Thursday, March 28, 2013

A Commandment to Love

A sermon preached at St. Francis Church on Maundy Thursday, March 28, 2013

Tonight’s gospel reading comes to us from what the Biblical scholars call “Jesus’ Farewell Discourse.” He and the twelve have gathered in the Upper Room. According to John it is the Eve of Passover, the night before his death. Jesus essentially summarizes everything that he has tried to teach them throughout his public ministry. One last time he goes over it all, as he says his goodbyes to those whom he no longer calls followers, but friends. In fact as John has shaped his Gospel, this Farewell Discourse goes on for five chapters—which is like 25% of the entire Gospel. So it’s big!

I have never confused myself with Jesus and I know you haven’t either. We are, together, servants of Jesus in this place where the ministers are all the people. We are FOJs—friends of Jesus. And while I know that diocesan ministry will have some challenges for me, I’m not expecting to die on a cross doing that work. Even so, all of us are meant to see our lives reflected in the life of Jesus. As the Christmas hymn puts it, “he is our lifelong pattern; daily when on earth he grew…”[i]  Now I know it is Holy Week, but given this winter we have had, I hope you will excuse me for quoting Christmas carols!

So I hope it is not too presumptuous for me to be identifying tonight with this whole notion of a “farewell discourse.” This is my sixteenth Holy Week as your rector: that’s a lot of words, a lot of sermons and Bible studies and a lot of “Rector’s Notes” for the Little Portion. But over these past couple of months I’ve been trying to distill it down to what I think is essential. Ultimately, of course that will take some time and in the end it is not up to me but all of you to figure out what mattered when the next edition of the history of St. Francis Church is written.  

But for my own part, I believe that this lived-out parable of foot-washing and this novum maundatum to love one another is a place where my own farewell discourse intersects with that of Jesus. What I hear Jesus saying here, and doing here, in this liturgy tonight—and in this commandment given to us in the thirteenth chapter of John’s Gospel is what I have tried to be about here. Earlier in his ministry, Jesus said the whole of Torah could be summarized in two rules: love God and love your neighbor. But tonight it gets it down to one action that says the same thing without any words at all. Just love each other.

It has always been interesting for me as rector of this parish to watch a person who is new to congregational life make the journey from enthusiasm to disappointment, and then hopefully (with God’s help) to spiritual growth. I’ve seen it enough to observe a pattern that mirrors the Paschal mystery. Someone walks through the doors with her eyes wide open and is just so excited because this is the greatest parish ever. Perhaps they have been out visiting other congregations and they’ve seen that many of them are struggling just to keep the doors open. Or maybe they are paralyzed by conflict. So they are genuinely glad to be here and rightly so because there is vision and energy for mission here. And let me be clear: I thrive on that energy and passion. It is so nice to see yourself and the parish you love through such eyes. This truly is a great parish and there is so much for which we need to give God thanks. New eyes sometimes see that better than old eyes, which can become a bit jaded and weary. Those who have been here a long time may be tempted to take the richness of this faith community for granted.

So that energy and positive attitude of new people is very real and no doubt a gift of the Holy Spirit. But it does not last forever. Eventually, new people get asked to become more involved. They join the choir or the altar guild or they teach church school or they serve on a search committee or they sign up for coffee hour. If they don’t do this of their own free will, then someone usually twists their arms—gently of course. As a community, we try to find ways to utilize their gifts and we challenge them to become more involved because we really do believe that the ministers here are “all the people.”

But here is the thing: in so doing they come into contact with real flesh and blood people. They no longer see their idealized version of St. Francis Church from the distance of a webpage but the real deal—warts and all. And we are a mixed bag; all of us. Even the healthiest among us are wounded and fragile birds and sometimes we get cranky and impatient and even mean. Yes, even in Christian congregations; even in this one. Jesus promised wherever two or three are gathered together in his name that he would be in the midst of them. But what he didn’t say is that when two or three humans gather together there is also sure to be some conflict. And when that inevitably happens to us, our image of the Church is shattered.

As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once put it in Life Together, our “wish dream” for the Church is challenged. C.S. Lewis addressed this same issue famously in The Screwtape Letters in own his peculiar way, from the angle of the Deceiver. But both Bonhoeffer and Lewis wrestle with something very real: this notion of how we move from an idealized community to the real thing. For this to happen, there has to be some measure of disappointment. Because no rector, no staff member, nor lay leader, no congregation can ever live up to that “ideal.”

