I Want to Be Called a Missionary.

I’ve read with interest a bunch of stories surrounding the “rebranding” of the staff and environs surrounding 815 2nd Avenue, and its various non-New York satellite offices, to “The Missionary Society.” The quest to find a suitable name for the offices and staff that compose our churchwide governance has always been something of an unreachable goal – I suspect the church won’t ever coin a term that works until Jesus returns in glory. I can think of at least four names I’ve either used or been told to use over the years: “the national church,” “815,” “the Episcopal Church Center,” “the staff of The Episcopal Church.” I should admit up front that I have plenty of problems with the new name, and the way it’s being adopted and promulgated. I’m going to term the organization “The Group Formerly Known as 815.”

But I was surprised to read on the Episcopal Cafe the other day an article written by Torey Lightcap that rooted some of the deepest concern about the change with its use of the word missionary.

Here’s why it surprised me: if, at my funeral, someone were asked to describe who I was, and s/he were to answer “He was a missionary,” I’d consider it the mark of a life, a ministry, and a baptism well lived.

So, I want to respectfully disagree with some of the concerns that have been made about the use of the word missionary. I want to do this by engaging in what I hope will be a wholistic manner with the article, rather than doing the old-fashioned “point-by-point” internet rebuttal. That doesn’t leave room for conversation – which, well, is exactly what missionaries often wouldn’t do in the past.

Let me be clear that my argument is not that the current rebranding is, in fact, conceived in perfection, suavely executed, and a work of sheer genius. It isn’t. But actually, I’m not that worried about the decision. It’s neither here nor there for me.

The essay (read it in full – it’s absolutely worth deep consideration) reminds us of the great historical baggage attached to the word missionary both within the United States and abroad – an assessment that I don’t dispute in the least. I grew up in South Carolina, in the midst of a strongly Conservative evangelical Southern Baptist culture – and can readily feel within myself the word missionary rousing a picture of undying and unyielding certitude and one-size-fits-all packaged faith solutions that are tone-deaf, insensitive to the needs of the world. Most of all, it reminds me of a picture of emotional manipulation. In other parts of the world, the baggage associated with colonialism is even stronger: forced conversions to Christianity under threat of death, genocide, slavery, heedless exploitation and mastery of other peoples and cultures for profit.The baggage of language is intense, painful, and deep. So the term missionary, it is argued, doesn’t play, and can’t possibly play; the weight is too deep, creates too many barriers, it is fundamentally exclusive.

The baggage of the word missionary – as it speaks to the modern mind – needs to be owned by the church for what it is: sin. It’s sinful to force people to convert to Christianity, because it doesn’t respect their dignity as a human being and it leaves no room for the beautiful stirrings of the grace of God that move within the soul in a free and unforced choice to follow Jesus. It’s sinful to view other people as a mark on a “conversion tally sheet,” because it fails to even begin to try and see a person, with wants, needs, joys, and fears – it fails to see the image of God within them. The sins that so many associate with missionaries need to be acknowledged and repented of by the church – full stop.

I’ve always been a strong believer that our call as a church is to present to the world a new and different narrative of what it means to be a follower of Jesus – yes, a missionary of Jesus – than the ones that have caused so much damage in the past. We need to recall words like evangelism and missionary out from wreckage that we attached to it through our own past sins.

For a long time, I ran from these words, having grown up in a culture where they represent so much that is damaging, and hurtful, and sinful. I wanted to be called anything but evangelical, anything but a missionary. I was happy to be called an Episcopalian. At least that term presented minimal baggage I had to wrestle with.

But to create new words, or find new terms for those that the Church has distorted over time through its own sin is, in many ways, to avoid the issue of that sin, and make a deft maneuver away from a difficult conversation we need to have with the world about our own faults and failings. It denies us the opportunity to be fallible, to be human, to be vulnerable to criticism.

And, above all, it surrenders to the idea that things have to remain this way – that the baggage of a history is so great it can never be overcome; that the wounds are so deep, that they cannot be healed. The gospel tells us this isn’t the case – that Jesus loves us with no exceptions. Period. They tell us that God’s grace is open to all, and is the way that we are pieced back together so that, step by step, we begin to see that great work of reconciliation that is God’s dream for the world.

To run from the word missionary because of history is to avoid a conversation that we so desperately need to have with the world:  it denies us the opportunity to show the movement of the grace of Jesus Christ in our lives that led us to realize the actions that created all this emotional baggage was sinful. It gets us out of the difficult task of telling our story, admitting our failings, and then telling how Jesus has changed us, shaped us, and pieced us back together.

So I firmly believe that for the church to run away from the word missionary is to run from the promises of our baptism, and the people the gospel calls us to be; witnesses to the grace of God, to the power of God’s reconciling love for all. The words missionary and the word mission – as I know is repeated ad infinitum in the church – come from the Latin word missio – which has at its core meaning, the act of sending and being sent. Missionaries, therefore, become people “people sent out” – people, who, following after the example of Jesus Christ, are given for the life of the world. People who bear the good news; people who work for justice and peace; people who seek nothing less than healing, wholeness and the reconciliation of the world to God. Missionaries are people fully given over to others. It’s the word – more than any other – that encapsulates what the Great Commandment and the Great Commission charge us to be. As Christians, it’s who we are. It’s who I want to be. 

