Tuesday, June 27, 2017

Grounding Forgivness

Two weeks ago I wrote from Paul Tillich's claim via Diana Butler Bass that God is the "ground of our being." We should understand who God is from being "down here" and not depend singly on the understanding the God is from some lofty refined perch we imagine heaven to be.

The graphic above gets at one important aspect of that place we share with God "down here."  This is moving from Tillich's perspective and wondering closer to the points Diana Butler Bass makes in her recent work "Grounded."  For sure she shares the sense that God is with us down here but she wants to and digs further to get at those traits of faith that last.

One of the ways she envisions our moving forward is to look honestly at our roots.  To tell the truth about our families and our heritage and to stay close to the hard parts, to read between the lines and to remember that God is with us still.

She tells the story of President Obama's family tree as he learned it:
"he heard a genealogy recited by his granny: 'first there was Miwiru . . . Miwiru sired Sigona, sigoma sired Owiny.'  The lineage was accompanied by stories, mostly of betrayal and abandonment, that revealed to the young man a new understanding of his life:
'I felt the circle finally close. I realized who I was, what I cared about, was no longer just a matter of intellect or obligation . . . '"
Most of us don't need to hear it to know that we have a story or more of "betrayal and abandonment" somewhere in our family's unfolding.  If we read between the lines or mind the gaps those moments can be acknowledged, not so much as disqualifications or sins deserving punishment but as markers of the down here to which God must "descend" to be with us.

It's humbling.  And it's hard.  Hard to understand when those family stories include our being betrayed or abandoned or abused.  Hard to understand when our memories stunt us and reprise the pain and hurt.

It will not do simply to prevent an emotional response to this grounding/humbling.  Human existence is what it is.  It is ours to understand and choose what's next so that we are not stuck in humiliation but finally standing with God.

Part of how we move out of the brokenness is to acknowledge that we are not static placeholders but living beings.  We grow!  We ask for forgiveness and we forgive. We hope, knowing that it will not be pride in our own efforts that saves us but a humble trusting on God as the "ground of our being."

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.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Easter Sharing

During Lent and now extended into the season of Easter a small dedicated group has met to discuss and share their insights, stories and concerns in response to the 5 Marks of Love: Tell, Teach, Tend, Transform, Treasure.  Each "mark" capsulizes how we accomplish our baptismal promises as a response to God's first loving all the world and us through the life, death and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth.  The curriculum is fashioned and led by members of the monastic community known as the Society of Saint John the Evangelist or the Cowley Brothers.

Every meeting has been seen some deep spiritual enrichment for each one of us.  It is exactly the kind of sharing and growth that a Christian community should foster.  One of the participants has offered this reflection following last week's session.
I have enjoyed participating in the Wednesday night “Marks of Love” study.  Last week we talked about transforming.  “Transforming unjust structures, challenging violence of every kind, and pursuing peace and reconciliation.”  Within our conversation, I was reminded of 2 Timothy 1:7, “For God has not given us a spirit of timidity, but of power, and love, and self-control.”   
Imagine a world where there is no ego or self-consciousness.  By the power of the Holy Spirit, we can “take ourselves out of the equation.”  If we aren’t worried about ourselves, it frees us up to be more giving, more loving, more able to reach out to others in love and friendship.  Sometimes I feel this more than other times, but it is a goal; and when I pray for it and remind myself of it, I appropriate it more fully.  Justice and peace on earth seem difficult to realize. 
Reconciliation, at least on a personal level, is totally doable as we reach out to love our neighbor as ourselves, because God loved us first. 
I am beside myself with joy.  This is exactly the kind of "contribution toward dialogue" that we should all be offering to each other.  I'm betting that others from the Wednesday regulars as well as those who have done their own different study during Lent could offer similarly edifying and hope-filled comments.  So . . . let's have it!

Please send me your "contributions toward dialogue" however humble or grand they may be. You do not have to have attended any of the Wednesday sessions.  Heck, let's just share because it's Easter!

