Midnight Evangelism

So this will be a short post as we are in the throes of packing and the movers come later this morning – but I had one of those experiences that puts a few things in perspective.  At 11:30 in the evening I ran to Walgreen’s to get some last minute essentials for our trip to Tucson.  I have spent the day packing, cleaning out the garage, cleaning off lawn furniture, throwing away lots of trash, and more.  So after 15 hours of that, I was not looking my Sunday best.

When I went in to the store, a young woman was at the counter.  She was in soccer shorts and a t-shirt and seemed to be having a pretty animated though convivial conversation with the man working the counter.  I got my few items and went to stand in line while wondering why her transaction was taking so long.  I overheard her say, “It’s a great church!” It turns out she had been telling him all about her church – that’s what was taking so long.  When she noticed that I was listening in – she asked me “Do you want to know more?”

everydayI was taken in by her energy and said that I would.  She explained that she goes to the Upper Room Church which was started in Dallas but has branched out to Denver.  She loves it because it is focused on “The work Jesus did.” When I asked what that meant, she said, “Well, for example, we’ve all been out tonight going to places where the homeless gather at night and inviting them to breakfast tomorrow morning.  No strings, just a meal and a conversation partner.”

So, at nearly midnight, she was out inviting those in need of a hot meal and companionship to come to her church.  More than that, she was talking to two unlikely candidates, the night-shift guy at Walgreen’s and a sweaty random customer in a tank-top and basketball shorts (that would be me), about how great her church is.  She said, “It’s small and authentic and I love it.” She asked me if I was interested in visiting and I came clean.  She said, “That’s awesome! I hope Jesus blesses your ministry!”

I told her that he already had and that it had been through her energy tonight.

Sometimes evangelism seems like a scary proposition – but here was a woman in her mid-twenties gushing about doing the work of Jesus and sharing it with strangers and those in need.  In the midst of packing and a bit of domestic chaos, I was in some need too.  The funny thing was that the Walgreen’s employee and I were not annoyed at all – we were not put out by her enthusiasm – indeed both of us were genuinely touched.  Part of what made her so compelling is that she was not just sharing Good News but living it.

I wonder just how the Episcopal Church could be changed and change lives if we were so willing to go out and tell whomever we meet, however they’re dressed, wherever they are that we have a Church that we love that is small but authentic and is about the work Jesus did – and still does in so many ways.

Robert

Is it Nothing?

I sometimes wonder what those who had heard little of Jesus or had never encountered him made of seeing another young, probably rebellious, defiant, poor man lifted up on a cross as punishment for his crimes.  It was a gruesome affair – this we know.  Yet, it was probably common enough to elicit little comment and minimal reaction from those who happened to see it.  It was probably a common enough occurrence for an empire, bent on security, to whip and humiliate a man for claiming that a higher power than theirs commanded his allegiance.

Was it nothing to them?

I find myself wondering now, is it nothing to us?  Can we watch the video?  Can we hear the names?  Can we hear a girlfriend’s plea?  Can we see a child sitting in the backseat?  Can we see a bloodied badge held in a friend’s hand?

Those videos are a gruesome affair.  They are painful and heart-wrenching.  Is it nothing to us?

I can’t imagine why so many African-Americans are Christians.  I can’t imagine the children of slaves, watching their parents humiliated and sold, then claiming the owners’ God for themselves.  I can’t imagine the sharecropper singing the same hymns as the Klansman.  I can’t imagine singing “We Shall Overcome” knowing that what must be overcome is a hate too often laden and weighted with religious sanction.  I am privileged enough to not need to imagine it.

For some, the response feels as if it must be blood.  So innocent blood is shed in revenge’s desolating cycle – in the streets of Dallas and in so many places.  Yet, for the Christian, the answer is always Blood.

There is the enduring power of the Cross – not an event fixed in time and pinning one man’s life to the Earth – but an event still unfolding that still lifts our hope heavenward.  In the vile paroxysms of an empire’s fear was born the freedom to look hatred in the eye and say, “we shall overcome.” In the Cross, those who know the fear of empire and the casual cruelty of a disinterested crowd, can just see the crown upon a pierced brow.

The-Cross-and-the-CrucifixIn the sweat of the Son of God was mingled the sweat of a sharecropper grandfather.  In the tears of Mary were the tears of a girlfriend mourning a shot boyfriend with the tears of the world.  In the blood of the Son of Man was mingled the blood of every man who has ever had to fight, and rage, and cry out that his life mattered.  All those who are acquainted with sorrow and who are afflicted can see in the Cross the God by whom they are counted as worthy of unending, never-failing love.

Like Pilate, it would be convenient to simply think that this has nothing to do with us.

It may be easy for it to be nothing to us – but it is everything to God.  So it must be everything to us.  It must be everything to us to say, “That is our neighbor.” It must be everything to us to say, “That is a child of God.” It must be everything to us to say to the powers and principalities, to the demonic hold of violence and racism, “Go, Satan.”

It seems to me that the madness that is now gripping us is as sure a work of the Devil as anything – we kill one another, we see one another as deserving of killing, and we look away distracted by the next new thing.  Can the Devil plot a more sure ruin for lives and souls?  Yet, at the end of the path of violence, is an open tomb.  Standing before us is a risen Savior who can show us his wounded hands as if to say, “Look at what you have done” even as the quiet echo of “Father, forgive them” still rings.

Can we see Christ there though?  Can we not just look – but can we see?  Can we see Christ selling a few compact discs?  Can we see Christ serving and protecting though it may cost him all?  Can we see the Christ who knew the names of so many kids and even knew their food allergies?  Can we see a Christ who may have sold a few loose cigarettes?  Can we see Christ on the playground?   Eating skittles?  I think we can – for we certainly see a Christ slain because of the fear of those who were so, so ready to say, “Crucify him!”

