- Quality time on the treadmill first thing in the morning, per my Thursday custom.
- At the local urgent care clinic right when they open at 9:00 to obtain prescriptions for an antimalarial and a strong antibiotic--the former to take prophylactically and the latter to have on hand while in Tanzania. It was nearly 10:00 before I got out of there.
- Prepared the readings and mentally hatched a homily for the 12:15 cathedral Mass, which it was my turn to celebrate.
- Spoke by phone with Fr Swan in Decatur as he wore his Chair-of-Commission on Ministry hat.
- Began processing my email inbox, which was inordinately time-consuming because it prompted me to do such things as draft a fundraising appeal letter for Nashotah House and answer inquiries on a range of sensitive issues.
- Presided and preached at the regular midday liturgy in the cathedral chapel.
- Lunch from Micky D's (McRib is back!), eaten at home.
- Re-engaged the inbox.
- Journeyed to Illinois National Bank and obtained the cash the three of us journeying to Tanzania will need for in-country air travel and hotel lodging.
- Put meat on the bones of a homily for the feast of Christ the King (27 November at Emmanuel, Champaign).
- Finally took care of a long-delayed bit of work I had promised to do for the diocesan stewardship committee.
- Put meat on the bones of a homily for Advent Sunday (1 December at All Saints, Morton).
- Evening Prayer for the Eve of All Hallows in my office.
Thursday, October 31, 2013
Wednesday, October 30, 2013
- More email processing and task organizing at home.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Took a phone call from my colleague and old friend Bishop Ed Little. We both served together as rectors in the Diocese of San Joaquin in the latter half of the 1990s. Yesterday the bishop under whom we served, John-David Schofield, died suddenly, but peacefully, at his home in Fresno. He touched both our lives in significant ways.
- Connected by phone with Fr John Henry in Carlinville, having just learned of this morning's passing of Fr Wayne Shippley. My trip to Tanzania will prevent me from taking part in the funeral next week, but it will be in the capable hands of Fr John.
- Returned a call from the rector of the Church of the Redeemer in Sarasota, FL, where I am taking part in an ordination in December. Just getting some of the details nailed down.
- Sorted through the detritus--both physical and electronic--of last week's Nashotah House board of trustees meeting and plotted further actions --balls I need to put in play so we can keep our momentum.
- Attended to some chores related to those making their way through the ordination process. My own journey down that road 30ish years ago was kind of rough. I hope that gives me a degree of empathy in dealing with others for whom it is not silky smooth.
- Made a phone call to one of our rectors to enlist his assistance in a pastoral project in another parish.
- Lunch from KFC, eaten at home.
- Drafted and sent a couple of relatively short but important emails wearing my Nashotah House hat.
- Took care of a couple of necessary tasks related to the upcoming visit of a newly-retired priest whom we are hoping will help us out with a couple of our smaller Eucharistic Communities.
- Fleshed out a rough draft of a homily for Proper 28 (November 17 at St Laurence, Effingham).
- Made a reservation to park my car in an off-airport lot this Saturday evening as we embark from O'Hare to Tanzania.
- Settled down for some long-delayed but now necessary reading ahead of the the Tanzania trip.
- Roughed out my 2014 visitation calendar. After we've gotten a couple of more sets of eyes on it, we'll make it public.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Tuesday, October 29, 2013
- Task planning and email processing at home.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Discussed some administrative matters with the Archdeacon.
- Visited by phone with one of our clergy who has been facing some serious health issues.
- Met with the rector (and eventually his wife) of a parish in another diocese for two hours in my office. We are talking about my becoming their DEPO (Delegated Episcopal Pastoral Oversight) bishop. DEPO is available when a parish is alienated from their proper bishop for theological reasons.
- Lunch at home.
- Fleshed out and refined the fifth of my five meditations for the priests' retreat in the Diocese of Albany next month.