In a congregation where the bumper stickers on the cars in our parking lot run the whole spectrum of political opinions, if you become involved it’s fairly certain you will be hurt and disappointed sooner or later. You will be offended or you will offend someone. It is inevitable. And here is the thing: I have come to believe that it is precisely at those moments in time that the true journey of the spiritual life begins—a journey that takes us to a place where we no longer need to gather more information about Jesus, but where true formation in Christ can happen. It is there that we begin to learn why Jesus doesn’t just suggest love, but commands it, and why forgiveness takes us to the very heart of the matter and the heart of what these three days are about. We are all in need of healing and we all rely on grace because we all miss the mark. When we see that we begin to realize that the Christian journey is not about fixing other people, but doing our own soul work (in fear and trembling.) It stops being theory in those moments and takes on flesh as we discover that the gospel is about way more than being nice to the nice. It is about the work of reconciliation.

It is in such moments that we begin to discover the beauty of authentic Christian community—a body of real people who, with God’s help, are growing into the full stature of Christ. It is a lot easier to just be “spiritual but not religious.” It’s a lot easier to take long walks on the beach and to come to the garden alone while the dew is still on the roses. Don’t get me wrong; we all need personal spiritual practices and if forced to choose between spiritual, but not religious or religious, but not spiritual I know which way I’d go. But the Christian life is not about choosing one over the other. The Christian faith is about integrating the two together, because the Christian faith is an incarnate/embodied faith.

Community is messy. We sing of one bread and one body because we know full well that we are many, and we experience the dangers of fragmentation. If this week teaches us anything at all, it is that sometimes even Jesus’ friends will betray and deny him and one another. Sometimes we will just plain get it wrong and sometimes we run away and sometimes we stand and fight. But eventually by God’s grace we ask another question: is there a future for us that is not merely a repetition of the vicious patterns we get stuck in? Is there another option when we are hurt or disappointed, when we discover that this congregation and every congregation is far from perfect? Is there a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul?

Tonight takes us to the very core of that new identity that is ours to embrace in Christ at such times. It is an invitation to discover the way forward by going deeper. This day takes its name from the Latin words novatum maundatum: Jesus gives us a new mandate to love one another. These words represent Jesus’ final instructions to the Church before his crucifixion. In John’s Gospel he will reiterate this commandment one more time, tomorrow, when from the Cross tells the beloved disciple and his mother to love one another like parent and child. And then his work will be “finished.”
Tonight, Jesus acts out this parable that is so central to our identity as Christians. We are invited to a hard and difficult path and it is not because we are embarrassed that we didn’t remember to get a pedicure before church. It is in allowing ourselves to be served and to serve. This always requires trust, and trust always requires risk and vulnerability and intimacy. This is scary because it is easier to lord it over one another. This isn’t Hallmark-card-love tonight and it isn’t The Bachelor. It is a hard saying and a challenge to so much that we believe we stand for—so much we want to stand for.

So notice Jesus’ posture on this night. He isn’t standing. He is kneeling at the feet of his friends. Jesus—king of kings and lord of lords and Word-made-flesh and very God of very God (begotten not made) gets on his hands and knees and takes a basin and a towel and he washes his friends’ feet. In all of that vulnerability—all the way to tomorrow’s conclusion at Golgatha he gives us this maundatum novum to love one another.

You cannot wash a person’s feet and not see them as a beloved child of God. You can definitely stand up and note that they drive you crazy, that their politics are totally wrong and maybe even that you don’t particularly enjoy their company. But you can no longer write them off. Jesus washes even Judas’ feet. And he washes even Peter’s feet, after some back and forth. Washing another person’s feet shows us how to truly love: not by lording it over them or imposing our views on them or convincing them that we are right, but by seeing them as a beloved child of God.

These three holy days that now enfold us are about the compassion of God and the invitation to each of us to be a more compassionate and merciful people. To be more religious—that is bound together—and to be more spiritual. To allow God to be God by ourselves becoming, with God’s help, more and more God’s faithful people. By letting go of our wish dream for community and in sheer gratitude thanking God for companions and friends among whom it is our great privilege to serve.

