Monday, November 26, 2018

Wisdom for Our Time

A long time ago, in a galaxy far away, I was asked to teach a course for retired folks in a program called Elderhostel. I was an under-thirty United Methodist Pastor serving an ecumenical campus ministry at Central Connecticut State University at the time. It seemed like fun. And it was. I just Googled Elderhostel and it has apparently become something called Road Scholar

In any event, after becoming an Episcopal priest and then being called as rector of St. Francis in Holden, I was asked by a parishioner named Alice Carr to teach in a program called W.I.S.E. (Worcester Institute for Senior Education). Alice was on the curriculum committee at the time. What I liked about the teaching - both in Elderhostel and WISE - was that the groups tended to be interfaith. In fact, over the past twenty years I've taught for WISE, my classes (usually I limit them to 22 students) are almost always about half Jews and half Christians. I find this to be a great gift. Also, most senior citizens are not shy. Not like undergrads. They have life experience and enough time to do the "homework." They are engaged. The courses at WISE are five weeks. I have taught one or two classes a year since 1998, almost always on Monday mornings. I just completed a course on the Wisdom Tradition this morning: we covered Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes over five weeks. 

For today, I asked the class members to write up their own "wisdom." Unlike the Torah and Prophets and New Testament documents, Wisdom literature is about life experience. "Consider the ant, you lazy bones," says the writer of Proverbs. It's about what parents and grandparents want to pass on to their children. Sometimes it's more the "school of hard knocks" than it is "thus saith the Lord." It's not dogmatic. Koheleth in my mind is a guy sitting at a bar sipping on a single malt whisky and telling anyone who will listen what he's observed. "There is a time and a season for everything under the sun," he says. " A time to be born. A time to die..." 

Alright, here is the point of this post: after listening to Proverbs and Job and Ecclesiastes, I asked my Jewish and Christian students to think about what they might want their grandchildren to know as they navigate their way in the world. Or alternatively, what they hope someone might notice and say about their life at their funeral. I asked them to consider sharing what they had written with the class and many did. I also agreed to "model" for them the same thing. What I had to share is found below. It is what I pray I have taught my children, and my parishioners along the way, and those who have  been my companions and friends. 

Keep first things first. There is an old camp illustration with a big rock, smaller rocks, sand, and a jar. If you put the sand in first you won’t get all the small rocks and never get the large one in. But if you do it in the reverse, it can all fit. The large rock represents God. That’s a loaded word, I know. God and religion often push people to be “spiritual not religious.” But the root of religion is “to bind together.” Whatever your faith (or the lack thereof) always remember that you have a soul. Remember that you didn’t self-create yourself. So make time for “God” – or at least for the spiritual life if that’s a bridge too far. And put that first. And put family and friends at a close second. I’ve anointed many people at the time of death. No one ever wished they’d gone to another meeting. All the regrets people seem to have are about broken or lapsed relationships. So tend to those. The sand is work and play. It's the stuff of our days. It matters. It’s big. It takes up a lot of space. But it’s not first. Keep first things first.

Life is beautiful. It is not always fair, and it is often very difficult. But there is beauty to be seen and enjoyed in almost every day. Even in the cancer ward. Even in refugee camps. When life is difficult, consider. But every day find some way to enjoy life as sheer gift.

The world doesn’t owe you anything. This can lead to a kind of boot-straps mentality but I don’t mean it that way. I don’t believe in self-made women or men. At least I’ve not yet met one. People do sometimes overcome great adversity, but in every experience I have had with such people, they can tell you about someone who was a lifeline: a teacher, a pastor, a friend even when parents and family could not be there. So for me the lesson here is to be grateful. Say thank you at least once every day. And be there for others; and when they thank you, don't say "it's nothing." Say "you are very welcome." This is how, I think, we build community. Or at least relationships that make community possible. 

Compassion and kindness are a way of life; commit yourself to them. They cost nothing but it’s still so tempting to judge those we perceive as weaker than ourselves.  I’ve discovered that even the person who seems to have the most charmed life, however, is carrying some burden, and often a heavy one. We do not know the scars that others have unless they show them to us. But everyone is scarred. So be kind. Be patient. (I’m still working on the last one.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.

When asked to describe the nature of true worship, Martin Luther responded succinctly: “the tenth leper turning back.” If you don't get the reference (or even if you do but need your memory refreshed) check out this teaching of Jesus from Luke's Gospel. 

Luke has organized his gospel in such a way that Jesus and his disciples are "on the way" to Jerusalem from Galilee, and along the way they have various encounters that  reveal something about the Kingdom of God that Jesus came to proclaim and establish. But in the seventeenth chapter, we seem to have taken a detour. Luke reminds us that we are still “on the way” to Jerusalem, but then adds that now Jesus “is going through that region between Samaria and Galilee." We should pay attention.  

There are three possibilities for such a detour. One is that Jesus has gotten lost. A second possibility is that Luke doesn’t have a very good sense of first-century Palestinian geography. Since all of the gospels, including Luke, were written decades after the events being recounted, it is in fact possible that Luke has gotten his geography wrong. 

But most scholars think there is a far more likely third possibility and I agree with them: that both Jesus and Luke know exactly what they are doing and a serious theological point is being made here. Jesus is crossing a boundary where ethnic and religious tensions are palpable. In the Way of Love, Jesus is modeling what it means to Go!

Now in case anyone reading Luke’s Gospel has missed the point, we get hit over the head a second time by a 2 x 4 when Jesus encounters a group of lepers there. People with leprosy were considered to be ritually unclean and not allowed to come into contact with healthy people. Hence the leper colonies where they lived away from the community. They keep their distance because coming into contact with someone who had this ailment would make you ritually unclean. In fact, as you approached a leper, they were required to shout out: “unclean, unclean” as a kind of warning, just to be sure that you don’t walk up to them accidentally to ask for directions. 

