Why I Think You Should Join a Church

What is the church for?

I lead a parish and deanery, I work (overwork) for the institution, and I have for most of the last twenty years (I had a year off in 1998.)  I am an insider.  So I get naturally defensive when people say they are spiritual but not religious or Christian but don’t attend.

But I also get it, time is precious.  Why am I giving up the most precious resource I have for an hour or more a week? In a world like ours, with so many things competing for our time, with kids and work and activities, something that is going to ask for more has to have a purpose.  I get it.

The problem is that the church is inherently made up of people who assume that its importance is obvious and agreed to: people like me.  But as soon as I typed that first question I stopped.  I have a particular way of talking about this, and there is no short way around the question.

Jesus probably wasn’t intending to create a diocesan structure made up of parishes with a clergy person and committees and mission statements, much less a national church or pope.  So why do we have all of that and why should you join it?

First off, I think Jesus was inaugurating a reality, what he called the kingdom of God, which is the way things are but do not appear to be currently.  This reality is based in who God is, what God intends, who we are, and who we are to be in relationship to God, the world, and each other.

These things about the kingdom of God are true now, even though they are not obvious; that is why I am calling it a reality.  God is abba now.  He is loving and compassionate and made the world in love.  It is a complex world in which we have a role as God’s children and stewards, the caretakers of God’s creation.  We failed to live in our boundaries right from the beginning.  Eating the fruit of the tree of knowledge is an analogy that we still make true on a daily basis.

Jesus talks about humanity in terms of being God’s children.  This Hebrew concept still lives in our current language.  When my dad says that I am my mother’s son, he is saying that I have her character.  When Jesus tells us to live as God’s children, he is telling us to have God’s character, and then he carefully teaches what that character is.  We read about forgiveness and get stuck on needing forgiveness, but Jesus focusses in the Gospels on us being forgiving, on us forgiving other people’s sins.

We were to wake up to our reality, be born again into the reality of God’s abbaness (I made that up), our status as God’s children in Jesus, and that we have God’s Spirit dwelling in us, as Paul focusses on, teaching us, giving us life, and enabling us to embody God’s rule of love and compassion.  In this way we take on our full humanity as it was intended, mature human beings taking care of the world and living in peace and love with each other.

This work sounds soft in the face of violence, oppression, racism, economic exploitation, and environmental degradation.  But it is courageous and brave, honorable work. It is human.   It is the natural state of the whole and healthy human being.  This is obvious to all, even if rarely experienced.

So if this is the reality that Jesus inaugurated and taught and made real in his death and resurrection, taking away the consequences of our failure and revealing God’s love and forgiveness in his sacrificial death and bringing new life in his resurrection, then why the church?

Couldn’t we just live into that reality on our own? I think we probably can, but I cannot sustain it very long by myself.  I need a community to hold and mold me.  I need to be taught the teachings of Jesus and the Bible and our tradition.  I need to be told about the world that I can’t always see.  I need to be supported in the mad trust in a reality that seems at odds with the messages of my culture.  I need to be with other people who believe and who love that way.

And I want a place where I am treated that way, as a human being.  Not a consumer or merchandise.  Not a supporter or an enemy.  Not a machine or an idea.  Not an animal or a plant.

I completely understand that church has failed to be that for many people.  But I have hope.  And I am doing my part.  Jesus told religious people, the chief priests and elders in the temple, that the tax collectors and prostitutes were going into the kingdom of his Abba ahead of them.  That’s still true, I guess.  At least I know I have tasted that kind of love and reality in some strange places, like bars and back rooms with disaffected people.  But I so often get little tastes at church, where I put myself in the way of grace with a whole lot of people who are very, very different from me and find myself at home in the house of God with my family.

And like my own family, I get all kinds of frustrated and angry, but I also get loved and helped out, reminded and remade, and I am doing my part.  I am not just a recipient in church, I am a participant.  I am making the place along with a whole lot of really cool people who are not like me but not so very different either.

So yes, I think you should join a church and help to make it.  Help make it a little more like God’s house, full of human beings in our infinitude of graces and failures, care-taking creation and each other into a more holy human divine house of love.

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Crawling Up Next to God: Prayer 101

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How to Pray.  First off, let’s begin with a simple description.  Prayer is communicating with God.  So it is important to me as your priest (for the length you read this piece anyway) that you know who God is.  I believe in the God revealed in Jesus of Nazareth.  That God he called Abba, “daddy,” and spent a great deal of his teaching on his character as a loving, compassionate, healing, forgiving, who had a vision for “his” children.  We call that vision “the kingdom of God” where we love, care, heal, forgive, and live with each other in peace.  Oh, yeah, and care for the Creation.  We are made for this.

Now, my understanding for this is hugely shaped by my kids.  I love them and have hopes for them, and I want them to come and be with me, to talk to me, to be respectful and honest, to bring me their whole selves, and to grow.  I want them to live into my hopes for them, but that is not all of our relationships.

So how can this image help you pray?

  • First off, just be with God.  Pay attention to the fact that God is present.  How do you hug a Spirit?
  • Second, bring your self and your stuff.  God can deal with you in your pettiness and your world changing awesomeness. Read the Psalms and other prayers of the Bible. They are full of petty whining and greatness.
  • Third, be reverent which is just respect for the divine.  I would extend this outward from prayer.  Be reverent about the name of God and God’s children.  Human beings are holy (even if they don’t always live into it.)  Your prayers should be deeply reverent of God, human beings, and the Creation.  Just like my kids get my best when they speak carefully of others.
  • Fourth, just be with God.  Let yourself be loved too.  Too few of us are practiced at being loved.  Most people don’t know how great God’s love is.  It gets relegated to an idea (the cross or salvation or some creed.)  But the God I know and worship in Jesus is wildly in love with you.  Yep.  Even though you are weird and broken and tattooed or have those odd-looking chicken legs.  You know God knows those legs and loves them as surely as I love my children’s quirks and beautiful idiosyncrasies.

God wants you to hang out.  I miss my kids when they are off being themselves in other rooms.

Now, I am not a great dad.  I have issues with control and self-centeredness.  I embarrass my beloved family too much to even capture here.  But I want the best for them.  I want their wholeness, and I want my children to be responsible and free, loving and kind and good.  And I want them to share that part of them too.

