28 March, 2006

Writing sermons is hard, Part 4

For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

You know what the difference is between me and Billy Graham? When Billy Graham preaches on that text, fifty thousand people turn their lives over to Jesus. When I preach on that text, a homemade posterboard reading "John 3:16" and a rainbow clown wig are involved.

Ah yes, John 3:16. One of the most beloved verses in the Bible. If you were ever asked to memorize Bible verses in Sunday School, this one was probably at the top of the list. That, friends, is the gospel in miniature. A nugget of wisdom so profound that one of my seminary classmates tells the story that when he was asked to preach on that text, he got in the pulpit, read John 3:16-17 very slowly, said "all else is commentary," and sat down.

And frankly, I was tempted to do the same thing.

The baseball analogy is this: sometimes, the sermon text is a chest-high fastball with no movement. Or better yet, a ball on a tee. It just sits there, begging to be crushed.

Come on, here I am, the whole gospel in fifty-two words. I'm begging you to hit me. Hard. I'm a home run ball waiting to happen.

Okay, I'll admit it, I see texts like this and, what goes through my mind is: don't miss.

Sometimes, I'm just speechless in the face of Paul, or the author of Mark, or Genesis, or especially John. And every last thing that goes through my mind to say instantly gets compared to the very bestest sermon that there ever could be, with the result that nothing gets out from between my teeth. I stare for hours at a blank Word document. Then close the window, or turn off the computer, because I'm tired of the blank screen mocking me.

27 March, 2006

can you say shibboleth?

Here's a new one for me. We received a form today from one of our parishioners, a "pastor's recommendation form" for a local Christian elementary school. I've signed a bunch of these kinds of things already. But this one was different.

Are the X family members of your congregation? (Y/N)
How well do you know them? (1-5 scale)
Indicate their level of spiritual hunger. (1-5 scale)

We believe that... [here was included a neat one-paragraph summary, complete with scripture references, thankyouverymuch, that all have sinned and Jesus saves].

and, waaaaait for it:

Are the X family born-again Christians?
Prospective Student 1___
Prospective Student 2___

Run that by me again? You're asking me if the 9-year-old is a born-again Christian? On the application form for 3rd grade?

let's just pause for a moment and ponder that, shall we?

That's so wrong on so many levels that I'm momentarily rendered speechless with anger and disbelief.

25 March, 2006

Can you paint with all the colors of the wind?

Notes from Lucio Blanco, Day 2

We brought about 150 gallons of paint with us. Home Depot donated them to our efforts. They were paint-mix rejects, attempts that for whatever reason some American homeowner didn’t want. The vast majority, of course, were varying shades of beige.

Ah, but then there were three or four cans of glorious green, and some dark red.

We took a great big bucket and some paint sticks, and stirred together what we had. Kids at play. Out of the smorgasbord, we created a yellowish beige, an antique rose, and a delicious pistachio green.

Then we asked the woman who would live in the second house what kind of color she wanted on the inside. She said she wanted a melon-ish color. The whole house, in fact, would resemble a melon. Green on the outside, orange on the inside. I began to have visions of James and the Giant Peach, with the singing dancing centipede.

Oops. We could make pink, or brown, or beige… but we didn’t have any orange.

A quick huddle eliminated most of our options, and we ended up sending some of us back over the border to purchase a gallon of glorious Tigger-riffic-bouncy-flouncy-fun orange. Mix it in, and sure enough...melon.

So much in this world is ugly. So much is out of our control. It was wonderful to see the future residents of the house with big happy grins. "Si. Es muy bonito!"

17 March, 2006

The Language of God, part 1

Desmond Tutu helped bring me to California.

When I was leaving graduate school, I had six different offers from six different companies in six different fields. The one I ended up going with was a high-powered airport consulting shop based out of San Mateo. When I flew out for the interview, a friend and colleague graciously spent his whole weekend showing me the town, showing me what it’s like to live in San Francisco.

Because I didn’t know if I’d ever be back, I dragged this friend along with me to Grace Cathedral. (If you’ve never been there, go.) We were just inside the great big doors in the back of the nave, and I was looking around at the paintings and the stained glass and the ceiling, waaaaaay up there far away, when my friend said “hey, isn’t that Desmond Tutu?”

The celebration took two and a half hours. Three choirs, two bishops, absolutely packed house. No word on whether my friend has ever darkened the door of a church since.

At the end of the service, Bishop Swing asked the visiting archbishop to bless the congregation. I remember him saying “I will give the blessing in my own language.”

Now I don’t know what his native tongue is, and I didn’t recognize it or understand a word, but I do remember that prayer. It was a long string of words, beautiful and rhythmic, rhyming, almost musical in its quality. I have no idea what he said, and I couldn’t even see him. But I do remember the feeling of awe and wonder, remembering that God’s langauge transcends our human understanding; that God speaks with an eloquence and power that we can’t touch.

