Grace Episcopal Church Christmas Letter


Grace Episcopal Church

                                                                                                                                       Christmas 2014

O, friends and family of Grace,

It is Advent, and we are waiting. Three Sundays ago, The Rev. Katheryn King encouraged us to be impatient, to long for the coming of Christ. As I prepare for the coming services and sermons, I am reminded of the promises of God in the prophets and Gospels.  I long for the Wonderful Counselor, the Prince of Peace, the God Emmanuel – God with us, who comes at Christmas. I long to see the Day of the Lord when all things are reconciled to him, so I lean into the prophets and face a choice.

We have had a darker Advent in 2014.  We are facing news of racial tension, wars, violence, victimization, and disease. Like the first chapters of Luke, we see people tossed around by capricious and controlling acts of governments around the world. We face our own sins as a nation, seeing again our reaction to violence with more violence and wonder how we can justify or atone.  Our family and maybe yours has faced losses and death. Many of us carry into this season of bright lights and shiny wrappings buried griefs and barely hidden sufferings.  Where is God in all this darkness?

Of course, there is also other news. Our economy is starting to recover, oil prices are providing relief for all of us, and at least we are admitting our past sins and seeking atonement, maybe. With our deaths and struggles, we have also had births and baptisms, weddings and celebrations, growth and wonder.  Our families may be struggling, but we are struggling together. We are taking up our faith in worship, study, and service. We have been waiting and welcoming Christ among us.

Yet here in our waiting we all face the choice of Isaiah 61: do we proclaim the day of the Lord’s favor or the Lord’s vengeance? As we read these texts, we certainly believe that the Lord loves justice hates robbery and wrong . Like Jesus’ day, the violence and injustice of our day demand a response. God would surely be justified in vengeance.  But then we follow Jesus into Galilee in Luke’s Gospel and see something amazing. Jesus lifts up this text in Isaiah 61 in the synagogue and names himself as the one who fulfills it. But, he leaves out vengeance.

How can God’s justice be sought without vengeance? How can we turn the other cheek in such a day as this? How can we love our enemies and bless those who curse us?  This is our Christmas work, to follow the God-incarnate Christ-child into the quiet night and bear witness like the shepherds of the work of God to under throw the world, to love us into holiness rather than beat us into submission, to bless instead of curse, to bring forgiveness instead of vengeance.

If Jesus is the prince of peace, then God’s Rule is the reign of peace brought about by our being transformed into love, justice, and peace embodied rather than enforced, and we all have work to do. Thank God for the Holy Spirit.

This is our season, people of Grace. We are to incarnate Christ’s peace, love, and justice in our everyday lives, in our words and actions. We are to bear witness in our choices to the God who is with us, within us, and in our darkest days by bearing his light through us by Grace. We begin here, gathered on Christmas eve again, seeing the light of Christ come in and lifting our voices in hope together, in proclamation of the good news, breaking bread together, and welcoming our Lord again, God Emmanuel.
In Christ,

The Very Rev. Daniel P. Richards, Rector & Dean

Along the Way: Advent, Attention, and Elegance or Krista Tippett does theology and I complain

from website

from website

Elegance, Attention, and Advent

I have been annoyed recently at the NPR-shaped faith of the Episcopal Church. I am not innocent of the charge since I listen to National Public Radio all the time at home. (Diane Rehm’s Weekly News Roundup on Friday (my sabbath) is my chance to catch up the with the nuances of the week’s missed stories.) But I was appalled this year when Krista Tippett’s “On Being” episodes were being offered as material for classes through our denominational press’s catalogue. Our faith is Christian; and though Ms. Tippett is one of my favorite interviewers on the radio, she is under no obligation to present our faith or teach it. I am deeply concerned by the scarcity of resources we are actually putting into the primary activity of making disciples as a church, and this seemed like one more reason to cry out for conversion and a return to our raison d’être as a denomination.

Don’t worry, I rant about this stuff all the time to everyone who will listen. Pray for my children. They have to hear me muttering about this kind of thing all the time.

Despite all this, I like “On Being,” especially the unedited interviews that you can get online or through the podcasts of the show. I prefer the unedited version because I read many of the people she interviews and get their processed and canned thoughts all the time. My longing is for the conversation that we rarely get to hear from those who are producing the mental and spiritual diets so many of us eat. I commend the interviews with Jaroslav Pelikan and John O’donahue to you especially; oh and Seth Godin and . . . well you get the idea.

This last week I found Paulo Coelho. Like many others, I have read and been moved deeply by his novels and drank his interview with Ms. Tippett like afternoon wine. But I was pulled up short by his answer to her request for a definition of his use of the word “elegance.”  (This transcript is from the show’s website.  I have only edited out Ms. Tippett’s unimportant utterances for flow.)

MS. TIPPETT: I want to ask you about elegance. Something you talk about as a virtue, you know, we talked about the virtue of love, and friendship, and boldness, but [I am] very drawn to your use of the word, elegance. Talk to me about the place of elegance in life’s pilgrimage.

MR. COELHO: Elegance is simplicity. I believe that we need to be elegant, because people confound elegance with fashion. And that has nothing to do. I learned about elegance not because I was reading about fashion, blah, blah, blah. Because one day I was in Japan and I saw a just totally empty house. And then they have a small detail like, a flower arrangement, or a painting. And the rest is empty. And I said, oh, my God. What is this? This guy, it was my publisher.

