Thursday, December 26, 2013

Scribere Orare Erat... Letting it Go

Three and a half years ago, as I was transitioning from my work at Christ Church in Alexandria and preparing to come to St. John's in Grand Haven to be their new rector, I took down my old blog. While on pilgrimage at the Isle of Iona, I slowly went through the whole thing, editing it into book form.

My old blog was an important part of my life for quite a while. For six years, those who followed that blog followed by journey from Bible major at a small college in Michigan, to seminary in Texas, to disillusionment with the Churches of Christ and discovery of the Episcopal Church, to Sewanee, and then to my first cure at Christ Church.

The community that read that blog supported me during that time in more ways than anyone will ever know. To this day, I count people I met through that blog as some of my closest friends.

I submitted the manuscript to a couple publishers but no one had much interest. I got some very kind letters back, particularly from Church Publishing, but blogs turned into books are a dime a dozen.

I thought that maybe I'd do some more editing and try submitting it again... but it languished for all these years I've been at St. John's.

So, I finally decided, to heck with it.

I had said in my final blog post on that old blog that if no publishers wanted it, I might wind up just making the book form of it available on Lulu.com for any who was interested in it. And I realize that a handful of people will probably read this post and roll their eyes slightly, thinking, "Why would I want a book of this blog?"

I wrestled with that question myself over these past three years or so, as the edited version of this has rested in my laptop...

Then, today, I decided that I was going to stop trying to answer that question. I was going to stop saying I would get around to going through and editing this book into something else. This represents only a snapshot of my life, of my journey, but it represents a journey that was profoundly difficult for me. Who knows if anyone will buy it. I don't think that's even the point.

So, I finalized the proof today and uploaded it to Lulu.com. If you would like to read it, you can get either a book version or an e-book version below.

As I did the final work on it to get it up today, I re-read some portions of it. I found typos, things I would say differently, but I left the majority of everything as it was edited during that pilgrimage. I didn't go through and try to perfect it. The flawed nature of it is important to maintain at this point, I think. I wrote the preface for it at the end of my pilgrimage on Iona... to change that or anything too significantly at this point would be to create something different.

And if there is one thing I learned during the six years that I wrote what turned into this book, it is this: to look as honestly as you can at yourself is an immensely important experience. Indeed, not only is the writing a form of prayer (as the title of the book indicates), but the trying to stand honestly before God... well, that's perhaps my favorite definition of prayer.

Paperback Version~ Scribere Orare Erat: To Write was to Pray
E-Book Version~ Scribere Orare Erat: To Write was to Pray

In 2004, a young Bible Major at a small evangelical liberal arts college in Michigan packed up all his belongings and moved to Texas. He thought he was going to pursue a Masters in Divinity degree and start a career as a minister in the conservative Churches of Christ (a cappella). However, during his sojourn in West Texas he became increasingly disillusioned in his church tradition and began searching for an expression of Christianity that was more ancient. In a stone church in Abilene, Texas, he discovered just that. Though it initially seemed like a 180 degree change from the tradition in which he was raised, he discovered within his new tradition the home he had always sought. Edited from his blog entries over the course of six years, this book tells the story of searching, finding, and unexpected return.

Monday, December 23, 2013

O Emmanuel... come

[This post is seventh in a series of Advent meditations, exploring the "O Antiphon" for each day as we walk the final steps toward the celebration of the incarnation on the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord.]

Come,
Emmanuel,
God's presence among us,
our King, our Judge:
save us, Lord our God!

Lonely Israel, grieving and mourning all alone in exile—this is one of the most important images in the Hebrew Bible. It is captured by the grief of Psalm 137, where the exiles cry out,
1 By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, *
    when we remembered you, O Zion.
2 As for our harps, we hung them up *
    on the trees in the midst of that land.
3 For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,
and our oppressors called for mirth: *
   "Sing us one of the songs of Zion."
4 How shall we sing the LORD'S song *
    upon an alien soil?
"O Emmanuel"
Sister Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ
When the people finally returned home, the land was not as they had remembered it. They had to undergo the hard work of rebuilding and they fell into fighting and arguing. They were conquered by empire after empire, over and over again, until those stories about the proud independent state of Israel seemed just an illusion, a bed-time story that couldn't be true any more.

How much they longed for Emmanuel to come, to set them free and give them all they hoped for in this life.

How hard it was to realize that when Emmanuel came, he had other plans.

We tend to think that Emmanuel "God with us" will actually mean, God just like us. However, when Emmanuel came, when God came to be with God's people, a very different freedom was offered than the one they wanted. The freedom Emmanuel offered was so radically different that many people turned it down, choosing instead to persist in an exile of their own creation.

Because so often the freedom you and I want is just enslavement to a different master, one that looks more appealing. Indeed, the freedom for which Emmanuel is coming to ransom us is enslavement to a different master—but it is to one who loves us.

Do you, exile of God, want to be a slave?

You will have to love boldly. You will have to put your own preferences below those of others. You will have to forgive without counting the costs. You will have to ask yourself every day whether what you possess is just—and what God is calling you to give away so that you can find a truer freedom than slavery to wealth.

You will have to die.

But when you are reborn, when the shackels of sin and selfishness fall of your limbs and the Spirit traces the cross on your soul, marking you as Christ's own for ever... you will be reborn as a slave to God, a servant of Christ, a servant of all.

This ransom for which you and I have longed, I have a feeling it is not the freedom we thought it would be. I have a feeling it will be tempting to sentimentalize it, cover it with garland and tinsel, and then put it in a box on December 26.

But look carefully, because God-with-us approaches...

And I wonder, beloved of God, do you have the courage to be a slave to this love?

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

Sunday, December 22, 2013

O King of Nations... come

[This post is sixth in a series of Advent meditations, exploring the "O Antiphon" for each day as we walk the final steps toward the celebration of the incarnation on the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord.]

Come,
King of all Nations,
source of your Church's unity and faith:
save all humankind, your own creation!

When you are a preacher, you trade in image and metaphor. People experience reality through images, so having the right image to portray the right theological point is essential. Perhaps one of the best I ever heard in a sermon was from a colleague of mine at my former parish, Father Daniel Lennox.

"O Ruler"
Sister Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ
He talked about an experience he had as a Canadian playing hockey, a story I don't remember all of but I do remember ended with him in a hockey fight on the ice with the opposing team's mascot. He talked about how one of the things we do to people is that we turn them into caricatures, into mascots of other things, and how this enables us to attack them, to pummel them into the ice and not feel guilty because we have long since stopped to see their humanity.

That image has stuck with me because it resonates with my own sense of the way we create divisions among ourselves in humanity. Difference is not bad, having different groups that explore and experience reality differently is not a bad thing. By engaging with those different than us, those with different views, ideals, and outlooks, we can see how the truth is much bigger than us, than our own extremely limited perspective.

Division, however, is when we turn people or groups into caricatures of themselves, into mascots of some evil we abhor so that we can pummel them into the ice without needing to feel the slightest bit of guilt.

This is not of God.

The incarnation of God demonstrates once and for all that God is the God of all people. Everyone from poor shepherds, to weirdo astrologers from the east, to a couple old people that hang out at the temple all the time, to a young pregnant teenage mother and her husband... these are the ones who are on this Advent journey with us, these are the ones who will rejoice when the king of all is finally revealed.

And I wonder, beloved of God, who do you know that you have turned into a caricature? What person or what group of people do you really want to beat into the ice? Can you see, can you see, beloved, that this person or this group is walking alongside you on this journey... can you see that they are also reaching out for wholeness, a wholeness that can only be found when we love and embrace the other?

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.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

O Radiant Dawn... come

[This post is fifth in a series of Advent meditations, exploring the "O Antiphon" for each day as we walk the final steps toward the celebration of the incarnation on the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord.]

