"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Saturday, September 22, 2012

We are marching...

It's been a busy first couple of months as I've been learning to fulfill my role as pastor.  It is a joy beyond words to be in this community, to lead them in worship and to be with them as, together, we experience and discover God's work amongst us and within us.  This weekend I was at my first Diocesan convention here in West Virginia.  I confess I'm not a big one for legislating, but I enjoyed myself and was pleased to be there.  However, as I'm not technically canonically resident in WV yet (still belong to Oregon until December) I did get an opportunity to slip away during some of the legislative business.

We were meeting in Martinsburg, which as it turns out, is only 20 miles from Winchester, Virginia. I have long desired to go there because in May of 1863, my great-great-grandfather, Alexander White managed to get himself killed there when his right leg was shot off by a Confederate cannonball.  Alexander White was a private in the 12th WV US Infantry.  Nearly 40 years old with 4 kids at home, he enlisted in the Union cause, marched 90 miles from home and died in his first battle.

I've often pondered what possessed him to enlist and what it must have been like, crouching behind a stone wall, the bullets and artillery shells bursting and ricocheting around him - the grey clad soldiers moving inexorably forward.  And I wonder what price me and my family might have paid from his absence in the lives of his small children (my great-grandfather was about 11 or 12 when he died).  Family Systems Theory suggests that such a traumatic event would surely have left its mark down the generations.

After a short tramp through the woods near an elementary school, I found the remains of the very stone wall behind which my ancestor had sought refuge.  I was torn.  I had feelings of pride in his willingness to defend the republic and expand freedom.  It seemed no small irony to be there on the 150th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation.  But also, I felt a little angry that he would leave his family and perhaps bequeath to us a painful legacy.

As I stood in the woods, peering over the remnants of the wall, instead of a raging enemy I looked out on a school playground and several children and their families playing in the late summer sunshine.  And as I looked out on the peaceful scene presented to me, I believed that perhaps it had been worth it after all.  I called my own father and spoke briefly and I felt blessed.  We perhaps cannot control the paths into which our lives fall, but I am thankful that along those roads, no matter where we are, God is there waiting.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

At the office

One of the perks of my new position is that I am provided with a very nice office.  Actually, it's too big to be an office, it's more of a study which is not the same as a library (that's across the hall).  As you can see from the picture, I don't own anything like enough books to make the shelves look anything but bare.  I have air conditioning, internet access, a printer, I even bought a Keurig coffee maker - I really have no reason to leave.

But that's kind of what bothers me.  I worry that I'll be too tempted to hole up in here and not go out into the world where I'm supposed to be - sharing the Good News and making visible the invisible hand of God.  I've only been here a week, so I can't speak knowledgeably about the parish or my predecessors, but I have to wonder at what effect the introduction of large rector's offices has been on the church?  Mind you, the walls that aren't bookshelves are concrete block, but when this building was built in 1955, the priest must have thought this office was paradise compared to the likely space he must have occupied in the former small brick church which had been bought from the Methodists 20 years earlier when they needed a bigger space.

Having an office feels alot like settling in and settling down.  This is hardly an original thought, but Christianity like the Judaism from which it sprang, seems its most authentic self when it is on the move, on a pilgrimage.  The Israelites were promised a land of milk and honey - but both of those are things you get on the hoof and not things you get by making permanent camps; they're the food of nomads and not of farmers. Jesus himself said that the Son of Man has no place to lay his head.  If the church is truly the body of Christ, shouldn't we be at least a little concerned that we have nice comfy pillows in big fluffy beds on which to lay our heads?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Acts 29...

I am feeling very fortunate right now.  This past Sunday I started my new job as the parson* of a parish church, and I’m still feeling a significant high.  It is an amazing feeling to finally, after years and years of discernment and study and navigating the shoals of the institutional church, be able to do what I feel compelled and called to do. 

And I’ve been thinking a lot recently, as I’ve begun to take up this ministry, about those who have gone before me.  This was initially prompted by a gift I received at my (very recent) ordination.  My former home parish is an amazing place, and I understand its rate of growth-rate is in the top 4% of Episcopal parishes, which is remarkable.  Things haven’t always looked so rosy though, just a few years ago its future looked cloudy – a fairly new parish (established in 1983 or so) it has had its ups and downs and has gone through some difficult transitions.  But before even the first Bible study was held, the vision of a parish in the rapidly expanding west Portland suburbs existed in the eyes of one Lincoln Eng.  And through all those years and ups and downs, Lincoln and his wife Mabel were a part of the life of the parish and stayed steadfast no matter what.  Lincoln, the Venerable Lincoln Eng, had been archdeacon of the Diocese of Oregon and had a great personal story of overcoming adversity and intolerance as he sought to live out his calling as priest.  Earlier this year though, Lincoln died; but at my ordination his wife Mabel gave me his prayer book.  It’s covered in what looks like a bright red handmade cloth cover with a floral pattern cloth cross stitched onto the front.  Lincoln had gone to the trouble of using a label maker and tape to create homemade tabs for each section.  Actually, this is so useful that someone should make a set and sell it to everyone who uses a prayer book; in fact maybe I will$$.  It also has Lincoln’s notes written in red pen throughout – Lincoln was apparently a fan of inclusive language because every “Him” and “Father” is crossed out and substitutes written in.  This past Sunday, this was the prayer book I used to lead the services.  And so, in some way, my ministry picks up where his left off and it really struck me that this is how our faith has been carried on for two millennia from one generation to another.  And though I already knew that in my head, Lincoln’s prayer book brought it home to me in my heart.