Imagine such a life: suffering not only from a terrible disease but being socially ostracized as well. And then notice that while they do approach Jesus, Luke makes it clear that they “kept their distance from him.” Keeping their distance, they shout out to Jesus for mercy. And then Jesus sends them along to the priests, because the Torah says that before they can re-enter the community the priest must pronounce them ritually clean. As they turn to leave they find their skin disease is healed. But they still need that “OK” from the temple authorities before they can re-enter society. They know that, and everyone with Jesus knows that; and besides Jesus has just told them to do that. So off they go.

But one of them turned back. Now it may be fair enough as you hear this to say, “Hey, cut the nine some slack because they are just doing what Jesus said to do.” But that really isn’t the point of the story. The point here is something that every parent I know tries to teach their children from a very young age. And even when you don’t know much about Middle Eastern geography or the ritual laws about leprosy, this part of the story translates pretty easily from first-century culture to our own day: it doesn’t cost you anything to say “thank you.” They can get on their way soon enough. But their lives have just been radically changed. This is huge! Yet only one of them takes the time to turn back and say, “thank you!” That is what Luther meant when he said that true worship is to be like this one. 

Or as Meister Eckhart put it: “if the only prayer you ever say is ‘thank you’ it would be enough.”

We all know this. But it takes practice. The one who turned back takes us to the very heart of the gospel. Ten were healed of their leprosy: their skin got better and they were all presumably soon pronounced ritually clean and allowed to re-enter society. But only one of them got well. He isn’t just “not sick” anymore; he’s been made whole. He’s alive because he has a grateful heart..

Can I say it this way: he’s saved? That word makes Episcopalians squirm a little bit and I get why: it’s a little like the word “evangelism” or “stewardship.” Often when someone asks us whether or not we are “saved,” we may be tempted to run the other way. But that is in fact the Greek word used here: the root sozo literally means “to be saved” or “to be made well.” In the old King James Version it says, “Your faith has made you whole," which of course is what salvation is really all about. Being saved isn’t about something that happens to us after we die. The abundant life that is promised begins here and now and this story suggests that we take hold of that new life. 

We really are made whole when we cultivate gratitude in our lives. 
Miracles abound. That doesn’t mean life isn’t sometimes hard, although it’s hard to imagine a life any more difficult than being a leper in a small Samaritan village. But too often we’re too busy moving on to the next thing. There are miracles all around us but we must get to work or get to class or get to the doctor or even get to church. We need to get supper ready or do the laundry. All these things matter, of course. And all of them can be forms of prayer in their own right. But if we aren't careful we begin to live our lives focused on the next thing rather than the thing we are doing right now. Too often we forget to stop and say: “thank you, God.” So I think Luther had it just right: true worship is the one who returned. Discipleship is about cultivating gratitude, until we learn to become givers ourselves.  

Anne Lamotte says that she has two favorite prayers that she tries to pray every day: one in the morning and one at night. When she gets out of bed, she simply prays: “Help me. Help me. Help me.” And at the end of the day, before her head hits the pillow, she prays: “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Those are both really good prayers. And they will take you a long way down the path of being made whole, if that is what you seek. 

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Sermon at the Retirement of the Rev. Nancy Baillie Strong

This afternoon it was my honor to preach at an Evensong at St. Matthew's Parish in Worcester to celebrate the ministry of their rector, the Rev. Nancy Baillie Strong, who will retire at the end of this month. 

On Thursday, September 13, at precisely 5:26 pm, I received an email from Mother Nancy Strong. In that email she asked if I would preach tonight. She said that the propers (i.e. the lessons) would be focused on Hilda of Whitby. “They seem appropriate,” she wrote. And then she added, “Apparently there is a reception following at Holy Cross, but what do I know?”

Now I suspect there is not a person in this room tonight that does not know Nancy well enough to know how much that question just kills a control-freak like her. (And I’ll just add, it takes one to know one.)  

But it gets better. She signed that email “your elder sister.”
Now, I am the oldest of four children in my family of origin: boy, boy, girl, girl. I never had an older sister. I’ve known Nancy for almost two decades now, however, and our relationship has evolved over time. We began as colleagues when I was the rector in Holden and she came here, to St. Matthew’s, and we discovered we shared Pennsylvania roots. Soon we were in a weekly lectionary group together.  At some point, we moved from colleagues to friends. Perhaps it was around the time I convinced her to take over for me as chair of the Commission on Ministry, but it may have been earlier than that.

But over the course of the past five years (especially after I became Canon to the Ordinary) it has dawned on me that she has a tendency to treat me like her younger brother. Just so no one misses the point here: she likes to tell me what to do. Make no mistake here: her “churchmanship” (as we used to call it) is such that she totally respects my position and in fact most often when there are other people in the room she insists on referring to me as Canon Simpson

To be honest, I kind of like having her as older sister. Most days.

Now you may think I’m exaggerating here a bit and I admit I can be prone to hyperbole. But I want to take you back for one more minute to September 13. As mentioned, she emailed me at precisely 5:26 pm asking me to preach tonight. Five minutes later, at 5:31, I wrote back and I told her it would be a great honor to do so, and thanks for asking. Just less than one hour later – at 6:30 pm, this is the response I got from her:

I am delighted that you can preach! I didn’t tell you why we settled on Hilda. When we (Meredyth and I) looked at the office propers – the Epistle was great and everything else stunk. So we’re using the Eucharistic propers for Hilda at Evening Prayer. Hopefully the liturgical police won’t report. And Hilda’s story has some things to say about building community, appreciating gifts, and reconciling opposing points of view and/or knowing when to step away from the edge; step back to allow for something different to happen. Okay, I will stop preaching my sermon…”

Isn’t that awesome? Isn’t that so Nancy?

