Tuesday, June 20, 2017

A Braided Trajectory




There are several currents moving in, around and through our lives as the people of the Church of the Advent in Madison, GA in the year 2017.  Think spiritual, political, regional, financial, historical, personal, physical, communal, tribal and on and on.

We're like a rope with multi-colored strands woven regularly and irregularly so that sometimes there's a pattern of texture and color and sometimes the pattern is lost causing the rope to bulge or stretch and some colors to be lost behind one or two.  Still a rope but less reliable for sure.

Most of us live with an intuitive sense of this pattern and balance.  Some of us can and do focus particularly on a subset of strands.  Some look ahead, others look back and compare now and then.

No matter our individual emphases or interests we share this braided-ness with each other.  Part of that sharing is how we contribute to the patterns and balance.  Another part is how we interrupt or misdirect the weaving.

Thanks be to God we are a community, a koinonia, shareholders.  We are not without the means or resources to contribute on each other's behalf toward a balanced and beautiful weaving.  That shareholding goes by many names: Pastoral Care Committee, Pledging, ROTA, DOK, Vestry, Altar Guild, Choir and on and on.

Some of who we are is colored and sized by the world outside our walls, by the world before and after worship and by the world we remember and visit that isn't directly related to Advent.  Think families, work, news.  There are others.

Each one of us can learn to manage that effect and still bring to our shared lives a balance of dark and light, weak and strong, broken and unbroken strands. That's one of the marvels of this braided trajectory, that it is made of all kinds and conditions of strands.

So . . . bring it!  Join this incredibly intricate and strong and varied and developing religion.  The word means tied back to God.  Join us! Make your contribution! Look to support each other by regularity and by a trusting attention to the surprises and gifts of irregularity and new strands.

As summer moves around us say a prayer and ask God to help you to see your part in this movement in, around and through our lives as the people of the Church of the Advent in Madison GA in the year 2017.


Tuesday, June 13, 2017

Down to Earth

Our just-passed-days of Easter celebration, Pentecost and Trinity Sunday observances have been wonderful in helping us to focus on the hard work of the "early church" in making sense of the news -- called good -- that the one who died and was raised was who and what God had in mind all along.

Sunday after Sunday we heard stories of those first believers struggling with the new information as it bumped into or even contradicted what they had spent years expecting differently.

Another lesson in the Sunday lectionary has been the "high theological" one of showing God-with-us but with us in raising us from the dead, and with us now in a spiritually gifted fellowship of love, proclamation and sharing.

Much of our study has been drawn to lofty titles and theological distinctions that take our risen Lord through ascension to a heavenly throne to be transcendent and to rule over all.

But there is another place or level through which we can understand God as with us.  The mid-20th century German Paul Tillich said it this way,
“We must abandon the external height images in which the theistic God has historically been perceived and replace them with internal depth images of a deity who is not apart from us, but who is the very core and ground of all that is.”
Tillich is opposed to the loftiness and is particularly cautious that we will leave a part of our own lives out of that formulation of "God with us" if our picture misses also understanding the continuing presence of God as the "ground of our being."

Thank goodness we took our time -- at least a Sunday -- to consider the nature of God as three-in-one and saw in our examination the presence of God down here as much as up there.  The story of a God who creates, redeems and sustains us and is with us "down here" is a constant refrain of scripture:
  • God is with us down here, fashioning a "mudling" to become human by the breath of God,
  • and down here with Moses and the pilgrim masses wandering for a generation to find the waiting promise of a homeland,
  • and down here with Jeremiah in a cistern inciting a renewal of faith to sustain soon-to-be exiles,
  • and down here in a den of lions with Daniel to change the mind of Darius, 
  • and down here with Jesus in weeping for his dead friend Lazarus, 
  • and down here in His suffering to death on the cross and to repose in the tomb, 
  • and down here with Paul blinded and convalescing to be healed by help of one of those he sought to persecute.   
It behooves us then to think of our lives of faith as called into a groundedness as much as any lofted holiness or above-it-all purity.  We needn't reject our recent learning about God as Trinity or of Jesus as died AND raised AND ascended.  All of that is true.  But because we are still here traversing Morgan County's fields and pathways we include the understanding that God is with us down here, indeed is the very ground of our being.  

Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Extra-Ordinary Time

This Sunday,  June 11 is set aside to give us a chance to focus on a description of God that emerges for us out of biblical narrative, the life of the early Church and most especially out of the story of the life, death, resurrection, ascension of Jesus, including the event of last Sunday's celebration, Pentecost.  The emergent description is the Trinity.

In the earliest usage we learned to say Father, Son and Holy Spirit and in various contemporary attempts Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier or my favorite -- ancient but modern -- Lover, Beloved, Love.  Lots of questions preceded the ones that are answered by our trinitarian titles.  Lots of questions remain but in these days we have come to a fairly comfortable acceptance by way of admitting that most of what we hope to know about God has lots of mystery with it.

Given that most seminarians are instructed to avoid preaching on this Sunday, its safe to say that there is a certain avoidance of this trinitarian "mystery."  Sadly, this is by the very ones who should be delving, digging, embracing this particular theological necessity.  I'll get to why we need to but for now dig into this mystery with me a little.

Remember how I described how necessary are each of those moments we've observed in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.  The mystery of the Trinity is a similar necessity.

To begin we can't leave God simply as ONE (think the monotheism of Hebrew scripture) while at the same time claiming that God was incarnate by way of a fully-present-for-us divinity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. One at least must account for the conversation that Jesus has with God in prayer, especially like those moments from the gospel of John read on Good Shepherd Sunday.  What was first a christological question persists and joins our trinitarian investigation.  We have to get at some description that accounts for that relationship shared with God and Jesus.   Jesus uses Father and Son language while praying.

As we follow the story into and beyond Pentecost we have another relationship for which to account.  It is that one that continues between us and God the Father now accompanied by the post-Ascension Son sitting in authority with Him.  The Holy Spirit is how we understand ourselves as believers still to be in relationship with God, who has already redefined the divine human relationship for us.

However you are comfortable with describing the manner in which a divine relationship proceeds towards you, you can count on God to see to the proceeding.  When Jesus says "I am the way, . . . " he knows that way starts with God coming to us first.

God is always "towards" us, from before creation and that same relationship with all creation has always been of the Holy Spirit.  Think of the winds hovering over the waters, God breathing into the nostrils of the first human, how the Red sea was blown back for the children of Israel to escape the Egyptians, the army mustered into being in the Valley of Dry Bones, and the dove descending as Jesus comes up from the waters of his baptism by John.

That's why I appreciate and use the description of Lover, Beloved, Love.  For sure it speaks of how we have historically read Jesus in prayer -- from the cross as well -- though maybe not so much of how we read Paul in particular.  And that is why we dig.  We are drawn into the mystery and cannot stop, because of love.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Easter Necessity

There are so many moments in the gospels when what we read seems less like a factual narrative account of the activity of Jesus and his followers and instead is more like an attempt to frame and present -- sometimes fantastically -- a necessary theological claim.  

One of those is when we read at the end of the Luke's gospel the story of Jesus ascending into heaven to be at God's right hand.  There are several pieces that come together to make His ascension the "preferred method" for Luke to end Jesus' resurrected time on earth.  

That Jesus "born of the virgin Mary" was fully human is as good a place to start as any.  And as fantastic as are the stories of angelic visitations and announcements, and shepherds, along with Matthew's stars, and dreams, and wisemen we hold fast to the claim that he was born into the world of time and space as humans are born.  When Jesus dies it is the end of a human life, horribly ended but human nonetheless.  Time and space cannot be ignored. 

That God raised Jesus from the dead is another claim that makes ascension theologically necessary. And it is important to remember that resurrection cannot be less than incarnation.  It can be more, however.

It is more.  Luke's description of Jesus as appearing but unrecognized on the road to Emmaus and then disappearing at dinner is a fairly modest attempt to account for the difference that resurrection made to this "human one." It is similar to John's treatment of Jesus as capable of passing through locked doors and yet still possessing just as much of a body as was the one crucified.  A body that Thomas is able to touch.  

