By Ozma1981 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9986942

Of Rocks and Pointy Hats

This is now the umpteenth time I have tried to write this article and started over. It always ends up being too long, too abstract, or too complicated to communicate its message effectively. We’ll see if this one works, so here goes…

What I want to do here is set out, as plainly as possible, the convictions that led me to the point of being confirmed in The Episcopal Church. This is a risky career move for me. I have served as a minister of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church (USA) for several years. Being confirmed by the bishop is regarded by the Presbyterian Book of Order as an “act of renunciation”, whereby my ordination in that denomination is rendered null and void. In other words, confirmation was a point of no return for me. If things didn’t work out, I could not simply turn around and seek another pastoral call in a Presbyterian congregation. Therefore, I had to be sure that this was the right move for me.

And I eventually came to the conclusion that it was.

My journey to The Episcopal Church began fifteen years ago, during my senior year at Appalachian State University. I had recently fallen out with the charismatic fellowship that I had attended through my undergrad years. I loved the immediate experience of the divine that the charismatic movement emphasizes, but became disillusioned with the theological narrowness and lack of scholarly depth I found there.

I knew I loved liturgical worship, based on my experience of the Jewish Siddur and semi-regular attendance at Roman Catholic Mass, but each of those traditions presented me with a theological gap I could not cross with integrity. Around that time, I picked up a copy of The Book of Common Prayer from a local religious bookstore and fell in love. I visited the local Episcopal parish and finally felt like I had found what I was looking for.

At this point, I had already set in motion my plans to attend an evangelical seminary in western Canada. While there, I would meet, fall in love with, and marry a woman who was preparing for ministry in the Presbyterian Church. Her little congregation welcomed me with open arms and quickly adopted me into the family. It wasn’t the church I had planned on joining, but I figured it was the best way to support my new wife in her ministry.

There’s a lot that I will skip over at this point, for the sake of brevity, but I eventually joined my wife in the Presbyterian ministry. I figured the Reformed tradition was “pretty close” to Anglicanism and intended to make the best of things as an unusually high church Presbyterian. The nineteenth century Mercersburg theologians, John W. Nevin and Philip Schaff, were most helpful to me in this endeavor. I considered Mercersburg theology my “Rosetta stone” for translating what I believe about the Gospel into terms that Reformed Protestants could understand. At the time, I thought the differences between Reformed and Anglican Christianity were mainly cosmetic and political in nature, but I eventually came to realize that those surface variations overlie two related-but-distinct theological structures in the hearts and minds of believers.

In academic terms, the primary difference between the Reformed and Anglican traditions is ecclesiological. Translation for those who speak plain English: Presbyterians and Episcopalians have very different ideas about the definition of the word Church.

To illustrate the difference, let’s look at a particular passage of Scripture that has great import for Reformed and Anglican Christians alike, but is interpreted in vastly different ways by each of the two traditions.

The passage in question is Matthew 16:13-20:

“Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah.”

Presbyterians and other Reformed Protestants come from a confessional tradition. Christians in the Reformed tradition believe that Simon Peter’s confession of faith in Jesus as “the Messiah, the Son of the living God” is the “rock” on which Christ builds his Church. The Church, according to Reformed theology, is the spiritual fellowship of all believers who make the same confession of faith in Jesus Christ and are thereby reborn to new life by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Roman Catholic theologians, on the other hand, are adamant that the “rock” referred to in this passage is Peter himself, whose name translates literally as “rock”. They have gone so far as to carve the words of this passage into the dome above the altar of St. Peter’s Basilica in Vatican City: “TU ES PETRUS”. This passage forms the bedrock of Roman arguments for Apostolic Succession and Communion with the bishop of Rome as essential marks of the Catholic Church.

Anglicans, in true via media fashion, have declared that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. The Catechism in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer describes the apostolic nature of the Church as consisting of “the teaching and fellowship of the apostles” (p.854). We affirm the importance of Peter’s confession, but also acknowledge that person-to-person fellowship with the apostles themselves (through their successors, the bishops) forms a vital part of our communion with the Catholic Church.

Concerning Peter himself, Anglicans see him as a spokesperson and stand-in for the rest of the apostles. We stand with Eastern Orthodox Christians and early patristic testimony that the bishop of Rome deserves a certain honor as primus inter pares (“first among equals”) in the collegial fellowship of bishops, but does not exercise “universal jurisdiction” over other dioceses or bear the charism of personal infallibility when speaking ex cathedra.