Come,
Radiant Dawn,
splendor of eternal light, sun of justice:
shine on those 
lost in the darkness of death!

The night is a strange place. I've never been on a job that required me to work third-shift, the closest I ever got was several nights working late closing restaurants or bars. I've also (thankfully) always been a pretty decent sleeper, but every now and then I wake up in the middle of the night and can't fall asleep.

"O Dayspring"
Sister Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ
The worst is when this happens in the context of a night terror. I began having these when I was an adolescent, experiences of waking from a sound sleep with an overwhelming sense of dread, very similar to a panic attack. They generally last around thirty minutes, or until I can calm down enough to fall back asleep, but sometimes they drag on, keeping me wide awake and fearful.

My wife is a light sleeper, she also wakes up in the night, though not with panic attacks. Instead, she starts worrying about things and before she knows it she is wide awake, worrying about this or that, unable to shut her mind off, close her eyes, and drift back to sleep.

The first day I ever went deer hunting, I walked in the dark woods out to a small land-blind I had scouted out earlier in the day. I remember sitting on a small stool there, watching the colors around me change as the sun slowly came up. It's still my favorite part of deer hunting—sitting in a blind or in a tree stand and watching the world around you come alive.

It reminds me that no matter how powerful night may seem—it is never permanent.

Where I live, Advent always falls during a dark time of the year. Singing about daylight falling and vesper lights arising in Evening Prayer absolutely makes sense at 5:15pm. And I've had people I loved who struggled with seasonal depression because of it, who struggled with the loss of light and how that can mess with your body.

But the night is not as powerful as it seems.

And I find it rather powerful that it was in the dead of night that a single cry pierced the night. After Mary's cries of childbirth, another cry came, that of God incarnate entering this world through blood and sweat and tears... and even societal shame.

I like to think that when God's voice pierced the darkness in the cry of a little baby boy, night itself shivered.

And I wonder, beloved of God, what night seems to cover your own heart? Can you look to the edges and see that color beginning to change? The sun is coming up as the son approaches. Dawn is almost here. And the night will never again be as powerful as it once seemed.

O come, thou Dayspring from on high, 
and cheer us by they drawing nigh;
disperse the gloomy clouds of night,
and death's dark shadow put to flight.

Friday, December 20, 2013

O Key of David... come

[This post is fourth in a series of Advent meditations, exploring the "O Antiphon" for each day as we walk the final steps toward the celebration of the incarnation on the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord.]

Come,
Key of David,
opening the gates
of God's eternal kingdom:
free the prisoners of darkness! 

I'm horrible with keys. I'm always misplacing them, setting them down one place and then having to struggle to remember where in the world I left them. I leave them in doors, on tables, in pockets, I'm pretty horrible with them.

"O Key"
Sister Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ
But I've gotten better—primarily by training myself, like others, to always set them down in the same places.

So now, when I cannot find my keys, I look first in my coat pocket. Then, if I'm at home, I check the dish on the sideboard in the dining room. If I'm at work, I check my desk (or, if Cappy is with me, I check my office door, because I use them to get in and out of a door that automatically locks).

When you get your first set of keys to something, it feels rather magical. Or, at least it did to me. Finally now I am trusted with access to a place, access all on my own without someone else there to let me in. One of the fundamental symbols of ministry in the installation of a rector is the giving over of the keys of the church.

One of the best canticles in Morning Prayer, in my opinion, is Canticle 11: The Third Song of Isaiah (Surge, illuminare). The canticle is a song of joyful singing over the new Jerusalem, drawing from the exuberance of the final chapters of Isaiah. One of the lines in the canticle sings, "Your gates will be open; by day or night they will never be shut."And that's not just in some crazy liberal canticle, it's right there in the eleventh verse of chapter sixty!

The gates of the new Jerusalem will never be shut.

It's almost like when Jesus took on our sinfulness, he also took on the way I lose keys, like he took the keys to the gates of heaven and tossed them out the window, never to use them again.

The gates of our city are never locked.

And the one key in the afterlife that he holds on to is this: the key to the misery and prisons into which we place ourselves. We will never again need to be prisoners of darkness, scrambling for keys to get us out of the prisons we create for ourselves... he's got that key clasped tightly in his hand, ready to open that gate up and welcome you to a home where he busted the locks off the door long ago.

And I wonder, beloved of God, what doors and prisons do you long for God to open in your heart and in your life? What gates do you long to see Christ trample down? And do you see, oh beloved, do you see... the gate to our home is wide open.

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.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

O Root of Jesse... come

[This post is third in a series of Advent meditations, exploring the "O Antiphon" for each day as we walk the final steps toward the celebration of the incarnation on the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord.]

Come,
Flower of Jesse's Stem,
sign of God's love for all his people:
save us without delay 

Have you ever seen a tree freshly chopped down, the stump fresh and moist with sap that was running only a moment before? It smells like life and death all together at once.

"O Root"
Sister Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ
Or, perhaps, have you ever seen a very old stump, one that is all the remains from a tree that was chopped down or fell down years and years go? It is often covered with moss but sometimes growing out of it you can see a shoot, as though the tree refused to believe that it is dead and insists that life will continue no matter its condition.

A think that a shoot coming out of a stump is one of the most rebellious things in all of nature.

Two years in a row, I was sitting in my living room on Christmas morning when my wife and I got a phone call that someone we loved had died. Two years in a row. It changes how you see Christmas.

And though I'm only in my early thirties, I've already had experiences of really shaking my fist at death, at longing for victory over that grave, not just the sort you sing about but the sort you see... the sort where people you miss are suddenly with you once more, as everyone laughs at a death that is not nearly as powerful as it pretends to be.

I think that this antiphon is God's people sticking up a big middle finger at all the things that seem to destroy us, that seem to destroy those we love. I think this antiphon is God's people longing for God's power to come so that they can final tell of that menace of death... so that they don't have to say goodbye once more.

Because every year I'm a priest I find funerals to be a more emotional part of my ministry. Every year I grow closer to my parishioners and letting them go because that much harder.

So I gotta trust, I gotta believe, that what my people tell me is true: life is changed not ended. I gotta believe that there will come a day when I'll finally slip my hand inside that of each person I love who has slipped away and whisper a tearful hello.

And I wonder, beloved of God, who comes to your mind in these final days of Advent, as the feast of the Nativity approaches? When you consider Satan's tyranny finally being overthrown, when you contemplate the tantalizing promise of victory over even the grave, that no relationship we have will ever be fully destroyed that all will be redeemed... when you consider this Advent truth, who comes to your mind?

I hope you'll introduce me to them when we all meet on the other side of the Jordan. I think we'd get along grand.

O come, thou Branch of Jesse's tree,
free them from Satan's tyranny
that trust thy mighty power to save, 
and give them victory o'er the grave.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

O Adonai... come

[This post is second in a series of Advent meditations, exploring the "O Antiphon" for each day as we walk the final steps toward the celebration of the incarnation on the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord.]

Come,
Leader of Ancient Israel
giver of the Law to Moses on Sinai:
rescue us with your mighty power! 

A lot of my upbringing involved arguing with people about the law. I was raised in a protestant tradition that believed we were saved by grace through faith... but that also believed Christians were supposed to think and act and believe a certain way. We'd argue with the Baptists all the time about how you were saved by grace, but you still had to do things to be a good Christian.

"O Adonai"
Sister Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ
When I got to college and began studying this whole law thing, I discovered that Christians have been trying to figure this out for quite a while. That made me feel better that I didn't know exactly how to parse it. Perhaps the most important thing I learned in that whole undergraduate degree in Biblical Studies, though, was this—people in the times of the Hebrew Bible were also saved by grace.

Of course, Paul himself makes this exact argument, insisting that Abraham was saved by faith.. but then James has to go and make the opposite argument, kind of screwing the whole thing up a bit for anyone who thinks the Bible alone can answer all questions. So I never really knew who to believe.