- Fleshed out and refined my homily to be delivered in St Stephen's Cathedra, Tabora, Tanzania on November 10.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Sunday, October 27, 2013
Up at a very dark hour so we could be on the road by 6am so as to arrive in Bloomington in time for the 7:30am Eucharist. Presided and preached, chilled out a bit between services, then presided, preached, and confirmed (three adults and one older teen) at the 10am celebration. Lunch at a nearby Chinese eatery with Fr Dave and Amy Halt, along with the churchwardens of St Matthew's. HomE around 3pm.
St Matthew's, Bloomington--Luke 18:9-14; Jeremiah 4:1-10, 19-22
John Donne was a distinguished priest of the Church of England in the seventeenth century. He finished his career as the dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London. But John Donne is probably best known as one of the greatest poets ever to write in the English language. There is scarcely a high school literature student who has not run across the poem that talks about a church bell tolling to call the townspeople to a funeral, and contains the lines, “No man is an island, entire of itself ... ask not for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”
No one is an island, independent and self-sufficient. Even a professed hermit depends on other people to keep him supplied with food and water. We all live in a complex web of relationships. Some of our relationships are more important to us than others. These relationships that are important to us are the source of a great deal of anxiety over a lifetime. Will my parents be proud of my report card? Will the one I immediately fell in love with across a crowded room return my feelings? Will my children still love me in spite of all the mistakes I make as a parent? Will my grandchildren want to visit me? Will they want to go home?
Each of us wants to get these crucial relationships right. We always want to know where we stand with the important people in our lives. Most of all, the majority of us, whether or not we would actually name it and express it this way, want to know where we stand with God. We have an innate sense that that’s one relationship it would be a good idea for us to get right.
Getting right with God.
The New Testament’s word for “getting right with God” is usually rendered ‘justification.’ We want to be justified, to stand in the right place, in our relationship with God. Now, in everyday talk, we usually use the word “justify” to mean “give a good reason for” or “make an excuse for”. As the word is used in the Bible, though, a more helpful image is that of a “justified” margin on a type-written page. All the characters line up with one another down one side of the page—they stand in the right place in relation to one another. So, the million dollar question is, How are we justified with God? What determines where we stand in our relationship with God, that most important of all relationships.
The conventional, off the street, wisdom is that this involves some form of stockpiling good deeds—or, as we hear people say these days, being a “good person.” One way of picturing it is that we have to accumulate a certain number of total “points” on some celestial scoring system. By this standard, the longer you live, the more opportunities you have to score points, so the better your chances are of justifying yourself with God. Pity those who die young!
Another way of looking at it is somewhat more sophisticated: it’s all relative. As long as your good deeds outweigh your bad deeds, whatever the absolute number of either of them is, then your right standing before God is assured. So if you can just be sure you keep a credit balance, you can sneak in quite a bit of sinning and still not have to worry. Just be sure you have a good accountant!
The Pharisee in Jesus’ parable is a shining example of this tally-sheet approach to justification. He was a member of a movement within Judaism that saw itself as an assembly of super-Jews. They were not only correct, they were excruciatingly correct—in their religious piety, in their social and civic duties, and in their personal discipline.
Whatever the law of Moses said, the Pharisees did that much and more. So the Pharisee, as Jesus tells the story, came into the temple to pray, much as you or I might come into a church to pray, during the week, when there’s not a public liturgy being celebrated. He’s careful to couch his prayer in terms of thanksgiving, but the tone of what he says is really self-congratulatory; he’s bragging in God’s presence. He’s upright in his dealings with his fellow human beings—he’s not an adulterer, not an extortionist, he gives everyone what is their just due. He’s also fastidious about his religious discipline—he fasts twice a week, and he tithes! Sounds like the kind of guy we could use more of, doesn’t it?
There was a made-for-TV movie back in the ‘80s that, for a while, appeared in reruns every time you turned on the TV, in which Andy Griffith portrayed the decline and fall of an alcoholic, and everything his family went through during the process. What struck me was how his wife and grown children were all obsessed with pleasing him—whether by becoming like him, a drinking buddy, which is what one son did, or by becoming a hyper-achiever in the business world, which is what his oldest daughter did, or by just cleaning up the messes that he continually left in his wake, which was his wife’s job. They were all trying to “get right” with him, to justify themselves, to make sure where they stood.