And he said — I will never forget — he said, “This is elegance.” I said, “Elegance?” He said, “Yes, because here, there’s only one detail that you can pay attention. And, because of this elegance is to get rid of all the superfluous things and focus on the most beautiful one.” In this case it was this flower arrangement. So, for me, when I looked at the mountains to the Alps here …that was the line. And I see this white snow and I said, oh, my God, God could have created snow as a rainbow, you know, full of colors. But then this would be a disaster.

You know? Because the beauty of the snow is because it has only one color. The beautiful desert that I — I love deserts, by the way.

MR. COELHO: I spent forty days in the Mojave Desert back in 1989, and it was so magical, so magical, so magical. So every time that I travel, I visit the desert. But then back to elegance, elegance is that. Is to go to the core of beauty, and the core of beauty is simplicity.

There is a lot of material for life in the whole episode, but this one idea resonated with me as we look at the season of Advent and the prophets.  In some way Advent is about preparing to have your world changed again, and we think of that in big ways like birth, but the call this year is something closer to Coelho’s insight.

When my wife was pregnant with my son this was obvious in an Adventish kind of way, and when we were preparing for our marriage or getting ready to move the same preparation themes of life came up.  When we know that our world is going to change and that we are going to have to change with it, we prepare ourselves.  This is Advent, right? The prophets in our lives warn us ahead of time that we will have to change.  When we are at our best we listen to them.

On the other hand, what Coelho is talking about is actually closer to the spiritual insight that most of us prepare for and have at Advent and Christmas.  We focus on this singular elegance for a moment, and it changes, or can change, our world.

Elegance and Christmas.

The problem of course is that we come to Christmas through Advent by adding things to the room rather than taking them away.  We add in events, extra projects and trips to the mall, relatives, obligations, church services, and wrapping and decorations.  We don’t remove distractions, we multiply them.

The prophets often went to the desert places to strip away the distractions and listen for the word of God.  Mountains, wilderness, and especially the long horizons of the actual desert have often served to put would-be prophets today in the clearings of life to hear and see what God is doing.

I start longing in December every year for the desert, and not particularly for the weather.  (That comes in March when winter is not relenting this far north.)  I long for the midday escapes along Trail 100 from my condo in northeast Phoenix or the far end of the road that used to take me to the Seven Springs trailhead out east of Tucson: the places where with a few quick steps and fewer provisions I could be out of reach of the demands of the season and regain my sense of clarity.

John the Baptist seemed to see clearly what God was doing in Jesus.  He was not pulled away by the Zealots’ cries for justice and liberation, nor was he falling under the spell of the religious powers of his day, nor was he far away in his hopes from what Jesus would do (despite my favorite author’s depiction of their conflict in the Last Temptation of Christ.)  No, John’s simple cry set up Jesus’ later one: “Change your mind; the Rule of God is in reach.”

I have to change my mind again this year.  Repentance is not a one time thing.  I have to clear away the clutter that I let build up, and honestly that I decorate this time of year with.  I have to give up my Zealotry and my religious ideals, even as I practice my faith and strive for justice; I have to give up my bitterness and self-righteousness.  I have to clear space and go into the wilderness of silence, the landscape of God.

Theology is not really in statements about God anymore than coffee is in the grounds in a coffee filter.  Good theology is in conversation and prayer.  It is the moment of actual thought and creativity.  The statements we pass around are like mementos of those other moments when we were together and thinking and speaking and creating with God.  I think that is why I like the longer unedited interviews of Krista Tippett and her guests.  They capture moments of theology.

I hate that they would be turned into curricula frankly because I want a church that is capable of the conversations, rather than a congregation that listens to my statements.  I want a people who can speak and think and create those moments, loaded with Scripture and poetry and wilderness experiences, a people who can speak for God like a community of prophets wandering in and out of the wild places of life renewed with a divine love that is elegant and clear.

Instead we so often just listen on our way to another cluttered room, busy and scattered.  As a shepherd in a world of busy, educated, and beautiful sheep, I want to call out and lead my Master’s flock away from the city streets and stores to wilderness at the feet of Mount Horeb where the bushes are alight like Advent candles and God speaks from the flames.

Clear your mind, the Rule of God is here.

Spring 2013

Spring 2013

Eschatology and Gratitude – Lessons Along the Way

It is the long view that matters when setting a course. You cannot neglect short-term details, but it is the long term goal that sets the course and allows corrections and a final sense of satisfaction and accomplishment.

“Well done, my good and faithful servant.” That simple phrase from a parable of Jesus sets my long term goal. To have my master come and say, “Well done.”

The master matters to me. God’s character really does completely change what that goal means and could mean for me as a direction in life. It changes my everyday reflections, prayers, and actions. I know that God’s will for human beings is love, justice, and peace.

Shaping my life to follow the Way of Jesus involves some pretty mundane decisions and some really important ones. I greet people I don’t know at the coffee shop, and I don’t watch some movies because I follow Jesus. I try to know the homeless as human beings and not merely a collection of maladies and presuppositions because I follow Jesus. I pray the daily office, gather with others for eucharist, and talk to God all day because I follow Jesus. I tithe because I follow Jesus.

I don’t think God will love me because I follow Jesus and do these things. This is a vital theological point. I do these things because God loves the world, and this is who our master is. If we are going to worship and claim God as our master, we follow Jesus and do these things.

One of these things is thanksgiving. We give thanks to the God who made us and the world, who loves us and the world. On a simple level, we have life and salvation, grace and forgiveness. Everything we have is from God.

