tell, competing stories about what makes this nation great—in order to remember the Story that binds us together and goes to the very heart of our faith in Jesus Christ. When we gather up the gifts of this good earth, bread and wine, and when we offer our tithes and offerings on God’s altar, the wealth of this good land, we come as God’s thankful people.

Now thank we all our God, with heart, and hands, and voices,
who wondrous things hath done, in whom this world rejoices;
who from our mother’s arms, hath blessed us on our way,
with countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Clive Staples Lewis, Apologist and Spiritual Writer

O God of searing truth and surpassing beauty, we give you thanks for Clive Staples Lewis, whose sanctified imagination lights fires of faith in young and old alike. Surprise us also with your joy and draw us into that new and abundant life which is ours in Christ Jesus, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

C.S. Lewis died at his home in Oxford on this day, November 22, 1963 - just one week shy of his sixty-fifth birthday; the very same day that, across the Atlantic, the thirty-fifth president of the United States was shot and killed.

Like so many others, I was first introduced to Lewis through the Narnia Chronicles, his extended allegory of the Christian gospel. Since then, I have been most influenced by The Screwtape Letters, Mere Christianity, The Great Divorce, and A Grief Observed. He seems to have been an extraordinary man and a faithful Christian.

It interests me that both liberals and conservatives seem to revere Lewis; Evangelicals, Anglicans, and Roman Catholics all look to him for wisdom and seem to claim him as one of their own. I am never quite sure what that means, but a couple of years ago when I was in a faculty-staff study at Assumption College with all Roman Catholics reading a collection of his sermons (The Weight of Glory)I did remind them more than once that he was in fact an Anglican! Perhaps we see what we want to see in great men. Or perhaps it means that Lewis was, indeed a "mere" Christian and that light shines through regardless of the lens through which we view him.

For my own part, I love Lewis because he sought to love God with both head and heart and never fell into the trap of seeing those as mutually exclusive. "I believe in Christianity," he once wrote, "as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else." That's pretty good stuff.

And so, too, I think, is this - simple and clear (in the spirit of Jesus) for an Oxford don: "It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad."

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Dedication at the Holden Public Safety Building

As volunteer chaplain to the Holden Police Department, I was invited to offer an invocation at today's ribbon cutting for a new Public Safety Building that will house both fire and police departments.

Holy God, beyond all of our names and creeds: we gather here with joyful hearts to admire the work of human hands and to give thanks for all who had the vision to see what was necessary and the determination and perseverance to make it possible.

As we pause to dedicate this new Safety Building, we give thanks for the faithful leadership of Jack and George.

Above all we give You thanks for the police officers and firefighters who will work here for many years to come.

Grant them courage: courage to face and conquer fears, and to go where others dare not go;

Grant them strength: strength of body to protect others and strength of spirit to overcome adversity;

Grant them wisdom: wisdom to commit themselves anew to the job and to the safety and well-being of this community;

We pray for your abiding presence not only in this new building, but with these men and women as they travel through our streets and to our homes to serve the people of this town. Guide and protect them to do the work you have given them to do, and bless their families, who know better than anyone the sacrifices they make on our behalf.

(November 20, 2010)

Friday, November 19, 2010


Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love... (The Book of Common Prayer, pg. 836)

Last night, I concluded a three-week study on psalms of thanksgiving with an extraordinary group of people in my parish. It was one of the most rewarding and energizing bits of teaching I've ever had the privilege of doing. We met for the three Thursday nights in November leading up to next Thursday, Thanksgiving.

We began two weeks earlier with a brief introduction to the psalms, using Walter Brueggemann's categories from Message of the Psalms. (I once had a rabbi friend tell me that he thought that book was about the best work out there on the psalms, Christian or Jewish.) WB categorizes psalms into three headings: psalms of orientation, psalms of disorientation, and psalms of new orientation. He sees most of the psalms of thanksgiving as psalms of new orientation: that is, they grow out of an experience of loss, grief, confusion, suffering. When the writer of the twenty-third psalm says, "though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil..." it is not the naive confidence of a person who has never known pain that is being expressed, but the confident trust of someone who has walked through the valley before, who has confronted evil, but whose trust is such that hope will trump fear next time around.