Now I like to tease my control freak older sister but the truth is that I’m very grateful to have had her as a companion in this journey. She is wicked smart, but more importantly, she is very wise. I trust you all know the difference. In the life of Hilda, we do indeed see someone who was “about building community, and appreciating gifts and reconciling opposing points of view and knowing when to step back to allow for something different to happen.” And of course we also see these values and commitments mirrored in Nancy’s life and ministry as well.

My friends: we are called to be faithful. We are called to be truthful. We are called to be ambassadors of reconciliation, and to live with authenticity and integrity. We are called to love God and to love our neighbor, not in some theoretical neighborhood, but in the real, complicated, messy neighborhoods where we have been called to serve. Priests are called to love their people; again not some quaint theoretical parishioners but the generous, kind, wounded birds God gives us to be companions along the way. And when clergy are truly blessed, they get loved back.

The second-largest city in New England is stronger because Nancy has spent these years among this faithful people in this part of Worcester; not just the members of this congregation inside of the walls of St. Matthew’s who have gathered here week after week to hear her preach and to break the bread, but also the people of this parish in the older meaning of that word, the people who live and work in this part of the city, whether or not they identify as Episcopalians or even as Christians. Thanks be to God.

And now she steps back – wanting to do that well, but more importantly wanting to do it faithfully. Because it is indeed time, time for something different to happen in her own life and time for the next chapter in the life of this community. Well done, good and faithful servant.

Let me add this about Hilda. Nancy mentioned in her instructions to me that Hilda was committed to “reconciling opposing points of view.” Let’s unpack that a little. Hilda lived at a time when the Church was trying to sort through Roman and Celtic ways and Hilda was clear; she liked the Celtic ways. But the Roman ways won out. So here is the last little bit of her bio in Holy Women, Holy Men, or whatever we are calling it these days:  

Hilda herself greatly preferred the Celtic customs in which she had been reared but once the decision had been made she used her moderating influence in favor of its peaceful acceptance. Her influence was considerable; kings and commoners alike came to her for advice. She was urgent in promoting the study of the Scriptures and the thorough education of the clergy.

These words, too, speak of Nancy’s fidelity over the span of her ordained life and in particular these past two decades in this diocese. Nancy has not only been a faithful pastor here, but she has also taken her share in the Councils of the Church. She’s served on Diocesan Council but her biggest contribution has been to Chair the Commission on Ministry. Her influence has been considerable. Bishops and priests and canons and laypeople alike have all come to her for advice! And I know of no one who has been more urgent in promoting the study of Scripture and insisting on the thorough education of the clergy than Nancy Strong. At times she has said to me that she knew she was getting “long in tooth,” as she has put it. She is “old school” in many ways. But she has not wanted to lose the focus on priestly formation, even as we do new things in the Church. So she has been “a trusted and reconciling friend to leaders of the Church.” And I honor and cherish that Hilda-esque quality in her. It’s up to others of us now, including her younger brothers and sisters, to take up that mantle.

Now let me turn to the Epistle reading. To refresh your memories, it’s short enough to hear again.
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

The scholars debate whether this was really Paul or a disciple of Paul’s but let’s leave that to them. This passage is very clearly Pauline, whether or not he wrote it.  So “Paul” is in prison and he is writing to people he cares for very deeply and he is reminding them, and us, about what it means to be the Church: what it means to be the Body of Christ. Whoever wrote it was having a very good day, and there is clarity here of the kind that Paul himself did get every now and again. Like in First Corinthians 13, where faith, hope and love abide, but the greatest of these is love. Or when he speaks of being living members of Christ’s Body reminding us we all have a role to play but the ear and the eye have different jobs and our work is to do our job!

In this text we are reminded to live lives worthy of our calling. What does that look like? It looks like humility. And gentleness. Patience. Bearing with one another in love. Striving for unity and peace. Knowing there is one body, and one spirit, one Lord, one faith, one baptism. I submit to you that Nancy has faithfully born witness to this vision, with God’s help. And we need to see what all these traits look like embodied to know why they matter and how they can change the world. 

But perhaps even more importantly she’s called these qualities out in us.

This epistle reading is not about the clergy – it’s about our shared Baptism. Surely the clergy have a role to play among the Baptized, but that role is meaningless without the whole people of God. Priests remind us all who we are and whose we are. Nancy has done that and we have been the beneficiaries.

It’s become fashionable to ask what God is up to in the neighborhood. To pay attention to what God is doing in the world around us. We do this at places like Walking Together and it wakes us up when we remember that God is not confined by the walls of the Church. That is very true, and right, and it is good to ask that question and to seek and serve Christ in the neighborhood and among our neighbors.

But Nancy was doing this before it was cool. She, long-in-the-tooth was doing it when it was just called plain old ministry. Because here is the thing: clergy were never called to just sit in their offices and ponder deep thoughts and wait for parishioners to drop in. We have always been called to roll up our sleeves and join God in the neighborhood because we trust the Incarnation, because we know that Jesus was born in a barn and crucified outside the city gates. And we trust that the Spirit is at work in the world around us, not just in the Church.

So, of course this is absolutely right and as I’ve said several times, Nancy has gotten this. But it’s only half of the truth and I worry a bit, sometimes, because – well, maybe because I am also getting a little long in the tooth myself. So let me just say this, and then I’ll be almost finished:  it is also true that God hasn’t left the Church. It’s also true that our neighbors need for us to be witnesses to the love of God in Jesus. They need for us to be the Church. Of course the Church has messed up an awful lot along the way and sometimes we’ve literally pushed people away, for all kinds of ridiculous reasons. And it’s quite possible that our list of shortcomings is longer than our list of successes, which may be why so many these days consider themselves to be “spiritual but not religious.”

But this is precisely why it is also our work not only to join God in the neighborhood, but to let the neighborhood know (particularly by our actions and sometimes even with our words) that God is, from time to time still alive and at work in the Church, too. It is our work to let the world know that God isn’t finished yet with the Church. That God is still carrying out God’s work through this wonderful and sacred mystery, still carrying out the plan of salvation. So that when we preach the Word and when we break the bread and bless the cup at a midweek Eucharist or on a Saturday night or on a Sunday morning, God is here. And God’s people are here. It is our shared vocation to help the world to see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up and things which had grown old are being made new.