This is where the illustration breaks down, of course, so please don’t think I’m suggesting that God is like an alcoholic! But in a twisted sort of way, the behavior of that tragically co-dependent family toward their alcoholic, and the behavior of many of us toward God, is curiously similar. It didn’t work for the movie family. Andy Griffith’s character died, and his family would spend the rest of their lives working through the consequences of their behavior. It didn’t work for the Pharisee either. In the end, as Jesus tells the story, his punctiliously correct behavior did not justify him; it did not stand him in the right place with relation to God.
Trying to get right with God through living virtuously has a reverse-image counterpart, like a photographic negative. This approach assumes that where we stand with God is determined by our sinfulness, by our weakness and inadequacy, by the great gulf that separates us from God’s holiness, God’s glory, God’s perfection. “I know I’ll never be good enough to deserve God’s favor; I know I’ll never be worthy of getting into heaven, so just leave me alone and let me at least enjoy my sins while I can!” This is a sort of pre-emptive strike—it looks like God is going to reject me, so I’ll just reject him first! It’s an effort to maintain some sense of control over our own destinies. “You can’t fire me; I quit!”
But the other character in Jesus’ parable, the tax-collector, reveals the error of such a way. Now, we have to understand that a tax collector, in Jesus’ world, was an even more odious figure than an IRS auditor! First, he was a collaborator with a foreign military power that was occupying the country against the wishes of the populace. He was, by definition, a traitor to his homeland. Second, Roman tax collectors worked, as it were, “on commission”. They were responsible for turning over a certain amount of money to the authorities, and whatever they collected in excess of that amount was theirs to keep. So there was a tremendous temptation to resort to fraud, extortion, and plain old gouging in order to maximize their income. Jesus’ audience would have assumed that the tax collector in his story was guilty of all these crimes. He comes into the temple to pray, and dares not even lift his eyes toward heaven. He just strikes his breast and prays, “God, be merciful to me...a sinner.”
I’ve read that scientists who use animals as part of their research make a special point not to form any emotional bond with their subjects, for understandable reasons. Yet, I’ve also read that, even in the midst of an uncomfortable experiment, a dog, for instance, will affectionately lick the face of a researcher, and wag his tail. From the dog’s perspective, the researcher is guilty of a great crime. Yet, that guilt apparently does not determine where the researcher stands in the dog’s estimation! Neither did the tax collector’s sins determine where he stood in God’s estimation. Not only is he not summarily condemned by his sins, but, between the two men, it’s the tax collector who leaves the temple justified, right with God, and not the Pharisee.
How can this be? Our good works do not determine where we stand with God. Neither do our sins. So what does? How are we justified? How do we get right with God? This parable presents us with a conundrum. It turns our expectations upside down. So what’s going on here that we can’t see?
What’s going on here is grace. Grace—God’s loving inclination and movement toward us and for us. During the time of the Old Testament prophet Jeremiah, the kingdom of Judah, which was the remaining remnant of the nation of Israel, suffered from a prolonged drought. In the passage which we read in today’s liturgy, Jeremiah gives voice to the people’s anguish in their adversity. Yet, in the midst of that anguish, they neither blame God for punishing them unjustly—“Our iniquities testify against us, O Lord ... for our apostasies are many”—nor do they jump to the conclusion that God has abandoned them forever. They’re humble, they confess their offenses, they don’t try to justify themselves with a catalogue of their virtues or good deeds. But in the middle of their contrition, there is a statement of great faith: “Lord, you are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not forsake us, O Lord our God.” They—or Jeremiah, at least—never lost faith in God’s grace, in God’s loving inclination and movement toward them and for them.