And so as I was walking through the church where I have just started this Sunday, I stood in the hall looking at the pictures of my predecessors smiling beatifically forever from their (very large) portraits.  I am also continuing the work of these priests, which like Lincoln’s prayer book was a comforting thought because in this chain of ministry I can see that my work is only of a season. Which is a real relief.  I’m just a day laborer in the vineyard of the Lord, the management of the vineyards is not my task.  That belongs to God.  The ultimate success of the Christian movement does not rest on my shoulders, my job is to show up and labor faithfully and when this season ends to pass along my tools to whomever comes next.  Someday it will be my smiling face, frozen in a moment in time, staring down on another new priest (and I AM confident that there will be many more after me) as they take up this task we call vocational ministry.  And that’s comforting too.  As I begin I hope and pray that I have the fortitude and steadfastness shown by Lincoln and all the saints who have gone before.

*Deacon-in-charge seems an awkward title and I like the old-school sound of Parson - now I just need a flat-brimmed black hat!

Thursday, June 7, 2012

...and his kingdom will have no end

by Hans Memling
All the hoopla surrounding Queen Elizabeth II of Britain's Diamond Jubilee has me wondering about the line in the Nicene Creed where we say that Christ will return and that his kingdom will have no end.  If diamonds are for 60th anniversaries, what do you get for your 1000th - unobtainium perhaps?

Here in America, I think despite our revolutionary heritage, we kinda sorta like monarchs.  The British Royal Family is possibly more popular her than in Britain and certainly judging from Walt Disney's fare anyway, princesses are very popular.

But even more so, our view of the President's role in our national life as well as the kind of promises that Presidential candidates make, many people seem to wish they were electing a king (sorry, no queens just yet) instead of an executive functionary whose real role is to carry out and enforce the laws and policies enacted by Congress.  Being Commander-in-Chief, especially in an age unconstrained by legal niceties like declaring war, is a powerful power aphrodisiac which may have contributed for a desire for someone to come along and make things right.  Its too bad that most people today, unlike the founders, don't study Roman history; because if they did people might not be so eager for a strong President.

But I digress, sort of.  What exactly do we think of Christ's coming kingdom?  Monarchy works pretty well in Britain because the monarch really doesn't have the ability to exercise any real power.  She is a figurehead and a living embodiment of state authority, but I don't think she could yell "off with his head" and expect anyone to listen.  Surely that isn't what we mean by Christ's kingdom though do we?  Or is it?

Do we really want a king to whom we must pay obeisance?  Someone who will judge us (living and dead) and whose judgment has no appeal?  Or do we expect to be Abrahams haggling with God over the fate of those consigned to punishment?  Will expect a God who will conform to our will?  Somehow I'm thinking that's not how it will play out so what does that mean to us in our lives right now?  

Well, actually I'm not so sure.  If I think that the Spirit is leading me to take a particular stance or to vote a particular way and I lose does that mean that I discerned incorrectly or that evil has carried the day?  In our national politics and our church (Episcopal Church anyway) we seem to choose the latter more often it seems to me.  Frankly, I think we could all use a little more humility and submission, but hey, that's just me.

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

All things necessary for salvation

Last Sunday was Pentecost, and among the readings was a portion of Psalm 104.  I really love this Psalm because it has one of the best lines ever in the bible in verse 27 where amidst its rapturous glorification of God's creative powers it says; “and there is that Leviathan, which you have made for the sport of it.”  I am strongly attached to the notion that God creates partly for the pure joy of doing so.

But this week, the Revised Common Lectionary (which lays out the scripture readings for worship in a 3 year cycle) does one of the things that really annoys me - it edits the scriptures, ostensibly I suppose, to make it more amenable to the modern listener.  It's bad enough that we can't hear the entire psalm, but in this case they also leave out a single verse (36) which says; “And let sinners be consumed from the earth; let the wicked be no more.”

I’m willing to bet that almost everyone has, at one time or another, said a prayer just like it – “God, please make the bad people go away.”  The first human to turn their eyes heavenward and pray to God probably prayed a prayer just like it.  God is great and God's creation is awesome, but sometimes people really suck - they let us down, they lie, they cause mischief and too many of our fellow humans are subject to capricious injustice and true bodily harm at the hands of others.  Yes, please let the wicked be no more.

But the thing is, of course, that all of us are one time or another the one disappointing rather than the one disappointed.  All of us have broken a heart or wounded the feelings of others.  Maybe we've even been willing  to harm or did actual physical harm to another.  I know that I was willing to annihilate millions of people I'd never met with nuclear weapons in my time in the Navy because of our fear of the Red Menace.  

The disciples were expecting a Messiah who would lead a rebellion to restore the Davidic kingdom and make the wicked be no more through killing them - they wanted a sacrificial purification of Israel.  I have long harbored the suspicion that Judas's motivation may have been his realization that Jesus would do no such thing. Because Jesus and therefore God's intention is to remove the wicked, not by sacrificing them, but by loving them and breaking down the fear that lies behind all our selfishness and wickedness.  

Shame on the RCL for leaving that out!

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Dark Shadows

I really want to go see the new movie, Dark Shadows, that just came out.  I remember Dark Shadows being on TV, but I don't actually remember anything about it.  I suspect I wan't allowed to watch.  Probably why I remember it is because my older brother, Kenny, wasn't allowed to watch it.  It gave him bad dreams, and he would fall out of bed.  Kenny was 6 1/2 years older than me, but until I was about 6 or so, we shared a double bed.  At this remove, I don't recall whether his nightmares were a danger to him or me.  I do remember that when we got bunk beds, my big brother got the bottom bunk because of his proclivity to fall out, so maybe he was always more a danger to himself.