I want to hear their stories and heal their hurts.  I want to let them handle what they can and defend them to no end.  And I am a mediocre dad.  Imagine what God must be like, loving and balancing love for seven billion of us.  Disappointed and hopeful, tearful and laughing.

So crawl up next to God and bring your whole self.  That is the essence of prayer.

Freedom in Servanthood – Finding the Right Kind of Bondage

The Bible has a number of paradoxes that cut right through the heart of our age.  I am always preparing to preach somewhere, which I love.  But I mostly preach in short form and don’t always get time to work out the more subtle paradoxes that show up. That and it isn’t okay to talk about BDSM at church.

So there is a culture of bondage in the world that doesn’t have very much to do with church.  Google search when the kids aren’t around.  People tie up their sexual partners and sometimes hurt them for pleasure.  This sadomasochistic relationship has been brought into pop culture more or less obviously by the Fifty Shades of Grey series of books.  They were so popular that these lit-porn books were being read on subways in the newspaper at least.  I did see women reading them in cars waiting to pick up kids at school and on a couple of planes.

Now, bondage isn’t a new phenomenon.  It has floated just below the surface of our porn culture for a long time.  It is one of those dark fantasies that no one admits in polite culture, and certainly not to a priest!  Yet the domination and submission game is well known in relationships where there is little leather.  Many couples play out this dynamic on more subtle levels.

I am struck that so much of the literature around bdsm (bondage submission sadomasochism) talks about the submissive finding freedom.  This parallels one of the central paradoxes of Christianity.

Freedom is the root of the word redemption.  The whole concept of redemption or to be redeemed is to be set free from bondage or slavery.  The Greek word “doulos” means slave or servant or deacon.  The word is extremely common in the New Testament appearing 127 times (Strong’s number 1401).  It is a title applied to oneself (Paul and Peter) and to others.  We are said to find our freedom in becoming servants to Jesus.

We have been set free by the cross and yet are to put ourselves in bondage to Christ.  Now clearly this is two very different ideas about bondage.  Fear not, dear reader.  I don’t think you need ropes to explore your freedom!  I think rather that many of us are looking for our freedom by doing whatever we want.  That is the cultural promise of freedom.

“Let it Go” is a popular song because it captures that adolescent search for freedom by shedding the clothes of your culture and family and wearing a miniskirt and bustier with highlights and cleavage to match.  This message is really deeply embedded in our media and our thinking.  “If only I could . . .” lies behind many fantasies and adulteries.  We go looking for the freedom we have already.

The problem is not our ability to choose.  Any of us could choose at any moment to go out and do just about anything these days, at least in America.  We are basically free.  The problem is not our number of choices.  The problem is our frustration with the choices we have made.  The problem is our frustration the outcomes our choices have given us, because one choice inevitably leads to another until we are forty looking at a life we feel like we didn’t choose.

On the other hand, the masochist goes deeply down into that powerless place and accepts it.  In that acceptance they find freedom.  Humiliation and pain are often a central part of the experience.  It is hard to not read that and hear Paul and the Acts of the Apostles in the background, the celebrations of sufferings and beatings.  So what is the difference?

There is first of all that when we place ourselves into the hands of God, we are not blindly putting ourselves in bondage to another human, a fallen creature who has both the capacity for love and violence.  We are told repeatedly in the Scriptures that we are safe in God’s hands, that we are loved, held, healed, made whole, safe.

Here it may be helpful to call up the images of the mothering nurturing God that are throughout the Bible.  But even in the male images of the New Testament there is a clear consistency about the nature of God. Jesus depicts God as Abba and then spends a great deal of teaching what that means, loving, merciful, compassionate.  Strong, powerful, even angry, but always in a protective way, endlessly forgiving wrong.  That means relinquishing our images of revenge and punishment.  The New Testament actually spells out that we are to give up our revenge and punishment fantasies.

The image of the bondage relationship is an image of the brokenness of humanity in flesh.  It is a depiction of bad theology, a God who is violent and punishing and a humanity whose job is to learn to submit to violence and control.

The image of the New Testament relationship between God and us is a God who is loving and healing and a humanity whose job is to submit to love and own the responsibilities of freedom and stewardship of the earth and each other, or to put it another way to embrace our full redeemed humanity.

I am deeply saddened by both Fifty Shades of Grey and “Frozen.”  Both portray a deeply flawed search for a controlling masculinity and submissive femininity that destroys the image of God we were created to bear.  We are called to be strong responsible men and women who are in relationships of mutual care, healing, and redemption.  Our freedom is meant to be responsible and allow us to love and heal others, to set them free.

You can’t set someone free with bondage.  Neither personally or nationally does that work.  It is bad theology, bad psychology, and horrible foreign policy.  There are times when we give up our freedom because we commit crimes.  But the longing of the human heart is to be free and responsible.  I do think there is hope in “Frozen” in that the sisters learn to love and rule their inherited kingdom.

I have hope that our culture that worships freedom can learn to love responsibly, but right now we are still singing “Let it Go” right now and trying to bind that which we can’t control.  We still see responsibilities as limiting our freedoms, personally and politically.  We don’t seem to understand the call to be children of God, who are loved and called to love, provided for and called to provide for others, whole and free by a grace that is not our own doing.

That is the bondage here.  We bind ourselves to others in responsibility to love, just as Jesus took up the cross to bear the sins of Jerusalem and the world.  We bind ourselves to our obligations, but in them we find a freedom and wholeness in identity.  It seems vital that this be a choice.  God never forces us, never ties us up, never beats us into submission.  We choose to be adult children of God who love as we are loved.

The image of this I have after looking at the Fifty Shades culture is of Tiny Hands International, a ministry that my wife and I support.  They do work around addressing sex trafficking and have orphanages in Nepal, India, and Bangladesh.  The story of men and women going into brothels and stopping traffickers at the borders to set free these girls and boys, women and men in very real and destructive bondage never fails to awaken my heart to hope and humanity, even as their reality breaks it.  Freedom and responsibility.

Tiny Hands does more than just set them free, but works to provide a life, a home, and a living for these human beings to help them get to the place where they can be fully free and responsible.  These commitments take years sometimes to live out.  I am proud that my wife, really, has kept us committed to one little girl who is not so little anymore for more than seven years.  This young woman is part of my children’s prayer life and our financial life, though we have never met and only seen each other in pictures and letters.