“All things come from thee, O Lord; and of thine own have we given thee.” This offering prayer is based on David’s final prayer to God before the assembly of Israel (I Chronicles 29:14). It sums up beautifully all that we are saying about gratitude.

We give thanks in all things because all things come from God. This orientation shapes us away from the greed and self-orientation of our contemporary world. It puts us in right relationship to the God we serve in each other and the world.

A Coffee Connoisseur (Snob) Thinks about Creation and Creativity

So two weeks ago I was drinking a freshly roasted, and dark enough for a change on my small roaster, Sumatra Mandehling from a Chemex filter in a Hario v60 pour-over filter holder.  It was good but really overly refined for a Sumatra coffee.

You see, Sumatra coffees are famously funky; grown on volcanic soil and notoriously poorly sorted has meant that for more than twenty years there has been a sort of typical Sumatran flavor that was reliable crop to crop.  Some of that was due to, of course, to the unique growing conditions of the tropical South Pacific Island and its volcanic soil.  But, a great deal of the earthy and unpredictably unstable quality was due to the coffee being mostly grown and picked on small family lots or yards and poorly picked through leading to a diverse lot of beans that varied in color, size, and density.

These days, a lot has changed.  Twenty or more years of success in the market has meant that Sumatra has better coffee growing conditions, better pay to farmers, and more strict quality control measures than twenty years ago when I first had a cup of coffee that was single origin designated.

That cup was darker, more uneven, and had a wild quality that took that funk that I would describe as orange clay earthiness and layered in complexity with bright overtones and periodic notes of white orchid aromas and pungent citrus that was just short of the sharp smack in the face of grapefruit.  The overall quality was wild and dark, like being chased through a dense forest by an unseen tiger.

These days Sumatran coffees are more regularized. They have a more sophisticated, straight forward predictability.  It is ecotourism compared to my fearful flight from the teeth of that clay come to life in stripes.  This is advancement.  Everyone involved is benefitting from these advancements, but I cannot help but miss that cup that first captivated and chased me two decades ago.

I have an odd memory for flavor, I guess, but this moderated coffee has reminded me of Epictetus’s maxim that you can’t step in the same river twice.  Now he had never eaten at a McDonald’s, but he lived at a time when the world was still wilder, even than now.  Though it should be noted that the trees of Greece were already being lamented by other voices.

Coffee is a fruit, an organic substance that is grown not manufactured, and it changes lot to lot, season to season.  I cannot ever have that original cup of Sumatran Mandehling, even if I could find the exact yard those beans were grown in, could process them the same way, and brewed on the same machine.  Not one stage of that hypothetical is remotely possible.

How many pursuits in life are a search for that moment when something magical happened, when the right set of circumstances came together in a perfect moment of revelation?  Life is a river that moves and dances, always with new circumstances coming upstream or down, with new growth on the banks, new animals and fish, different climate effected by volcanoes or factories a world away.  Everything moves, and the water for my coffee is not the same today either.

Life is never caught, never repeatable.  We remember but from a constantly new place.  Even our memory is created.  I am God-obsessed and think God must be a weaver at the loom of creation, moving the shuttle of this moment across billions upon billions of threads, pulling together themes and re-tying broken or lost or ended lines.  Every single moment the coming together of a universe in a verse of the song of creation, a line in the poem of making.

This cup of coffee is a new thing, a taste of the creation coming together from several places in the world all at once.  Water from a cold Great Lake watershed, beans from a yard turned field on a tropical volcano side, gathered by locals and sold to a processor from Milwaukee who wanted to do good, who shipped by way of a freighter from Norway whose Chinese captain now claims Canada or Oakland as home, delivered by American men of so many descents they are a confusion of history to my father’s warehouse in Mississippi, where I bagged them up myself, unaware of how much of the world went into that bag of burlap.

Yes, I roasted them at home on a small roaster that it takes forever to get up to heat in our midwestern fall as the snow drifts over my green yard for the first time this year, and I recalled that first cup of Sumatran coffee I ever had two decades ago.

Dear reader, I hope you are a creator.  We are children of the God of the Loom, makers and creative caretakers of the world.  You were designed to work the loom of creation, bringing together threads and themes in new and fascinating ways, whether you are making a cup of coffee or teaching children or running an office or painting a landscape.

You are a maker.  Creation is the work of weaving the threads of the existing world and its constant changes and movements into new moments of creativity.  A businessman looks at the people in his office and, knowing them, weaves a marketing plan that utilizes their unique skills and abilities and personalities to enable clients to reach potentials that would be impossible without his imagination and prophecy.  A craftswoman takes a file to a rough metal housing and shapes the sounds of a concert pianist fingers from force to force of sound through miles of metal cord.  What will you do with the raw clay before you? What breath will you breathe into creation?  You have been given the breath of God at your making, O little creator, O child of God.

Make something new.

Taste and see that the LORD is good. Psalm 34:8

*Take a look at our family business.   Coffee Bean Corral:  You can find Sumatra coffee and all the stuff a maker of coffee needs, including roasters there.

More than Remembrance: Worship

In the movie Fight Club the members of Project Mayhem, a male bonding and domestic terrorism experiment in intentional living, lose their first member, and after the founding member tells them the name of their comrade, they repeat it like a mantra.  His name was Robert Paulsen.

When we stand in our parish for funerals, many people mistake the service for a simple act of remembrance.  For many people, we could just chant, Her name  was Mary Smith, and I suspect many families would be happy.  I believe that later most would feel dissatisfied, but they likely wouldn’t know why.