Can we see through fear to the very sacred heart that is in each of us?  Can we see the Blood pouring from the wounds of those who are being broken and bled by fear and revenge?

And if we see, is it nothing to us?

Robert

A Corpus Christi Moment: Making a Home for the Body

As we prepare to break ground on Sunday for our new permanent housing for the homeless at the Cathedral, the following is a note I have written for the day:

Some of you will remember that last year, as part of our celebration of the Feast of Corpus Christi, we processed to the steps of the Cathedral and, using the consecrated Body of Christ, Fr Malloy proclaimed God’s blessing for the city of Denver. It’s a medieval tradition that comes from a time when people saw the Body of Christ as the most effective and sure blessing any person could receive. That feast recently passed again on our calendar without much solemnity or notice this year. Yet, I think, the Cathedral community is participating just as richly in the blessings of the Body of Christ yet again from the steps of the Cathedral.

Today, we will process out to ask for God’s blessing again. We will bless the ground on which the new Saint Francis Apartments at Cathedral Square will be built. We will again honor the Body of Christ in the way the Church has always been called to do – by lifting up the poor and seeing in them the promise of Christ’s very real Presence.

The Church maintains two truths. Christ is fully Present in the Sacraments and in the poor.

The Cathedral is committing to the work of a new Tabernacle – we will create a place of safety for the Body of Christ. It is imperative that we who seek Christ’s Presence see him revealed in those too easily ignored.

Every celebration of the mass is an act of faith in which our eyes see with the soul’s longing for God. We see and know Christ revealed in the simplest way, in Bread and Wine made life. The way we encounter those in need is as much an act of faith. Christ is revealed to faithful eyes. It is easy to scoff at the Body of Christ veiled beneath the form of simple bread. It is just as tempting to scoff at the Presence of Christ in someone who is too easy to dismiss because of poverty.

Yet, beneath the surface, waiting for faithful eyes to see, is new life – is the source of our salvation. In the Eucharist we receive Grace upon Grace. In serving those most in need we receive grace as well – we find that the space of relationship becomes hallowed ground where new life is born. In those relationships we find ourselves broken open and reformed with the gold of sympathy and genuine love filling in the cracks.

Whether we see or not, that grace, that genuine Presence is there – God’s promise is alive. Yet it is in receiving that Communion fires in us new hope. It is in reaching out our hand in love to one whom others avoid that hope breaks us open for grace to find a home. Beneath lowly forms God makes Himself known.

housing

The Saint Francis Apartments at Cathedral Square

Each Sunday, as Communions are administered, I kneel in my stall. Recently, I was powerfully struck that I was kneeling before the Christ at the Altar and I was also kneeling before the Body of the Faithful who came by one by one. The Christ before whom we kneel would, I think, welcome us kneeling before one another on occasion as we see within each other grace swelling and shining forth.

One of our most dedicated volunteers with the Women’s Homeless Initiative once related that hers is a ministry of small things. She provides newspapers to the women who stay with us on Monday nights. She hands out aspirin, makes coffee, folds pillowcases, and more. She also mentioned one powerful act of love (which she would not claim as such).

She talked of rubbing lotion onto the feet of the women – many of whom are on their feet all day long. I couldn’t help but be transported back to the moments when costly oil was being rubbed on the feet of Jesus and Judas complained. I could not help but think of the complaints of the money about to be spent on “expensive” housing for the homeless – a waste surely?

So often, the Christian sees a chance for love where others only see a need to be met or a disgrace to be ignored and in those moments, for those who are true of heart, adoration begets adoration, and love begets love. May we always have the courage to love and to see as God longs for us to see – with the eyes of faith.

More about the project may be found here.

Fr Robert

Wonderfully Made: Being Pro-Life and Pro-LGBT

One of the phrases from Scripture that comes back to me with some regularity whenever I talk with people who are suffering is one that many of us know well from Psalm 139, “For it was you who formed my inward parts; you knit me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; that I know very well.  My frame was not hidden from you, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth.”

How many of us need these words at various points in our lives?  How many of us need the reminder that we were formed by God before consciousness – that we were loved before our biological parents even knew we were stirring to life?

I have friends who are all over the political and theological map.  They come with a range of experiences, views, and doctrinal interpretations and I value their faith, intellect, and integrity.  I find myself physically ill when those who are more “conservative” are called bigots because they are wrestling with Scripture faithfully in light of social change.  I find myself deeply frustrated when more “liberal” friends are disregarded because their faith is second-guessed as they try to remain active in the Church even as they see it re-enacting sexism, bigotry, or homophobia they long to see left behind.

What I am seeing emerge, particularly in new generations of clergy and believers, are interesting blends of conservatism around some aspects of faith and liberalism around others.  For example, I see theological conservatives active as voices for social change.  I see theological liberals coming to the most traditional of liturgical churches.  I see a combination of pragmatism about the work of evangelism in which ideological differences are set aside for the sake of Kingdom building.  Yet, I also see a zero-sum mindset at times in the Church in which one side sees the need to “win” on a given issue while ensuring the ostracism of the “losing” side.

Yet, in all of this, I see a longing for the Church to be that which gathers people from all over the map (literally and figuratively) and gives them a shared home and hope.

I write this with an eye toward a theological dissonance that has emerged with greater clarity for me over the years.  I find myself returning to my pro-life roots.   I also find my sense of the need for greater welcoming of LGBT folks being strengthened.  Politically, this is a challenging place to be.  Our national political dialogue makes enemies of these positions.  Yet, theologically, the Venn diagram has come into focus for me a bit and it rests, in part, on that promise of Psalm 139.

life“You knit me together in my mother’s womb.” Reading this one line of Scripture (and it is difficult to read any one line in isolation of course) I find myself challenged to think more deeply about what it means to be pro-life.  A God who knows us and inspires our creation and who guards us in the womb must be a God who longs for our protection when we are most vulnerable.  Yet, that vulnerability does not end when we are born.  Indeed, to be pro-life must mean that life is absolutely precious and must be tended and cared for in all the ways a civilized society can manage.  This must mean robust care for mothers and children before and long after birth.

