Sunday, May 26, 2013

Memorial Day Weekend

O Judge of all 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 the 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, pg. 839) 
Memorial Day’s origins go back to the Civil War, when women decorated the graves of their fallen sons and husbands. The roots of a national Memorial Day, a day to remember those who gave their lives in service to country, goes back to 1866 in Waterloo, New York. 

I like the prayer above because it begins by acknowledging that God is judge of all the nations and therefore every nation (including our own) is accountable to God. This offers a counter-testimony to nationalist claims that God is “on our side.” (See See Bob Dylan.) Patriotism is a penultimate good, not an ultimate one. It can be manipulated by scoundrels to become idolatrous if we are not vigilant. 

The collect recalls before the living God those who "in the day of decision ventured much for the liberties we now enjoy." Their lives of service and their willingness to lay down their lives for the sake of something bigger evokes in us grateful hearts. Those who have given the ultimate sacrifice deserve, at the very least, our sincere thanks.

But if we stop there, it seems to me we do not fully honor their memories. The second half of the prayer goads us to live in a way that makes their sacrifices count. We cannot talk about freedom without discipline (nor, for that matter, about discipline without freedom.) True freedom is not the right to do whatever we want to do whenever we want to do it; that's anarchy. Alternatively, discipline without freedom is fascism. Those who serve in the Armed Forces understand this connection. So, too, do those who seek to follow Jesus Christ. 

So we continue to engage in this dance toward freedom and justice and peace, and this weekend is as good a time as any to pause in between grilled hot dogs not only to remember and to give thanks, but also to ask the harder follow-up question: how can we live our lives this week in ways that help us move toward the full inclusion of all of the people in this land so that everyone might "share the benefits of true freedom and gladly accept its disciplines?" 

Note: This post is an updated and re-edited version of a post that first appeared on this blog on Memorial Day Weekend in 2010. 

Saturday, May 25, 2013

I Bind Unto Myself Today, The Strong Name of the Trinity

The Bible itself doesn’t formulate a doctrine of the Trinity. While there are references to each of the three persons, it was left to the Church to figure out what it meant as time went on. For some that is an uncomfortable fact, because it sounds like a bunch of bishops just made the whole thing up. But we need to remember that the promise of Pentecost is that the Spirit is there to guide the Church into all truth.

The fourth-century Church faced some pretty dramatic changes that were set in motion when Emperor Constantine converted to the Christian faith. Overnight, the Church’s relationship with the dominant culture changed from being a persecuted, counter-cultural sect to becoming the official religion of the empire. (One aspect of that change is that bishops started to more closely resemble kings, even in their dress!) The Church which had from its inception stood over and against the culture, now faced new challenges as a cultural force to be reckoned with—and with responsibility for helping to shape public policy. There is no way to overestimate the radical shift that required as the Church adapted to new circumstances and a whole new set of challenges. One of the odd new things, then, is that those bishops gathered at Nicaea because they were summoned there by the Emperor—who wanted the matter settled once and for all on what the Church was teaching about God. Kings like things settled, and don’t do well with rancorous theological debate. It’s no accident that the Church became more dogmatic as it became more and more established. 

At Nicaea, there were, on the one hand, some who wanted to stress the notion that God is One. If they had carried the day, then Christianity would be very much in line with the theology of the other branches of Abrahamic faith: both Judaism and Islam stress that God is one. Moses and Mohammed are seen as great prophets and leaders and visionaries—but no Jew or Muslim claims to worship them or pray to them. Neither is understood to be "very god of very god.” The problem with that approach for “orthodox” Christiana is that the witness of the Church was (and is) that Jesus Christ was more than a prophet—more than Moses or Muhammad—and that in the life and death and resurrection of Jesus the Word that was with God and the Word that was God had become flesh. So at the other end of the spectrum were those who wanted to stress the three-ness of God’s Being—precisely because they were so clear that they had experienced the presence of God through Jesus and the Holy Spirit. But in stressing the three—Father, Son, and Spirit—it sounded to some in the Church like polytheism—which contradicted the monotheism of the Scriptural witness.

And so they argued and prayed, and they argued and prayed some more. I suspect that the bishops who gathered at Nicaea felt at times a lot like we feel in the Church today, in the midst of what sometimes seem to be irreconcilable differences. Is God three or is God one, they asked. Someone had to be right, which would suggest that the other side clearly had to be wrong. Right?  

No, they eventually concluded. Sometimes when you ask a really good question the answer is multivalent. What if both sides were right, or at least mostly right? And yet without the truth of the other, completely wrong? Sometimes truth is paradoxical—a mystery.

