Thursday, March 26, 2015

Strange Lent

This has been a strange Lent here at the new Bradley/Hopkins House in Hornell.  Ash Wednesday was the day we closed on this house, and the next day the moving began.  Now it is nearing the end of Lent and we are still at it.

Moving is its own spiritual discipline, especially with the desire and need to simplify.  I am not sure anyone who visits us who had been in our Rochester house will notice a huge difference, but we do.  I have given away hundreds of books, with four more cases ready to be taken to the seminary in Rochester and another to the public library.  We've also passed on some furniture to family members and just plain thrown out a lot of stuff.

It does feel good to be surrounded by books again in my "work" space.  They are like old friends. I tried to keep only the books I need for reference and those which I am likely to pick off the shelf and search for that odd paragraph that is in the back of my mind.

I am seven weeks into medical retirement and still feeling my way.  This too is very much a spiritual discipline, although I do not feel very good at it yet.  I am settling into something like a writing discipline and have just about decided on a certificate program to work on at Alfred State.  I'll let the world know what it is when I am certain.

Life is good and I feel relatively well.  I get a twinge of guilt occasionally that I feel well enough that I should be "back at it."  I have gone "back at it" enough times to know, however, that is a very bad idea, at least for now.

I ran across a question asked by Margaret Guenther in her book At Home in the World.  "Is there a place for holy uselessness in my purposeful life?"

I  think I am beginning to discover that the answer is yes, but a very paradoxical yes. More on that some day.

Thursday, March 05, 2015

Are you __________ with me, Jesus?

Malcolm Boyd, who died a week ago tomorrow at the age of 91, famously ended a poem entitled "Morning Prayer" with the question "Are you running with me, Jesus?"  This question was also the title of a book of prayers, poems and reflections he published in the 1960's, in his ongoing attempt to bring Jesus to the real lives of people.  The prayer bears repeating in its entirety:

A Morning Prayer
It’s morning, Jesus.  It’s morning, and here’s that light and sound all over again.
I’ve got to move fast . . . get into the bathroom, wash up, grab a bite to eat and run some more.
I just don’t feel like it, Lord.  What I really want to do is get back into bed, pull up the covers, and sleep.  All I seem to want today is the big sleep, and here I’ve got to run all over again.
Where am I running?  You know these things I can’t understand.  It’s not that I need to have you tell me.  What counts most is just that somebody knows, and it’s you.  That helps a lot.
So I’ll follow along okay?  But lead, Lord.  Now I’ve got to run.  Are you running with me, Jesus?
By the title of this blog I want to suggest that we could insert anything into the blank and ask an appropriate question.  Are you crying with me, Jesus?  Are you tempted with me, Jesus?  Are you bored with me, Jesus?

When I first read these words many years ago, I thought the question a rhetorical one.  Of course, the answer is "yes."  I still believe that, but I also believe what I think Malcolm was also trying say.  The answer may very well be always "yes," but that does not mean it is obvious.

I know from reading Malcolm and hearing him speak and talking with him on one occasion, that he has a relationship with Jesus that can rarely be shaken. But he never talked about this relationship--or lived it, for that matter, it is my impression--in facile ways.  He knew in his own life what most people of faith know if they've gotten very far on the journey, that being sure of Jesus' presence was being sure of the presence of mystery, at the very least the presence of an equal partner, unwilling to be controlled as any of us are.  Jesus is a partner who can be deeply compassionate and intensely challenging at the same time, and rarely answers a simple question with a simple answer.  Jesus knows that there are no simple questions, and, therefore, no simple answers.  This is one of the things that becomes very clear as you read any of the Gospels.

It is very easy to give up on a God who is even more complex than the average person.  But I think it is even easier to give up on a God who must be understood by everyone the same, experienced like everyone else, having set the world in eternal order.  You do not have to live long to discover that the world is anything but ordered, and not just because our bad choices cause the disorder.  The disorder is endemic to divine creation and divine being at least as much as it is endemic to human living and being.

The heart of Malcolm's Morning Prayer was not actually the question at the end.  It is the statement a bit before that.  In my own paraphrase, "You know everything, even the many things about my life.  And it is not like I suspect, or even want, you to figure it all out for me.  What counts most is just that somebody knows, and its you."

Jesus is the one who knows everything about us and runs with us still.