15 March, 2006

Jesus on the playground

Day one of spring break trip to Lucio Blanco, Mexico (just south of Harlingen, TX)

Several months ago a truck tried to beat a rain across the tracks in Lucio Blanco. It didn’t make it. Several buildings were destroyed in the explosion and fire; about a dozen people were killed. Many more were orphaned or widowed. Our diocese has responded; various church groups have come to build houses and repair the neighborhood.

It’s spring break, and here we are with eleven members of the church. Much fun will be had; some work will be done.

We made the trip today in just enough time to join the departing crew of another congregation for their last hour of work and for a dedication service. They were here for several days, and built a playscape for the children of the neighborhood. Wooden stairs and ladders and slides and ropes and swings and all things wonderful about early childhood.

Today was what Eucharist is supposed to be.

Members of four congregations. Two languages. We switched back and forth between Spanish and English with cheerful clumsiness. We sang, in no recognizable key whatsoever. I even knew the words to the chorus. The altar was a plastic folding table set up in the middle of the playscape. And, best of all, as the adults prayed and read scripture and hugged and sang, the smallest of the children clambered around, playing on the new playground.

And there I stood, in the dirt of a tiny Mexican town, in my U.S. Army issue General Infantry combat boots, blue jeans, a t-shirt, and a stole. I’ve never felt better dressed for the great feast.

12 March, 2006

to give only love in return

And Jesus said, if any would become my disciples, let them deny themselves, and take up their cross, and follow me.

Sooner or later, when we tell the stories of our lives, and we’re going to tell the truth, we get to the embarrassing parts. The story of Jesus is no exception. People ask: “why are you a Christian?” and we say, well, to be a Christian is to believe in God. And to believe in Jesus. That Jesus, is some way we can affirm but not completely describe with our limited minds and clumsy language, is God incarnate. That Jesus was God, come to earth, looking like one of us, teaching us and showing us how to live.

And then, if you’re talking to someone from my generation especially, a strange thing happens. See, in this day and age people have heard the name of Jesus before, it’s kinda hard to grow up in America and not hear the name of Jesus, but we don’t know what it means. We know it’s associated with churches, and with God, and that whatever picture we have of Christians, we know that this Jesus fella is involved, but we don’t really know who he is. And, to this person, asking “why are you a Christian?” we begin to tell the story of Jesus.

How he grew up a peasant, how he was a carpenter for a living, but then when he came of the right age to be a rabbi, a traveling preacher, in his culture, he left his carpenter’s tools on the bench and went walking around from town to town. And then we begin to tell the stories of the great signs and wonders that the gospel writers tell us:
how Jesus touched a woman who had a fever and the fever left her
how Jesus made the blind man see
how Jesus made the lame man walk
how Jesus healed man who was deaf and mute
how Jesus turned the water into wine
how Jesus fed a huge crowd on a mountainside out of a kid’s lunch box
how Jesus walked on the water
how Jesus spoke to the wind and the waves and they listened, and quieted down
how Jesus raised the dead man Lazarus to life.

And then, when we’re done telling the wonderful stories, we tell them what we first teach our children: that Jesus loves everybody. That Jesus was a teacher, a healer, a reconciler. That Jesus shows us who God is, and what God is like.
God is not angry,
God is not vengeful,
God is not cruel.
No, God cares.
God heals.
God comforts.
God caresses.
God gives hope.
God loves.

And then…. And then… sooner or later, someone will ask what happened to him.

Well… um… he… he want to the capital city for a festival. And the government, the ones in power, they arrested him, and beat him, and stripped his clothes off so he was naked and ashamed, and they hung him on a big stick next to the street, and they stuck nails through his hands and feet so he couldn’t get away, and left him there until he died.

It’s at this point that some people just plain get bewildered, and get up and walk away.

I grew up a southern upper-middle-class white boy, in the suburbs. And here’s the gospel, the good news, I was taught as a child: it wasn't, "deny yourself, and take up your cross, and follow."

It was this: you can do anything you want to.

You are an American.
You have rights.
You can be anything you want to be.
You can go anywhere you want to go.
You can wear anything you want to wear, you can eat anything you want to eat, you can do for a living anything you want to.

You can achieve anything, if you just set your mind to it, and work hard enough.

Well, why can’t we just leave it there? That Jesus was a teacher, and what he taught, at heart, was the golden rule we teach our children: “do unto others as you would have them do unto you?”

Why can’t it be about truth, justice and the American way?
Why can’t we just leave it at “Be nice to each other?”