I think that the real miracle of Nicaea (and evidence of the Spirit's presence) is that they did hang in there with each other - arguing and praying, praying and arguing - until eventually they began to hear one another. Until eventually they began to listen again for the guidance of the Holy Spirit. The doctrine that emerged was “One God, revealed in three persons”—as outlined in the the Nicene Creed, which thankfully begins with the word "we." (It is a statement of faith that emerged in community, for the sake of community; it is not a litmus test!) 

If we turn this into a matter for our intellect to grasp, we miss the point. If we use this (or any other church doctrine) as a “weapon” to decide who is in and who is out, we misunderstand the meaning of “orthodox” faith. Literally that word “orthodox” is not (as is sometimes asserted) about “right belief” - as if one side has the “right” answers and the other side is “wrong.” Nicaea is a case study in just why that approach is so misguided. Rather, when we sing the doxology—

                        Praise God from whom all blessings flow!
                        Praise God all creatures here below!
                        Praise God above ye heavenly host!
                        Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost!

- we are singing “words of praise.” Orthodoxy shares that same meaning—literally. It’s not about right belief but about right praise. If we mean to help people more deeply praise God, then we need to learn that the doctrine of the Trinity is not a math problem to be solved; but a mystery to be embraced in love. Maybe the best way to do that is to sing it.

Friday, May 24, 2013

More Friedman: The Problem With Leadership

In yesterday's post to this blog I mentioned that I am reading Edwin Friedman's Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix. In his introduction, "The Problem With Leadership," Friedman notes four major similarities in the thinking and functioning that he sees as going to the heart of the problems we face at every level of society today, from families to major institutions. These are:
1.  A regressive, counter-evolutionary trend in which the most dependent members of any organization set the agendas and where adaptation is constantly toward weakness rather than strength.
2. A devaluation of the process of individuation so that leaders tend to rely more on expertise than on their own capacity to be decisive.
3. An obsession with data and technique that has become a form of addiction.
4. A widespread misunderstanding about the relational nature of destructive processes in families and institution that leads leaders to assume that toxic forces can be regulated through reasonableness, love, insight, role-modeling, inculcation of values, and striving for consensus.
(See page 12) 
The first point is one I've given a lot of thought to as a parish priest over the past fifteen years. I think it's totally right, but it's also very challenging to live out especially in Christian congregations and for Christian leaders. How do you tend to "the least of these" and value the voices of everyone without letting the most needy and unwell members set the agenda based on their own dependency and weakness?

The fourth point reminds me of one of my very favorite of Friedman's Fables, "The Friendly Forest,"  The story is about a tiger who terrorizes a lamb but all the other animals in the "friendly" forest think they can reason with the tiger. In the last line of the story, one of the "less subtle" animals says that this whole thing is ridiculous: "if you want a tiger and a lamb to live in the same forest you don't try to make them communicate: you cage the bloody tiger!"

Friedman is provocative. I hear a lot of clergy talk being a "non-anxious presence" and I've used that same language. And it definitely is a big part of what Friedman sees leadership to be about, along with being self-differentiated. But his vision for truly capacitated leaders is about something much bolder and more radical, I think. And unfortunately in rather short supply.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix

Lately I have not had much time for reading, let alone just "sitting and thinking." Last week I said goodbyes to a parish that I served for over fifteen years. It was a wonder-filled, and emotionally exhausting, experience.

This week I moved some things into my new office in Springfield and spent a good chunk of time on both Tuesday and Wednesday at Diocesan House. Today my wife and I closed on our new home. For twenty-seven years of our married life we have lived in church-owned (or church-rented) housing and so this, too, is a new adventure. Next week my eldest will graduate from college and then as I (officially) begin my new job as Canon to the Ordinary in Western Massachusetts I'll be traveling to Burlington, Vermont to meet the other C2Os from Province One - i.e. the other Episcopal Dioceses in New England.

So, as I was saying: not a lot of time for reading. But the book that has made it to the top of my reading list is a book by Rabbi Edwin Friedman, published posthumously. I have long been a fan of Generation to Generation and Friedman's Fables - two books that have gone to the heart of what I've learned as a parish priest. As I begin to transition to diocesan ministry (and trying to re-focus on what makes congregations tick) I am returning to Friedman, a rabbi and family therapist who thought a lot about such things.

I'm not too far yet into this book (for the reasons why, see above!) but here is a video I watched recently to whet my appetite. Check it out here and consider joining me in reading this book. I'll be coming back to it in the days and weeks ahead, I'm sure.

Sunday, May 19, 2013

Pentecost Farewell Sermon

The Feast of Pentecost - Sunday, May 19, 2013 - marked my last Sunday as rector of St. Francis Church. It has been a wonderful journey that began on February 1, 1998. Below is a written portion of the sermon I preached this weekend. A link to the full audio version of the sermon can be found here.

