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.

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.

Lifting their Hands – On not leaving pastoral ministry

Being a pastor sucks.  It is also wonderful in ways no other job is.  But there are days even years when the consolations of ministry are few and far between, and the critiques and mistakes form a flood that overwhelms the best of intentions.

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The Very Rev. Rebecca McClain asked me early on in mentoring me into the priesthood of the Episcopal Church what I thought it meant to be a priest.  My answer then is still one I am working out.  I said, “Being a priest means promising to be fully human, bearer of the  image of God and flesh and blood, broken and healed, in front of a group of people, no matter what.”  The vows of ordination are about the roles we play in the church.  But before all of the roles is this simple understanding that I hold about being a human being, a child of God in Christ, a Spirit-led person in front of a congregation.  To be honest about our humanity in its glories and failures sounds nice, but it is hard.  Rebecca and others have helped me to put flesh and blood to it, but it is often not supported and loved by the very people among whom we struggle to live it out.

To lead others toward their full humanity in God in Christ just makes it worse.  People don’t want to change, don’t want to take ownership of their life with God or others, much less practice self-sacrificial love.  People don’t want you to change them or their church, no matter what reasons you offer for doing so.  I know; I work in the church.

I was realizing all of this in the middle of seminary.  I was in my seventh year of ministry by then, having worked in churches and a diocese prior to seminary.  By the seventh year most people leave ministry, and I was ready to join them.  My life was ugly at the time, mostly due to my own shortcomings and sins, and plenty of both.  I was an exile from every community that I could turn to.  I was out of touch with my family, my home community, my various churches.

I was sitting in the dark.  I was actually sitting in the dark of a small chapel at a youth retreat preparing a Youth Encounter team that would be welcoming and leading other youth through a weekend experience of Christ a month leader.  I was a spiritual director for the youth and young adult commission of the diocese, and I was there at the request of the director,  whom we will call Julie.  But I was struggling with leaving ministry altogether.

I was sitting on the side with another spiritual director watching Julie lead the eucharist for the youth.  I don’t remember the sermon.  I was in the tunnel vision of struggle and doubt wondering why I would stay.  I was asking God, What is there in ministry that I would die for? What could I possibly do as a priest that would matter enough for me to give my life to it? Suffering and self-centeredness are natural allies.

As the service turned toward the eucharist, the most intimate and holy space for us as followers of Christ, Julie called two teens up to be the table.  One was this boy with significant developmental issues that made him socially awkward and sometimes very difficult, he was lovable and frustrating at the same time.  The youth had earlier in the day reached the point of excommunicating him and even cruelly pushing him away when one senior girl, a gorgeous popular teen, reached out to him and used her popularity to pull him back into the group and build him up.

Julie had these two come forward and be the table by holding the elements of communion, the bread and the wine.  And Julie, with her wild red hair and her effusive enthusiasm, began to pray the eucharistic prayer from the prayer book from memory.  I was engaged and leaned forward beginning to feel like here in this moment God was answering my questions.

When she reached the place in the prayer where the priest would normally take up the elements and elevate them, she instead bent down on her knees and lifted their hands.  In the moment when the profane becomes holy, she knelt and lifted their hands.

She lifted their hands!  They became more than sacred furniture.  She made them priests, the hands of Christ, bringing their full and broken humanity into the divine act of God in Christ.  It was holy.  It was priesthood.

Now I don’t know if one person there saw what I saw.  But I just began to sob there in the darkness.  I might have said, “Amen.”  But I know I said, “I will die for that.”

So I stayed, and I stay to lift up other people’s hands.  I am still pretty broken as a human being.  Mississippi pastors say we are all dirt and divinity.  I can’t say that I have Julie’s flair and instincts or Rebecca’s maturity, but I know why I am here, why I am still trying to do more than just preach and preside as a holy person doing holy things on holy furniture.

I am heir to that moment when Christ chose to call his disciples brothers and sisters, to take up the cross and set us free, to redeem human beings to be what God made us to be: a royal priesthood of sons and daughters, heirs, and stewards of the creation and each other.  I am heir to the God who comes and lifts us up, who loves us and commands us to love others, who kneels when we expect him to stand.

You are more than sacred furniture to God.  You are his daughter, his son, his beloved heir to the rule of love and grace.  Despite myself, I am still a pastor, and I will lift your hands until you hold them up yourself and make the world holy.

 

 

“The creation waits in eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.”  from Paul’s letter to the Romans