I'll protect your identity and add a little "packaging" to help us see where it fits in that 5-fold calling of Tell, Teach, Tend, Transform, Treasure.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Easter Gratitude

Alleluia! Christ is risen!
What a wonderful and deeply enriching Holy Week and Easter it was.  There are so many who stepped up to help with a full calendar of worship and activities.  Some of you attended every service! Several served and some at more than one. It was charming how committed both Buck girls were to their now traditional -- I guess -- role of hiding the eggs for the post-Easter Sunday Celebration Hunt.  I can still see some eggs from my office window.  
I can also see a light of recognition in the eyes of those who took advantage of the calendar's fullness and made their way to most of the services of Holy Week and Easter.  Our Book of Common Prayer is a great resource.  By employing each of the Proper Liturgies for Special Days (BCP pages, 264 to 295) and by including non-BCP liturgies like a weekly Friday reading of the Stations of the Cross and Wednesday's Tenebrae we went "over and above" it's provisions.  There are just SO many options.
A quick look back in the worship register shows that Advent's history is uneven with some years missing the Great Vigil, others Tenebrae.  Some years the Stations of the Cross took the place of the Proper Liturgy for Holy Saturday.  At least now we are observing what our BCP directs and making good places for those "extra-curriculars."  
One of the other ways we have been moving through the year is to employ smaller prayer book options, especially in Holy Eucharist that suit the season.  We just finished a Lenten practice of beginning and ending worship on our knees in some penitential element before and from the Book of Occasional Services a “solemn prayer over the people” after. During the season after the Epiphany we prayed using Eucharistic Prayer D at the 10:30AM service. 8:00AM saw us on our knees reciting the Decalogue together during Lent.  Those are just a few of the options we chose.
Some of what we do is to recall practices more ancient but largely forgotten.  The BCP accommodates our joining a worship tradition older than the Episcopal Church itself.  On pages 362, 368 and 372 just where the celebrant begins what is called "the canon of the mass" there is small rubric. It says, "The people stand or kneel." By following that implied preference -- standing is listed before kneeling, because standing during the "canon" is the more ancient tradition and the one that more suits celebrations of Christ’s resurrection -- we are encouraged to act out our Easter aspirations begun in our opening "Alleluia, Christ is risen!"
We can grant that most of us remember one form of eucharistic worship over others, one set of habits, one set of recitations and gestures.  The options the BCP gives us aren't meant to excuse change for change sake but to give us a seasonal consistency that ties us to our ancient forebears even better than doing the same things every Sunday no matter the season.  
You've already heard my appeal to stand up for as much of our worship as possible in this Easter season but I'm a priest not a policeman, a celebrant not a inquisitor, an Episcopalian not some other denomination so I'm happy with your exercising the options that suit you as long as you "lift up your hearts."
I'm grateful for all your faithfulness, your energy, your rolling with the punches, your support, and for joining me in word and action to affirm "The Lord is risen, indeed! Alleluia!

Tuesday, April 11, 2017

Challenging a Modern Christendom

Some of you will remember that we read Mclaren's "We make the road by walking" a couple of years ago.  His words have always challenged so much of our "conventional wisdom."

The Deepest Difference in Christianity is not what you think.

The deepest difference in Christianity is not what you think:

It is not the schism between East and West, Protestant and Catholic,

High and Low Church,

Evangelical and Mainline,

Pentecostal and NonPentecostal,

or Conservative/Traditionalist and Mainline/Liberal.

No, the deepest difference in Christianity is the chasm Between imperial and original Christianity,

Between a gospel of oppression and a gospel of liberation.

 In comparison to this difference, other differences are trivial.

In fact, they are merely different forms of the same unoriginal thing. The imperial gospel lives by the sword, the gun, and the bomb of violence; the original gospel lives by the basin and towel of service.

The imperial gospel loves money, pleasure, and power; the original gospel loves God, self, neighbor, and creation.

The imperial gospel pacifies the masses and makes them compliant with elites. The original gospel equips agents for justice, joy, and peace for all.

The imperial gospel follows violent men who kill and rule with an iron fist. The original gospel follows a nonviolent man who touches and heals with his nail-scarred hand.

The imperial gospel sends away children, women, the different, the sick, and the culturally, ethnically, and religiously other; the original gospel welcomes all, saying, “Come to me.”

The imperial gospel is a forgiveness racket, sparing you from torture if you play, pray, and pay by the rules. The original gospel is a journey to freedom, inviting the oppressed and oppressors to be transformed by the one rule of love.