The vulnerability we all share as human beings is particularly acute among those who are LGBT.  They find their worth questioned and their dignity undermined in ways that I never will.  The God who knows us in the womb must, I assume, know wherever we may find ourselves on the gender and sexuality spectrum.  The many people in the congregations I have served who are LGBT are not people who chose “disordered affections” at some decisive moment in their lives or were recruited by wizened gays and lesbians.  They were born this way and long to live as God has called them into being.  They were known in their mothers’ wombs.

The God of creation – the God of new birth – imparts an inherent and inviolable dignity as we are made of the very likeness of God.  The conferral of God’s love cannot, I believe, only happen at the second of physical birth.  The intricacy of God’s working in and through us begins with the Word – in the beginning.  Our longed-for birth comes out of a creation that is, like Christ himself, held in the heart of God from the beginning of time.  We are in the beginning – we are with God – at rest in the fullness of Christ’s own being as heirs of an eternal promise that stretches before our consciousness.

I believe that people make poor decisions across their lives.  Some will drink.  Some will smoke.  Some will hurt others.  Some will try and fail.  Some will never try.  We will sin, we will fail God, and God delights in our salvation.  There are choices we all make that God counts as part of our growth – part of the process of turning toward God in hope and for healing.

I do not believe that being gay is one of those choices.  I do not believe that being born is one of those choices.  The God of grace knows us as part of his created order from the very beginning and calls us good.

The Church’s call is to protect the vulnerable – to protect that which God has called into being.  Of course, through our own fault and through the fault of others, we will be drawn into a web of sin and sin-stained choices.  War, poverty, famine, and more are all part of sinful cycles in which we are caught up.  Yet, through it all God calls us to be faithful witnesses that his mercy endures.  That his love is made manifest.  That the Body of Christ can heal a broken world.

There are a host of policy options that must be considered when thinking about abortion – any realistic person knows this.  Yet, it seems dangerous to pretend that legal abortion is somehow an anodyne or sanitary policy choice.  It is the ending of life.  Camille Paglia, the noted scholar, who is very much pro-choice (she would even say pro-abortion), noted recently that, “Progressives need to do some soul-searching about their reflex rhetoric in demeaning the pro-life cause. A liberal credo that is variously anti-war, anti-fur, vegan, and committed to environmental protection of endangered species like the sage grouse or spotted owl should not be so stridently withholding its imagination and compassion from the unborn.”

I suppose this is where I find myself – trying to do soul-searching about what it means to hold in tension all that which is held in many quarters to be diametrically opposed.  I am not much of a theologian really – I have no advanced degree work in theology beyond a basic degree in priestcraft (an M.Div.) so I do not know how any of this squares with neo-Platonism, Barth, natural law, Radical Orthodoxy, or the like.  I have almost written this piece a few times – never quite sure how or what to say – or what might be theologically tenable.  I do know though that God keeps stirring me to think and pray more deeply about these things and to have the humility to know that I might be wrong.

By his holy Incarnation Christ entered the world as a child in the loving arms of a mother – he entered with vulnerability and relying on the care of a Mother and a guardian.  For God so loved the world, he gave his only Son.  I firmly believe that it was because God so loved the world that you and I were given to it too.  We are here for the love and through the love of God to be that love for those who find themselves broken, lost, and bereft.

Whether still in the womb or whether struggling with what it means to be both gay and Christian – God has given us a greater, deeper purpose and promise than we can ask for or deserve and he has called us into being to be for the most vulnerable a word and witness.  We are known in the womb.  We are wonderfully made.  May we have the courage to share that news with many.

Robert

Communion? The Fracturing of Shared Reality

An article floating around about our political culture talked about the fracturing of shared reality which makes political compromise or progress nearly impossible.  Our political reality seems to be one of subjective perception and a denial of objective truth which informs and forms our ability to find consensus around critical issues.  The article focuses particularly on the use and acceptance of scientific findings and the politicization of science as a primary example of the breakdown of our willingness and ability to allow fact or expertise to stand in the way of our opinions or emotional responses.

fractureThe phrase “fracturing of shared reality” struck me as a potent one in considering the role of liturgy, theology, and formation in the Church.  Sometimes small things strike me as interesting – for example in a Facebook group recently an Episcopalian commented on the use of the term Blessed Sacrament and tabernacles.  The comment was “I thought Anglicans did not believe in that.” Whatever parish this individual calls home has not reinforced the shared doctrinal compromises and commitments that define us as Anglicans.  The shared reality of the Anglican (and ultimately Christian) experience is fractured at the individual and local level when core doctrinal truths are underplayed, ignored, or dismissed.

This is playing out in ways across our Church and the Anglican Communion.  The breakdown of a shared story – or at least a shared way of engaging the story of God in Christ – has had serious ramifications for our life together.  An example in the Episcopal Church might be the acceptance of Communion without Baptism in some parishes out of a sense of radical hospitality or welcome.  Divorced from the deep theological and traditional understanding of the link between receiving life in baptism and having that life nourished in Communion we find parishes and priests engaging in a practice that breaks the common bonds that have formed us as both Catholic and Reformed in the name of a subjective perception of what constitutes welcome.

That bond, given voice in the ordination vows of priests to uphold the “doctrine, discipline, and worship” of the Episcopal Church, is one that forms us and defines us.  It is a bond that is a gift of the Spirit which has moved over the ages and given us a shared sacramental reality by which we are given life and through which our very reality is formed and framed.  Our spiritual and theological dissonance triggers two questions.

Is it Jesus?  Are we alone?