Her life is deeply tied up in ours, and the work of Tiny Hands and that small tie of financial commitment has meant more to my own and my family’s freedom and humanity than I can ever relate.

As a pastor and priest, I am deeply concerned about how our bad theology and search for freedom is destroying our humanity in Christ.  I am concerned as a father about what those desiccated images of masculinity and femininity can mean for my children and for those victims of violence and sexual abuse around the world.  I am concerned how my own choices have bound me and sometimes even set me more fully free.

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Don’t worry, I don’t have Tillich’s drawer full of secrets anywhere! The articles about this subculture have been very open in psychological journals and Time magazine since the Fifty Shades books and now movie have gone mainstream.  There are lots of articles without pictures out there!  But as Uncle George says, “There’s more ways to tell who fell in the drink than falling in there yourself, I think.”

Ontology and Prayer – Entering God’s Court

or How to Make a Simple Topic Everyone Knows Really Amazingly Boring

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As a priest of the church and a pastor I have the spiritual gift of obfuscation.  I can take the most amazingly simple thing that anyone already has deep experience of and make it long, dry, and almost incomprehensible.  It is really impressive to watch.  I can use long words for common ideas.  Where one syllable will do I can use forty.  I can craft sentences of Pauline length with neither clarity nor purpose but that make you feel like you have heard something both understandable and meaningful when really you’ve just heard me blowing wind with no Spirit.

I try not to use this gift.  But as we come to the third part of our Trinity of Formation I want to be clear and concise and understandable.  I want to, but the topic lends itself to poetic philosophy, and I like the sound of words.

In our Anglican-Benedictine model, we have looked at the Office and the Eucharist, Father and Son.  They both demand submission in a way: Office to the universal praise of the Church Universal and to the Father’s world; the Eucharist to the community of royal heirs priesthood and the Reality of the Rule of God.  We turn now to the Spirit and prayer.

The Holy Spirit is described analogically as breath or wind.  It is this ethereal quality that makes it hard to talk about with any clarity.  Add to that the Spirit and language about her is always feminine, and our tradition is very masculine dominated and therefore less fluent in the language of the feminine, and you begin to see why we just don’t have good words for the Spirit’s work.

I am personally frustrated by trying to read anything about the Holy Spirit because it falls into one of two camps.  There is the language that feels ungrounded in anything but emotion and built with fluff.  It is “airy” language and borders on feeling New Age, to use that hackneyed christian insult.  (I use the lowercase to designate a cultural but not faithful use of the adjective.) Writers who base all they have to say in experience and resort to stroking emotions and Chicken Soup for the Soul stories and reflections to the get across blunt unformed opinions that reflect both a lack of depth and Scripture.  It feels fake and shallow.  The christian section of your local bookstore is filled with this stuff.  It is little better than New Age writing except that Jesus is mentioned.

That sounds bitter, but this kind of writing and reflection almost pushed me out to the church.  When it passes for formation and teaching, it becomes destructive because it separates the disciple from reality and the Bible.  It shows up in every sector of the church, so I don’t want to point at Pentecostals, Evangelicals, or Catholics alone.  (Episcopalians tend not to publish much of this stuff, because when we want inspiration we turn to NPR apparently. See here.)  I know that it is inspirational to many people, but I really thought I had to leave the church to find real grounded thinking for a long time as a youth.

On the other hand, trying to read Moltmann’s The Spirit of Life is not the most soul-feeding work for most people.  It is good theology but grounded in a vocabulary of insiders.  The vast majority of work on the Spirit feels either ungrounded of buried in church jargon.  I say “vast majority” but what I mean is really not very much.

“Serious” theologians avoid the Spirit for the most part or say so little as to be useless.  See Tillich’s third book in his trinity.  Count the number of times he talks about the Spirit.  Even N. T. Wright, whom I read with relish and mustard like ballpark franks, says almost nothing about the Holy Spirit.

I have found a few resources that are worthwhile.  But mostly I end up flipping pretty fast when it comes to the Spirit, too.  So as a reader, I might have skipped something, but I also have come to understand.

It is hard to talk about the Spirit.  Jesus says that you can’t see where the wind comes from or where it goes in reference to the Spirit and Spiritual People in talking to Nicodemus.

In our formation model, the Spirit though is a whole lot easier to talk about.  The Spirit is freedom.  She breathes and moves like wind through the world creating, shaping, and giving life.

So in our prayer life, we come to the third leg of our practice, which is what most of us call prayer, or talking to God.  I want to give you a definition that is more poetic.  Prayer is letting the Spirit have you.  

I mean free prayer, mental prayer, prayer of the heart, however you want to talk about individual being in community with God.  It is far more than talking to God, but it includes just talking to God.  We enter the Spirit like we open our arms into the wind on the beach after a run.

We let God breathe into us in the Spirit.

That is prayer.  Paul uses very similar language.  The Spirit moves within us, in our spirits to pray and make new.

There is a whole lot of new science that points toward neuroplasticity, that our brains continue to grow and form new patters and pathways for neurological signals.  Many of us have the idea that our brains get certain patterns and get stuck in those patterns.  We got that idea from science, which assumed that nerves did not continue to grow or regrow after trauma.  Science was wrong.  Newer science shows conclusively that we can not only change neural pathways, but new neurons are being born and growing all the time.  This means that we continue to learn.

The Spirit is making us new as we allow the Spirit to create us through study and thought, but also through prayer when we let the Spirit move through us, teach us, and pray through us.  When we open the Bible, we are saying in essence, “Spirit, teach me.”  When we enter silence and let the Spirit breathe through us, we are saying, “Holy Spirit, make me.”

This is not airy language, it is Biblical and scientific!

In our model, it is also practical and individual.  It is practical because just as we submit to the church’s praise and community, we submit to the Spirit’s work within us and learn things more deeply than either praise or community can teach us.  It is where we internalize the work.  We take that formation into prayer and let it be worked on, or opposed.

The Holy Spirit does not only confirm but also sifts and discerns truth for us.  It is this discernment that is also vital.  While submission to the church in time and community is important to formation, so is learning to trust the voice of God speaking in the Spirit within you.  You are an individual and God works with individuals, as much as with the Church and church.