Because of the cross.

Because the cross is a reminder
—and I’m sorry we need it—
of all the evil and ugliness in the world that will not be denied.
Of all the power in this world that wants to become powerful by stepping on other people.
Of all the power in this world that is built on exploitation.
Of all the power in this world that wants to hold on to power, as long as it can, by any means at its disposal.

It is a reminder that even in high places, proper places, places that should know better, there is a lot of ugly, evil, cruel power in this world that crushes and hurts.

You know this to be true.

What our culture is interested in is success, not sacrifice. And the cross is a symbol of the acceptance of the pain and suffering of the world. That God came to earth, that he gave himself away, that he fed us and taught us and healed us and told us to give ourselves away and knew….knew… that there is selfish power in this world that doesn’t want to let go, and that he would, by preaching something different than what the powerful wanted, would come into direct opposition with that power, and that the results would not be pretty.

And he did it anyway.

To take up the cross and follow Jesus is to realize that we live in a world where the powerful want more, where success means control. But that’s not what Jesus did. He walked right into the buzz-saw of power, right up to the cross.

Bearing the cross, for me, means realizing that I participate in systems of oppression, whether I want to or not.

See this stole? You like it? Pretty, isn’t it? Handmade, one of kind. Let me tell you where I got it. Two years ago, my classmates and I took a trip just south of the border, to Juarez. We saw a number of church ministries there, saw some good work that was being done, participated as much as we could in a few days. One of the things we saw was a ministry aimed at an indigenous group of people to Mexico. They’re called the Tarahumara Indians, and they live in the Copper Canyon region. They are deliberately primitive people, deliberately living by themselves. But there was a famine a few years ago, and the people were starving, because they lived so close to subsistence level. The tribes sent some of their strongest and most able workers into the cities to earn money and buy food to send back to buy food.

There was a church mission to these native peoples set up in Juarez. A church group had come in, if I remember right, and built shelters on a hillside lot. Little things, 8 feet by 8 feet, maybe, cinderblock and plywood and tar paper. The whole lot was about the size of a typical suburban plot of land for a single-family home, and there were between thirty and forty people living on it. Ten little shelters. They had one toilet. One, between them. And one hose.

And I remember asking, why did they build the shelters on the side of this steep hill? Wasn’t there an easier place? And our guide said, “Oh, no, it’s not a hill, it’s a landfill. If you dig down six inches you’ll hit trash.”

I met one of the men, a quiet, reserved fellow. We had to talk through an interpreter. He came in to the city, and he worked in the factories in Juarez, the maquiladores. The factories, the maquiladores, exist because American companies can take raw materials, send them south, have them assembled in Mexico, and then ship them back north, more cheaply than could be done here in the states. The factories provide jobs for Mexican workers, and that’s good. But they provide jobs that pay, on average, about $7.50. A day. There are benefits, and food, and other intangibles, and the wages are rising. I’m told it’s ten times better there now than it was a decade ago.

But this guy still lives on a trash heap. And when they offered to sell us some of their native garments, we bought them. What would you do? This is a belt, in their native garb.

And I’m wearing it as a stole today, not to say, look at me, aren’t I pious, or to say, aren’t we great, to give charity to those in need. No, for me this is a reminder. A mark of shame, almost. Shame that there are places in this world where people live under crushing poverty. Shame that I contribute in any way, whether intentional or not. Shame that the man who made this with his own two hands lives in a house that’s smaller than my bathroom.

that’s just not right.

This is part of what taking up my cross and following Jesus means to me: that I recognize that, on a global scale, I live a life of unbelievable wealth and privilege. That my life, whether I like it or not, is embedded in a society in which such injustices happen. When I can, when I know and when I have a choice, I try to do the right thing. To buy fair trade. To give an honest wage for honest work. Because, so the gospels tell me, God made all of us, every one, in God’s own image. But I don’t always know. And I get up every morning, and say, Lord, have mercy on me. I can’t help some of the things I do.

Follow me, says Jesus, to the cross.

Jesus, the Christ, who saw, as Peter in today’s gospel did not, that true power is made perfect in self-giving love. Jesus also knows that the way of abundant life, the way of self-sacrifice, leads to the cross. And what God does is take that cross, that symbol of all the human cruelty in the world, all that power corrupted and turned to domination, and transforms it.

The cross tells us who God is.

God identifies with human suffering,
God identifies with the powerless,
God identifies with the lowest of the low,
God absorbs the worst humanity has to dish out, and gives love in return.

And that, I think, is the essence of our calling:
To give only love in return.

11 March, 2006

...am I saved?

They tell me that doing Clinical Pastoral Education is about facing your fears.