We heard the familiar Pentecost story from the Acts of the Apostles today, when…
…suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability.
It is very cool that so many of you are so gifted with all of these various languages. Remember how that sounded today, because our dramatic reading reveals an even deeper truth: that even when we are all speaking English around here, we in fact speak many different languages. I don’t know if men are really from Mars and women are from Venus. But I do know that gender shapes the ways that we experience God and speak of God, so we need to keep bringing many names. So, too, does our age affect how we experience and speak about God, so we need to keep bringing many names. Besides all of that, some of us here first met Jesus in the 1928 Prayerbook and others of us in Protestant congregations and still others in Roman Catholic congregations. Those early impressions stay with us for a long time. So we need to keep bringing many names, while trusting the Holy Spirit to help us to hear one another to speech.

We also heard these words today from St. Paul’s Letter to the first-century Christians in Rome, the eighth chapter.

All who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God. For you did not receive a spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received a spirit of adoption. 
Remember that the opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is fear. Fear causes us to fall back and gets us stuck and paralyzed. In Holy Baptism and as we grow up into the full stature of Christ, we have received a spirit of adoption, a spirit of love that allows us to mature in faith. Continue to live into that claim and all will be well and all shall be well.

And finally, these extraordinary words on the lips of Jesus, from the Fourth Gospel:

I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you.
The journey of faith really is like a labyrinth that takes us nearer and nearer to the heart of God. Someone once told me that they’d read the Bible in college and kind of “checked that off their list” and then wondered how I could keep coming back to it again and again and again, year after year. “Wouldn’t it get boring to do that?” I was asked in all sincerity. But I think the answer to that question is that the Holy Spirit, the Advocate, keeps leading us into truth, keeps forming us as disciples of Jesus. Sometimes—wait for it—sometimes we even change our minds. We see something in a new way, from a new perspective. We hear from someone whose voice was previously not at the Table and we are all changed for good. The Holy Spirit comes to change hearts and minds and to bind us together in love with God and neighbor.  Ultimately the way and the truth and the life revealed in the Bible is not a set of doctrinal position papers; it’s a person. The Holy Spirit keeps bringing us back to Jesus again and again, who keeps calling us by name: follow me.

Today is all about the Holy Spirit. But the Holy Spirit is all about ministry—about what it means for us to be the Body of Christ. That brings us back to the work that God has given us to do: to love and serve Christ as faithful witnesses in the world.

What we do here, week after week, is talk about a dream and try to make it real. (There is your Springsteen quote!) A few years back the vestry read Verna Dozier’s book, The Dream of God: A Call to Return. It’s all about how the ministers of God are all the people and the Church is so much more than the clergy. It was first published in 1991, but like Dr. King’s dream for this nation it isn’t something that is achieved overnight. It takes work and it takes time. As we articulate that dream, and then as we try to make it real, we find ourselves engaging in the work of ministry. Together. And in so doing we are changed for good, as we discover and rediscover our vocation to be not just a nice place to be, but salt for at least this part of the earth and light for this part of the world.

No one person can do ministry alone or quickly. Over these past fifteen years, it has been our shared joy to have had some time together to see the Spirit do Her thing—continuing to amaze us by showing up again and again and again not only at those life events like baptisms and weddings and funerals but in all kinds of places along the way, and every time we gather to break the bread and share the cup. We take God’s good gifts and add human labor—grains of wheat and fruit of the vine. And what is ordinary becomes what is holy. We become what we receive, and empowered by the Holy Spirit we are sent into the world to be instruments of God’s peace and ambassadors of reconciliation. What incredible work we have shared!

You have been an extraordinary blessing to me and to my family, and always you will be in our prayers and in our hearts. You have taught me so much not only about how to be a priest, but far more importantly, about how to be myself and how to be a more faithful follower of Jesus. Thank you. And may God bless you all as the journey continues. 

Sunday, May 12, 2013

More On Transition

What follows is a portion of my sermon for the Sunday after the Ascension, preached at St. Francis Church in Holden on May 12, 2013. The full manuscript and audio of the sermon can be found here.

When I was young na├»ve rector, I thought I’d figure it out - this congregation I mean; kind of like a rubic’s cube. Remember those? It would take some effort on my part but I thought I’d get everything all nicely lined up by colors, all my ducks in a row as it were. All of the sheep moving along together with a nice pleasant baaing. 

I have learned over and over again that congregations just don’t work that way. First, of all even ducks and sheep have a mind of their own - not to mention human beings. Very few people come to St. Francis thinking “I can hardly wait until the rector gives us our marching orders and tells us what to do next.” 