But in freshman Old Testament survey, the professor had us memorize Joel 2:12-13. It was one of several texts he told us to memorize, but I think he had us do this one so we'd have a go to answer to anyone who said the God of the Old Testament was a God of anger.
“Yet even now,” declares the Lord,
“Return to Me with all your heart,
And with fasting, weeping and mourning;
And rend your heart and not your garments.”
Now return to the Lord your God,
For He is gracious and compassionate,
Slow to anger, abounding in lovingkindness
And relenting of evil.
That phrase, "slow to anger" is all over the place in the Hebrew Bible. There's law, make no mistake, but the law was never intended to give full life. The law was intended to give us a shape for what it meant to live as God's people in a certain time. There are, as much as some people want to deny it, things God's people are called to do and think and say and believe... the trick is pulling the actual law of God for today apart from one particular culture or people's understanding of that law.

That's what we've gotta try for, to let go of the laws we want to create and to open ourselves to the law God wants to offer us—because the law God offers is one that will heal relationships, one that will enable us to live as God's love in this world.

And if you've ever been pissed off by some religious person who thought they had the law down pat, and who used it to beat you over the head, then I think this antiphon is for you.

But watch out, because sometimes when God brings the law to your heart, you find that you also are pushed to change your own views, to let go of some of your actions, some of your thoughts and desires so that you can love how God invites you to love.

And I wonder, beloved of God, were you to place God's gracious law alongside of you own life, where would you find mercy? I wonder, beloved of God, were you to place God's gracious law alongside of your own life,, where would you be called to change?

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.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

O Wisdom... come


[This post is first in a series of Advent meditations, exploring the "O Antiphon" for each day as we walk the final steps toward the celebration of the incarnation on the Feast of the Nativity of our Lord.]

Come, 
Wisdom, 
of our God Most High, 
guiding creation with power and love: 
teach us to walk 
in the paths of knowledge.

It's so very difficult to know the right way to go sometimes. You are faced with several paths, some clear and some murky, and you don't know which one God is inviting you to walk down.

"O Wisdom"
Sister Ansgar Holmberg, CSJ
I remember sitting in the 8:00am Rite I service at the Church of the Heavenly Rest several years ago now. I had long ago ceased to feel "at home" in the Churches of Christ I was raised in and had started sneaking into the early service at the big stone church in Abilene.

I remember Father Scott preaching that day, clear as though it was yesterday. And like a bolt of light, something pierced my heart. I heard a voice whisper—if you want this to be home, it can be. If you want to serve me in ministry, you could do it here.

Immediately I was pulled out of paying attention as my mind began wresting with this idea. I don't think I had ever before seriously considered that I could choose to make my home in another tradition. I had thought about, for years I had thought about it, but I had never actually seen that path appear. It was more of some mystical dream I did not take seriously.

But as Father Scott preached in his soft West Texas accent, I realized that a path had indeed opened that I had never seen. All of the sudden, I looked down and realized that the Wisdom of God had been inviting me here, calling me down this path for years. And though I hadn't recognized the voice, I had been walking the path.

"This can be your home. You can serve me here."

One of my favorite prayers in the BCP is the one for guidance that says, in part, "in the midst of our doubts and uncertainties, give us grace to do what you would have us to do, that the Spirit of wisdom may save us from all false choices..."

I had not realized the actual choices that did lie in front of me until the Wisdom of God pushed into my heart that morning and showed me the reality that I had never seen—I could be invited into a new home.

And I have not regretted walking down that path for one moment since.

And I wonder, beloved of God, if you were to still your heart today, what would the wisdom of God open up to you? What choice would become clear that has been murky? What path is there that you have not yet, until this moment, truly seen?

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.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

New Abortion Law is Immoral and Cruel

My December 14, 2013, article for the Grand Haven Tribune, New Abortion Law is Immoral and Cruel,
On Wednesday afternoon, the Legislature of our state passed a new law on abortion coverage in the Michigan. The new law requires women to buy additional insurance if they want abortion coverage in their health insurance plans, and it will take affect 90 days after the Legislature adjourns for the year. 
Though Gov. Rick Snyder has previously vetoed a bill with similar provisions, this initiative was brought before the Legislature by a Right to Life petition that garnered 315,477 signatures —around 4 percent of our state’s voters. 
And, as a priest, I feel compelled to say that this bill is immoral and cruel.
Read more at the Tribune's website here.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Room Collapses

And let us be assured
that it is not in saying a great deal that we shall be heard (Matt 6:7),
but in purity of heart and in tears of compunction.
Our prayer, therefore, ought to be short and pure,
unless it happens to be prolonged
by an inspiration of divine grace.
In community, however, let prayer be very short,
and when the Superior gives the signal let all rise together.
~ The Rule of St. Benedict, Chapter 20
For several months now, ever since an earnest (and somewhat bold) promise from the pulpit in a sermon, I have been gathering with other people for Morning and Evening Prayer at St. John's from Monday through Thursday. We say Morning Prayer at 8:30am and then Evening Prayer at 5:15pm. 

I had no idea, when I began doing this, if anyone would show up. I just knew that I had an abiding sense of being called to this habit, this discipline, and to begin to practice it publicly. I'm that sort of Christian, the sort that needs accountability, otherwise my grand promises to God tend to slip away...

Most of the time someone does join me. Interestingly, I get others who join me at Evening Prayer slightly more often and in greater numbers than Morning Prayer. Sometimes I need to be elsewhere at those hours and so another parishioner steps in and leads the Office for me. Often that person winds up being our Parish Administrator who has slowly moved into a profound ministry to me in being able to lead the Office in my stead.

So, though it is just me sometimes, most of the time I am praying with others. And I've begun to notice something.

After the three Collects, but before the General Thanksgiving, our custom is to invite "other prayers or thanksgivings, either silently or aloud." I give this invitation and then close my eyes, seeking to be in the presence of God more intently as I whisper my own prayers alongside those of my sisters and brothers.

But as my eyes close, the strangest thing happens.

Do you know how when you close your eyes, you can still sense the presence of other people in a room? You know that person is over there and this other person over here. Well, when I close my eyes for this time of intercession, the room collapses in on me. It is as though the several feet of distance between me and the other worshippers has utterly evaporated and they are now standing nose to nose with me, all of us closer than would ever be natural or comfortable.

The first time this happened I actually opened my eyes, thinking that perhaps someone had moved closer, but everyone was standing in the same place, whispering prayers, breathing quietly, resting in God's presence.

It doesn't happen every time, but it happens more often than not. And every single time it takes my breath away. It is as though the Spirit has inhaled deeply, sucking the space out of the room, knitting our souls together in petition and thanksgiving.

There is this line in the Prayer of St. Chrysostom that we use at the Office whenever more than one person is present, a line that says, "you have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two or three are gathered in his Name you will be in the midst of them." And I wonder, I wonder if sometimes that vacuum that pulls my spirit close to those of others is actually the hand of Jesus, taking our separate souls and braiding them together.

The Office has long been an important part of my life as a Christian, even before I was an Episcopalian I was captivated by it. And for quite a while I've said it on my own, with a brief period of saying it regularly with a colleague I worked with.

But now, as I gather with whatever handful of people God pulled into that old narthex at that moment, I'm reminded of why the Office is, in its fullest expression, said in community.

Because my heart's desires, my soul's anxieties, all the joy and pain and searching that accompanies this life is not meant to be mine alone. There is a place, an oasis of worship, into which anyone can come. Twice a day, at 8:30am and 5:15pm, there is a space where heaven sucks the air out of a room and makes evident the One Body through those disparate worshippers.

And though sometimes I cannot breathe... I know that it is in that knitting together my ragged breath, full of prayers, thanksgiving and, at times, begging.... it is in that knitting together that my ragged prayerful breath is enveloped by a Spirit who can interpret what I cannot even begin to express.