If we believe that Christ is coming into the world freshly and powerfully in each celebration of Communion we are then confronted with a host of other questions which are not pedantry but are crucial to our whole selves meeting Jesus in his rise self.  Do we sing?  Do we kneel?  Do we come with joy or with trembling – or with trembling joy? All of this is to say that the question of whether it is or is not Jesus then triggers in us a deep and ongoing dialogue around how we engage the reality of the claim and the truth of the Presence.  Only the agnostic can look away untouched by such a reality.

Are we alone?  Do we alone approach the throne of grace by ourselves, in sinful or altruistic isolation?  Is it me, myself, and my God?  Or are we coming as a community of grace – a community in the throes of the Holy Spirit – to find ourselves ever more deeply in Communion with one another in the reality of our lived experience as a community and in the reality of the Present Christ?  The lonely and alone find ample reason to doubt and to undo the past burdened by the fear of isolation and an uncertain future.

A community of faith, however, approaches the Altar with faithful assurance that just as Thomas touched the wounds so we are being invited to touch the bare reality of an ever-given salvation.  This is not ours by right or by entitlement but by grace alone and it is found only in the Body of the Church.  Gathering along with us, as we say at Communion, are angels and archangels – and we are joined too by the long dead and the recently mourned.  We are joined by those of ages past who live in the greater presence of the ageless one.

Communion is the shared reality formed by the Fracturing of the Body on the Cross.  The nobility of the Incarnation, the inhumanity of the Cross, and the promise of the Resurrection are laid bare on every Altar and given to be the food of every Christian.  To this we respond in the only way we can – with adoration and a great thanksgiving.

As parishes and individuals decide for themselves what they believe or what they feel we find ourselves ever more broken – our shared reality ever more fractured – to the point at which we are no longer able to call ourselves one body.  The atomization of the Body is a broken response to a broken world.  We too often find that Church does not suit us or that the bonds of canon and collegiality simply do not allow us our full range of creative expression.  In those moments our need to be special, to make a statement, contributes to the fracturing of our shared reality.  The virtue of authority is not that it keeps us all in line but that it keeps us humble – checking our sense that we know best with the wisdom of a wide body that has prayed and wrestled through the ages.

Some things are simply unchangeable – immovable fixed points of faith.  Yet in a cultural context in which every person feels the need to get it their way and right away and when a consumer mentality drives nearly our whole range of daily experience, the simple statement that the Church (the deepest reality of which is the very being of Christ) holds and shares Truth is a dangerous statement of spiritual defiance.  Yet that Truth – that we are not alone and that we adore Jesus made Present – creates a particular set of burdens on the faithful.

We are formed by the patterns of reception and obedience that a real engagement with truth demands.  When confronted by the reality of God our first thought must be of salvation and transformation – this requires obedience and faithful witness as stewards of Good News not the pride of crafters and creators of that news.  We receive this Good News as a faithful family of belief and witness that stands across the ages and inherits not cultural artifacts of empire but the living foundations of Kingdom.  We stand alongside and in dialogue with the voices of past faith not as interrogators and prosecutors but as heirs and guardians.

There are many who will claim that what makes Episcopalians and Anglicans special is our tolerance and diversity of belief.  Yes and no.  What we think makes us special is our tolerance and diversity – what truly makes us special is the shared inheritance of grace and a way of being together that allows diversity of perspective to flourish.  That shared inheritance is a framework and foundation that still makes bold claims on the faithful – it is not our creativity that makes us unique but our fidelity to our heritage and witness to the Living God – our shared reality.  While there are many traits, markers, and practices that make local communities vibrant and attractive there is an ultimate source from which we draw that is deeper than Church or denominational affiliation.

Ultimately we are the Church’s to be shaped.  The Church is not ours to shape.

This is a harsh reality for many of us and yet it is not ours because the Incarnation is not ours.  The mystery of the Trinity is not ours.  The changing of bread and wine is not ours.  The Virgin Birth, the Transfiguration, the Ascension, and the Resurrection are not ours.  The metaphysical realities that guide and break and reform us are a shared reality which we marvel at and share.  The Church is bigger than us because the shared reality of the Living God is bigger.

What then do we do as practices, doctrine, and more are atomized and reduced to the subjective experience?  How do we begin to contemplate our fractured shared reality?  I suppose we gather together and stand with Jesus as we are asked, “What is truth?”  Standing before Pilate was the very answer.  Standing before us, on every Altar, is the same answer – the same truth which will defy the ages and forge our common identity if we will let it.

Do we believe it?

Robert

Refrain from Anger: On Anglican Bigotry

In the wake of the Primates’ meeting and the subsequent decision by the Primates to ask the Episcopal Church to withdraw from voting in international bodies for three years, there has been no shortage of commentary.  From Facebook to Twitter to blogs, the Anglican social sphere has been awash in opinion.  My concern at this point is less about the decision itself than our reaction to it.

We have taken an action that runs contrary to the deeply held convictions of Anglicans worldwide and is a frankly dramatic shift in an understanding of marriage that was embedded in human social relations before Christians called it a Sacrament.  To deny that fact – that this openness is an innovation – is to engage in creative myopia.

Now, acknowledging that fact does not mean that it is an innovation whose time has not come.  There are good and even holy impulses that are leading to this discussion.  I do not believe that this change is Satanic as some have charged nor do I believe that it is simply a capitulation to the spirit of the age.  As more is revealed to us of creation and human nature through the reasoned observance of science, sociology, and more, one can begin to see where a case can be made. When paired with faithful prayer and the attentive reading of Scripture, an acknowledgment of the holiness of loving same-gender relationships may be a thing to be embraced, even among the tradition-minded.

However, all good reasons on the table, it is an innovation that is moving with remarkable rapidity when situated within the context of the arc of Christian history.  I have a number of LGBT friends who are saying that they are not sure about this shift – not yet.

