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 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 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.]

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.]

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.]

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.]

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.]

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.]

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.]

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.