It is in the body of those gathered that I find the divine always present.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Your True Worth: On Cowardice and Bravery in the Church

One of my parishioners received a long four-page letter from his brother, a Roman Catholic, condemning his decision to get married to his partner. I wrote the following letter to my parishioner when he forwarded the letter on to me. 

With his permission, I'm reposting the letter here, knowing that what my parishioner is going through is not abnormal in our world and in the church. I have removed their names, but the rest of the letter remains as it was written. The bulk of the letter is responding to the various arguments his brother threw at him. I am not, of course, posting his brother's letter, but given what I say, you can probably get the gist of what he was told. My letter may be a bit disjointed in argument, but that is because I was trying to respond point by point to his brother's argument.

Know this above all else whoever you are and wherever you come from: you are immensely beloved of God and a decision to enter a covenanted relationship with a parter, whether the same gender or the opposite gender, is always a brave and courageous decision to give yourself. It is all the more brave when your blood family rejects you because of it. 

Dear _____,

This is a heavy letter and we can absolutely talk about it on Thursday. Let me just give some of my responses to the points he makes. Know, above all, that I support you and your partner and believe what you are choosing is indeed God's calling for your life. I applaud your courage and integrity.

Brothers and Men / Homosexuality in Today's Culture
Both men and women are indeed sexual beings. However, I fundamentally disagree with your brother that the ending point of sexuality must always be procreation. If he believes that, then he would also have to affirm the other tenets of that position: (1) any form of conception is immoral and (2) couples that are infertile should not have sex. I doubt he holds those beliefs. As our Prayer Book says, the union of two people "in heart, body, and mind is intended by God for their mutual joy; for the help and comfort given one another in prosperity and adversity; and, when it is God’s will, for the procreation of children and their nurture in the knowledge and love of the Lord." Procreation of children can be a part of a sexual union, but few heterosexual people place that absolute requirement on opposite-sex relationships—a tremendous hypocrisy.

Furthermore, repeated studies have shown there are no adverse affects of same-sex couples adopting and raising children. That is a choice some infertile opposite-sex couples make and is a wonderful choice for a same-sex couple as well. Indeed, studies show that children thrive in two parent households—without regard to them being same or opposite-sex. At the same time, having children is not a requirement of opposite-sex relationships and it is remarkably unfair to say it is so essential to sexual intimacy that without the possibility of procreation a couple should not be together, be they opposite-sex or same-sex.

Also, on the science claims, it's also very clear scientifically that a small percentage of several animal species have same-sex relationships. It's not chosen, it's simply a physical reality. Humanity will not come to an end because this is only a minority of the species in any species. To say that it is "unnatural" shows a complete disregard for what we actually know about nature.

And here is where I really disagree with him: the choice to be in a covenanted relationship with your partner is not a selfish choice. It is choosing to take responsibility for another human being, to covenant yourself to him. Promiscuity with no commitment is the selfish "all dessert and no dinner" choice so common in our culture. Any couple that chooses to covenant, that chooses responsibility to be a part of sexual intimacy is a couple that is choosing the self-giving, responsible path. Your choice to covenant your life with your beloved is a choice that affirms him, one in which you will promise to support him, one in which you will affirm a willingness to lay down your life for him. And just like any opposite-sex couple that makes that choice, this self-giving act is expressed in sexual intimacy. And that is beautiful.

Also, it is hugely disingenous for any Christian to tell another Christian they have to be celibate for their entire life. As a whole, Protestant Christianity since the Reformation has resisted forcing celibacy upon a class of people. That is why we do not require celibacy for priests in our tradition. Some people are indeed called to a celibate life, but the church traditionally understands that as a charism of the Holy Spirit discerned in community. It is never enforced upon a class of people (i.e., priests or homosexual persons). For a heterosexual Christian, who because of his attraction is free to choose to find a mate and be married to tell a homosexual Christian to "man up and take your cross" is, forgive the language, utter bullshit.

And the idea that two adults choosing to commit to one another in a life-long commitment is the same thing as bestiality is so foolish I will not even honor it with a response.

The question is what will be the calling of the church to gay and lesbian people? Will we tell them they have to be celibate, even though we do not require that of any other class of people? Will we tell them to change, even though science has shown how immensely harmful that is? No, we will invite them into faithful, covenanted, relationships, knowing that the power of sexual intimacy for healing our souls is most fully experienced in a covenanted relationship with another person. And inviting people to do that, to get married, in a culture like ours that often despises commitment, is profoundly counter-cultural. That invitation into covenanted relationship is the one the church should issue boldly and proudly.

The Church's Position and Your Family
First off, I would encourage your brother to dig deeper. In particular, I would commend to him Scripture and Discernment: Decision Making in the Church by Luke Timothy Johnson. Johnson is a professor of New Testament at Candler School of Theology at Emory and is one of the most well-respected biblical scholars in North America. He is also an active Roman Catholic and a former Benedictine monk. In Scripture and Discernment he not only criticizes the traditional interpretation offered by your brother, he also offers a different approach to interpreting Scripture more faithfully, one that served as the basis for the Episcopal Church's articulation of why we fully affirm gay and lesbian Christians in our church, as we described that in To Set Our Hope on Christ.

The Scriptural argument is nowhere near as clear or persuasive as he argues it is. His entire argument is based on six—six—passages of Scripture. The argument has nothing to do with understanding the historical context of those texts—or even paying attention to how Scripture itself interprets them. The most glaring example is that in the question of the sin of Sodom. Ezekiel 16 says clearly that it was excessive food and indifference to the needy. Isaiah 1 says it was injustice, and urges those who would learn from Sodom to "learn to do good, seek justice, and rescue the oppressed." It's only in modern times that people thought the story was about homosexuality. And, to be clear, Sodom and Gomorrah is a story about proposed gang rape. To say it condemns faithful, committed, monogamous relationships is ridiculous. I've preached twice on this specific question (The Sin of Sodom in 2010 and Worthless Worship in 2013).

If he wants to look more closely at those six tiny passages of Scripture—six passages that are wildly and poorly interpreted by people with his view—I'd commend the following short essay on the Bible and Homosexuality. And if he wants to know just how angry it makes some of us clergy to watch the Bible manhandled into a tool for hate and discrimination, something that has led to untold suffering and countless suicides, then I'd encourage him to read this essay and know that, like the author, for me this is not simply an intellectual question.

I hold a Bachelor of Science in Biblical Studies with a minor in Biblical Languages, summa cum laude. I hold a Master of Divinity received with Academic Honors and straight A's. I hold a Master of Sacred Theology that resulted in a book published by a peer reviewed academic press. I will argue Scripture with him on this any day of the week and twice on those days when a gay or lesbian person sits in my office crying because of the horrible things people in the church have said to them.

Indeed, even the current Pope has some strong words for those who seem so focused on the question of homosexuality...

And your choice to oppose the Catholic Church and her teaching on this matter is not, as your brother says, an act of cowardice. It is an act of immense bravery to stand up to that venerable institution and say "I am not who you say I am. I am a beloved child of God, worthy of the grace present in covenanted sexual relationship with another person." It is an act of immense bravery to stand up and refuse to let that church tell you how disordered you are.

And your presence in the Episcopal Church, the sacraments you receive here, the challenge you hopefully receive here to be a better person, to more fully conform yourself after the mind of Christ, I hope that it is a gift to you. Because you presence here and your partner's presence here is an immense gift to us. You don't need to be welcomed by the Church. We need to be welcomed by you and forgiven for a history of cruelty and selfishness in our treatment of gay and lesbian Christians.

