Thursday, December 20, 2012

On the Journey: A Funeral Homily

Below is the homily I preached for the funeral of my grandmother. She passed away last week and her funeral was yesterday. Though we knew her passing was coming, the grief is still profound. I miss her very much... and look forward to seeing her again on the other side of God's redeeming love.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Iola Donna Vee Cramer, 80 years old, of Harrison, passed away on Thursday, December 13, 2012 in Clare, MI. Iola was born on April 4, 1932 to Peggy Hayne and Devere Hill. She was married to Harold Cramer on October 16, 1948 in Saint John’s, MI. Harold and Iola resided in Harrison since 1979. Iola enjoyed cooking—particularly pies—and traveling with her husband. They both enjoyed garage sales—though Harold was probably a bit more of the softie when it came to buying things than Iola was. Harold and Iola traveled all over the United States in their motor home and loved spending the winters in Zephyr Hills, FL. They had friends all over.

Surviving are her two sons, Jerry and his wife Valerie Cramer of Grand Rapids, MI, and William and his wife Rumiko Cramer of Clovis, NM. Three daughters, Sally Arnett and husband Augie of Ovid, MI; Linda Boisclair; and Patsy Howard and husband Philip of Monteray, TN. Numerous grandchildren, great-grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Iola was preceded in death by her parents, her brother, Devere Hill, and her daughter, Peggy Cramer.

My name is Jared Cramer. I am one of Iola’s several grandchildren and I am honored to be ask to lead this funeral service and to give this funeral sermon.

It’s strange. When my father, Jerry, called me and told me that Grandma has passed away, a flood of several emotions went through my soul. I was almost immediately reminded of that rainy day in Tennessee four years ago when he called me to tell me that Iola’s husband, my Grandpa, had died. I remember that day sinking down onto the steps of the seminary I was studying at, tears flooding down my cheeks as the grief nearly overwhelmed me.

I felt strong emotions as well learning of Grandma’s death, emotions of grief and pain and sorrow, but other emotions as well, emotions that were difficult to untangle and understand. When talking about it with my wife, Bethany, I said how I think my own grieving for Grandma really began in earnest the last time I visited her in Clare, MI. Grandma was happy, not wearing her glasses but apparently watching TV nonetheless. I remember she was watching an Earnest movie. She seemed really happy to see me… but it wasn’t because she recognized me. Her mind had been slipping for years and when I visited her last I was just a nice young man who had come to say hello. I’m sure that within her there was some twinge of memory, some sense that she knew who I was, but it wasn’t visible. As Bethany and I drove away, the tears rolled down my cheeks as I knew the person who was my grandmother was slipping away.

Several of Grandma’s family have expressed that though this moment is hard—because it is always hard to say goodbye to someone you love—they also have a deep sense of joy. There is joy in this day, knowing that as Grandma journeyed from this mortal life she has journeyed to her beloved husband, Harold, and her daughter, Peggy. The loss of Peggy on the cusp of adulthood was a grief that neither Grandpa or Grandma ever recovered from. It’s been years since Grandpa has had a good pie—I’m confident that in whatever follows this life, no one can make pies like Grandma’s—and I’m sure he’ll be thrilled to see her.

Scripture has all sorts of various images and stories about what happens after we die, all sorts of ways of understanding what our existence looks like. Sometimes we read of Paradise, other times of Abraham’s Bosom, of Sheol, or of the New Jeruaslem, or Heaven. And theologians and Christians have gone back and forth for centuries trying to figure out what we believe happens after we die. Do we go immediately to heaven? Do we sleep until the last judgment? What’s the calendar? What’s the schedule?

Grandma and Grandpa, as far as I knew, were never ones for calendars or schedules. You and I live our lives scheduled down to the last minute of every hour, we know where we need to be and when we need to be there. And perhaps when they were younger, when Grandpa was still working at General Motors and they had kids in school, perhaps their lives were more scheduled then… but in the years I knew them that was never the case. There was always enough time for Grandma and Grandpa, enough time to sit around with family, to drink coffee—cold coffee even—all day and night long. There was always enough time to sit around a fire, to sit next to the person you love, to try to make something beautiful out of a piece of wood or a two-liter bottle. There was no rush—there was simply great joy.

In the first Scripture reading for this funeral liturgy, we hear in the Wisdom of Solomon, “But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God, and no torment will ever touch them. In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster, and their going from us to be their destruction; but they are at peace.” I’ve always found immense beauty in the poetry of this text, “In the eyes of the foolish they seem to have died, and their departure was thought to be a disaster.” And though it’s unlikely that many of us think Iola’s going from us was a disaster, though we rejoice that she has now moved closer to her beloved Harold and her much missed Peggy, though we rejoice in that… it would simply be untruthful to say that there is no disaster in this.

Because I know there is disaster and destruction in my heart. I’m grateful my wife got a small chance to know Grandma, even to get a handwritten recipe from her for a casserole. And I did begin my grieving when she didn’t recognize me the last time I saw her, but there is still disaster in my heart and in my soul because with her gone the world has irrevocably changed. There is that much less joy, that much less light, that much less pie, that much less beauty.

And I suppose that’s one of the reasons I truly hang onto these words from the Wisdom of Solomon. Because given all of our doubts and fears about what happens on the other side of death, the promise of that first verse is profound: “The souls of the righteous are in the hand of God and no torment will ever touch them.” Grandma has journeyed on and we, her family and friends, have gathered to wish her well. That’s really what a funeral is, after all, it is a time when family and friends gather to pray for someone who has died, to wish them well on their journey.

Grandma always did love to travel, and now we gather almost like we used to at their motorhome, with Grandpa in the driver’s seat as they carefully back out the driveway (sometimes to the terror of those watching). We gather here to say goodbye, to wave, to pray, to wish her well, and to whisper to one another that it’s OK, that her soul is held in the hand of God himself and the torments of old age, the torments of grief as she missed Peggy and Harold, the torments of the slow slipping of a mind, all of those torments have gone. These torments shall never touch her again.

And I think this is where my confused emotions upon news of Grandma’s death come into play. Because in some ways I feel like a small child again. I want to climb into that motorhome. I want to be with her. I want to be with my Grandpa. I want to be with all of those I love who have been taken from me through the ravages of death, all of those who come to mind anytime you and I gather in a room like this one. I want to knock on that somewhat tinny door of the motorhome and say, “Please, Grandma, can I come, too?”

I feel like the disciples did in our Gospel reading for today. Jesus is telling them that he is leaving and that they’ll be coming along behind him. I feel like doubting Thomas who asked, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

Do you remember what Jesus’ response to that question was? Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” In effect, Jesus tells the disciples that the path to the Father, the path to him, is not one that will be marked by rigid points of theology or doctrine. Theology is important. Doctrine is important. But the way itself is not in a book or in an essay. The way is Christ himself. The way is a person, a person who lived a life of deep love.

And so, as badly as I want to follow along the path Grandpa and Grandma have traveled, as much as my heart feels the destruction of their departure, the blessed truth of the Gospel is that we do know the way along that path. We know the way along the path they are traveling. It is a way that Grandma certainly modeled. She lived a life of kindness and love, a life of generosity and grace. She knew that following Jesus had a whole lot more to do with the way you treated people than it did with knowing the right answers to a few questions. The way is there, the journey into God is laid out for you and for me. As we seek to live lives inspired by Iola Cramer, inspired by all those we love who have gone before, lives of generosity and hospitality, lives of love and kindness, as we do that we discover that we are indeed on this journey with them. We have not been left alone.