The church can debate – and should debate – about the process by which “The Group Formerly Known as 815” chooses to rebrand as “The Missionary Society.” We can ask whether it was an astute and well-executed choice, or one that is bound to invite snickers and disdain, and even whether it was canonically permissible. We can debate about the leadership choices and principles inherent in the process. There’s a lot to wrestle with there, that should be wrestled with.

But as to being called “Missionary” – well, that’s a title that I would love to be worthy of. By God’s grace, someday, I hope to achieve it.

 

Editorial Note: Several spelling mistakes and typos changed on a second read. Apologies for that!

Sermon for Trinity Sunday (Year C)

Year C – Trinity Sunday
Proverbs 8:1-4, 22-31 / Psalm 8 / Romans 5:1-5 / John 16:12-15

Jesus said to the disciples, “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come…”

rublev-angels-at-mamre-trinity

In the name of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

One of my favorite authors, Annie Dillard, writes in her novel Pilgrim at Tinker Creek:

 Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery,
like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf.

We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape,
really see it, and describe what’s going on here.

Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise. [1]

On this Trinity Sunday, the truth of Dillard’s words echo loud and clear to me. Because on this principal feast of our church year, instead of celebrating a significant event in the life of Jesus or the life of the Church, we celebrate God who is in Trinity: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit.

For me, there is no doctrine of the church that reminds me of the limits of my human reason as that of the Trinity.  When trying to describe the inner life of God whom we worship “in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity, neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance,” powers of analogy and language fail, and reason breaks down. We are left making those faint tracings on the surface of the mystery of the God in whom we live and move and have our being.

But the Scriptures tell us over and over again of a God who wishes to be known. Today’s reading from Proverbs gives voice to God’s wisdom; a voice that does not whisper, but rather shouts out, standing in the crossroads of the busiest streets: “To you, O people, I call, and my cry is to all that live… The Lord created me at the beginning of his work, the first of his acts of long ago; Ages ago I was set up, at the first, before the beginning of the earth.”[2] Wisdom’s call – God’s call – is to all that live.  God is not content to remain behind the veil of mystery.

God’s very nature is so effusive and so expressive, so relational that it demands the creation of the universe, of the earth, and of you and me: when the creation fell from that for which God dreamed, God’s very nature demanded its redemption. And as God continues to again make new the creation, God’s reaches out in the blessing and sanctification of the lives of the redeemed. God wants to be known – and indeed is known.  Our God in Trinity is not quiet, but rather, shouts out in the crossroads, wanting to be known.

“I still have many things to say to you,” Jesus tells his disciples, “but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”  Consider that final line again: “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”[3]

God’s glory is in being made known, in being revealed to those who follow Jesus.  Our God is not content to remain behind the veil of mystery.  We may lack the right language to describe how God exists in Trinity; and we may see our analogies about the inner life of the Trinity break down as we try to describe the essence of God’s being.  But through the lens of faith, we see that we are in relationship with God in the fullness of God’s being.  Each time we make our Eucharist together, we meet God in Trinity.  When we are joined to the new creation through the waters of Baptism in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – we meet God in Trinity.  When we feel God at work in the world and in the church – and see things that have grown old being made new and things that were cast down being raised up – we meet God in Trinity.

Our feast today – this Trinity Sunday – is not a celebration of a mysterious theological dogma that defies our powers of description and analogy; it is a celebration of the Living God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – who is constantly shown to us, constantly present to us, and constantly revealed within us.  It is a celebration of a God who is bold and generous in God’s self-revelation to us as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

“Our life is a faint tracing on the surface of mystery,
like the idle curved tunnels of leaf miners on the face of a leaf.

We must somehow take a wider view, look at the whole landscape,
really see it, and describe what’s going on here.

Then we can at least wail the right question into the swaddling band of darkness, or, if it comes to that, choir the proper praise.” [4]

When we take that wider view, it turns out what appeared to be faint tracings on the surface of mystery of the Trinity are actually a journey into the life of God, a life in which we are a part.  And so we choir our proper praise, until we at last see God one in God’s eternal glory: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, poured out for the love of all creation.

Amen.



[1] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

[2] Proverbs 8:4, 22-23.

[3] John 16:12-14

[4] Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek

Sermon for Good Friday 2013

As many times I have travelled to the foot of the cross, I have never been able to make complete sense of it.  I am continually held speechless by the Passion – stunned and disturbed by what it reveals about humanity – our propensity toward violence, spite, anger, and hatred.  I am left wondering, from numerous perspectives, how things could have gotten so out of control – so beyond our better natures – that we could have crucified Jesus.  I find many questions, but few answers.  And still I come, year after year, along with the rest of the church, to the foot of the cross – to that Friday that we have called “Good.”

As often as we travel to the foot of the cross, I think there is always a temptation to focus on ourselves this day.  To recall our own sinfulness, our own brokenness, our own acts of violence.  There is a temptation to plumb the depths of our souls, asking how the world could ever possibly spin so out of control that humanity could crucify the Son of God.