With God’s help, we are still trying to be faithful witnesses and to act like that by being humble and gentle and patient and bearing with one another in love. Nancy Strong has embodied that as a priest, as a spouse, as a mother, as a friend, as a colleague. As a big sister. And in so doing she has reminded us what a mature person of faith looks like. The Church may be the last place left in our society that is not a bubble of like-minded people. This parish is a place to find unity and peace not because all agree, but because we all agree to live the Baptismal Covenant. Always with God’s help. But we need people like Hilda, and people like Nancy, to be faithful servants in their generation and to remind us of this high calling.

Nancy and Dan are on their way to New Hampshire and we wish them nothing but the best. She has left a mark on all of us and I know that we have marked and changed her for good as well. And so the only thing left to say to her is this: thank you. Well done, good and faithful servant.

As Nancy and Dan begin this new chapter, may this parish that Nancy has so faithfully served remember that the church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord and the work continues: to always keep pointing to this crucified and risen Lord, alpha and omega, the one who is making all things new. May we take up our cross and follow him on the way of love.

Sunday, November 11, 2018


The post below is an updated and slightly edited version of a post from seven years ago.   
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)
One hundred years ago today, at 11 o'clock in the morning, World War I ended. Check out this link to hear what that sounded like. 

Wikipedia says that there was a "cessation of hostilities." That gets it about right. There was no lasting peace and there certainly was not justice. People were just sick and tired of war. That is certainly understandable. Yet historians argue that the end of World War I (ironically fought as the "war to end all wars") almost immediately marked the beginning of World War II. 

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. it turned out not to be the war to end all wars after all. You don't end war by making war or even with a cessation of hostilities. 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 committing to the way of peace.

Our yearning for peace is not at odds with honoring the men and women who have served in uniform.  It is a lie to suggest otherwise. 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 by helping to create a world where our children and grandchildren "study war no more." That requires pragmatists and realists, not only idealists. It requires hope, not just wishful thinking. It requires peacemakers, not people who cry peace where there is no peace.

At 11:00 a.m today I will pause to remember those who have served this country and who are currently serving this country in uniform.  And to give thanks for the sacrifices they have made and are making. If, in the course of the day, I have a chance to thank a Veteran personally, I will do that. I will also give thanks for their families, who also know the costs of war and of their service. 

But I will also say a prayer for peace. Not just cessation of hostilities but for the shalom of God that passes all understanding. And for a peace dividend that allows us to convert the instruments of war into instruments of peace, which is a fancy Biblical way of saying less money from our national budget priorities spent at the Pentagon and more on roads, schools, and healthcare.

Saturday, November 10, 2018


This is the final post in a series on The Way of Love.

When I began to think about writing this series, which now comes to an end, I was going to begin with Rest, even though it is the last one. The reason for that way in is that I happen to believe right now it may be the single most important one on the list, the one through which all the others are possible. In the Episcopal Church, at least, we have a pretty good sense of what it means to be a people who turn, learn, pray, worship, bless, and go. We have liturgical supports in place to do these things. But we are not very good at keeping the Sabbath holy - or even of valuing that as a goal. 

We live in a frenetic 24/7 society. We live with information overload and work, work, work. So I searched my own blog to see what I had written on Sabbath and found this post from over eight years ago.  It reminded me I don't need more information to keep the Sabbath holy. I understand why it matters! I understand why I crave it and take "tired" as a normal state of being. What I need is practice. And maybe some encouragement. And I bet that's true for most of my readers as well. 

Since that post I have read and re-read Walter Brueggemann's Sabbath as Resistance: Saying No to the Culture of Now. I commend it to you. In fact I wonder if this book might be a helpful book study for congregations or a clergy group. Anyone interested? 

Here are three quotes to whet your appetite: 
  • The Sabbath rest of God is the acknowledgement that God and God's people in the world are not commodities to be dispatched for endless production and so dispatched, as we used to say, as "hands" in the service of a command economy. Rather they are subjects situated in an economy of neighborliness. All of that is implicit in the reality and exhibit of divine rest.  
  • That divine rest of the seventh day of creation has made clear (a) that YHWH is not a workaholic, (b) that YHWH is not anxious about the full functioning of creation, and (c) that the well-being of creation does not depend on endless work.  
  • Multitasking is the drive to be more than we are, to control more than we do, to extend our power and our effectiveness. Such practice yields a divided self, with full attention given to nothing.  
In his classic way, Brueggemann reminds us that Sabbath rest is more than chicken soup for the soul. It's more than a good thing for our bodies. It's a daring socio-political act of resistance to say "enough is enough." It's there to remind us we are persons, not things. 

For our Jewish cousins, the Sabbath is from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. We have so much to learn from them. Except in Israel (where most of the economy shuts down) most Jews have to find ways to keep Shabbat as a counter-cultural act. American culture doesn't stop on Saturdays just because Jewish people are taking a rest.

For the most part, Christians at best have truncated the Sabbath to Sunday mornings for an hour. And because there is no other time of real rest built in, many families would rather sleep in and eat pancakes if they have the chance than bustle everyone out of the house. I totally get that. For clergy it's further complicated by the fact that Sunday is a work day. Whether it's a good move or not I find that many vestries across my diocese meet on Sundays after worship (rather than a weeknight) because their members either don't have another weeknight to give up or don't like driving in the dark. In any case it means that Sunday, even in the Church, is often more than worship and not a day of rest. So we need to be intentional, and creative. 