In his simple humility, the tax collector in the temple also gave evidence of an underlying faith in God’s grace. As human beings who live in relationship, we want to know where we stand with God. But as sinful human beings, under the power of pride, we want to control where we stand with God, to justify—or choose to not justify—ourselves in God’s sight. Only when we surrender that need to control where we stand, either through our virtues or through our offenses, is where we stand revealed to us. Grace reveals where we stand, grace reveals the basis of our justification, grace gets us right with God. We are ransomed by the blood of Christ, healed by the power of Christ, restored through the intercession of Christ, forgiven, died-for, raised-for, and lived-for, saved not through works, but by grace, through faith. Amen.
Saturday, October 26, 2013
Up and to the diocesan office in time to sit in on a 10am meeting of the Commission on Ministry. They acted on three applications for ordination (two for the priesthood, one for the transitional diaconate), and interviewed two nominees for postulancy. We were there nearly four hours, but it was important and productive work.
After lunch at home, I finished unloading and unpacking from my days away, took a brief nap and a long walk, and processed a few emails. Rather in need of some down time, which will begin tomorrow afternoon when I return from my visit to St Matthew's, Bloomington.
Home safely from what may be the most productive, irenic, and engaged meeting of the Nashotah House Board of Trustees in living memory. Excellent academic convocation on Friday, during which it was my joy to award honorary doctorates to four accomplished church musicians.
Thursday, October 24, 2013
Still with the Nashotah House trustees today. We unexpectedly entered into some choppy waters for a bit, but even that very emotional-laden conversation was carried on with civility, grace, and mutual forbearance. We were immensely grateful to complete our work a little past 3:00pm. It was by far the most substantive and productive board meeting since I have been a trustee. Every member made a contribution; it was truly a team effort. I'm proud to be part of this work.
There is a regular solemn Eucharist on Thursdays at 5pm at the House, and it was my privilege to be the preacher for tonight's celebration. After an hors d'oeuvres reception in the refectory, trustees, faculty, and tomorrow's honorary degree recipients adjourned for the deanery for some more libations and dessert. My introverted self is ready for bed.
Chapel of St Mary the Virgin, Nashotah House--Psalm 1, Luke 12:49-53, Romans 6:19-23
For those of you who are conversant with the Myers-Briggs typology, I am an INTJ—and on the P to J scale, I’m a quite advanced J, not off the chart, but not ambiguous either … which means that, as a Christian pastor and doer-of-theology (I would certainly never call myself a theologian, particularly in this setting) … as a pastor and “theologizer,” I’m very fond of the sheer notion of truth. When Pope John Paul II published his encyclical in 1993, Veritatis Splendor—“the splendor of truth”, he had me just with the title, although I certainly do “resonate” with much of the content as well. As Jesus said to the disciples of John the Baptist, “the truth will set you free.” Of course, Christians believe and bear witness that Jesus himself embodies Truth“; he is, in effect, “truth incarnate.”
Truth is life-giving, because it’s … well … true; it reflects reality, things as they actually are. We have this wonderful image from Psalm 1 in tonight’s liturgy: “streams of living water” that produce vital trees bearing healthy fruit. Truth is that stream of living water; it seems no coincidence that he who declared himself to be the truth also spoke of himself as a fountain of living water welling up to eternal life. Given the life-giving properties of truth, then, it’s amazing—is it not?—how human beings spend so much time denying the truth and running from the truth. Some of us all the time and all of us some of the time would greatly prefer an attractive fantasy to a challenging truth.
But truth is like fire and water—absolutely essential for life, but also capable of destroying life, quickly and thoroughly. Truth, that many-splendored thing, has the potential to become toxic when it is detached from him who, in his own being, is Truth. When ‘truth’ is not understood in the light of ‘Truth’, it has the capacity to become an idol, and an idol, as we are told repeatedly in scripture, is a false god, whatever or whomever we put in the place of God other than God himself, a god whom we make in our own image, an idol that we cast in the mold of our own predispositions and prejudices and insecurities and fears. And idolatry, as we know, is sinful, and sin is by nature death-dealing. As we learn from St Paul as he writes to the Romans, “The wages of sin is death.”