The imperial gospel shows its true colors on Good Friday, with whip, thorn, mocking, spit, spear, and cross. The original gospel shows it true colors on Palm Sunday with tears for peace, on Maundy Thursday with an example of loving service, on Good Friday with the gracious prayer, “Forgive them!,” on Holy Saturday with the courage to wait in silence, and on Easter Sunday with an uprising of life to the full.

The deepest difference in Christianity is not what you think.

It is not what you think.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

The Hope of Reconciliation

Turn to page 447 in the Book of Common Prayer and you will find the beginning of a liturgy in two forms titled "The Reconciliation of a Penitent."  It is likely the least used of the 5 sacramental rites in the Episcopal Church.  The title matters in that it focuses the actions of penitent and confessor on a "reasonable and holy hope," a positive outcome more closely kin to grace than sin, more to resurrection than death.

There is plenty of room in our lives of faith to employ this rite, to have an appointed listener to hear the utterances of a contrite heart and then to pronounce the absolution that yearns to be spoken. Plenty of room that we instead fill with all sorts of things other than reconciliation.

I've been filling my time recently with a smug self-righteousness of a presumed prophetic indignation.  I didn't mean to do that.  I thought I was reprising my father's heroic stand against racism in opening up Anderson, SC's 1965 Community Thanksgiving Day service to his previously excluded African-American clergy colleagues.  I was wrong.

This is not 1965 and I'm not my father.  Even worse is that I lost sight of the fear and pain by which so many of us are still stunted.

Yes were are largely a privileged people.  We own -- with the help of mortgages -- the homes we inhabit.  Most of us have medical and life insurance policies.  (I frequently forget to thank you all for my insurance. I'm sorry.) Many of us have stock portfolios and thick pensions. Most of us can come and go to any and every place in this county and not be overly scrutinized or shunned.

Still there are all sorts of sadly limiting ideas and beliefs that things are not as they should be, even for us.  We know this on all sorts of levels, from private and personal to parochial and public. Sometimes we take responsibility for the difference between the way things are and the way we think things should be.  Sometimes we don't and instead point at others and their faults.  That's me in my indignation.  It's different for each one of us but its hard not to point away from self, especially when we ourselves are pressed upon by fear, stress or sadness.

There is a better way.  The Reconciliation of a Penitent is exactly the liturgy for heading that way. An important part of that heading is to make sure another human actually hears what is being said.  That's the incarnational part of the sacrament, like the getting wet of baptism, or the bread breaking of communion.

There are other parts that make it work too, like the confession itself, the statement of absolution, the naming and claiming of the power of God's grace, the acknowledgment that even the confessor is a sinner in need of forgiveness, and that this moment begs a descriptive and honest specificity in naming the sin for which one is seeking correction and forgiveness. Both forms touch those points in different but equally valid ways.

One plus for me is that a deacon can hear one's confession as well as a priest.  Thanks be to God, somebody can hear mine AND speak the words of absolution for me to hear.  So . . . I'll be saying my confession this coming Holy Week, too.

For sure I have much for which to ask to be forgiven but also I want to be in the best place possible to speak those words of absolution that you deserve to hear in your hope for reconciliation.  When I'm complimented on a sermon I hope to always say something like this, "I'm glad I didn't get in the way."  I hope for the same usage in my hearing and pronouncing God's forgiveness of your sins, too.

Here's an online link in case you can't find your BCP 1979.  Read through and then send me a note* if you want to schedule an hour for your hopeful reconciliation.

*To minimize the risk of spammers getting access this link will be removed at noon Holy Saturday, April 15.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The Mission is Love

A small group of parishioners and I have been working our way through this year's Lenten study titled "The Five Marks of Love."  Like last year's it is designed and supported by the members of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.  The Cowley brothers take turns with short videos to reflect on their own lives in community but for the world.  That is, they acknowledge and celebrate their monastic vocation but understand it as a prayerful effort for all that God has made not just those monastically secluded with them.

That sectioning away from the world can be done all kinds of ways.  It can be an easy retreat, a hidden militant encampment, a sanctuary from danger, an elitist ivory tower, or an exclusive club.