My work week is Monday - Thursday, usually with one or two evening meetings in there. I try for not more than two nights out with congregations, and when I get to three in a week I feel every minute of my age. Most Sundays I'm in a pulpit somewhere and meeting with the vestry afterwards. Usually one or two (and occasionally three) Saturdays per month I have some diocesan work. All told, while I do have some flexibility, on average I work between 45-55 hours per week, not including the time it takes to keep up with this blog!  

I am not complaining. Nor am I bragging. So far as I can tell, since I know mostly very busy people, this seems pretty normal to me.  I'm certainly blessed to have work that I feel has a purpose and I cannot even imagine working that many hours for just a paycheck, as I know many people do. 

In any case, Friday is my day of rest. And I'm mostly pretty faithful to that, although there is always room for improvement. I've learned that no matter how busy a week may be, if I hold that and have it to look forward to, I can do it. It's a day to recharge my battery. Since Hathy and I are empty-nesters (and since she works on Fridays) it is almost exclusively "me" time. 

Yet I find even within church culture it is an act of resistance to protect that or claim that. We live in a culture that never stops. Literally. Never. Stops. Every parish priest I know has to figure out how to deal with the non-emergency phone call that begins, "I know it's your day off, but..."

I have joked over the years that my least favorite hymn in The Hymnal 1982 is "Come Labor On." It's a perfectly acceptable hymn about our calling to do God's work and I get that. But it's the question "who dares stand idly by?" that makes me bristle every time. It's a Protestant work-ethic song. Yet the deeper roots of our tradition insist that even God "stands idly by" on the Sabbath and makes it holy.  

What changes in us when we take at least one twenty-four hour period a week to stand idly by and let the world keep rotating on it's axis without us needing to do anything, but just to be? We should never apologize for doing that. It is a way to sanctify both that day, and the work that will be there when we get back to it. 

So, this is the longest post in this series and if you count the fact that I found that old Sabbath post at the beginning it's even longer. The reason for this is that I have come to believe that this witness is a key component to the way of love. It's definitely the one I need to be focusing on. Now if I can only act in accordance with what I believe and practice what I preach!

Friday, November 9, 2018


This is the seventh post in a series on The Way of Love.
The Lord GOD said to Abram, “Go from your country, your people and your father’s household to the land I will show you." (Genesis 12:1)
Then the LORD said to Moses, "Go to Pharaoh and say to him, 'This is what the LORD, the God of the Hebrews, says: "Let my people go, so that they may worship me." (Exodus 9:1)
Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:19-20)

Go from your country to a new place. Go to Pharaoh and tell him to let my people go. Go to the ends of the earth to make disciples. In all of these ancient yet familiar texts, when the Word of the Lord comes, God's people are sent. We are a people on the go. 

Going requires trust. Knowing that God goes with us makes all the difference: God before us and behind us and underneath us and above us and beside us. We go because we trust the One who sends us. We go because the Way of Love compels us to share that love with others. 

Thursday, November 8, 2018


This post is the sixth in a series on The Way of Love.

How can we share our stories in ways that are a blessing to those around us? How can we be the blessing that others may need on a difficult day? 

When the priest offers a blessing at the end of worship, it usually concludes in a trinitarian way. The standard BCP format goes like this: 
The peace of God, which passes all understanding, keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of his Son Jesus Christ, our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always.
An alternative blessing that I use often paraphrases a line from the late Rev. William Sloan Coffin, Jr. that says "the world is too dangerous for anything but truth, and too small for anything but love" and then concludes with a trinitiarian blessing. Yet another blessing goes like this: 
Life is short and we have too little time to gladden the hearts of those who travel the way with us. So, be swift to love and make haste to be kind….and may the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit be with you now and always.
God's people are blessed as our worship ends. And then we are sent out into the world to be a blessing to those whom we meet: at our own kitchen tables, at work, in school, on social media. When we bear witness to peace in a warring world, when we tell the truth and show love in a dangerous and small world, when we know that precisely because life is short, we will insist on love and kindness, we become walking blessings to those we meet. 

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

For All The Saints

This past Sunday I was invited to be with the good people at The Episcopal Church of the Atonement in Westfield. It was not to do transition work but to speak to the congregation about stewardship, in the context of the Feast of All Saints. I am grateful to the Rev. Nancy Webb Stroud for the invitation. 

The Feast of All Saints is about our past, our present, and our future as the Body of Christ. Today it is my honor to be invited here to share in your local, parochial witness to that claim. 

All Saints is about our past because we gather here profoundly aware of all the saints who have gone before us, the ones who from their labors rest. That includes those “capital S” saints that we share with the one holy, catholic and apostolic faith: people like Peter, Paul and Mary (the originals, not the band!) and Mary Magdalene and Andrew. And down through the centuries, people like Julian of Norwich who lived through the plague and still insisted that “all shall be well.” And Francis of Assisi who lived during the crusades and kept on praying, “Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace.”  We sometimes feel like we are living in challenging times and we surely are. But is there really anyone here who considers the days of Julian or Francis to be “the good old days?”

All Saints’ Day is about our past because it also gives us a chance to remember our own personal small “s” saints as well. As we recall those who touched our lives and perhaps continue to influence the life of this parish, those who are now part of that great cloud of witnesses, we no doubt recall some happy memories. And maybe also a few loose ends and unresolved conflicts too, because life and death are rarely as tidy as we wish they would be. For most of us there is some stuff we keep working on long after our loved ones are gone. So we remember them on the day of their birth, and on the day they died and on Christmas morning and lots of moments in between. And on this thin, holy day. They are still part of the fabric of our lives because our lives are knit together, as today's collect puts it. Let me just admit here, publicly, that my colleague Pam Mott is constantly speaking up for knitters and weavers as Biblical metaphors when the Bishop and I are arguing about baseball. And I know your rector is also a knitter. So here, today, on this Feast Day, we remember that our lives are knit together. And our relationship with those who have gone before us is changed, not ended, by death. This is why even at the grave we dare to make our song: alleluia, alleluia, alleluia.

But All Saints’ Day is not just about what has been. It’s also about what is, and what will be. 