In this prayer there is tremendous freedom.  Martin Thornton makes the point in several places that this freedom in prayer is a balance to the submission of Office and Eucharist.   In the Anglican tradition we have Julian of Norwich and Margery of Kempe.   Both of these women had visions and writings that would be considered heresy, except that they weren’t.  Both were honored in their day and still hold their own as deep theological women of the church.  He credits this to the freedom offered in our tradition by having a solid foundation in the other two functions of formation and prayer.

So pray wildly.  Let the Spirit have you.

Before I end, let me say why ontology and Entering God’s Court.  The Spirit makes us human.  Our being (ontology) is contingent on our having been God-breathed clay.  When we let the Holy Spirit breathe in us and use us, we are returning or turning to our true being.  It is amazing to me that this work, while deeply individualistic in nature, actually turns us outward to the world and each other.  It should, therefore, make us better stewards of creation and more human in our relationships, responsible and relational, as well as worshipful and reverent.

The Spirit comes from the court of God, naturally, since the Spirit emanates or exists from God as God.  This reality is present to us, the court of God or heaven, as we enter the Spirit, or let the Spirit enter us.  This Reality as I wrote about in the last post should be present in the community gathered, but it is also available in prayer.  But that Reality puts us in communion with God and our neighbor.

The caveat is that we can get distorted and therefore misapprehend Reality.  We need a community to discern and hold that Reality with us and sometimes for us.  We need to be bold in our grasping the Kingdom and humble in submitting to God and the community of the Church.  That is why the Spirit is never spoken of possessively.  The Holy Spirit is never quite “my” Spirit.

I have written before about my life falling apart.  Its no secret that in seminary I fell to pieces and got put back together.  That process of healing is still where my language about the Spirit was formed.  For a couple of years, I did the Ashtanga Yoga primary series in my little room alone as an act of prayer and sweat.  There is nothing mysterious about the series; it was memorizable, involved my whole body, hard, and free.  Later it would be running or Crossfit.  But I would get to the end and lay in corpse pose, laying flat on my back, wrung out and calm.  My brain would finally be still, and I could feel God breathe through me.  It was a tangible experience of the Holy Spirit.  I would let the Spirit have me, and I would end up crying or laughing, integrating big ideas and just luxuriating in the shades of sunlight dancing through the leaves outside my window on the walls of my room.

The Spirit spoke so directly in those hours because I had broken everything that normally gets in the way.  These days I am trying to listen just as hard without having to destroy everything to hear.

Coming to the Table – Remembering Christ with your Family and Friends

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In our last reflection we considered the Office as it relates to the Father, Abba, as we join in the church’s worship.  It is the cornerstone of the Anglican-Benedictine way of forming disciples.  I know that is counter-intuitive for Episcopalians and other liturgical churches.  We handed daily faithfulness off to the evangelical world through our low-church brothers and sisters and then forgot after the liturgical revolution of the past forty years.

We elevated the Eucharist to the center of our common life and after the 1979 revision of the Book of Common Prayer, we made the Daily Office difficult and frustrating to use.  I wanted to learn the Office as a Baptist convert in the 1990’s.  I wanted to learn.  I was motivated.  AND I was educated.  My undergraduate degree was Creative Arts in Worship.  I read Dom Gregory Dix for fun.  And yet I was utterly frustrated by the 1979 BCP and started printing off daily prayers from the internet!

Church Publishing, if you are reading along, I would love a BCP-based Breviary that is formatted for Daily Prayer.  I don’t want something all that new.  I want a simple formatted Breviary.  I will do it.  Just call.

But that isn’t our focus today.  Let’s go back to the Eucharist.

The Eucharist is the “great thanksgiving” in Greek.  It is called Communion or the Mass or the Lord’s Supper, and it is at the center of our communal life.  I love the Eucharist.  Don’t let the first couple of paragraphs fool you.

The thing is that we are in a funny place recently where we are trying to use the Eucharist in order to welcome people into church.  And that is like meeting a new friend as a couple by inviting them into your bedroom.  The Eucharist is the most intimate thing that disciples do.

We follow Jesus.  Jesus had his disciples, and on his last free night before facing trials and ultimately death, he had a meal with them that was remembered as a Passover meal.  This meal was the place where he took bread and wine and gave it to his friends and fellow brothers and sisters, blessing them and giving instructions to share the meal together to remember him.

The Greek word for “to remember” is anamnesis.  Plato considered the act of remembering as the only way that one could experience the real world beyond forms.  This is not necessarily what Jesus had in mind, but the concept is helpful.  When we remember we are bringing the fullness of our master to mind.

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If Jesus and his teachings are our master or king, rabbi, lord, then we are subjects who are defined by the master.  The master is not a popular concept in American culture, so we have lost some direct implications of what this means for us.  I discovered these ideas looking at the archetypes around king images and monarchist cultures.  These ideas are evident out as you look at the Mediterranean and Biblical cultural studies and early Roman and Greek literature.

The king defines identity for the subject.  The king defines ethos.  The king defines relationships, ethics, ways of interacting, what is acceptable and what is not.  The king defines the world within the kingdom.  (I know this language is masculine, but it is the most common. It is true of queens too.)

The ruler defines the ruled.  This runs directly counter to our culture.  I know.  So as a disciple we come to remembrance to recall our salvation, but also to re-enter the world of our Maker and Master.  We re-enter the space where the kingdom is present, where we are children of God, in direct relationship as brothers and sisters provided for and forgiven, healed and set free to love others as we are loved by God.

To step into such a world together is renewing and helps to make us whole.  We hear the stories of our faith, pray as the priesthood family of God, and we remember our Lord in the meal and prayer that is the Eucharist.  It is our internal reality, the reality that we trust in and believe in as we walk in the world that does not agree with those statements or that reality.

It is this that creates the tension around the open table movement.  On the one hand, we are remembering Jesus whose messiahship was modeled in eating at the table with people from all different walks of life, a model that the church picked up and was persecuted for in the early centuries as much as the idea of cannibalism.  On the other, the Eucharist is a re-enactment of this final meal and has a component of remembrance that defines our reality.

At the very least the church should be honest about what we are doing for our members and for visitors.  But I have come to rest more and more uneasily with the movement to make our sacraments a portable portal for all comers.  I don’t think that they are actually being brought in with any real honesty or fidelity because on some level we don’t take what we are doing seriously or we don’t take their participation seriously.  They are being asked to enter a different reality and accept ethos, ethics, and relationships that they may not be ready to take on, may not understand, and may not really agree with if they did.