I have many friends of all sides of these issues.  They are all faithful people who strongly desire to follow the will of God and the guidance of the Spirit.  What troubles me deeply though is that those who do not hold the same mind about this as the majority of the Episcopal Church are being called bigots and worse.

I looked up the definition of bigotry, and found this, “Intolerance toward those who hold different opinions from oneself.”  We might, indeed, feel that a certain intolerance (a bigotry) has been expressed toward the Episcopal Church (and towards LGBTQ Christians) by the Primates.  Yet, I fear many are now engaging in pernicious bigotry by assuming the direst of motivations and machinations of those who disagree with the direction that The Episcopal Church has taken.

The Episcopal Church – this supposedly high-minded and elevated form of rational Christianity – has succumbed to the nastiest abusiveness of fellow Christians.  Whether it is the veiled racism of referring to “the Africans” or the copious use of various forms of the word “bigot” or casting the acts of the Primates as devious and underhanded – we are reacting in ways entirely out of proportion to the sanction that we have received.

We are reacting in ways that actually imperil communion – in ways that are more dangerous than a sanction or reprimand from the institutional arm of the Church.  The Church is the Body.  It is a mystical union as well as an institutional entity.  Our reactions – our words and deeds – have the potential to undermine the mystical union we share for we are literally saying to one part of the Body, “We have no need of you.”

It is difficult to remain in communion with someone when he or she is saying that you are a bigot.  I would hasten to add that I hope that those who are on the more traditional end of this conversation would also work hard to curtail and contain those voices who denigrate and deny the faithful witness of LGBTQ Christians around the world.

There might be hurt over this reprimand but, look closely, we were not ejected, nor were our orders declared null and void, nor was Bishop Curry thrown out of the meeting.  I understand that many are angry over the rebuke– yet we walked away from them – not the other way around.  Anglican brothers and sisters gave repeated and clear statements that pointed toward an outcome like this if we moved ahead and yet, we did so.

Now that we have received a rebuke (not an ex-communication or expulsion), there is comment after comment from fellow Christians talking of bigotry, promoting schism, and advocating financial retribution.  As a friend of mine used to say when the Church got twisted up, “Jesus is so lucky to have us.”

If this is prophetic work – then do what prophets do – bear the disapproval and move ahead.  This caterwauling is beneath us as a community of Christians.  Should we ferociously decry the abuse, murder, and torture of LGBTQ people across the globe, particularly at the hands of fellow Christians?  Absolutely!

elizabeth-eckfordHowever – to act as if every Episcopal and Anglican blog is another forum where we can cast invective against those who disagree is beneath dignity.  More dangerously, it is against the expressed prayer of Christ for unity.  The image I have of a prophet is of Elizabeth Eckford, in the midst of a screaming crowd at the height of school desegregation in Little Rock.  Amidst anger and rage – she held her head high.

If you are in the majority in the Episcopal Church (and the minority in global Anglicanism) who supports this opening of our understanding of marriage – then feel free to hold your head high if you are feeling persecuted.  Don’t scream back.  And for the sake of all that’s holy, let’s stop calling someone a bigot because they read Scripture, pray, and reason differently than we do.  Among these “bigots” are friends who disagree, family who are still praying, parents who are trying, and Christians looking for signs of hope in a divided and divisive world.

Perhaps, though, there is also something that can be learned in this – even among those who feel themselves to absolutely be on the right side of this.  How can we be patient in difference and encourage one another in the fundamentals of the faith?  How can we seek the will of God together in such a way that we never again doubt one another’s motives and faithfulness even if we come to a different sense of where God is calling us?

There is much that unity teaches as we bear with one another.  The news before the Primates gathered was all about the impending dissolution and collapse of the Anglican Communion.  Yet, gathered together, they committed themselves to unity and reaffirmed our connection in Christ.  They did not, however, say that one part of the Communion could act without regard for another part nor act without ramifications.  This is simply the cost of being accountable to one another in any system.  So now is our chance, as Episcopalians, to be an instrument of unity – to be an instrument of Communion.

There are so many moments in my own life when I have been so sure only to meet someone with whom I disagreed – someone whom I might even have castigated at another point in my life – and they changed me.  Grace has a way of doing that.

So let’s take a breath and heed Psalm 37, “Refrain from anger, and forsake wrath! Fret not yourself; it tends only to evil.”

Robert

Behold, Your Son: Loss, Love, and Family

It’s strange how the religious imagination works.  In August, we adopted two boys who have, as young boys are wont to do, become the center of our lives.  Very quickly, their schedule becomes yours and you suddenly find that each conversation, where once you might have talked about work or the weather, becomes about the intricacies of one boy’s behavior or the other’s rapidly expanding vocabulary.

Since the day we heard that this adoption might be a possibility – indeed almost from the first moment – I have had a verse from Scripture echoing around in my head.  Off and on again – at rather random moments – I hear John 19:26-27.  “When Jesus saw his mother and the disciple whom he loved standing nearby, he said to his mother, ‘Woman, behold, your son!’ Then he said to the disciple, ’Behold, your mother!’  And from that hour the disciple took her to his own home.”

If one does morning prayer regularly one hears, repeatedly, the godly reminders of the blessedness of the fruitful family.  For whatever reason, it was always Psalm 127 that annoyed me the most.  “Behold, children are a heritage from the Lord, the fruit of the womb a reward.  Like arrows in the hand of a warrior are the children of one’s youth. Blessed is the man who fills his quiver with them! He shall not be put to shame when he speaks with his enemies in the gate.”