And we trust, we trust that as we commend Iola to Almighty God, that we do not say goodbye. Remember the words from Wisdom, it is in the eyes of the foolish that this Christian appears to have died. She has not died. In the words of the Book of Wisdom, “Her hope is full of immortality… because God tested her and found her worthy of himself.”

May God, through the mercy and grace of Jesus Christ, find us likewise worthy of himself. And may God give us the strength and faith to see through our grief to the blessed hope that at the end of this broken and hurting creation, there will come a time when God’s love will conquer all and every living thing will be drawn to God through the mercy of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Women Bishops: Can the Church Yet Find Her Voice?

I have found myself a bit unsettled in the aftermath of the Church of England's General Synod vote on women bishops. In case you don't follow Anglican news as closely as some, let me bring you up to speed. If you already have followed this debate, you can ignore the next three paragraphs...

The Church of England has ordained women as priests since 1994 (having approved their ordination in 1992). In contrast, the Episcopal Church first ordained women as priests "irregularly" in 1974, regularizing them in 1976. Our first female bishop, the Rt. Rev. Barbara Harris, was ordained in 1989. Since the ordination of women as priests in the Church of England, there have naturally been calls for them to be ordained as bishops as well. In 2005, 2006, and 2007, the General Synod of the Church of England voted to remove legal obstacles to the ordination of women as bishops. Since then, the work has been to find a way to move forward with their ordination while still providing some sort of pastoral response to clergy and laity who don't approve of the ordination of women as bishops. Several proposals have been attempted, but there has yet to be a successful vote enacting one.

The most recent draft measure has been approved by 42 out of 44 diocese in the Church of England. It has the clear support of a majority of the members of the church. However, in the midst of the process, the House of Bishops introduced an amendment that offered some further concessions to conservatives in the church. Due to worries that this amendment would hurt its ability to pass, the General Synod in York postponed decision to a later Synod. That Synod, which met earlier this month, voted the measure down. It passed with an over two-thirds majority in the Houses of Bishops and Clergy, but it failed the required two-thirds majority by six votes in the House of Laity.

The failure of the measure has produced a mammoth of opinion articles and essays. Some have suggested that Parliament should step into this established church with its own solution to the problem. Others are hoping that another way can be found forward for this to be considered soon, rather than having to wait until 2015 to consider the question again. And, of course, there have been a myriad of voices decrying this failure of movement as symptomatic of the larger failures of the Church of England.

Alright, now that we're all on the same page, let me share why I am a bit unsettled. Many of the opinions expressed in the aftermath of the vote have declared that the Church of England needs to "get with the times." They've insisted that society has moved on with gender equality and so the church must as well, so that it is reflective of society. They've suggested that the Church of England is hopeless backward, lost in the dark ages, and that the movement to the ordination of women as bishops is a part of its need to modernize.

And I find all of that tremendously disappointing. I find it disappointing because it is yet another example of Anglican Christianity being handed and opportunity to speak deep and profound theological truth and instead choosing to use the language and ideals of our broader society.

Let me be frank. Women should be ordained as bishops. Absolutely and positively this should happen. However, it should not happen because the church needs to "modernize" or "get with the times" or move on with the rest of society. None of these are sufficient reasons to change such a core question of theology and ecclesiology and the fact that this is all most people seem to muster when arguing for the ordination of women to the episcopate is a tragedy.

Rather, women should be ordained bishops for solid theological reasons. All humans are created in the image of God, gender complementarity is a dead-end that is only ever read into Scripture. Sections of the Bible that talk about a woman and man becoming one flesh are beautiful images of the coming together of two human beings. However, the gender complementarity some see in those texts also assumed, in ancient times, that women were of lesser value than men. To be blunt, women were "receptacles" into which the man would put the whole of human life, which was contained in his seed.

We don't buy any of that as being true. We have indeed moved on from such ancient perspectives upon which was built generations of misogyny and even violence against women.

However, the call to ordain women as bishops involves more than recognizing our modern understandings of biology and psychology. The call to ordain women as bishops comes from the theological ideals that have followed the development of our psychological and biological understanding.

Women should be ordained as bishops because they are every much in the image of God as men are. Women should be ordained as bishops because it is abundantly clear that they have clear charisms to this ministry, clear gifts of the Holy Spirit present in their lives and ministry, gifts that are particularly suited for episcopal ministry. Women should be ordained as bishops because they can serve as an image of the priestly Christ just as much as a man can—indeed, they can sometimes even provide that image more faithfully than men.

It is my deep and profound wish that more people would follow the leads of such leading theologians as Sarah Coakley who has done what every other church leader should be doing—providing cogent and compelling theological reasons for the ordination of women to the episcopate. The sociological reasons, the political reasons, even the social justice reasons all may be important, but on their own they are insufficient.

There are important and profound theological reasons for affirming our sisters in Christ and their calling by God to episcopal ministry. If the Church of England, if Anglicanism as a whole, truly wants to reclaim its voice in the world, it cannot do that by simply mimicking the arguments of the world. Instead, we must declare the bold theological truth that all people are created in the image of God and called by God to ministry. We must declare with conviction, based upon careful study of our Holy Scriptures and well-thought out theology, the call of the Gospel in our modern world.

We must, once again, find our voice.

Thursday, August 16, 2012


I remember sitting on my grandmother's lap, curled up, as she sang quietly to me, "You are my sunshine, my only sunshine, you make me happy when skies are grey. You'll never know, dear, how much I love you, please don't take my sunshine away."

There is something powerful, almost primal, in the practice of singing to a child, rocking them back and forth as they somehow find solace and peace in the lilt of a familiar song.

My grandmother singing voice is one of the most beautiful sounds in the world. You can feel the love that rests in each and every word. When I was a child, I remember my siblings and I trying to stump her on songs, believing that she seemed to have a song for almost everything.

I come to the garden alone, while the dew is still on the roses, and the voice I hear, falling on my ear, the Son of God discloses...

When I first started attending the Episcopal Church, I absolutely loved the hymns and anthems but found them rather difficult to sing. I was raised on Gospel hymns, a very different style of music than Ralph Vaughan Williams melodies and plainsong. Over these past several years though, I've developed a lot of love for the Anglican musical tradition. Old Gospel hymns still run through my head. Someday, when I have a child, I'll hold that child close and sing Gospel music to her or him. But I'll also sing other music, other songs I've learned.

The day thou gavest Lord is ended, the darkness falls at thy behest. To thee our morning hymns ascended, thy praise shall sanctify our rest...

This summer, our parish has been trying Morning Prayer with Communion one Sunday a month, experimenting with what it's like to pray Morning Prayer as a community. Since this has largely gone out of fashion these days, the difficulty is that we don't know the canticles anymore. We've been working at it though and each month when that first Sunday rolls around, I feel like the singing gets stronger.

Come let us sing to the Lord, let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation, let us come before his presence with thanksgiving, and raise a loud shout to him with psalms...

I went to visit my grandmother a few weeks ago. She's in assisted living now. She's having trouble remembering things and gets confused. I sat there on the small bed with her, my head nuzzled against her shoulder with my younger sister sitting on her other side doing the same. I didn't know what much to say, except over and over again, "I love you grandma, I love you grandma, I love you grandma."

Perhaps one of the reasons music affects us so is because it is such a relational thing. We hear songs sung to us by those we love. We sing them in response to our own children. I know when I sing the Venite (the one that begins, "Come let us sing to the Lord,"), to this day I think of sitting next to Robert Partin in the choir pews at Heavenly Rest in Abilene, TX. To this day it makes me smile.