…they lived not only in ages, past…there are hundreds of thousands still. The world is bright with the saints of God!

As we gather here today, look around you and see God’s beloved: claimed and marked and sealed as Christ’s own forever. Conventional wisdom uses the word “saint” to mean somebody who is holier than thou. But that is not what I mean and that’s not what the Church means by this word. I mean the baptized, these companions God has given to us along the way, these fellow witnesses to the good news of Jesus Christ with whom we walk this road as followers of Jesus. These saints teach church school and sing in the choir and serve on the finance committee. They say prayers for us when we are experiencing joy or carrying heavy burdens, and they sit at vestry meetings when there are probably twenty-three other things they would rather be doing. Now that is true love!

If the saints around us are only those who lived in ages past and we are not finding ways to be faithful today, then it’s just about ghosts. If we aren’t trying, with God’s help, to be saints in our own day then we misunderstand what this mystic sweet communion is all about. They cheer us on as we continue to struggle to be what in the old days they used to call “the church militant.” That metaphor is problematic for me and I’m not suggesting that we revive it. But the point of that old language was to remind the Church that there is work to be done today and while the saints triumphant cheer us on, they had their turn! The work that God gives us to do is ours, here and now, and if we don’t take up that mantle then we are always in danger of becoming a museum and not the Church. We need all hands on deck.

So I love All Saints Day, because it reminds us not only of our heritage but because it also calls us to fidelity in the present. But there’s even more: this is such a thin place that we also get a glimpse into the future. While we give thanks for those who have gone before us and celebrate the saints in our midst, we also try to peer beyond this moment to the culmination of human history. Even as we shed a tear or two for those whom we love we see no longer, we recall God’s promise to wipe away every tear. We reflect on the banquet where all of God’s children are fed and there is always room at the table for one more. Where the wine is beyond to die for, it’s to live for. And the roast beef is done to perfection. That is what Isaiah is talking about. Can you not perceive it? 

We come forward at the Eucharist to taste and see that the Lord is good, and to have a foretaste of the heavenly banquet there is room for all of God’s children to gather. And they are all God’s children, from the east and from the west, from the north and from the south, from every tribe and language and people and nation. That is where John of Patmos picks up on where Isaiah left off: imagining a world where there is enough for all. Enough food. Enough wine. Enough healthcare. Enough hope. Enough faith. Enough joy. Enough peace. Enough love.

This is a beautiful church, but as you all remember, the church is not a building. We learned this as children and that lesson is still true: the church is not a resting place. And the church is not a steeple. The church is a people! The church is the communion of saints. Christian faith is about the hope that inspires us to join in the adventure that is headed toward that future day. This is our work, to participate in and to cultivate God’s mission taking hold in this world and to live the words we join with Christians throughout the centuries in praying: thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.

Now, let me move from preaching to meddling.  

This is a very challenging time to be the Church. You are blessed to have an outstanding rector here, a faithful committed priest. But these times are filled with anxiety and questions about identity, and also a lot of loss. Loss of what we remember of filled Sunday Schools and pews. Being the Church today is a lot more like wandering around the Sinai Desert (hopefully not for four decades). Ultimately we are in search of the Promised Land but in the short run we are in need of daily bread, and water to stay hydrated. In the short run we can get turned around and disoriented and even cranky. Manna again? Really? All we get is stinking manna! But the Spirit does indeed seem to be leading, or driving, this work. And this much I know, because I can tell you from watching it unfold: it is messy, Church. But it’s also holy, Church.

Today’s gospel reading doesn’t give us a roadmap and definitely not a GPS. But perhaps it is a kind of compass that can help us to at least get our bearings in these challenging times. First, notice that Jesus weeps at the grave of his friend, Lazarus. In those tears we see that we really do have a friend in Jesus, one who shares not only our joys but our burdens, too.  I think it’s a good reminder that we should never underestimate loss. Someone has said that it’s not change people are resistant to, but loss. Every change that comes our way, even when it is good change, also represents some measure of loss. But we need to remember also that the costs of inertia are very high as well and we need to acknowledge that. Often we put enormous energy into resisting change because the costs seem too high. But I wonder what happens if we follow Jesus’ lead and weep for what is lost, so that we can then see more clearly what lies ahead? The truth is not only is the church of the nineteenth century gone, but the church of the mid-twentieth century is gone too. 

So there were saints who lived in ages past who made decisions based on the leading or driving of the Holy Spirit and they cheer us on now. But it is you and I who are called to be saints in this time and place. Look around you: this is the starting lineup. I know some days it may feel like the Bad News Bears more than the world champion Boston Red Sox, but this is it. You go with what you got. At various speeds, congregations across this diocese are beginning to let go of the past in order to discover new missional strategies toward God’s preferred future, trusting that those who sow with tears will reap with songs of joy. So listen to what comes next. Listen to what Jesus says: (1) Roll away the stone; (2) Lazarus, come out; (3) Unbind him and let him go.

Roll away the stone. We don’t tend to be people who are comfortable rolling away stones. We like to leave things put: my grandmother donated that stone! Sometimes we entomb what needs to be called forth, but you know what, after a while it starts to smell when we do that. Four days, sometimes forty years or more. I have a friend who says that too many churches don’t smell of incense any more, but of mildew. 

But then, Lazarus, come out! Jesus doesn’t go in to get his friend. Nor does he send in others to do so. Lazarus needs to move away from that tomb himself and toward the One who is Resurrection and Life. I don’t think that requires a lot of words from me on this day when we stand in such a thin place. But just to be clear since we’ve come this far and I’m since I’m almost done: what might it look like to hear Jesus saying to you, as a faith community, as the baptized: come out and live!

And then finally, because Lazarus has been bound up like a mummy: unbind him and let him go. There are many things that keep us bound up, to be sure. But I’m running out of time. So I’ll let you all work on that one in the days and weeks and months ahead. I do believe this work of unbinding is the primary work we are called to in the Church today. 