Facing the realities of life and death, evaluating your own theology. Everyone has monsters in the closet. It didn’t take long for me to have to face one of them. God, it seems, is not without a sense of humor. Then again, I’ve known that for a while. Even the staging was good.

It was my first overnight on-call shift. Being the overnight on-call chaplain for a 400-bed hospital means that you’re the one who carries the pagers, the one who responds when somebody wants to talk to the chaplain, even if it’s 3:00 in the morning. You’re also the one who answers the emergency page when somebody stops breathing, one of twenty people, all from different disciplines, who read their pagers, decode the locator message, and drop what they’re doing and move as swiftly as they can to the patient. Seconds, they tell you, are critical.

As the chaplain, of course, you’re not next to the patient. The bed will be ringed with physicians and nurses, doing CPR, evaluating, barking orders. You’re across the room, watching. Praying, if you do that. (But not all chaplains do.) The chaplain is usually out in the hall, watching, waiting, praying with the patient’s family.

The on-call pager at my hospital was set to a particular sound: a strident three-beep repeating pattern that would halt all conversation and freeze everyone in the room. It still haunts my nightmares. No other pager was permitted to sound like that. It was a sound that meant, somewhere close by, a human being had stopped breathing. Somewhere, close by, eternity beckoned.

The first time they hand it to you, it weighs a hundred pounds. You feel the weight of it on your belt, pressing against your waist, even if you normally carry something there. The first day I carried it, I kept reaching down to touch it. To check the battery. To confirm the reality. And you know, you know, that the damn thing is going to go off. Like the starting gun at a race, but worse.

In one of the chaplain offices, high in one of the towers, in a mostly unused hallway, there’s a back door. Through the back door is a tiny cell for the on-call chaplain to sleep in (if you get any). A tall person can stretch out and touch both walls at the same time. Tiny bed, nightstand, bathroom, TV bolted to a stand high up on the wall.

It was my first night. I’d been like a runner at the starting line, tense for the sprint, all day long. I’d been handed the dreaded pagers at noon, and all day long I’d carried their awful weight, the weight of unanswered and unanswerable questions, the weight of death and pain.

Knot in the stomach, sweaty palms, thoughts chasing themselves around the ceiling at breakneck speed. I had set up the tiny room in combat-ready fashion: Clothes laid out, pagers at the bedside, finally convincing myself to get undressed and try to sleep—if a patient coded at 3 a.m., the extra 120 seconds to get dressed wouldn’t really matter all that much. I couldn’t help staring at the pagers a few times before turning off the lights. I surprised myself by being able to fall asleep.

I was up, adrenaline racing, lights on, halfway out the door in my underwear, before I remembered to breathe. It was the ‘regular’ pager, not the emergency one. It was a few minutes to midnight, and somebody wanted to talk to the chaplain.

Tonight, that meant she got me instead.

The patient was in the last stages; only days, or hours, left to live. Cancer everywhere—lungs, breast, abdomen, brain. She looked terrible. Hairless, shaking, with an oxygen mask covering her face. A picture taped to the wall told of her former head-turning beauty, a sad contrast to how she would meet her end. I had to lean over and strain to hear her as she struggled to get the words out.

Am I saved?

I tried the mirror technique first. “Are you saved?” I asked, hoping to draw her into further conversation. Good try; no banana. She asked me again.

Am I saved?

Then I asked what she thought, and she told me she didn’t know. Slowly, laboriously, with me leaning over the bed, ear next to her mouth, she told me the story of her life.

The Bible says this, and that, and I did these things...
is my baptism valid, if it was done this way...?
If I lived this way, did this and such, is that okay...?
Is there anything else I need to do?

Well, who am I to judge, anyway?

I don’t think that there are entrance criteria to God’s love. I firmly believe that God doesn’t keep score. I could never imagine an enormous roll of parchment, held by a tired old angel with a quill pen, on which the names of every baptized Christian was recorded. Nope, sorry, you didn’t quite go all the way under the water when you were baptized—-straight to hell for you. Just like Achilles and his heel. Next... let’s see, how about you? Oh, too bad, your priest turns out to be a child molester, so the sacrament isn’t valid. Well, at least he’ll join you in hell to keep you company.

I asked her, “What do you think?” How are we to be saved?

“I was baptized,” she gasped. “I confessed my sins. I confessed…the name of Jesus…” she trailed off into unintelligible mumbling.

Let’s pray about it, I suggested. She closed her eyes; I thought she was asleep for a minute. Then I realized she was weeping. That was a mess. Snot in the oxygen mask, all over the cannula. And then a moment of real panic—she couldn’t breathe. Had to clear away all the stuff so she could get some air. (I could see the headlines: ‘Patient drowns in her own snot during prayer with chaplain; student sued for malpractice’)

We prayed. It took a while. She had difficulty focusing, difficulty finishing sentences, difficulty breathing. It became clear that she had done everything she thought she needed to do, but she was worried that there was something else. She didn’t want to be left out of glory on a technicality. I don’t blame her.