I think probably the worst thing in the world is watching relationships slip away and change. I want everyone to be around forever. This has been, for me, one of the hardest parts of parish ministry, the realization that, in the end, I cannot force a relationship someone does not want with me. Even harder, as the years at my parish go by, is the knowledge that inevitably, year by year, funerals will become more and more difficult as I grow to love people more and more.

It hurts to feel a relationship slip away, whether through death, the slow fade of a mind, moving, anger, frustration, fear, or just the continuance of life. It hurts something awful.

I remember, when I was a child, sitting attentively on a church pew next to my grandmother at the M-21 Church of Christ. I remember the preacher telling us that heaven was going to be filled with singing, for all eternity we could just sing and sing and sing. I remember smiling at that as I held my grandmother's hand.

And someday, I hope with all my heart, on the other side of eternity, when all the anger and fear and loss of this world has been healed, when we are able to love one another fully for who we truly are—not who we want people to be, I hope that on that day, I'll be able to dip my toe into the glassy sea. And I hope that as I peer into that singing crowd I'll see some faces that have disappeared over time, faces that may even be surprised at seeing an tired fallible guy like me.

And I hope that we'll find each other in that crowd—no matter what happened in the ages in between this day and that. I hope we'll find each other.

And I hope we'll smile.

And I hope we'll sing.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my savior...

D.Min, Year Two: Percy Dearmer and the Teaching of Addai

Well, one more year of my Doctor of Ministry program is behind me. Last night I turned in my last paper for "Types of Anglican Theology." This puts me halfway through my coursework. I'm rather pleased with both final papers I wrote for this summer and hope they're worthwhile. The Dearmer paper, in particular, represents the beginning of my research on what will likely be my Doctor of Ministry project: a critical analysis of Percy Dearmer's work followed by a complete re-write of The Parson's Handbook for twenty-first century, post-Liturgical Movement, ecumenical, Anglican Christianity.

Sounds like fun, eh?

Aware that some strange souls out there might be interested in one or the other of these papers, I'm posting them both here for download.

Types of Anglican Theology, class taught by the Rev. Dr. Mark Chapman, Vice-Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, Oxford (and man with an excellent English professor beard, exactly what one might expect)
Prayer Book Catholic: The Work of Percy Dearmer in Context and Contemporary Liturgical Renewal

From the introduction...
Of all the figures of late nineteenth and early twentieth-century Anglicanism, perhaps the most ignored and misunderstood is Percy Dearmer. Over the course of several decades, he entered a time of confusion and upheaval and argued for a particular approach to Anglican worship founded upon sound principles. His influence is far greater than has often been acknowledged. His ideals shaped the way generations of clergy and lay people think about worship.
Furthermore, Dearmer’s approach to the church is one that still bears insights for today’s practice of Anglican Christianity. At times, when reading him describe the state of the church in his day one hears surprisingly similar echoes to struggles of our own times. A careful exploration of Dearmer’s context and approach should yield important insights for contemporary clergy and lay people who seek today to worship God in the beauty of holiness.

An Introduction to Ancient Eastern Christianity, class taught by Dr. Charles M. Stang, Associate Professor of Early Christian Thought at Harvard Divinity School in Harvard University (and prof that will absolutely rock J. Crew fancy shorts and shirts while teaching—otherwise known as the opposite of what one might expect)
The "Teaching of Addai" and a Fourth-Century Eastern Theology of Ministry

From the introduction...
Everyone loves a good apocryphal miracle story. Well, perhaps not everyone. But oftentimes apocryphal and pseudepigraphical literature from the first few centuries of the church is explored primarily for its fantastic accounts of miracles and legends relating to the supernatural power of Christ or the early apostles.
A case in point is the Teaching of Addai. The two most fantastic aspects of this story are the healing of King Abgar by Addai (as a result of the former’s written request to Christ himself) and a legend relating the discovery of the true cross by someone named Protonike. Most who study this text do so for the Abgar legend. Those who aren’t interested in that section explore this text for the Protonike legend.
I would argue that neither of these stories are central to the Teaching of Addai. Rather, this text is precisely what its title suggests, an account of the teaching of the apostle Addai. More specifically, it is an account of the shape and order of Christian ministry, as brought to Edessa by Addai and continued by Addai’s disciples. The author of the final version of the text we have today took a pre-existing Edessene legend in the Abgar narrative, combined it with a rewritten story of the discovery of the true cross, and then wove around them a theology of ministry that seeks to find its grounding in apostolic authority, catholicity, and a warm relationship with the state and empire. An exploration of the Teaching of Addai will display a robust theology of ministry that seeks to refute the competing visions of the day and to legitimate and secure Edessene Christianity (as described by the author) as the authentic expression of Christianity.

Monday, July 23, 2012

Thoughts on the Episcopal Church, in light of last Sunday's reading

This past Sunday, as I listened to our parish's excellent readers proclaim the first lesson from Second Samuel 7:1-14a, my mind started wandering around the words. My sermon for the day was on that text, which always changes how I hear it when it is proclaimed. 

As I listened, I was struck by God's words to David and how they seemed to relate to the Episcopal Church in this moment, particularly the work of the Acts 8 Moment. I began wondering what might happen if the story was retold for today... this is what I came up with.

There was a time, not too long ago, when the Episcopal Church was settled in her country and culture. She was the American church of privilege and prestige—or at least thought herself so. "Do you know how many Episcopalians have been president?" her members would say, as they sipped their coffee after services, confident that any visitor surely would want to join such an established church—albeit in a technically disestablished context.

The Episcopal Church believed she had been given rest from her enemies all around her, that she would be the vanguard of ecumenism and the dawning of a new age of Christianity. Indeed, we had much to hope for in those days, much we believed was secure and confident and given. Much that was ours.

We said to the prophet, "See, we are now living in a rich and strong church, but the word of God seems to be on the streets, among the poor and those arguing for causes like racial justice and gender equality. Come, let us build a civilized home for the word of God, let us give to social justice the mantle of our church."

The prophet said to the church, "Go, do all that you have in mind; for the Lord is with you."

The word of the Lord did not come to the prophet that night. The word of the Lord did not warn of the dangers inherent in this desire to build, to construct. The word of the Lord may have come to the prophet, but the prophet either did not hear or was not able to proclaim to the church that she had strangely enough begun to think she was the architect of her rest, of her success, of her peace.

But at a church gathering several decades later, with some aspects of the church crumbling, others crying for renewal, others vying for power, in the midst of this the voice of the Lord came to the prophet again.

This is what the prophet heard.

"Oh Episcopal Church, are you the one to build me a house to live in? Are you to restructure this building into something strong and secure, something that revisions the powers and assumptions of the twentieth-century in a twenty-first century context? Are you the one to build this.

"I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day. For generations and millenia I have been moving about in a tent and tabernacle, in a movement and a whisper, in a reformation and a retreat. Whenever I have moved about among all the people of God, did I speak a word with any of the leaders whom I commanded to shepherd by people, saying, 'Why have you not built me a strong church, one in which I can dwell and be proud?'

"Now, therefore, listen to me my servants: I am the Lord God, the Lord of the Angel Armies, I took you from a tradition began anew over issues of divorce and sex and politics. I took you from sordid fights and breathed my life-giving Spirit into you, that you might rediscover what it means to be my children.

"Lo, these almost five-hundred years I have led you, I have been with you wherever you went. You do not even realize the many times my hand stayed the work of your enemies before you. I made your name great, that this tradition might grow and become prosperous, that it might include millions of people and stand among my most ancient of churches.