In particular I am grateful tonight for wardens who have already been so gracious in their service to build up this congregation as it faces a season of change. I feel immense gratitude tonight that this is a place where we can see the face of God and embrace the new life that is ours in Jesus Christ daily. Throughout the year as we enter more deeply into the Paschal mystery week by week and day by day, that it is the kind of place that helps us to see in ever changing ways what it means to love one another, as we have first been loved.

[i] “Once in Royal David’s City,” Hymnal #102

Sunday, March 17, 2013

On Turning Fifty

Being born on St. Patrick's Day, my parents had to at least consider the possibility of naming me Patrick. Instead, they opted to name me after my father. Not a "junior" - he was E. Richard and I'm Richard M.- but close enough.

I turned 21 in Dublin. My English major friends and I planned an official James Joyce pub-crawl. (Well, I'm not sure what made it official other than that we dubbed it so.) It was pretty cool, although I'm a bit fuzzy on the details. I turned 25 in New Orleans, which was also a fun St. Patty's  Day venue.

My father died at 37. It's hard to explain, but turning 37, and then 38, and then 40 were all a very big deal for me. When I turned 40, I invited a whole bunch of friends to our house and we had a bash. I guess because at some subconscious (or maybe even conscious) level I had worried that I might not ever make it that far and it felt like a milestone.

Liturgically, my birthday falls in Lent, which begins with the reminder that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. That has never frightened me, not even when I was turning 37, or 38, or 40. But as the birthdays roll along, it just rings truer and truer for me. I'm a pastor and I see death up close. Not everyone lives into their 80s or 90s so you have to take it one day at a time, and savor it all as incredible gift. Knowing we will all die and that I will too does not frighten me; it just makes me want to to live more fully in the present moment.

I know that for many people turning 50 is a big deal. But it doesn't feel that way for me. One of my "way older" friends told me she didn't really start to feel comfortable in her own skin until about 50. I don't know if I'd say it quite that way, but I can surely say I feel more at peace with who I am (and who I am not) at 50 than I did at 40 or 30 or 20.

So today as the sun comes up I am feeling fairly philosophical and introspective, and definitely grateful for the many blessings of my life. My work day will include two liturgies among a people for whom I have great affection, a meeting with a young couple preparing for marriage, anointing a beloved parishioner with his family gathered at his bedside, followed by an adult confirmation class. A "normal" day in the life of a country parson. I can't think of a better way to mark a half-century.

The year ahead will be one of changes: a new job, a new home, and a new chapter with Hathy as our nest has emptied. Bring it on! Life is good. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Mary of Bethany - A Preview of This Sunday's Gospel

Six days before the Passover Jesus came to Bethany, the home of Lazarus, whom he had raised from the dead. There they gave a dinner for him. Martha served, and Lazarus was one of those at the table with him. Mary took a pound of costly perfume made of pure nard, anointed Jesus' feet, and wiped them with her hair. The house was filled with the fragrance of the perfume. But Judas Iscariot, one of his disciples (the one who was about to betray him), said, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and the money given to the poor?" (He said this not because he cared about the poor, but because he was a thief; he kept the common purse and used to steal what was put into it.) Jesus said, "Leave her alone. She bought it so that she might keep it for the day of my burial. You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me."
The synoptic gospel writers—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—all tell a story very similar to this one from the twelfth chapter of John’s Gospel. You can look them up in Matthew 26, Mark 14, and Luke 7. Clearly, the early Church felt that this story was important.

But it shouldn’t surprise us that the gospel writers disagree on some pretty important details. Memories are like that, and all four gospels were written decades after the events took place. For example, both Mark and Matthew tell us that this anointing took place at the home of Simon the leper. Luke says it transpired at the home of a Pharisee, and as we see, John is sure it happened at the home of Lazarus and Mary and Martha in Bethany. All of them (except for John) forget the name of the woman, which is ironic since Mark’s version ends with Jesus saying, “truly I tell you, wherever the good news is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in remembrance of her.”  So the act is remembered, but her name has been forgotten, at least by the synoptic writers. Luke says she was a sinner. Maybe that’s because Luke had issues with women—or at least his Greco-Roman culture did. Or perhaps it is simply because Luke is really big on forgiveness and the claim that we are all sinners, male and female alike, allows him to remind us that God’s grace through Jesus is bigger than all of our sins. It is Luke, after all, who gave us that extraordinary story of the "prodigal" son who came home to a warm embrace and Luke who is pretty sure that one of the last things Jesus ever said was “Abba, forgive them, for they don’t understand what they are doing.