Now as it turns out this is a very good thing and I’m not complaining one bit. In fact it’s worth celebrating the fact of being part of a community where the ministers are all the people. But it does mean that the work of being a rector isn’t ultimately about implementing some strategic plan and telling people what to do. In a congregation like this one, it is quite likely that if the rector says, “why don’t we all line up here in order from shortest to tallest?” that someone is bound to say, “we always go from short to tall…do you have something against tall people?” And someone else will say “who said we have to do this by height at all? I think we should line up by age, or alphabetically. And someone else may chime in, “why do we always have to be so confined in these ways? Who needs stinkin’ lines anyway?”

So if you are like me (and a little bit OCD) then you have to learn again and again to let it go—that you can’t “organize” a congregation of God’s people as if they were a rubic’s cube. The system keeps changing and shifting because it is organic; because it is a living Body. People die and move away and others are born and move in. Life in Christ is more like a river that you cannot step in twice, and the only real constant is change. As that great old hymn puts it, time itself is an ever-rolling stream.

Yet it’s hard to get an “amen” on this, even when we know it’s true, because transitions can be difficult. Some part of us wants the Church to stay the same in an ever-changing world. That is neither possible nor desirable, however. At some level this Sunday after Ascension takes us deep into the heart of this truth.

Because a Church that is waiting on the Holy Spirit is a Church that is learning to pray, and to trust God, and to know with Dame Julian of Norwich that all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. 

Leaders come and go, but God’s people are sustained and find their identity in times of transition as they learn anew the power and centrality of prayer and that the God who was our help in ages past will be our hope for years to come.

It helps, however, to stick together as much as possible. God’s people are not a rubic’s cube but we don’t need to behave like cats either. The sheep are safer when they stay close together. And so in today's gospel reading from the seventeenth chapter of John, Jesus is praying for his disciples as they make their way through a time of transition. This prayer is for us:

I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one… the glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me…I made your name known to them, and I will make it known, so that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.

I like the way that a contemporary Irish theologian has put it: “we’re one, but we’re not the same; we get to carry each other, carry each other.” In times of transition, we get an opportunity to discover and to rediscover this truth again and again, and to remember that our unity does not come from our being organized by a bishop or a rector or a warden. “Organized religion” is kind of an oxymoron, anyway; like jumbo shrimp. Nor do we keep our unity by standing in place and circling the wagons. We are members of a Body, and anything that is alive is growing and changing. 

We are one, but we’re not the same. We get to carry each other. In doing that work, over time and by God’s grace, we discover again and again that we really are God’s beloved.  As we make our way through the wilderness we begin to see that it is an adventure, and that the Lord really does provide us with daily bread. And so many other surprising gifts along the way. 

Saturday, May 11, 2013

Daily Bread

When I was a little kid, I assumed that when you got really, really old (like thirty or so) that you’d be all grown up. By “grown up” I meant you’d pretty much have life all figured out: you’d not only know the answers to all the really hard math questions and be able to understand all the words in any book, but much more than that, you’d understand why the sky is blue and the grass is green and where pets go when they die and why there is so much suffering in the world.

Thirty came and went a long time ago. Adulthood is not what I once believed it would be. I had thought it was a destination, but what  I have discovered is that life is a journey, and that when we get stressed and confused or upset or feel betrayed we revert back to somewhere in our childhoods. We never grow up, at least not in the ways I used to believe—not in the sense that we “arrive” and can check it off some list.

When I was a young curate in Westport, Connecticut one of my responsibilities was to put together a Confirmation Program. One aspect of that program was to bring in a panel of “saints” to meet with the kids—older members of the congregation who had been around a while to share their faith journeys. One of those saints was Helen Gault, a wonderful old "Yankee"  in her late eighties who told the kids that she thought by now she’d have this faith thing figured out but the truth is that the older you get the more questions and uncertainties you have. I loved that, and the kids did too, I think.

The journey from slavery to freedom runs along a similar trajectory: it is a meandering road through the wilderness, and at best we make gains in fits and starts. Sometimes you start to move forward a few steps, only to revert back again to the old patterns. In the fourteenth chapter of Exodus, the Israelites dramatically cross the Red Sea. And then in the very next chapter they sing a song and do a liturgical dance and shake their tambourines. They are happy because they have seen that God is good; that God cared about their plight and has done infinitely more than they could ask or imagine. But by chapter sixteen, the liturgy has ended and they look up and there is the Sinai Desert in front of them. Only one month has passed since their singing and dancing. The Bible says they will spend forty years in Sinai which means they only have 479 more months to go!
In the wilderness, the whole Israelite community grumbled against Moses and Aaron. The Israelites said to them, ‘If only we had died by the hand of the Lord in Egypt, when we sat by the fleshpots, when we ate our fill of bread! For you have brought us out into this wilderness to starve this whole congregation to death.’                Exodus 16:2-3 (Jewish Publication Society Translation)

We spend our lives somewhere between slavery and freedom, somewhere between childhood and maturity. And when the stress level goes up we can start to become fearful or nostalgic or sometimes a combination of both. We start to think that slavery wasn’t so bad, or that being a teenager was easy. But even if our memories were not so skewed, the fact is that you can’t go back even if you want to. There is only ever Now: we don’t get a redo on the past and we cannot control the future. So the only real question before us, each step of the journey, is to try to live this moment fully, with trust rather than fear.