"Listen to me, Episcopal Church. Let me wrap my arms around you and and cool your fevered brow. You are not the ones to fix this. You have lost your place but you have not lost me. I swear by my own name that I will appoint a place for my people, I will dig into the rich soil of the dirt of this world and plant you there, so that my people might live in their own place, so that they will not be disturbed anymore and so that evildoers shall afflict them no more.

"Oh Episcopal Church, you are so deeply beloved, but it is because I have made you from myself. Your structures are beautiful, your paraments declare my glory, your music sings the praise of my Triune Glory, a glory into which the angels long to look.

"You are so deeply beloved as a part of my people—but remember that you are not the entirety of my people. Yet even now, the Lord declares to you, that I am at work making you into a house. I am cutting your rough edges and smoothing your corners that you might be a part of a holy temple, a new house, into which all my people will stream and find rest. Your rest may disappear to build this house—but the rest you will create for my people will be better.

"And some day, when your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your ancestors, when your conventions disband and the leaders of today sleep in the dust, I will raise up your offspring after you, who shall come forth from your body. They will suffer pain as you have, but they will also be saved by it. Through them I will continue to establish my reign, my dominion. And your offspring shall continue the work you have done, building a house for my name, teaching all the children of the earth forever that I am your father and your mother, your source, your beginning, your end. And that you—even you, O Little Faith—you are indeed my children."

O God of unchangeable power and eternal light: Look favorably on your whole Church, that wonderful and sacred mystery; by the effectual working of your providence, carry out in tranquillity the plan of salvation; let the whole world see and know that things which were cast down are being raised up, and things which had grown old are being made new, and that all things are being brought to their perfection by him through whom all things were made, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord; who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. ~ BCP 280

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

One Millennial Perspective on Restructuring

One of the tricky things, I've discovered, in being a younger priest is the assumptions that go along with it. It never ceases to amaze me how, in so many aspects of the life of the church, people assume all sorts of things that "my generation" wants when it comes to Christianity—things that often have little to do with my own interests and desires or with those of my friends.

A few days ago, one of my friends on Facebook posted an observation about the ongoing General Convention budget debacle. In case you haven't been watching this closely, the budget submitted by Executive Council is largely a train wreck. (For a particularly good take on this, I commend anything written by Tom Ferguson—otherwise known by his blog "Crusty Old Dean"—particularly this post.)

Then, just days before General Convention begins, our Presiding Bishop released her own budget. (Once again, Tom's take on this is also pretty good.) I agree with Tom that Bishop Katharine's budget is light-years better than the Executive Council budget. It restores funding to important areas and it creates grant work to fund church-planting and other mission imperatives. Indeed, the whole budget is organized around the Anglican five marks of mission. It still cuts the staff at the church-wide office, but it does so in consultation with the current staff and in a much more thoughtful approach than how those cuts have happened in recent years.

Most importantly, to me, it seems to get rid of the rather obvious (and embarrassing) contest between the PB and the President of the House of Deputies. The Executive Council budget had increased staffing for both offices. Bishop Katharine's office still gives one more staff person to the President of the House of Deputies.

Of course, there has been some complaints raised about the process that led to Bishop Katharine submitting her own budget. This returns me to where I started—the observation my friend posted on Facebook. She said,
It seems to me that people over 40 are concerned about the process that led to the submission of this budget and that people under 40 are concerned with the actual merits of the budget itself.
This rings true for me. And I think it raises a larger point about structure and restructuring in the Episcopal Church today.

I get the sense that much of the restructuring debate is happening within the terms of the Boomers currently leading this church. When I hear them talk about cutting a bloated bureaucracy and expressing concern about the Presiding Bishop's exercise of her office, I think it's coming from a very distinct perspective. What I hear in that, to be honest, are the vestiges of the anti-institutional, down with the man, question the powers, Boomer mentality.

And it makes absolutely no sense to me.

I know I don't speak for all Millennials, for every person in the church who is from my generation. But I want to try here to speak authentically for myself at least.

If our church is truly going to move into the twenty-first century, we will have to move the conversation beyond the late twentieth century concerns with powers and institutions. I have no problem with institutions, with authority, and with people exercising the authority they have been given.

Our canons do set up a system of shared governance, but one in which orders to play a particular role. The Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies are not co-primates. The Presiding Bishop's role in the canons is significantly larger than that of the President of the House of Deputies—and I'm OK with that.

A significant part of the Executive Council's budget was the cutting of program based upon something they called the "subsidiarity principle." That is, basically, we'll cut something the church-wide office at 815 used to do and trust that it happens better locally and in dioceses. To me, this principle comes from the Boomer anti-institutional bias.

There are things that happen better at the national level. The subsidiarity principle will result, I fear, in gross inequity between richer dioceses and poorer dioceses. If youth ministry or ordination exams are done solely at the diocesan level they are going to vary dramatically—and I don't think they will vary fairly.

To me, if there is a bloated bureaucracy in the church right now it is General Convention and its attendant CCABs. That is a place I think we can slim and shrink so as to be better poised for mission and ministry. I affirm the idea behind resolution B015, seeking to create a unicameral General Convention (instead of our bicameral model). I do think it should be amended so that a vote by orders would be three-fold (laity, clergy, and bishops) rather than two-fold (laity/clergy together and bishops together)—that way the laity always have their own voice and nothing can be passed without their consent.

To me, our bishops sitting in one house with their diocesan deputation, with one or two lay people, one or two clergy (instead of the current four and four deputation) makes much more sense. And, it emphasizes the shared nature of ministry much more than the competition often engendered by our current bicameral model.

I would rather cut General Convention, get rid of the multiplicity of CCABs, and then have a well-funded and staffed church-wide office, one that can create resources and programs that we can draw on from across the church, one that can ensure there is a level of commonality regardless of diocesan resources. I am comfortable with the Presiding Bishop leading our church as she has been—and leading our church on a strong national level. I simply do not buy the questioning of authority and institution that seems rampant among my older colleagues.

General Convention has begun meeting in Indianapolis. Their website is up and running and has several real-time resources. I hope that as they begin considering restructuring, as they engage in questions surrounding our national finances and budget and program, I hope that they will not simply follow what often feels to me like the knee-jerk reactions of one particular demographic voice within our church—boomer or millennial or other.

Instead, I hope that the various generations of our church will speak up and will listen to each other. The church of the twenty-first century is coming together, it's the church in which I will exercise my own priestly ministry for the rest of my life. It needs to be structured for mission and ministry—not dismantled by any one generation's biases.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Scripture, sexuality and the Church’s call to faithfulness and reform

My June 24, 2013, column for the Grand Haven Tribune, Scripture, sexuality, and the Church's Call to Faithfulness and Reform,
We are blessed to live in a community where cordial and respectful conversation on this sensitive question can be engaged charitably. Since a portion of his column was directed to me, I would like to respond as briefly as I can.