Outside of the reality that we are remembering our sacraments don’t really make much sense.  Paul said that if there was no resurrection then he was a fool.  I would hold the same thing about the play acting we are doing on Sundays.  If we are not re-entering that reality in an intentional and prayerful way that involves our whole self, then we are just fools playing at images.

We remember Jesus and re-member Christ as we take our parts in his body and in the family as the children of God.  This is amazing and wondrous.  It is mystery and meal all at once.

When we come prepared, we enter that reality with less dissonance and greater clarity, we leave with more work being done on us, and we go back into the world to carry that reality with us.  We prepare by joining in the ongoing universal prayers of the church daily in the Offices.  We know the stories of our faith more deeply.

Our minds are trained for prayer, praise, and petition.  Our hearts are trained for compassion and trust and forgiveness.  Our brains can focus more easily.  And we are free to come and go lightly into the world we live in intentionally daily, so we can greet our neighbors and love even in transition, and we are less thrown off by the incidentals of our lives and our church community.

In this way, the Office makes the Eucharist more readily available and our experience more communal.  When we have done our office work we can do our work at the table with more joy.

At this table we are not strangers but family.  We are not alone in the city but walking in the Garden with our God and our family.  We are provided for and forgiven.  We are loved and set free.  That is salvation in the flesh.  That is what we are trying to live into as we come to the table of God.

Come prepared and go home renewed.  Remembering who God is in Jesus, what the world will be and what the kingdom is, and who you are, who your neighbor is, and how blessed the whole thing is, we come back to the sixth day of the new creation to enter our Sabbath anew.

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Finding the Office – Worshipping the Father, Cuddling with Abba

Where I often keep the Office

Where I often keep the Office

The life of the Christian is trinitarian in nature, organically rooted around the Daily Office, Eucharist, and interior prayer.  These three are understood in the Benedictine tradition as the foundation of the acetic life.  Ascetical refers to the life of prayer and growth in the Spirit.

I have ranted in a recent sermon about how not everything is a “journey.” It seems like this phrase is usually a cover for being unwilling to progress.  In our life of faith, we should be growing up, going somewhere we call maturity.  Much of what we see in terms of “perfection” in the New Testament could just as easily be translated as “maturity” or “completion.”

In Martin Thornton’s picture of the influence of Benedict on English Spirituality, he sees the Office as the part of the life of the Christian and Church as particular to God the Father.  It is in the Office where we do our work of worship and showing up and growing up, taking up a practice that is beyond us and our opinions, where we deal with things that are often beyond us and even deeply challenging for us.

Worship is both the act of praising God, picture standing arms outstretched and smiling, and humbly coming into the presence for help, forgiveness, and petition, picture hands folded bowing.  It is the bringing of our fullness and placing it before God and remembering who is who.

The Office is great for worship because it is heavily Scriptural.  Coming out and condensing the Hours of the Rule of Benedict, it distills the worship of the Bible and relies on the Psalms and songs of Scripture and adds in the reading of the Bible in large chunks.  This word-heavy, passage-intense worship is laden with images, stories, and even words that are difficult and deal with emotions and work that we don’t necessarily want to deal with.  In the Office we submit to the work of becoming who God wants us to be.

Sometimes that is emotional work and totally relevant to the moment we are in.  I can’t tell you the number of times the Bible in Morning Prayer seems like it was written for the day I was in.  It is shocking.  Other times I can go for weeks just plugging along reading and praying the prayers because I said I would.

It is faithfulness even when my emotions are not there that really matters.  If I was only a faithful husband laying in bed on a Saturday mornings when the sun gently lighting the waking smile of my beautiful bride, but not when we fought or I was disappointed or bored . . . well I wouldn’t be able to call her my “wife” for very long.  Right?

Jesus uses two words for Father, Pater (Latin) or Abba (Aramaic).  The office is about submitting to both.  We submit to Abba, better translated as “daddy”, when we curl up in the lap of God as we pray, and we find that overwhelming sense of warmth and home.  We submit to Pater, Father, when we stick it out and allow ourselves to be shaped by the faithfulness of the long haul and stay on the road despite the boredom, ennui, and demands of the journey.

The Office is really simple.  I use a website or an app most of the time.  I have books and Bibles, which I prefer with time.  But I keep the Office, morning and night, and often in places where I have to be on my feet.

I will teach you the Office if you need it.  Email me.  Or I can place you with a coach.  We have several in the parish.  It matters.  As we explore the trinity of expression in our ascetical life, we begin with Benedict in the Office, being faithful.

In the Benedictine way the vows are obedience, stability, and transformation.  We meet all three vows in the practice of the Office.  In our faithful keeping of the hours, we are obedient to the larger worship of the church to God, we find stability amidst the changes of our days and emotions, and we are transformed to the likeness of our Father Abba.  We become stable enough to love, obedient enough to love even when difficult, and transformed in grace.

As a pastor I watch this play out in the lives of my parishioners and friends.  Their faithfulness in the practice becomes visible in their emotional, psychological health, their balance and theological understanding becomes a steady openness in debate possible with a sound foundation in the Bible and prayer.  They are more and more flexible and unshakeable as they grow.  I am in awe really of their growth.

Which brings a final point.  The Office is not clerical.  It belongs to the whole Church of which we collared ones are just members with jobs.  The liturgical movement has done some wonderful things for the Church universal, but for us it has meant the elevation of the Eucharist above the Office and interior prayer.  This has left us with a heart that depends of the clergy.  It has meant the rise of “fathers” and the diminishment of the faithful laity.  Keeping the Office in balance empowers the laity to take their rightful place as informed, formed followers of the Christ we worship and obey in the Eucharist.

*Notes:  The Book of Common Prayer Morning and Evening Prayers  are found between pages 75 – 126 in modern idiom.  The Daily Office lectionary readings are found on pages 931 and following.  The instructions are all in the BCP, but a coach or mentor or group is highly recommended.

As noted above I rely on the app and website offered by http://missionstclare.com . There are also very good sites out there and apps that I have used and relied on.  I use an iPhone, and there are several apps in the iOS store.  I would highly recommend the one offered by Forward Movement. I would never have been able to do the Office alone without Mission St. Clare’s website years ago.