A funeral service is supposed to be an act of worship directed to God, our Creator and for Christians our Abba.  We offer up our loved one in a liturgy that places their life into the story of God’s creation and redemption.  We thank God for who they were and are.  We pray in faith and thanksgiving for the safety and home that we believe they now are.  I know in an age of disbelief and worship of the self, that gets missed most of the time on the conscious level, even for many Christians.  But it matters.

Take Hobo, a local homeless man who died in our community, by which I mean both city and church.  He was not a member exactly, but a fixture, someone who regularly used the services of the church and joined in worship at times.  He was an alcoholic and former drug user who sold drugs years ago by his own admission.  He was a wreck and a holy man.  He searched for God in prayer and baptismal water baths.  He blessed others and kept more than a couple of our local homeless people alive in brutal weather and worse loneliness.  He shared what he had.

His story is not simple as I learned over the years of knowing him.  He had left behind several children by several women.  His brief periods of sobriety had created hopeful dreams of family that faded as he would slip away for months at a time, eventually not coming back to reclaim the ruined dreams he had left behind.  His brief work as a smoke jumper left him with skills that he used make it through dangerous times, whether self-made or not.  He had taken a lot from others over the years, but he also shared what he had.

I met with him formally to hear what I think of now as his last confession and his last stand.  He was clear that he had left behind alcohol and drugs in time to be clear-eyed about meeting his Lord, whom he believed had forgiven him.  I believe that too, though even that is not simple.

Hobo left behind genuine friendships and saved more than a couple of lives, but he also left behind broken lives and people he would not give the time of day too, even when they needed him.  I loved him the way pastors love their people, and his loss to me was real, and so was my disappointment that he didn’t father his children or husband his “wives” of whatever status.

When we gathered at Grace Church to lay his body to rest and to let him go to his Lord, it was important to many around him that he would not be forgotten.  But it was more important to me to offer him up one final time with his community and the royal priesthood of the church, to name the ways that God-in-Christ came through the cracks in his life, and to thank God for him.  I also prayed that God would forgive him and heal his children and the women he left behind.  His funeral was not merely a remembrance, though we did remember him.  His funeral was worship for the God who made him, the God he betrayed, and the God who loved him anyway and kept showing up to work in and through his life.

His life mattered to God, and it mattered to the people around him and to me.  I have no idea what Hobo and God will have to say to each other when they stand face to face, but I know what my hope and faith are for him, for you, and for myself.  I hope that his prayer found their intention, and I have faith he can sluff off the sins he had held on to for so long; that is, after all the point of the cross. I hope his sins fall away in the lives of those he left, and that God grants redemption to those who remain.  I believe that he was set free two thousand years before he was born, and that he was searching for that freedom all of his life.  My hope is that he found it.

Whether he did or not I have to leave between him and God.  Between you and me, I loved him and was loved by him the way pastors and their people love each other, the way human beings love each other.  He blessed me and gave me the honor of offering his life up before his friends to his Lord.  He gave life, and he took life.  In the end, he was more than just a name to be remembered: he was a reason to worship God in praise, thanksgiving and repentance.


How the Holocaust broke the Western Mind – Searching for the Rule of God after Belzec

It was a minor concentration camp, Belzec in Poland, where somewhere between five to six hundred thousand Jews were murdered, plus another twenty or thirty thousand Gypsies.  The numbers are still overwhelming seventy years on.  And these are the smaller numbers.  The Revelation of the Holocaust broke the Western Mind.

The word choice is important to my point.  It was not the murders that broke us, it was their revelation through the still young media of film.  It was not mere murder either, it was the religious nature of the Nazi Party and their cause.  It was the collusion of the church and our religiously decorated prejudices.  It was the Revelation of their sacrifice of people who were no longer a label in gray tones on the movie screens of the Western world.  On grainy black and white film the emaciated Jews and Gypsies and prisoners of war were reduced to just being human persons.

The Western Mind is not unique in categorizing human beings and their worth according to labels.  We are not the first or worst sinners of history.  But the Revelation of the Holocaust, the unveiling of our inhumanity, destroyed that system for the collective mindset of the West.  We still have not come back to equilibrium.  We are still healing from the break of seventy years ago.

Look at how we are still gathering in the streets of St. Louis and arguing over the pay of women in the work world.  The Western Mind likes to see itself as Christianized.  In many ways the influence of Christianity on the Western Mind is indisputable.  But the sin, that deep brokenness at the level of our being, undercuts any hope of the Rule of God working at large time and time again.  The Jesus of our theology bows to the prejudices of our cultures again and again.  So we are still trying to work out what it means to live as human beings with other human beings who are different from us and worth the same love and peace.

Jesus [an Israelite of Galilee it is worth pointing out] taught and modeled that everyone had worth before the God of Creation that he called Abba, “Daddy.”  The Gospels repeatedly tell of him crossing the cultural lines of his day to proclaim and embody the Rule of God.  His prejudices were Galilean Israelite prejudices, and yet he is portrayed in the text as moving past them to proclaim a different day of the Lord’s favor for all people.  He pointed out that the prophets had gone to the Gentiles before, and then he went out healing and proclaiming the gospel to Syro-phoenicians and Samaritans and even centurions, the American Marines of his day.  Acts continues this story in the early church’s apostles and their communities.  The letters of the New Testament proclaim again and again that the old boundaries are no longer meritorious in the unity found in Christ.