But then we are reminded: the Passion is not the story about the excesses of humanity on that day two thousand years ago. It is the story of Jesus, completely in control. It is the story where the cross is not an instrument of torture and death but rather the means of Jesus’ ultimate glorification. “See, my servant shall prosper,” Isaiah says, “he shall be exalted and lifted up, and shall be very high. Just as there were many who were astonished at him – so marred was his appearance, beyond human semblance,
and his form beyond that of mortals – so he shall startle many nations.”

The cross does startle us. It startles us because what should seem to be an example of our depraved humanity is redeemed and transformed into the ultimate example of God’s supreme goodness.  John’s account of the Passion portrays Jesus as fully in control in his last hours – he orders Simon Peter to put away his sword to let him go with the soldiers. Jesus stands in silence before Pilate, knowing that death lay before him. In an act of love, Jesus entrusts his mother to the care of the beloved disciple. And at the end, Jesus is in control of even his final moments.

In John’s gospel, Jesus’ life does not end with a loud cry. It does not end with him asking why God has forsaken him.  It ends with three quiet words: “It is finished.”

It is finished. Jesus has truly met the fullness of our humanity – even death itself.  In his final moments, Jesus’ arms, stretched upon the cross, stand in nothing less than a full embrace of our humanity.  Jesus has plumbed every depth of human experience – our fears, our joys, our sorrows and our hopes – and today, Jesus meets that last defining element of humanity – our mortality.

Because we know the rest of this story, we know that Jesus reigns from the cross instead of being defeated by it.  We know that what was meant to be an instrument of shameful death has become for us the means of life; and that the scars on Jesus’ body become what Frederick Buechner called signs of the “magnificent defeat” – that Jesus’ wounds the proud insignia of the defeat which is victory, the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.”  We see Jesus lifted up, reigning, drawing all people to himself.  It is finished – our salvation is accomplished – within Jesus’ embrace.

We look at the cross, and even as we see death, we see life itself. We look at the cross, and even as we see hatred and evil, we see love in its fullest measure. We look at the cross, and we see God incarnate, God fully with us, God fully for us.

And so we come and adore. On this day, we don’t celebrate the Eucharist and make our Great Thanksgiving – because in the shadow of the cross, we can offer nothing but adoration.  And so we glory in the Cross, by which joy has come into the world.  We sit, we adore, in wonder and in awe of the embrace of Jesus’ arms of love, stretched out for our lives, and for the life of the world.

Sermon for Maundy Thursday 2013

“You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.” John 13:13-15

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Before I went to seminary, during one of the many steps of the process leading towards ordination, I spent a day with a psychologist and vocational counselor reviewing the results of several personality tests I had been asked to take. One aspect of my personality that came out clearly in the test results was that I like structure in the world around me. I like to be able to take everything about the world around me, and place it into an orderly framework – to break down a situation into its core components, categorize them, label them, tag them, and file them. This is what made me an able Chemist – I was able, using underlying scientific principles, to see the predictable order in the world of atoms, molecules, and chemical reactions.

But this desire for order wasn’t – and still isn’t – limited to the realm of academic knowledge. Socially, I like to know where I fit – precisely where I fit – into a given system – which is why in so many ways the catholic order of our Episcopal Church just works for me – for example, I know that I’m bound by a vow of obedience to my Bishop; I know that I oversee the spiritual and sacramental life of this parish; that I share in the governance of the temporal administration of the parish with the vestry. There’s a framework, an order, a structure in which life in the church is lived – and when I know where I fit, I’m comfortable. When responsibilities and requirements are unclear, I become profoundly uncomfortable.

I suspect that the Apostle Peter might have shared this personality trait with me. In John’s gospel, Simon Peter – at least to the point he appears in our gospel lesson tonight – is a relatively uncomplicated character; he travels with Jesus throughout his ministry, and is a dutiful disciple. In fact, he is only mentioned twice in the fourth gospel before John’s account of the last supper. The first time Simon Peter is named is after his brother Andrew says of Jesus: “we have found the Messiah, the Christ.” It his here that Jesus says that he will be called Cephas – later translated Peter – the rock. The second time we see Simon Peter, it is when many of the crowds that had followed after Jesus have begun to turn away because of the difficulty of what they hear from Jesus. When Jesus asks the disciples if they, also, wish to go away, it is Peter who answers: “Lord, to whom can we go? You have the words of eternal life.” Simon Peter has been brought to Jesus by his brother, who has told him that Jesus is the Messiah. He has seen Jesus work miracles – changing water into wine, healing the sick, feeding the five thousand, and walking on water – and he has named Jesus as Lord.

Simon Peter has placed Jesus into a orderly framework, into an understandable “structure” by the time he sits down with the other disciples at their last meal with Jesus. When he has called Jesus “Lord,” “kyrios,” he acknowledges that Jesus is invested with power and authority. A slave would call his master “kyrios,” “Lord,” – rulers and officials of authority would be called “Lord” by their subjects. Peter has rightly recognized that he is not an equal to Jesus – he has called Jesus “Lord,” and made himself Jesus’ subject. But Peter’s framework breaks down at the last Supper, when Jesus, “took off his outer robe, and tied a towel around himself, poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples’ feet and to wipe them with the towel.” Even a slave would not have to wash his master’s feet – and yet Jesus, the Lord, the master – abases himself, degrades himself, lowers himself – to wash the feet of his disciples.