For Anglicans, the importance of the episcopal office is firstly sacramental, not governmental. The bishop, as a successor to the apostles in college with other bishops, is a symbol of the unity of the Church across space and time. At confirmation, baptized believers make their public profession of faith in the presence of their bishop and receive the laying on of hands as a way of expressing the unity of the Catholic Church as God’s means for extending the kingdom of heaven on earth and transmitting the anointing of the Holy Spirit within the ecclesial community. For the same reason, bishops are further entrusted with the ministry of ordaining priests and deacons.

Anglicans, along with Orthodox and Roman Catholic Christians, insist that exercise of episcopal ministry within the Church must be personal because God’s redemption of the world in Jesus Christ is likewise personal. About this personal quality, and its importance to the Christian gospel, I will say more in the next article…

Transitions and Tribulations

Dear Superfriends and Blogofans,

Thanks so much for keeping up with me on this blog. I haven’t been very good about updating it this year, for reasons I will get into shortly. Today, I am resolving to begin again in this new season of life.

So, here’s the story:

It has been a year of dramatic, repeated, and painful transitions for me. In the last quarter of 2016, I reached the conclusion that I needed to leave my pastoral position at North Presbyterian Church, Kalamazoo. I loved that congregation and they loved me back. Serving them was never easy, but those three years were the happiest of my life so far. The main reason for leaving was financial. The congregation was running out of money. Even though I kept accepting pay cuts, they were still allocating a higher and higher percentage of their budget to my salary. The situation was untenable and leaders, ordained and lay, were quickly burning out. After much thought, prayer, and consult, I decided that leaving was the right thing to do.

One bright spot in this transition is that I decided to take the opportunity to join The Episcopal Church. This is something that has been in my heart for the last fifteen years. I “married into” the Presbyterian Church (USA), where I have served for several years, and have happily pastored two fantastic congregations with them. I have been honored to serve at my presbyteries and the General Assembly. My decision to leave has nothing to do with conflict or disappointment with that denomination. I leave with only gratitude in my heart for the PC(USA) and the wonderful people who worship and serve there. The issue is that my core theological framework has always been Anglican, which is related to (but also distinct from) the Reformed tradition. There are certain theological convictions that I have come to hold dearly, for which there is simply no room in Reformed thought. More on those in a future article.

In March of this year, I started a new job in Community Development & Parish Administration at an Episcopal parish in nearby Battle Creek. This was a tremendous learning opportunity for me. For the first time, I was working as a staff member at a larger congregation, I was getting an immersive experience of daily life and ministry in The Episcopal Church, and I was seeing congregational life from an entirely new perspective. I learned more about finance and administration in seven months than I had in my entire life to that point. I got to do intensive research on church growth and discovered, to my great surprise, that there is actually some really fantastic research on the subject.

But all was not well. In the space of a few months, it became clear that the parish needed a trained and experienced bookkeeper more than it needed a community development person. My gifts and skills make me ideal for the latter, but I struggled to keep up with the former. The rector was concerned about parish finances, I was miserable, and my family was worried about me. I was not a good fit for the position and the position was not a good fit for me. Once again, leaving seemed like the right thing to do.

I struggle to convey just how disheartening it is to realize, twice in one year, that the church where you work is better off without you. Imagine the scene in Isaiah 6, when the Lord asks, “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” And Isaiah responds, “Here am I; send me!”

Now, imagine if God were to respond, “Thanks, but no thanks.” That’s pretty much what it feels like.

Since the end of September, I have been unemployed. I had a couple of irons in the fire, even an offer to teach college again, but those have fallen through.

Not all has been doom and gloom, though. I am investing all of my time and energy into my primary vocation as husband and father. I take care of the family and the house. I have had more time for my children than I have in years. The house looks better than it has in a long time. I am eating healthier and running six miles a week. I’m even learning how to cook, and discovering that I’m pretty good at it!

I am also looking forward to my confirmation in a week and a half. In that moment, when the bishop lays hands on my head, I will cease to be a Presbyterian pastor and will become an Episcopal layperson. This is the point of no return: my Presbyterian ordination will be nullified without any guarantee of ordination as an Episcopal priest. Imagine a circus act where an acrobat has to let go of one trapeze before the next one arrives. It’s a terrifying prospect, but it seems like the right thing to do. Here’s why I think so:

When I was ordained to the ministry of Word and Sacrament in the Presbyterian Church, I was asked the following question:

“Do you sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture calls us to believe and do, and will you be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God?”