Your brother is right that the incarnation of Christ, that his Real Presence in the sacramental bread and wine are profoundly powerful realities. However, he seems to miss the fact that part of the importance of the sacraments is that they teach us the way that matter can be an avenue of God's grace. The grace of marriage is experienced in a particular way in the marriage bed, as former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams says in The Body's Grace, in one body's delight in another, a delight that requires covenanted relationship to be healing and not harming. Indeed, as Williams says in that same article, it is tragic that this focus on homosexuality has made so many blind to the very real perversions and dangers that can happen in heterosexual relationships.

Finally, though your brother hurtfully and cruelly says he sees such wickedness in you, that "all of this has left a bad taste in my mouth," know this: I see Christ in you. I see Christ in your partner. And I see Christ's self-giving love for the church in your willingness to commit your life to your beloved, particularly in the face of such un-Christian abuse from your family.

You inspire me.

Through Grace,
Jared+

Saturday, August 31, 2013

Architecture, Bishops, and Baptism... Oh My! – Sewanee D.Min. Year Three

Well, here I am, another week of my nose deep in books completed and my final paper for the 2013 Advanced Degrees Program for Sewanee is now turned in. That means I just have one more summer of coursework and then a thesis and I will have completed the requirements for the Doctor of Ministry.

As I did last year, I'm posting this year's papers online for any who might find them interesting.

The Oxford Movement, the Liturgy and the Crisis of Faith, class taught by the Rev. Dr. Benjamin J. King, Associate Professor of Church History and Director of the Advanced Degrees Program (and keynote speaker for the upcoming SCP Conference in Philadelphia). Two papers:

The Influence of the Oxford Movement Upon St. John's Episcopal Church, Grand Haven, MI
From the introduction
One of the most difficult aspects of determining the influence of any movement or tradition upon a parish is that so much of church tradition exists implicitly, as certain assumptions about the “way things are done.” However, there are definite architectural and liturgical practices that were brought about by the Oxford Movement and whose presence in a church—even one that does not identify as a High Church or Oxford Movement parish—can indicate just how significantly the Oxford Movement impacted the Anglican tradition of Christianity. St. John’s Episcopal Church in Grand Haven, MI, is an excellent example of this reality. Though never formally identified as an Oxford Movement parish, key choices and approaches of that movement are evident in the architectural style and liturgical choices throughout much of the church’s almost one hundred and fifty year history. 
The Development of an Anglican Understanding of the Episcopate, with Particular Note to the Innovations of the Oxford Movement
From the introduction
One of the fundamental marks of Anglicanism, as articulated in the 1888 Lambeth Quadrilateral, is “The Historic Episcopate, locally adapted in the methods of its administration to the varying needs of the nations and peoples called of God into the Unity of His Church.”  Indeed, the retention of a strong episcopate sets Anglicanism apart from any other Reformation era body. For the nineteenth-century Oxford Movement, the episcopate was central to the Church itself. In Oxford Movement leader Edward Bouverie Pusey’s summary of Tractarian teaching, “a high estimate of the Episcopacy as God’s ordinance,” ranks as his second point of the summary.  However, what is often unrealized is that the Oxford Movement’s understanding of the episcopate was not only a break from the tradition of prior Anglicanism, it was a significant departure from early High Church thought. A careful exploration of the development of the theology of the episcopate in the history of Anglicanism—particularly in the High Church tradition—will demonstrate how significant this departure was and raise important questions for contemporary doctrine and practice.

Mapping Ritual Structure, class taught by the Rt. Rev. J. Neil Alexander, Dean of the School of Theology, Professor of Liturgy, Charles Todd Quintard Professor of Dogmatic Theology and the Rev. Dr. James F. Turrell, Norma and Olan Mills Prof of Divinity, Assoc. Dean for Academic Affairs, Sub-dean of the Chapel of the Apostles (otherwise known as the professors with, I think, the longest titles—though having two different liturgy people teach the same class, and it not turn into a wrestling match, was quite an accomplishment). One paper:

An Analysis of the Development of Rites of Initiation in English Christianity from the First Centuries through the Middle Ages, with Application to Current Questions of Liturgical Practice
From the introduction
Students of the history of Christianity in the British Isles are well aware of the fascinating relationship between Christianity in the Roman tradition and that in the English tradition. Indeed, often the two are very difficult to pull apart. In various ages throughout the history of Christianity in the British Isles, Roman practices and understandings have dominated. At other times, this dominance was resisted and British or Celtic practices were affirmed. 
In the specific area of liturgy, these questions become even more loaded, as many of the studies presuppose a certain position at the outset. We see this particularly in the eighteenth and nineteenth-century debates between the emerging evangelical or low-church Anglicans and the more catholic or high-church Anglicans. Each sought to articulate a definite tradition, either in concert with Rome or in opposition to Rome. This was particularly a reality for nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholics, for whom the catholic heritage and tradition of the Church of England was seen as essentially continuous from the first centuries... 
For all of these reasons, an exploration of the architecture, practices, and liturgy surrounding rites of initiation as they were practiced in English Christianity will be helpful. While this exploration is not intended to pretend that the practice of these rites is entirely separated from their practice on the continent (indeed, the study will reveal that this is absolutely not the case), we can see that the distinctive traditions surrounding rites of initiation in English Christianity have much to say about current liturgical practices. Indeed, several of the elements of prayer book revision in the Episcopal Church actually bear witness to the historic practice of the English Christianity from the first centuries. By claiming more deeply the distinctive aspects of English Christianity, we will be further connected to those Christians who stand in our ancestral line while still living more fully into the rites as laid out in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Furthermore, allowing ourselves to be shaped by these liturgical practices that will enable us to continue the important revision of our shared liturgy. 

Thursday, August 1, 2013

Searching for peace in the Holy Land

My July 31, 2013, article for the Grand Haven Tribune, Searching for peace in the Holy Land,
I had been traveling throughout Israel and Jordan on an archeological tour and, during some open time, made my way to St. George’s Cathedral, just north of the old city of Jerusalem. The cathedral is the seat of the Bishop of Jerusalem in the diocese of the Episcopal Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East. 
The last time I was in Jerusalem, with a group of pilgrims from my parish, we went to Sunday services at the cathedral. The worship service was according to the Book of Common Prayer, but in Arabic, as the cathedral’s congregation is comprised largely of Palestinian Christians. It is active in health care and education ministries, and a force for interfaith dialogue with Jews and Muslims in the Holy Land. 
I hadn’t realized, growing up, that Palestinian referred to both Christians and Muslims. I had always assumed, for some reason, that the conflict in the Holy Land was primarily a religious one between Muslims and Jews.
Read more at the Tribune's website here.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

Prayer Book Christianity and Structural Reform

Seeking to come to a common sense of our core identity as Christians in the Anglican tradition is a remarkably fraught process. Almost immediately we have a tendency either to fall into existing camps that represent only one aspect of our tradition. We rehearse and recite shibboleths and slogans heard round the church, often unaware of the distinctive context that gave them expression.

The Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC) has been hard at work since their creation by General Convention and membership appointment in the ensuing months. In their July 2013 Meeting Report they have published two working papers: "Working Draft Notes on Episcopal Identity and Structure" and "Interim Report of TEC Structure for Dummies Committee."

It's largely good work, representing some thoughtful research and careful articulation. However, there is one point in the "Working Draft Notes on Episcopal Identity and Structure" that I found profoundly problematic—the section on the arts, liturgy, and mystery. It reads:
The arts, liturgy, and mystery: This sacramental and incarnational view leads to affirmation of the arts and music as means to express the sacred. Rooted in deep traditions of Christian practice over the centuries, Episcopalians treasure liturgy and embrace mystery. At its best, this is a deeply participatory value, not merely performance.
  • Structure encourages new liturgical expressions for mission and creates accessibility to a wide variety of materials for prayer and song electronically. Such expressions should be unhampered by required slow processes of canonical approval or the processes of printing, thereby enabling quick dissemination of much-needed resources. 
I affirm with my whole being the first part of this section. Indeed, our sacramental and incarnational approach to the Christian life does indeed lead to a strong affirmation of the arts and music. We do indeed treasure liturgy and embrace mystery. The whole of the community, in the best liturgical practice, fully participates in their gathered worship.