It's now 3 a.m. The city is still. eternity beckons.

Am I saved?

She’s asking God, but she gets me instead. I stood up and put a hand on her forehead. “Yes, you are. It is enough. Be at peace.”

God have mercy on me if I’m wrong.

10 March, 2006

blogging Episcopalians

In the information age, we spend vast amounts of time and energy getting computers to connect.

But my question is: what does it take to get people to connect?

In one of her 'vampire chronicles,' Anne Rice called this a culture of "frenzied isolation." That's a phrase so apt, and so delicious, that I've adopted it as my own. And every time I say it out loud in a group of people, heads nod. We are busy. Not just busy, crazy-busy. Too busy to take time for our families, much less our neighbors.

So what does it mean that I've now joined a ring called "Blogging Episcopalians?" There are over 200 members. I spent an hour or so looking over the list of sites before joining the ring, and the vast majority are like the vast majority of Episcopalians I know: thoughtful. Deep. Insightful. Faithful. You could spend a whole day reading blogs on that list, and it would be a day well spent.

But am I adding to the problem? One more voice in the cacophany?

My current solution is, as with many things in the faith: to hold it in tension and let it stay there. My need to be in real, physical community, in tension with the reality that many of us today perceive a significant part of our lives through the lens of membership in a community that is present in all places and none.

09 March, 2006

would you like to dance?

Based on these Bible readings.

I want to talk to you for a minute about dancing.

My wife and I have recently started learning a new dance. Lindy hop, specifically. A relatively new couple in the parish, Jeff and Aimee, teach dance, and throw regular Friday-night dances in a dance studio just south of here. They were the ones who did the recent workshop here in the parish hall. And if we ask them nicely, we might get them to do it again once in a while. Now, for those of you who don’t know us that well yet, my wife and I love to dance. She’s been my dance partner longer than she’s been my wife, and we spent a significant amount of our courtship on one dance floor or another.

Learning a new dance is an interesting thing. Coming to it as dancers who know other steps, there are some similarities. Some are basic things like rhythm, counting, dancing with a partner, one of you leading and the other following. Some of the patterns are similar, too. There are underarm turns, hand changes, spins, that sort of thing.

But there are also some differences. The basic step, the thing you learn first, is eight beats of music instead of six. The style, the feel, is subtly different from other kinds of swing, and dramatically different from classical ballroom dancing. There are things in our muscle memory that have to be unlearned. Things that once worked now don’t.

Thankfully, we’re at the delightful stage of laughing with each other over little things like blown leads and my mysterious inability to count to eight. We have a community of regular dancers helping and encouraging us, and all of us are learning together, at our own speeds.

* * * * * * * * * *

Five hundred years before the birth of Christ, God spoke these words, in the mouth of the prophet Isaiah:

Do not remember the former things,
or consider the things of old.
I am about to do a new thing;
now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?

These were words first spoken, or written, we don’t really know which came first, after the nation of Israel had been defeated by the Babylonians, and many of the people had been carried off into exile in Babylon. And there, in exile, they asked themselves, has God abandoned us? How can we be God’s people if we can’t go to the temple? How can we be God’s people if we don’t have a king? How can we be God’s people if we’re not our own nation?

And God said: fear not. Don’t worry about the former things. I am still with you. I am still your God. You are still my people. See, I am doing a new thing. Are you paying attention? Can you see it? I will show you a new way to live.

Five hundred years later, as we hear in today’s reading from the gospel of Mark, four people carry a paralyzed man on a mat, bringing him to Jesus, and lay him at Jesus’ feet. The crowd watches, and waits. Everyone knows what they want. Everyone knows what, presumably, the paralyzed man wants. He wants to be healed. He wants to walk. Everyone waits, holding their breath, for Jesus to heal him.

But that’s not what Jesus does. He says, instead, your sins are forgiven.

There are scribes in the crowd, teachers of the law. Keepers of the tradition. Interpreters of the scripture. And they say “hey, you can’t do that!”

Now, I think most Episcopalians would make good scribes. (even better Pharisees) And that’s not meant to be derogatory. We’re keepers of tradition. We’re teachers. We know how things should be done. We worship using an ancient liturgy, using a pattern that has not significantly changed for centuries. We respect the wisdom of the spiritual masters of faith. We even know how we like our music, don’t we?

So the scribes question Jesus. Hey, you can’t do that! No one can forgive sins but God. That’s not your place. But Jesus responds: God is doing a new thing. Are you paying attention? Can you see it?