Unfortunately, however, once Luke turned this woman into a sinner it was only a short step from there before the tradition went even further and started saying she was a prostitute.

So it’s easy to get confused when we hear a story like this, and the disagreements among the four canonical witnesses make some people a little bit crazy. They may even serve as evidence to those who think the Bible is just a fairy tale that we Christians can’t even get our stories straight. And perhaps there is an inner Biblical literalist in all of us that wishes we could go back in time, behind the stories to what really happened. If we could just go back to that room and see for ourselves, then like Sergeant Joe Friday we could get the facts, ma’am, just the facts. 

I believe, however, that our work as a listening community - as a people called to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest Holy Scripture - is to chew on this word, this story. To lean in and listen to what John has to say. So it is worth meditating on this particular version of the story; not the composite in our mind's eye that has a bit of each but to really hear John's version. Try to see it, to imagine yourself there. What do you hear spoken - in the dialogue between Judas and Jesus? What is left unspoken? What does the nard smell like? What do you think Martha cooked for dinner? How does it feel to have your feet massaged after a long week by someone you trust? What is it like to anticipate the grief that lies ahead?

Thursday, March 14, 2013

More Lenten Reflections

Really, this is part two to yesterday's post. The big question in the Bible is not whether or not one believes in "a god" (theism v. atheism) but rather this: which God do we believe in? The challenge for people of faith is idolatry: to create gods in our own image (very often out of our own neuroses and compulsions) rather than worshiping the God of steadfast love and mercy who is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

It's not about whether or not we believe in a God, but can we believe in this particular God - YHWH, also called the Abba of Jesus, the God revealed not only in the Old and New Testaments but in the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth?

I said yesterday that Bruggemann recognizes that the testimony of the Old Testament includes dispute and counter-testimony. I think of the Book of Jonah, which turns this claim back on God when it comes to God's seemingly indiscriminate love of our enemies. "This is why I didn't want to go to Nineveh in the first place," Jonah says to God. "Because I knew you are a God of steadfast love and mercy and when that love extends to those who have hurt me I question your judgment and your justice..."

And of course the more existential counter-testimony when someone like Job or countless psalmists experience the unfairness of life. When bad things happen to good people it is hard to see God as a God of steadfast love and mercy, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.

Even so, and even on days when it is hard to believe in this God, we press on. Lent is an invitation not to return to some generic god but to this God who created us from the dust, this God who washes his disciples' feet and gives us a new commandment, this God who has claimed and marked and sealed us by breathing new life into us again and again and again.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Lenten Reflections

In his Theology of the Old Testament: Testimony, Dispute, Advocacy, Walter Brueggemann reminds his readers that theology (literally logoi about theos) is about speech, specifically speech about God. We can get stuck when we read sacred texts and focus all of our energy on asking, “did it happen?” The point Brueggemann makes is that the far more important question is this: “what is being said?” And then the follow-up question: what does it mean? 

Brueggemann suggests that a metaphor for reading the Old Testament is a courtroom where “testimony” is being read in as evidence. As in any courtroom, all of the evidence does not agree. The role of a juror is to try to carefully sift through it all to discover what is reasonable. There is a core testimony, but also there is counter-testimony; sometimes the evidence is disputed. Still, there is much on which at least most of the witnesses agree. This metaphor allows for a reading of the Old Testament that avoids reductionism. It means we don’t need to read it as against the New Testament or by trying to locate Eden on a map, or going on a quest for the historical ark. 

We just need to pay attention to the witnesses. We need to listen to what is being said, and then measure that against our own lives and how we experience God. An Episcopalian might say we read, mark, learn and inwardly digest...  