However, the second half of this section goes off the rails. It assumes that this affirmation of the arts, liturgy, and mystery leads to a need for structure that encourages new liturgical expressions. Further, it insists that these expressions should be "unhampered by required slow processes of canonical approval."

I worry sometimes that we, as a tradition, our losing the value of being a "prayer book church." While other churches were drawing up confessions of faith, we were creating a Book of Common Prayer. When we had been racked with sectarian controversy and violence, the Elizabethan settlement exemplified by the 1662 Book of Common Prayer sought to bring both Catholic and Protestant together in united worship using shared and comprehensive liturgical language.

Indeed, interestingly enough, the only place the BCP shows up in the "Working Draft Notes" is in the first paragraph where we are described as having "a sacramental and incarnational faith as expressed in the Book of Common Prayer." And yet, in the section explicitly on liturgy the document seems to jettison the importance and centrality of prayer book liturgy to our identity, even suggesting changes to structure that I believe would further undermine the role of the prayer book in our church.

While it is important that we are always looking carefully at our liturgy, never afraid of what reformation of our shared worship might look like, liturgical innovation and reform must be carefully circumscribed. Even resources that are already approved by General Convention, specifically the Enriching Our Worship series, are explicitly not intended for Sunday corporate worship without approval of the Ordinary. This is, I believe, deeply intentional. While our liturgical resources should always be open to reform, that reform should be done carefully lest it run the risk of creating liturgy that is only beholden to whatever the current trends are instead of creating liturgy that comes from a renewed appreciation for the history of the church and the implications of our faith.

One of the best and most important things taught me by Marion Hatchett, one of the key framers of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, was, "The rubrics of this book exist to protect the laity from the whims and eccentricities of their clergy." I would argue that much of what passes for liturgical innovation these days is remarkably clergy-centered. It is foisted upon the laity without their input. Indeed, while clergy are bound to follow the rubrics of the prayer book (not doing so is, at least theoretically, grounds for deposition!) they are given significant authority when it comes to the worship of a local parish. The rector is the sole person who holds that authority. One of the reasons for the BCP and an importance upon the rubrics is that the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer are the fundamental place where the laity have a legislative voice in the worship of the church. To violate those rubrics in the name of innovation it to violate the voice and expressed will of the laity, expressed through General Convention.

But the problem goes even deeper than subtle—or not so subtle—clericalism. The Book of Common Prayer brings a level of unity to our identity. An increase in liturgical innovation outside the bounds of the prayer book would further increase the already frustrating congregational inherent in so many of our parishes. I was challenging a colleague of mine recently on the subject of Communion Regardless of Baptism (CROB). I used the above argument about the canons and prayer book being a place where the laity have a legislative voice to direct the clergy. She insisted that in her congregation, the laity had been in favor of moving forward with the process, that they had been a part of the decision.

But it is not just the laity in your local congregation who have a voice. We are ordained as clergy for the whole Christ's Church. We have made vows of obedience not only to our bishops as a symbol of the unity of the church, but also to the doctrine and discipline of the church—a discipline that includes clear constitutional and canonical arguments that the whole of the laity must be consulted when it comes to authorized liturgy, not just those in your own congregation.

Thus, liturgical revision should be slow. It should be careful. It should include the voice of all orders of the church, drawn from across the wide variety of our church. It should include liturgical experts who can help us understand the implications and history of our liturgical structures and rites. It should include careful and practical trial use of rites, use that is rigorously accountable to the whole of the church.

And I would ever so gently suggest that we do not need "new liturgical expressions for mission." If we need new liturgical expressions, it must be because our current ones are failing to clearly inculcate and form people after authentic Christian belief. Look at all the other churches and denominations that, when seeking to do good liturgy, draw from our prayer book tradition. Let's not jettison that in the favor of that which is new, streamlined, and able to be quickly approved and thrown up on the internet.

Indeed, I would argue the opposite needs to happen.

I'd like to see this Task Force invite current liturgical scholars into its work. Not so that we can do exciting and innovative liturgy—but so that our liturgical scholars can teach us about how our structures need to be reformed so that they more accurately follow the teaching and theology of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. Because almost any liturgical scholar worth her or his salt, including Marion Hatchett of Blessed Memory, will tell you that we as a church have only barely begun to realize in practice the theology that amazing prayer book espouses.


Friday, June 21, 2013

Melting into Graced Community: Some Thoughts on Liturgical Presidency

I've been thinking a lot lately about what it means to preside at a liturgy. Partially, this is because I'm at Sewanee right now, in the third year of course-work for my Doctor of Ministry. Both classes I'm taking have a liturgical focus. The first, Mapping Liturgical Rite, is an explicit liturgical focus. The second, The Oxford Movement, the Liturgy, and the Crisis of Faith, is a bit more implicit... however, given the title, liturgy is clearly still a significant part of the conversation.

It seems to me that throughout the history we've been exploring, one of the fundamental questions is the way in which the community addresses itself to God. In the early church, as the community gathered around the table, they broke bread and wine with a deep sense of Christ's presence with them. The presider, in the late first-century Didache referred to interestingly enough at times as a Prophet, was given distinct words but was also invited to use his own words if he so wished. And at the end of the meal, the Presider invited the community to remember that the world into which they were returning was not real—only God's grace is real. Thus, the lovely concluding prayer, "Let grace come, and let this world pass away. Hosanna to the God of David. If any one is holy let him come, if any one is not holy let him repent. Maranatha. Amen."

The point being that the Presider, on behalf of the community, invites God's presence into the community. The beginning part of the post-communion prayer in the Didache has the Presider giving thanks for the way in which, particularly through the liturgy, God has come to dwell within the community. "We thank thee, Holy Father, for Thy Holy Name, which Thou hast caused to dwell (tabernacle) in our hearts."

Over the following centuries, as the liturgy developed and became more and more elaborate, formalization set in with the Presider's role. The words became set, the actions became more and more concrete. Having been raised in a non-liturgical tradition, I would argue that this formalization of liturgy and action caused the Presider increasingly to fall back into the liturgy. No longer even praying in your own words and instead praying in the words of the church, the liturgy took central place.

Now, of course, concurrent with this could be unhelpful developments. In some areas it began to be seen as though the liturgy was primarily something the priest (and servers) did while the people watched. Or, in others, laziness on the part of the clergy meant that the liturgy happened but in a very sort of rote manner.

Since the Liturgical Movement, however, the liturgy of the church has become much more participatory. Though the liturgy can certainly no longer be seen in most places as something the priest does privately while the people standing by, I would suggest that in many areas it has become a performance put on by the priest. The people say their parts, do their standing and keep their eyes on the liturgical action... but the affectations of the priest mean that their eyes are actually on the priest rather than elements upon the altar.

Ironically, I generally find this particularly in clergy with a lower theological understanding of priesthood. However, when it comes to their style of celebration, they hold out the elements at the words of institution acting in persona Christi, they break the bread and hold it out in a manner that emphasizes what they just did in the breaking. They spend most of the prayer looking at the people (when they are not looking at the book).

I would argue, this style of celebration has lost the understanding of the Presider as one who simply functions as the congregation's chosen president for their prayers to God. This style has lost a sense of celebration where the priest humbly approaches God's altar, saying his or her words, but also affirming the proper liturgical roles of the rest of the servers alongside of the people. In proper presidency, no one person is more important than the others. Each has simply been given a distinctive role to play—and God remains the fundamental actor in the liturgy, wherein the congregation calls on God to make grace present once more.

