Friday, December 23, 2011

O Emmanuel

Note: This post is the seventh and final in a series of posts on the "O Antiphons" that I wrote two years ago. I'm reposting them here this year as we head towards Christmas.

O Emmanuel, our king and our lawgiver, 
the hope of the nations and their Saviour: 
Come and save us, O Lord our God. 

Everyone wants a sign, some sort of certainty that their faith is not staked upon a fantasy.

The Lord offered to give a sign to Ahaz. Ahaz was king of Judah for a time during what's known as the divided kingdom. Israel had joined forces with Aram (Syria) to attack Jerusalem. The story in 2 Kings tells us that the Lord sent Isaiah out to meet Ahaz, telling Ahaz to have courage because the Lord would protect him. Israel and Syria wanted Jerusalem for their own, but the Lord would strengthen Ahaz so he could protect it. Yet, the Lord warned Ahaz, “If you do not stand firm in faith, you shall not stand at all.”

And then the Lord offered Ahaz a sign.

Ahaz refused, saying he would not put the Lord to the test. But the Lord knew that Ahaz was not speaking from a place of deep faith, but from a place of deep fear. The Lord knew that Ahaz did not refuse the sign because he trusted God, but because he was terrified of what might happen to him. (And Ahaz was already arranging an alliance with Assyria, hoping they could protect him.)

So the Lord gave Ahaz a sign anyway: Immanuel.

“Look,” the Lord said, “The young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” Isaiah also prophesied that the country Ahaz had trusted in to help him (Assyria) would instead come and lay waste to Jerusalem. Israel would be carried off into captivity by Assyria and destroyed. Later, Judah would also be carried off into captivity by Babylon. God's people would be taken from their land and the supposedly everlasting covenant of Abraham and David would seem to be revoked.

O come, O come, Emmanuel, 
and ransom captive Israel, 
that mourns in lonely exile here 
until the Son of God appear. 

Eventually, the Persian empire came to power and Judah was returned to their homeland. They rebuilt the temple but never fully retained sovereignty over their land. For a brief period during the 2nd century BC, it appeared as though the revolt led by the Maccabees would give the Jewish people sovereignty. However, the Seleucid empire regained control. In 63 BC, Pompey captured Jerusalem for Rome, subjecting the Jews to Roman rule.

And it was into this context that Mary received news that she would give birth to the Messiah... the captivity of God's people appeared about to end.

But you need to remember the sign of Immanuel. The word literally means, “God with us.” The young woman would give birth and the child would be called “God with us.” In the context of exile and captivity, where God seems profoundly absent, this name of "God with us" becomes so very important. No longer will we feel lost. No longer will we feel as though there is always someone on our back, pressing us down. No longer will we search the skies and search the ancient texts for some sign that God is still around.

God will be with us.

God with us.

Some of the Jewish people thought the Messiah would come and give them political freedom. Instead the Messiah came and suffered alongside of them. Many thought the Messiah would return to them the power that had been stolen, instead the Messiah came and spoke up for the powerless. Many thought the Messiah would be a sign that God was for them. Instead, the Messiah was actually God with them, right alongside of them.

Now, you and I may not be in exile. We may not be in captivity. But we share the same confusion as some of the first century Jews, thinking that the kingdom is about political power or the success of our particular agenda. Who would have thought that Immanuel was actually just what it says: God with us? We will no longer be alone. We will no longer search desperately for God's presence in our life.

Look, a young woman is about to give birth. She doesn't look like the mother of a king. She's a unwed pregnant teenager, after all. But look, look so very carefully and take note. Because the child she will bear will be called Immanuel.

The child will be Emmanuel.

God will be with us.

God with us.

O Emmanuel.


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

O Rex Gentium

Note: This post is the sixth in a series of posts on the "O Antiphons" that I wrote two years ago. I'm reposting them here this year as we head towards Christmas.

O King of the nations, and their desire, 
the cornerstone making both one: 
Come and save the human race, 
which you fashioned from clay. 

We are all just clay, after all. We seem to do everything we can to forget that fact. We wrap ourselves in fancy clothes, strive to own nice cars and houses, to have powerful and impressive jobs—anything we can think of to hide the fact that we are just clay.

We form ourselves into ethnic groups, tribes, states, nations, so that we can point at other clay and say how much better we are than them. We go to war to protect the illusion that we're more than clay. We get offended whenever anyone even suggests we might be less than what we want to believe we are.

We want so desperately to believe we're more than clay.

O come, Desire of nations, 
bind in one the hearts of all mankind; 
bid thou our sad divisions cease, 
and be thyself our King of Peace. 

The children of Israel were God's chosen people. God pointed at them in their clay-ness and said, “I choose you.” They often thought that meant that they weren't clay, and so they got into all sorts of trouble. In actuality, though, God chose Israel to be a light to the nations, to clarify once and for all that being clay was not a bad thing... but that it was the most beautiful thing in the world. Israel was meant to display the glory of being just clay so that all nations could see their true nature. Because prophets and sages told Israel the truth: they were beloved clay.

One of my professors from Sewanee recently published a book. I haven't read it yet, it's on my bookshelf waiting for me, but I absolutely adore the title: Beloved Dust. We are all beloved dust. We are all beloved clay.

God sees us in our weakness and loves us dearly, not in spite of our weakness, but right through to the depths of our weakness. Saint Paul knew this, that's why he wrote the arguing and schismatic church in Corinth, reminding them that there was a profound treasure in their clay-ness. The treasure of being beloved of God.

God loves us in our weakness. All of the things in our lives we anxiously try to paint over, God caresses with the hand of the Potter, transforming our weakness into God's divine intention. And thus our weakness is beautiful. Nations war and rage. The Spirit whispers, “Peace. You are all beloved.”

Groups split and split, each claiming superiority over the other. The cornerstone reaches out and grasps the two bitterly divided groups and joins them. Remember, it was the stone that the builders rejected that has become the cornerstone. The builders thought it was weak and clay, but in that weakness God's glory was revealed. In that weakness, the stone has lovingly connected with the weakness of all humanity, drawing all things together into one new structure. And every stone therein is beloved of God.

War and rage no longer. Put down your need to prove yourself. Discover that you are beloved and that the Other is beloved as well. The King of all beloved clay is coming and our hearts will be bound into one.

O Rex Gentium.


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

O Oriens

Note: This post is the fifth in a series of posts on the "O Antiphons" that I wrote two years ago. I'm reposting them here this year as we head towards Christmas.

O Rising Sun, 
splendour of light eternal and sun of righteousness: 
Come and enlighten those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. 

At this time of the year, it can get awfully dark. I'll get home from work at the parish and my wife will be coming home late. Sometimes she had work to do, or some shopping to catch up on, so I'll have that first hour or so home by myself. On those days I'll often go downstairs, maybe play some Halo, and then come back upstairs when Bethany gets home. It'll only be about 6:30 or so, but it's already getting dark outside.

And we'd expect that, because it can get awfully dark at this time of the year.

Those families who live on tough hourly wages, working to make Christmas happen for their families, find themselves farther and farther behind and wonder how they will make it to January 1. Others who feel the persistent absence of loved ones feel it more acutely during the holiday season. And with all the joy and happiness all around, those for whom this month is hard wind up cold, lonely and squinting to see in the dark.

Because it can get awfully dark at this time of the year.

O come, thou Dayspring, come and cheer 
our spirits by thine advent here; 
disperse the gloomy clouds of night, 
and death's dark shadows put to flight. 

The early church usually celebrated Eucharist with the priest facing east, a position known in liturgical-speak as celebrating ad orientem. After Vatican II and the Liturgical Renewal movement of the twentieth century, this position became more commonly known as “celebrating with your back to the people.” And that's unfortunate, because it was not really about the priest doing magic while the people peered around the priest's back. It was much more about the priest standing in the same direction as the people, ascending to the altar with them and for them, and celebrating Eucharist with everyone facing a transcendent God (instead of everyone gathered around and facing the priest as the center of focus).

And they called it ad orientem.

That's latin for “to the east.”

The priest would stand and face the rising sun, offering to God simple bread and wine and asking God to become present for the people in those offerings. The priest would stand and face the rising sun in defiant expectation that Jesus was coming again. There would be a certain type of coming, a certain type of advent, in Eucharist, but Eucharist was much more than that, Eucharist would stretch us, reaching forward to Christ's second coming. In the midst of a world in love with Power, the priest would stand and defiantly face East, confident that he would see Christ come again in the bread, but also knowing there was a day when Christ would come on the clouds of the East and return.