The church has often turned the spread of the gospel into a weapon in the arsenal of violence, oppression, and especially colonization.  But that was never the call of the church.  We were called to proclaim the gospel to every human being, making disciples of the way of Jesus.  That way is laid out in the Gospels as non-violent: loving, forgiving, healing, and bringing reconciliation and peace.  It has often been taken by those who would use it for violence and turned into another covering for the Third Reich with the church’s blessing.  (Not the whole church maybe, but the majority.)

As an American Christian, I cannot ignore that many here supported Nazism and the violent anti-Semitism and race hatred that was passed from hand to mouth as a cultural norm.  We did not get involved in the war because of the deep divides in our country; we did not rise up against the Axis of Evil until we were hit in Pearl Harbor.

The thing that haunts me is the support for the ideas and prejudices of Nazism and the various forms of hatred and evil that it embodied by religious people.  We are not a pure people, even as Christians.  We are in constant need of being changed, of repentance.

Those images flickering out of the rubble of Europe, our cultural mother, of human beings destroyed and still living and piled up in mountains of sin were apocalyptic.   The Holocaust is an offensive word for it; the sacrifice that is burned as an offering is not the image we want to hold up.  In the Revelation of John the Lamb appears announced as the Root of Jesse, the lion of Judah, and is described as “slaughtered” in my usual translation, but in Greek is “standing as if beaten to death.”  It is isn’t a sacrificial word. But the truth is that the Jews and others were destroyed, sacrificed by the Western World time and time again to a god that is not recognizable in Jesus.  That god is the god of hatred and prejudice, but it is also the god of valuation, setting one good above another.  Sadly it is often the true god of religion.

I worry that we have brought back that god when we talk about American interests leading us to war again.  I worry that we have not learned anything at all.

The Western Mind was broken seventy years ago as the “other” became a human being, because without the detailed Retina screen I carry around now in my pocket, we couldn’t tell if the people on the movie screen was a Jew or a POW or a Gypsy or just some kid from Yonkers.  We had to face that devastation without the labels that justify our violence.  We were forced to make the leap that every human being is worth the full worth that we have, whatever label either of us wears.

We are still working that out.  I think that is what opened up race, geographical, and gender bias and violence to our ethical reflection.  As a religious people we could not go back to a pre-Belzec world, could we?  We still carry around prejudices and a tendency toward violence, but we could no longer call that good or godly, could we?  We did in Selma and Ulster.  We did in more subtle ways with our responses or lack of responses to Sudan, Rwanda, Detroit and Syria.

But we have also made huge strides, acknowledging our common humanity and often our sins, even the ones of omission. I am encouraged by the Israel Palestinian struggle of our day.  I am not always sure that the lessons of those first Russian newsreels have made an impact, and then someone moves toward peace from an unexpected place.  A Jewish doctor decries the death of Palestinian children.  Marines rebuild the sewers of Ramallah.  Small vital signs that the Rule of God peak through even in the midst of violent death.

The Rule of God is based in two important concepts.  One, the rule means area of control, care, and provision, along with order and law must be the peace of provision and reconciliation. What is not under the rule of God?  Two, that the God of Creation loves every human being and wants their return to relationship, to love, humanity, and peace.  This return to God must include a return to peace with God’s children.  This God and the Rule embodied in Jesus have always been in danger of being taken over by the violent without and the violence within.

It is this Rule which salts my tears seventy years after Belzec reading about the utter loss and destruction of God’s sons and daughters in a small Polish town so far removed from right now.  It is this Rule that I see when I look into the face of the woman or man or child on the news or across the cafe.  God-breathed clay brought to life and wonderful, worthy of love and peace, that is the visage of every human face.

After Belzec there is no label that can hide that face.  I still believe in sin and lament my own and other human sins daily, but I believe there is a way to live  beyond sin, that values that child of God across the world or across the cafe.  It is the way of Jesus, of peace and forgiveness, of healing and love.

It is hard to know what should have been done seven decades ago in the face of such violence.  It is hard to know what to do today in the face of the violence we face daily.  But it begins in remembrance and prayer for there to be on earth a way that is as it is in heaven.  It begins here in this little cafe in Michigan, or it will remain in heaven while we slip again towards hell on earth.

If my Jewish brother is less human than I am, then Jesus is less than I believe and I have no hope.

If the gospel is not for the Palestinian woman, then it isn’t for me.

I cannot sing Amazing Grace for myself alone.

No, I am not an ex-Baptist. I am a Episcopal Christian.

No longer post-evangelical. Episcopal life after the life after being Baptist. A birthday meditation.

I grew up Southern Baptist, but I am no longer an ex-Southern Baptist. My turn away from my turn began when in an interview with my then bishop-to-be Robert Shahan said, “Make sure you bring the gifts of your Baptist life to the Episcopal Church, your love of salvation and personal relationship with Christ.” It was not what I expected to hear.

Leaving the Southern Baptist life was tied up in a number of decisions; much like becoming vegetarian, it was something that was more emergent than a breaking point. The social issues and the salvation message (without much beyond it), the Bible as fourth person of the trinity, all of it was there, and I had had a conversion about women in ministry [not much of a leap beyond the women of my family.] But it wasn’t any one of these things or even the culmination of them that led me to leave.

Sometimes I say it was the liturgy, and I suppose in a real way it was; but it wasn’t just the liturgy. I was looking for a way of embodying the teachings of Jesus, a lived community salvation. What I found was the ascetic theology of the Book of Common Prayer. It was these things too, and it was something else.