While enemies might not be gathering at the gate – the notion that one would not be put to shame because of some number of righteous offspring naturally engenders an amount of shame when offspring are not on the horizon.  Over and over in Scripture you get fruitful vines, Rebekah conceiving, and Elizabeth in her old age bearing John.  Zechariah’s vision – the promise for Elizabeth – felt a bit like a rebuke when I heard it.
Christmas Card ImageYet, I had really made peace with the whole thing.  Our family was perfect in my mind.  It was my wife, my cats, my dogs, and me.  I put up with the annoyances of the lectionary and chalked up these occasional reminders of the blessedness of fecundity to the agrarian, atavistic notions of a threatening and dangerous epoch when security could only be guaranteed by fortifying one’s line.  As I had no fortress to pass along and no gates which would be besieged, I counted us as immensely blessed in so many ways that I would not begrudge God this slight.

In fact, my wife and I were enjoying one of the fruits of a life unencumbered by children, travel to far-flung places, when we got word that an adoption might be possible.  She woke me up from a deep sleep to read me the letter from the agency.  I listened and immediately the verse from John’s Gospel sprang to mind.  Behold, your son.  Behold, your mother.

Yet, I really did not want to admit that this might happen.  Not too many months earlier, I had gotten my hopes up about another adoption – of three boys – and I had been fairly devastated when it had not gone through.  So, I humored my wife even if I bristled a bit as we started to look at adorable outfits and panda-themed sleepwear.

When we returned to the States – it was a whirlwind.  Fairly rapidly we were meeting birth family, meeting the boys, and then, just like that, they were in our home.  Behold, your son.

I suppose that passage comes to me over and over because it would have been easy for the disciples to be lost – for a mother to be lost – in grief.  In that moment it would have been entirely understandable for loss and pain to have defined all around Jesus.  Yet Jesus, in that moment, does not leave those who might grieve bereft – he redefines how they relate to one another because of love.

Family becomes rooted in the deepest and richest source of living gift – in Christ’s own self-offering.  In that moment, at the nadir of his earthly ministry, Christ still makes a promise.  They would see greater things.  They would see out of the shared experience of Christ’s love the blossoming of a new family whose center would be the risen life to come not the shattered body before them.

In my own life there have been moments at which it would have been easy to be defined by loss.  And for long stretches of my life I have let loss and grief define and delineate the boundaries of my hope.  Yet each time, when I make peace with loss, I find that God then takes what seemed like an empty plot cleared of the weeds of anger and resentment and plants something fresh and breathtaking.

Behold, your son.  This is what I am endeavoring to do.  To behold the Son revealed in acts of hope in my own life.  Family – in that moment of generous compassion – was defined as something more than blood and body.  It was defined by Blood and Body.  It was defined by love and loss, compassion and generosity, and by self-offering and welcome.  It was defined by the weaknesses and frailties of this mortal life and the unbounded promise of the one to come.  It was given new life by a last breath.

I still marvel.  Tonight I went into two boys’ rooms and I heard that voice again, “Behold, your son.” I wept because God can take imperfect human lives, once so far apart, and weave them together in perfect love.  Behold, indeed.

Robert

It Couldn’t Possible Matter, but It Does: The Superficial and the Silly in Liturgical Life

One of the perennial discussions that comes up at this time of year is a discussion of the liturgical color of Advent – should we don the traditional purple or move to using (what some term Sarum) blue.  There have also been the seemingly requisite complaints that such a discussion is a waste of time and steers us away from more pressing concerns.

I have always thought that liturgical churches and particularly those with a robust Sacramental life do a disservice when they avoid discussion of those external markers of parish identity.  The forms and manner with which we engage in worship necessitate a considered and well-thought-out approach to each aspect of our worship life.  A robust life of worship and adoration is one in which gestures, movements, colors, hymns, and more each have a defined part of the whole fabric of common life.

It is easy to make an idol of such things – I have watched with a mix of amusement and horror as discussions of where and when a sub-deacon holds the paten during mass went into a toxic overdrive.  Yet, to not have some understanding of the form and function of varying aspects of liturgy creates a scenario in which a group of people gathers with only a vague sense as to why they are gathered at all.

Worship is first and foremost worship – it is the lovingly rendered adoration of God.  Worship that is attentive with out being pendantically punctilious gives space for all to enter the space with both a sense of their first purpose for being together as well as the grace to focus on the essentials when things seem to go wrong.  It is often when things go “wrong” that the character of a worshiping community is revealed.  Are people gentle with each other when mistakes are made?  Can the congregation see the error yet not be distracted from their focus on God?

This grace comes with practice – great musicians can “go with the flow” when they have made patient study of source material and have practiced again and again.

When we study and seek to understand the forms of the rite we are better able to understand the deeper teachings of the shape of the liturgy.  In a tradition in which we believe external things (bread, wine, and water) communicate essential deeper truth we are bound to the study of the externals of our common life.  While a discussion of color might go deeply awry when its primary concern is the attractiveness or lack thereof of the choices that same discussion might become profound when its focus is on the deeper revelation of the choice.

Might a discussion of purple or blue for Lent not rest so much on what an individual or a congregation likes but on what the deeper meaning of Advent is?  Could a congregation benefit from a discussion of the themes of repentance that purple might communicate with its obvious connection to Lent?  Could the same congregation be enriched by a focus on the Marian themes of Advent (and the frequent use of blue for Marian feasts)?

divine_liturgy_serbian_monasterySo much in parish life is not so much about the conversations themselves but about the way in which we engage the conversations.  In a tradition that spans broad, low, and high (whatever those might mean nowadays) practice and theology there is enormous value in establishing and understanding those elements of our common practice (or where we diverge).  These external markers help shape and mold parish identity and congregational ethos.  They also mark in particular ways both the shifting of the Church year and those things which are so essential that they never change.

This year, our interim dean, Fr Patrick Malloy has been leading a parish-wide discussion on Sunday mornings about liturgy, tradition, and Sacramental theology.  The parish hall is jammed with people every Sunday who are yearning to learn more about the tradition and our Anglican identity within the Catholic spectrum.  They are coming for discussions that range from the biggest of big pictures (what is a ritual) to the most focused of topics (why do we chant).