Here's a good Malcolm quote to end with:

"However one might pray - in any verbal way or completely without words - is unimportant to God. What matters is the heart's intent."
Read more at brainy quote.

P.S. It was fun to learn that Malcolm was a fellow native Western New Yorker.  I never knew (or have long forgotten)
that he had been born in Buffalo, NY.

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Disability Retirement

As of February 1st, my status with The Church Pension Fund is "Disability Retirement."  I am grateful to everyone who helped make this happen.  It took a village.  I have been granted two years before a re-evaluation.  During the second of these years I may "work" a minimum amount, and a may return to work after the two years, either fully or partially.

In some places I have been using the term "Medical Retirement."  I chafe at the label "disabled."  Its use is hierarchical and, ultimately, judgmental.  It is part of the cultural worship of productivity being the primary measure of one's worthwhile existence.

I am going to use the coming Lenten season to shape my life with God's help.  First and foremost in seeking to just be, being honest about the ways in which my being is a source of constant struggle and temptation and, therefore, in need of healing.  I will look for some volunteer work to do that has nothing to do with the church, in fact I will have nothing to do with the church save being a Sunday communicant.

The challenge in all of this will be, as much as possible, to integrate my bipolar disorder into my life.  This will not be, I believe, giving in to it, i.e., giving it control over my life.  It is, however, a part of my life that will never go away.  I am weary of fighting it, including having to call forth the extraordinary energy required to mask it publicly.  That is what finally broke me last year, when I could not summon forth the public persona anymore.

It promises to be an interesting journey of much trial and error, with God's help, and that of my family and friends.

Monday, January 26, 2015

The Different Path

Sermon preached on the 3rd Sunday after The Epiphany, January 25, 2015, at St. Michael's Church, Geneseo:  Mark 1:14-20

          Last week I spoke of the simple invitation that is ours to make to the world: Come and see.  I argued that this simple statement is the essence of what we mean when we use the word “evangelism.”  It is the free invitation to explore beginning a different path on the journey. 

          Today we have the equally simple invitation of Jesus to all of us:  Follow me.  And “immediately,” Mark the Gospel writer says, Simon Peter and Andrew drop their nets and follow, and soon after, “immediately” again, John and James did the same.  Jesus offered these fishermen a different path.

          What is this different path?  From this text the path is described by Jesus in this way:

The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the good news.

          Something is up.  Something good and something new.  We are on the verge of it; it is happening now.  Our response is to “repent and believe.”  Apparently this is the path and these are the actions we must take to heed Jesus’ words, “Follow me.”

          The words “repent” and “believe” have both become encrusted with layers of theological muck.  They have become words of threat, control, and power over others.  “You need to repent and believe the way I believe.”  But this is not their gospel meaning at all.  In fact, correctly understood they are transformational and inspirational words.  The Greek word translated “repent” is metanoia, and it means change your mind, turn around, look at and see something different, open yourself to something outside yourself.  Likewise, our word “believe,” in Latin is credo, from which we get the word creed.  I sounds like a “here’s the program, get with it” kind of word, but it is actually a journey word.  The Latin root of credo is the same as cardia, “heart.”  Credo literally means “I set my heart upon,” or “my heart desires.”

          So what Jesus is saying is something like this:  pay attention to the path you are on and open yourself to a new path.  Find your heart’s true desire, what you seek, what you long for, and let it be your guide.

          And one more thing, implicit in this text:  this path can only be taken with others.  There is no solo journey to the kingdom of God.

          The dynamic we are talking about here is another word that tends to make Episcopalians anxious:  conversion.  It is another word that needs to be broken open and un-encrusted.  Its root is Latin also, convertere, literally “to come together,” used mainly in the sense of “to turn around” or “to transform.”  Its use in Latin is very similar to the Greek word metanoia.  What this tells us is that conversion happens when things come together for us in such a way that they catch us up, transform us, change us.

          Repentance, belief, conversion; all of these words are journey words.  They are not ends in themselves, but signposts along the way.  They happen not in a moment, but throughout a lifetime.

          There is a most likely apocryphal story about a Church of England Bishop who was stopped by a street preacher in London who asked him, “Sir, are you saved.”  His response:  “Young man I have been saved, I am being saved, and I will be saved.”