It felt right. Which is not what I want to write. I want to say that it was this great theological or worshipful ideal that arose out some depth of study and worship. And it was, but it was also this internal place of feeling in my bones the things I had hoped for in those hours in that tiny apartment at Grand Canyon between worship services, classes, and a handful of jobs reading all those books alongside the Bible and trying to imagine what the community of God would look like at worship.

I am not sure after the last twenty years if I have really found what I set out after in college, at least not as a repeatable form, but there are these moments where the Spirit slips into our hearts, and the worship just lifts up into praise and intimacy, drunken joy and transformation. Sometimes that is Sunday mornings, and sometimes it is the simple eucharist on Wednesdays, and sometimes it is sitting around the table in my office where my work gets smaller and infinitely more detailed.

O Wisdom! The Spirit comes dancing in and whisks away the dust and crud of build up that clings to us in our daily lives. She takes these tired hands and goes swinging through in time to the angels lift of praise. She comes with light and lights, and the dance is so much more and so much less than liturgy. It is worship and praise, tears and joy, laughter and love, intimacy and reverence. It is repentance and coming home. It is the slake of thirst of that first drink in the desert. It is touch of God.

On those days, you can watch God work like wind twisting trees. Sure, there is almost always wind to the attentive finger in the air, and trees never really sit still, being living things. But when you have watched the leaves of fall in Michigan go dancing, you can’t compare the everyday with the manifestation of the Day at all.

Back to what I left. When I left the Baptist church, I was leaving a way of being Christian. It didn’t fit. And I had been ridiculed a couple of times for not being the right size. I was persecuted. If I can make that awesome word small and tiny and not have it stand in the same way it does for those who really suffer harm and danger, then I can say I was persecuted. When I think of North India and Syria and the Christians of Iraq, I should say, I was talked about impolitely. I was ribbed. I was teased. I felt persecuted when I was too young to know what suffering entails. Mostly I was loved and supported by the people who packed my bags.

I left looking for a place to be the kind of Christian I hoped I was. I left looking for worship that embodied the teachings of Jesus my Lord. I found the cathedral in Phoenix and the women who led her, Trinity. Rebecca and Veronica embodied something about the mystical body of Christ; with them I could bow. The people were raw and holy without any pretense of being good at being a church. As an institution they were living in ruins. They were faithful and hopeful and honest and kind, but they were not successful and hadn’t been for a long time. I was one of a very few under forty. Truly I was one of a few, period.

Later it would grow. Later it would become the community and institutions that it is now, but twenty years ago, it was a remnant in the ruins of past success. And among those ruins I found a people, and in their honest participation in a liturgy that was bigger than any of us, I joined with adults in the life of the Church. I found a voice and a calling there. It was there that Bishop Shahan told me not to leave behind the heritage of Scripture and relationship. He even hired me to teach youth and young adult ministry and confirmed and ordained me.

I had left behind a church in transition, a denomination that continues to grow and evolve, though they don’t like that word particularly. Many of my cohort stayed to live beautiful and fruitful Christian lives. Many of my friends became Emergent Christians, founding hip communities and doing amazing things, living the life of God in new and exciting ways. They became part of the revolution that is always going on in the evangelical church. I went backwards crawling back through revivals and revivalism, Methodism and evangelical Anglicanism, looking for a pure sacrament. I left the post-modern and found myself pre-modern.

I was looking for authentic worship, rooted in history. I was looking for the upper room and freshly broken bread. I wanted to get as close to Christ as I possibly could. I crawled into the liturgy of the church and discovered how broken the body can be. I discovered with the rest of my generation and probably yours that the church is always happening right now.

There is no pure sacrament, because it is always a sign held by human hands. God moves through us like trees, and we twist and fall. But our fall is only the chance for the Spirit to take us dancing again. When the dance is over we become part of the landscape, the long geological work of redeeming a world that is fallen and free, but still formed like river clay and breathed by the One who loved it and loves it still. We are always breathed creatures.

And sometimes that Breath breathes in our liturgies so strongly I want to call people to the altar, to tell them the stories of the Bible like a parent on a car trip telling childhood hijinks to those we tell to be better than us, and I want to break bread for the world. No I am not a post-evangelical. I am not a former Southern Baptist. I am a part of the broken body of the world, for the world. I am a part of the body of Christ, redeemed and gone dancing.

I am an Episcopal priest, a member of the Anglican communion, if one can be, and I keep the Offices and could no more give up the eucharist than my pen, and I still lament that my people don’t love Scripture, but am glad they don’t worship it. I live a sacramental life, if you can accept that no sacrament is pure, and I am held up by the Body of Christ, in robes and no robes, carrying leather Bibles and Books of Common Prayer in hands still dirty from the clay of the River of Life.

I am still baptized if not Baptist. I didn’t get far in my leaving. I just went backwards. I am not not a Baptist anymore. I am evangelical and Anglican, catholic and praying and Biblical, imperfect and still looking for a pure sacrament.  I still read the Bible and I love Jesus; and we should go dancing sometime, but I don’t dance.

A Sane Prayer Life – Advice Along the Way

A Sane Prayer Life

Prayer is one of the most intimate things a person can do, but it is surprising how many people report having a sane prayer life. Rarely do I have people report praying crazy things.  People are usually humble and patient, even if frustrated or even devastated by their situation.  They are rational even in irrational times.  I have a theory that a solid prayer life keeps you sane.