Oh, and you? Get up. You’re free.

* * * * * * * * * *

One of the holy places in the world for me is a little church on the top of a hill in the middle of San Francisco. It’s called St. Gregory of Nyssa, and if you’ve heard of them it’s because they’ve become famous for their style of worship. They are, in some ways, a quintessential urban San Francisco congregation. They serve really good coffee, they have an active homeless ministry, they’re active in all the social justice concerns of the city. And they do some odd things. The architecture is odd, there are painted icons all over the ceiling, they have two rectors. I used to call them “St. Gregory the weirdo.”

We lived out there a few years ago, and some friends came to visit over Easter weekend. And they convinced us, well, no, dragged us kicking and screaming is a better phrase, to go to the great vigil at St. Gregory’s. You have to realize that the great vigil of Easter is my favorite day of the year. And I didn’t give it up lightly, but I really loved the people who were visiting, and so we went.

Now you might think, after I’d grown up attending Baptist and Methodist and Lutheran and Mormon and jump-for Jesus Pentecostal and Catholic and other various flavors of churches, that I might run out of ways to think, “no, I’m sorry, that’s just too weird, church just can’t be done that way.” But I found one more way to make we wonder what the heck was going on.

It was packed. Sardine-can packed. So bad that one of us got claustrophobic for a while and had to step outside. The room where they celebrate Eucharist together is about as big as the altar area here. Icons painted all over the ceiling, icons of dancing saints. There was incense. And I mean, lots of incense. Great billowing clouds of incense. Not an instrument in the building, expect a handful of Tibetan prayer bells, and the voices of the congregation. And, at Eucharist, they sang. In parts. And... danced. Around the table.

Each person had their right hand on the shoulder of the person next to them, and their left hand holding a service book with the music. The steps were simple. Right, left, right, back. Right, cross behind left, right, back. And, like all new people to the congregation, I was trying to read music and remember steps and not step on somebody and not kick somebody.

It sounds chaotic. And it was. It sounds awful. Definitely out of the box. Sounds quite un-Episcopalian. But you know what else it was? Glorious. As in, the glory of God made manifest. I know, because I’ve tried to describe it before, that it’s something I can’t capture in words. And I know that many of you are like me, wouldn’t go to do something like that unless one of your favorite people on God’s green earth came and begged you to go like my friend Jason did to me.

And I looked around with new eyes. And I saw the members of the church feeding the hungry. And sheltering the homeless. And caring for and grieving with and praying for the thousands and thousands dying of AIDS in the city.

And I said, "God is doing a new thing. And I wasn't paying attention at first."

* * * * * * * * * *

The early spiritual masters of the eastern orthodox church described the nature of God, who we typically affirm as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, as an eternal dance, a relationship of movement and interaction in mutual love, honor, respect, and joy. In John’s gospel, Jesus prays that the disciples, that we, might be one as Jesus and the Father are one, that we might be in him as he is in the father, inviting all of us, all of creation, into the great dance of joy that God wills for all creation. In this understanding, some of us ‘sin,’ deliberately step out of the dance, corrupting its rhythm, crashing into other dancers, pushing and shoving and stomping on feet. Then, in Christ Jesus, God enters creation to restore the beauty again, to teach us the new steps, to call us back to an ever-widening dance of joy that includes all of creation.

It is into this great dance that we are called. And each new age means that we need new steps. The basic patterns will be the same, but, like us learning the Lindy hop, the dance will be different enough that we’ll have to pay attention, unlearn old habits, and learn new ones. There are things in our muscle memory that have to be unlearned. Things that once worked now don’t.

Because as people join the dance, the dance changes. As the music of the age changes, the dance changes, in subtle ways, still with the same beauty and order, but with new steps and new style to fit the new day.

And that’s okay. Because God leads. And it is God who invites us to dance.

(Today is the feast day of St. Gregory of Nyssa.)

07 March, 2006

never let anyone else cut your grass

I once heard a bit of advice from an old Lutheran pastor: never let anyone else cut your grass.

Once a week, maybe even on Sunday afternoon, mow it yourself, and edge. Trim around the trees and flowerbeds. Then sit on your porch, crack open a cold beverage, and just gaze at your lawn in all of its ordered splendor. And say, "I have accomplished something. It is done. I did it. I am proud of it. And now I can rest."

I laughed at the time. It was supposed to be funny, after all. But a joke with a ring of truth. There's precious little in this vocation that has the satisfaction of a job done. Most of it is seeds sown, or plants watered, or ground tilled.

To continue the metaphor, what we're about to do during our lenten series, starting tomorrow night, is fertillizing. Fertilizer smells bad, and too much can be dangerous, and it can be combined with other ingredients to create death and destruction. We're doing the sometimes dangerous work of examining and questioning something absolutely vital to the Christian story.