At the core of Israel’s testimony, Brueggemann begins with two key words: thanksgiving and righteousness. The God of the Old Testament (who is the same God of Jesus) is One who is worthy of our gratitude and who does justice. YHWH  is the One who does right by the widow and orphan. YHWH is also the One who creates and re-creates; the potter who forms the clay. YHWH is the One who makes and keeps promises. YHWH is the One who delivers. Notice all those action verbs: God makes, promises, delivers, blesses, and feeds.

Brueggemann goes on to say that from these action verbs come a whole bunch of adjectives—words that describe who God is. A key text in what Brueggemann calls Israel’s “credo of adjectives” is Exodus 34 where the testimony is offered that God is merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. 

God is merciful. In Hebrew, rhm – the word for womb. God loves us like a mother who has carried us in utero for nine months. God shows hsd – steadfast love. God is there no matter what, like that father in the story of the prodigal son.

We find these same adjectives in Psalm 145:8: 
The Lord is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness. 

If the journey of Lent is meant to lead us deeper into the heart of God, it matters how we speak of that God. When I was in San Francisco this past fall, and happened to be in town for the Giants’ parade, there was a street preacher across from my hotel shouting a lot about Jesus and about repentance, and about hell. Now I don’t want to say that there is nothing of that kind of language in the Bible but clearly it is not at the core. You don't scare people into faith by threatening them with damnation. That is not the heart of the matter. Sometimes the prophets do get loud in order to try to wake people up. But always they point us toward the God who desires us, yearns for us, loves us with womb-like mercy and steadfast fidelity. The God about whom that street preacher was talking is not the God I know and love in Jesus Christ.

It is to that God, however - the God of the Bible and of Jesus Christ -  to whom we are called to return as this Lenten journey takes us once more into Holy Week, and ultimately the three holy days: the God who is gracious and full of compassion, slow to anger and of great kindness.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Luke 15:1-3, 11b-32

All families are complicated and there is little doubt that birth order plays some part in shaping who we are. It is so easy for petty sibling rivalries and jealousies to push aside the love and force us into roles that leave less of who God means for us to truly become. If we hear too often at a young age: “he’s my shy one” it can get harder and harder for us to come out of that shell. Or if “she’s the responsible one” it may be more difficult to let go and relax. Or “he’s the one who can’t sit still,” or “she’s the one who is going to give me gray hair...”  Those labels can stick in ways that last beyond a phase, if we aren’t careful. They can literally box us in. But being human is never about simple stereotypes, and if we forget that it can leave us feeling pretty lost. They may convey truth but they cannot define who we are. And yet these "labels" so often stay with us long past their expiration dates.

The parable of "the prodigal son" is a complex one to be sure. But even in calling it by that name we move not only toward meaning, but away from it. How many times did that younger brother hear in his life, "oh, this is my problem child?" Jesus doesn't call him by this name. He simply speaks of the two brothers in terms of their ages: one older, one younger. As the third of three "lost and found" parables, it seems pretty clear in Luke's Gospel that this one is the most complex: that when you move from coins and sheep to people, being lost becomes a far more relative term. 

By the end of this story the younger brother has been found and he is celebrating. His story is like the hymn, “Amazing Grace,”—he once was lost, but now he’s found; he was blind, but now he sees. He is the recipient of an abundant outpouring of love that helps him to see the wideness of God’s mercy—as he  encounters not only a father but a God with open arms, who welcomes back all the lost, all who are afraid and are ashamed. 

But the jury is still out on the elder brother as the story ends. Will he uncross his arms and join the party or not? Even if he does, will he be able to let go of his anger and hear the words of his father? The fatted calf awaits him, too, after all—there’s more than enough for everyone. No one has excluded him from the party. But he seems to have lost his way too, and it is not at all clear whether or not he is going to allow himself to be found.

It seems at the very least that he will need to let go of that sense that his brother is undeserving and that he is "righteous." Like the scribes and Pharisees who first listened to Jesus tell the story, he will need to let go of the false notion that he’s “holier than thou” and risk embrace if he is going to be found. He has to let go of that role that has defined him for so long - chosen or imposed - in order to be embraced by the God who loves him for who he truly is.

Whether or not we know how lost we are, Christ desires to find us all. We are all beloved of the One whom Jesus calls "daddy" - and there is room enough at the Table for all of us.  If we are more like the younger brother, we may need to “come to ourselves” by getting up out of the pig pen and making our way back home again. If we are more like the older brother, then we need to “come to ourselves” by letting go of our resentments and grievances. 