There are even more ways for people to group themselves in distinction from the masses of everyday life.  The ones the church has chosen throughout its history are always at risk.  Even generous coffee shop fronted evangelistic mega-churches will quickly enforce "us and them" thinking.  We all do it. No matter how we gather there is an outside to our inside, a there to our here, a whole to our sect(ion).

Maybe its because -- no matter what my Southern Baptist Sunday School teacher claimed -- none of us have eyes in the backs of our heads.  We can only look at one side of things at a time.  So I like it that the brothers have redefined the historic "5 Marks of Mission" to be a reality based on God's love of the world and not just a sect(ion) being well intended to project it's brand further into that world. By reframing the conversation so that we understand our efforts as a response to first being loved by God the brothers have undone much of that tendency.

Humbly we should admit that simply by gathering as a function of our lives at the Episcopal Church of the Advent we are already significantly branded.  There is already an "us" at work.  So instead of our focus being on some sort of institutional maintenance or brand loyalty it has been more about becoming aware of God's love and representing that love with God back into the world.  We should understand our part as more like breathing than holding our breath or being "blowhards."

But it is marvelously confessional and cathartic when we talk about about how we struggle to practice the "5 Marks of Love" to Tell, Teach, Tend, Transform, Treasure. Even as we hope to recognize God's starting with love we squirm at things like the e-word: evangelism. Even as we open to each other's sharing there is still a charming awkwardness that says something about how we are "in" a church community and "from" a world other than the church itself.

I love this study and I love that God's love is the starter for all this consideration and hope.  I love it that a "bunch of monks" understand their place in the world so well and can call us "in God's love" to recreate that love in so many ways.  Well at least 5 of them.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

First Amendment Christians

A couple of years ago we held a meeting under the title "Civil Religion."  Parishioner Ellen Warren, then a county commissioner was first to talk about her life as a person of faith in public service.  It was a good evening and some troublesome topics were addressed with good manners around the room.  It was the only episode in what I had hoped would be a series.

The title was a play on words.  Usually "civil religion" means that way of being religious in public that allows moments like our Presidents ending their speeches with "God bless America."  It is the anchored in mottos and phrases like "In God we trust" and "One nation, under God."

"Civil religion" informs the hosting of prayer breakfasts and declarations of national days of prayer. It also informed our talking about the interface between faith and governance and trying to be civil about religion at the same time.  Crazy, I know!

My intent was not to reinforce any sense that America is God's chosen nation or that we were founded as a Christian nation.  I instead wanted to push through the idea that the first amendment intends for the church -- in all its disguises -- to be party to the larger discourse of the whole nation, a discourse meant "to form a more perfect union."

That discourse is assumed in the protecting the rights of freedom of assembly, of freedom of speech, and of freedom of the press.  By protecting freedom of religion AND preventing a state church we are being named in the first amendment as having a particular role in that discourse.  We are not prevented from the conversation but are meant to be included for exactly what a church ought to bring to the table: moral and ethical input not serving those in power and a respect for the "dignity of every human being."

For me "civil religion" also means that we are to demonstrate how to have that "union perfecting" conversation with each other and for the sake of a government of, by and for the people.

So I'm OK with much of even my comments about politics and governance.  It's not my fault those terms are confused of conflated with each other.  It is my fault when I don't play fair with the confusion and help the people I love to read what I write or even more so what I post that has been written by others.

Last week's borrowing from John Pavlovitz is a perfect example.  I pretty much agree with what he said.  I do think that we are nearing the end of the life of much gets to call itself Christian in this nation.

Demographics galore will back this up.  But JP wasn't just talking numbers, he was talking about the loss of civil religion.  We have lost that first amendment intent for the practice of religion in America and replaced it with something that too often isn't civil and isn't religious.

I don't agree with everything he wrote or with all of HOW Pavlovitz wrote what he wrote.  So . . .

I'll take more care in the future to be civil and to promote civility but I intend to say more about this "First Amendment Christian" that I hope to model. I'll also continue to include others' voices and writings in describing and navigating that space that is ours as members of the Church of the Advent and citizens of this nation.

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

From John Pavlovitz

This is from John Pavlovitz's blog entry titled "The Welcome Extinction of a Dinosaur Church"
There is plenty about who we are in Madison as the Church of the Advent that is so not near extinction.  But the challenge to be renewed is always before us no matter our history and antiques.  I hope this use of Pavlovitz's work encourages a lively conversation without fear or anxiety.