So I did my teaching work. One of my favorite collects in The Book of Common Prayer is the one about reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting Holy Scripture. I take that quite literally. It is too tempting for Bible Studies to become mind games, to become more about information than formation. The "teacher" knows all the right answers of course!

I really wanted to make sure in this three-week study that we moved beyond knowing something new about psalms of thanksgiving and that we might take them in and digest them. So in week two, I had asked the group to do some homework: for each of the dozen or so people in this study to journey through the psalter in search of a psalm of thanksgiving that spoke to him or her at this point in their journey. They rose to the occasion. Last week, instead of me categorizing and choosing a dozen psalms to explore, we read poetry to one another--we shared these psalms and often the stories behind them of why we had felt drawn to them. (One of the participants had chosen Psalm 104, and when he came to verse 26 (" there goes Leviathan that You made for the sport of it...") he spoke passionately about a whale watch off the coast of Mexico that had taken his breath away.

Last night, however, was the best. I had asked this group to take the risk of each trying to see the world this week as a poet, and to take a crack at writing a psalm of thanksgiving to share. Last night was an evening of beautiful testimony, of holy conversation. One person sang her psalm, about the tiniest of details in coming home to smells and sights and sounds, to her dog and son. Another took a more cosmic approach to creation and stewardship of the earth. Another paraphrased the twenty-third psalm in what she called Psalm 2010. Several persons spoke out of quite specific experiences of disorientation in their lives which had brought them to a new sense of grace and peace, literally to a new orientation in their faith. Each person in the room felt a need to make some kind of disclaimer: "I'm no poet..." But in truth they were all poets and they all had gratitude in their hearts, even in the midst of real challenges.

They were (and are) an extraordinary gift to me and to each other, bearing witness to the human spirit, to courage and hope and love, and offering thanks to God the Creator for the bounty of our lives. Our cups, MY cup, was overflowing. Thanks be to God!

Monday, November 15, 2010


As you may have read, the Bishop of New Hampshire, the Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson, recently announced his retirement.

I was talking to a priest today who, while supportive of full inclusion of gay and lesbian people in The Episcopal Church, also felt that Bishop Robinson's election was "too costly."

He asked me what I thought and I told him that change is always costly. The real question is whether we find ourselves on the right or wrong side of history.

Hathy and I have been watching a television series called MadMen together. It takes place in 1960, and let me tell you, that was a "man's world." (I was born in 1963 but I grew up in a town that lagged about a decade behind the nation with most change. So I feel like I lived through MadMen.

On November 9, this press release was issued by The Episcopal Church, to honor a pioneer named Lueta Bailey of Griffin,Georgia. On November 12, at the Diocesan Convention of the Diocese of Atlanta, Ms. Bailey...
...received an award commemorating the 40th anniversary of the seating of women as deputies to the Episcopal Church’s triennial legislative gathering, called General Convention. Bailey was the first woman to address General Convention, in 1967 in Seattle, and was among the first women seated at the 1970 General Convention in Houston.

Read those words again, especially if you are younger than I am. We now have a female Presiding Bishop and I got this press release from Bonnie Anderson, a laywoman who is president of the Deputies at General Convention, which I will attend in 2012. The senior warden in the church I serve is a woman and more than half of the vestry are currently women. (In fact I'm trying to achieve some gender balance by recruiting a few good men to vestry!)

Forty years ago, The Episcopal Church was still a "boys only" club. That "old time religion?" The "good old days?" For whom!?

Yes, it has been a hard decade for the Episcopal Church. Harder still for Bishop Robinson and his family. Harder still for gay and lesbian youth who are bullied, isolated, frightened - and this from too many so-called religious people. Change is always costly. Let's just hope it doesn't take us forty years to honor V. Gene Robinson for his courage, his ministry, his service to Christ.