Far too often in the church we hide the darkness in our lives. We pretend it's not there, that everything is light and beautiful. But in reality, there are places of oppressive darkness that terrify us.

So we all face the priest as the priest faces us, watch the priest do the Eucharist, and smile, believing it's OK. And that's fine. There are benefits to the priest celebrating ad populum, facing the people. I'd never try single-handedly to change a parish's practice in that area.

But every now and then...

Every now and then...

Every now and then it would do us some good to stand up and face the east. To stand up in defiance of a world that thinks it is in control, to stand up in defiance of all the darkness that creeps into our lives, to stand up in defiance of all of that, face the east, and tell one another that Christ will come on the wings of dawn and spread warm light throughout the world.

Not bright garish light that will make us shrink back.

No, the Dayspring, will spread the warm light of the dawn, reaching it's tendrils out through the darkness of a fleeting night, whispering softly to our hurting hearts that everything was not as scary as it seemed.

It's OK now. The nightmare is over. The God who created us has returned and the things that frighten us must flee.

Shh, Mommy's here. Daddy's here. The mother of our souls has returned. The father of our salvation has returned. The dawn has arrived and the darkness has been forced to flee.

Face east, brothers and sisters. Stand up today and look hard at the east. Our Dayspring is about to come.

O Oriens.


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

O Clavis David

Note: This post is the fourth in a series of posts on the "O Antiphons" that I wrote two years ago. I'm reposting them here this year as we head towards Christmas.

O Key of David and sceptre of the House of Israel; 
you open and no one can shut; 
you shut and no one can open: 
Come and lead the prisoners from the prison house, 
those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death. 

This is not your house. You don't own the keys. You cannot close the doors God opens, neither can you open the ones God has shut. This is not your house.

And isn't this a tremendous message of grace? Because if this is not your house and it's not my house, if this really is God's house, then that means this is not their house.


The Powers. Those who stake their claim of ownership on contested land, those who trade the needy for a pair of sandals, those who trade the minority for a false unity, those who turned a cold shoulder when you walked into the room... this is not their house.


O come, thou Key of David, come, 
and open wide our heavenly home; 
make safe the way that leads on high,
and close the path to misery. 

There is one key to the house of God's people and it is owned by God. It is carried by Christ. It has been passed on to the Apostles and the church that bears the lineage of the Apostles still holds those keys. But we are only stewards of the keys. They are not ours.

And the keys are certainly not theirs, it is not the Powers’ key nor the key of them that serve the Powers’ ends. They will come to the house of God and find that the locks have been changed, that the name they pasted on the mailbox is gone.

But the least of these, the voiceless, the oppressed, the small and seemingly weak will find the door opened wide. They will find that Christ has made safe the way home. The way home is now safe.

Because the keys were never theirs. They were never ours. And the door is even now about to be open. The way to salvation will be made safe for all.

O Clavis David.


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Monday, December 19, 2011

O Radix Jesse

Note: This post is the third in a series of posts on the "O Antiphons" that I wrote two years ago. I'm reposting them here this year as we head towards Christmas.

O Root of Jesse, standing as a sign among the peoples; 
before you kings will shut their mouths, 
to you the nations will make their prayer: 
Come and deliver us, and delay no longer. 

“Truth,” Pilate asks, “What is truth?” Thus Power responds to God incarnate. Of course, the power of God in Christ was difficult to see for many. Few look at the pain and suffering of the cross, point their fingers, and say, “That is power.”

But the answer to Pilate's question of truth stood before him in the abused prisoner. The glory of divine power was revealed as Christ gave completely of himself for others.

Perhaps Pilate should have shut his mouth.

O come, thou Root of Jesse's tree, 
an ensign of thy people be; 
before thee rulers silent fall; 
all peoples on thy mercy call. 

This O Antiphon describes the return of the Davidic kingship. The original son of Jesse, David, was promised a throne in perpetuity. The coming Messiah would sit on that throne, in power and great glory. And yet, instead of ascending a throne, the promised Messiah was lifted up on a tree.

What kind of a sign is that?

In the 12th chapter of the Gospel of John, Jesus says, “And I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all people to myself” (John 12:32). The majesty of the Davidic kingship, culminating in the reign of a Messiah lifted up on the cross, was drawing of all people together through an act of self-giving love. In Ephesians we are told, “For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (Ephesians 2:14). In Christ's ascension on the cross, we see God join human suffering, we see God experience all of the things we build up as barriers between each other. Through this self-giving love, Jesus sought to “reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it.”

Drawing all things together in God.

As Father Tobias says, in the economy of God's salvation nothing goes to waste. Look around you, the Root of Jesse is coming. And the Root is not coming to secure our own power, but to jostle the world until we will stand shoulder to shoulder with our brothers and sisters and see the image of God in them. Thus the nations pray. Thus the nations, beat down by the Powers of this world, long for justice and true friendship.

Watch, God is making everything new.

O Radix Jesse.


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

O Adonai

Note: This post is the second in a series of posts on the "O Antiphons" that I wrote two years ago. I'm reposting them here this year as we head towards Christmas.

O Adonai, and leader of the House of Israel, 
who appeared to Moses in the fire of the burning bush 
and gave him the law on Sinai: 
Come and redeem us with an outstretched arm. 

I grew up in a tradition that emphasized grace. Sure, there were parts of my evangelical upbringing where the importance of works would sneak in, where preachers would insist that you had to do certain things correct to be saved. However, that's not what shaped me. I was shaped by the idea that we are saved by pure and unadulterated grace, not by works, lest anyone should boast. And that gospel was the sweet milk that nourished my young Christian soul.

And I'm grateful for it.

Later in life, though, while working on my Bachelors degree in Biblical Studies, I took a class on the Minor Prophets. This “grace only” view had begun to break down before that, during the freshman Old Testament survey course taught by David. But that class on the minor prophets... it broke my theological world in two. All of the sudden I saw that grace without justice was cheap and empty.

O come, O come, great Lord of might, 
who to thy tribes on Sinai's height 
in ancient times once gave the law 
in cloud and majesty and awe. 

In the midst of giving the law, God made it clear that the law was a covenant ensuring that the people would truly practice the love of God. Thus the Torah is filled with concern for the poor and weak, those without voice in society. In Deuteronomy's retelling of the Ten Commandments, the commandment for keeping the Sabbath day is given so that the poor, the slaves and workers of society may also have rest.

Later in Deuteronomy, God declares that this law flows from God's very being. And lest you be confused about what that being was, God says, 
For the Lord your God is God of gods and Lord of lords, the great God, mighty and awesome, who is not partial and takes no bribe, who executes justice for the orphan and the widow, and who loves the strangers, providing them with food and clothing. You shall also love the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. — Deuteronomy 10:17–20 

The Torah should make us look like that. Our God is not moved to action or inaction because of financial gain. The key question for universal health-care, thus, isn't how much will it cost. The key question is how does a society care for the least among them. To oppose the idea of providing health-care to every human being because of the cost is to take a bribe, to use financial gain as a reason for action/inaction on a question of justice.

God is not like that.

And our God will execute justice. Our God will look out for those in our society to whom we have given less rights, and will establish equity. Our God loves immigrants—illegal or otherwise—because our God watched the people of Israel struggle as they journeyed in search of a homeland. God has a soft spot for these folk and so cares deeply for them.

The worship I had loved, when I was younger, one that was bathed in a sense of grace, was incomplete. Because I took this class on the Minor Prophets and discovered that the prophet Amos believed the Lord despised such worship, “Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24). I discovered in Micah that God had no patience for my offering of sacrifice if I neglected the first good, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8).

We need to recover the importance of the Torah. We need to recover a sense that our actions absolutely have social repercussions—and that God is profoundly interested in them. We need to recover the sense of a society which will structure itself with a sense of justice and equity, not solely concerned with what will keep the markets going up.

We need Adonai to descend once again, to burn this law onto the stones of our hearts, to surround us with the smoke and majesty of a God who is on the side of the weak and helpless. Because we seem to have forgotten. We've bought the bottle of cheap grace and ignored the more costly. But it is the more costly that will save us. It is the more costly that will change us.

O Adonai.


Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

O Sapientia

Note: Two years ago, around this time, I wrote a series of reflections on the "O Antiphons." They are reflective of my context at the time, as I neared the end of my time at Christ Church and was also near the end of the call process that resulted in my call to my current cure at St. John's. Last year I read them over again to myself each day. This year, I thought I might re-post them. The context has changed, but the Antiphons remain moving. And perhaps something within each of these daily reflections is still worthwhile to hear. Here is the first one, for "O Sapientia." I'll repost the rest each day as we draw closer to the awesome, terrifying, glorious, and grace-filled feast of the Nativity.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High, 
reaching from one end to the other mightily, 
and sweetly ordering all things: 
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

In a day when all most people want to hear is foolishness, when talking heads on radio and television spout partisan half-truths, more concerned with attaining power than with helping the powerless... in this sort of day, I'm longing for Sapientia.

Today the “O Antiphons” enter into Evening Prayer, to be said along with the Magnificat. And the first O Antiphon, the one appointed for today is “O Sapientia.” There is one English translation above, but most of us are more familiar with the paraphrase of the antiphon used in “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,”

O come, thou Wisdom from on high, 
who orderest all things mightily; 
to us the path of knowledge show, 
and teach us in her ways to go. 

And listening to the world today, the cacophony of hatred and dissonance which assaults our souls, I'm longing for Wisdom. I'm longing for Sapientia. I'm listening for sapience. As the author of Proverbs declares,
Wisdom cries out in the street; in the squares she raises her voice. At the busiest corner she cries out; at the entrance of the city gates she speaks: ‘How long, O simple ones, will you love being simple? How long will scoffers delight in their scoffing and fools hate knowledge? Give heed to my reproof; I will pour out my thoughts to you; I will make my words known to you. — Proverbs 1:20–23
Can you hear wisdom calling? Can you listen, can you pick out her strains in the cacophony of our culture?

I don't always feel like I can.

But I'm longing for it.

And in my own life, at this moment in my ministry, I'm listening. As I seek to discern God's will for my family, I'm listening. As I look at my calendar and see the end of June—the time when my tenure at this parish will end... I'm listening. I'm hoping to pick out her voice among the others. I'm longing for Wisdom.

Are you? Are you tired of scoffing? Are you sick of simplicity? Wisdom is kind and gentle, but she is also difficult and complex. She does not find satisfaction in easy answers or neat systems. She seeks to reveal the foundations of the world, she crafted the quantum physics that keep the whole cosmos balanced. She is not simple. She is that which men and women may spend their whole lives seeking, but her depths will go even further.

And yet, as God's Wisdom puts on human flesh, she will not go to the academy nor to the temple (except for the disrupting of their comfort). When God's wisdom puts on human flesh, she enters through a teenage girl giving birth in a barn and she leaves tortured, hanging on a cross near the garbage dump. She wears a beard and will touch those who you and I avoid. And she will heal our broken minds.

O Sapientia. Come.

Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.

Monday, December 5, 2011

God, of your goodness

There are several moments during the liturgy when a moment of silence is called for. Sometimes the rubrics are explicit that silence is kept. Other times, they are more permissive, indicating that silence may be kept. Regardless, there are moments, just a few, when stillness is meant to envelop the assembly.

Most people find the stillness difficult. We are a people always on the move, always going from one thing to the next. There are many parishes that rigorously schedule the allotted length for each moment in the liturgy, lest any one part go longer and the liturgy end at the wrong time. In this super-efficient approach to worship, the idea of spending a moment of a worship service in silence can seem almost indulgent.

One of the ways I ensure that I keep significant silence when I'm serving is to recite small prayers to myself. Not all the time. Sometimes the silence is meant also to involve a stillness of mind. But at other times I've found this a meaningful practice.

For example, after the priest breaks the bread, the rubrics indicate very clearly, "A period of silence is kept." Sadly, I often find this period is rushed. I don't think it is intentional. I think waiting for silence feels like an eternity when you're in charge of ending it. I think in more than a few places there is not an agreement worked out between the priest and the organist about who ends the silence and when. I just know that in my own practice I work very hard to keep that silence real, perhaps even to allow it to become pregnant with the meaning of Eucharist in that moment.

And so, to keep that silence, I say a short prayer to myself,
God, of your goodness give me yourself, for you are enough to me. And I can ask for nothing less that is to your glory. And if I ask for anything less, I shall still be in want, for only in you have I all.
And then I repeat a few times,
All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. // All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well. // All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.
These prayers come from a form of praying the Anglican rosary that I picked up years ago. They are drawn from the writings of Julian of Norwich, a late fourteenth century English mystic. At a period of severe illness when she was 30, she experienced a series of powerful visions of Christ. She later wrote them down and they became the source of her book, Sixteen Revelations of Divine Love

The second prayer, the one that begins "All shall be well," is probably one of her most well-known. I've understood the meaning and power of that prayer since I first heard it. But the second prayer, the one that begins, "God of your goodness," is one I don't think I had a clue about until relatively recently. Ever since my spiritual director's impacting statement, I've noticed that the "God of your goodness" prayer has become increasingly meaningful. I've been reflecting for a couple of weeks now on why that may be.

I think part of it is that desire is such a complicating thing. While we all know what it feels like to want, the act of clarifying what it is we are actually wanting is much harder. This is why psychologists and therapists are so succesul, one part of their work is to help people realize what they are actually wanting.

This is why it was so powerful to hear my director articulate that she sensed within me a deep desire for union with God. I had never thought about it like that—intellectually I had, but not in a way that actually connected the theology to the aching of my heart. It remains powerful to remember that so much of my own angst and ache and want is, in the end, part of my heart's restless desire for God.

I've discovered over this past year and a half or so that parish ministry involves an awful lot of wants, several perceived desires from various quarters interacting with one another. This is why, I think, parishes argue over the color of the carpet. Every desire in the church is spiritually caught up in an individual's desire for God. Thus, even the color of the carpet has deep meaning.

And it's helpful, it's so very helpful, to be reminded that what we all are actually wanting is something else: God. It's not that our desire for God needs to be separated from the various mundane things that make up our journey into God—even the aesthetic questions of upholstery and carpeting. It's just that we need to remember why we care so much about them. We must keep the end in mind.

Each Sunday morning, after I break the bread, I rest my hands on the altar, breathe deeply, and remind myself that this is what it's all truly about—our desire for a God who comes near in the sacraments. All the other stuff that swirls through our hearts and minds, it can cloud the reality of our actual desire: God.

And somehow the act of saying this each Sunday, in my own small prayer, is remarkably calming. In the midst of all the activity and movement surrounding Holy Eucharist, saying once again, "You are enough for me," gently challenges me. It asks me to consider whether or not that is actually true. And it reminds me that when I forget this truth, when I focus the desires of my heart on anything less, that I'm still going to be left wanting.

"For only in you have I all."

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

On Cassocks and Mission

"Wrap yourself up in your cassock and go forth..."

Recently a friend gave me this advice when we were discussing some of the challenges that come with parish leadership. I found it a delightful phrase—particularly, because it shows how very well the person knows my own curiosities and eccentricities. But I also have a hunch there is deep wisdom in it.

One of those beautiful practical pieces of Benedict's rule is "Chapter 55: On the Clothes and Shoes of the Brethren." Though it is tempting to quote it in total, I'll just give a few lines:
Let clothing be given to the brethren according to the nature of the place in which they dwell and its climate; for in cold regions more will be needed, and in warm regions less. This is to be taken into consideration, therefore, by the Abbot...
The monks should not complain about the color or the coarseness of any of these things, but be content with what can be foundin the district where they live and can be purchased cheaply.The Abbot shall see to the size of the garments, that they be not too short for those who wear them, but of the proper fit.
Benedict goes on, indicating the importance of returning old clothes once new ones are received so that the old clothes do not go to waste but can be given to the poor. Two tunics seemed sufficient to Benedict because one could always be worn while the other was being washed. He also writes that when monks go on a journey they should be given cowls and tunics that are "somewhat better that what they usually wear," giving the clothes back upon return.

For a rather short rule this might seem like a lot of writing about something as eminently practical (and seemingly simple to deal with) as clothing. And perhaps it is... but I doubt that's the case.

I've noticed in the Episcopal Church that one of the several ways in which clergy display their maturity and spiritual depth is by eschewing silly things like special clothing and titles. "My baptism is enough for me," they say. Or, when talking about, say, how one cares for and wears standard clerical clothing, they say that these are the concerns of seminarians and new clergy. It is seminarians and new clergy who seem to obsess over whether one should wear clericals to this function or if "non-church" dress would be more appropriate. We more mature clergy don't bother with silly conversations about such trivialities.