I imagine it would be fun to see the movie with Kenny, but that isn't possible.  He died nearly thirty years ago, in a house fire.  It's probably fair to say I miss him more now than I did then, even though that doesn't reflect all that well on me I suppose.  I keep a picture of him on the wall of our stairway; amongst the mostly dead ancestors.  I was telling my daughter about him just the other day and we went and looked at him and then all the other pictures as I shared their stories.

I feel bad for my brother, his life was tragic - beginning to end - and I wonder now if he ever really knew happiness or contentment.  He had a different mother from me.  His mother, Janice, became gravely ill when he was just a baby and spent much of his life in the hospital I'm told and died when Kenny was only six.  Later, he married a young woman also named Janice, who died from a brain aneurysm. In between were troubled years, difficulty at school, difficulty at home.  He must have wondered who loved him.

I've spent a lot of time over a lot of years wondering about, and more recently, praying for my brother.  I find myself praying for his mother as well.  My origins lie somewhere in her sickness and death; we are in some way connected.  Learning about her, her sickness, her desires for her children, my father and my mother's relationship with her has been helpful to learn about who I am.  I like Bowen family systems theory, but untangling the mess that is my family of origin isn't easy.  Those long-ago tragedies are, if you will, dark shadows that shift the color of my life.

So, I think I will go see the movie, and laugh (hopefully) and remember and live.  I will live, I will remember and be thankful for the whole company of saints who went before.  Our lives are formed and touched by so many others in so many ways that are beyond our understanding or even knowledge sometimes.  Happy Mother's day Janice, God bless you.

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Sheep and death

This Sunday was Good Shepherd Sunday and it was my turn to preach.  As I read the lessons this week though, all I could come up with was sheep and death. I probably should have been trying to develop some really insightful theme that was deep and edifying, but instead I just kept thinking about the time when I considered becoming a sheep farmer.  I used to own a farm in upstate New York and there was a perfect 8 or 10 acre pasture that wasn't being used much that I thought would be ideal for a small flock of sheep.  I even bought a book (this was before google and wikipedia and all that) called Raising Sheep the Modern Way.

It took a little digging but I unearthed my copy this week and starting skimming through it which caused two reactions for me.  The first was that it made me kind of want to be a sheep farmer again, but the second was to cause me to reconsider the line from John's Gospel we read this morning where Jesus says; "I am the good shepherd.  The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep."  Because as I read through the book I was reminded of how seemingly fraught with peril is the life of a sheep.  The book describes all sorts of parasites and illnesses which can kill a sheep, and the dangers of lambing and how to respond; it has loads (really, loads) of info on fences, fences to keep sheep in and predators out.  It even has a section on sheep dogs.  But it didn't have anything in there about laying down your life.

Set aside for a minute that this is Jesus talking; do we really believe that a good shepherd would die for a bunch of sheep?  Many people say they would give their life for their children, and some people may think they're willing to die for an ideal or a cause - but sheep? That's not how our world works. We're sheep-like enough, our primary concerns are a full belly and keeping the wolves at bay, but unlike sheep (probably) many of us are willing enough to do so at the expense of others. Even the most conscientious of us cannot escape the fact that all of our actions involve some kind of compromise with systems that perpetuate injustice.

Several years ago, after a Good Friday service, a friend said to me; "I just don't understand why he had to die." Many people have built entire theological careers on trying to answer that question. But in the end I think it might boil down to this. Jesus died because God believes in a world where good shepherds lay down their lives for sheep, and we don't.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012


I know we're well into Easter, but I'm still thinking about Maundy Thursday (the Thursday before Good Friday) and what Jesus means when at the last supper he presents the bread and wine as his body and blood and says that whenever we eat and drink these we should do so in remembrance of him.

Earlier that day, my 3 year old daughter's new big-girl bed arrived and part of getting it into her room was taking apart the bed she was using which had originally been her crib.  As I took it apart, my mind was filled witht he images of Nikki and I picking it out at the store, and decorating Zella's room before she was born, picking out bedding and the mobile and getting the sleep sheep from Cathy at church and bringing Zella home and learning how to get a baby to sleep and... an d well all the stuff that goes with having a baby and I was struck by how much of my relationship with Zella was tied up in this bed that I was dismantling to put in the basement.  And I was struck by how funny our memory is.  It's like I couldn't begin to describe how my Grandma White smelled, but on at least two occasions I've encountered that scent and powerful memories, full of emotion and longing sprang forth.

So in the Maundy Thursday scripture readings we encounter instances of God's command to remember.  To remember what God has done for his people enslaved in Egypt and what God is doing in the person of Jesus on the night before his death. "Do this in the remembrance of me," God says.  But it seems to me that this remembrance to which we are called isn't just a recalling of the past, but an invitation to live out what God has done for God's people again today.  God's saving actions aren't mere historical events but the indelible pattern of life, of our life and of life always and everywhere.  We remember what God has done in order to open our eyes to what God is doing.

We are the people being set free from slavery, we are the people witnessing God’s saving arm; God’s grace on our behalf.  In this remembrance God, Father, Son and Spirit are real and present among us and within us.  When we kneel at the communion rail, and partake of the body and blood, we are sitting around the table in the upper room of a house in Jerusalem with our Lord and Teacher.  Jesus isn’t confined to a piece of bread or a sip of wine but is wholly real and fully present in the community gathered in remembrance of God’s acts in the past, in the present and in the future.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

what is Caesar's?

I heard on the radio yesterday that the Defense Department is investigating the actions some US military members in the ever-expanding Cartagena prostitution scandal which originated with the actions of some Secret Service agents in advance of a visit to Colombia by President Obama.  Also in the news recently were photos of US soldiers being, to put in charitably, disrespectful of dead Afghan fighters which they had recently killed.  Many voices are expressing a concern about the degradation of American morals or virtue or some such thing exhibited in these episodes.  I share their concern and dismay.  However, I do not think these incidents are indicative of any kind of social decline.  Rather, I am of the opinion that people are remarkably consistent across time and humans today are, by and large, no more virtuous or callous from age to age than they might be at any given point in time.  In the Christian concept, this is what might be construed as the sinfulness of humanity.  In a non-Christian context, perhaps it would be called something like biological determinism.