Tonight, my version of cutting grass was changing the oil in my truck. Insides cleaned and wiped down, outside washed, oil and filter changed, used oil stored in sealed container for delivery to recycling station. Tools cleaned and put away.

And then I just stood there in the driveway, in the dusk, gazing at the car.

Maybe the old man had a point.

04 March, 2006

through Him who strengthens me

from today's daily office readings: Philippians 4:13

"I can do all things through Him who strengthens me" is a great phrase. I had it on the back of a T-shirt in high school. And the way I was taught it as a Bible-school memory verse, it meant:
* with God I can do anything.
* I can overcome any obstacle
* I can defeat any enemy
* I can achieve anything I set my mind to
* with enough hard work, and if I live according to the modern purity rules, I can succeed.

I look back at that Sunday school class and think: how very American. Local boy makes good, overcomes obstacles. Just me and my God, and that's all I need. Cue the stirring music, and I'll be off to slay some dragons....

But, as one of my favorite seminary professors said, the key to interpreting Biblical texts is context, context, context.

In Philippians 4, Paul is basically saying to that early church, 'oh, you wanted to send me some money, but couldn't? Well, that's sweet of you. But I don't really need it. I've learned to be content in whatever situation I find myself.'

Not quite diametrically opposed, but that sure is different.

03 March, 2006

well, yeah. But it's for the kids.

I heard the Holy Spirit speak today. The exact words were: "Well, yeah. But it's for the kids."

The church we attend (or serve) has an preschool and elementary school as our biggest ministry. Church schools are a good thing in general, and I don't think so just because I'm the product of a church elementary school. But sometimes, indeed more often than we might like, the church/school relationship isn't happy. You hear muttered phrases like "those people" who are taking up "OUR space." Across the country, last time I checked into statistics, something like 5% of school parents are also members of the church that runs the school.

Schools and churches are, in some ways, fundamentally different communities, with different goals. Schools are about learning: math, reading, science, music. They're very structured. Churches, on the other hand, sometimes function with little to no structure whatsoever. Churches are about reconciliation, repentance, covenant relationships, worship. Christian Education is a fundamental part of what churches do, but not the signal purpose of the community.

It's all too easy for that relationship to be like two ships passing in the night, since the two rarely share the same space at the same time.

But, I'm happy to say, not here. We threw a gala fundraiser tonight. You know the drill: auction items, dinner, a little entertainment (in this case, the auctioneer himself). You have to do fundraisers, because church schools do not and should not make any significant profit.

And church familes came. By the tableful. And gave lots of money to the school.

I overheard the same conversation at least five times.
Mary: did you bid on anything?
Joe: we bid on [basketball tickets/handprint art/bottles of wine/etc]
Mary: Oh, that was you? That's a lot of money for [what you bought].
Joe: Well, yeah. But it's for the kids.

02 March, 2006

it looks like I think I'm Jesus

Saturday night, as I was doing my usual pace-the-floor, mutter-to-myself, bite-my-nails routine, my beloved pointed out to me that I've never, not once, liked a sermon I'm about to give.

Hmm. Pause. blink. try to remember one....


It seems that I've fallen into the trap of thinking I'm Jesus. Hmm, this ditch looks familiar. I've been here before.

Sometimes you end up in the ditch even when you know it's there. In CPE, trying to learn to be a hospital chaplain, I got myself into this funny cycle. I would go to 'classes' in the morning, and then see patients in the afternoon, after lunch and until 5 in the afternoon. Then I started staying later. Then a little later than that. Then I started working through lunch.

I was assigned to a floor, two wings, probably twenty or thirty beds, plus a huge outpatient clinic. The routine was pretty clear: get list of inpatients on my floor, go up to the floor, check in with the nursing staff, then go knock on the doors of the new patients. Introduce myself, see if they wanted anything, pray with them if they asked. Go back outside. note visit on chart. repeat. Go see people I'd seen in previous days. repeat.

twenty beds might not seem like much. But think about the length of the last meaningful conversation you had. An hour? half that? There were people who were only there for a day or two, undergoing treatment or procedures, and if I didn't hurry I wouldn't see them at all. So I stayed, later and later. It was the day I walked out of the hospital and it was all the way to full dark that was the beginning of the epiphany.

I went for a long walk and had a talk with God. And here's what God said: hey, buddy, you're in my chair.

I'd started thinking that I had to see every patient, had to pray with each one, or they wouldn't be healed. Or wouldn't feel good, at least. If you asked me if that's what I was doing, I'd say no, of course not. But then I stepped back and reviewed where my feet and hands had been for a month, and I realized that I thought I was Jesus.

it was actually funny, in a way. I did manage to laugh at myself. later.