In case you can't tell, I find that attitude condescending, at best, and hopelessly gnostic, at worst. After all, one of the first things you are taught in seminary is the great importance of the incarnational nature of our faith. We are not like the gnostics who believed matter was evil and spirit was good. We believe matter matters. Any introduction to Anglicanism that is worth its salt will tell you that our faith historically has never followed other traditions who believe that the earthy things of this world—things like food, drink, and clothing—are wicked or unimportant. Rather, our faith is always a lived faith, one that you can touch and taste and smell and see...

And it's rather clear, to me at least, that clothing does actually matter a great deal. Our society spends billions of dollars convincing us not only of the fact that clothing matters, but also that the wares they are selling are the ones we should buy if we really want to be hip and trendy. What we wear demonstrates whether or not we "get it."

And like it is with most things in society, this worldly idea is not entirely wrong.

What we wear does matter... but for entirely different reasons.

What we wear can reveal the respect we show for others and for ourselves. What we choose to wear conveys a message—that is inevitable. The question is, what sort of message will we convey.

And so this young priest chooses almost always to wear the same thing: a simple black suit and "tonsure" style clergy collar during the week. A cassock on Sundays and anytime I am in the church teaching or working in the Nave. And though I may be a bit biased, I don't believe this is because I'm obsessed with clothes. Rather, it's because I care about what kind of message I'm communicating.

I'm hopeful that I communicate a message of simplicity. I hope that by striving to avoid ill-fitting or thread-bare clothes I also communicate a level of respect for my profession and a level of respect for those with whom I spend time. And when I wrap myself up in my cassock and go forth," it is because I believe that simplicity, reverence, and a sense of tradition are found within that simple black robe.

Benedict believed clothes were important. He believed they should be simple and reflect the way of life to which the person had subscribed. I think he's right on that.

But, if I'm honest, there's another reason for my own style of dress. When I wrap myself in my cassock, I'm doing so with the hope that I'm also wrapping myself in those who have gone before me. I'm hoping I wrap myself with the prayers and identities of the various colleagues and spiritual leaders who I have had throughout my life. When I wrap myself in my cassock, I'm reminding myself that when I walk out the door of this office, when I step into any situation as a priest, I do not do this alone. I do it wrapped in the disciplines and personalities and gifts of all the priests who have been a part of my life.

And so I hope I don't step out as "just Jared." I hope that I step out as a person who is keenly aware that my own gifts, skills, and talents will always be inadequate. But if I step into the tradition, if I fold myself into the life of my colleagues, if I wrap myself with what I've gleaned from those who have inspired me, I might have enough strength for this. I might at least have enough strength for today.

"Wrap yourself up in your cassock and go forth..."

Will do, my friend. Will do. 

Wednesday, October 26, 2011


Memory is a strange thing. At least, I've always found that to be the case. It's strange how over the years some memories disappear and others remain sharp, clear, and crisp.

I don't remember a great details of those first couple of years in the Episcopal Church. But there are moments in liturgies, moments of conversations with parishioners, moments here and there that stand out to me as clear as though they happened yesterday.

One of those moments is, strangely enough, the concluding collect at the prayers. Father Scott (now Bishop Scott, but at that time he was still Father Scott to me) used to use almost exclusively one particular concluding collect,

O Lord our God, accept the fervent prayers of your people; in the multitude of your mercies, look with compassion upon us and all who turn to you for help; for you are gracious, O lover of souls, and to you we give glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and for ever. Amen.

He would, of course, say it with that particular West Texas accent that I so came to love. Indeed, certain phrases in the prayer book probably will always exist in my mind in a slight west Texas accent. For some reason, it seemed so strange to hear that masculine Texan voice say the words, "for you are gracious, O lover of souls."

I was raised knowing that Jesus loved me, that God loved the whole world. But to say someone loves someone or something is rather different than saying that someone is a lover. Lover, in our language, is often erotic language used to describe a person in a sexual relationship. A lover is the person who makes love to the beloved.

And my bright, wide-eyed, fresh Anglican self was amazed each and every time I heard this Texan priest say God is a "lover of souls." To me it meant more than God is one who loves souls. It meant that at God's very being, God was a lover of souls. It connoted a level of passion and intimacy and connection, a level of desire and longing, that was rarely a part of my conception of God.

When I myself, now a priest and rector of a parish, when I use that concluding collect in the liturgy, it always somehow means more to me than any of the other concluding collects. When I say it, it is like receiving a gift, because I still hear Father Scott's voice in my head. He always slowed down a bit when he came to the phrase, he said it with his own particular diction and emphasis, "For you are gracious, O lover of souls.... and to you we give glory."

Chapter 4 of Benedict's rule gives sixty some "Instruments of Good Works." One of them is, "To prefer nothing to the love of Christ." This is hard. There are many things in this world that I prefer, many that I love and like and want. But it's good to be reminded that the most important thing is the love of Christ.

Sometimes the parish can seem like an endless sea of preferences, all rising and falling as the winds blow and as the landscape changes. Sometimes it feels like a significant portion of my work is navigating and helping others adjudicate all of these preferences. And sometimes, every now and then, a wave of preferences seems as though it might come rushing over my head.

It's probably impossible to drain that sea of preferences. It probably wouldn't be a good idea even if it was. But maybe the love of Christ can be a raft, one that is strung together with the very energies, the very being of God. Maybe I can ride upon that raft, resting on those timbers, reminding myself that amidst of a sea of preferences one pure reality floats above: nothing is to be preferred to the love of Christ.

It's very trendy these days in liturgical circles to sort of look down one's nose at much of contemporary worship music, saying that it is all mindless "Jesus is my boyfriend" foolishness. That's always seemed wrong-headed to me. Some of the most ancient and venerable mystics truly did believe Jesus was their boyfriend, in a way. They used passionate language of love to describe their relationship with the divine. They helped (and continue to help) teach the church that God is, at God's very being, a lover.

Your faith cannot exist solely in your intellect. It cannot exist solely in your action. It must penetrate the deepest and most vulnerable place, the place where each of us longs to be loved—though we fear we are not worthy. It is to that place that this prayer speaks to me, it is to that place that Benedict, Theresa of Avila, John of the Cross, all the mystics of the church speak to me.

Because if God really is, at God's being, a lover... And if what God loves most are our poor, broken, struggling souls... Well, if that is true, then maybe it means that God, in God's very being, even loves souls in their particularity. Maybe it means God is the lover of your soul. Maybe it means God looks even at my soul and deep within the heart of God loves that too.

And if that doesn't scare and exhilarate you, I don't know what does.

"For you are gracious, O lover of souls, and to you we give glory..."

This is all deep and heady stuff. Maybe that's why I so like this prayer. It helps me know what to do, what to say, in response to the love of God. Faced with a God who is, in God's deepest being, a lover, a God who exists in the action of loving souls... faced with this kind of pure love in the midst of all the corrupted and broken love that surrounds us... there is one natural response...

To bow one's head, enveloped in ever-present love, and whisper, "To you we give glory, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, now and forever."


And forever.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

All That's Left

Since a young age, I’ve always been captivated by Scripture. I’ve had a sense that within it there truly lies deep and profound truth. When I started becoming more active in my local Episcopal parish, I did so as what was then called a “LEM” (Lay Eucharistic Minister). That is, I read Scripture and served the chalice. And though I found deep meaning in both ministries, I absolutely loved the ministry of proclaiming Scripture. From my earliest years I was taught to love the text.

I still do. I still love hearing Scripture proclaimed, particularly when it is clear that the Reader has really taken time preparing. And sometimes the proclamation is so meaningful that it enables me to hear the text in a way I never had.

This past week we celebrated the feast of St. Luke the Evangelist. The epistle reading for the day was from Second Timothy (4:5–13). I’ve heard this text probably hundreds of times during my life. I’d read it before the feast, preparing for my meditation on the day. But for some reason, as it was read during the liturgy, it was almost as though I’d never heard it before.

I could picture in my mind’s eye St. Paul in prison. At this point in life he’s an old man. He’s tired. He’s been imprisoned for a while, writing letters to churches and friends, refusing to accept the possibility that Rome can end his active ministry. He knows that his life is nearing its ending point, that things will not continue as they are. And as he prepares for the death he knows only draws nearer each day, he writes to his long-time student and friend Timothy. Looking back on a life of painful ministry, where he has been lauded by some and attacked by others, he has this simple advice for his friend,
As for you, always be sober, endure suffering, do the work of an evangelist, carry out your ministry fully.