Extinction happens. 
All creatures eventually die out. No matter how much they temporarily flourish, over time they all become nothing but memories preserved in photos and fossils. 
The Church in America as we know it is on such borrowed time. It recently managed to buy a four-year stay of execution from the Electoral Collage, but the writing has been on the wall for a long time: the Religious Right here is in its last days—and thank God for that. 
This Bible Belt-dwelling dinosaur has long known that its demise was coming. While outwardly it appeared to be thriving over the past few decades, the attrition below the surface was and is undeniable: weekly attendance has steadily declined, favorable population demographics are shifting, cultural values are outpacing it, Science is continually challenging it. Its once seemingly endless territory is eroding, with now discarded buildings filling the landscape; dusty museums to what once ruled the land. 
And as with all animals backed into a corner and facing destruction, it has become fully desperate trying to save itself. It has ratcheted up its rhetoric, doubled down on damnation, and gone all in on fear in the hopes of rallying its own for one last frantic effort at staving off extinction. 
This is why it’s made its bed with a President without morals, why it has sold its soul for a Supreme Court seat, why it is frantically overreaching right now with its political advantage, why it is in perpetual attack mode—because it knows that these things are all that it has left. It is flailing wildly trying to postpone what it inevitable, but it cannot. 
Like all doomed species, this white, vicious, myopic dinosaur church will surely die because evolution is killing it— the evolution of a humanity that recognizes:

  • that diversity is not the enemy,
  • that spirituality is bigger than a single religious tradition,
  • that redemptive faith cannot be the author of hatred for its brother,
  • that Whoever or Whatever God is, it must be more compassionate than what this thing has become. 
In these last of its days, the dinosaur will make a grand, horrifying display. It will scream and lash out violently. It will thrash itself about and it will attempt to appear ferocious—but on the inside it is terrified. Its preachers will boldly speak of God giving them the victory, they will spit Scriptures and forecast alternative endings, but these things will not matter. The massive meteor of time and progress is hurling toward them and their eyes are widening. 
And for those of us who truly love Humanity, whether in the name of God or simply in that name of that humanity itself, this is all beautiful news. Because every thing that dies allows something new to be born—and something is being born in these moments: compassion is being birthed in our midst. We are moving into a golden age of empathy, where people will not allow religion to become a barrier any longer; where color and orientation and nation of origin are not deal breakers or justifications for separation—they are worth celebrating. 
And so yes, let the dinosaur posture and screech, but know that its end is surely near.
This is the twilight of one day and the dawn of another— and we are a people waking up to who we are together. 
The sun is rising and we are the caretakers of the coming day. 
Be encouraged.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Saved to Worship Only God

“The devil left him, and angels came and took care of him.”  Matthew 4:11 CEB

Its hard to read any portion of the gospels and not feel the implication of Calvary's cross and the empty tomb.  Even this ending to last Sunday's gospel has the hint of Christ's last temptation and final hope.

The task we have in our season of "self examination and repentance, prayer, fasting, and self-denial, reading and meditating on God's holy Word," is not simply to fight off our temptor's invitations for "their own sake.”

In order for that hopeful casting to be current to our striving we'll need to remember this:
It's not about us! It's about God. Just before what is described in verse 11, we hear Jesus say, "Go away Satan, as it is written, you will worship the Lord your God and serve only him."

Even this wilderness education and testing of Jesus is not just so that we can admire him as tougher than the devil or simply imitate him and expect similar results.  It is also so that we can see ahead to the effect of his obedience to God and hope to be as obedient ourselves.

Matthew will do this again and help us to look ahead to the glory in and beyond Jesus’ dying in hope and utter surrender.  All sorts of human structures built in the confusion that our salvation is always the point eventually and even cataclysmically fall.

Beyond Matthew's rending of the temple's veil, the crumbling of the tombs and hopeful bright Sunday morning there is another 40 days.  Both are periods of paradigmatic change!  Both are hard work.  Both have surrender to something bigger than our own interests.  Both have temptations.  Both end with angels. Both are about serving only the Lord our God.

Our first 40 days are still largely ahead of us. The closer we approach the end our tendencies will be to get lost in the structures and only rehearse a surrender. We’re prone to get caught by the busy-ness of things like Madison’s Palm Procession, or night after night of Holy Week observances, or our larger society's own usurpation of the holiday with bunnies and eggs.