Now I wouldn't go so far as Calvin's notion of the Total Depravity of humanity.  I do believe that all of the created universe, including people, contains something inherently good that is reflective of the God who lies behind our existence.  That said though, there does certainly seem to be something deep within our beings which causes us to create and re-create over and over again unjust relationships and systems.  I think that an important part of being a faithful person is the need to continually examine our relationship and participation in the human-created systems that define our world.  I'm pretty sure that's what Jesus was on about in his answer to the question about paying taxes; "Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's."  The bigger question for us is; what isn't God's?

So, people continually do bad things because that seems to be at least a part of who we are as humans.  Christ's call to love our neighbors as ourselves is an invitation to turn our narcissism and selfishness on its head; an invitation to put ourselves last.  We need to be mindful of the ways we participate in Caesar's world, the ways in which we put our comforts ahead of justice.  I'm not suggesting we all run off to live in communes - we aren't turning the clock back to be hunter-gatherers.  But it might be helpful to recall that in Genesis, all of the arts of civilization are the fruit of the children of Cain, who was cursed for murdering his brother.


Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Ask A Christian!

A favorite blog (newspaper column really) of mine is ¡Ask a Mexican! which manages to be both funny and insightful. Imagined as a place where people could ask the kind of boneheadedly ignorant questions they would never ask a real live person; its real genius is the way that it subverts prejudice by taking it at face value and responding with truth and humor. Only someone really self-confident in their identity, but also someone who didn't take themselves too seriously could have pulled this off for as long as ¡Ask a Mexican! has been around.

It strikes me that much of Christianity, and especially the strain of Christianity which includes the Episcopal Church, is sadly lacking in such confidence (though I will offer the counter-example of Lent Madness, which seems to embody the same kind of cheeky confidence). So much energy in the Episcopal Church, as well as the wider Anglican Communion, is taken up with deadly earnest, woe-is-me, handwringing. But too many people think that answer to the larger cultural shifts away from religion generally is to abandon everything that makes Christianity, well… Christian. Hospitality isn't about removing the markers of community; it's about explaining the markers and walking with people as they navigate their way through them. We won't bring people along with us if we keep telling them that there is nothing distinctive about Christianity. To do so is to suggest that there is nothing worthwhile about our so-called faith life.

I suspect that the underlying reason is just that lack of confidence within the Church about the claims which Christianity makes. Jesus wasn't just a really swell guy with some good ideas, he is the Son of God, fully human, fully divine whose life is our best understanding of the nature of God, and whose death and resurrection is sure promise of God's redemptive power. If you're going to claim a Christian identity, especially if you're someone who occupies a position of authority, then for heaven's sake take it seriously!

Now to go finish that sermon for Maundy Thursday….

Monday, March 19, 2012

What's so crazy about peace, love and religion?

Driving home from the hospital where I work this weekend I heard the promo for NPR’s debate show Intelligence Squared which was debating the motion “would the world be better off without religion?”  I didn’t actually get to listen to it, there were weeds to be picked, and little daughters to be played with and steaks to grill, and well… there’s only so much time to go around.

But hearing this promo seemed to fit into a stream of thought I’ve been having lately regarding what exactly does the church do?  Some folks think Church is the embodiment of the Great Commission at the end of Matthew’s gospel.  Some think it’s for living out Jesus’ command to serve the “least of these.”  Others think it’s for marking out the “elect” from the damned.  I like the first two of those, I’m not so into the third.  Let me be clear though, I’m not asking what the church is, I’m asking what it does.  I think Cardinal Dulles’ Models of the Church is the best reflection on the nature of the church I’ve come across, but it can be a little bit abstract.

My suggestion is that what churches are really designed for, their core competency, if you like, is religion.  As the NPR program suggests though, similar to the web-excitement generated by the YouTube video of the guy who loves Jesus but hates religion and all those folks claiming to be “spiritual but not religious,” religion isn’t very popular in America (or Europe, as far as that goes).  Actually, religion hasn’t been very popular for awhile now – too limiting.  It seems to me that a great deal of what church institutions have been engaged in for several decades at least is to try to pass themselves off as places that aren’t bogged down by “religion.”

But I think religion is getting a bad rap.  Religion, at its best is about the inculcation of faith.  Religious practice and religious discipline (think praying – not spanking) create in us deep patterns of behavior and thought that can be very useful in developing a worldview consistent with Christ’s teaching to love God and neighbor.  Mind you, it is possible to lose sight of the purpose of religion, the building and sustaining of faith, and to begin to pursue religion for its own end. 

I don’t think you have to go to church or be religious to be loved by God.  But I do think that church offers a time-tested way to develop faith and to learn how to confidently respond to the broken world around us in knowledge of that love.   So go ahead and get yourself some religion – you might be surprised how it turns out.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Seminary Controversies and Lent

This is a picture of the main worship space, knows as Gloria Dei chapel, here at the seminary.  It is likely that you noticed the gigantic rainbow colored banner strung across the space and over the altar.  This is the decoration put up to mark the first week of Lent.  This comes from the Hebrew Scripture reading for the first Sunday in Lent from Genesis;

And God spoke unto Noah, and to his sons with him, saying:
'As for Me, behold, I establish My covenant with you, and with your seed after you; and with every living creature that is with you, the fowl, the cattle, and every beast of the earth with you; of all that go out of the ark, even every beast of the earth.
And I will establish My covenant with you; neither shall all flesh be cut off any more by the waters of the flood; neither shall there any more be a flood to destroy the earth.'
And God said: 'This is the token of the covenant which I make between Me and you and every living creature that is with you, for perpetual generations:
I have set My bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between Me and the earth.
And it shall come to pass, when I bring clouds over the earth, and the bow is seen in the cloud, that I will remember My covenant, which is between Me and   you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh.  And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all  flesh that is upon the earth.'