Monday Morning Quarterbacking

For readers of this blog who may not know what a Monday morning quarterback is, Wikipedia says it means: "A person who criticizes or passes judgment with benefit of hindsight." Since most football games are played on Sunday afternoons, Monday morning quarterbacks are those who like to second-guess what coulda/shoulda/woulda been...

Sometimes I find myself "Monday Morning Quarterbacking" my Sunday Morning sermon. Actually, it is rarely a cognizant process; more often I can feel it in my body--my neck or shoulders, especially if I felt like it was a difficult sermon to deliver.

Yesterday was one of those days for me and today I feel pretty stiff and tight. It was, I think, Fred Craddock who said in his classic book on preaching, As One Without Authority, that sermons need to follow the same Biblical form as the texts being preached. "Let doxologies be shared doxologically, narratives narratively, polemics polemically, poems poetically, parables parabolically..."

It makes good sense to me. It also helps the preacher to stay open to the diverse voices and forms of Holy Scripture rather than finding one sermon to be preached over and over again.

But it's not easy!

So yesterday I preached on a text from II Thessalonians (3:6-13); an "admonishment from St. Paul to idlers and busybodies." And I realize today, on this Monday morning, that this is not my favorite kind of Biblical text. As a pastor, I am profoundly aware that most people - even those who seem to have it most together - still carry heavy burdens (and often secret burdens at that). I am also aware, as a rector, that part of my job is to be like a coach sometimes: it is not to be liked but to push, to challenge, to admonish. I also realize that one of my own shortcomings is that I like to be liked, which makes this "coaching" a bit of a chore, and somewhat exhausting.

I think that there are two further reasons I so dislike preaching admonishment. First of all, I think many people outside of the Church and some inside the Church equate "admonishment" as a near synonym for preaching anyway. We think of preaching as "finger wagging." Don't preach at me, we sometimes say. When we speak in this way, we are not saying "don't share the good news with me" or "don't speak doxologically." What we really mean is "I don't want to be scolded." And I get that; I don't like being scolded either.

The second reason I don't like admonishment very much is that I don't think it works very well. Most people I know simply don't respond well to criticism. Also, in a community, it is hard to admonish the people you mean to admonish, since often the more sensitive people who are already way too hard on themselves will think you are admonishing them! Why is it that the hardest working person in a church hears every word addressed to "idlers" and feels guilty about not doing more, but the idlers...well, they were thinking about something else during the sermon!

In part what I said yesterday was this:
The meaning of today’s Epistle reading is not immediately obvious. We begin to get a clearer picture, though, when we remember that it’s a misnomer to say that Paul wrote this letter “to the Thessalonians.” He didn’t write to the Thessalonica Daily News. He didn’t write to all Thessalonians. He wrote to the small house churches in Thessalonica — to the baptized community in what we know as modern-day Greece. He wrote these words just a couple of decades or so after the death and resurrection of Jesus. So let’s be clear: he’s not making a political argument to cut welfare and replace it with workfare. Nor is he suggesting that the Thessalonian congregation cut the church’s mission budget to the poor because the poor are lazy and undeserving. Rather, Paul is speaking to the Church in Thessalonica, and reminding the members of that congregation that they need to share the workload, that ministry is a team sport. He is wrestling here with what was apparently a persistent problem in that congregation, because this is not the first time he has raised it. In First Thessalonians, Paul writes: “We urge you, beloved; admonish the idlers, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with all of them.” (I Thessalonians 5:14) Apparently these admonishments and encouragements didn’t work. Apparently there are still idlers and busybodies there.

You know those people: they are the ones who say things like, “it would be great if somebody in this church would do x…” Depending on how developed the person’s sense of humor is, I sometimes respond by saying, “hey, you’re somebody!” It’s an old problem in the Church, dating back to those early decades of the Church’s life in Thessalonica; and it hasn’t yet gone away. In the reading we heard today, basically Paul says: “look EVERYONE needs to pitch in and help. NO ONE should be expecting a free ride here. Let’s get to work!”