The truth is that like so many siblings, these two brothers have way more in common than either realizes—not just because each is lost in his own way or because they are "blood brothers," but also because both are children of a compassionate God. Both are equally and utterly reliant on mercy and grace, as we all are.

Both of these brothers are in need of grace, and of healing, and of love. But as the story ends, only one of them has recognized that fact and received that gift. Only one has allowed love to heal and transform him by unleashing the peace that passes all understanding.

Now I admit that I may be overly optimistic about this; but I like to believe that while it may have taken him a while longer, eventually the older brother joined the party. He, too, “came to himself.” Maybe he tentatively walked toward the party, hesitating at the door. His younger brother sees him, and runs to embrace him, mimicking the role that the father played for him. And the tears began to flow. That is how the world will truly be made new: when the brothers can both begin to live with the same kind of reckless abandon as their father, when it comes to his capacity to love. I’m hopeful that the two brothers did embrace. Even if it didn’t happen that day, even if it took years for them to see how much more aike than different they were. 

But of course, we cannot know that for sure. And because the story does end where it does, it forces us to consider the possibility that the two never reconcile, and that the betrayal the older brother feels causes a permanent rift with his father and his brother. Perhaps he leaves home in disgust, never again to speak to his family and sure that in so doing he was totally justified. We must consider that ending, because all of us know that it can happen that way, as sad as it is to admit. We are free—each of us—to refuse love; and even to convince ourselves that being right is more important to us than to love or to be loved. 

Of course it’s just a story. But it is a story that leaves so many questions hanging in the air, stories those first hearers took home with them—sinners, tax collectors, scribes and Pharisees. What kind of lives would they live, after hearing such a story? And so, as it echos across the centuries it still haunts and calls to us: what kind of lives will we live after hearing such a story? 

Sunday, March 3, 2013


Repentance: in Greek the word is meta-noia. 

Meta - the prefix we know from metamorphosis that means “to change.” 

And noia: the same root found in our English word, paranoia—when you are “out of your mind.” 

So metanoia: literally, “to change your mind.” It's about re-thinking something, about seeing it in a new light. It's about recognizing where we got it wrong.

Repentance is not primarily a feeling or emotion. It’s not about feeling sad or remorseful, although perhaps those feelings will sometimes lead us to repentance. It is definitely not about guilt or shame, which very often halt forward progress toward amendment of life. True repentance is about how we grow, how we learn, how we evolve. It's about how we embrace the new life that is ours in Christ.

Most people I know (including myself) don’t like to have to consider changing our minds about much of anything. Most arguments are more about stating our case than holy listening. We hold onto the “way we were raised” or the “way I was taught”—as if that settles the matter. But remember this: people were taught for centuries that the world was flat. People were taught for centuries that blacks were inferior to whites and that women must never be ordained. They were wrong.

So this story from the desert tradition: once upon a time a visitor came to the monastery looking for the purpose and meaning of life. The Teacher said to the visitor, “If what you seek is Truth there is one thing you must have above all else.” “I know,” the visitor said. “To find Truth I must have an overwhelming passion for it.” “No,” the Teacher said. “In order to find Truth, you must have an unremitting readiness to admit that you may be wrong.” 

Often when we encounter “the other” who challenges our worldview it is easier to just shout louder, until our world is made smaller and smaller and reduced to the people who tell us what we already know to be true. The problem with that way of being in the world, however, is that we stop learning and growing. And when that happens, repentance ceases to even be possible.  

Faith is not a security blanket to keep us snug and warm. At the heart of Lent is this radical notion that true repentance is not about stability, but change. Ultimately it requires amendment of life and bearing fruit worthy of repentance: changed minds and hearts lead to changed patterns and better choices, and ultimately transformed lives. 