It is no wonder Peter revolts. His conceptual framework has broken down – it makes no sense – “you will never wash my feet,” he says to Jesus. “Jesus, you cannot debase yourself for me. You cannot degrade yourself for me. You cannot lower yourself to be like me.” But Jesus insists, that “unless I wash your feet, Peter, you have no share with me.” Peter tries to temper Jesus’ act of service – insisting that he should wash his hands and his head. At least take part an act that slave would do – Peter seems to beg – Jesus, don’t lower yourself to less than a slave. But Jesus does. Jesus washes his disciples’ feet – and their feet alone. Jesus – kyrios, the master, the Lord – engages in an act of lowly service that no slave would ever contemplate giving to their master. “Do you know what I have done to you?” Jesus asks them. “You call me Teacher and Lord–and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”

Jesus’ final message to his disciples – to his servants – is that true power is found not in station in society, not in wealth, not in strength – but in humble, self-sacrificing, self-abasing, loving service. If Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, the Master, Kyrios, the Lord – if God himself has washed the feet of his disciples – then every boundary we can place between one another has long been destroyed. When the Lord, when God made human in Jesus, deigns to wash the feet of his disciples, then all barriers are broken, for all time, for all Jesus’ disciples, through all ages. Christ, in his acts of service, shows us love’s true measure, and gives us new unity with one another in his service. The disciples did not know what Jesus was doing – but now we understand: that true service is perfect freedom. And it is in this newfound freedom that Jesus reminds us: “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

On this night, we remember Jesus’ final meal with his disciples; we remember that in the shadow of the cross itself, Jesus took bread, blessed it, broke it, and gave it to his disciples. And we make our Eucharist – our thanksgiving – as Christ again makes himself present to us, and, in his lasting act of humble service, gives us his own self for our heavenly food. But above all else, we remember Jesus, the Lord who serves us his servants; who feeds us his children: God, who emptied himself as and became as a servant and slave for the sake of the world, and the love of creation.

Overdue for Posting

I’m realizing how long it’s been since I’ve been writing, and I’m working on changing that. I’ve got at a set of thoughts on Lent and Chapter 49 of Benedict’s Rule in the works, along with any number of other things I’ve been holding back on.

More on that soon.

In the meantime, may I suggest you check out Lent Madness? 40 days, 32 saints, single-elimnation, head-to-head. It’s a lot of fun, and a great Lenten discipline to live among the saints – who are – above all else – our friends and companions on our journey as Christians. (I’m also a contributor, so there’s that.)

Best wishes to all for a Holy Lent. More soon.

Sermon for All Saints (transferred) – November 3, 2012

Ecclesiasticus 44:1-10,13-14 Psalm 149 Revelation 7:2-4,9-17 Matthew 5:1-12 

Fra Angelico, The Forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs, c. 1423-4
(Photo Credit: The National Gallery, London)

Who are these like stars appearing,
these, before God’s throne who stand?
Each a golden crown is wearing;
who are all this glorious band?
“Alleluia!” “hark,” they sing,
praising loud their heavenly King.

When I say the word “saint,” where does your mind turn?  Of whom do you think ?

Is it the twelve apostles – surrounding Jesus at the last supper, like in the icon that hangs in the sanctuary?

Is it Saint John – our patron – who gazes down at us from the icon on the choir loft – pen in hand as the author of scriptural texts? Or from the scenes of the triptych, drinking the cup of poison, as pious legend holds it, to prove the power of the Gospel?

Is it Saint Peter – so fickle and fiery in the course of the gospels – who deny Jesus three times before the crucifixion to save his own skin – only ultimately to die on another cross, on another hill outside of Rome, hanging upside down, because he proclaimed himself unworthy to die in the same manner as his  Lord?

Is it Paul, blinded on the road to Damascus? Stephen, stoned to death outside a city wall?

Is it the holy poverty of Saint Francis and Mother Teresa? The reforming zeal of Martin Luther or the seeds of contemplation of Thomas Merton?

Who are these of dazzling brightness,
these in God’s own truth arrayed,
clad in robes of purest whiteness,
robes whose luster ne’er shall fade,
ne’er be touched by time’s rude hand?
Whence comes all this glorious band?

Our observance of All Saints’ Day tends to lead us to think rather grandly about the saints. This is nothing new – the cover of our bulletin has vision of the saints given to us by the 15th century artist Fra Angelico.  He paints a grand vision of the saints – his painting contains no less than two popes, five bishops, three deacons, kings, abbesses, monks. “Let us now praise famous men,” the author of Ecclesiasticus writes, “The Lord apportioned to them great glory, his majesty from the beginning. There were those who ruled in their kingdoms, those who gave counsel because they were intelligent; those who spoke in prophetic oracles; those who led the people by their counsels, those who composed musical tunes, or put verses in writing; rich men endowed with resources, living peacefully in their homes– all these were honored in their generations, and were the pride of their times.”