If asked today, I would have to answer that question in the negative. My study of the early Church fathers and mothers has brought me to a fundamentally different understanding of the Church than the one expressed in the writings of John Calvin, the Westminster Catechism, or even the lovely Confession of 1967. There is much in these works that is good, but the differences between their ecclesiology and mine are substantial enough that continued service as a Presbyterian pastor would be a compromise of integrity. I will write more on this later.

At least six months after my confirmation, according to canon law, I can begin the process of discernment for the priesthood. The process can be expedited (at the bishop’s discretion) for those who were previously ordained in another tradition, but formation will still take several years, and there are no guarantees.

Some have suggested that I not take the risk to my career, but I think it would be the height of hypocrisy and cowardice if I were to claim to believe certain things about the apostolic nature of the Church and the authority of bishops, but refuse to reexamine my personal sense of call in the light of what I have come to believe. If am truly called to the priesthood, God will make the way clear. If not, some other ministry will emerge.

In the meantime, these new circumstances afford me an opportunity to live more deeply into the Benedictine principles that have given my life structure for the past several years. St. Benedict teaches that God is to be found in the most ordinary places and activities. Each day, I pray as many of the liturgical hours as possible and try to center my direction of the household on humility, gentleness, consistency, flexibility, hospitality, and sensitivity to others’ needs in my endeavor “to be loved rather than feared.” (RB 64:15)

I don’t know what the future will bring, but I can honestly say that I don’t hate what I am doing right now. I am finally coming home to The Episcopal Church. Tending the hearth is the single biggest contribution I can make to our family life, even more than a steady paycheck. Who knows whether my example might even present a helpful antidote to the toxic masculinity that is running rampant through our society right now?

My most pressing concern for the moment is whether this arrangement will be fiscally sustainable for us. I am prepared to take on part-time work, probably in retail, if we get desperate for cash.

In the long term, I hope I get the opportunity to make use of my ministry gifts in some meaningful way, whether I am ordained or not. Until then: Ora et Labora.

PAX.

By Waoceanu (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

God Is Not A Vending Machine

Preaching this week at First Presbyterian Church in Niles, Michigan.

The biblical text is Philippians 4:1-9. Click here to read it.

Every now and then, I come across an article online that describes a “scientific experiment” on the effects of prayer. Typically, these are conducted in a medical setting, where one group of patients has a group fervently praying for their recovery, while another group (called the “control group” in scientific circles) does not.

The “results” of these experiments tend to vary widely, depending on who is conducting or sponsoring the survey, but the central idea remains the same: if the recipients of prayer have a significantly higher rate or speed of recovery than those who were not prayed for, then religious people get excited that they have finally disproved the denouncements of atheists. If, on the other hand, there is no significant difference in recovery between the groups, secular humanists get excited that they have finally disproved the superstitious practices of people of faith.

One might think that I, as a member of the Christian clergy, would be rooting hard for the first result, but the truth is that I find both of these reactions equally unsatisfying. In fact, I find the entire idea behind this kind of experiment to be utterly absurd. I say this because I think experiments like this miss the whole point of what prayer actually is and what it is for.

This kind of test treats prayer as if it is a form of magic: effecting a favorable outcome of natural events through supernatural means. Even worse, it treats God like a cosmic vending machine: I put my money in the slot, press a button, and get the treat I want. I never even think about the vending machine unless I want something from it. Even then, I don’t think about the machine itself very much unless it breaks down, and fails to give me what I asked for. It’s fairly obvious that my relationship to a vending machine is inherently self-centered. And it’s not hard to see that a relationship to God in prayer, based on the same principle, is an inherently self-centered spirituality.

St. Paul talks about the subject of prayer quite a bit in today’s reading from his letter to the Philippians. But first, a little bit of back story…

The passage begins with a reference to an interpersonal conflict that is going on in the Church in Philippi. The major players are Euodia and Syntyche, two prominent members of the Church. They have reached an impasse in an argument. We, the readers, know nothing of what this argument was about. It might have been a difference of opinion on some important theological or moral issue, or it might have been as petty as a spat over the next potluck. Pastoral experience has taught me repeatedly that church conflicts often run the gamut between these two extremes, though typically, the loudest fights tend to happen over the most trivial of issues.