The 40 day thing is also necessary and functions as a literary device similar to its previous use when Jesus is driven into the wilderness.  It marks a completed period of paradigmatic change.  Just like the children of Israel were changed in their 40 year wilderness sojourn and the earth was cleansed by forty days and nights of rain, in this case Jesus' "work" is done. 

Another way to say it is that resurrection is NOT resuscitation, so when his work is complete, dying is no longer an option for Jesus.  The "best" way for him to get to heaven is to just go there.  And that's what he does: "he withdrew from them and was carried up into heaven." (Luke 24:51)

It is a modern yet sophistic curiosity that puzzles about the location of heaven, his direction and rate of ascent, etc.  So we can get back to more necessary theologies we should admit that if Jesus was removed at the speed of light he'd still be within the bounds of what we call the Milky Way.  Better to give God credit for something other than attaining warp speed.

Obviously, Jesus' rate of ascent was not Luke's point.   What was important for Luke was to have us understand that God had done EVERYTHING that was necessary to be done: life, death, resurrection, and ascension; all necessary and all from God.

Pentecost is the next necessity.  

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

Easter Maturity

I haven't worshipped with other Episcopal congregations during Easter in a while. So I haven't seen what others are doing when it comes to things like standing for the Prayers or forgoing the Confession of Sin or adding alleluias to most acclamations etc.  I am aware of how difficult all of what we are doing in Madison is for several of us.

Just 4 Sundays into this most glorious season and I heard questions at the door. Yet, after what I wrote a couple of weeks ago I'm not about to make a thing out of our postures again. Remember it is our hearts we are called to lift in celebration. I'm still not a cop.

I do know that we are human and so we are prone to habits and patterns that help us to get out of our own way so that God has a chance to sit with us, to breathe with us, to sing and pray and celebrate.
One of the lessons I wink and teach to confirmands is that they should pick a spot in the church to sit every Sunday, so that God will not have to go looking for them.

Most everyone gets the joke but also gets the deeper meaning that our patterns should help us "get out of the way."  It is the first part, our part of the basic sacramental formula that bridges between us and God by way of regularity, validity and efficacy.

There is a caveat.  Sometimes we forget that our habits and patterns are a means to an end, a part of a process that should always seek to obey and and be attendant on God to take God's turn in the process.  So when we hear Jesus saying that there is a connection between our keeping his commandments and the love we share with him it should get our attention.

It would be wrong for us to lapse back into legalism and become as hidebound as first century pharisees.  Yes, we hope to get out of the way but so that we can do all we can to be in love and not just safely or solely habitual or patterned.

The effect of our sacrificial obedience is to surrender to God's love, God's power, God's authority.
I'm thinking Pinocchio.  Yes, the puppet who yearned to be human.  His struggles with learning right and wrong and having a conscience and suffering consequences were all to identify what it means to be human.  Then one day he gives up the 40 coins meant to buy a new suit, helps the Fairy who has fallen ill, and wakes up the next morning a real boy!

Besides the intriguing allusions as they echo things like the biblical changes that come after 40 days/years, there is clearly a lesson about surrender, love and maturity.

Jesus, the incarnation of God's yearning, God's love is not just giving us a set of rules with which to march our way through life's trials. His commandment -- think "love letter" not "military orders" -- is so that we will rise to the maturity of love over law, into life from death ourselves.

There will be trials and struggles.  That's what it means to be human.  There will be love.  That's what Easter means.

Tuesday, May 9, 2017

Easter Discovery

The stories we hear on Sunday during Easter season are meant help us discover or wake up to something we have likely missed.  That Jesus is raised from the dead brings a new light to the world without which we are blind, not only to the truths embedded in our history but the truths waiting for us in the future.  Like the disciples on the Road to Emmaus we need Jesus to accompany us to discover what God has been doing and to give us the eyes and hearts to see where God is calling us.

One of the joys of this past week was me getting to attend Conversations with Martin Smith hosted by Grace Episcopal in Gainesville.  His playful encouragement led us to consider a new way to understand the vital intersection or common ground shared by spirituality and mission.  