We first learn, for good and for ill, how to be members of a community in our families. Hopefully we learn that everyone has a role to play and a job to do. If you don’t learn this at home, then hopefully you have a choir director or a basketball coach or a teacher who helps you to learn it somewhere along the way. In my experience, idlers create resentment and hurt feelings which break down community. When people leave their dirty dishes in the living room or on the kitchen counter because the dishwasher is full (but they never think to empty it if the dishes are clean, or run it if they are not) then resentment builds. They think “somebody” will clean up after them.

It is no different in a congregation. I can tell you that I have witnessed, on occasion, that sometimes people leave their dirty dishes in the sink here at St. Francis or on the tables in Fellowship Hall or in the library. It happens. And let me be very clear: Jesus died for them too. They, too, are beloved of God. But it doesn’t mean they are easy to live with. Paul calls them idlers. My own experience as a pastor, however, tells me that these things don’t always happen because people are lazy. Sometimes they are just clueless. Sometimes they really just don’t know any better. The work of a congregation, whether in first-century Thessalonica or in twenty-first century Holden is to help people to grow into the full stature of Christ. If they don’t know any better, they can learn, with God’s help. If they are lazy, then they need to be admonished. If they are clueless then someone needs to take them aside and encourage them. But we need all hands on deck. I think that these words we heard in today’s epistle reading are really just the flip side of Paul’s image of the Church as the Body of Christ. We are living members of that Body, Paul says elsewhere. He is reminding us that there is plenty of work to do and so no one should try to come along for a “free ride.”

Now this is all, I think, true. And from time to time it needs to be said. It's true, but it isn't the whole truth, especially in congregations like the one I serve. There are so many people who do get it, so many who serve above and beyond the call of duty, so many who do quiet things that no one else even knows are being done, including me.

These texts must, of course, be preached sometimes. But I vastly prefer texts (and Paul has some of those too) that lead us to gratitude for the ways that faithfulness is being lived out. My mother taught me that "you get more bees with honey than vinegar." Deep down, I guess I really do believe that myself. And I think the next time Paul is admonishing a congregation,I'll opt for the gospel reading, or make sure the Associate is preaching!

Saturday, November 13, 2010


A friend of mine posted this as his "status" today:

"Tradition is not the worship of ashes, but the preservation of fire."

He attributed it to G.K.Chesterton. A quick Google search found the same quote is attributed to Gustav Mahler as well. I don't care who said it; maybe they both did. I like it!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Veterans Day

It's not like I've been blogging for decades, so maybe it's way too early to start re-posting things! But as I sat down this morning to think about this date - 11-11-11 - and what it means to me, I went back and looked at what I posted one year ago. And really, I don't have anything to add. So here goes--a "re-run" from 11-11-10! (rms)
O Judge of the nations, we remember before you with grateful hearts the men and women of our country who in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy. Grant that we may not rest until all people of this land share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines. This we ask in the Name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(The Book of Common Prayer, page 839)

On this day in 1918, World War I ended. Wikkipedia says that there was a "cessation of hostilities." That gets it about right. There was not peace and there was not justice; people were just sick and tired of war.Certainly that is understandable. And yet most historians argue that the end of World War I (ironically fought as the "War To End All Wars") marked the beginning of World War II, or at least the roots of it.

In my experience, soldiers never glamorize war. The ones who do that are the politicians who remain a safe distance from the front lines. By all accounts, those front lines in "The Great War" were pretty awful. Armistice Day would eventually become Veterans Day because, well because it wasn't the war to end all wars at all. Because you don't end war by making war, or even with cease-fires. You end war, as the prophet said, by beating swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks. You end war by doing justice, and loving mercy, and by making peace, which is an active verb, not a passive one.