As for me, I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. From now on there is reserved for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will give me on that day, and not only to me but also to all who have longed for his appearing.
(And then, in this last part, the reality that these are the words of an old man, approaching his death, becomes heartbreakingly apparent.)
Do your best to come to me soon, for Demas, in love with this present world, has deserted me and gone to Thessalonica; Crescens has gone to Galatia, Titus to Dalmatia. Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful in my ministry. I have sent Tychicus to Ephesus. When you come, bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas, also the books, and above all the parchments.
There is this wonderful blending in the text. After a lifetime of painful ministry, approaching his own death, he has wise words about what it means to serve in ministry. But woven together with those words are a few small requests. He’s lonely, only Luke is now left. He’d like to see Mark, if he can. "Oh," he writes as he shivers in the Roman cold, "When you come, can you bring my cloak?"

Also the books?

And above all the parchments?

Somewhere deep within me, I understand Paul here. At the end of it all, he still has his words, he still has things he wants to teach and preach and say. But he also would like to see his friends, those he loves who have walked alongside of him. And a warm cloak would be nice. And his books. And above all the parchments, so that those remaining words he has to say can be made known.

Chapter 55 of St. Benedict’s rule gives direction for the clothing for the monks. Benedict says clothing should be given “according to the nature of the place in which they dwell and its climate.” He suggests that in general, “the following dress is sufficient for each monk: a tunic, a cowl (thick and wooly for winter, thin or worn for summer), a scapular for work, stockings and shoes to cover the feet.”

The simplicity and practicality of the Rule when it comes to clothing seems so very innocent and yet it also seems so very old and wise. It demonstrates a general ideal that runs throughout the Rule—while everything may be desired by some... that is not to be the case for the member of this spiritual community. There are actually only a few things in this world that are truly laudable, that are truly worth loving and wanting and needing. The Rule seeks to clear out the extraneous so that the community might focus on what is actually necessary for a good life.

It is so very easy to believe the lies of this world that we need many things. I was raised to love the text of Scripture, but society also shaped me to be a consumer, to think that my purpose here is to consume and use, to have and to hoard.

This text from Second Timothy, this reading from the Rule, it all serves as a gentle reminder that, in the end, I don't really need the many things I think I need. As blessed Rich Mullins once sang, “Well his eye’s on the sparrow / and the lilies of the field I’ve heard / And he will watch over you and he will watch over me / so we can dress like flowers and eat like birds.”

I think there is important gospel truth in this for those of us called to serve in ordained ministry. We are called to spend our lives building, creating, growing, that our communities may be vibrant places of faithful Christian ministry. It’s very easy to get off track, to become mistaken in what God is calling you to do. It's very easy to fall into the work of building up of a community that, at its root, merely consumes. This is, however, very different than building up of a community that, at its root, gives.

The faithful building up of a parish community is good. It is a wonderful and humbling gift to step into a long line of workers and do your part adding stones upon the foundation. But even the building up done faithfully is not the end that I'm called to have in sight.

Even good faithful ministry will draw to a close someday. No matter how valiant and faithful your work, it will end. Eventually most of us will wind up at the sunset of our lives, realizing that many of the things we allowed to break our hearts or suck our energy... many of those things probably mattered a lot less than we thought.

I would imagine that in the end, you won’t recall what your ASA was or what sort of change you saw in the average pledge or whether or not the church would be able to do another percentage increase in the budget for outreach. All of those things can be indicators for the growth of a community—but they are not the call.

Indeed, at that point, near the end, even those very important things—things that are absolutely a part of good faithful ministry—those things will cease to matter as much.

Instead, all one wants is the presence of those you love. And a warm cloak. And, of course, your books and something to write on.

After you spend your life being poured out as a libation—sometimes willingly and sometimes through the actions of others—after you’ve been poured out there is very little left.

Love. Warmth. Books. And the ability to still say something small but faithful. 

Maybe that’s all there really was all along.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hell is Chrome

When the devil came
He was not red
He was chrome and he said

Come with me
Early in my ordained ministry, I took the Myers & Briggs assessment. For those unfamiliar, this assessment works with Jung's theory of personality types, particularly the four dichotomies. If you have no idea what I'm talking about, you can go to the wiki page on it. If you are very familiar with the assessment, you may be interested (and likely unsurprised), to find that the last time I took this my "type" came back as "INFJ." And you can lean heavy on the "J" portion of that.

As what's often called a "strong J," this means that I have a particular love for order and clarity. I would generally rather think and process my way through a situation than sense and intuit. This explains why, contrary to many clergy, I actually have a deep love for administration. I like putting things together and ensuring they run smoothly. I deplore messiness, clumsily orchestrated experiences, or situations where people are focusing on pure creativity, unstructured thinking, or anything that really doesn't have a clear and practical end.

Now, I'm aware enough to know that this is not all good. And anyone who works with Myers & Briggs assessments will tell you that no one is just one type, that we are all a blending of types. Indeed, because of my calling, I've spent a significant part of my ministerial life trying to cultivate those types that don't come naturally to me. And so I do sense. I've learned that messiness can be life-giving, that it can provide the ground for the movement of the Spirit. I know all that and strive to be balanced.

But still, in the end, I like order.

The quote at the beginning of this post is from a song called "Hell is Chrome" by the band Wilco. Since I first heard this song, I've found the opening lines provocative. I think a significant reason is because it rings so very true to me.

We think of the devil as "red." We think of him as an obviously wicked character, clearly identifiable, calling us to sins of a rather obvious nature. And sometimes temptation does indeed function in that way.

For me, however, the devil rarely shows up in his red outfit, complete with horns, cloven feet, and a pitchfork. Instead, he is chrome. And he invites me to come with him.

This means that he is clean. He is efficient. He is a capable administrator. Most importantly, he is orderly and very clear. He is smooth chrome. And like the song says, I can follow him to a place where everything is precise and towering, where I'm welcomed with open arms, where there is nothing to be afraid of... because everything is chrome. Everything is dead.

My personality tendency towards order brings some very real and important gifts to my life as a Christian, as a husband, and as a priest. But it also brings a subtle temptation to turn the world and the church into something clean, something well-oiled, efficient, and chrome. Something dead.

Real life is not chrome. It is a motley mix of colors, textures, and realities, many of them living in constant contradiction to one another. It is messy, slow, and inefficient. And the church is often this way too, not moving as quickly or as slowly or as well as we would like. It is full of people who are a part of it for all sorts of reasons. From priest to parishioner, the church very rarely meets our chrome expectations. And it's very tempting, particularly as a rector, to try to find ways to make the parish "chrome".... instead of looking for where God is incarnate in the messy reality of Christian community.

I suppose some might look at the Rule of St. Benedict as an exercise in control, in seeking to make the monastery chrome. And certainly, an important aspect of the Rule is the bringing of order to the shape of monasticism. However, it is a very Christian sort of order that finds wisdom in weakness and insight in that which is small.

For example, in Chapter 43, the rule says that when important matters are to be considered, it is to be done with the entire community. However, it is not so that the community can put it to some kind of vote. Instead, St. Benedict says, "The reason we have said that all should be called for counsel is that the Lord often reveals to the younger what is best." The preference is for a discernment of God's will—not a clearly stratified process of decision-making.

He does not want the community called together to vote, to craft a vision statement, or to determine what will make the least amount of people angry. The community is to come together to discern the will of God, a discernment that is very rarely chrome and is usually messy, painful, and uncomfortable. They are to listen to the younger voice, not because we need to keep the youth engaged, but because God often speaks to the younger members of the community.

God speaks to the littlest. God speaks to the weaker members, the ones who know they don't have it all together. And we, if we are wise, will stop polishing our chrome statues of faith and will start listening very carefully to what God is saying through those who are young, new, weak, inexperienced, and unsure. Because they are the ones who still remember what it means to listen for God.

I'm trying to do better loving the incarnation. I'm trying to do better recognizing my own limitations and loving them. God, after all, did not create me to be a perfect chrome robo-priest. God breathed love into the messy dirt of the earth and said it was good. God breathed love into me and then called me to love all the other messy dirt people all around me, people who just like me are only held together through the love of God. We are not chrome. But we are alive with love.

Hell is Chrome Video

When the devil came / He was not red / He was chrome and he said  / Come with me 
 You must go / So I went / Where everything was clean / So precise and towering 
I was welcomed / With open arms / I received so much help in every way  / I felt no fear / I felt no fear 
The air was crisp / Like sunny late winter days / A springtime yawning high in the haze
And I felt like I belonged 
Come with me / Come with me / Come with me / Come with me / Come with me / Come with me / Come with me / Come with me

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Prayer That's Enough

Today, I had lunch with our local ministerial association. I know many preachers out there may be groaning, but I'm telling you the truth: this group ain't normal.