We don’t know what the issue was in this particular case, but things had gotten bad enough that Paul had to get involved. What I find most interesting about his response is that he does not address the issue itself at all, but scoots past it to care for the souls of the people involved in the conflict.

Paul says to them, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord.”

This is an interesting turn of phrase. On the surface, it looks like a general call for two people to find a way to agree with one another, but there is a deeper reference here as well. The words “same mind” should remind the readers of this letter of the same phrase, which appeared two chapters earlier:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

What St. Paul is trying to do here is coax these Church members to think outside the box of their self-centered conflict and re-orient their lives around the Gospel. This is the central point of all Christian spirituality: to move us from a self-centered way of living to a God-centered way of living; to see ourselves and our lives through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Paul says it again in the passage we heard from today, urging the members of the Church to “help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel”. He sees these sisters, Euodia and Syntyche, not as opposing parties in a debate, but as co-laborers for the Gospel of Christ. The question, for Paul, is not “Who is wrong?” or “Who is right?” in this situation, but “Who are we in Christ?” Paul is encouraging his readers to look at their situation, not from a self-centered point of view, but from a God-centered point of view.

So, how do we do this? How do we shift from our usual, self-centered way of living to the God-centered way of living? How do we begin to look at ourselves, our lives, and each other through the all-encompassing lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ?

St. Paul tells us how, and this is where prayer comes in:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Here we can see Paul’s understanding of the purpose of prayer. Prayer, for St. Paul, is not about getting the things we want from the cosmic vending machine. Prayer takes the joys and concerns of our life and reorients our lives around the story of God’s creation, redemption, and sanctification of the world in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ Jesus.

When we pray, our circumstances might very well change for the better, but that is not the ultimate purpose of prayer. Prayer changes us. Prayer leads us to look at our lives from a different point of view. Prayer leads us from a self-centered way of living to a God-centered way of living.

We practice this kind of prayer every Sunday in the liturgy. We are fed on a steady diet of Scripture and Sacrament, we name before God the various joys and concerns of our lives, we confess our failings and shortcomings, and we offer ourselves to the service of God in the world. But this is not just an activity for worship on Sunday. We need to be doing this every day in our own lives.

If you don’t have a regular spiritual practice outside of Sunday worship, I encourage you to start one. Take time every day to talk to God in prayer and listen to God in Scripture and silence.

There are many ways to do this. Devotional books and pamphlets abound, and they can be found online or in any bookstore. Personally, I use a more formal pattern of prayer called the Daily Office, which comes to us from the Benedictine monastic tradition. A form of the Daily Office can be found in The Book of Common Worship: Daily Prayer, which is published by the Presbyterian Church (USA). For those who are technologically inclined, there is an inexpensive app available for iPhones that follows this pattern. Just do a search for “PCUSA Daily Prayer” in the App Store. How you do it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you do it in some way that makes sense to you.

And I can tell you from firsthand experience that it works. Prayer works. It certainly has worked for me. It may or may not change my circumstances in the way that I want, but I know for a fact that prayer changes me, and I believe that prayer has the power to change you too.

My prayer for each and every one of you this morning is that you will find in this practice a new perspective on life, and that you will begin to view yourselves, your lives, and your world through the lens of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Amen.

Why Your Pastor is Actually Not Your Friend

Reluctant Xtian

*Disclaimer.*

dog collarI’m not wanting to be rude or put anyone off by this statement.  And this doesn’t come out of any recent personal issue or encounter.  And this is certainly not some sort of passive-aggressive way to get a point across to someone I’m reluctant to talk to in person.  That would just be bad behavior.

But this is a consistent point of confusion for many, and so I think it deserves a little blog article, and discussion if you wish.

*End Disclaimer*

Your pastor is not your friend.

It’s hard, because they feel like they are.

And this is not a hard and fast rule, by the way.  Some pastors do make a friend in the congregation, someone they can absolutely be themselves with.

But that needs to be rare.  It may not always be rare…and then things get fuzzy…but I believe it *needs* to be rare, for you…

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Wrestling With God

Today I am preaching and presiding over the Eucharist at Pennfield Presbyterian Church. Here is the sermon.

Click here to read the biblical text.

Back when I was in college, I had a pretty strict and narrow view of the Christian life. I thought that certain doctrines must be believed without question and certain moral precepts must be followed without deviation. If I followed these guidelines, or so I thought, life would inevitably work out well for me because I would be blessed by God.