This focused attention on the externals of our common life has given people a deeper insight into the core mysteries of our faith.  For example, a discussion of the use of the lavabo leads to a discussion about the connection between our ritual and the temple rituals of the Jewish people.  This leads to a discussion about the Jewish elements of our faith more broadly and those things which we find in our faith that are direct inheritances from Judaism.

A discussion of the commixture and the placing of the fermentum in the chalice after the consecrations leads to a discussion of the nature of bishops and the connection of each celebration of the Eucharist to another – and to a discussion of the role of a Cathedral in the Sacramental life of the diocese.

Patient attention to our rites is a rich engagement with the mysteries of our faith as we find points at which we can more deeply enter the respective ways in which Christ continues to offer himself for us and is present with us.  This is an ongoing process of deepening our engagement with the worship of the ages – with those who have come before and to whom the Holy Spirit gave inspiration.  We enter the realm of holy mystery and immerse ourselves in the seemingly superficial so that new insight might be found at a deeper level.

The trappings – the décor – can be a distraction if we see them only with the superficial eyes of the faithless.  Faithful people are trained to see more at the heart of everything.  This is a sacramental imagination that finds divine promise ready to come forth from the most common of moments.  Meaning-making happens at a number of levels and a well-executed liturgy can be like a dance or any other work of art in which something of the Creator is revealed in the lovingly crafted work.

This kind of revelation does not happen by happenstance – though some may come and be transfixed by unfolding beauty.  There is a kind of deeper learning that happens though when we have taken the time to investigate and dwell in the mysteries to which we are heirs so that we find fresh life in the well-worn habits of the heart.

Perhaps we do lose focus when we get caught up in endless discussions of superficial markers of our common life – yet when approached with grace and joyful reverence we might find ourselves taken anew with the passion of a God who reveals himself in the mundane and the routine.

Robert

Waiting on God: Advent and Violence

A sermon preached at the 8:00, 9:00, and 11:15 am Masses at Saint John’s Cathedral, Denver on the Second Sunday of Advent.

Sermon audio may be found here.

When I was growing up, I stayed at my grandmother’s house quite a bit. She was a Roman Catholic of the old type – there were paintings of the Last Supper and of Mary around the house. There were copies of religious tracts around and she had pictures of Jesus with children, of Jesus with his disciples, of Jesus doing all manner of things – surfing and snowboarding I think.
What I remember most though about the décor was the crucifixes everywhere. In every room there was a least one and usually more than that. Her theory was that no matter where you looked you should see a crucifix and be reminded of the Passion of Christ. This may explain my fondness for Lent.
crucifixionAfter a while though, each of those images of the crucifixion blended together – you just didn’t see them anymore because there were so many. Jesus’s suffering became a kind of generic wallpaper and the overwhelming power of God’s self-offering was lost in the clutter of the repetitiveness of the image.
As I sat down to finish my sermon for today, I had all of my notes in order, a sermon full of sound teaching and theological rigor was just about ready to print. I took a short break and opened my Facebook page and there, at the top of the page, was the following headline, “San Bernadino gunman shoots 20 people.”
This, of course, comes on the heels of the shootings in Colorado Springs which came just after the Paris attacks which happened after the downing of a Russian jetliner and the attacks in Nigeria and Mali.
On and on the news seems to go. One day follows another and one mass tragedy follows another.
These tragedies, one after the other, have become part of the wallpaper of our society. Those many images of the crucifixion in my grandmother’s house did not lose their power because of their ubiquity. The crucifixion never loses its power.
It was just so common that I was no longer shocked by it.
Now, as daily tragedies unfold, I wonder if we are losing our ability to be shocked – to be horrified – by the violence of the day.
It has become so common that it is the macabre Muzak of our culture – the background noise of a nation at play that is too distracted to be shocked and too stimulated to be aroused by daily horror.
Over the last 1,004 days there have been 994 mass shootings in America. Repeat. There have been more mass shootings in the United States this year than there have been days in the year.
A mass shooting is defined as four or more people shot in one incident. 994 mass shootings in 1,004 days resulting in 1,260 deaths and 3,606 injuries. This is all according to the Mass Shooter Tracking website – that such a site exists is an indictment of our whole culture.
This does not count the general level of gun violence in this country. So far this year, guns have claimed 12,183 lives. 24,654 people have been injured.
The crosses are hanging all around us now – bodies broken, lives taken, and dreams shattered. This is not an exercise in statistics. Each of those numbered from the first to the twelve thousand one hundred and eighty third is a beloved child of God.

 

What number would Jesus find acceptable?  When would there be one too many for Jesus?
Perhaps Shannon Johnson, who died protecting Denise Paraza in San Bernadino would have been one too many?
Perhaps Nicholas Thalasinos, who just renewed his wedding vows with his wife Jennifer would have been one too many?
Perhaps Bennetta Bet-Badal who fled Iran in the face of religious extremism only to be killed in San Bernadino – perhaps one too many?
Perhaps Garrett Swasey, a campus police officer, who arrived early on the scene in Colorado Springs. Perhaps Victoria Soto or Anne Marie Murphy who both died saving children at Sandy Hook elementary. Or perhaps one of the twelve girls or eight boys murdered there.
Which one of them would have been one too many for Jesus? When would he have said, “Enough?”
It would be easy to look away – to believe that we, like Pontius Pilate, are not guilty because we do not do the deeds ourselves.
I’m not a politician – I don’t know the political answer. I’m not a law enforcement official – I don’t know the enforcement answer. I’m not a mental health professional – I don’t know the psychological answer.