We get together once a month for an hour of prayer and then lunch. Usually there is a presentation from someone in the area during lunch, someone who would like all the area clergy to hear about a particular program or offering.

In case you fell asleep during that second sentence, let me urge you back to the first. We get together once a month for an hour of prayer.

It's almost stereotypical to say this, but the truth is that most clergy really struggle with their personal prayer lives. When you get paid to lead worship, it's apparently very easy to forget to worship on your own as well. When you often wind up as the designated prayer leader, you forget how to craft your own prayers.

In the Episcopal Church, individual prayer lives are often as simple as a recitation of names on Sunday, the people who you mention during the "other intercessions" and the people you mention during the prayers for the departed. And while there's a kind of beauty in that, that's not enough prayer. Not for me at least.

For years now I have had a passionate love for the Daily Office. It's what first brought me into Anglicanism and has been an essential part of my piety for a long time. But, like most people who try to keep the Office as a discipline, I'll be the first to tell you that the real struggle is consistency. Some weeks I'm there, with my book open each morning, working my way through these ancient prayers and readings. Other times, I get halfway through my morning e-mails before I realize that I haven't prayed the Office in weeks. I don't give up, I keep trying, reminding myself like almost anything of worth in life, I need to take it one day at a time. The question is not how well I've prayed it the past several weeks or months. The question is: Will I open the book this morning and spend time in prayer?

But even the Office, even when I'm really on top of it, a true daily prayer rockstar, even that is not quite enough prayer.

What I love about our pastor gatherings is the style of prayer. We pray "extemporaneously." That is, we don't use set prayers, instead we each frame our own on the spot for whatever concern we want to speak to God about. You are supposed to speak "from the heart."

I used to do lots of extemporaneous praying, it was all we did in my former tradition. I know now that we were often just remixing the same words and phrases we'd heard all our lives, but still, there was an attempt to speak "from the heart" to God.

And while I adore the Book of Common Prayer, while I am an ardent supporter of solid, good, traditional liturgy... it's still important to remember how to speak "from the heart" to God.

God, of course knows my heart. God knows my sitting down and my rising up. God discerns my thoughts from afar. God traces my journeys and resting places and is acquainted with all my ways. Indeed, there is not a word on my lips that God does not know it altogether.

God knows all of that.

But sometimes I don't. Sometimes I don't know my own heart. Sometimes I don't even know my sitting down and rising up, much less my thoughts, journeys, and resting places. Some days I'd really love to know my resting places.

Good extemporaneous prayer, the sort that our pastors' prayer gathering does, that's the stuff. Not because it tells God anything new. Not because it contains ancient words spoken by God's people for centuries. It's good because it reveals our hearts. That time of extemporaneous prayer invites us to stand honestly before God and witness the wonderful and amazing truth that the whole of us can stand in the presence of the divine and not be consumed.

At the end of the prayer time, we always gather around the pastor who hosted us. We lay hands on them and pray for their work.

I hosted the gathering a few months ago. We went around, sharing what was on our hearts. I then led simple noon-day prayer from the BCP with a Taizé song thrown in as the hymn (hey, I need to do at least something more than just the extemporaneous stuff). Then we spent over a half hour, maybe almost forty-five minutes, just praying for one another. In our own words. From the heart.

And like every other gathering, as we concluded, the various pastors of this area gathered around me. Lost in a sea of hands touching my head and my back and my shoulders, they all prayed for me. Many from traditions very different than my own, with their own beliefs and practices, probably significant doubts about crazy Episcopalians, they still put their hands on me and spoke to God on my behalf. They prayed for St. John's. They prayed for God's ministry in this place and that God would guide and lead me as I sought to be a faithful pastor.

And I got to hear their hearts. I got to hear their thoughts, the words on their lips. And as they prayed, I heard my own journeys and resting places, all my ways, whispered back to me.

The pastors in my area get together once a month to pray. Anything I can come up with on my own might wind up falling short. Prayer with them, however, might just be enough.

*Some of my words and phrases here come out of my own prayer with Psalm 139 (Domine, probasti). Go take a look at it. It both terrifies me and heals me all at once.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Christian politics, taxes, and justice

My September 8, 2011, column for the Grand Haven Tribune, Christian politics, taxes, and justice,
Around the same time, the chairman of two U.S. bishop’s committees urged Congress not to ignore the moral dimensions of the debate, insisting: “A just framework for future budgets cannot rely on disproportionate cuts in essential services to poor persons.”

As we all know, the debt deal was cut, the ceiling raised, and much of the heat of the debate has dissipated.

And that’s a shame, because this debate could have provoked an even greater conversation about the ethical imperative of a society to have concern for the least of these. Instead, many politicians closed their ranks, refusing even to consider closing tax loopholes that benefit the wealthy — insisting instead on cuts to the poor and the elderly, and those trying to move out of extreme poverty.
Read more at the Tribune's website online here.

Saturday, August 27, 2011


I will go to the altar of God.
To the God of my joy and gladness.
Tomorrow morning at St. John's we are doing an "instructed Eucharist" at the later service. We did this last fall at the early service and it was very well received. Cradle Episcopalians along with newcomers to our tradition told me how much they enjoyed learning more about our Eucharistic liturgy. I talked about a lot of things, everything from the theology behind what we do, to why we have certain rubrics, to why people bow and when most do it. And—surprise, surprise—people enjoyed spending some time talking about what we do each week.

And so, of course I'm looking forward to something people enjoy... but it's more than that. The idea of taking our time going through Holy Eucharist, with me being able to share the moments and import of each section of the liturgy... well I don't know many things as a priest which would make me happier.

Back when I was discerning with the Diocese of Northwest Texas whether or not I was called to presbyteral ministry, one of the key sign-posts was my love for Holy Eucharist—and my desire to be close to it. I still remember that first Sunday as a Eucharistic Minister, back at the Church of the Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX. I remember standing there, just a few feet from the altar, I almost fell over from the power of being so close to this holy meal.
Give judgment for me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people; deliver me from the deceitful and the wicked.
For you are the God of my strength; why have you put me from you? And why do I go so heavily while the enemy oppresses me?
Some Sundays, when I arrive at the church, I'm worn out. Maybe it's been a long week, or a weekend that wound up being more work than rest, but I pull myself out of bed at 7am and by the time I get to the parish I don't feel much more alive than I did when the alarm went off.

And sometimes that weariness runs deeper. As though over the past few days or weeks God has gently put me from him, teaching me perhaps love through absence. Or strength through weakness. Or life through death.

But by the time I'm in the sacristy, as I slowly put on each layer of clothing, I feel more strength, more comfort. As I say the pre-service prayers with the other ministers, I feel grace wash over me. Just the fact that I'm allowed to ask God to defend me, to stand up for me... well, for someone who is better at apologizing than standing up for myself, it's rather challenging.

And when I'm tired, when God feels far, I say those pre-service prayers, getting ready to go to the altar of God with my fellow Christians and the liturgy begins to ring true. "Why do I go so heavily while the enemy oppresses me?" I think to myself.

I just don't know.
Send out your light and your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling;
That I may go to the altar of God, to the God of my joy and gladness; and on the harp I will give thanks to you, O God my God.
But as we approach the celebration of Holy Eucharist, we approach the making present of the God who does indeed stand up for us. We approach the making present of a God who did not consider it sufficient to watch us struggle down below. We approach a God who descends with fury and abandoned love, to pitch a tent among us.

And if I can get there, if I can get to that holy hill and to that dwelling, I will give thanks. I promise I will.

Just to reach out and touch, to smell, to taste... it all will remind me that the dwelling of God is never as far away as it seems.
Why are you so full of heaviness, O my soul? And why are you so disquieted within me?
Put your trust in God; for I will yet give thanks to him, who is the help of my countenance, and my God.
So tomorrow, I'll get to talk with my brothers and sisters about why I love Holy Eucharist. I'll be able to share the profound joy I find in each and every moment, as we rehearse lines passed down to us through centuries. Like a mother's lullaby, teaching ancient truth to a weary child. Like basic arithmetic, discovered ages ago and then taught and rediscovered a new with each generation. Over and over God's people learn once again that God is very near. Very close.

There's no need to be weary.

There's no need to feel disquieted within.

Our God is not far off.

