Wednesday, October 26, 2011


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


And forever.


Tuesday, October 25, 2011

All That's Left

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

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

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

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

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

Also the books?

And above all the parchments?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Maybe that’s all there really was all along.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Hell is Chrome

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

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

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

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

But still, in the end, I like order.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hell is Chrome Video

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