Now this metaphor extends way beyond Exodus, and the Bible is ridiculously honest about the fact that we spend a fair amount of time in our lives in such transitions, or to use that Biblical metaphor, “in the wilderness.” Think about it: the Torah—those first five books of the Bible—are the heart of Jewish faith and by extension pretty important for Christians as well. From this point on until the last verses of Deuteronomy, we’ll be in the wilderness. Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy: four/fifths of the Torah takes place “in the wilderness!” In the New Testament, Jesus will recall this ancient metaphor when, after his baptism, he is driven by the Spirit into the wilderness for forty days and nights. The season of Lent is an opportunity for Christians to do the same.

But the wilderness is also the place where gifts are given and where spiritual growth occurs. It is not a punishment: it is just where we sometimes find ourselves along the way in the journey from slavery to freedom. I suspect that the Israelites may have initially imagined what freedom would be like in much the same way that I, as a child, imagined adulthood would be like. That it would just happen one day. But it doesn’t work that way. It’s a long and winding road toward freedom. And part of the key, I think, is in learning to live one day at a time, in trusting in God for daily bread—learning to be fully present to the moment.

The story remembered in the sixteenth chapter of Exodus is actually pretty funny stuff. Everyone is complaining and quite frankly behaving very badly. Hunger will do that to you. This is the original Survivor, only no one is going to get voted off the island. They are in this together and perhaps this is the single most important lesson they need to learn in this journey from slavery toward freedom: their utter dependence upon God and their radical interdependence with one another. They need to figure out how to become a community together. We tend to get nervous about words like this: we like to think of ourselves as independent. But the key lessons given to us in the wilderness are about dependence and interdependence.

For the Israelites, one month into the journey of Sinai, the memories of Egypt are already becoming skewed: they remember only the good parts, that they had food from their master’s table. At least they had enough to eat. So the Lord tells Moses, “I’m going to rain down bread from heaven for them.” And Moses passes the message along: God will rain down bread from heaven for you.

Great! I’m sure they are thinking about some rye toast or maybe a nice whole grain batard or a sourdough baguette.  Hungry people talk about food. When you are famished words like “pizza” and “cheeseburger” make you crazy. So they are thinking about warm crusty bread with melted butter, I’m sure. And then this:

… in the morning there was a layer of dew around the camp. When the layer of dew lifted, there on the surface of the wilderness was a fine flaky substance, as fine as frost on the ground. When the Israelites saw it, they said to one another, "What is it?" For they did not know what it was. Moses said to them, "It is the bread that the LORD has given you to eat."  (Exodus 16:14-15)

What is it? It sounds like something your kids might say when they first encounter something beyond chicken nuggets or pizza or penne with butter. The Bedouin to this day use the same word, “manna,” to speak of the excretions made when scale insects and plant lice ingest the sap of the tamarisk trees: they excrete it onto the trees where it crystallizes and falls to the ground. So technically speaking now, Moses could have answered the question “what is it?” by saying, “well, it’s lice excrement!”

Yum! I’m usually the first in line where there is food but I think I’ll wait and see whether or not Mikey likes this stuff!

Now does knowing this take away from the miracle or add to it? An atheist might argue that lice excrement on the ground has nothing to do with God. Sometimes believers want to counter that argument by insisting on more than this text says: as if God rained down loaves of crusty bread. But if we are looking for the Little-Red-Hen-God who will gather the manna and kneed it and bake it for us then we may well miss the miracles of life that are right before our very eyes. I think the degree of normalcy, and then the ability to thank God for what is, is part of the whole miracle here. What is this stuff? Well, Moses says:

It’s good enough to eat. In fact you better eat it if you don’t want to starve to death. It’s the key to our survival. It’s the daily bread God promised.  There will be enough for everyone if we share it and work together.

In Pharaoh’s economy there were those who have more than enough and those who had less than they needed. In God’s economy, the first step is to learn to trust God that we will all get what we need. We may not always get what we want, or what we think we deserve or what we think we have earned, but you get what you need. That manna rains down from heaven just as surely as all of God’s good gifts are given. What greater miracle is there, by the way, than a vine-ripe tomato or a beautiful acorn squash or an oven-roasted potato? God is the giver of all good gifts—when we feel settled and secure and when we feel vulnerable and uncertain. We just need eyes to see and ears to hear.