I’ll be honest and admit that I find the rainbow banner in the worship space discordant with my expectation of the season of Lent, which is usually more of a time of reflection and anticipation.  It has been a source of lots of heated conversation and eye-rolling.   Much of the reaction has been negative, though it has its fans as well.  Just before chapel today, someone was taking pictures and I quipped that I hoped the photos didn’t make it onto the seminary website.  I nearly had my head bitten off in return, and it was implied that my negative reaction was in part due to homophobia.  Unlike the linked blog in the previous sentence, this angle hadn’t really occurred to me.  Rainbow banners in church always remind me of Easter morning at the church where I was baptized, and which used a rainbow colored kite/banner in the procession on Easter morning; rainbow + worship = EASTER.  Lent is not Easter.  But is there more to this than just aesthetics?

What I can discern of the thinking of those who like it is the question, “does Lent have to be depressing?”  Well, I guess if self-reflection or self-denial (the hallmarks of traditional Lenten practice) are depressing to you, then, well, yes Lent has to be depressing.  Actually, I think those things can be liberating.  So I don’t think Lent is supposed to be dark or depressing.  Personally I find a real happiness and satisfaction in this time of intentional simplification and reflection.  But more importantly, I think there is an important formational element in denying ourselves the celebratory and triumphal in this time leading up to Easter, which of course is, in the Christian worldview, is ultimate triumph.

I think one of the geniuses of the liturgical year is that we get to take the same journey as the original disciples, again and again.  Lent is closely linked with Jesus’ retreat into the wilderness after his baptism, where for 40 days he wanders alone and is tempted by Satan.   In Lent, we too are invited to wander into the wilderness of our faith, where we can rub up against our doubts, our beliefs, and our practices and make peace with them or overcome them so that we might inch ever closer to the vision of our lives that God intends for us.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

you are dust and to dust you shall return

In case you missed it today was Ash Wednesday, which marks the beginning of the season of Lent. As sacristan at the seminary, I spent this morning preparing for the worship service where the community would remember the fragility of life in the face of the gift of salvation that we will re-remember come Easter. We printed the bulletins on grey paper, I set up the missal, poured the wine into the flagons, took care of all the last minute things that come up and then mixed oil and water with the ashes of burned palms. And then as the serving party gathered and prepared to process into the church, I turned out the lights in the sacristy and left out the back door.
Partly, I was probably taking advantage of the remaining liberty to opt out of a liturgical responsibility while I still can. I've been busy looking for positions for after graduation (with some tentatively positive responses, thank you) and its really beginning to sink in, that someday soon, probably before Christmas, I will be a parish priest somewhere and I won't have the same ability to take a pass anymore. So, maybe the next few months are a kind of Rumspringa for me before fully committing to the life I have been called to and assented to live.

But mostly, I think it's that I don't really need to be reminded of the ever-present reality of death right now. I spend an hour or two nearly every weekend with the dead and dying. A couple of weeks ago, I attended seven deaths and a stillbirth in just under 30 hours and frankly it all kind of piles up emotionally. Now don't fret, I have people to talk to and decompress so my emotional and spiritual health is fine but my experience as a chaplain, even a part-time one, has brought me to a much more tangibly real experience of death than I'd ever known before. In a way, I think I will welcome Ash Wednesday in the future as a reminder to me of the intensity of the past year and a half as a chaplain and to honor the memory of all of those I've been privileged to be with as they die.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Do you feel ready?

I've been back in Oregon this week to meet with the people who control my fate as a priest. I am happy (very happy) to report that I have been approved. Of course, now begins the hard work of finding an opportunity to practice that ministry, though I actually feel pretty hopeful about that. But what's really on my mind is the question of readiness? Do I feel ready to take this on? Have I been adequately prepared?

I've worked at my studies, I know I've learned stuff. I've been involved in the parish, at school and at the hospital practicing and reflecting on the practice of vocational ministry. I know my perspective on the world and the church has shifted, my understanding of God is deeper. I even know how to fix a furnace and write a budget. I feel well prepared. However, I have no doubts I will flounder and make mistakes at the first church I serve as an ordained person.

Being here reminds of where I was ten years ago preparing for baptism. Was I ready? Was I a fully formed Christian? Of course I wasn't. My "faith" largely existed in my head as a philosophical proposition, my perspective was still focused on what God did for me and I felt I could take an a la carte approach, doing only what was good for me. I haven't fully and completely left that behind (I'm still a regular human, it turns out) but on the night I lowered my head over the font and the water flowed down my face I was willing and ready to make the commitment to being faithful even though there was still a long way to go.

Now, as I stand on the threshold of a new sacrament, ordination, I think I feel the same way. I am as prepared as I can be to make the commitment to living into the promises I will make in prayer that they may guide me and form me into whomever it is I am called to be. I hope I am a good priest, or at least not a bad one, but I promise I will try to be open to the movement of the Spirit that drew me in so long ago and that beckons me forward still.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Jesus on line 2

A couple of months ago I made a terrible mistake. I signed up to receive messages from the House of Bishops/House of Deputies email list-serv. Officially, I'm a kibitzer which means I can read the messages but I'm not able to post them. I suppose if I really wanted to add something to the conversation, I could email someone I know who is a deputy and ask them to post it for me. People do that once in awhile. But that's too much trouble really and besides anything interesting that might show up on the listserv is usually already on a blog somewhere and I can just go there and add my two cents if I'm really compelled to do so. But I think what really gets me is why the "leaders" of the Episcopal church have this odd kinda closed/kinda transparent communication medium? Why not just set up a Facebook group or a blog on the (newly updated) Episcopal church website?