It is indeed true that Paget and I come from traditions that have historically viewed Scripture differently — but we both would affirm its primacy. At my ordination vows as a priest, I declared that I believed the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God, and to contain all things necessary to salvation. At the same time, in our Anglican understanding, we recognize that Scripture is always viewed through an interpretive lens, including the tradition of the Church and our own God-given reason.
 Read more at the Tribune's website here.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Contraception debate not what it seems

My June 3, 2012, column for the Grand Haven Tribune, Contraception debate not what it seems,
We live in a country for which one of the defining values is the freedom of religion. It is enshrined in our national ethos and also in the First Amendment to our Constitution, “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.” However, precisely what this value implies has recently become a matter of no small debate. 
Many leaders in the Catholic Church have been fighting the Obama administration for several months now over one particular part of health care legislation—the requirement that insurers cover contraceptive care. They see this requirement as an attack on their freedom to practice their religion and they are using this perceived attack to launch a significant campaign in the name of religious freedom. They are doing this despite the fact that houses of worship are already exempt from this requirement and despite the fact that insurers of other religious institutions are required to provide contraceptive coverage at no charge to religious institutions that might object.  
Now, I have much love and affection for my Catholic brothers and sisters. I count several Catholic priests among my friends and I serve the Episcopal Church as an appointed representative in ecumenical dialogue on the national level with representatives from the United States’ Conference of Catholic Bishops. That said, I do not believe that the voice we are currently hearing from some leaders in the Catholic Church is representative of the best of Catholicism as it exists in America today. Instead, as a Christian priest in another denomination, I feel compelled to speak out regarding these claims of religious freedom being violated. 
If the health-care legislation required that people use contraceptive coverage, then their anger would be legitimate. However, it does not. It simply requires insurance companies and providers to cover the cost of a procedure that is a recognized part of medical care by twenty-first century America. Many leaders of the Catholic Church (though not all) agree with that Church’s official policy that the use of contraception is morally wrong, but this legislation does not compel its use. As the debate has progressed I have become increasingly concerned. After all, for our government to allow any religious institution to force coverage or non-coverage of a medical procedure is to enter dangerous ground.  
As many have noted, this campaign entirely ignores the fact that many women choose contraception for reasons that have little to do with procreation and everything to do with valid medical problems. It’s unconscionable that this distinction is not made alongside of the fact that there is not a similar campaign ensuring the drugs like Viagra are not covered—as though the majority use of Viagra was for the purposes of conception.  
Instead, the goal of this campaign is to use money to coerce individuals into one group’s view of ethical behavior. Whether or not one believes the use of contraception is an appropriate decision for a Christian to make, the decision of an individual should be based upon their own free exercise of religion, not upon enforced economic hardships by denial of coverage. Trying to find ways so that employees of Catholic institutions cannot use health-care to provide for contraception is the opposite of free-exercise of religion. It is about trying to keep something as expensive as possible so that people make the decision that the leaders think they should make. 
The first amendment protects the free exercise of religion for the individual. It does not protect institutions that seek to use that clause to abridge the rights and liberties of its members. It certainly does not mean that the government should support that task. I make this point because of the lessons my own Anglican tradition has learned from history. Though our church has long supported the right of people to use contraception, we have in the past been more than willing to use the power of the State to enforce our own particular views. Indeed, the first pilgrims came here because my own spiritual forebears in the Church of England used law to enforce their religious beliefs. Anglicanism as it has grown up in America and as it exists in the Episcopal Church today has since then always been wary of government enforcement of religious practice. 
The position of these leaders will only ensure that the rich in their Church continue to ignore Church teaching on the matter (as they have for decades) while the poor and the middle-class will be further coerced into doing what the hierarchy believes they should do or pay a financial price. If the Catholic Church wants people to refrain from using contraception, then teach and form believers who agree with Church teaching. This is the harder road, but it is the road with integrity; it is the road wherein people practice their religion with freedom and sincerity. 
Read more at the Tribune's website online here.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

A Slight Rant on Current Arguments for CROB

I write this with the hope that my passionate rant here might demonstrate how deeply I believe this touches our life as Christians. Also, "CROB" is my own acronym for "Communion Regardless of Baptism." I like it because not only is it slightly more accurate that "Communion without Baptism" (CWOB), but "CROB" just sounds like a bad idea, no matter what it stands for. :-)

The Episcopal Digital Network (formerly the Episcopal News Service) has posted an article online about the ongoing conversations surrounding the ongoing effort by some to implement a policy of Communion regardless of Baptism. This is the subject of at least one (and apparently likely more than one) resolution going forward to General Convention this summer, the highest authority in the Episcopal Church.

I know that I generally try to keep this blog reflective and low-key... but this debate brings up some very strong feelings in me. I think it runs right to the heart of the Christian message and so, if you'll forgive a slightly stronger tone, I have some things I want to say.

Before we get into that, we all need to be on the same page about some important realities. I want to be very careful to stress that the canons are very clear that baptism is required before reception of Holy Communion. I want to insist that this is partly due to our church's renewed emphasis on the centrality of Baptism to the Christian life and that our church's practice is already radically open compared to some other traditions. Though some call this practice "Open Communion," historically Open Communion has referred to the practice of communing those baptized in other traditions. This is a bold stance our church already takes, one that is rooted in our ecumenical relationships.

But there is more that I want to say than just that.

What  I want to highlight is that this article displays that we are basically having two entirely different conversations in this church right now about this question, how there exists at least two fundamental different approaches to the Christian life. Over and over again in arguments for Communion regardless of Baptism, the advocates of this position present a false choice to their audience.

No one is saying unbaptized people cannot join in our prayers (as was the practice of the early church during the Eucharistic prayer). No one is saying they cannot come forward and receive a blessing. No one is saying we don't invite them to coffee hour or to be a part of our shared life in all the myriad of ways Christian ministry exists outside of reception of the sacrament. No one is saying any of those things. Instead, what we are talking about is what properly precedes reception of the sacrament.

Throughout this article there are numerous misconceptions, false choices, and cases of rather tendentious language. Let me touch on just a few:

First off, I know that in the Episcopal Church people like to think of themselves as bold and prophetic, but it appears that our conception of a prophetic stance has now grown so broad as to allow anyone to ignore any of the rules of our church simply because they do not like them. This is not good and it is not healthy. Christian community means submission to the community. When the community is doing harm to one of its members, then civil disobedience might be merited, but those cases should be relatively rare.  

When clergy violate the canons and offer communion to the unbaptized, they exercise a dangerous form of clericalism in which they put their own personal views above the expressed views of all orders of the church—including the baptized—as articulated in General Convention. It is assuming they know better than the mind of the church, that their opinion on this question is more important than the voice of all the baptized in the Episcopal Church. Canons matter—and rubrics of the BCP matter—because they ensure all orders of the ministry have a proper and appropriate voice in our common life.

Mother Anna Carmichael is one of the key priests interviewed for this story. One of the most frustrating quotes was this,
“For many of the folks out here in the diocese we have already started living into the practice, which I know gets us in a sticky situation but it’s reality,” she said, adding, “we don’t check ID at the door” and strangers who come up to receive communion are not asked if they have been baptized.
Yes, because of course that's what those of us who follow the canons do. We check baptism IDs at the door. If we don't know someone at the rail, we ask them if they have been baptized. (Are you catching the hint of sarcasm here?)

Mother Carmichael is presenting a straw man, easily knocked down. No one is suggesting people start doing this. No one is suggesting that following the canon requires Baptism IDs or odd conversations at the altar rail. We all agree those are not things we want to do and I have yet to hear someone argue they are required for one to follow the canons.

But it is one thing to interrupt the distribution at the rail to ask someone you don't know if they have been baptized. It's another thing entirely to stand up and tell unbaptized people they are welcome to receive. It's the latter which is a problem—the intentional invitation regardless of what the mind of the church has expressed in our canons.

Another interviewee, General Convention Deputy Joe Ferrell, worries,
“Now [Holy Eucharist is] commonplace and, particularly at weddings and funerals, you’ve got severe pastoral problems if you attempt to restrict who is going to be welcome at the altar,” he said. “And you have it to some extent on Sunday mornings.”
Once again, compared to many denominations, our Church's approach is already one of the most welcoming out there. A false choice is once again put forward in this quote. Contrary to what Mr. Ferrell says, no one is attempting "to restrict who is going to be welcome at the altar." Everyone is welcome at the altar, what is offered at the altar simply varies according to who they are. And our church's approach can be articulated in a very warm and welcoming way.