How to Not Vote like an Idiot or a Fan

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I generally avoid politics other than to say that you probably shouldn’t vote like me.  I am a priest who believes that if I do my job as pastor, teacher, and preacher, then the congregations I serve will draw sound conclusions and vote from a conscience that is formed and informed by more than my simple point of view.

People of good faith may be led to radically different conclusions at the ballot box.  This confounds politicos and citizens alike, but it is vital to healthy democracy.

As a Christian and even more as a pastor and leader, I believe strongly that Christians should vote and be involved politically.  Think of it this way, for most of history the king or queen was seen to hold great authority and responsibility given because of their role in governing a portion of God’s kingdom.  Note that authority and responsibility went together.

A good Christian king could not feast while those in his care starved.  The victory gardens at the palaces of British nobles during the World Wars ought to stand in strong and disgusting contrast to our presidents’ vacations over the last thirteen years.  [And yes, that apostrophe is in the right place.]

We, of course, don’t have sovereigns.  We have citizens.  [We are ideally a Benedictine country, if you have been reading along.]  As citizens, we hold authority and responsibility like sovereigns of old.  Our primary place to practice those is in the ballot box.

So why is our citizenship so dumbed down that our presidents can call us “consumers” without an outcry?!  Because we often practice voting like idiots drug around by our media and public opinion disconnected from anything that could be considered value or virtue.  (Occasional outcries over the scandals of Instagram or freezers of money not withstanding, most of the media is playing our emotions not our values or virtues.)

Or worse, we becomes fans.  In the techisphere, fanboys are those people who love a product or product line because of the label on the back rather than the performance.  I am typing this on an Apple, by the way, while listening to my outdated iPhone.  Branding in politics may be breaking down, or at least we hope so.  But with the growth of money and advertising, we look more like people who know nothing being led by commercials rather than open debates about vital issues.

It is refreshing as an American to watch British parliamentary debates where the Prime Minister has to field questions from their colleagues on the floor rather than our president choosing who to answer from the press corps.  Genuine thought and responses, with wonderful hooting and name calling, but face to face and responsive.  (Swoon.)

So what is an American to do?

  • Define your values as a citizen.  What is most important to you and why?  As a Christian my values are set by Scripture, tradition and reason; but I prioritize them and should be able to at least understand my own point of view.  (That’s part of what writing is about, no?) Bonus points for being able to articulate those core values and beliefs.
  • Name the virtues that you consider essential to being a leader in our politics.  Vote for those who have them.  I don’t want a rat who votes my way in leadership.  Even if he gets my issue right, he will sink the ship and spread plague.  See history for examples.  And no rat comes alone to the ship.
  • Prioritize issues that are important to you.  I am heavily involved in homeless ministries.  I prioritize issues around poverty and business responsibilities in my own local and state politics.  Healthcare reform should help people not end up on the streets because of bill poverty.  IF the reform doesn’t do that, I am against it.  But my city mayor is not in any way involved in healthcare reform.  So this takes a little work to separate local from national, state from international issues.
  • Take your values, virtues, and issues and make them measurable and specific.  Here is where Hyrum Smith’s FranklinQuest model becomes vital in not-stupid politics.  We have to make our values relate to our votes and our local activities.

Two big missed opportunities are staring us in the face in this regard.  The Occupy Movement and the Tea Party both failed, and they have failed for a simple reason.  They had trouble stating clearly defined values and virtues, sticking to them and making them actionable.

I can’t write a book this week because I have other priorities that compete for my time.  Everything cannot be equal.  I have to define priorities and rank them and work on them one by one.  In a group this takes leadership.  In our nation it takes a genius that both movements missed.  There were too many priorities and too little leadership to define what was going to be the ONE thing to focus on.

A digital camera can focus on several things at once, but we can’t.  We have to take that model of ranking daily actions and apply it to our elections and local actions.

This isn’t sexy.  It’s adulthood.  It is hard, intelligent work.  It would be nice if the commentators on t.v. would help us, but we are going to have to take responsibility to think for ourselves.

Honestly, I want to tell you how to vote.  Of course, I do.  But as a pastor my value is a church of mature people living into God’s dream, and treating you like idiot fans is not going to get me there.   So my virtue becomes a focus on my job of forming disciples who know how to pray and worship, study and think, serve and love in the name of Christ.

It’s a matter of responsible authority.

The Adolescent Church – or It’s Time to Mow the Yard

By now you have heard it said that the “church” refers to the community or members, not the building.  This is not news to most people, and it seems silly to reiterate it.  But I want to extend it a little before we move on.  The “church” also does not refer to the institution, good or bad, or the structures and hierarchies of the institution that we create around the community.  The church is holy.  The other stuff is just there to support it, strengthen it, equip it, and keep it generation to generation.

The problem as I see it is that mostly our issues with the things we call church are surface.  The deeper issue that belies most of our complaints about church, which are making their weekly appearance in more or less relevant lists online, is that we are immature.  The church at large is really, really immature.  Making another immature list doesn’t seem helpful, does it?  I would argue that we are getting better.

Not every member of the church is immature.  Not every local community within the church is immature.  But the American branch of the church universal, in almost all of its iterations, is adolescent at best.  I think we are moving past early adolescence, though, in my lifetime.  Thankfully.

Adolescence is that magical age between childhood and adulthood when we are in transition.  In childhood the world is defined for us by our parents.  As we grow, if the parents do their jobs, we are forced to look beyond our selves and our wants to think of others, all the while having our needs considered and cared for by the mostly unseen benevolence of our parents.  We don’t usually know as grade schoolers that electricity is costly and paid for monthly or that it is truly deadly and comes to our house through a whole network of devices and wires that must be tended and cared for.  We don’t know.  We couldn’t handle it.  So our parents do and rarely tell us.  As we transition to adulthood, we come to understand the thing, its cost, and our responsibilities about it.

As we go through adolescence, we are let in on the mysteries of tending to life, which we called “doing chores” at my house.  We don’t understand much, but usually when we are healthy, we become aware of others in increasingly subtle and immediate ways.  We become aware of how large the world is, how many people are around us, and sometimes we get overwhelmed by that.  And if we are normal we begin to realize that those people have expectations of us.  This all takes a lot of time.