So why was it a mistake, you might ask? Well, mostly because it's comprised of the same kind of rapid reaction, entrenched positions that characterize the rest of what passes for communications on the internet these days. Frankly it's not very heartening. I feel really bad saying that. Most of the people I've met who are deputies (and bishops) are really genuinely good people who care deeply about the Church and God's mission. But I know it can be hard to transcend the cultural biases we are surrounded by. I'd really like to see General Convention deputies engaged in substantive, gospel rooted conversations, and I suppose somewhere that's going on with some of them, but it for certain isn't on the list serv. Actually, I'm not really sure our culture knows how to have a substantive dialogue or even a real debate anymore, but its sad to see the Church trapped in that same paradigm.

I read something recently about ways churches might try to appeal to today's frenetic, always connected culture. One of the suggestions was to allow people to comment in between the readings during worship and then try to craft the sermon around what they say. I'll be honest and say that I'm not so sure that spending even less time preparing for sermons and worship will really help. I'm part of a transitional generation. I'm pretty well plugged in, heck I helped create this modern world as an engineer at Intel, but I also remember a life with rotary phones when "long distance" was a big deal. When I spent a year in Australia when I was 17, I only had actual letters to connect me to home. I think in that whole year I had one phone call with my parents. Not to be a curmudgeon, but there was something invaluable about being apart and on my own that I'm sad to see lost.

So while, I'd like to open up the conversation that Church Leaders are having to more of the church members, I don't want to see the Holy Spirit correlated to the latest Twitter Trend. Christ lives within his people, in the Church, maybe we can find the better balance between listening to our own voices and listening for THE voice.

MLK Sermon

This is the text of my sermon delivered this morning at Trinity Lutheran Seminary in honor of Dr King.  Our reading was Ephesians 6:10-20.

icon by Tobias Haller
There is some debate over who wrote Ephesians
as well as debate over whether it was actually meant for the church in Ephesus or not. 

But, whatever the specificity of the original context, it seems clear to me that Ephesians is marking a turning point in the thinking of the early Church.

Christ’s imminent return drove the fervor of the early apostles,
but, in Ephesians, is beginning to be seen as not an event to be looked for on every cloudy day.

Rather, it is something whose occurrence may be in some far future. 
Here, we begin to see the Church settling in for the long haul and
turning its focus away from a kind of ascetic preparation for the eschaton and
towards a sober reflection on the infusion of Christ into the mundane affairs of daily life.

We are reassured that Christians are involved in the unfolding of God’s mystery, God’s plan of reconciliation and
that the vehicle of God’s reconciliation is to be the Church’s witness to Christ’s passion with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

Two thousand years of waiting later,
I wonder to what extent we can possibly understand the deflation
and doubt
that surely crept its way through the church as the first generation of believers died. 

Surely they wondered,
could Jesus’ promise of return been wrong? 

How much longer Lord, how much longer?

Yesterday was Martin Luther King Day,
and the night before he was murdered,
Dr King gave a speech
where he talked about how he had narrowly avoided death several years before when he was stabbed in the chest in a New York City bookstore. 

He ended that speech by saying this;
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I'm not concerned about that now. I just want to do God's will. And He's allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I've looked over. And I've seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

Just as in Ephesians,
the people whom Dr King was addressing were anxious about promises still unfulfilled.

we remember Dr King as a great man
and a national prophet,

but on the day he was murdered, we should remember that many people were impatient with non-violent protest and civil disobedience. 

Violent Revolution was on the minds of
many who proclaimed
that only bloodshed could cleanse the nation of the sins of racist oppression. 

Their answer to the question, how much longer, was… not much, not tomorrow but today.

Righteous anger and the desire to inflict justice on the corrupted and debased is a natural inclination. 
It is only human to seethe at injustice.

And that it is so, so should be a warning to us.  For as it says in today’s reading;
“our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness”

Ephesians speaks of standing up against the wiles of the devil,
and it may not be especially popular here,
but I want you to know that I believe there is a force loose in the universe,
a power,
a will ……opposed to God. 

And that that power, however you name it,
is deeply insinuated into humanity such that, try as we might,
all our systems
and governments
and organizations,
all of our creations are tainted by it.

The struggle for justice has expanded greatly since Martin Luther King, Jr died. 

Prophetic voices still challenge our self-understanding
and our identity as a people. 

Our churches are mired in conflicts over the inclusion of homosexual persons in the full life of the church,
and more recently,
our churches have struggled to find their voice in the conflict over economic justice.

Those engaged on the front lines of struggle

and those whose lives have been spent in waiting also ask,
how much longer Lord, how much longer? 

People on different sides of these arguments, driven by their own sense of right-ness, withdraw to their own corners,
defying the unity of the body of Christ.

Our impatience,
our need to ask how much longer,
shows both our yearning desire to see God’s reconciliation
and our willingness to forgo God and implement our own solutions.

How much longer?

It is not now and will never be in our power to answer that question. 

We humans are confronted and bedeviled with systemic evils that thwart God’s desires
and God’s will for us, that we would be reconciled to one another
and to God. 

But Ephesians and Dr King remind us that we are in this for the long haul,

that we in the church are participants not only in a struggle here on earth, but also in a cosmic one that transcends our understanding.

What are we to do then?  
Are we to silently accept the injustices of the world and just wait for God?

Not exactly,
because the incarnation means,
I’m pretty sure,
that God intends that we, God and us, should stand against injustice together. 