The offering of a blessing to the unbaptized can be a profound act of hospitality, particularly if done with intentionality. In my own parish, we word our invitation very carefully to make the Church's broad welcome clear,
Everyone is welcome to come to the altar rail during Holy Communion. If you are not baptized, simply cross your arms over your chest to receive a blessing. If you are baptized, extend your hands for the bread and use a hand to guide the chalice to your lips for the wine. Or, if you prefer, you can intinct (dip) the bread into the wine. If you require a gluten-free wafer, please clasp your hands to indicate such to the minister.
I'm sorry, but I think that is a profoundly welcoming approach to take to this question. I have had many visitors tell me how much it meant to be invited to come forward and receive as baptized persons, even though they are members of another denomination. I have done several weddings in which large portions of the congregation requested blessings—and where they found that to be a gracious act of hospitality and welcome.

The author of the article, Mother Mary Frances Schjonberg, in an interview with Mr. Ferrell apparently "reminded [the interview person] that the Book of Common Prayer is silent on the issue." Though the prayer book might not specifically say that no unbaptized person is welcome to receive communion, it is also clear that the prayer book has some very specific points to make about what should precede reception of the Sacrament.

The Exhortation on pages 316-317 of the Book of Common Prayer lays out several of these expectations. It is also, to me, remarkably clear that this Exhortation assumes it is talking to and assuming baptized members are preparing for reception of the Sacrament.

The Exhortation articulates the unitive effect of Holy Eucharist, a unitive effect that is predicated upon baptism. It reminds us that we should prepare carefully before presenting ourselves for reception—it most certainly does not say that we should just come no matter what. It invites people to make confession, if they might require it, something that is part of our shared life in the Christian community. Heck, it even talks about how Christ has "washed us in his own blood," a rather obvious connection to the washing of Holy Baptism, as well has how Christ has made us a kingdom of priests, something we are by virtue of our baptism.

The framers of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer had no idea that the relatively recent and bold change of allowing baptized people to receive Communion regardless of age, denomination, or confirmation status, they had no idea that this bold idea would so quickly be seen as tame and restricting.

Indeed, one of the truly worthwhile sections of the article is when Mother Schjonberg traces the history of the current supposedly restrictive canon which specifies that no unbaptized person may receive Communion. There she notes that this canon actually arose out of the controversial product of ecumenical work resulting in the idea that baptism alone was required for reception of communion. The current canon was, in itself, a bold stance.

No age. No confirmation. No being a part of this church or that church. None of that is required to receive Communion. Instead:

Water + the Holy Trinity = a baptized person who is welcome at Christ's table.

This was a radical idea for some. It still is a radical idea for parents who are unsure about their baptized infants receiving Communion. I don't think we have yet fully unpacked it in our shared life.

Mother Carmichael also trots out one of the most unhelpful and disingenuous arguments for Communion regardless of Baptism.
"This is our construction around this issue because Jesus never said you have to have baptism before you have dinner with me,” she said. “So, this is our mess that we’ve created and sometimes I wonder in the grand scheme of all things how much this really matters. When we get to heaven is Jesus going to be more excited that we invited people or is he going to be more excited that we said you can come, but you can’t?”
Yes, Jesus didn't require baptism before sharing a meal with people. But Communion is more than a meal. Eucharist takes a part of a normal meal—bread and wine—and through the power of the Spirit uses that to unite our own sacrifice of praise, our own self-offering of who we are, to the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Our union with Christ in baptism is re-experienced and brought present again in the Eucharistic prayer. Thereby, Christ becomes present in that bread and wine in a real way. This partly a shared meal but it is more than a shared meal. Every square is a rectangle, but not every rectangle is a square.

And, furthermore, can we please get rid of this idea— "Does this really matter at all because when we're in heaven, who cares?"

When we're in heaven, we we are finally in the full presence of the Holy Trinity, invited into the depths of divine love, I'm pretty sure all kinds of stuff won't "matter" to us anymore... but that doesn't mean these questions aren't important now, that they aren't important as we invite people into that journey.

You know what I think would excite Jesus? If our church stopped assuming that the Sunday service of Holy Eucharist was the only place for us to articulate Christian belief and practice. If we stopped thinking the ministry of the baptized meant dressing laity up and giving them quasi-sacerdotal functions. If we stopped thinking that truly including kids in our community was as simple as having them all "play priest" with the celebrant. If we stopped thinking being welcoming only involves a full-text bulletin—because then I am freed from the duty of noticing my neighbor, of sharing with and guiding them through our community's worship.

Who we are as Christians is about so much more than who gets to do what on Sunday when we celebrate Holy Eucharist. Who we are as Christian communities is so much larger than that, so much broader. The roles in which we function during Holy Eucharist are a symbol of our actual Christian ministry, the work we do out in the world proclaiming the love of God, standing up for the dignity of all people, and working to bring healing to a hurt and divided world.

You know what I think would excite Jesus? If our clergy and lay leaders stopped arguing amongst themselves regarding who can take Communion and instead made the truly bold act of inviting visitors into our homes for a real actual meal. You want Christian hospitality? Perhaps we should try practicing it in our homes rather than thinking we can tinker yet again with Sunday liturgy as a solution. Because no amount of tinkering with what we do on Sunday excuses the need for us to be truly welcoming people inviting all of God's children into lives of loving discipleship.

One final comment, and then I'll stop. Another interviewee, Wickenberg Ely, noted that
Many people who come to church are often “looking to be welcomed wherever they go and whatever they believe.” Yet, there are some churches that say “if you are to be a member of our community in Christ this entails discipline and commitment, so that belonging is not just by virtue of being a child of God, but it is by virtue of being willing to pledge yourself to this way of being of a child of God,” she said, adding that this is the stance of the Roman Catholic church.
I am absolutely fascinated in this person's argument saying  "If you are to be a member of our community in Christ this entails discipline and commitment, so that belonging is not just by virtue of being a child of God, but it is by virtue of being willing to pledge yourself to this way of being of a child of God." I am fascinated that this person is actually opposed to this view, is citing it as a bad example of what Christianity to be (and even slapping some ever-popular anti-Catholic prejudice to the view to ensure that we know it's all wrong).


We are, of course, always welcome as children of God alone. That alone lets us into the door, that alone enables us to embark of on this journey into the life of God. But I also think that being a member of the Christian community does entail discipline and commitment. It does mean being willing to pledge yourself to this way of being a child of God.

It's called the "Baptismal Covenant" and we pledge ourselves to it over and over again throughout the year, throughout our lives.

This comment by Ely reveals, I think, the true rationale under girding the movement for Communion regardless of Baptism. It is this false assumption that the way to invite people into Christian community is to welcome people "wherever they go and whatever they believe." It is this false assumption that the way our churches should be is completely open gatherings with absolutely no discipline, absolutely no commitment. And it is the false assumption that not only is this the shape of the Christian life, but that this is what people are looking for.

I have a hunch people are hungry for more. I have a hunch that Christian community involves real commitments to one another, real, actual discipline at times.

And I have a hunch, just a hunch, that when Jesus invites people to follow him, he might like it if they actually tried to walk in his path, rather than if they heard the call, smiled and proceeded to wander about on their own. I have a hunch Jesus is interested in disciples.