All of this came to a screeching halt during my senior year, as I returned from a student mission trip to Eastern Europe. Just before I left, I was flirting rather intently with a lovely fellow student from my church, with whom I’d had on-again/off-again romance. I left for the trip high on cloud nine, thinking that we were finally about to get together for good. I thanked God for leading me to do things “the right way”: I was a serious student of the Bible, volunteering at my church, on the leadership team of my campus ministry, spending my spring break delivering presents to orphans in Romania, and about to begin a relationship with a wonderful person who I both respected and liked very much. I was doing and believing all the right things, therefore God was blessing me.

But life and relationships, as I have learned after a decade in ministry and marriage, are often much more complicated than that. I came back from that trip to find out she had met someone else over the break, had started dating him, and was moving to Mexico. This felt like a slap in the face at the time. What was the point of all that hard work if it didn’t lead to me being blessed in the way I want? I was utterly confused.

I’m not the only one who has had to deal with disappointment like that. A lot of people have very specific ideas about the spiritual life that don’t necessarily correspond to the way things actually are. People think that growing spiritually leads to material prosperity, inner peace, lessened doubts, better behavior, or harmony within the family unit.

As we should do with all things in life, I would like to test that hypothesis by holding it up to the light of Scripture.

In today’s first reading, from the book of Genesis, we get to spend time with one of my favorite people in the whole Bible: Jacob. God has been involved in Jacob’s life from the beginning. There were prophecies spoken about him while he was still in his mother’s womb. He was the heir of God’s covenant with Abraham and Isaac. He was destined to become the father of the twelve tribes of Israel. He had dramatic visions of angels going up and down between heaven and earth on a ladder. If anyone had a deep, spiritual connection with God, it was Jacob.

But does that also mean that Jacob had a smooth life, or that he was morally impeccable, or that he never struggled with doubt? Apparently not, according to the text of the Bible.

If we were to read the whole of Jacob’s story, we would see that he had a very complicated relationship with an overbearing and manipulative mother, a contentious relationship with his twin brother, and a tendency to lie, cheat, and steal to get what he wanted in life.

Jacob’s miscreant ways eventually led him to go on the run as a fugitive, after cheating his brother out of his birthright. He ended up living and working in a foreign country, where he was lied to and manipulated to a strange double-marriage with two sisters and a house full of kids who fought even more than Jacob and his brother had.

After several years, Jacob was finally forced to return home when he found himself with nowhere else to go. He was still terrified that his brother might be out to get him, so he sends his whole family and everything he owns ahead of him as a bribe, in a desperate attempt to manipulate his way back into his brother’s good graces. And so it was that Jacob finally found himself alone and empty-handed on a cold, sleepless night in the desert.

That night in the desert, Scripture tells us, Jacob was wrestling with something. The identity of the one with whom he struggled is not at all clear. At first, the text says it is a man, though some have speculated that it might have been an angel. Modern psychologists might theorize that Jacob was wrestling with his own unconscious self. But ultimately, as we learn from Genesis, Jacob is really wrestling with God.

Even though he is exhausted and in pain, Jacob refuses to let go. “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.” he says. The strange figure asks Jacob his name and then gives him a new one: Israel, which means, “He wrestles with God.” Taken aback, Jacob asks the stranger his name, and the stranger responds cryptically, “Why is it that you ask my name?” and blesses him. The story ends with Jacob limping off into the rising sun: wounded and blessed at the same time, having glimpsed the face of a God whose name he didn’t even know.

I think it’s fairly plain to see, by this point, that Jacob’s special relationship with God did not in fact lead to inner peace, good behavior, or the absence of doubt. This is why I like Jacob so much: not because he was a hero, but because he wasn’t. Jacob’s messed-up life reminds me of my own. And it gives me great comfort to know that, if God wouldn’t give up on someone as flawed as Jacob, then God won’t give on me either.

Jacob’s new name, Israel, means “he wrestles with God.” This name has been given to God’s people in Scripture ever since. In the New Testament, the Apostle refers to the nascent Church as
“the new Israel.” We are the ones who wrestle with God. We, no less that Jacob, limp our way through life, simultaneously wounded and blessed.

Faith is a struggle for everyone. None of us lives a life that is free of problems, failure, and inconsistency. We have family drama, raging doubts, character flaws, and dashed hopes. We are flawed and finite creatures in desperate need of grace.