Alright, now here is the thing. Your rector asked me to come here and talk about stewardship today. And she may be upset with me, or think I’ve forgotten what I agreed to do. I want to say to you all, though, and to Nancy, that this is for me the heart of what stewardship is all about. If we know who we are, and whose we are – if we care about being part of a community that has a rich heritage and a present mission and a future crown of glory then we need to act like we believe that. Where our hearts are, there is our treasure. Or to say that another way, show me your checkbook and I will tell you what you really believe. 

If this community is something we truly value, then our choices about what we do with our gifts, our time, our money, should reflect that value. Those choices need to reflect our priorities. We need to keep first things first.

I do a lot of work with a lot of congregations across this diocese. The most ones most focused on mission are the ones that cultivate faithful stewardship because when the budget is not a worry, there is energy to focus on what matters. This is not rocket science! It’s the same in our homes. Families that live beyond their means are always in stress. 

Most parishes are not living beyond their means. Most parishes are not overpaying their clergy or giving too much to mission. Most parishes are underfunded. You have an opportunity – an invitation – to change that culture. When everyone shares the work, and shares their resources, missional energy is unleashed. And the saints get to be focused on the right things. 

My whole theology of stewardship is still summed up in that old line still spoken at Rite I Eucharists in many places: “all things come of thee, O Lord, and of thine own have we given thee.” My friends: it’s all God’s.  God suggests we live on a budget of 90% of it, and let at least a tenth of it go, to build up the Body of Christ. We do that with glad and generous hearts when we trust that the Church’s best days are not in the past, but ahead of us. 

In the name of the living God, Amen. 


This is the fifth post in a series on The Way of Love.

To pick up where I left off on the last post (Pray) the distinction that I would make between prayer and worship (and I think The Book of Common Prayer backs me up on this!) is that worship is focused on something we do with others. When two or three are gathered together, Jesus has promised to be in the midst of us. We can, of course, pray with others.But worship is about, as the catechism puts it, "[uniting] ourselves with others to acknowledge the holiness of God, to hear God's Word, to offer prayer, and to celebrate the sacraments." (BCP 857)

One of the things that makes worship so challenging is that we have different aesthetics that can keep us from fully embracing this definition of worship, which is God-focused. My "favorite hymns"  may be a burden for you if those are not your favorite hymns. And the ante is raised when the music is "sacred" rather than just a concert you'd rather not attend with me because you like country, and I like rock-and-roll. 

When I was a parish priest this was the aspect I found most challenging because it seemed that music was as likely to divide the community rather than build it up. It's true also about language - and the fights we have in the Church over inclusive language and also about how formal or informal that language should be. The words that may take me to the very heart of my faith may feel trivial or off-putting for another member of the community.

All worship is contextual. What works in an urban monastery of Episcopal brothers should not be the measure for a small-town gathering of the faithful in a farming community. I think most of us (and especially clergy) would do well to let go of many of our "shoulds" and try to appreciate what brings others closer to God. 

That said, if liturgy really is "the work of the people" we have to find better ways both to speak our truths and listen to the truths of others, toward the goal of allowing us all to give thanks for those assembled, our siblings in Christ. 

I've focused on the negative, because I think worship is a challenge. But I've also been in worship where it all comes together, where the Spirit shows up - in both small, intimate gatherings and in liturgies that "rock the house." Paying attention to what happens when that happens and letting go of our need to control is, I think, step one toward more faithful worship.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018


This is the fourth part in a series on The Way of Love.

The Book of Common Prayer has a section which provides excellent reading material at those times when sermons go off the rails. It's found on pages 844-862 and it's called "An Outline of the Faith, commonly called the Catechism." It's a series of questions with short responses. The section on Prayer and Worship provides an excellent resource for this post and the next one that will follow on Worship.

It is worth nothing that prayer and worship are not the same. There is, of course, time to add our prayers of thanksgiving and petition in our corporate worship. But prayer isn't just for Sunday, even if that is the only time we gather with the community for worship. Prayer is meant to be a part of each day for those traveling the way of love. 

The Prayerbook defines prayer as "responding to God, by thought and by deed, with or without words." When I used to invite my confirmation students to read this and to discuss it was almost always a much more expansive definition than they had previously held. The idea that deeds could be a form of prayer was particularly compelling. And for some, the idea that words were not needed was also helpful. Mostly I wanted to get them to see that "making a list of requests and checking it twice" was what we do for Santa Claus, not for God. 

The Prayerbook goes on to speak of the principal kinds of prayer as adoration, praise, thanksgiving, penitence, oblation, intercession, and petition. For many the routine for prayer here, too, tended to be more narrow and focused primarily on penitence, intercession, and petition. So I spent some time on the psalms which are loaded with adoration, praise, and thanksgiving. My goal was to expand their definitions and ultimately their practices. 

For almost two decades now I've been part of the Fellowship of St. John the Evangelist. They have a phrase that comes from their founder, that they (and those, like me, who follow their Rule of Life) are called to pray our lives. 

As a follower of Jesus and as a priest - as both life-long learner and teacher - I think that the biggest obstacles to prayer are (a) that our definition is too narrow and/or (b) that we think we are not doing it right. My experience has taught me that the response is to "just do it" by making time to be in the presence of God. We can begin with what is easier for us and work toward what is harder. 

In the months of the year when weather permits, most of my mornings begin on my porch with coffee and silence, where I consider the birds of the air and the flowers in my yard. Other times my prayer includes a short form of The Daily Office which includes meditating on Holy Scripture - not to be preached or taught but simply to be explored as a reflection of my own life. Each evening I try to take some time to reflect on the day in order to give thanks for what has been given and to confess to where I've missed the mark. The more formal office of the Church where this happens is Compline. 