          It is a good answer.  Salvation for us is not a moment in time but the journey of a lifetime.  It might very well involve significant moments, but those moments are of small importance unless they transform us for the long run.

          So Jesus calls us like he called fishermen to a journey that may very well require us to change our minds, see things differently, understand and act on our longings and our gifts to add to the journey we are all taking by virtue of our baptism to life in the kingdom of God.

          Jesus offers these four disciples a metaphor tied to their own lives that might help them to live into his call to them.  “I will make you fish for people.”  He gives another metaphor near the end of his Gospel, one that has proven over time a means of grace and transformation.  “Take, eat: this is my Body.  Drink, this is my Blood.”

          Jesus says, receive these very ordinary things and experience my extraordinary love, and then go and do likewise to the world.  Be sacrament in the world.

          We have had a very short time together, shorter than I and perhaps many of you would have wished.  But this has been a moment of conversion, when my life and yours met at a particular moment in time and, by the grace of God, we are in a different place, farther along the path, then when we met.  And all by the grace of God, not necessarily our intention.

          I sense that my gift to you has been a glimpse of what priestly ministry can be, and perhaps what you need it to be in this time and place.  I don’t take the credit for that.  God made it happen.

          And you have given this priest a settling of my spirit, a time when I could live in the moment and pay close attention to the longings of my own heart.  Ironically, the support and love of this community has given me the courage to do what I need to do, and, indeed, what I believe God is inviting me to do and be.  After 25 years of fairly intense ministry, while at the same time trying to manage a mental illness, and reaching a profound breaking point, it is crystal clear to me that I must follow Jesus by letting go, at least for a time.

          It is counterintuitive, but it is my experience that a true call from God for any of us is often just that.  It was not what was expected.  But it was at the same time what made sense.

          Remember this as you call a new rector and begin ministry with her or him.  It is the way of God that what is unexpected is actually what makes sense.  I will remember this as well as my journey continues.  It is what Jesus means when he says to each and every one of us, Follow me.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

25th Ordination Anniversary

Saturday, January 10, 2015 was the 25th Anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood.  I was ordained by The Rt. Rev. Ronald Haines, then Bishop of Washington, on behalf of the Diocese of Chicago, at St. James' Church, Washington, DC.  Dr. Verna Dozier was the preacher.

We had a great celebration of these 25 years last Saturday at St. Michael's, Geneseo, with Bishop Prince Singh presiding and our dear friend, The Rev. Canon Susan Russell preaching.

Here's a link to pictures taken by the diocesan Communications Missioner, Matthew Townsend:  25th Anniversary Photos.

And here's a link to a video/audio of Susan's sermon:  25th Anniversary Sermon

Thanks be to God for 25 years.  Susan is right, they have been costly, but they have also been grace.

Sunday, January 04, 2015

The Encounter with God

Sermon preached on the Second Sunday after Christmas, January 4, 2015 at St. Michael's Church, Geneseo.  Readings for The Epiphany:  Isaiah 60:1-6, Ephesians 3:1-12, Matthew 2:1-12

          Right before Christmas I got into a conversation with some folks in a Facebook group of which I am a part.  Someone raised the question about belief in God and a lively debate ensued.  The consensus was that nothing should be believed that cannot be scientifically proven.  I suggested that faith and science were not opposites but friends.  The moderator for the day immediately shut down the conversation and went so far as to remove the thread from the list.

          One person messaged me privately and said she would so like to have faith.  She could see how it could be helpful in her situation and she was sure it brought great comfort to me, but couldn’t I offer just a little proof.

          I don’t have proof, I said.  I only have my experience.  She didn’t reply.

          In many ways what we celebrate in this time we call “Epiphany” is the mystery of our experience of God.  One of the fundamentals for us is that this experience is open to everyone.  That is what the prophet Isaiah was pointing toward as the people were re-building Jerusalem after returning from the exile in Babylon.  It is what Paul is talking about in the reading from Ephesians today.  And the Gospel story of the visit of the magi to the child Jesus is a story meant to show us, among other things, this great truth.  The encounter with God is open to everyone.

          I happened on the word “encounter” to describe our experience of God in a collection of the written and spoken words of Pope Francis during the first year of his time as pope.  He speaks in a homily of our calling to “promote the culture of encounter.”  It seems to me he is speaking of the value of “epiphany.”