The good news is that we also have a God who is not unaccustomed to meeting sinners in the midst of their own self-made mess. The great story of Scripture is that God, when we humans had foolishly tried to become the masters of our own destiny and instead become slaves to forces beyond our control, became a man and came to wrestle with us in the darkness of this world.

This God-in-the-flesh, Jesus of Nazareth, went toe-to-toe with arrogant and hypocritical religious leaders. He smacked his forehead repeatedly at his blundering disciples. He was exhausted by the seemingly endless needs of sick and oppressed people who came begging for his help. Finally, he stood silent and defiant before the mighty judgment of imperial Rome, in the person of Pontius Pilate.

God’s wrestling with the world eventually led Jesus to the cross, where he refused to strike back, but instead absorbed the blows of human violence into his own body. His death ended the wrestling match between God and humanity. Selfish humanity, it seemed, had wrestled with God and won.

But therein lies the trick, you see. Scripture and tradition tell us that Christ descended into hell after his death and proceeded to rip the gates open from the inside, thereby freeing the souls who were trapped inside.

On the third day after these things took place, God raised Jesus from the dead, overcoming the power of death and hell forever.

Brothers and sisters, this is good news for us who struggle. Knowledge of God’s boundless grace gives us the strength to be gentle with ourselves in our own struggles with sin and doubt. The resurrection of Jesus Christ means that we finite creatures are constitutionally incapable of out-sinning God’s infinite love for us. All the might of our selfishness, violence, and hate cannot stem the tide of divine grace. God loves you and there is, quite frankly, nothing you can do about it.

God’s grace also gives us the ability to be patient with others who struggle with faith. If I accept that I am utterly imperfect, but loved by God anyway, then I can extend that same grace to my friends, neighbors, and enemies.

Friends, faith is not about getting it right. It’s not about having the answers, or being free of doubt, or living morally impeccable lives. None of us is perfect. Life isn’t perfect.

In the face of life’s imperfections, faith is an act of courage that we undertake with all the storms of fear still raging inside of us. Faith is the refusal to let go through long, sleepless nights. And in the end, faith is the slow, painful limp into the sunrise, blessed with a new identity and a glimpse at the face of a God whose name we don’t even know.

Desert

My wife’s thoughts on her recent mission trip to the borderland.

the beautiful changes...

Listen here

DesertI stood at home and wept.

I wept at the sight of hostas and Queen Anne’s lace
   and petunias and lambs’ ears
   that grew
   while I was in the desert.
I wept in gratitude for rain I did not see or hear
   or feel on my skin
   when it watered my gardens
   in my absence.
I wept with shame that my garden can thrive in neglect
   and yield tomatoes that I do not earn and flowers
   that bud and blossom to my surprise.

I wept out of loneliness
   in my empty house while my family traveled without me
   jealous of those returning to homes
   filled with family and animals while
   my welcome was an overgrown garden
   and a swarm of houseflies.
I wept for the intimacy of the journeylaugh
   that we will not experience…

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Nothing Can Separate Us

First time back in the pulpit in several months. Delivered this morning at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Battle Creek, MI.

Click here to read the Lessons.

Back when I was working as a counselor for drug addicts in upstate New York, a client came to me one day with a question about spirituality. He was working the Twelve Steps program through Alcoholics Anonymous, which leans heavily on faith in High Power to help a person find sobriety. He had never thought much about God, but figured he should start by reading the Bible.

He asked me, “Where should I begin?”

And I responded, “Why not at the beginning? Start with the book of Genesis.”

“Why Genesis?” he asked.

And I told him, “Because it’s the only book I can read and find people more messed up than I am… and God never gave up on them either!”

That really is my favorite part of the book of Genesis. In it, we hear the story of four generations from an extremely dysfunctional family. It’s full of deceit, betrayal, manipulation, sex, and violence. I sometimes read it and wonder whether Abraham and his descendants belong in the Bible or on some sleazy daytime talk show.

The picture we get in today’s first Lesson from Genesis is perfect example of that. Jacob is on the run as a fugitive from justice after cheating his brother out of his inheritance. He finds a home and goes to work for his mother’s relatives in a neighboring country. Jacob’s uncle, Laban, lies to him about his contract and changes the terms without telling him. The women in this story, Rachel, Leah, and Zilpah, are tossed around like pieces of property and never get to have a say in their own destiny. After the section we read today, Jacob goes on to do some pretty crafty lying himself. The whole situation is a mess!