Our God is here.
Lift up your hearts.
We life them to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to Lord our God.
It is right to give him thanks and praise.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Blue like Theology

The other night I was at a winery with Bethany's aunt and uncle. There was a jazz band playing and I felt the warm night air lazily coast over my skin. I took a sip of wine and listened to the music dance.

One of the things I love about jazz is the way the musicians interact with one another. They feel where the music is going and work their way along, each listening to the others as the music goes from dissonance to dissonance, sometimes reaching resolution, but not always.

We were down in Ohio seeing Bethany's grandmother, who is not doing well. Earlier that morning, I heard that my grandmother's health issues are also continuing. I knew our monthly vestry meeting was only a few days away, and while we are blessed in my parish by a wonderfully healthy and good vestry, any priest will likely tell you that vestry meetings are significant work.

All of these thought swirled through my head as the music played on. The emotions and stresses mixing as the guitar danced over the top of the base line. And yet, anytime my thoughts began to descend deeply into the ponderings of these past days, the music kept grabbing me, pulling me in, inventing me to slip between the chords and find something, something tenuous and hard to grasp.

I don't know what was there, beckoning me. But as I thought about the pain of watching those I love inexorably age, day by day... as my mind turned over the work ahead in my life as a priest... in the midst of all of this, the music would not be ignored.

There was a book that was quite popular in evangelical circles several years ago called Blue Like Jazz, by Donald Miller. It came out in 2003, I heard the buzz, read some of the first few pages, and bought it. I only actually read the book through for the first time a couple of months ago.

I've never been terribly good at being hip.

But there's this great line at the very beginning,
I never liked jazz music because jazz music doesn’t resolve. But I was outside the Bagdad Theater in Portland one night when I saw a man playing a saxophone. I stood there for fifteen minutes, and he never opened his eyes.

After that I liked jazz music.

Sometimes you have to watch somebody love something before you can love it yourself. It is as if they are showing you the way.

I used to not like God because God didn’t resolve. But that was before any of this happened.
I promise you, I did read the whole book, but I don't think anything else in that book came close to the poignant truth in those few paragraphs. Don't get me wrong, I still think it's a good book. It's just that those paragraphs have haunted my theological memory for the past several years since I first bought the book after having read them.

We spend so much of our lives aching for resolution. We want things to be whole and good and permanent. We don't want to lose people, for them so slip off the map of our lives. We want consistency to our daily life, not the constant up and down and change that is so often its actual shape. We want things to do more than just be, we want them to remain.

I wonder what it means to say that God doesn't resolve. I wonder if the beatific vision, if the theosis we are all undergoing, if it winds up leaving us in some place where we don't reach stasis, but instead, where we grow in love enough to finally embrace change and growth, to finally be content with no resolution just a continuing journey.

These are the sorts of thoughts that are easy to have when you're drinking good wine and listening to good jazz. They're much harder in the bright light of day when life surrounds you.

So I think I'll turn some jazz on. I want to hear what I heard that night, in between the notes and the chords, somewhere next to the dissonance of a diminished ninth, reaching out and inviting me. Maybe when the Holy Spirit isn't at church, she hangs out in jazz music, inviting people to love and live differently. If the Spirit is hanging out there, what words of wisdom might be spoken? What words of grace might I hear?

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Deep Desire

"It sounds to me, Jared, that you have such a deep desire for union with God."

I'd never quite had that said to me, I think, at any other time in my life. So when my new spiritual director said it at our first meeting, it struck me as strange. I've been pondering ever since yesterday why that is.

Why would it be strange to desire union with the divine? I know theologically—and have known for years now—that this is one of the descriptions of the telos or goal of life, reunion with the divine. In some traditions it's called the Beatific Vision. In other traditions, it is a part of the doctrine of Theosis. In patristic and mystical theology, union with God is the third of the three states of being. The first state is the purgative way, then the illuminative way, then the unitive way. Each leads into the other as we are drawn further into the divine life.

And while the fancy theology surrounding all that might not always be on the tip of every Christian's tongue, wouldn't it be rather normal to say that every Christian has a desire for union with God?

Why was I surprised by my director's comment? I'm a priest, of course I have a deep desire for union with God. Really, doesn't every Christian, regardless of order?

But after talking with her about my journey, after sharing my experiences with God and my hopes for my own spiritual life as a Christian and as a priest, when at the end of all of that she said this thing to me, this articulation of what she perceived as my deep desire. Well, it surprised me. It seemed... like such a.... kind thing to say.

So often all we do is focus on our failings, on the things that we have created, the barriers we build between God and each other. We rehearse and remember each tripping step in our journey and it take someone else to point out that even with all the trips and falls, we still seem be slogging up the mountain with great determination.

I do. I do have a profoundly deep desire for union with God.

My soul wants to be home.

And it makes me wonder, is the telos of parish ministry union with God? Is the goal of worship, faith formation, preaching, administration, pastoral care—all the bits and pieces that make up priestly ministry—is the goal of each of those actions union with God, helping others along the way to union with God?

At times it may be purgative, as we seek to open ourselves to the painful cleaning away of the sickness within. At times it may be illuminative, as we seek to come to greater realization of the voice of God in our lives. But in the end, does it all have a unitive end?

I think it probably should.

Because I doubt I'm the only one whose soul wants to be home.

And I doubt I'm the only one who can sometimes use the excess of activity (the excess of the activities described above) as a flurry of motion to occupy my mind... so that I don't think of the gaping God-shaped void within me that still is longing to be filled.

Almost three decades in Christian community, my whole life, and yet the hole is still there.

And sometimes it hurts something awful. 

"It sounds to me, Jared, that you have such a deep desire for union with God. Let's talk about that," my director said to me.

Yes. Let's do that.

Monday, July 25, 2011

The Edges of Monday

At my previous parish, Christ Church in Alexandria, VA, the clergy "day-off" was Mondays. (We had Saturdays off, too, but any priest will tell you Saturdays very rarely stay an actual day off.) During those two years with Mondays as my off day, I developed a lot of love for that system. Once Sunday was over I knew that Monday would be a relaxing day—a true sabbath. My wife still had to work on Mondays, but that just meant that most weeks I'd sleep in, roam around the house a bit, either bring her lunch or meet her someplace, and then have a semi-productive afternoon usually consisting of some mixture of laundry, video games, and a movie.

It could be a difficult system at times, though. Having my two days-off split up during the week made it hard to do anything at all on the weekends. Ever. I couldn't venture much more than twenty minutes from the parish. And it meant only one day off could ever be spent with my wife.

In the Diocese of Western Michigan, the bishop prefers a "continuous 48 hours" of sabbath "reserved solely for personal and family use." So, the easy way to accomplish that was to take Fridays and Saturdays as my new days off. I still wind up doing things on those days, and I try to keep track of it all, but for the most part it's a good system. It means I get to spend both days-off with my wife. It also means if we want to head up to Northern Michigan or over to Grand Rapids for the first part of the weekend we can.

One of the difficulties of this change has been that my Monday has shifted. Obviously it's now spent in work rather than sabbath, so I go directly from Sunday into the work-week... but that's not quite what I mean. I mean that the beginning of my week is different, different even than the way Tuesday felt at Christ Church. At Christ Church, Tuesday meant that the rest of the parish office had already been humming along one day. The clergy came in and got to work with a bevy of meetings, preparing for the following week, but that beginning of the week hit a bit more... softly.

I guess what I'm trying to say is that Mondays are harder now than Tuesdays were then. Does that make sense?

There's always a full box of e-mails. My "to-do" stack may have lost many of the small tasks that I finished up at the end of the last week, but the remaining tasks all will require significant time to finish. The parish office tends to be busier with people coming in and going out. And though I often begin Monday with grand dreams of working on my sermon, somewhere between updating my calendar for the week and hearing about someone in the hospital, the plan to write my sermon early falls silently to the floor of good intentions.

In chapter 48 of St. Benedict's rule, we read,
From Easter until the Calends of October,
when they come out from Prime in the morning
let them labor at whatever is necessary
until about the fourth hour,
and from the fourth hour until about the sixth
let them apply themselves to reading.
After the sixth hour,
having left the table,
let them rest on their beds in perfect silence;
or if anyone may perhaps want to read,
let her read to herself
in such a way as not to disturb anyone else.
Let None be said rather early,
at the middle of the eighth hour,
and let them again do what work has to be done until Vespers.
What a lovely structured way to spend one's day, I think as I read that section of the rule. Everything laid out clearly, time for worship, time for work, time for reading, and time for rest. There will always be work to be done, Benedict knows, but there are other parts of our lives as humans that are equally vital.