And who knows, in the end, God might decide to let everyone in regardless of anything at all. The love of God might be that big. It might be that powerful. I think that would be awesome.

But being a part of the Christian community should still entail commitment to something larger than a general sense of want. The call of Christ involves real actual commitment to people and to communities and the argument for Commmunion regardless of Baptism is a poor substitute for the real welcome, the real transformation, that the Christian life entails.

Oh, and since my blog is technically reflections on the church through the lens of Benedictine spirituality, I should also say that I think it's pretty safe to assume that Benedict would have found the arguments for Communion regardless of Baptism utterly unpersuasive and completely out of touch with the rich history of Christian spirituality and formation.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Beautiful Choices

This week I’m at the Lilly Endowment’s Transition into Ministry Conference. I used to go to this Conference when I was a Clergy Resident at Christ Church in Alexandria, VA. This year, I’ve been invited to return to serve as a small group leader. So I get to spend the majority of this week reflecting with young people just entering ministry about the shape of ministry in this day and age.

And what I’m particularly delighted about is the theme for this year’s conference… beauty.

At our opening plenary, the keynote speaker told the story of a women’s group in the church that wanted to raise money for the church in Haiti. They worked and worked and raised $1,000 to send to Haiti, to a women’s group in a church there. When the American group told the Haitian group that the money was ready and that it could be sent at any time, the Haitian ladies told the American group what they wanted to do with the money.

The Haitian women’s group wanted to use the money to take a flower arranging class so they could arrange flowers for their church’s altar. They wanted to use the money and make blue satin hats to match the blue robes that had been given to them awhile ago by another church.

And, apparently, it took a long time to convince the American women’s group that this was a good idea.

The American group wanted to do something “serious,” like dig a well. A flower-arranging task seemed… frivolous. And so they had to be convinced to still send the money.

We’re basing our conversations this morning around Psalm 27:4, “One thing I have asked of the Lord; one thing I seek; that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life; to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.”

The Haitian women wanted beauty, they wanted to create beauty in their worship. The American women didn’t think that was serious enough, they had to be convinced that these Haitian women knew what they really needed. And what the Haitian women believed they really needed was the ability to create beauty in their worship, to behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek God in the temple.

We live in such a binary world, a world that is always insisting that there are choices that must be made. We’re always being pushed to these false choices and one of the big ones is the false choice between “beauty” and the seemingly more serious need for “mission.”

What if the two are actually inter-related?

I remember when I was living in Tennessee. My wife and I were having dinner with Dan and Paul, a couple who had befriended us when we started attending the cathedral in Nashville. I was talking about a discussion we’d had in seminary about the possible decision to spend millions on a new building when there were hungry and poor people in need in a community. It seemed like an obvious answer to me—taking care of the poor came first. Who cares about a building?

Paul looked at me and said, “But Jared, if you take care of the poor today and don’t build the magnificent building, where will the poor tomorrow go to pray? Where will they go to experience the beauty of holiness that could have been found in that church?”

This is the thing about a false choice. It assumes that a need is singular and clear. The need is only feeding the hungry or caring for the poor… this misses the possibility that the poor may need an experience of God in a beautiful place.

The need is only to build a well… this misses the possibility that they might really need to learn how to arrange some magnificent flowers.

False choices are limiting, they only see part of the truth, part of the need, part of the way that God is breaking out, part of the way that God is working out redemption.

And so at my parish we do feed the hungry. We absolutely are committed to feeding the hungry. But we also gratefully accept a gift from a parishioner who wants to spend a significant amount of money to put in a prayer and meditation garden, complete with brick paths, gorgeous plants and flower, a statue of St. Francis in the middle… so that perhaps on your way to be fed, you might experience God in the garden as well as in the kitchen.

Beauty, I sometimes fear, does not have enough advocates in the church today.

Because in the end, after every belly is filled, after every oppressed person is set free, after creation is breathed into and restored and renewed and recreated, after all this glorious redemption is done… there is one more thing that I know I’ll want. There is one more thing that I seek.

To behold the fair beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

Blessed by Gay Christians

My May 6, 2012, column for the Grand Haven Tribune, Blessed by Gay Christians,
The campaign centers around a website that is being used to draw together resources in West Michigan for gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgendered and questioning (GLBTQ) persons. That website indicates that the campaign is “designed to make it clear that God does not exclude or withhold love because of who we are or how God made us. It is also an opportunity to foster healing, understanding, awareness, and an acceptance of everyone and everything God has created.”

My own part in the press conference was small. I said a few words about why this campaign is important to me as a Christian priest, but I was just one of several who spoke. If you happened to catch the story of the press conference on the evening news, the only thing you probably would have seen was me standing with other clergy in the background, nodding vigorously.
Read more at the Tribune's website online here.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

For Dr. Siburt

Today, as I was finishing up some things at the office before going home, I came across the news that a former professor of mine from Abilene Christian University is nearing the end of his life. Charles Siburt serves as Associate Dean for Ministry Programs and Services at the Graduate School of Theology at ACU. He's been battling cancer and now his family reports that his battle is reaching its conclusion.

I took his Introduction to Christian Ministry class in the fall of 2006, during my final year at ACU. I had moved into the Episcopal Church, was searching for an Episcopal seminary where I could do my Anglican Studies year, and was deep in the discernment process for the priesthood.

It was a time of real turmoil for me in many ways. The task of moving into another denomination is always difficult—being in seminary makes the difficulty particularly acute. Though Dr. Siburt was always supportive of my sense of calling, the same could not be said for all of my professors.

This Intro to Ministry class is, I think, a bit legendary. Dr. Siburt has worked with congregations throughout the Churches of Christ and has seen his fair share of struggle and conflict. The class is intended to be a guide for healthy and successful ministry and it was full of important truths and thought-provoking stories. My own highlighted notes include important words of wisdom to a young person training for ministry. Two particular points stand out to me on the first page of notes:
  • "The first few years in ministry are often lethal, deadly. You've learned some stuff and its all true. However, you don't know what you've got until you've put it into practice with a community."
  • "You will live and die on the sword of unspoken expectations. Survival depends on figuring out what the unspoken thing they really want is."
To be honest, though, my notes from his class are rather sparse. Other than the handful of words of wisdom and a tremendously thick binder of articles and resources he gave us, the rest of the class exists in my memory and in my soul. The heart of the class was the stories he told of his experience working with congregations around the country, helping them and their clergy reach places of greater health and more faithful ministry.

For my final paper for the class, I had to write a paper about "My Dream for Ministry." After I read about Dr. Siburt's return to Abilene and that he was beginning his final journey home, I opened up my notes from the class and came across it. I hadn't looked at it in quite a while, years probably.

I read through it, surprisingly enjoying the memories of that rather tumultuous fall. It felt strange, now on the other side. When I wrote the paper, I had only been in the Episcopal Church a couple of years. I reflected in the paper on how the discernment process might wind-up with a response that I was not called to the priesthood. In the paper I talked about how I would be OK with that because I trusted my community to help me hear the Spirit.

And now here I am. A priest in the church.

Tonight, about five and a half years later, I'm struck by how much of that paper still resonates with me. In particular, the section on "my ideal role" is fascinating. It describes, almost perfectly, my current position at St. John's. And all the hopes for that position... they are all still deep within my heart as I think of my current cure here in Grand Haven.

I want to work in a community where I can settle down with a wife and spend the vast majority of my life working alongside a community. I want to be visit them in the hospital, bringing them holy unction and Eucharist. I want to bless their marriages and weep with them if their marriages fall apart. I want to baptize their children and stand alongside of them when they bury their loved ones. I want to live the Christian life with a parish, finding ways to encourage them to see their own lives as the fourth order of ministry in the church. As our catechism says,
Q. Who are the ministers of the Church?
A. The ministers of the Church are lay persons, bishops, priests and deacons.