And that’s the point, I think. By preserving this encounter in Scripture, God presents us with a messed up situation that bears an awful lot of resemblance to our own messy lives. None of us is perfect; none of us lives in circumstances that are ideal. We mere mortals struggle to make the best of things in life and often fall short of our highest aspirations.

But here’s the good news: God never gives up on us, either.

Just like Jacob in the book of Genesis, we are part of a much bigger story that both includes and transcends the messiness of our individual lives. There is a sacred mystery at work within us and among us: some might call it the hand of God.

St. Paul tells us as much in his letter to the Romans, which is our second Lesson this morning. Paul says, “The Spirit helps us in our weakness.” Later on, he continues, “We know that all things work together for good for those who love God, who are called according to his purpose.”

The Apostle is bold in reminding us that our varied and scattered lives are part of an unfolding story that includes the entire universe and spans the whole of time, from the beginning to its end. In all of our struggles and temptations, we can trust that we are not alone. In the often painful and seemingly random events of our existence, we can trust that life is meaningful. We can trust this, Paul says, because there is One who has created us, loves us unconditionally, and will eventually weave the various threads into a single, unified, and beautiful whole. This is why Paul is so bold to declare:

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

In short, St. Paul is saying that life is meaningful because we are loved. You are loved. Sitting at your desk and stressed out of your mind, you are loved. Standing in a courtroom while a judge pronounces sentence, you are loved. Crouching in a foxhole while sustaining enemy fire, you are loved. Collapsing to the floor when you get a late-night phone call with awful news, you are loved. Lying in a hospital bed as a doctor says there is nothing more he can do, you are loved.

Love is God’s way of working in the world. That might not seem like much, but it changes everything. Jesus compared it to a seed in today’s Gospel: it starts small but grows into a place where others can make a home.

Even better, Jesus compares God’s work in the world to yeast microbes, which are too tiny and insignificant to be seen by the naked eye, but change the nature of bread. Leaven the dough with yeast, and everything rises.

That’s how God works in the world and in our lives: like yeast in the bread. Starting with a seemingly random collection of matter and energy, God adds something else, something living, to the mix and the whole thing rises. One might think the Almighty would impose the divine will on creation by force, but God chooses to work instead from within, using the smallest and most insignificant lifeforms in the cosmos: people.

When God set out to redeem the world from sin, God took on human flesh and lived among us in the form of a tiny baby, born to a pregnant teenager in what was basically the parking lot of a motel, in a backwater hick-town in an occupied territory of the most powerful country on earth at the time. Yet this seemingly insignificant baby, so the Church tells us, born to the Blessed Virgin Mary and laid in a manger in the little town of Bethlehem, is God Incarnate.

In the person of Jesus Christ, God loved us, healed us, and taught us to love one another. When we refused to listen to Jesus’ message and turned to the power of state-sanctioned violence to shut him up, God absorbed all of our human hate into the Divine Body. And then, on the third day, God raised Jesus from the dead in order to send us the unmistakable message: “My love is stronger than all of this. All your hate, all your violence, and all your power to deal death cannot stop the power of my love.”

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?

…No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Love is stronger than death, and nothing we do, nothing life throws at us, can separate us from it. It is the free and unconditional gift of God to us in Jesus Christ.

Friends, this is the Gospel. This is the good news of God in Christ. This is the message that we are called to proclaim to the ends of the earth: That there is nothing that can separate us from God’s love.

Just as God did for us in Christ, we are called to embed ourselves in the chaos and messiness of life in this world. We are called to share this world’s pain, to take it into ourselves, and perhaps find a way to heal some of it in Christ’s Name.

The irony is that the work of the Church doesn’t happen in church, but out in the world. We are called to meet people where they are and demonstrate to them, in word and deed, that they are loved. That is what the Church is for. Everything we do is for the sake of that one, singular goal.

That is why this parish hired me as your Community Development Administrator. I can’t do this work for you, but I can facilitate, guide, and encourage you as you do it. That’s why I want to get to know you, listen to your ideas, and open doors wherever I can.

And I certainly hope that, as you do this work of the Church in the world, you will hear anew for yourself the good news that we proclaim to this messed-up world: that you are loved.

Amen.

Sharing the Keys

One of the blessings that Christian faith brings in a person’s life is a sense of purpose. God has created, chosen, and called each and every one of us. Some are called to do this as bishops, priests, and deacons. Some are called to serve ministries within the Church, such as the Vestry, the Choir, or the Sunday School. Some are called to serve the community outside the walls of our parish. All of us are called to be the hands and feet of Christ in the world today.