It is not just the death of Jesus that lays claim to us
but the life of Jesus as well,
the example of Jesus’ ministry and the lessons of Jesus’ teachings. 

And the life of Jesus says that we are not to ignore injustice,
not to ignore oppression
and not to ignore suffering. 

God has solutions for these problems,
for all the problems of the world in fact,

but those solutions can’t be implemented at the point of a sword or with the barrel of a gun. 

Nor can they be implemented with hateful words or vindictive rhetoric.

But only with the armaments that God has given us,
the Gospel,
the Holy Spirit
and the Word, which is Christ.

God is delivering God’s people from the powers of fear, death, violence and injustice

and we are to be the witnesses to these things.

Dr King said;
the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“I know you are asking today, How long will it take?...

…I come to say to you this afternoon, however difficult the moment, however frustrating the hour, it will not be long, because "truth crushed to earth will rise again." How long? Not long.

Monday, January 9, 2012

Church, state, secularism and religion

While working in the seminary office today I was recycling and came across a recent copy of the magazine from Trinity School for Ministry, which is an Episcopal-(ish) seminary in Pennsylvania. In it there was an article that talked that described the movement of secularism from a kind of ecumenism towards a kind of modern day paganism. I've tried to find a link, but the school seems to be a bit delayed in putting their materials online. I thought it was an interesting observation and thesis. With the Presidential election coming up and many in the Republican nomination contest explicitly forming their policies in religious terms, it seems that the perennial question of American church-state relations is in no danger of going away. Personally, I wish that Congress would've just established the Episcopal Church as the official expression of Christianity in America (hey, we built a national cathedral already!), but I digressJ. The General Ordination Exams I just completed had two questions relating to church-state relations on it as well, so it seems to be in the air around me a lot. So, since I've already written it, here are my thoughts on the issue as prompted by GOE question 5.

In any society, the exercise of power is predicated upon the assumption of authority. That is, society legitimates the inherently oppressive exercise of power over some members of society on behalf of the civitas only if that power is exercised by an entity with properly ordained authority. For example, a police officer may only use force against another member of society when acting in his/her officially sanctioned role, otherwise their acts are considered criminal. The issue of authority then, in our culture, is the backdrop to understanding issues of Church-state relations. At one time, most people assumed that all legitimate authority in our nation was derived from God. Such a notion is enshrined in the Declaration of Independence which speaks of rights as being inalienable because they are given by God.


In a society which understood all civic authority as being endowed by God, it made sense to provide a privileged perch to God's representatives, the Church. The Church was understood to have a legitimate claim on the life of the civitas, so that things like establishment and, later, tax exemptions could be justified as the sacrificial offering of the community to the God from whom the civic authority derived.


However, that understanding of the source of authority for civic life has been under sustained challenge for quite some time. There isn't a clear consensus on the underlying reasons for this. I would suggest though, that divisiveness of the Church itself, with the ever multiplying diversity of denominations and independent Churches is a significant factor. If one looks to God's proxy, the Church, to offer an authoritative foundation for civic life then what one is likely to find is a confusing series of contradictory pronouncements. An unclear and confused claim to authority is unequal to the task of legitimating the use of power in our complex society.


For much of the history of Christianity in the West, its place as an established part of the social structure has meant that western culture(s) are deeply Christianized. The notions of human dignity and human rights as currently understood are the direct inheritors of the Christian tradition. That peace should be the natural state of things, that government should act both justly and mercifully, that the least amongst us should not be oppressed but assisted – all of these are ideas formed and developed in the Christian imagination and ideas that would not be so prevalent had the Church not long enjoyed a privileged place in society.


However, the flip side of that is that the Church, having in some sense fulfilled its mission to make a society more aligned with the Gospels, retreated into a place where it has seen its mission as protecting the status quo. The long held place of privilege has lulled the Church into a false sense of its place in society. Like a child whose parents hover and over-protects, our privileged position has insulated us from the consequences of our own self-destructive tendencies. We have not needed to seek out the unity of all people to God and to each other, because there has been little institutional upside in doing so.


To really begin to live out our mission and calling as Christians in the world will force us to stop looking at the ways in which we are different and instead focus on what it is that brings us together. If we are ever to once again be an effective voice for God's vision in society, we should be rushing to discard all of the trappings of privilege that have held us back and eagerly embrace the ways in which we can come together with a singular voice. I am under no illusion that this would be busy, but until we can find unity within the body, we will not be able to reclaim our rightful place of authority.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Hello Again + sermon from today (with video!)

It's been a while since my last post (2 months!) and its not for a lack of things on my mind but a lack of time to ruminate and write about them.  There was a real crunch at the end of the semester, and then the General Ordination Exams (GOE's) to prepare for and Christmas, etc....  I've been busy and the blog is more for fun than a real discipline at this point.  Good news though, I have very little on my schedule for the rest of the month and a very light load for my last semester, so  I am hoping to have more time to think and write.  I already have a backlog of things from school I want to rework and post so to my three loyal readers, there will be more to read soon!

BTW, if you're interested in what this year's GOE was like, check out the blog Crusty Old Dean by Tom Ferguson, the Dean of Bexley Hall Seminary

Sermon from the Celebration of the Baptism of Jesus
Given 8 Jan 2012 at St John's Episcopal Church, Columbus, Ohio

I love Mark’s gospel, it is my absolute favorite.  In it Jesus moves relentlessly, heedlessly even into his ministry, he’s all in and almost always goes “immediately” from one place to next.  You can almost feel the urgency as Jesus takes up his work  – Mark’s gospel isn’t polished, or even particularly well written, it’s the first century equivalent of video shot with a cell phone.  It’s a little rough and choppy but it’s too compelling to ignore.