Yes, this is a grand, glorious list that is worthy of praise. We wouldn’t have the psalms without King David, we would not have a church without Peter and Paul; we would not have known how to express our yearning for God were it not for the words of Augustine; We wouldn’t have the comfort found in Julian of Norwich’s meditations, or even a (semi)settled date for Easter without Hilda of Whitby. Indeed we have much to thank them for, much to commemorate. But it does seem so remote, doesn’t it? A bit far beyond our grasp?

These are they whose hearts were riven,
sore with woe and anguish tried,
who in prayer full oft have striven
with the God they glorified;
now, their painful conflict o’er,
God has bid them weep no more.

During seminary, as part of my course work, I spent a summer doing chaplaincy work at New York University Hospital on the east side of Manhattan. The place was, in my kindly estimation, a dump. There were three elevators to serve the twenty floors of Tisch Hospital, which lead to unending lines. Patient rooms always seemed crowded, and there was little privacy, even by hospital standards. The hospital was one that tended not to recommend palliative care or hospice care at the end of life. It was a place that felt cold, didn’t give much comfort in the course of treatment, or seem to me a place where people could die with dignity.

But in spite of all of this, the staff was superb. They looked to their patients with fierceness and intensity that I seldom see people able match in their own work and vocation. And they did so even when the patients rejected their care, or didn’t want their help.  So it came as no surprise to me that, on Monday night, as Sandy bore down on our region, and the hospital building right by the East River became flooded and unusable, to see the news reports of those doctors and nurses carrying patients down the stairs, through the rain, and into the ambulances that would usher their patients to higher ground. And then they did so again, and again, and again.

I can assure you from my time there, that as they cradled infants in their arms down fifteen flights of stairs, their minds were fixed on a task in front of them that needed to be done. While I can’t be certain, I’d imagine that those doctors and nurses and aides didn’t decide to carry people down those flights of stairs because of their immense faith. In fact, I’d imagine that their minds would have been filled with what we’d imagine to be “un-saintly” questions: How could God allow something like this to happen? Who is responsible for this? Why must these people suffer, here, now?   How could this be?” In the midst of all of this fear, uncertainty, and doubt – they did the work that they had to do. They did it only because it was there, because there was a need that required a response. And in doing so, they became visions of God working in our midst.  Without any intention or thought, they, too, bore the imprint of God’s saints. They became visible saints without any intention of doing so.

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,” Jesus says in our Gospel, “for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”

Blessed are you, who are called to be saints. Blessed are you, who give witness to the world as God intended it to be. Blessed are you in your trials and tribulations. Blessed are you in the midst of the storm. Blessed are you in the midst of the wind and rain. Blessed are you in your doubts, and fears, and questions.

Blessed are you, because God is at work in you. Whether you know it or not. Whether you see it or not.

These, like priests, have watched and waited,
offering up to Christ their will,
soul and body consecrated,
day and night they serve him still.
Now in God’s most holy place,
blest they stand before his face.

Sainthood is ultimately not about our own deeds or achievements. It’s not about the words we speak, the sermons we preach, and dare I say to some extent, it’s not ultimately about the lives we live – because we all fall short. We all miss the mark at times. Sainthood, instead, is about vision – but not our own vision. The saints are the vision given to us of God working, both in ages past, and right here in our midst, right now. Sainthood is about God at work through his people. The saints show us that God’s work is never done, and God’s work is always ongoing. Indeed, as long as there are people in this world who are so bold as to wish for peace, who strive to be kind, who are open and vulnerable enough to love – there will be saints.  And, by God, that’s a vision – that’s a calling – that I can buy into.

So, as the old song goes, maybe I can’t preach like Peter, and maybe I can’t pray like Paul. I will never be an exemplar of heroic virtue, and dare I say it, I’m not sure I want to be. But, by God’s grace, I can ”tell the love of Jesus, and say he died for all” – right here, right now, as I am.  I may never be what I picture a saint to be  – in fact, I probably won’t. But I can try. I can do the work that is set before me, living out the questions and doubts. Because the saints of God are just folk like me – and I mean to be one, too. Amen.

Thoughts Driving into a Dark Manhattan

A Dark Lower Manhattan after Sandy.
(Photo Credit: Chang W. Lee/The New York Times)

In a bit of confusion – partly fueled by the terrible cellular service in New York since Sandy made her way through – I drove over to Manhattan this evening, thinking I might be shuttling some friends back to Brooklyn for hot showers, electricity, internet access and the like. It didn’t happen, and that’s fine.

By 6:30 pm, darkness had fallen over the city. Normally, my drive into Manhattan from Brooklyn is a rather uneventful affair. Traffic on the Belt Parkway or the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Congestion as people decide whether to drive in via the Battery Tunnel or instead go over one of the bridges. People are looking either to get home, or to make their way to their evening’s plans in the city.