To fulfill this calling, we need the Church to raise us up “to the full stature of Christ” (Eph. 4:13 NRSV). Through the Church, Christ baptizes and confirms us, reconciles us and heals us, enlightens us with the Word, feeds us in the Eucharist, and empowers us for ministry.

When new people come into the Church, they aren’t interested in simply being consumers of a product, nor are they interested in filling a pre-defined slot on a committee. They want to discover and realize that deep sense of purpose that God has placed in their hearts.

Christ understood this truth and used it to empower his apostles for ministry. He said to St. Peter, “I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 16:19). Do you remember getting the keys to your first car? Your home? Your office? With keys comes power. By giving away the keys of the kingdom of heaven, Christ is willingly stepping aside to make room for others. He shares his divine power so that others can participate in building God’s kingdom “on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 5:10). We, as members of Christ’s Body in the world today, must do the same.

This can seem like a scary thing for long-time parishioners. We wonder, “What if the person with whom I share power proves to be inept or irresponsible? What if their vision for the Church’s worship and ministry differs widely from my own? What if my own parish becomes unrecognizable to me?”

These are indeed frightening questions, but the alternative is even more terrifying. We might ask instead, “What if our parish ceases to be a dynamic force for good in our community? What if there are people in my neighborhood who do not yet know the love of Christ, or the deep sense of purpose that life in Christ can bring? What if one such soul were to visit us and find only a stagnant institution that is wedded to its own comfort, rather than invested in the gospel of Jesus Christ?”

Questions like these should chill us to the bone. To be sure, there are many parishes in the world today that fit this sobering description. I remember speaking once with an older parishioner (not at St. Thomas) who had a moment of clarity during a congregational crisis, when no new leaders could be recruited to continue the basic functioning of the parish. She was in her late 70s, speaking to a clergyman in his 30s. She observed, “When I was younger in the Church, I remember the older generation intentionally stepping aside to let us lead the Church in a new direction. It occurs to me now that my generation has not done the same thing for yours.”

To be clear, I don’t think the situation in our parish is nearly that dire. We are already making room for newer and younger people in leadership. The word “Youth” appears prominently on our signage, not because we have a large program for teenagers or young adults, but because we invite younger people to be present in all areas of parish life: Staff, Vestry, Altar Chapter, Choir, Sunday School, and Summer Breakfast Program can all point to persons under the age of 40 in their leadership. This is a great start. The next step is to learn from them, listen to them, and let their ideas and concerns challenge our status quo.

There is no competition here. We need each other. The solution is not for older or longtime members to go away or stop serving, but for those who currently have the power to share it willingly with those who do not. What we need from learned, experienced, and wise elders is mentorship.

Younger and newer members need the wisdom of their elders to guide them along the right path. Longtime parishioners need the dynamic energy of the young to drive them forward. If the Church was a car, the young would be the engine and the elders would be the steering wheel. Lose the steering and you have a dangerous wreck; lose the engine and you have a useless hunk of metal.

Christ taught his apostles saying, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant” (Mt. 20:25-26).

Let us lead by becoming servants to one another in Christ. Let us make room for one another in the leadership of the Church. Let us share with one another “the keys of the kingdom of heaven,” as Christ did with St. Peter. Let us set aside our power, our privilege, and our preferences and invite one another to fulfill the high calling that God has placed in our hearts.

On Being Living Stones

Abbot Andrew Marr OSB
St. Gregory’s Abbey, Three Rivers
Sermon on the Anniversary of the Dedication of the Abbey Church

Imaginary Visions of True Peace

altarWhite 1

Sermon for the Anniversary of the Dedication of the Abbey Church, May 9

The abbey church has been a profound delight for me to pray in since I first visited here to discern if I had a monastic vocation. I’m still here, so maybe I do. I missed out on the Anglo-Catholic setup we once had which I am sure was also beautiful, but I deeply appreciate the simplicity of our worship space that has nurtured me and many others for many years. Our church is something to celebrate.

Much as I love this building and its space, I think the best way to celebrate it is to reflect on how we can be the Church with the help of this Church building. Solomon admitted that the temple could not contain God since not even the heavens can contain God. Moreover, we hope we don’t need Jesus’ ministry of throwing money changers…

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