Q. What is the ministry of the laity?
A. The ministry of lay persons is to represent Christ and his Church; to bear witness to him wherever they may be; and, according to the gifts given them, to carry on Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world; and to take their place in the life, worship, and governance of the Church.
I want to urge the community on to consciousness of the social realities of our community and the world. I want to learn along with them how to reflect theologically upon our life. I want to find my voice with them to speak against the injustices of society. Even more than that, I want to find ways, along with the community, to concretely work to change those injustices, recognizing the dignity of every person created in the image of God.
In a time in my seminary career where some professors were becoming increasingly difficult to work with, unhappy with my decision to leave the Churches of Christ, Dr. Siburt let me write honestly about where I was and where I dreamed of being some-day. He encouraged me, having no difficulty seeing that Christian ministry is Christian ministry, regardless of the tradition. In his classes I as given a language and vision of healthy ministry, one that enabled me to talk with clarity about my call whether I was sitting in front of the diocesan Commission on Ministry or whether I was explaining it to a confused relative.

And through it all, Dr. Siburt never stopped smiling, never stopped loving me, never stopped encouraging me to step forward into the ministry God was calling me, to love the people of God with whom I'm called to live, to listen for the dancing voice of the Spirit always calling us forward.

Over these next few days or weeks, as he spends his final time with his family, I'm going to be praying for him. But a significant portion of the content of those prayers will be gratitude—gratitude for all the gifts his wisdom gave me and countless other ministers across the Christian Church.
Almighty God, look on this your servant, lying in great weakness, and comfort him with the promise of life everlasting, given in the resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

God the Father,
Have mercy on your servant.
God the Son,
Have mercy on your servant.
God the Holy Spirit,
Have mercy on your servant.
Holy Trinity, one God,
Have mercy on your servant.

From all evil, from all sin, from all tribulation,
Good Lord, deliver him.
By your holy Incarnation, by your Cross and Passion, by your precious Death and Burial,
Good Lord, deliver him.
By your glorious Resurrection and Ascension, and by the Coming of the Holy Spirit,
Good Lord, deliver him.

We sinners beseech you to hear us, Lord Christ: That it may please you to deliver the soul of your servant from the power of evil, and from eternal death,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.
That it may please you mercifully to pardon all his sins,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.
That it may please you to grant him a place of refreshment and everlasting blessedness,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.
That it may please you to give him joy and gladness in your kingdom, with your saints in light,
We beseech you to hear us, good Lord.

Jesus, Lamb of God:
Have mercy on him.
Jesus, bearer of our sins:
Have mercy on him.
Jesus, redeemer of the world:
Give him your peace.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.

Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy Name, thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us this day our daily bread. And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.

Let us pray.
Deliver your servant, Charles, O Sovereign Lord Christ, from all evil, and set him free from every bond; that he may rest with all your saints in the eternal habitations; where with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Christ will open the kingdom of heaven to all who believe in his Name, saying, Come, O blessed of my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you. Into paradise may the angels lead you. At your coming may the martyrs receive you, and bring you into the holy city Jerusalem.

Friday, January 20, 2012

From Out of Idleness

To insure the greatest efficiency if the dart
the harpooners of this world
must start to their feet from out of idleness,
and not from out of toil.
~Herman Melville
This quote from Melville is found on the first pages of Eugene Peterson's new book, The Pastor: A Memoir. It was given to me as a gift this past Christmas, a gift I was excited to receive. Ever since I began studying religion in college, ever since I began the intentional preparation for parish ministry, I've found clergy memoirs to be some of the most important reading I can do. They nourish my spirit and challenge my assumptions over and over again, enabling me to glimpse—just for a moment—what a life of ministry looks like from the other end.

Peterson's memoir is, as I expected, powerful and moving. It pushes me to reconsider my own perspectives and assumptions regarding priestly ministry. I'm reading it from Colorado, during a family vacation here. I think that is perhaps why that quote at the very beginning, that quote about idleness, has stood out to me so much. Though cross-country skiing, hiking, snow-shoeing, and all other outdoors activities are not idleness, strictly defined, this time is still an idleness of sorts.

I mean, heck, I have time to read a book.

The timing of this vacation was not ideal in terms of parochial life. Our Annual Parish Meeting is this coming Sunday, the day after I get back in town. I worked hard in the week before I left to be prepared, to write reports and ensure everything was lined up for a smooth parish meeting. But it's been hard this past week, as I've sought rest, relaxation, and re-creation with my family to remain in a place of idleness. The draw of work is always in the back of my mind. Though I turned on my e-mail vacation auto-responder, I've still been keeping my eye on e-mails as they come in. I've even, dare I confess, responded to a few.

It's hard to find a place of idleness.

One might think, given a cursory reading of Benedict's rule, that idleness is a bad thing. Indeed, chapter 48 of the Rule begins, "Idleness is the enemy of the soul." The chapter goes on to describe a schedule of daily manual labor that is an essential part of the Benedictine life. But it says more than that. In the midst of this section on work, Benedict says, "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."

The "sixth hour" or "sext" is the office said at noon. It is often followed or preceded by lunch. To wit, in this section, Benedict instructs that after lunch the monks are to take a nap.

Or if they don't want a nap, then to go ahead and read, just don't bother those who are taking a nap.

There is a type of idleness that is indeed an enemy to the soul, this is idleness that is often called "sloth." One of the seven deadly sins, sloth is dangerous to the soul because it creates acedia, or a lack of care for the world. Sloth is a lazy inactivity that both stems from not caring and that creates a level of detachment from the world around us.

But I don't think that this slothful idleness is what Melville was writing about. I don't think this slothful idleness is what Peterson was thinking of when he chose to place Melville's quote at the beginning of his book. I think the idleness of Melville and Peterson is the one Benedict places, ironically enough, smack dab in the middle of a section about work.

Because idleness is essential to faithful work.

Originally, when I was getting ready to take this vacation, I was thinking I wouldn't want to do this again. I was thinking I wouldn't again want to go on vacation and then arrive back in town the day before a significant moment in the life of the church. But I wonder if there might be wisdom in this. I wonder if, perhaps, there might be wisdom in starting to my feet this Sunday not out of work, but out of idleness.

It certainly makes me grateful to work in a diocese where our bishop insists upon a weekly time of idleness. In diocesan language, the priest is expected to maintain "a 48 hour period each week devoted solely to personal and family use." It's hard to do and like vacation I don't always do it perfectly.

But I'm getting better.

I'm getting better at holding on to times of idleness. I'm getting better at laying down my harpoon and resting against the side of the boat. I'm getting better at turning on some of my favorite music as I work through e-mails in the afternoon (probably the strangest spiritual discipline I've ever had suggested me by a spiritual director). It's not the afternoon nap of the monastery, but it is forcing my mind to take a step back, to relax...

And I find that the work that proceeds from idleness is less flurry of activity and more careful and intentional... less batting at the air and more a careful harpoon thrown at the anxiety which infects our world.

This Sunday is a big day in the life of our parish, any Annual Meeting in any parish is a significant moment. So I'm getting ready for it, my feet propped up in front of me, a fire in the fireplace, my wife leaning on the couch next to me slowly slipping into a nap, and the snow lazily falling down around us. This is a preparation for work that can only be accomplished through a sort of holy idleness.

And I think it's a small part of my very salvation.