But tonight, the darkness in the city was near complete. There’s next to no electricity below 34th Street, so the view from my car stood in stark contrast to the usual. Instead of the normal wall of lights from buildings, or the sight of bright orange ferries moving between Whitehall and New Brighton, or cars making their way along FDR Drive, there was only the silhouette of empty, unlit buildings standing on the edge of the usually busy island; the occasional peeks of light from buildings uptown broke into the scene, reminding me of what the place normally looks like.

Even the bridges are half-dark. As I crossed the Manhattan Bridge from Brooklyn, the half way point – normally nothing more than a blink of the eye along the way – had its own line of demarcation. In Brooklyn, where I alighted, there were lights along the edges of the bridge, and on its suspension cables. But then, halfway over the river, suddenly there was darkness, and only the outline of the great steel suspension bridge against the even darker city.

By some happenstance, my phone was playing my music library track by track, in alphabetical order. I left Bay Ridge with Vampire Weekend’s “A-Punk” playing; and travelled the length of the Gowanus Expressway with “The Abduction of Margaret” by The Decemberists. Then, as I crossed the bridge into Manhattan, a familiar and favorite tune began playing.

Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.

I certainly didn’t plan for that track to play. But it sure as hell caught my attention. Scottish Anglican poet Henry Francis Lytle, it is said, wrote the hymn’s text as he lay dying of consumption. He finished his work, and died two weeks later. I’ve heard more than my fair share of his text in my first year of ministry – officiating at twelve funerals inevitably points to a few favorite hymns, and this is one of them. But in a city that’s been brought to its knees by wind and water, it certainly struck a chord. The evening was at hand, and the day was past; indeed, the darkness was deepening.

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day;
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away;
Change and decay in all around I see;
O Thou who changest not, abide with me.

I spent most of my weekend trying to get the church buildings ready for the storm. The church was built around 1890, the rectory was added around 1910, and the parish hall was re-built after being leveled by fire in the 1930s. In many ways, they don’t appear to have been improved since: the fascia and soffits have noticeable breaks on the parish hall; slates are missing from the sanctuary; the rectory has a leak in its roof that causes water to fall with a noticeable drip-drop into the shower during any heavy rain.

The echoes of history are in every stone of this place. It’s the third oldest Episcopal Church in Brooklyn, opened in 1834 to serve the soldiers of Fort Hamilton, the army base that guarded the entrance to the inner portion of New York Harbour. At that time, it sat outside the bounds of Brooklyn, a long coach ride from Park Slope, where the nearest church sat. While he was stationed at the fort, Robert E. Lee, later the famed Confederate General, sat on the parish’s vestry. Thomas Jackson, who later gained his nickname as “Stonewall” for his stoic stand for the Confederacy at First Bull Run, was baptized in the font that sits just inside the door of the sanctuary. The parish seems to have chased off its first rector not long after its founding on suspicion that he might have sympathies for the Oxford Movement, although the history isn’t certain. St. John’s gained a reputation during a much later conflict – Vietnam – for the tombstones the then-rector placed in front of the rectory in which I now live, and for having meetings of Students for a Democratic Society in the Parish Hall. Instead of being accusing him of being a Puseyite, they called him a Communist.

Perhaps it is that sense of history, and the responsibility I feel as priest here, that led me to stress so much about the building. I was up on a ladder as late as 4:30 pm on Sunday, pulling down a loose gutter that had the potential to fly through our stained glass. The wind was already picking up by the time I retreated inside for the storm, where I would remain until the all clear sounded around midday today.

But today, as I descended into the blackness of the familiar world of Lower Manhattan – now devoid of its familiar hum of activity, its lights, its traffic signals – I couldn’t help imagine that the same burden of history – that same fear for a beloved place – must have been felt by any number of folks in this area. St. Paul’s Chapel, for instance, opened in 1766, and has been in use ever since. It survived the 9/11 attacks, and served as a place of rest for numerous first responders who worked for weeks in the wake of the towers’ collapse. Just hours before, the Hudson River was pouring into the new World Trade Center site with such force, the Governor later said, that they worried about the structure of the new pit itself.  And there the historic old church sat – George Washington’s pew, 9/11 museum, all of it – just across Church Street from the raging river. The same kind nervousness could probably be felt by many thousands of people thousands of times over for any number of places now sitting in the midst of that darkness – for New York is a city of stories – stories forgotten, stories being written, stories being told – and so every park, every bridge, every street corner, every restaurant table has a monumental quantity about. And now, all these monuments are covered in darkness – forced into the darkness by the storm that exceeded what any of us could have imagined.

Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word,
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord,
Familiar, condescending, patient, free.
Come not to sojourn, but abide with me.

The great scandal of the Christianity has always been incarnation. That God – who dwells beyond time, space, and comprehension – saw fit to dwell in this same world in which we live. After all, the world is much too messy for God. It is too transient – too much in flux. We want to dwell in God’s eternal changelessness. If the eternal changelessness of God saw fit to plop himself down in a stable that smelled of smoke, blood, sweat, and donkey shit two-thousand years ago – well, count us out.