For me, this notion of praying our lives makes sense and it is therefore, above all else, finding practices that allow us to be as present as possible to each moment, which is about letting go of the past and leaving the future to God so that we might find abundant life each day. 

Monday, November 5, 2018


This is the third part in a series on The Way of Love.

"Christians are made, not born." (Tertullian)

The Way of Love begins with a turning; with repentance. And because we are dust, we need regular times for re-turning to the God who has created us in love. 

This turning and returning leads us into a deeper process of formation. I prefer to speak of Christian formation rather than Christian education because it's not a matter of the head, but of the heart. Or, better still, a process of connecting the two. Whether or not our turning is memorable and datable, it marks the beginning of a journey. 

This learning requires that we engage Holy Scripture, which we are invited to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest. We are invited to learn how to be part of a community where everyone does not agree, even on the interpretation of these old texts. We are invited to learn to love not only our neighbors (which is hard enough some days) but to love our enemies. 

This represents a counter-cultural process that requires some measure of intentionality. In the same way that gardens need to be tended (and protected from weeds and rabbits) so it is with our souls, and the journey of faith. 

Sunday, November 4, 2018


This is the second post in a series on The Way of Love
Life is a gift. Each one of us is unique, known by name, and loved by the One who fashioned us. Unfortunately, there is a very loud, consistent, and powerful message coming to us from our world that leads us to believe that we must prove our belovedness by how we look, by what we have, and by what we can accomplish. We become preoccupied with “making it” in this life, and we are very slow to grasp the liberating truth of our origins and our finality. We need to hear the message announced and see the message embodied, over and over again. Only then do we find the courage to claim it and to live from it. (Henri Nouwen, Adam: God's Beloved)
Since 1979, Episcopalians have been celebrating the Sacrament of Holy Baptism within the context of our Sunday worship, rather than in "private" family ceremonies. Like all changes, this one didn't happen smoothly and of course there was some resistance There is always resistance. But over the past five decades it has become our norm. 

This "innovation" was in fact a return to the earliest traditions of the Christian Church, where Baptism was central to understanding who we are and whose we are. It represented a turning away from the old life of sin and death and toward a new life of grace and life. The editors of the Prayerbook in the 1970s recognized that the whole baptized community would be served well with regular opportunities to remember and to renew their own Baptismal Covenant. The Sunday after All Saints (today) is one of the recommended occasions for celebrating Holy Baptism when there are candidates prepared for it and to renew our Baptismal Covenant when there are not. 

In the Baptismal Liturgy, the candidates (or parents of candidates) are asked six questions They are asked to renounce Satan, to renounce the evil powers of this world, to renounce sinful desires. All of these forces, internal and external, pull us away from the love of God. This three-fold renunciation is followed by a three-fold affirmation: do you turn to Jesus Christ, do you trust the grace and love he offers, do you promise to follow him? 

The Christian journey begins with this turning, trusting, and following. Every Advent we head out to the wilderness with John the Baptist and every Lent we listen again to the prophetic word that calls us to turn and re-turn to the Source of our being, to the Love that formed us from clay and breathed life into us. The more old-fashioned word is to "repent." 

We turn in order to accept our belovedness and to begin to live like we believe that. We turn, in order to get reoriented so that we can follow Jesus on the Way to the Cross, which is just another name for the Way of Love. 

Saturday, November 3, 2018

The Way of Love

"And now faith, hope and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love." (I Cor. 13:13)

We are talking a lot in The Episcopal Church about The Way of Love. I commend the hyperlink to you.

Love is a complicated word, and often heard in sentimental ways. But the Way of Love, as our Presiding Bishop likes to say, is the only way to counter the fear and hatred of our world. And if it's not about love, it's not about God! We do well to remember that God first loved us: our whole calling as God's people can be summed up in the way we respond, by loving God back and by loving our neighbor as self.

My own bishop (who is also my boss) organized this year's address to our Diocesan Convention around this Way of Love. I commend it to you, here.

Those two links are by way of introduction. The Way of Love is about cultivating seven practices: turn, learn, pray, worship, bless, go, and rest. It seems to me like a decent "series" for this blog. As always, this blog is about my own need/desire to "think out loud" and it is helpful to have some folks "listening in" with me. There is nothing really new here; these are ancient practices, rooted in the faith of the Church. But sometimes when religious people say that "love is the answer" it sounds hollow. It sounds like it has nothing to do with the realpolitik of the dangerous and frightening "real" world.

We tend to underestimate the power of love as (really, seriously, truly) stronger than the love of power. So we enter into the fray to gain the world, but risk losing our souls in the process. 

We do well to remember that Jesus was born during the reign of Caesar Augustus; that he lived in the shadow of Roman Imperial Power. And yet his message was consistent: Love God and love your neighbor. Do these things and you will live. I still believe that he was and is right. In fact I'm willing to stake my life on it.

I can't promise to write every day, but I will take these practices in the order they are found above and try to say something helpful - hopefully something that prods the hearer of the word to become a doer of the word.

Next post: TURN. 

Thursday, November 1, 2018

The Ministry of Listening

"Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking." (Life Together, by Dietrich Bonhoffer, "The Ministry of Listening.")
"It occurs to me, Jim, that you spend too much time trying to be interesting," [Gardner] said. "Why don't you invest more time in being interested." (Good to Great and the Social Sectors, by Jim Collins.)
I took classes in seminary on active listening, and I went to a seminary (Drew) where Professor Nelle Morton had spoken to an earlier generation of students about "hearing one another to speech." And of course Jesus of Nazareth spoke often about how those with ears to hear need to listen for good news. But it's hard, I think. Especially in a society where everyone wants to make sure they are being heard. We live with a lot of noise that makes listening even harder than it needs to be.

What if we who are called to lead, in various ways, are called to be more focused on being interested than in being interesting; in listening to others rather than always feeling we need to speak the truth? What if the first step toward transforming fear into love is to listen to one another with open hearts and holy curiosity?