So now, here I am, the first-year preacher. Never satisfied with a sermon text. Spending more and more time preparing. Constantly thinking about the next sermon. Devouring preaching textbooks with a ravenous, unsatisfied hunger.

Hmm...this ditch sure does look familiar.

01 March, 2006

Remember that you are dust

Herr, lehre doch mich
dass ein Ende mit mir haben muss
und mein Leben ein Ziel hat
und ich davon muss.

Roughly translated:
Lord, teach me to know that all things have an end. And that I will also have an end.

So begins the third movement of Johannes Brahms’ Ein Deutches Requiem, one of the first major choral works I learned as a young musician.

Today is Ash Wednesday. Today, those same somber opening lines are our prayer. Today, we consider the truth of our own mortality.

We live in a culture that has a curious love/hate relationship with death. The evening news, each and every day, reports death and destruction, the more brutal and bizarre the better. But most other places our culture wants to hide the reality of death. Funeral parlors make our loved ones look as if they’re peacefully sleeping. When someone dies in a hospital, they’re taken out using the back service elevator. At funerals, the casket is usually beautifully polished wood, and a sheet of green Astroturf covers the newly-dug earth from the grave, and we leave before the earth is replaced, if not before the casket is lowered into the ground.

One of my seminary professors had the idea that we should come to funerals in blue jeans, carrying a shovel in one hand and a bottle of scotch in the other. We should all take turns filling in the grave, because at funerals everybody desperately wants something to do, but there is nothing that can be done. And then we should all go get rip-roaring drunk and tell stories and celebrate the life of the one we’ve just buried.

I told you when I got here that I would always try to tell you the truth from this pulpit. So here’s your bit of truth for the day: we are all of us, every one, going to die. Our bodies will stop working the way they work now, in all of that wonderful complicated mysteriousness, and we will decay, and eventually, sooner or later, the stuff that we are now will crumble to dust.

So what of that?

Well, I’d like to share with you two lessons that I learned from a large group of people who had a certain perspective on death.

While I was at seminary, I did a course called “Clinical Pastoral Education,” CPE for short, in which I was more or less a hospital chaplain intern for the summer. I did my rotation at the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. I spent a whole summer talking to people who had been warned by their physicians that they had a short time to live.

The first thing to take away from those conversations were that the patients I saw didn’t concern themselves with small things. It’s almost cliché that knowing you’re going to die means that you tend to focus on the important things. In fact, there’s a country western song out right now about the guy who’s diagnosed with cancer and goes skydiving and decides to be nicer and all those sorts of things.

But many of the patients I saw told me something you might not expect. And that was that knowing that they had only a limited time to live gave them freedom that they didn’t think they had before. Freedom to speak to those they loved, when they had been silent for too long. Freedom to take actions that they had always wanted to or needed to do, but had put off for another day. Freedom to redraw the map of their lives, how they spent their time, what they were willing to put up with.

And that leads us to the second thing; I hope thinking about our mortality will give us a renewed sense of urgency.

This past weekend, at diocesan council, we had some prayer time before each session would begin. At one of those sessions, the bishop read the necrology, the names of people from our diocese who had died in the last year. Well, right at that moment, I had stepped off the floor, and as the necrology was being read I was way in the back of the room, out by the entrance to the hall. And I realized, as the bishop read the names, that standing there next to me was a friend, someone I’ve known for several years now. That friend has been diagnosed with cancer, and I’ll admit that it was a little bit of a shock to realize that next year, the name of the person standing next to me might be on the list.

It is with those things in mind: our own mortality, and hopefully a sense of seeking the important things in life with a certain urgency, that, in the words of the prayer book, I call you to a holy Lent. Holy in the sense of set apart. A period of time, a season, set apart for a purpose, for sober, solemn reflection on who we are as God’s people, and what we are about.

At Easter, we celebrate God’s great victory over death, we celebrate our adoption as God’s children, we celebrate that we are set free and redeemed and sent out to do God’s work in the world. At Easter, we celebrate the resurrection. Yes, we are dust. Yes, we will die. That’s true. But it’s also true that nothing is destroyed in death that God cannot and will not resurrect.

I urge you to make this a season of reflection and rededication.

Not a season of self-denial for the sake of strengthening your own will, though that’s a good thing in its own way.

Not a season of doing without something so that it will taste all the sweeter on Easter for its absence during Lent, though that’s true too.

But instead, like the cancer patients I talked to, a time to take an honest look in the mirror. A time to acknowledge our own sinfulness, our own faults and limitations, and in that honesty find strength.

The readings for Ash Wednesday are here