That is not necessarily the popular opinion of atheists, but among the things you can learn online, 55% of Americans pray daily according to a 2013 Pew Research poll.  In our tradition, Anglican/Episcopal Christian, we stress daily prayer as a formal part of  our formation and prayer life.

The Daily Office is not the same thing as a quiet time or devotional, though those traditions within Methodist and Evangelical traditions in the United States probably developed out of it.  The Daily Office is a whole church version of the monastic, specifically Benedictine, opus Dei, or work of God.  Benedict saw the monastic offices, regular and regulated sessions of prayer, as the praise of the faithful being intentionally ordered to be both realistic and keepable in a normal balanced life, even if one that is dedicated and set aside to God in the desert communities of the sixth century.

The English Reformers, led by Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, distilled the hours to the Morning and Evening Offices that we call Morning and Evening Prayer.  Later the church brought back into the Book of Common Prayer noontime and the late night Compline offices, pretty much as directed by the Rule of Benedict.

The Offices are kept pretty strictly, without much innovation.  Martin Thornton, English priest writing about fifty years ago, saw the Office as part of a trinitarian prayer life, being dedicated to the God the Father.  In keeping the Offices as proscribed we are submitting to the praise of the universal Church.  This is part of a sane life, as Thornton points out, that is balanced between submitting to the Church universal in the Office and to the local community in the Eucharist.  He also points out that sanity is not found only in submission, but in submission and freedom.

We are free in our tradition to pray as the Spirit leads in an ongoing way.  We are invoked to prayer in the Book of Common Prayer but not told how to pray throughout the day.  Granted, our BCP has prayers in it, but I would suggest that sanity in freedom should involve some devout and holy experiment.  You should pray as the Spirit leads in whatever way is fitting.

I am an INFP, a Five on the Enneagram, and a Mystic according to the Myers-Briggs type indicator, Enneagram, and Urban Holmes’s Spirituality for Ministry.  All of that is to say that my needle is set to quiet, introspective prayer.  I need silence everyday and often daily.  I retreat to quiet places constantly.  But sometimes in prayer, I cry out, clench my fists, and even feel led to dance.  I let music take me along to emotional places I don’t go without guidance.  I try to extend my prayer life with a little time, after the Bible and silence that is.

Gil Stafford taught me this twenty years ago.  Gil was my first spiritual director, and in a meeting one day in his office as then baseball coach at Grand Canyon University, we were catching up when he told me about deciding not to journal as part of his daily prayer.  He had been journalling for a long time and realized that it had become dry and not very prayerful, so he was setting it aside for a while.  I was blown away, even though he wasn’t teaching me per se, he was just sharing himself.  But it modeling a kind of freedom that I just didn’t have at eighteen, even though there was no formal constraint.

Sanity admits to the reality of areas of life where we submit to others and find freedom in doing so.  I often think people who complain about the weather are wasting their time, but people who complain about their own life are not dealing with reality very well.  Okay, that includes me often enough, but I don’t always deal well with reality either.  We submit and find life, but we also must find the areas of our life where we do have dominion or power and enjoy those areas as well, taking control of them and playing in them.

Where Martin Thornton says we must experiment reverently, I would say we must learn to play in prayer.  We have to learn to trust God’s goodness and mercy and forgiveness enough to approach in prayer in the ways we are led to.  We may fail in prayer.  I have.  I have also failed in communicating with my wife and kids and friends.  They don’t cut me off, and how much more compassionate is my Abba?

We need places in prayer that we keep faithfully.  Maybe that is Scripture or the Offices, but find a place to bow.  Then play with all you have.  God wants nothing less.

Blessing God while Cussing

Prayer is a crazy business.  I am a professional, but like most professionals hired to teach others I often forget to teach the way beneath the techniques.

Prayer is a crazy business because it is talking to God.  God!  It is always an act of faith, even the foxhole blurts and the beggars blessings.  We act in faith when we lean into God, but religious people are always in danger of saying stuff that sounds like prayer but isn’t.  You know what I mean.  The pastor’s prayer that is really a reiteration of the sermon.  The holy aunt’s grace that is more of a rubbing in the face of her own holy righteousness.

To cuss is to use impolite words.  I separate cussing from cursing.  To cuss is sometimes an act of impolite honesty, and sometimes just plain rude or inappropriate.  I am not suggesting you take it up.  But to curse is to will harm or evil upon another.  It is the opposite of blessing.  To bless is to invoke the manifestation of God and God’s will to good for another person.  It is a profound act of healing and faith.  I do suggest you take it up.

But my point today is to bless while you are still pushed to the point of cussing.

I want to talk about cussing prayers.  The angry, hurt, desperate prayers that don’t usually make it into church.  The prayers that come when the news rips out an organ and drops the floor beneath you.  The aching prayers that define us and often leave us feeling guilty or blasphemous.

Have you ever prayed like that?  I have.  I still do.  Often as a priest I want the freedom to just lay out exactly what I feel in four-letter words, but I am learning to communicate with more care.  (Honestly, I have worked on that more because I have children than because of my collar.  I would just cuss if it weren’t for the responsibility to raise children who can function better than their father.)

The door closes, and the doctor frowns.  When the words have dropped and you cry out, it is too late to tell you what I want to say right now.  God loves you and wants those prayers.  God is not distant.  God is not perfect in the immutable, unchangeable way that so many armchair theologians pronounce.  They are wrong.  God is in there with you, in the ache and the cold hospital room.  God is in the gutter and the leather-accented office suite.