What is this stuff? Well, it’s bread, Moses tells them. It is one of the keys to your survival for the next 479 months, so get used to it and receive it as the gift from God that it is, and remember to say “thank you.”  It will be much harder in the Promised Land to remember that all of life is a gift. It will be much easier to say, “I hate rye bread - I only like wonder bread with the crusts cut off!” It’s harder to remember to be thankful when we are surrounded by affluence in the Promised Land, and we think that our neighbor’s house or spouse is better than ours.

Envy corrodes community. There is no way around that. But the point of the manna is to put your trust in God and be grateful for what you have. To learn that it is enough - more than enough -  to go on. That is why God’s people continue to pray, as we journey toward adulthood and freedom:  Give us this day our daily bread.

The wilderness is not a place of punishment. It’s a place where life is stripped down to the bare essentials. That can be a great gift in a society that thinks life is about luxuries. We get to know who we are in the wilderness, and where we are headed, and why we need each other as companions along the way. That is good news, I think. 

Thursday, May 9, 2013

Ascension Day

Today, forty days into the Easter Season, is the Feast of the Ascension. It’s still Eastertide, but these last ten days of Easter represent a shift. As Luke tells the story, Jesus goes out to Bethany to say goodbye to the disciples and then ascends to the right hand of the Father. Ten days from now we celebrate the arrival of the Holy Spirit on the Feast of Pentecost.

So how might we describe these last ten days of the Easter season, this time between Ascension and Pentecost? The collect for today suggests some level of anxiety, because in all times of waiting (and an uncertain future) there is always some level of anxiety. For those first disciples, Christ has ascended, but the Holy Spirit has not shone up yet. And so they wait, imploring God: “Do not leave us comfortless, but send us your Holy Spirit, to strengthen us, and to exalt us…”  

I find myself thinking about some of the waiting times in my own life: waiting for the first day of kindergarten, or waiting to graduate from high school. Waiting for children to be born, waiting in the surgical ICU, waiting with parishioners whose loved ones are dying. Right now I am in the midst of saying goodbyes and waiting to begin a new job. There are times of waiting in every season of our lives. I imagine these last ten days of Eastertide as something like some of these other “waiting times:” a time of expectation, and yet also a time filled with no small amount of anxiety and fear about what comes next. Do not leave us comfortlessbut send us your Holy Spirit, to strengthen us, and to exalt us…”  

We worry through transitions (or at least I do) that life will not go on—that somehow we will never be comforted. Change can be scary, and it brings with it a sense of loss as well as a sense of anticipation. But there is also that experience of powerlessness, the kind that makes us realize we have no choice but to “let go, and let God.”  

Turning again to the story Luke gives us in Acts, it's worth noting what the disciples do while they wait. They go back to an upper room in Jerusalem to devote themselves to prayer. (See Acts 1:14). This is what we can do while we wait: we can devote ourselves to prayer. In times of transition when it is unclear what the future will bring, we can be prayerful waiters. Wait for the Lord,” the Psalmist reminds us. “…be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord.” (Psalm 27:14) And this, from Psalm 130: 

            I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope;
                        my soul waits for the Lord
                                    More than those who watch for the morning,
                                    More than those who watch for the morning

What we pray for as we mature in faith is not that everything will stay the same, but rather, that our times of waiting will lead us to be stronger and more courageous and more hopeful - until a new day dawns. These, I think, are gifts the Holy Spirit brings—whether She comes like a mighty wind or as a gentle breath. 

Sunday, May 5, 2013

A Sermon for 6 Easter

Many years ago, Frederick Buechner, a Presbyterian minister and school chaplain, wrote a little book called The Sacred Journey. In that book, Buechner unpacked an idea that goes to the heart of the Christian faith: that it is in the ordinary moments of our lives, in the living of our lives, that God is made known. The point here was not some radical new insight of Beuchner’s, even if he does articulate it well. It’s a notion deeply rooted in the Bible, in both testaments.

But to really see and embrace this truth requires of us that we attend to the present moment. My spiritual director loves a little book called The Sacrament of the Present Moment, written by an eighteenth-century French Jesuit named Jean Pierre de Caussade. I commend the book to you, but even if you never read it, like Buechner’s book the “lead” has not been buried! The whole idea is found in the title! So even if you never get around to reading it, it is still possible to meditate on the title and then embrace that wisdom and then try to live it. Each moment, this present moment right now, is a sacrament that holds within it the eternal. 

This is the same truth Jesus reveals when he reminds us to consider the lilies of the field, and the birds of the air, and to seek first God’s kingdom. Since we cannot change the past and since we cannot control the future, what is left for us is to do is to open our eyes and ears and to fully embrace what is here right now before our very eyes; this sacred present moment which is a sheer gift from God.  