Our yearning for peace is not at odds with honoring the men and women who have served in uniform.  In fact, it seems to me that the greatest honor we can pay those who have "ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy" is to work for peace and justice, and to help create a world where our children and grandchildren "study war no more." That requires realists, not idealists. It requires hope, not wishful thinking. It requires peacemakers, not "crying peace where there is no peace."

At 11:00 a.m on this day, I hope readers of this blog will pause for a minute of silence to remember those who have served this country and who are currently serving this country. Give thanks for the sacrifices they have made and are making. If you have a chance to thank a Veteran then do that. Give thanks for their families who also know the costs of war.

But be sure to also pray for peace, true peace, lasting peace: the peace that passes all understanding - the shalom that allows us to convert instruments of war into instruments of peace.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

St. Francis Church

It was on this weekend of All Saints, in November 1997, that Hathy and I "snuck in" to worship at a Saturday Service at St. Francis Church in Holden. We had driven up that afternoon from Westport, CT, where I was serving as Associate Rector, with our two sons, who were seven and three at the time.

The Search Committee was down to two final candidates. I had questions, particularly about the Saturday Service which had been described to me in so many different ways that it made my head spin. Some described the music as more "praise oriented." I know the Body of Christ is a "big tent" but I did not see myself as rector of a parish that leaned that way. In fact, I would learn in time that the parish was polarized around music questions and in fact there were some who did want to move in that direction. But what I found when we got there was something I felt much more comfortable with, even if it was less familiar to me than the Sunday Service led by the organ: the ushers handed out Gather Hymnals at the door and guitars and keyboard led us in what felt more like a Roman Catholic folk mass from the 1970s than a tent revival.

Hathy and I took the boys out for dinner after worship, and we sat and talked. We both realized that night that this was a place we could call "home." I think that most people who serve on Search Committees aren't usually fully aware that Clergy are "searching" too and have their own questions and concerns and anxieties. Most Search Committees I've met are comprised of very nice people who think their primary job is to find the right priest for them. And maybe it is. But they don't tend to be quite as aware that the process is more like a dating service (not that I have first-hand experience with those!) in that there are needs (spoken and unspoken) coming from the other side too. It's a hard balance to strike.

By the time we came to Holden that night I'd said "no" to a job offer that just didn't feel like a "call." And that was much harder than being told no, to be honest. I felt like I was letting them down. I was letting them down! It had not seemed to occur to that Search Committee that I might say "no thanks." But I knew in my bones that I wasn't right for them; and just as importantly that they were not right for me (and my family.)

I'd also been the second choice at a university chaplaincy I REALLY wanted, and at a parish on the north-shore of Boston that I THOUGHT I wanted. All of which is to say that it really did matter how that Saturday Service went. While the sermon preached by the interim ranked as one of the worst I'd ever heard, the music was lovely, and more importantly the spirit of the place was warm, and the people seemed "real."

I didn't know at that point that at the December Vestry meeting, I would in fact be asked to become the fifth rector of the parish. What I did know, however, is that if asked I would say "yes."

Like most marriages, I think the first seven years are perhaps the hardest. There were ups and downs including the departure of most of the staff I inherited, the tragedy of 9/11, the parish's celebration of it's fiftieth year as a congregation, General Convention 2003 (which led to the departure of several active families) and the reclaiming of the congregation's mission that followed. It's been quite a ride.

I am grateful for it all, especially knowing that as I near the completion of thirteen years that there have been way more ups than downs and that the "relationship" is strong. That doesn't mean that there are never challenges, any more than a marriage of thirteen years doesn't still have its challenges. But there is more authenticity; more patience with the other; more of a sense of humor and more of an awareness that there are no perfect rectors and there are no perfect congregations: just God's people trying to be faithful to God's call.

I am grateful that my family has in fact come to call Holden our home: both Hathy and I have lived in the rectory now longer than any other residence in the almost five decades of our lives. Our kids have gone through an excellent public school system. We have been blessed and are blessed.