I'm sure I don't do this well all the time. But as I move towards five years as a priest, I'm increasingly convicted about the need for us, as clergy, to learn what it means to melt into the action of Holy Eucharist. As I wrote in an essay several years ago, the traditional liturgical vestments of cassock, amice, alb, girdle, stole, and chasuble give me a sense of being swaddled in grace. It covers me in the clothes of the church that I might sing the song, dance the steps, the church has asked me to do.

And, in the end, when I experience a presidency of prayer that functions in this way, one in which I truly did experience myself melting into the community's liturgical action, I discover a profound experience of grace. I am reminded that very little of my ministry is dependent upon my personality or inherent gifts... rather, it is dependent upon me accepting God's grace through a deep entrance into Christian community, coming up alongside to say my words when it is my time, being quiet when it is time for me do that.

In melting into the liturgy, I find that grace is not effected by any clergy person's "magic hands," least of all my own. Rather, grace is revealed as always present when we, as the worshiping community, succeed in pulling back the curtain on the world as it seems and encounter the world as it truly is: deeply infused with the gracious love of the Holy Trinity.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A catholic future for the Episcopal Church

My June 6, 2013, article for Daily Episcopalian, A catholic future for the Episcopal Church,

As I approach nearly ten years worshiping in the Episcopal Church, including nearly five as a priest of the church, I’m struck by what first drew me into the church as someone in his young twenties. Though I was raised in an evangelical tradition, it was one that emphasized both the early church and the importance of reason, study, and intellect in the practice of the Christian faith. The more I studied in my undergraduate and graduate work, the more I found myself drawn to a more ancient expression of Christianity, one that didn’t view the early church merely as an historic curiosity, but instead as a group to whom we were organically connected. I began to realize that certain ideas I had been told were “catholic innovations” growing up—ideas like the Presence of Christ in Communion, a hierarchical structure, the veneration of saints—these were actually important concepts in the church from her earliest centuries.
For the past five years, my priestly ministry has been deeply shaped by a group known as the Society of Catholic Priests in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada. The Society began in England in the mid-nineties as a place for Anglo-Catholic clergy who also supported the ordination of women and of gay and lesbian Christians. It believed that the ideals of the catholic heritage of Anglicanism were not only essential, but that they needed a resurgence in the church today.
Read more at the Daily Episcopalian's website here.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

CRAMER: Religious intolerance is on the rise

My May 22, 2013, article for the Grand Haven Tribune, Religious intolerance is on the rise,
Most small children learn that many of the first colonists to the United States were pilgrims seeking the freedom to practice their religious views.

The Church of England — the mother church of my own denomination, The Episcopal Church — was not only established as the state church, it also explicitly sought to suppress nonconformist and Roman Catholic groups within the country (this is a part of Anglicanism’s history over which we repent, and from which we have turned).

But, still, we teach our children at a young age that some of the first colonists came here because they wanted to practice their religion freely. There is an important nuance to be made here. The Puritans, along with other religious groups arriving in 17th-century America, wanted to practice their religion freely — they did not want freedom of religion.
Read more at the Tribune's website here.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Unsettled by the Evils of Segregation

My May 8, 2013, column in the Grand Haven Tribune, Unsettled by the Evils of Segregation,
Over the three years I have been serving as a pastor in the Tri-Cities area, an area in which I spent much of my upbringing, I’ve become increasingly unsettled by a difficult reality: We are a segregated community. 
Growing up in Grand Haven, I never thought of us as segregated. We just didn’t happen to have many people of other races in our area, or so I thought. However, after 10 years living in various areas of the U.S., I returned to our community with a different set of lenses.        
Read more at the Tribune's website.

Monday, April 29, 2013

We'll be singing with Shirley one more time

My April 29, 2013, column for the Grand Haven Tribune, We'll be singing with Shirley one more time,
Singing was always a part of my life. 
 
I was raised in a small Christian tradition that was very conservative on a number of questions, and one of those was worship. Like Christians in the first centuries, that tradition still worships with no instruments. Instead, it is straight a cappella hymn singing.

And though I’ve learned to love the rich Anglican musical heritage, some days I still miss a good four-part gospel number.
Read more at the Tribune's website here.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Loving Death

A couple weeks ago, at the our diocesan Spirituality Retreat, Bishop Gepert asked us to take a few minutes to reflect on what Gospel story we find ourselves most drawn to. He urged us to share the first one that immediately came to mind. Then, after we went around and shared what stories came up, he invited us to spend some time reflecting about how our life story connects with that Gospel story.

For me, the first story that came to my mind was this: the Restoration of Peter.

If you would have asked me years ago what story would come to mind, I don't think I would have picked this one. However, ever since my last pilgrimage to the Holy Land I have been captivated by this story.

One of the places we visited during that pilgrimage was the Church of the Primacy in Tiberius. It is a lovely church along the lake shore that commemorates Peter's restoration. For Roman Catholics, it also commemorates Christ's final and clearest statement about his primacy and his pastoral role among the other apostles and the broader church.

Do you remember the story?

After the resurrection, Peter still hasn't seen the resurrected Christ. He says to his friends, "I'm going fishing." The others say they'll go with him. They head out on the Sea of Tiberius and fish all night, catching nothing...
Just after daybreak, Jesus stood on the beach; but the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, ‘Children, you have no fish, have you?’ They answered him, ‘No.’ He said to them, ‘Cast the net to the right side of the boat, and you will find some.’ So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in because there were so many fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved said to Peter, ‘It is the Lord!’ When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on some clothes, for he was naked, and jumped into the lake.
Jesus has prepared breakfast for them, cooking over a charcoal fire (the same word used to describe the fire at which Peter warmed himself while denying Christ). Three times Jesus asks Peter if he loves him. Three times Peter says he does, only to hear Jesus respond, "Feed my sheep."

While I had always thought of this story as being the Restoration of Peter (as I even described it above), that is the more Protestant understanding. In much of Catholic thought, the story is often seen as a restoration and ordination of sorts. Peter is not only restored—he is commissioned for ministry.

At the Church of the Primacy, there is a statue depicting this scene. When I first saw it, I was stunned and captivated. Peter kneels before Christ, clearly overwhelmed by what is happening in this moment. Christ doesn't look normal, he looks other-worldly, as though the Resurrection has changed him. He extends one hand over Peter in an act of ordination and with his other hand he offers Peter a crozier—the symbol of episcopal ministry.

It's clearly a piece of art, not intended to be an historical depiction of this event. And as a piece of art, I find it powerful and moving.

For a long-time, I thought Christianity was primarily about grace and knowing that I was saved regardless of my own failings and weaknesses. And it is, of course, significantly about that. During this time I loved books like Brennan Manning's The Ragamuffin Gospel: Good News for the Bedraggled, Beat-up, and Burnt-out. Books like this taught me the beauty and truth of God's completely free and extravagant love. They were the warm milk upon which every young Christian must feed.

However, I've been slowly moving beyond that.

Well, not really beyond that, that's not the right word.

Because in some ways, extravagant grace has become even more important alongside of a deepening understanding of what the working out of my salvation looks like. The deepening understanding for me is the sense of call, the sense of being sent... and the fear of what that entails.The deepening understanding is about how accepting my calling to be sent deep into the the heart of my parish community... how this is a part of my own salvation.

When I was in discernment of ordination and then in seminary, a common narrative was how so many people wanted to run from the call. I remember one mentor saying that unless someone approached the concept of ordained ministry with great fear and trembling, they probably approached it wrongly. And that always made me feel a little guilty, because I wasn't scared of ordained ministry. I was excited and thrilled to receive this call, to be affirmed in something I had wanted to do almost my entire life.

But now, approaching the five year anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, I think I understand the fear bit better. Because I understand that priestly ministry truly is a daily participation in the sacrifice and death of Christ. I understand that it is a constant giving up, a constant letting go, a constant laying down of yourself on behalf of the community and the church catholic. After having been called to walk through a few small deaths in my practice of ministry, I see how sometimes the clear path forward, the clear path deeper into the community, is one that will inevitably require death.