One of the hardest things I wrestle with is how to organize my own time as a priest. Indeed, one of the reasons I stopped blogging was because I figured I simply did not have the time to write anymore. It didn't seem productive enough.

It reminds of people who worry that they don't have the time to pray. I always make a two-fold suggestion. First, one can always pray "in the cracks" of the day (while driving, in between tasks, while walking, etc.). But even beyond that, taking time for prayer will shift the way the rest of your day goes. It's not that prayer makes one more productive. It's that prayer makes one more attentive.

Over the past year, I've increasingly learned that it is not that I don't have time to write. Writing is an essential part of my spiritual life. The name of my old blog, Scribere Orare Est, ("to write is to pray"), still rings true to my spirituality. It may not always be productive, in the way I sometimes think about productivity, but writing always makes more more attentive. And this, of course, changes a lot about my productivity. Most importantly, it changes the way in which I am productive.

It's not that I don't have the time to write.

It's that (if you'll excuse the double negative) my spirit doesn't have the strength not to write. My vision doesn't have the clarity. My voice doesn't have the stamina. My leadership doesn't have enough reflection. If I don't write, many things suffer.

Mondays are indeed busy days at our parish. There is always one more task I could be doing. But I find that if I don't write, I don't pay careful enough attention to the tasks that I undertake.

Writing helps me find God in those tasks, kind of nudging at the edges. Writing helps me see the Spirit there, at the edges of an overflowing to-do stack, singing constant love to me. Writing helps me hear Christ's voice over the hum of the air-conditioner and the ring of the phone, speaking truth to my inmost being.

And when I see that, well, then Mondays seem to become as re-creational as when I spent them in sabbath.

So long as I take the time to look, to pause, to listen, and to write it down.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Somewhere in the Midst

There have been many joyful surprises over this past year as a solo priest. One of the most delightful, however, has been the pictures.

I remember when I was a child, one of my favorite things to do during church was to draw a picture of what I was seeing. It always looked the same: the big pulpit in the center of the M-21 Church of Christ with the baptistry behind it and the communion table in front of it. The preacher standing behind it in suit and tie. I'd work especially hard drawing the preacher because I never was very good at drawing people. He'd usually have his arms upraised in some act of rhetorical persuasion.

I don't know what I did with those drawings each Sunday. Maybe I gave them to my parents. Maybe I left them in the pew. I'm pretty sure that I never gave them to the preacher when we were shaking hands on our way out the door.

Over this past year at St. John's I have several times been handed drawings from children as I shake hands at the end of the service. They are always delightful. There is one child in particular who likes to draw a similar picture every time. A hill with a church on it. God is in the sky and there are usually three figures: him, me, and Thomas (the Tank Engine). Sometimes Jesus is standing there with us. I get the impression this is a happy picture for him... and I'm glad.

I do think that children draw "what they see" in church—not always what they see literally but what they see in their mind when church happens. I always saw a preacher preaching with hands outraised. The child I mention above always sees him, me, and Thomas the Tank Engine on our way to the church (though never inside, curiously enough). These drawings a like a window into a child's mind.

Last Wednesday, after our midweek Eucharist, another child handed me a picture. Like all the others, I think this was a picture of what she "saw" when she was sitting in church.

Two candles, flames burning. The altar cross which sits above our tabernacle. And somewhere up there in the midst of it all: God.

I never drew God in my pictures. I drew the sermon, probably because that was where I encountered God. As I looked at last week's picture when it was handed to me—as I look at it again now—I find it hard to express how very much it moves me, deep within my soul. Is there a greater thing in the world than the reality that this child really and truly sees God up there, in the midst of it all? That her sense of God was so tangible, so real, she didn't seem to hesitate to write it down.

There's a sense sometimes in Christian churches that children should always go and be a part of a different worship experience, whether for a part of the liturgy or for all of it. Our "adult" liturgy is supposedly beyond a child's mind to grasp. Supposedly. At St. John's, we do have a children's church opportunity for small children during the first part of the liturgy, but the children are always ushered back in at the Peace to be a part of the Great Thanksgiving and our sharing of Holy Communion.

It's almost an opposite image of what happened in the early church. During the peace in the early church the catechumens (those unbaptized members of the community) left the worship space. They were not yet a part of the Eucharistic fellowship, and so they would leave... until their Easter baptism. After their Easter baptism, they would finally stay.

In our church, I absolutely adore the image each Sunday of twenty or so small children running into the worship space during the Peace—a sure and definite part of our Eucharistic fellowship. And while they may not understand it all, I do think they understand much more than they let on. I think they certainly understand more than we sometimes give them credit.

They know that somewhere up there, somewhere in the midst of candles, crosses, prayers, and robes, God becomes present. Somewhere up there in the midst of it all God becomes present for them in a particular way, in a way they can reach out and touch and taste and take inside. They know that with enough certainty to write it down on a sheet of paper, with as much confidence as a child might draw a picture of an altar candle: God is there.

God is there.

And this priest, for one, is grateful to be reminded of that fact.

Jesus told his followers, "Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs."

I say softly to the little children, "Let us adults come to God, please help us, because sometimes we forget where God is. After all, it is to such as you that the kingdom of God belongs."

Friday, July 8, 2011


For the past three weeks I've been at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, studying in the Advanced Degrees Program there. I've found this time remarkably refreshing as the lens through which I view my work as a priest has been shifting. One's understanding of one's priesthood is always in flux, hopefully growing and deepening.

In some ways, this time at Sewanee has become a time of conversion for me. St. Benedict's second rule is conversatio morum, which is usually translated as conversion of life or conversion of manners. It refers to the constant conversion that must happen if one is to live faithfully as a disciple. I've heard a call to live that conversatio. In particular, I've heard a call to return to the image of listening for God with people.

"Where is God in that?" I find myself continually asking.

I have finished my first year at St. John's, my first year as a solo priest, my first year as a rector, my first year back in my home-town. As I reflect upon the joys and challenges of that year, I hear that same question coming back over and over again, "And where do you think God is in that?"

About halfway through my time at Sewanee, our noon Eucharist had finished and I wandered over to the small side chapel. Though I'd been in it before, I was surprised by how much smaller it seemed than when I was a student. There are only a handful of chairs lined up in single file along the walls on either side. At the back is a stand of votive candles. At the front is a small altar with a statue of Mary upon it. It's sort of the standard statue, Mary looking very Caucasian, very European, in pristine white and blue robes, standing upon a sphere with one of her feet standing on the back of a snake. Her hands are outstretched to those in the chapel.

It's sort of the statue of Mary you'd come to expect.

I took a seat, then knelt down, and began praying.

I've been surprised over this past year by the constant feeling that I'm always carrying so many things. No matter where I go, no matter the time of the day, there's always this sense of situations and people and struggles close at hand. I think I have pretty decent boundaries, keeping sacred space with my wife and home and not bringing work home as often as I could. But, still, I don't know if it's really possible to set down that bag of parish concerns. Indeed, some of those concerns are matters that I simply cannot set down.

I wonder sometimes if people know how much I agonize, truly agonize, over the decisions I make and the conversations I have. I take seriously St. Benedict's injunction that the leader of the community avoid "neglecting or treating lightly the welfare of those entrusted to him." Every single person matters deeply to me and there is rarely a way forward in any situation that won't leave a person or group feeling pushed to the side.

So I pray and talk and seek guidance. But in the end, no matter the decision, I still carry those parish concerns around, my mind always turning them over again and again, asking if there is a more faithful way.

The bag can get heavy.

I looked up from my prayer and saw the statue of Mary, arms outstretched, inviting. I swallowed, stood up, and walked toward the altar. Mary seemed to look down with eyes of deep sadness, her arms inviting... something. I believe mothers understand compassion in a very particular way. They know what it means to suffer with. I looked at the compassion in her eyes and felt the emotion well up within me.

It seemed as though her outstretched hands were inviting me. At the time I couldn't figure out what she was inviting me to do... but now, a week and some change later, I think I know. The tradition of the church teaches us that Mary is constantly directing us to her son. Looking back, I can see that her hands were outstretched towards me and towards the altar below. That heavy bag I've been carrying is not mine to carry. It's not mine to carry alone.

And so as I celebrated Eucharist on Wednesday, the comfortable words following the absolution brought profound clarity to my sense of ministry, "Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you."

How long has Jesus been saying that to me?

How carefully have I been listening?