Theologically, we are speaking about the Incarnation: the Word takes on flesh to dwell among us. In the birth of a child or the death of a loved one and in so many less dramatic moments in between, God is being made manifest. God is with us in a meal shared with good friends, not just in an upper room in the first century but at a local diner today. God is with us not just in an encounter with a stranger on the road to Emmaus, but when your car breaks down on the Mass Pike headed toward Boston. God is with us not just at an empty tomb in a conversation with someone you assume is the gardener, but in our own memorial garden when we commend a loved one to God. In the midst of the ordinary moments of our lives, we encounter the Holy One. The journey really is sacred. And everywhere along the way in our sacred journeys, there God is.

The challenge is that too often our eyes don’t see, or our ears don’t hear, because far too often our attention is somewhere else. We don’t see and we don’t hear because we are stuck in the past. Maybe we are reliving some past glory days when we were the star of the baseball team. Or maybe we are reliving some part of the past that left us deeply wounded and scarred, and we are not yet healed. Or maybe we are anxious about the future, about what might happen next week or next month or next year. You know that worrying does work, right? Because like 90% of what we worry about never happens!

Now some sermons require that the preacher spend some time on historical context and maybe a sense of the geography of the Middle East or its social mores in order to unpack the Biblical text. And then we explore what happened and then we ask what it might mean for us today. But today’s text from Acts reveals another truth: a truth that I think requires this more philosophical and theological reflection that I have been speaking about so far today. It is a fairly simple notion to grasp, but it is profoundly difficult to embrace and to live. It is this: we need to pay attention to our lives, for Christ’s sake. Because it is there, in the living of our lives, in these sacred journeys, that Christ is being revealed. If Christ is alive (and that has been Easter claim for six weeks now!) then the risen Christ is found in the world as we go about our lives.

So let’s talk about St. Paul. If you read it quickly this reading from Acts sounds like a simple travelogue. But it is so much more than that. As we heard, he has this vision—this lure, this inclination, this dream to go to Macedonia. Maybe he even has this desire to go there because he’s heard the beaches are great. It’s probably all mixed up together if Paul was anything like us, and I think he was a lot like us. Something tells him he just has to go there. He is convinced that God is calling him to go there. 

During the night Paul had a vision: there stood a man of Macedonia pleading with him and saying, "Come over to Macedonia and help us." When he had seen the vision, we immediately tried to cross over to Macedonia, being convinced that God had called us to proclaim the good news to them.

Have you ever had that feeling? It’s very hard to explain. It may or may not be rational but almost always it is about more than reason. Sometimes we have to just trust those instincts to go where God is leading us even when we cannot yet see what will come of it.

Notice that Paul’s vision comes during the night. Like both Josephs in the Old and New Testaments, the Word of God comes to Paul in a dream, not in the light of day. Sometimes I think we want the skies to open up during the day, and for God to speak plainly: Rich, go to to Holden. Rich, go to Springfield. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Go now!

But God’s call, in my experience, just doesn’t work like that. Dreams have to be interpreted. And we need to practice this kind of holy listening to this calling of voices. We don’t know, which is why we must discern and why we must have faith. There is almost never some clearly marked yellow brick road in real life: but that doesn’t mean there is not a sacred path to follow. We get hints and guesses and we figure it out as best we can. We get hunches that we can choose to trust and then follow; or not. Paul goes to Macedonia, convinced that is where God would have him go, but not yet clear about why.

We set sail from Troas and took a straight course to Samothrace, the following day to Neapolis, and from there to Philippi, which is a leading city of the district of Macedonia and a Roman colony. We remained in this city for some days.

What strikes me is that they are not any place; they are someplace in particular—as we all must be. We can only be where we are in one place at a time. So you and I could book ourselves on one of those Bible trips and re-trace Paul’s steps and set sail from Troas and take a straight course to Samothrace and then check into a Bed and Breakfast there and then go along the next day to Neapolis and Philippi. And that would be really cool, I think, to re-trace the footsteps of this great apostle, and maybe even beneficial.

But something much harder to do and way more important is to walk our own sacred path and to pay attention to our dreams and to step out in faith by going where we believe God is leading us. For if our journeys, too, are sacred then the key is to walk our own path, not on auto pilot but with some intentionality. Driving to work or picking up kids from college or driving to a summer vacation and knowing that even if you end up back at the same place year after year that you can only do that one year at a time, and only this year/this moment/this trip matters because you will never come this way again. It is this present moment in time, this leg of the journey that is sacramental. So it is worthwhile for us to open our eyes and our ears and soak it all in, because where we stand is holy ground.

On the Sabbath day we went outside the gate by the river, where we supposed there was a place of prayer; and we sat down and spoke to the women who had gathered there. A certain woman named Lydia, a worshiper of God, was listening to us; she was from the city of Thyatira and a dealer in purple cloth. The Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said by Paul. When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, "If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home." And she prevailed upon us.