          Francis speaks of the “culture of encounter” as being in opposition to the dominant “culture of exclusion or rejection,” which is fueled by the social values of “efficiency and pragmatism.”[1]  By this I think he means that in our world we have a tendency to throw away anything that is not a clear means to an end.  We live in a culture of disposable things, and inevitably this clouds are thinking about one another.  In the 1980’s we began talking about the “me generation.”

          It turns out it was not a generation, but an increasingly deeply held social value.  If you cannot be of use to me, I have no need of you.  Francis says,

Be courageous!...Have the courage to go against the tide of this culture of efficiency, this culture of waste.  Encountering and welcoming everyone, [building] solidarity…a word that is being hidden by this culture, as if it were a bad word—solidarity and fraternity: these are what make our society truly human.[2]

          This is exactly what is going on in the story of the magi, not only in the visit of these strange, foreign people to Bethlehem, but perhaps even more important, their choosing to leave “for their own country by another road.”  Going back to Herod was a choice they could have made.  They would not only have been received well, but rewarded handsomely.

          Yet their encounter with the child and his mother encouraged them (literally “gave them the courage”) to choose a different road, a different journey.  What was it about this encounter that gave them this courage?

          The story does not say.  It only says they gave the child gifts and paid him homage.  In other translations, they “worshipped him.”  The gifts they brought were true gifts, in that they seemed to have expected nothing in return.  And yet they did receive something, the thing that caused them to go home by another road.

          To “worship” someone or something is to give them worth.  Indeed the English word was originally “worthship,” the bestowing of worth.  I believe what happened in the magi’s encounter is what happens for us every Sunday.  We come to worship God and, if we allow ourselves the epiphany, we discover that God returns the favor.  We give worth to God and God gives worth to us.  And we only truly experience this when we recognize and set aside our tendency to make it about me, and discover that our true worth is in our solidarity with one another, a solidarity that must grow, unceasingly breaking down barriers set up when we act as if some people are worth more than others.

          That would have been the road back to Jerusalem and to Herod.  But the magi had come to do homage to a king and experienced in doing so that he returned the favor, and that experience gave them the courage to choose a different way home.

          Pope Francis, it seems, is trying to change the culture of the church, from a culture of exclusion to a culture of inclusion.  We Episcopalians have also been experiencing that change and it is a painful one.  We have experienced that walking the path with God is as challenging as it is comforting.

          The church as a whole has acted like an exclusive club for so long that my Facebook acquaintances, and much of the world around us, only have that lens to understand what it is we are about.  I despair sometimes that the radical solidarity that is the true Gospel, will ever be able to be heard above the noise of the culture of exclusion alive and well in both the church and the world.

          Yet we are invited over and over again to walk the different way and let us continue to do so with determination and, whenever we have a chance, invite people to experience this different road.  Come and experience the God the magi encountered in Bethlehem, who gave them much more worth than they could ever give him.

[1] The Church of Mercy: A Vision of the Church, compiled by Giuliano Vigini (Chicago: Loyola Press, 2014), pp. 58-61.
[2] Ibid., p. 61.  The bracketed text is in the original translation.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

An Upside Down World in Partnership with God

Sermon preached on the First Sunday after Christmas at St. Michael's Church, Geneseo, New York, a Service of Lessons and Carols using Luke 1:5--2:52

I'm willing to bet that, for almost all of you, this is the first time you have heard the whole of the birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus read in one sitting.

It is an extraordinary tale of visitations by angels and miraculous births, of daring dreams proclaimed has having come true, and of the Holy Spirit, in the words of another Gospel writer, John, like the wind, blowing wherever it wills.

In reading the Gospels it is important to remember that they were written, as it were, “backwards.”  They are not the result of dictation by someone who followed Jesus around, rather they are interpretation of Jesus’ life and death looking back from a post-Easter perspective. Each looks back, moreover, from a different reference point.

It is one reason why the birth stories in Luke and Matthew are so different.  Matthew looks back to Jesus birth with the reference point of Good Friday.  This child was the child born to die for the salvation of the whole world. Some have called Matthew’s birth, which we will hear next Sunday, the “dark side” of Christmas.

Luke has an entirely different reference point for looking back.  It is Pentecost, the experience of the Holy Spirit as the gift poured out on all flesh, the Spirit that creates a community of followers of the way of Jesus who become known as “those people who turn the world upside down” (Acts 17:6).