Anglicans pride ourselves on being profoundly incarnational, which is fortunate, because changelessness, majesty, and splendor doesn’t seem to be our gig, while scandal does. One only need to look at the two thousand years of flying donkey poop that is the church’s history to realize that we don’t have much choice but to take that bent. As much as we might like to dwell on the fact that we’re the people whose Book of Common Prayer changed the scope of the English language and who stage royal weddings that everyone wants to see, we’re also the church that was founded by a King who wanted a divorce; a people who are far more apt to dwell on the taste of the communion wine than the life-changing reality that is its substance.

The dark buildings and the still city disturb us, haunt us, strike us as eerie, because they remind us of what we truly are in the large scheme of things. Bits of molecules that are pieced together into something larger for a time, only to fall back to the dust in the end. What we believe to be truly monumental is, in the scheme of things, more of a molehill than a mountain.

Elie Wiesel was once asked what his favorite phrase was in language. “And yet…” he answered. “…and yet.”

Come not in terrors, as the King of kings,
But kind and good, with healing in Thy wings;
Tears for all woes, a heart for every plea.
Come, Friend of sinners, thus abide with me.

And yet. We make mountains out of our molehills, and yet God sits with us as we are, nonetheless. In the still city, and in the darkness. We are always making our journey to return to the dust, and yet, Jesus tells us, and yet that dust is the very stuff of the new creation. That very dust is the the stuff of life.

We thrive because we are put into the donkey shit world of the incarnation. God comes not to bless our edifices, but to sit with us in our frailty. God’s heart yearns for us in the power outages, in the dark city, in the momentarily silenced stories.  In the hiccups and in the bumps. And when we meet God in those strange places, things change for us.

“Life is short,” Henri-Frédéric Amiel famously said, “and we have never too much time for gladdening the hearts of those who are traveling the dark journey with us. Oh, be swift to love, make haste to be kind!”

When we meet God in the darkness, in the craziness, we are changed. Charged, even. And so we leave to go out into that city, and room by room, floor by floor, turn on the lights once again until it shines more brilliantly than any of our fondest memories can recall.

Grant us, O Lord, not to mind earthly things, but to love
things heavenly; and even now, while we are placed among
things that are passing away, to cleave to those that shall
abide; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who liveth and
reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever
and ever. Amen.


 

(Nota bene: While the Hymnal 1982 only lists four stanzas to “Abide with Me,” Lytle wrote eight. You can read them all here: http://www.risa.co.uk/sla/song.php?songid=26985)

Point of Personal Privilege: Of the “+” and the Names of the Clergy

January 2016: A bit of a preface: I wrote this back in July, 2012. I was just over a year out of seminary, about seven months a priest, and inclined to care about stupid stuff. And I can say, without a doubt, that I really don’t care about it anymore, and wouldn’t publish something like this today. A lot of that is maturing and growing in my own sense of what ministry is, and how I carry it out.

Occasionally, I still see it making the rounds on social media, so I wanted to add that quick disclaimer. I keep it up just as much to remind myself of where I’ve been, and how my concerns have changed – greatly! – over time. DCS

 

A good rant never hurts anyone once in a while, especially if it’s a good, educational, public rant. Surprisingly, for someone as opinionated as me, I haven’t had any on this iteration of my blogging life. Being long overdue, I’ve finally found what may be an actual, although in the end, rather useless rant to make: on the cross “+” used with the names of the clergy. (Most rants are rather useless.) So here goes.

In the church in general, and in the Episcopal Church in particular, the clergy tend to overuse these symbols. Having been ordained a little over a year, I’ve already received emails that looks something like this:

Dear David+,

Just wanted to recap the meeting with +John and +Jane the other day you attended with Mary+, Jim+, Jean+, Jack+, /Susan, and /Sam. For the 1500th anniversary Eucharist of the Diocese of Dioceseseland, we’ve decided to ask ++Katharine to come and preside. She is, after all, the Presiding Bishop. It seems unlikely that +++Rowan would come. +Jane will preach, and +John will give words of welcome at the peace. /Susan will be the deacon for the Presiding Bishop, /Sam will be the deacon for +John, and we’ll talk to /Elizabeth about serving as +Jane’s deacon. /Jim has agreed to be the Deacon for the Liturgy.

Pass this email along to Bill+, Bob+, Tom+, Jane+, Susan+, and Barbara+ as soon as you can. Can’t wait to start planning this liturgy in committee! Talk to you soon about all of this.

Peace and Blessings,

Bob+

Ok, admittedly there is some exaggeration here. But I have received emails where Deacons are denoted by a slash ( / ) – (like their stoles! Cute, huh?), Every priest is referred to with a cross ( + ) after their name, every Bishop is referred to with a cross ( + ) in front of their name, and anyone of higher esteem (whether of higher rank or not) gets some multiplicative number of crosses in front of their name (++Katherine, +++Rowan, or even +Rowan+)

Here’s the thing. Of all those crosses in the letter, only ONE is correctly used. And that’s the one at the end:

Peace and blessings,

Bob+

Because the origin of the cross before or after a name comes from that era when we still wrote letters. And when those letters might take (gasp!) days to deliver. That cross then and now convey one thing, and one thing only – that the letter was sent with a blessing, by the person signing the letter.