This encounter happens by the river.
Think about a specific river important in your own life and what life is like by that river. What does it sound like and smell like? Is it a babbling brook in the woods or is it a mighty river? Rivers of all kinds are, for me, places of prayer—whether or not there happens to be an official place of prayer nearby. Paul and his companions sit down and they speak to women gathered there, strangers to them. One of my favorite hymn writers is Brian Wren. We sang one of his hymns during communion last weekend, both at 5 and at 10: “I come with joy to meet my Lord, forgiven, loved, and freed.” That hymn has a line about how when we come to this table, strangers now are friends.

What a powerful phrase that is! The whole gospel of Christ in four words: strangers now are friends. It is such a challenge for most of us, even the extroverts among us, to go up to strangers and talk with them. From a very young age we are taught not to do that, to fear the stranger, not to take candy from them…all good advice for children. But if we are not careful we carry that fear of the stranger well into adulthood. The Bible teaches a different kind of wisdom: that the stranger may be Christ himself. The stranger—the one different from us—may become our friend. The Bible calls us away from xenophobia (fear of the other) to love of the stranger in the name of Christ.

So a certain woman named Lydia was there. And from that encounter, in hospitality and welcome, strangers become friends. God is present. Everyone is changed for good.

Now we here at St. Francis, as rector and congregation, are at an important crossroads in the sacred journey that we have walked together for more than fifteen years now. And now we are preparing to walk in new directions. We are rightly reflecting on the past and offering it to God, but we must be careful not to get stuck there. And we are rightly all a bit nervous about the future and what it will bring. For me it is about a new home and a new job and a new context for ministry. For many of you I imagine it is about the process of calling and welcoming a new rector and what this place will be like under that person’s leadership. I’m sure this is all scary. But we must be careful not to get stuck there. And we do well to remember that a stranger will one day become a friend.

What we can do right now, though, is to pay attention to where we are right now, and savor this time, these moments one by one. What we can do, even now, is continue to look for the living God who is in our very midst, waiting for the Holy Spirit to comfort and heal and prod and guide us all into more and more truth, as the sacred journey continues. 

Preached at St. Francis Church, Holden, MA - May 5, 2013

Friday, May 3, 2013

Change and Transition

My last post was from Scottsdale, Arizona, where I was training to be a Fresh Start coordinator in our diocese with my colleague, the Rev. Pam Mott.

One of our trainers in Arizona was Sandra Clark Colb, who has written this piece for the Vital Practices website. She made this same point several times in Arizona and it bears further reflection, particularly these words:
Understanding the difference between change and transition is important. Change is the event itself - it occurs at a specific point in time - an "outward and visible sign." Transition is a psychological process; the internal response people have to the change. It is "inward and spiritual" and occurs in three stages: ending (letting go of the old), in-between time (wilderness), and a new beginning. It starts when the congregation learns their rector is leaving and continues until it seems as though the new rector has been there all along.
Change is the event itself. On May 19, a specific point in time, I will be leaving St. Francis Church. They have graciously given me eleven days off, before I begin on June 1 in a new role as Canon to the Ordinary in the Diocese of Western Massachusetts. Both are moments in time: a final celebration and the accompanying goodbyes followed by a first day in a new office. Changes.

But transition is not dateable. It takes much longer. Transition, according to Colb (and I think she is right!)  is an inward, psychological (and spiritual) process. It's how we deal with and manage change. She identifies three stages: ending, in-between time (wilderness) and a new beginning. It would be tempting to see transition as beginning on May 19 and ending on June 1, with "wilderness" lasting eleven days in between. But that is to misread the point that Colb is making. In my case, the new beginning will come when it seems like I've been Canon to the Ordinary for some time and the Bishop and his staff are all working like we've been doing this forever. In the case of the parish I love, St. Francis, the new beginning will come not when a new rector arrives, but when it seems that s/he has been there all along. That could take a while, if my own experience is any measure.

And so there is "the meantime." There is this wilderness time, a time some may be tempted to resist. I think it is important to note a few things about the wilderness as it is presented in Holy Scripture, however. One is that God's people spend a lot of time there. In the Torah (the holiest five books of the Hebrew Bible) basically 80% of it (from Exodus to the end of Deuteronomy) takes place in the wilderness. And second, God is there. God is there giving Torah, and daily bread, and water from the flinty rock. God is there, leading the way by the pillar of cloud and fire. The wilderness is the place where spiritual formation and growth happen.

Which is simply to say that for me and the people of St. Francis Church (and the people of the Diocese of Western Massachusetts who are still getting used to a new bishop) we are entering a season of transition, not just a series of changes. May God lead us through it all and may we come out at the other end of it as more faithful followers of Jesus.