So Mark’s gospel begins right here, at the baptism of Jesus.  There aren’t any shepherds in a manger, or wise men; not even a precocious adolescent mocking his parents for not understanding him.  No, in Mark’s telling Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of the story – this is the moment of incarnation when God and world combine in some mysterious and miraculous way that is going to change everything forever.

Mark tells us that John has set up in the wilderness where he is washing away sins in the river Jordan. 

That his baptism of repentance is in the Jordan River is important.  This is the river that the Israelites had crossed after wandering 40 years in the desert generations before and in his baptism John is inviting any who are willing to cross again out of the wilderness of sin and alienation from God and into a renewed life as the people of God. 

And people apparently thronged to go see John, to hear what he had to say and walk themselves into the Jordan and back into the promised land, just as their ancestors had done.

But, I think that what we really need to be asking ourselves is why; why would so many be willing to walk for days into the desert to be immersed in the Jordan and symbolically re-enter the promised land?

Why does it matter?

We know that first century Palestine was a place of tremendous social conflict and upheaval, Greek ways and Greek ideas were popular and increasingly influential.  The Roman Empire had just recently established political and economic control.  This clash of cultures bred conflict over the meaning of Israelite identity, conflict between Greek and Roman ideas and traditional Hebrew ones.  Surely, the question of what does it mean to be the people of God was at the forefront of many people’s minds.  Maybe they asked themselves, “Is our covenant with God capable of leading us into the future or does it only pull us back into the past?”

Does God matter?

John’s answer was a resounding yes.  John said yes, our covenant matters, look at the things God has done for us, repent of corrupting ways and hold fast to what is true and honored. 
But John’s message isn’t some call to return to an imagined golden age.  Because just as John is recalling Israel to its age old promises, he is also pointing the way forward.

The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me…

I have baptized you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit

What you are doing here, John says, is important, but it isn’t the end – there’s more.

Does it matter?

Isn’t that really one of the questions facing us now? 

Is our faith relevant in today’s world? 

Does it draw us forward; or
does it hold us back or
does it even matter at all?


One of the privileges of being a hospital chaplain is that every once in a while I get to baptize someone. 

Our church has a beautiful baptismal rite and the baptismal covenant is a centerpiece of the Episcopal understanding of faith, but in the hospital, it’s a much simpler affair. 

Usually very simple, a prayer over the water contained in a small bowl, an invocation of the Holy Spirit and then the three-fold application of water onto the baptized, in the name of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

My first ever baptism was for a little boy, just a few weeks old, named of all things, Israel. 

It was late at night and Israel’s parents and grandparents gathered around, the nurses there too, as we prayed for him and baptized him.

Like almost everyone I’ve baptized, he died shortly afterwards.

Does it matter?

Like the ancient Baptist whose name I carry, my answer is also yes.  Very much yes.

Baptism is most assuredly not some kind of protection against pain, suffering, or death.  It is not a testament of one’s perfection or an acknowledgment that you have everything figured out or even that you are in some way “right with God.”

I was baptized as an adult, and I remember someone asking me just beforehand if I was excited.  And my honest answer was no.  In fact I was scared, afraid of what God might ask of me.

And the years since then have confirmed to me that I was right to be scared because faith has led me places I would never have gone, it has forced me to confront things about myself I would rather deny.

Does it matter?

In all of the gospel stories, it is the baptism of Jesus that marks the beginning of the work that that takes Jesus to Easter.

Like John and Jesus’ contemporaries we live in a world where our identities, as Christians, and as Americans are in flux.  There is no generally accepted way to be who we are, no mold to fit ourselves into.  This is a great and tremendous freedom, but also the cause of great anxiety.  The old solutions don’t work, the old patterns no longer lead to expected results.  We may feel cheated, or lied to.  Isn’t that the anger that drives our political lives?  Isn’t that the fear behind so much hand-wringing about the wider Church?

In the baptism of Jesus, the Holy Spirit enters human life in a new way.  Jesus’ life provides the model of our own, a life based on love for neighbor, willingness to give of oneself, and an ability to focus on the here and now and not get bogged down by the past nor immobilized by the possibilities of the future.  A life that transcends our fears.

Jesus’ baptism is the beginning of something, not the end.  For Jesus it is the beginning of a profound ministry and life whose meaning still echoes for us two thousand years later.  In the incarnational moment of Jesus’ baptism, God and we transcended our covenantal relationship and forged a new unity whereby we can know God’s surpassing love and God can know our pain and fear.  In Jesus’ baptism, God and we embark together on something new and mysterious which is moving towards a complete and unalterable joining together in the fulfillment of the new kingdom where the heavenly city and earthly city become one.

And our baptisms are also not endings, but beginnings.  It is the beginning of our lives with Christ, in baptism we are immersed within Jesus and remade.  Of course you can turn away, but baptism is a promise that God won’t, not ever.

That so many in this congregation are willing to step beyond themselves to address issues like inadequate housing, food security, homelessness, hunger, education, unequal distribution of resources id, to me, a sign of the work of the Holy Spirit in this community.  It is evidence of the working out of our salvation.

And baptism is a sign of our salvation, but we are wrong if we think that salvation is something that just happens to the dead.  Because salvation is the outpouring of grace in our lives, each and every day.  In baptism a seed is planted that if tended, and cared for, grows into something mighty that spreads out into our lives and touches others.

If I had to answer why baptism mattered to the child Israel, I would say it is this.  He was not some imperfect creature who needed a spiritual cleansing, but in his baptism, the lives of all of us present there were changed, marked forever and God broke in in a way that could not have been possible otherwise.  And the same is true for allof us who have been immersed in Jesus, touched with the water of baptism, by the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Does it matter?

Yes, oh yes, it matters.