And perhaps that is why moving "beyond" the simple milk of God's unexpected and extravagant grace to the inevitable sending into ministry that every single baptized Christian has is not actually a moving beyond at all. It's a moving deeper.

Because one of the deepest gifts my spiritual director has given me is the connection between a deep and passionate love affair with God and service to that God in the Christian community.

Peter received his calling in the context of repeated questions from Christ regarding Peter's love for Jesus. Over and over again, Jesus asked Peter if he loved him and with each affirmative response Jesus sought to cast Peter's gaze broader, insisting that love of Christ involved feeding Christ's flock.

This connection is what saves any baptized Christian, lay or ordained, from allowing their practice of ministry to destroy them. We are all handed a certain type of death from our Lord, a cross to pick up. But when we accept that cross—symbolized for Peter in the crozier—we accept it with our eyes locked upon a Christ who loves us and who invites our passionate love.

The death to which are called may be scary, but it is the way into divine love.

Loving Christ without the death through which we feed Christ's body—that is, loving Christ without a participation in his Eucharistic self-offering—will only ever keep Christ at an arm's length. It will not allow our very selves to be formed after the mind of Christ.

Feeding Christ's body without a strong connection to the love of Christ will result either in a lack of authenticity or burn-out. We will find ourselves consumed or we will find our care exhausted. We will be left hurting and looking for the redeeming healing grace of God.

In order to love, we must hear the call to die in self-offering service. In order to serve, we must be grounded first in a relationship of passionate love.

I don't have this all worked out. I feel like I'm only now brushing the edges of this mystery. But more and more I can smell the charcoal from the fire. More and more, I hear Christ asking my spirit, "Do you love me?" I hear Christ inviting me to respond, "Yes, Lord, you know that I love you."

And with each year, with each day in the life of ministry, I see more clearly the loving death into which I am invited.

Turn your eyes upon Jesus,
Look full in His wonderful face,
And the things of earth will grow strangely dim,
In the light of His glory and grace.

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Wrestling with a Consistent Ethic of Life

My February 27, 2013, column for the Grand Haven Tribune, Wrestling with a Consistent Ethic of Life,
The other day, as I was on my way to a lunch meeting riding with a parishioner, he relayed to me an experience he had in state-level politics.
He was approached by a representative from one of our elected officials and asked if he would support a bill that would exclude health insurance carriers from covering pre-existing conditions of adopted children.

Knowing that this politician was “pro-life,” my parishioner pushed a bit, asking how that made sense. “So, you’re telling me that you support forcing someone in poverty to have a child, but then if that parent chooses to give the child up for adoption, you also support allowing a health insurance company not to cover any pre-existing conditions that child has.”

The representative paused for a moment and then said, “I suppose we hadn’t really thought about that.”
Read more at the Tribune's website here.

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Invited: One Reflection on "Ashes to Go"

I will admit, when I first heard about the movement known as "Ashes to Go"a  few years ago, I was rather suspect. I agreed with its many detractors who said that the apparent motivation of convenience behind the movement was flawed. They insisted (and many continue to insist) that the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday is meant to be experienced in a community. It needs to be placed alongside of the reading of Scripture, the proclamation of the Gospel in a homily, the Litany of Penitence and the celebration of God's grace in Holy Eucharist.

I believed all that for several years.

Then, last year, as I was sitting in a room with my fellow clergy in the Great Lakes Chapter of The Society of Catholic Priests in the Episcopal Church and the Anglican Church of Canada, one of my brother priests spoke up. "When I stood at the onramp of the hi-way today, I had all kinds of people stop. One of them was a trucker who came to me with tears in his eyes saying that because of his job this was the only way he could get ashes on this day. He was so grateful."

The story stopped me in my tracks and my critical approach began unraveling.

So, this morning, at 7:30am, I pulled into a parking lot at Walgreen's here in Grand Haven. I took a big sign out of my car and set it at the corner of the busy intersection that store is located at. I put on my cassock, surplice, and stole and I threw my heavy wool cloak around my shoulders. I then took a small container of ashes (and a cup of coffee) and went and stood at the corner. The sign proclaimed "Ashes to Go" and I was going to figure out what this experience was like.

The first thing I noticed is that it is cold. My goodness is it cold in Michigan in the middle of February. The weather was in the mid-twenties when I got out there and it didn't warm much as the morning went on. I kept my leather gloves on unless I was imposing ashes and shortly after my coffee ran out, a parishioner who had driven by came and brought me a hot chocolate from Starbucks. By the time I left, my feet were nearly numb and I was standing there with my cloak wrapped tight around me.

So, yeah, it was cold.

But the other thing is this: I could not keep from smiling. This is a big busy multi-lane intersection and I got to see a whole lot of cars go by. Some people looked at my confusedly, others waved cheerfully. I got a few peace signs and several thumbs up signs. And I spent the whole two hours I was out there grinning like an idiot. It doesn't seem very somber or Lent appropriate to be grinning like a fool while you are standing near a sign inviting people to be reminded of their mortality... but the joy I experienced was irrepressible. I loved each and every person that drove by and I hoped so badly that they could see that it my smile.

I didn't get a lot of traffic. To be honest, I only wound up giving ashes to two people the entire two hours I stood out there. I think I needed more and bigger signs. I don't know, I'm not an Ashes to Go professional. I'm just an amateur looking for a way to interrupt people's lives with the Gospel message of love wrapped in death, that strangely beautiful message of this day.

I hope that for those that didn't stop, I served as perhaps a sign of some kind, perhaps a reminder. Maybe some of them hadn't realized it was Ash Wednesday and I reminded them to find out when their church was having services. That would be pretty awesome.

Maybe some of them were confused and then googled "Ashes to Go" when they got to work. I thought about that and realized they'd find all kinds of essays and blog posts with Christians fighting about whether or not it was appropriate. That made me a little sad. I don't want the unchurched (or de-churched) to have the idea reinforced that us Christians just like to argue about everything. I hope they know that we argue about this sort of thing because we love God and them, because we want to be faithful. I hoped that... but worried they'd just scratch their heads in confusion.

And I really hope, man oh man do I hope... I hope that some of the people that drove by saw a priest in strange garb with a ridiculous smile on his face and maybe it made them smile. Maybe it provoked the thought that not only is there freedom in those ashes, but there could be joy there as well. I hope they saw the love that was in my eyes as I watched them drive by, as I waved at small children who thought the whole thing looked so cool, as I smiled for drivers who snapped pictures with their cell phones.

And I hope they found me to be an invitation.

Because that's what Ash Wednesday really is after all. It's not the entirety of the Christian Gospel. It's not the entirety of what discipleship looks like. Heck, it's not even the entirety of the Season of Lent. Ash Wednesday is an invitation, and invitation from the church to step back for a moment and to make a choice over these next forty days to pattern your life more deeply after the life of Christ.

I hope those who stopped and those who drive by found themselves invited into something more, something deeper...

I'm headed back out there in a few minutes. Maybe as I stand out there from 4:30pm to 5:30pm I'll be able to catch those commuters on their way home. Maybe they'll have time to stop now, time they didn't have in the morning. Maybe they just needed a reminder, a small nudge, that this day is more than any of us ever expected it to be.

A Short Ash Wednesday Liturgy
The priest invites the penitent,
Dear Child of God: I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a Holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now bow before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
The priest imposes ashes, saying,
Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return.
Both say the Confession,
God of all mercy, we confess that we have sinned against you, opposing your will in our lives. We have denied your goodness in each other, in ourselves, and in the world you have created. We repent of the evil that enslaves us, the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf. Forgive, restore, and strengthen us through our Savior Jesus Christ, that we may abide in your love and serve only your will. Amen.
The priest pronounces God’s forgiveness, to which the penitent responds, saying, Amen.
Priest     Go in peace and pray for me, a sinner.

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