First he helped us to see how we have separated the two interests and made one out of and for extroverts and the other out of and for introverts.  He helped us to see how we have suffered a false dichotomy for years in the church.  His premise was marvelously presented by introducing a third concept that at the beginning seemed unrelated but very interesting.

He proposed we reconsider our understanding of God's will instead -- or in addition to -- as God's desire.  With a twinkle in his eye he encouraged us to consider that we could reclaim a lost tradition in the church; one practiced by the earliest mystics in our tradition.  It reminded me of the Richard Rohr quote we used to remember Ginger Kroeber:
Jesus promises that when the hunger arises within you to find your own deepest aliveness within God’s aliveness, it will be satisfied—in fact, the hunger itself is a sign that the bond is already in place. As we enter the path of transformation, the most valuable thing we have working in our favor is our yearning. Some spiritual teachers will even say that the yearning you feel for God is actually coming from the opposite direction; it is in fact God’s yearning for you. 
Thinking instead in terms of God's desire, God's yearning is a game changer.  Just like the realizations in Emmaus there comes a new way to understand all that we have held differently --perhaps inadequately -- before.  

Smith asked us to consider that God's yearning mattered to Jesus -- Smith said aroused -- and that when he was proclaiming the coming of the reign of God -- we can say "kingdom" but we mustn't think only boundaries and locales -- he was allowing God to do just that; to yearn, to desire, to want us to be with him into a future he already inhabits.  To discover the way, the truth and the life!  

Too often we hear Jesus say "I am the way . . ."  and we think exclusivity.  We think that we have a golden ticket that no other religion possesses or can offer.  What a discovery to think that God is God of all and all futures and that Jesus is the incarnation of God's yearning, of God's desire for us to move into a future with him.  

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Easter Imagination

I wrote recently about the comprehensiveness of our Prayer Book's options.  There are 2 versions of our Rite One Eucharistic prayers and 4 of the Rite Two Prayers.  Within each of those liturgical sets are smaller options.  Some we try to employ "per season."  Each year we have prayed using all 6 forms for eucharistic worship.  The end result is not only a year filled with ear catching phrases but seasons shaped by actions that advance and complement the important holy-days spread throughout the year.

Another way that we have lived with our BCP is in preparation for confirmation and reception.  By studying the BCP we have learned how to use it, why it was first composed, as well as what we hope "biblical prayer" will do for us and our world.  The order of services -- from Morning Prayer to The Dedication and Consecration of a Church -- are fashioned and listed in an ideal way to organize the lives of faithful people consistent with our shared biblical witness and our history from Jerusalem to Rome and to Canterbury and to Philadelphia.

In other words we are a people of two books, and we have become a parish formed by almost all of what the 1979 BCP has to offer and helps us to access in holy scripture.  We do "good church" because we have trusted the BCP to shape our lives in worship every Sunday and many weekdays as well.  We have been permitted to join in a long-lived imagination that was shepherded by Jesus and burned into the hearts and minds of people like Luke, Paul and Peter, Stephen and Timothy and John the Divine. The BCP encourages us to echo the very phrases and songs they first practiced.  Our rehearsals are forming us into a people like few others.

Without our utilizing the options proscribed for our consideration our worship in 2017 would sink to robotic incantations more like sleepy magicians than imaginative believers.  It may not have been the first intent of those scholars and priests who feverishly finished their work that September 1979 night in Denver but their imagination was passing along to us from centuries before a richness of sights and sounds, thoughts and prayers only possible because of the death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.

The shape our worship takes -- no matter how we employ our imaginations or choose our options -- replays, represents, rehearses, and reinforces His and our dying and being raised.  In teaching our confirmands I have relied on this schematic like no other.


All of our worship follows this pattern of prayerful entrance, offertory, consecration, and intentional dismissal; of life, death, resurrection, and glorified presence; of bread and wine becoming body and blood; of a gift of human creation becoming a member of Christ's body. None of our worship is without some imagination; sometimes ours but always from God.  Ours is an Easter imagination.