We have taken “God is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow” meaning faithful to promises, and we have let bad Roman neo-Platonism come creeping into Christian theology.   God is not unchangeable.  To say that God is immutable is to rip out some pretty significant pages of the Bible.

The people around their golden calf better rejoice that God can change, and at the prayers of Moses who had already by that point argued with God at the bush and hit the rock in anger.  God turns aside so easily from wrath that one begins to wonder why the bluster.  Now like Jonah you can sit under your withering plant or you can join Jesus on the side of grace.

God is a lot of things in the Bible, but thin-skinned isn’t one of them.  God doesn’t have skin at all, except Jesus and the Spirit-people of baptism and eucharist.  We incarnate God.  It is true, read John.  So then why do we think that God can’t handle our prayers and our cussing?

I suggest you try it out.  Let God have it, all of it.  It is one of the greatest acts of faith there is.  God is with you wherever you are.  If you trust that, cry out.  God will hold you.  God has reached out time and time again in Scripture, not usually to fed the things of this life, but to lead us through death into life.  God often is closest in the darkest times of our lives, but we are trained only that God is light and don’t look into the deep inky loneliness for the those smoldering eyes of love.

Too bad.  So often I have found God almost unbearably close in chalk-green rooms still echoing with the doctor’s worse.  And often people don’t realize how close God is because we are taught that God comes to sanctuaries and Aunt Holy’s living room full of saints and saccharine.  The faithful know otherwise, but they often don’t have words for that moment that sound religious.

It’s too bad.  The Bible is full of them.  Psalm 23 and . . . okay the Psalms.  David, Moses, and the Cross.  Paul and the letters all teach us that God is more than able to handle your cuss words.  Bless God with cuss words still in your mouth.  It is powerful practice.

You don’t need to go out and find a reason to cuss.  The world will give you plenty of encouragement.  But while you are still there, bless God and pray.  You will find yourself a little more human and your God a little more intimate.

Gratitude and the Way: Roadwork

Whitby Summer 2014 by DPR+

Whitby Summer 2014 by DPR+

Ingrate.  Everything I have is given by someone else.  Everything I have is borrowed.  Everything I have belongs to God.  There is this simple truth in my life that I stumble over sometimes and end up in tears of gratitude.

I am an ingrate.  I am ungrateful most of the time, not because I think I earned anything or have some great accomplishments, but because I just don’t pay attention enough.

My life is carried by others.  I can’t weave sheets or make a shirt or build a road. I don’t even keep my own calendar.  I am so deeply connected to all these amazing human beings who do these incredible things.  Could I do any of them? Yes, maybe.  But could I do them and still do what I do well?  Not a chance.

My life is this wondrous dance with a few million people, most of whom are invisible to me.  We live in webs of relationship.

Even the sparrow is not removed from me.  Her health is mine.  She makes her home beside the altar because she is as much a part of the will and love of God as I am.

I carry around this truth in my pocket and run my hands over it sometimes in wonder.  I was watching the workmen on Front cutting the asphalt for another dig into the underbelly of our small metropolis, and awe overtook me.  These sons of God, these bored and distracted fathers and brothers were waking up and focussing to do something that makes me marvel.

These men were taking care of the rest of us with their care around power and gas, water and road.  They were priests to the mysteries that lie under our feet.

What of the dental assistant or the nurse, the veterinarian, the police officer, the woman in labor?  The world is full of the children of God working together at this wondrous creation.  We bend like fields of wheat under the wind of God.  We bow to one another in acts so small as to escape notice, but in the whole we make the world.

The righteous choose to walk awake into fields of harvest with gratitude, to honor the world by choosing to bless rather than curse, to attend to our holy work, whatever it is, bowing to God in simple acts of love at the shovel or the pick, the needle or the push of the body against the infant.

We are creators like our abba Creator choosing to build up or destroy.  Oh, my brothers and sisters, we have to choose.  We have to wake up to the ties that hold us, or we will strangle the weaker among us, we will suffocate the helpless, we will struggle against the web or go slack, and both increase the work of those around us.

Care of life, care of the little interactions, moving with grace among the creation, this makes us human.  We can begin in such small ways, like the men at the corner waking up to attention, doing their job with care and focus.  Going the extra mile comes easy when we choose the first one as an act of humanity rather than slavery.

We begin with the choice.  Paul addresses slaves and urges them to choose their life, which we have used and misused as owners of slaves.  But if we read this as the slaves, we are addressed as human beings.  We choose, and so we take on our dominion of the first corner of creation given into our care, our selves.  We choose and then the owner becomes a partner in life, and the hierarchy we both hold and resent disappears.

It becomes a prop for an old play left over after the crowd leaves.  A relic is all that remains of the old world and its acting.  The reality of the Rule has come and left the old play abandoned for the farce it was.  We are not slaves or owners, we are human beings bowing to each other.

Wake up, O leaders and servants, we all wash each others feet as we live well into our lives, and our feet are washed by our savior in so many different colored hands.  The Rule of God has come, and God is the only one to stand above as the first Creator, the ongoing Weaver who runs the loom of creation through our lives like a breath over our fields of harvest, and we bow or break.

Your life and mine are one.  The Spirit, that breath of God, makes us one as we awake to the real world of life and salvation, to our heritage as Creator’s children, Jesus followers, healers and forgiveness bearers.  The world waits for us to realize that the men at the corner are our brothers, the world is in our care, and we are bound to love.