Friday, March 1, 2013

Witness to the Dark

God our [Parent], you see your children growing up in an unsteady and confusing world: Show them that your ways give more life than the ways of the world, and that following you is better than chasing after selfish goals. Help them to take failure, not as a measure of their worth, but as a chance for a new start. Give them strength to hold their faith in you, and to keep alive their joy in your creation, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.   (From The Book of Common Prayer, page 829)
A number of years ago I was asked by the Chief of Police in Holden if I'd be willing to serve as a volunteer chaplain to the department. I agreed to do it, and as a way of beginning to understand the work I started riding along with officers on patrol. This was an extraordinary gift. First of all, as I had learned as a parent with two sons, it is very often much easier to talk in the car with guys (and most of them are guys) than to sit and talk face-to-face. They would open up much more "on the road" than if we were just hanging around the police station. But I also got to see another dimension of the town that I lived and worked in, especially after dark.

I remember an officer reflecting once about his own cynicism about human nature and my apparent naivete. (I think he mistakenly took my optimism for naivete but that is another post.) He said, "you see people at their Sunday best. I see them at their Saturday night worst." At the time, I simply received the comment. Over time, however, I have realized that while this may have been true on his side of things, i.e. that cops very often do see people at their worst, he did not fully appreciate the depth of pastoral ministry, which is about way more than Sunday morning worship.

As I prepare to make a change from parish ministry to diocesan ministry, I find myself pondering this more and more. After twenty years as a parish priest, and especially the past fifteen in Holden where relationships have developed not only among my parishioners but in the wider community, I know that the truth is that a parish priest is invited into people's real lives - in all of their glorious ambiguity. I am indeed an optimist about people, but not because I am naive about human nature or the challenges of finding our way through this "unsteady and confusing world." And more than being an optimist by nature, I choose, in Christ, to be a person of hope.

There is a hymn we sing in my church called, "I Want to Walk as a Child of the Light." But those words only have meaning if we have first witnessed the dark. I want...that is a key word. The reason the Church is called to be light in the world is that in the depths of the tradition we do know something of what it feels like when the lights go out. You don't get to Easter morning without Good Friday. And the ultimate battle is not with flesh and blood, but the powers of darkness that threaten to hurt and destroy the creatures of God. Episcopalians don't tend to talk that way much outside of the Baptismal liturgy but that language is a part of our theological vocabularies and I think that we need to learn better how and when to use it.

In all the funerals at which I have presided as a pastor, the hardest ones (and the ones that continue to stay with you) are the ones for young people. The death of a ninety-year old is sad, but it is usually fairly easy to sing "for all the saints who from their labors rest" on such an occasion and to believe it. The death of an infant from SIDS, or a preteen from a heart-defect, or a suicide that cuts short a young life is always tragic. Such deaths affect not only the family, and not just a congregation, but an entire community.

I read a galley proof of Bob Larsted's Witness to the Dark: My Daughter's Troubled Times - A Comedy of Emotions this past summer. Bob Larsted is a pen name; his website can be found here. Yesterday he handed me an official autographed copy of it, which touched me very deeply. He is not a parishioner, but our lives crossed in several ways over the past fifteen years: at the local public schools, through a program called Destination Imagination, and at a funeral at which I presided for a teenager who took his own life. And so it is that I appear as a a very minor character in his story as the (unnamed) rector who presided at that service, around the time that his daughter's own troubled times began. The book describes "Bob's" roller coaster ride as a parent through "his daughter's battle with sadness, cutting, and suicide attempts, depression, bipolar and schizoaffective disorders." He takes us through the minefield of trying to deal with schools and the healthcare system. While that story is profoundly sad, he manages to do so in ways that actually have you laughing at times. It is not for the faint of heart. And yet he tells it in a quirky, unique, way that truly does read like a "comedy of emotions."

It is not up to me to quibble over the title of a book and it is what it says it is: a powerful witness to the dark. And yet, the mere fact of his daughter Patricia's survival to the age of twenty and in the extraordinary poetry she has written in her own right and in this book about a parent's love, there is also a testimony to the light. It is not a religious book, but it is about faith in the deepest sense of that word. It is most definitely about hope. As the great Bruce Springsteen once put it, at the end of every hard day, people find a reason to believe.

I commend it to you, especially if you are a parent or loved one of someone who struggles with any form of mental illness. Or if you work in a school or the mental health profession. In the midst of all of the talk about gun violence in our country and of the need for better gun control laws (which I wholeheartedly support) there is also clearly a need to better understand and treat mental illness. This book gives you a unique perspective on all of that. It is a profoundly human story of courage, love and survival, and that is an inspiration to all of us - and a light shining in the darkness.