This is why only priests and bishops actually put the cross before or after their name; as our sacramental theology and ecclesiology believes that only priests and bishops have the ontological capability to “bless and declare pardon in the name of God.”  Otherwise, the “+” with names makes no sense – because the use of the cross as an honorific would, or should, be a baptismal birthright – not one conveyed by ordination. (Unless you want to claim the ordained are more holy. If you do, I urge you to get to attend a Clergy Conference for some one-on-one research.)

The + is not, at its root, meant to convey to which order one belongs. That’s because we’ve long had titles and honorifics to do this: “Bishop Smith, Father Sibley, Deacon Jones” (Among others.) The + sign conveys that the priest or bishop sending a letter, across distance, time, and space, sends a blessing with the letter itself. And really, order is only so much. We’re baptized first.

The idea that the “+” conveys the order to which one belongs is the misconception that led to some folks using the ” / ” to denote persons who are deacons. (I swear I’m not making it up, I’ve seen this.) And, as suchit is also never appropriate for a Deacon to sign a letter as “Bob+,” since, according to the ecclesiology of our church, they cannot bless.

Think of it another way. Ever write a letter to your significant other? I know its an old fashioned concept, but bear with me. Perhaps you signed it with a little heart at the end, before or after your name. That heart doesn’t denote a state of belovedness or attachment to anyone – but an emotion, and thought, and conveyance of love, sent with the letter.

So I’ll sum it up with a nice rule of thumb – if you’re a priest or a bishop, looking to conclude your letter with a blessing, use the +. If you’re trying to convey to what order a person belongs with due respect, or for differentiation, call them what they are – Bishop, Mother, Father, Pastor, Deacon, etc.

If you’re angry and looking to retain the sins of many, then don’t use anything but your name.

One exception I find appropriate: The Twitters. When you’ve got a limited number of characters, using a “+” to denote a priest or bishop works really well. I’ve done it myself. But only on the Twitters.

And if you’re a deacon, don’t use that slash. Unless you’re sending a deacon’s stole in the mail. Then it might be appropriate.

You’ll save yourself some typing time, and me another rant. Which, as I said, was a useless enterprise anyway.

Peace and blessings,

David+

UPDATE 1: I have been informed that the “+” after the name is a particularly American usage, and not seen with priests in the CofE. I’ll buy that – we Americans have always had a somewhat heightened sense of self importance.

UPDATE 2: I have further been informed that the “+” with the name may have originally been reserved to the Episcopate only, and come downward and after the name when a bunch of priests obtained some heightened sense of self importance. I can believe that, too, knowing my fair share of the clergy, but am not ready to make that argument quite yet.  In the mean time, use the “+” properly – which is to say, of course, to my personal taste and preference! (Also, why isn’t there a sarcasm font?)

 

Structure Omnibus Resolution – Committee Draft

I was in the Structure Committee tonight when they began discussing their “big” restructuring resolution. It was a public hearing, of course (I was there – case and point!), and so I copied from the projector the resolution they’re working with in committee. It is a draft – not the final one to be presented to the House of Deputies – and still subject to work. But this issue is significant enough that I’ve copied it below for the wider church.

The next committee conference is tomorrow at 12:30 pm.

Again – this is their DRAFT, not the final resolution to be sent to the houses.

Resolved, The House of ______ concurring, that this General Convention believes the Holy Spirit is urging The Episcopal Church to reimagine itself grounded in our rich heritage and open to our creative future so that we may more faithfully:

proclaim the Good News of the Kingdom
teach, baptise and nurture new believers
respond to human need by loving service
seek to transform unjust structures of society
strive to safeguard the integrity of creation and sustain and renew the life of the earth

and be it further

Resolved, that this General Convention establish a task force, operating independently from direction by existing church governing authorities; and be it further

Resolved, that the task force shall have as many as 30 members, appointed jointly by the Presiding Bishop and the President of the House of Deputies by September 30, 2012. They shall appoint members representative of the church in its diversity,
and ensure that the membership includes those not currently involved in the governance of the church; and be it further

Resolved, that the task force shall present the 78th General Convention a plan for the reform of the church’s governance, structures, administration and program, and be it further

Resolved, that in order to in our the wisdom, expertise, and commitment of all voices in the church, the task force shall gather information and ideas from congregations, dioceses and provinces, and other interested individuals and organizations not often heard in the governing bodies of the church, and be it further

Resolved that the Task force shall convene a special gathering to help discern how our structures can best empower our mission. This gathering shall pay particular attention to the voices not often heard in the governing bodies of the church; shall include from each diocese a bishop, a lay deputy, a clergy deputy, and a person under 40; and shall include other members of the church, such as ministry networks, provinces and seminaries and be it further

Resolved, that the Task Force shall report on its work frequently, and shall make its final report and recommendations to the church by November 2014 along with resolutions necessary to implement them, including proposed amendments to the Constitution and Canons of the Church; and be it further

Resolved, that the Joint Standing Committee on Program, Budget and Finance consider adding $400,000 funds to the 2013-2015 triennial budget, to enable this resolution to be implemented energetically and successfully.