I am grateful that I have been asked to walk with people in their faith journeys and tonight as we remember those who have died since last All Saints Day I am aware of all the funerals I have done over thirteen years. And as we Baptize five persons this weekend I am aware of all the Baptisms I have officiated at, as well as the weddings, confirmations, and everything else in between.

There are many challenges and even crises that the Church in our day faces. But most of them seem more like opportunities, and less like danger, when God's people are working together: when pastor and people share a vision and a sense of purpose. I am grateful to be in a place where that is so.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Holy Women, Holy Men: The Feast of Richard Hooker

The following "rumination" was originally preached as the homily at a midweek Eucharist at St. Francis Church in November 2003 to commemorate the Feast of Richard Hooker, who died on this day in 1600. Those who remember recent history in TEC will remember that the fall of 2003 was a particularly "unsteady and confusing time" for many. I have slightly edited the homily and updated it to be shared in this context, but essentially it what I said then (and still believe today.)The gospel reading appointed for the day is John 17:18-23.

O God of truth and peace, you raised up your servant Richard Hooker in a day of bitter controversy to defend with sound reasoning and great charity the catholic and reformed religion: Grant that we may maintain that middle way, not as a compromise for the sake of peace, but as a comprehension for the sake of truth; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

The English Reformation, from which the Anglican Church was born, didn’t have a central figure who led the charge akin to Martin Luther or John Calvin. Rather, Anglicanism grew out of both a desire, and the necessity, of finding Christ in the midst of competing and very different theologies. Some wanted the Church to remain close to Rome, while others wanted it to be more Reformed. Luther, Calvin, and the Pope all had their followings and “theological camps” in England.

The Reformation as it unfolded on English soil was therefore different from what unfolded on continental Europe. Over the course of Anglican Church history the pendulum has swung at some times toward a more catholic sensibility, and at other times toward a more protestant piety--and all the while there was no small amount of confusion and dissent. But over that extended period of time what begins to emerge is the great gift of Anglicanism: a deeper awareness that truth is mediated in and through differences, not unanimity. The “via media”, or middle-way about which we pray on this day is, at its best, “not a compromise for the sake of peace, but a comprehension for the sake of truth.”

There is no central figure for us like Luther or Calvin, but there are important leaders. Thomas Cranmer was one of them, the liturgical and linguistic genius who revised the Latin Mass and the daily prayers of the monasteries to create The Book of Common Prayer–a book to order prayer that might build up the Body of Christ rather than tear it apart into factions. That document has gone through revisions and changes over more than four centuries, but its essence remains unchanged. One can hold up that first Prayerbook, and the 1979 Book of Common Prayer and see the commonalities. Still, the goal is to fashion a people after God’s own heart, a people who come from different places to one Table, a people who ask God each morning to “open our lips” not in order to gossip or lie but that our “mouths may proclaim [God’s] praise.” We pray that we might do so not only “with our lips but in our lives, by giving up our selves to [God’s] service” and by walking always in the presence of God. (BCP 80-102)

But our praise doesn’t end with the morning office. We sing God’s praises throughout the day, at home, and work, and at play until we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes “behold the vesper light.” (BCP 118) At the end of the day we ask God for “a peaceful night, and a perfect end” and know that even if this day is our last we are prepared to die, “for these eyes of [ours] have seen the Savior whom God has prepared for all the world to see: A Light to enlighten the nations, and the glory of [God’s] people, Israel.” (BCP 127-135)

Cranmer taught us as Anglicans to pray together, even in the midst of dissent; to offer common prayer that binds us together to love and serve the Lord. It was left to people like Richard Hooker, whom we remember on this day, to reflect on what that all meant theologically: not by writing a new creed or catechism but by articulating what it means to be a praying Church.

The quote from Lesser Feasts and Fasts requires some degree of reflection, but it goes to the heart of what Hooker understood the Church to be, and just as importantly of what he knew it was not. Hooker was challenging the Puritans, a group that was to have an extraordinary influence in the new world and especially here in New England. They tended to see the congregation–the Meeting House–“the assembly” as synonymous with "the Church."