The American church has had its billed paid for a long time.  We have been given tax breaks and deference by the government, culture, and media. We have been protected, provided for, and generally regressed to that state in life before full adulthood.  For a host of different reasons, those protections and provisions are being taken away, and it is time for us to progress back towards maturity.

The world has expectations of us based on what we proclaim, and like adolescents we are becoming aware of the social pressures on us as people stop giving us those protections and deferences in the culture.  That pressure can come across as meanness or frustration or disdain as we fail at our own jobs.

I got fired from mowing grass when I was about fourteen by a guy who thought I should be able to check his rental units, and when the grass needed mowing or looked rough, show up on my own and mow it.  I was used to having an adult tell me when the job should be done, so I did not check or mow, and he was livid.  It was not a great moment for either of us, as I remember it.  I failed to understand and respond as an adult.

The church has failed to love well and maintain her integrity.  The world notices, and our culture is frustrated with the church.  They don’t notice all the things we do right, but they notice the things we have ruined.  [That pretty well sums up how I felt for a couple of years between twelve and fourteen.  You?]

This adolescence is not merely cultural.  The church is getting on through adolescence as we notice our issues and work on them, reaching out in love and responsibility in ways we really did not after the forties and fifties.  The church is back on the front lines of issues and involved in activism on several fronts.

I am convinced that this is not maturity, though.  It is merely late adolescence.  We are in an age of shouting and flag waving.  I hope it is almost over, but Facebook activism (slactivism) and issues-based outreach programs are about as sustainable and meaningful as teenage tilting from issue to issue.  In my teens, I worked on homeless gifts for Christmas and hurricane relief for clubs and had a burning fervor for issues that lasted for nearly a month at a time.  They were motivated by passion, but they did not involve my integrity or identity, just the tug of the heart ready to burst with hormones.  I am not sure I had either the integrity or the identity to sustain real work at seventeen.

I fell into passions like a teenager falls into love and right back out again.  It wasn’t thoughtful or deep, but it felt good.  I did reach a few families with gifts for Christmas and helped gather tons of something for, was it Florida or Texas?  I was gone again soon, even though those families were still poor and the coast of wherever was still desiccated.

The church lurches from issue to issue the same way.  We get played by politicians and special-interests like musical instruments.  We raise money, post some things online, maybe even change our profile picture to an equal sign or a something vaguely Arabic.  But little more.

Here is the rub.  Real issues are complex, difficult, and take years to really address, sometimes decades.  They take personal involvement that requires and even risks our integrity and identity.  I didn’t have the self to get involved in dealing with the economic issues that robbed working-class Tennesseans of just enough to keep them in the cycles of financial hardship.  I didn’t have the identity that would push me when the banners were put away and the shouts had died down.

Adulthood is boring.  I can’t tell you the number of times that I have been told by Christians in the church that they were not mature enough to take their place in the world and would not grow up.  “I don’t want to be mature.”  “I don’t want to be old.” “I don’t ever want to grow up.” But the truth is the church is overflowing with immature Christians.  We don’t have enough self left after the petitions to fill in the pews.

If we are to grow up, we can turn to the three vows of the Rule of Benedict: obedience, stability, and transformation.  The humility of self that is demanded for obedience ironically sets us free to discover our true selves and to really learn about the world and our place in it, our responsibilities and expectations.  Stability gives us the time to mature into full human beings under God.  By staying put we can learn how God works over time and how to invest deeply into God’s work over that time that real change demands.  Transformation comes when we submit to God in Creation, Jesus in the his teachings and salvation, and the Spirit’s instruction.  We become more, not less, as we engage deeply  in one place and one faith community.

Read the Bible.  Pray daily.  Go to church.  Join a small group.  Develop a close circle of accountable Christians who will walk with you.  Pick one place in the world to do the work of the Rule of God.  Don’t fall for the “they” trap; love your enemies.  Heal the sick.  Forgive everything.  Yes, everything.  You are a Christian after all, and that means something.  Work for the long goal.

I don’t think that most of the issues of today are meaningless.  I believe we need the young to be the young, and to be in our faces as adults always risk becoming complacent about the issues of right now as we learn to look to the past and future for what really matters.  We need the fringes.  We need the young.

But the church needs to grow up.  We need to put in the time under the authority of God in Jesus, under Scripture, and under a community.  We need to grow up and begin to see the complexity of the issues of our day and get past jingoism and short-term Huffington Post morality.  We need to know who we are and who we are called to be, so that we can take stands that matter and that will last past the shouting.

In the news of the day are real issues that demand deep responses that go past the stay of the cameras and the attention of the mob.  It will be the church that lasts.  We have been mature before and can be again.  Look past the simplistic narrative of modernity to the history of humanity and humanitarianism in the West.  We will return to our full status as adult heirs of God’s hopes and dreams for the world, the kingdom or Rule of God, but not until we give up the refusal and rebellion that turns aside from the complexities and responsibilities of maturity.

Now, I have to go and buy a lawn mower.

 

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Pulpit Soapbox – a mini-rant and a preaching lesson

Saint Paul at Saint Paul's, London

Saint Paul at Saint Paul’s, London

I love good preaching.

Okay, I am a preacher by trade.  I am a decent preacher by practice. You can hear my sermons at Sounds like Grace or gracetc.org .  I love getting to hear really good preaching.  I hate bad preaching.  Abhor. Loathe. Detest.  Judge.  Oh, yes, I judge and judge with disdain and anger when I feel like an opportunity has been wasted.

The Good News is my life, and I want it getting out.  I have range.  Don’t guess that I don’t.  I appreciate when someone has a different approach that is theirs and it works.  Case in point, I was a young Southern Baptist who had never heard a woman preach until college.  A Southern Baptist pastor the Rev. Julie Pennington-Russell changed my world when she preached a sermon that I simply didn’t have the self to preach.  It was a sermon from a woman’s perspective, and it was beautifully constructed and delivered and handled Scripture and truth with integrity.  I was then, and I am still blown away by a good sermon.

I have been an Episcopalian for fifteen years now; most of those years have been in professional ministry.  And the preaching here is not famous for being great.  Oh, we have our bright spots.  But we are far more likely to produce good vestments than good sermons.