Here, at the beginning of his tale, Luke has already begun this theme.  As the Holy Spirit touches the lives of people in this story—Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, Simeon—their world is upended.  Nothing is left the way it was, nor ever will be again.

Perhaps the pivotal line in the whole story is uttered by the angel Gabriel to Mary, while sending her to her cousin Elizabeth, for a meeting of two extraordinary women who for all generations will testify to the world that "nothing will be impossible with God."

There is something very important in those words, something that hinges on the English word "with," which in Greek is the preposition παρα (para).  In Greek para is the preposition indicating “alongside of,” or “beside.”  So Gabriel does not say "nothing will be impossible for God," but, "nothing will be impossible with God or, literally, “alongside of" God.

It is tempting to hear these stories about the intervention of God in these folks’ lives and understand them to be examples of the kinds of things that can happen when God takes over a situation, does things "for," or even "to" people.

In one sense this is precisely the God we long for, the God who can do something “for” or “to” us, when we ask him to do so. We do not necessarily want the kind of uninvited visitations Zechariah and Mary receive, and the giving of new burdens or responsibilities they bring.

In his storytelling, Luke wants us to make it clear that this is not the kind of God we get.  We get the God of unexpected visitation.  God keeps his own calendar and plays it as close to his chest as the best card shark.

The unexpected visitation, however, is not for the purpose of doing something “to” us or “for” us.  It is for the purpose of doing something “with" us, alongside us.  So strong is this sense of “with” that these stories more than hint that in order to act in these situations God needs the cooperation of the human characters.

God needs Mary, needs her cooperation, needs from her something he does not have—human flesh and human freedom, the freedom to participate or not, to love or not, to hope or not.

The world often seems to us that it is in such a mess that only God can save it.  Well, no, actually, Luke says in these stories.  The world is in such a mess that only God and humanity, the Creator and the creature, can save it together, by their companionship in faith, hope, and love.

It is this very cooperation, participation, companionship that God wishes with us, for we are not fundamentally different from the characters in these stories nor is the desire of God for us any different than it was for them.  The desire is for a partnership of grace, that can bring new things out of old, change the world, raise us up to sing Mary's song about herself and her world about ourselves and our world.

From this day all generations will call me blessed.  The Almighty has done great things for me.  He has scattered the proud and lifted up the lowly.

What does this mean in our lives today? How does it begin, this working “alongside of” God?

One thing that gets said over and over again in these stories by the visiting angels is, "Do not be afraid."  The interior conversation that goes on in each of the characters does not get directly recorded, but in each one it involves a choice.  Shall I respond with fear or not?

Zechariah chooses fear.  We can identify with that, can't we?  He is muted, which is not so much a punishment as it is the natural result of his fear.  It is what happens to us as well, is it not, when we choose to be anxious and afraid?  Does not our anxiety and fear often cause to say “no” to love?

And Zechariah's tongue is loosed when he dares to cooperate with God.  He writes, “His name is John.”  That represents his conscious choice to be God’s partner in a new endeavor, upending the world of his privilege and his credentials, his ancestry, the letting loose of a new power in his life and in the world.

This is one important thing that the Christmas message is all about—a new partnership formed between us and God, the result of which is the fulfillment of the message of the angels:  Glory for God, peace for us.

Peace is impossible for us to bring about on our own, either in our own hearts or in our world.  If it were possible we would have done it long ago.  Likewise, peace is impossible for God to bring about on God's own, again, either in our own hearts or in our world.  If it were possible for God to do alone, he would have done it long ago.

Peace in our own hearts and in our world is only possible with God, in the partnership of our saying “no” to fear and “yes” to hope and a new, different possibility and allowing God the Holy Spirit to bring to birth in us our own salvation, as she did in Elizabeth and Mary long ago.

How do we begin?  It is in our daily lives as simple as heeding the words from a favorite Christmas carol.

O hush the noise, and cease your strife, and hear the angels sing.[1]

Listen.  Hear the angels calling us to be God’s partners in the fulfillment of the good creation.  For nothing will be impossible in partnership with God, a partnership orchestrated by the Holy Spirit.

[1] From “It came upon a midnight clear,” words by Edmund H. Sears (1810-1876).  Found in The Hymnal 1982 at # 89 and #90.