 

But I am a Christian. I am baptized. And I know this – there is no collateral damage in the loving embrace of God – God counts none as dispensable thus he sent a son who would be a ransom for a captive world – for a lost and sinful people.
This Advent we wait. We wonder at the coming of Christ.
The first line of our first reading today could not be more appropriate as the prophet Baruch cries out, “Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on for ever the beauty of the glory from God.”
Sorrow and affliction have staked their claim on us in the midst of so many tragedies. Yet we look with longing eyes toward the beauty of the glory of God revealed under a star in a manger.
Facing the chaos and rage of a fumbling creation – Christ enters not taking up arms to defeat the enemy but lying in the arms of his mother disarming hatred with love. Undoing anger with mercy. Releasing the hold of death by triumphing over the grave.
The way to the revelation of the glory of God was paved by the call to repentance as John the Baptist cried out in the wilderness. The path was being made straight and the rough ways made smooth as John called the people of God to follow him so that all might see the salvation of God.
He called those who would know God to repent and to be baptized into new life. We have pledged ourselves to this work of repentance and reparation. The coming of Christ among us was not only an act by which the Son of God looked like humanity – but an act by which humanity might more closely resemble the Son of God.
This is the heart of baptism – that we become children of God and heirs to the promises of Christ and are welcomed into his ministry.
In our baptism we promise a number of things.
We promise first to renounce Satan and all the spiritual forces of wickedness which rebel against God. We promise next to renounce the evil powers of this world which corrupt and destroy the creatures of God. We also promise to strive for justice and peace – to persevere in resisting evil, and to repent and return to the Lord.
Now is a time when we must renounce Satan – when we can say with boldness that the violence which is destroying the beloved of God is a work of the Devil.
Justice and peace are not soft words that we use to indicate the mildness of a baby in a manger – they are God’s claims upon the hearts of the faithful, the children of God, that we might have the courage to stand firm even as the Devil marches toward us as remember our promises, when we said over and over again, “I will with God’s help.”
It is with God’s help that we are called to name, renounce, and reject the works of the Devil – to stand firm in love.
At a funeral this past Friday, I listened to a reading from Romans which read, “I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”
The Creation waits with eager longing looking for the children of God to stand up – to let the glory of Christ shine forth in our lives and witness.
This is Advent – a season of waiting. We wait. Our communities wait. Our states wait. Our nation waits. Those who weep, those who mourn, and those who fear wait for they have had enough. Enough of blood. Enough of tears. Enough of Death. Enough.
Advent is here. It is a season of waiting. We wait for God to take action for the healing of the world – we wait for God to say, “Enough!”
God is waiting for us to as well. He is waiting for us to say, “Enough.” He too is waiting for the revealing of the children of God. He knows that this is Advent – and He waits.

 

Robert

We Believe? On the Limits of Inclusion

There is a discussion going on in a couple of places right now about whether or not it is appropriate to omit the Nicene Creed at Sunday services – setting aside the rubrical and historical notes for a moment the most troubling thing to me about the discussion is the notion that it is “inclusive” to omit it.  There are those who have gone so far as to call its use “bullying.”

This is where the notion of inclusion loses all fixed reference to reality.

In order to be included in something then something must have some sort of definable shape, belief, boundary, norm, or pattern.  The notion that if we recite the Creed on Sundays then we are excluding someone somehow misses an essential point – excluding them from what?

For all the talk about inclusion in the Church the sad thing to me is that this has become a cheap thing – we are too often not including people in anything more challenging, life-changing, or controversial than a New York Times subscription.  The only thing the Church includes anyone in is in the life, death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ – the mystery at the heart of the Creed.

We are going to have fewer and fewer people enter our churches over time who have any formation in the basic teachings of the faith or exposure to the claims we make about Jesus Christ.  For those who have questions – ask away.  For those who doubt – doubt away.  For those who have trouble believing – please do continue to wrestle.  Yet, there are those coming through our doors, aching in our communities, weighing whether to accept an invitation – and they are not weighing an invitation to stale cookies and bad coffee.  They are weighing an invitation to something that upends who they think are, who they know others to be, and has reknit the very essence of Creation.

We are welcoming them to the joy of salvation.  Whether we recognize its lyrics or not – the Creed is a salvation hymn that expresses the movement of the Spirit over generations of the Church and lays out the shape of God’s interplay with humanity in past, present, and future.  This is a salvation that has been proclaimed from cave to cathedral through tragedy and triumph.  It has been sung of and whispered about.  It was fought over and debated.  Word of it is handed to us to pass on to those who come afterward.

Do I believe every word?  Do you?  Does every visitor?  It doesn’t matter.  I am not an ecumenical council.  I am not the canons.  I am not the Prayer Book.  I am not any of these things and neither is any one church nor any one visitor.  We can only be clearly, openly, audaciously honest about what we proclaim as the inheritance of faith – an inheritance wrestled over and debated over time and through the ministry and working of the Holy Spirit.

Part of belonging – being included – in an institution that finds its pattern and being planted before the foundation of the world is that it is bigger than us.  It claims things that we do not comprehend.  If it did not then I don’t suspect that it would be terribly compelling.  This mystery is what we are being included into – not into our local church.  Not into a denomination.  Not into a coffee hour.  We are being called to find our place in salvation history – in the unfolding power and promise of Christ.

So we say, again and again, “We believe.” It is an aspirational statement.  It is a claim.  It is a hope.  It is even a lament – a lament because we lose part of who we are when we say it even as we know that we are being caught up in a new identity that will shape and mold our being.  It is beautiful in its binding simplicity and its ever-unfurling complexity.

We say it together because we hope it’s true.  We long for it to come to pass.  We know its promise and yet we still ache.  We hope, and long, and ache and we believe.

Robert

For a good, thoughtful look at this I recommend Fr Chris Arnold’s blog http://www.fatherchristopher.org/blog/on-the-nicene-creed-in-the-liturgy/

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