Don’t take it personally, yet, if you are a preacher or you love one.  Maybe your pastor is the exception.  But so many sermons lack one thing.  Just one thing.  Most people don’t know what the Heaven they want to say.  Know what you are trying to say, and the rest will pretty much flow.

Here are the basic four principles of good preaching.  I can help you.  Contact me if you need coaching.  Contact someone.  For the love of God.  But these four rules will get you started.

  1. The first thing you have to figure out is what you are trying to say and what you are actually saying.  Know what you are trying to say.  Be able to say it in one sentence.  Even if no one else knows what you are trying to say, you should.  Then pay attention to what your congregation is hearing.
  2. Talk with your audience.  Look at the them.  Listen to them.  Their understanding is your goal, so pay attention and communicate with them.  If they don’t understand what you are saying, back up and say it again.  Repeat something.  Ask questions.  Honor them.  Love your congregation in the sermon.  Trust them.  Without this number one is a waste of time.
  3. Be yourself and have fun.  I like obscure things and use them often.  Greek, history, odd moments in the Simpsons.  I once based an entire sermon on a Bob Marley song.  It was a hard sermon, and I am not sure more than two of two hundred of my parishioners like Bob.  But they loved the sermon because I was having fun and it was authentically me.  People want to hear what you have to say about these great truths and mysteries.  That isn’t the same as preaching your self or your politics or your issues.  But use what you know and love to communicate God’s word.  You will have more fun that way, and fun is infectious.
  4. Pray.  The great black baptist pastor who taught me preaching invited a younger pastor to preach (not me).  Afterwards he told him he wouldn’t have him back because although the sermon was clever, it was not steeped in prayer.  You could tell.  Your people can.  In the end, preaching is an act of faith and worship, of love.  Steep your sermons in prayer.  Be humble.  Seek God’s word before and during and after.  People don’t really hear us.  They hear God speaking if we are faithful.  I have had people get things from sermons that were not in my prep at all, but that they needed.  My prayer is that they hear God.  Listening to the sermon should be like opening the Bible.  We are saying, “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.”

I preach without notes so that I can communicate rather than read.  I don’t memorize my text; I learn the text.  I write out the Biblical texts every week at least twice.  I read the New Testament passages in Greek, as best I can with lots of study helps.  I make mind maps and plans.  I have multiple examples, and most of them are extras.

After studying, I try to discern what God is saying in the texts, in my community, and in me.  I write out the sermon in a kind of outline form, which looks more like ugly word art than a manuscript or even an outline.  Then I write it out again.  And almost always a third time.  Then I look for the central single statement I can boil it down to.

Then I take that statement and look for an analogy or story or picture that will precisely draw that statement in people’s minds.  People should go home with an image, a picture, a story, and most importantly a greater understanding God and the Bible.

Don’t draw out every conclusion.  Trust your people to think and pray and mull.  Leave open what is open.  I want my people to think and pray and mull, so I leave things in every sermon undone, un-concluded, un-finished.  End strongly.  Make A point.  But don’t make every point.

The people you are talking to are the living, breathing, walking, working, singing, dancing Children of God, heirs of the Rule of God, the royal priesthood and keepers of mysteries.  Don’t talk down to your congregation! Ever.  You are not that holy.  You are a butler, a servant to these holy people.  Honor them, and they will listen to you.  You can be direct, honest, even mean without treating someone as less than you.

 

The example.  This last Sunday was these four texts:  LECTIONARY.  The final sermon at 8 was this one: SERMON.

The prep included several pages of notes.  Here are two examples.

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The central conundrum as I understood it was that we are not called to this work and life for ourselves.  We are called to move outward, to grow up past the law into the ethics of ownership which includes some real responsibility.  In the previous weeks I had used the Keys to the Kingdom as a central image and wanted to talk about the bishop giving you those keys at your confirmation.  But after the first run through, I realized it was too small an image, and the sermon was too heady without a stronger image for Sunday morning.

Now my Saturday night congregation is primarily the long-time faithful who include about 25% retired clergy every week.  There are Jungian Christian explorers and older women who have carried the church for decades.  Collectively there is like a millennium of experience of faith there, so I don’t do a whole lot of drawing conclusions, almost always leave in the notes and obscuranta, and can leave a heady sermon knowing they will take it into their hearts.  I do have to be directive about encouragement, hope, and the need the church has for them to give back their wisdom and learning and faith.

Sundays is more mixed.  The eight o’clock service is quiet and is between Saturday night and Sunday at 10 am in terms of maturity.  I bring in more imagery and explanation, filter out most obscure note things, and start to draw more clear and concise conclusions.  I don’t have to push as hard emotionally with this group.  They are focused, and the service is quiet and easy to keep focussed without much rhetorical work.  I don’t have to repeat much and circle back as intentionally as the later service with music and kids.

Sunday at eight is a solid group though, and quick to laugh.

So you can see the development in the sermon, imagery, and delivery.  If you look back on the sermon blog, you can find Sundays where two versions are included and can compare.  Finally, I always circle back to the sermon in the welcome and announcements.  It is the place where I am reminding people of how to make this concrete and what they are bringing into the Eucharistic prayer and communion.

I hope this is fun for you.

Why the Rule becomes Rules – or should

. . . the Lord waits for us daily to translate into action, as we should, his holy teachings.

The Rule. Prologue vs 35

The Rule needs rules.  This is true of the Rule of Benedict and the Rule of God.  In the Rule, Benedict is translating the Gospel as he understands it into a set of rules for a monastic community.  Our work is to do a similar translation of the Gospel and the Rule of God into rules for our daily, weekly, and yearly life.  This work is deeply personal and not easily undertaken.  It calls us to examine our most deeply cherished values and beliefs because we need to articulate what we want to translate.

Articulating the Gospel and the Rule of God is the first part of our undertaking.  Benedict does this succinctly in the Prologue and throughout the chapters.  This led to the Rule being considered a sort of short version of the Gospel.  Our intent must be grounded in the same place, a clear articulation of what we understand the Gospel and the Rule of God to be.

We then must take that articulation and make it as simple as possible, not to be trite but rather to make it possible to consider translating that into the rules that we can live into.  This work is considerably easier when sitting before a good statement of faith.

Homework: write a clear articulation of your understanding of the Gospel and the Rule of God.  Not less than 50 words or more than 200 when finished.