The 40 days after Easter we get to spend with Jesus, who as the one raised from the dead is even better than an angel.  Both periods work to help us honestly, hopefully, obediently “worship the Lord our God and serve only him.”

Tuesday, February 28, 2017

Words and Names in a New Season: Part 2

It was just a few Sundays ago -- the Fifth Sunday after the Epiphany, February 5th -- that we read from the hopeful part of Isaiah's proclamation to the children who suffered exile away from the comforts and familiarity of their historic home.  That reading finished  with the powerful commendation,

"The Lord will guide you continually,
and satisfy your needs in parched places,
and make your bones strong;

and you shall be like a watered garden,
like a spring of water,
whose waters never fail.

Your ancient ruins shall be rebuilt;
you shall raise up the foundations of many generations;

you shall be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of streets to live in." Isaiah 58:11-12

The very same commendation is ours in the smaller but equally meaningful of repairing our properties, our historic home.  The patio is a principle image for us but let’s not forget that the same encouragement that Isaiah spoke so many years ago identifies a continuing reality, not a truth bound up and done with in a single moment. 

We are always to be repairers and restorers!

Especially as we have adopted the use of these antique structures: buildings, chalices, hymns, or rituals, we will ALWAYS have the duty of repair and restoration.  We will always have the responsibility to care for places and things and even more so the people who come to join us in using them. 

Isaiah’s words also point us to a day of glory and celebration; more Easter than Lent.  He is hoping for these words to be an encouragement because the Hebrew people's return to their historic home is still to be accomplished. 

We can use that same understanding and always look forward to each of those responsibilities being met and accomplished.

In other words we are always repairers, always restorers, always hoping to celebrate.  Not just to celebrate the work done but to celebrate the calling to the work of returning, repairing and restoring.

Thanks be to God we have been called!  We can always look forward to celebrating with God.

Tuesday, February 21, 2017

Words and Names in a New Season

There is a practice in most lectionary/liturgical churches like the Episcopal Church to refrain from using "alleluias" during the season of Lent.  With so much of our devotional focus being drawn through penitence those familiar expressions of exuberance, joy and release are at best premature.
This matters in particular this year because we are soon to be clear of several encumbering concerns which when completed will properly deserve our own celebratory expressions:
  • The Patio* is quickly becoming the smooth safe connector from our parking lot to the Parish House ramp.
  • New "same surface" walkways will soon provide safe entry to the "Little House" from the garden patio and the parking lot.
  • Phase one of restoring the parking lot to a regular smooth pea gravel surface.
  • Repair of loose bricks and sealing of the flues in our parish house fireplaces
  • Re-upholstering of the couches and chairs and a fresh coat of paint on the trim in the Parish House parlor.
  • The last day of crew support services for the movie -- St. Agatha -- being filmed at one of the Newton houses down Academy St. As exciting as the hugely increased "energy level" is, it'll be nice to return to a more contemplative environment for Lent.  
The exact end date of each of these efforts is not known in every case but the completion of each as it impacts our weekday lives will soon deserve a finale and in some cases a grand one. 

I hereby ask God to absolve in advance any member of the parish who is heard in celebration or any less-than-Lenten attitude uttering any of the following words or phrases:
  • Alleluia!!
  • Thanks be to God! (with hands raised!)
  • Its about time!
  • Glad that's over!
  • Glory! (with or without an accompanying "alleluia")
  • Sweet Jesus!
  • Praise the Lord!
  • and (especially important to me) What was frDann thinking?

*It is important for us to sustain the memorialization that already graces the areas of what we have turned to calling "the Patio."  It was provided remembering Marie Green Meacham and Elizabeth Wingo Clarke.  

Notice that in both instances the area was understood to be a garden space, not just a patio.  This needs our continued attention.  I'm proposing two responses to this recognition.  First, that we strive to designate and name the area as a "patio garden."  Not only that, we need to include the names Meacham and Clarke in our titling, too.  
Our second response should be to carefully establish and maintain attractive plantings in the areas inside the walls that remain around the garden patio.  I expect some short conversations with interested parishioners to help us find the right people to get that to happen.