But Hooker saw (correctly I believe) that assemblies–whether liturgical or legislative–are not the right metaphor for what it means to be the Church. Rather, Hooker talked about the Church as more akin to a “Society.” Assemblies belong to the Church, but they are not the Church.

What’s his point? I think it is goes directly to the struggles we face as a Communion, as a denomination, and as a congregation. The point is that what happens in an Assembly to elect a bishop, or an Assembly to confirm a bishop, or an Assembly to ordain a bishop, or at an Assembly in Dallas or Lambeth matters a great deal. But none of them are the whole truth–-and even the sum of them is not the whole truth. Assemblies require there to be winners and losers. They resemble the political process, because they are political processes. They are necessary because faith communities do need to make decisions to the best of their ability, hopefully after much thought and prayer and with God's help. Decisions–even innocuous ones–will always lead to disagreement and to some degree of conflict.

We tend to think, on both the right and on the left, that our “Communion” is in danger. We tend to think one more Assembly might fix things. But I think Hooker would insist that we have that wrong. He would insist in the twenty-first century as he did in the sixteenth century that the Church is not ultimately an Assembly, but a Society, i.e. a mystical Body. As another great Anglican, Charles Wesley, put it: a “mystic sweet communion…a fellowship divine.”

No Assembly regardless of its ideology to the right or to the left can undo that, because that Society is a gift is of God. The Church, Hooker saw, is organized not around an ideology but a Person: the Person of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God. The Church is His Body for the sake of the world, not just when life is settled and calm but even in the midst of conflict and struggle. Especially then, when it may well be harder to notice.

That doesn’t make conflict go away, and it doesn't make conflict "not real." It does, however, re-frame the question. It allows us to see that the Church is bigger than all of our Assemblies. In practical terms, it means that we can (and must) co-exist with those with whom we disagree because we are all "in Christ" - like it or not. You cannot declare "victory" of one side over another and still call that "Church." It is Jesus Christ who creates the Church of which we are living members in and through Holy Baptism. Our job is to try to understand what that means, with God’s help.

Hooker’s great gift to us is to remind us we are called into that “mystic sweet communion” with God and with neighbor: not final resolutions of conflicts, but to friendship with God and one another. We are called to practices of hospitality and reconciliation more than we are called to making pronouncements.

Can truth, and peace coexist? Our collect this day insists that they can, in God. Our job is not to make them exist but to approach that reality through prayer. Our Anglican “middle way” at its best is not about political compromise, nor about being wishy-washy (although I realize we do often experience it that way.) Rather, as we have prayed: it is about authentic discernment, about a deeper comprehension of the truth that leads to a peace that passes all understanding.

Or as the reading from John’s Gospel puts it: our common prayer leads us once again to the insight that just as the Father is in Jesus, and Jesus is in the Father, so, too, is God the Holy Trinity in us. That makes us one–just as the God the Holy Trinity is one. Whether we like it or not.

Monday, November 1, 2010

For All the Saints!

O blest communion, fellowship divine! We feebly struggle, they in glory shine; yet all are one in thee, for all are thine. Alleluia. Alleluia.

Today is the Feast of All Saints, a time to remember those who have gone before us and to pray that we may have strength and courage in our own day to follow their example and witness.

Each of us was given the faith we have, however strong or weak that faith may be, by others. From that moment in Mark's Gospel at the empty tomb when the women were too afraid to "go and tell" it is clear that eventually they found their voices; they went and they told someone. And someone told someone else, who told someone else...

...and eventually someone told us. Faith is not words alone, but words-made-flesh. Sometimes people have told us with words about what they believe, but just as often and perhaps even more often they have shown us how to live by their faithful example, without words: finding courage in the face of difficult circumstances, embodying hope in the midst of grief and loss, showing us how to love by loving us even on the days when we have perhaps not been particularly lovable.

For all of them we give thanks on this holy day. May they rest in peace and light perpetual shine upon them.