In the passage from Luke’s gospel that we read tonight, Jesus talks about the “division” that his ministry provokes, and the hard choices faced by those who answer his call to discipleship. In our contemporary ecclesial context, one is tempted to understand the kind of “division” Jesus is talking about as describing some very familiar fault lines that we draw in our own minds, fault lines like the one between those who are “orthodox” and those who are “heterodox,” between “reasserters” and “reappraisers,” between “revisionists” and those who stand for the “faith once delivered.”
But what if we’re getting it all wrong? What if the sort of division that Jesus is talking about doesn’t have to do with any of those categories? What if what Jesus is trying to describe is the division between those whose gaze is fixed on ‘Truth’, and those for whom ‘truth’ has become an idol?
In South Africa, during the painful and tenuous transition from apartheid to majority rule, there evolved a curious institution called a “Truth & Reconciliation Commission.” Yes, the truth needs to be told, and it was the job of these commissions to facilitate all the truth-telling that needed to happen. When the truth is suppressed or denied, neither health nor life can long endure. The ability of people who had been ravaged by the institutionalized racism of apartheid to tell their stories, to expose the evils of that system to the purging fire and cleansing water of truth was a necessary step in the healing of that nation. But truth-telling that is abstract, truth that is strictly propositional, truth that doesn’t somehow point beyond itself, quickly become an idol, a sinful, death-dealing idol. By contrast, authentic truth-telling leads inexorably to reconciliation. The kind of truth that is liberating, that sets free, the kind of truth that is a stream of living water welling up to eternal life, is, in the paradigm of the gospel, always configured to reconciliation, always manifesting—if I can be forgiven for exploiting and repurposing the language of liberation theology—always manifesting a preferential option for reconciliation. My friends in Christ, the most sinful, the most death-dealing form of idolatry, is the impulse to use truth as a pretext for staying un-reconciled.
I have the dubious distinction of inventing the term “Pax Nashotah” in a blog post some years ago. I did so very casually, and without more than a couple of moments of thought, but it seemed to gather currency rather quickly. The Pax Nashotah speaks of the peace that truly passes understanding, that only Jesus can bring, that would be eternally elusive if left to our human inclinations. All of us who are part of the larger Nashotah family, but especially those who are part of the day-to-day on-campus community, bear a share of the responsibility for making this peace concretely incarnate. It is the fruit of grace, but as we learn when we study theology, grace perfects nature, grace travels in the channels dug by ordinary human exchanges. When we relax our vigil, we are easily seduced by—if I can coin an oxymoronic phrase—“false truth.”
So I’m wondering tonight whether the sort of division Jesus speaks of describes not a chasm between, say, the orthodox and the heterodox, between Episcopalians and those for whom the Episcopal Church is an historical antecedent, but, rather, those who let truth trump unity, and those who tenaciously cling to the ministry of reconciliation? And make no mistake, the ministry of reconciliation is hard work; none of you, I suspect, need me to tell you that. At the most recent meeting of the House of Bishops, one of our guests was Archbishop Justin’s canon for reconciliation, David Porter. Canon Porter is an Ulsterman, and earned his stripes in reconciliation ministry on the streets of Belfast. He told us that “reconciliation can be a real bastard sometimes,” because it usually means that somebody, if not everybody, feels like they didn’t get justice.
Beloved, this gospel we share, this gospel we proclaim, is nothing other than the ministry of reconciliation, reconciliation with God and reconciliation with one another in and through the one who is at the same time our truth and our peace, having broken down every dividing wall of hostility through his self-offering on the cross. To the extent that there are divisions among those who own the faith of Jesus, the world is scandalized and the gospel is robbed of its power. To the extent that we, in a spirit of “true humility and self-abasement,” can unleash the grace of reconciliation to flow over every area of our lives, when our passion for truth is ever configured toward the end of reconciliation, we are like trees planted by streams of living water that bear fruit in due season, with leaves that do not wither. Everything we do shall prosper. Floreat Nashotah and praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.
Wednesday, October 23, 2013
Pedal-to-the-metal all day and evening again with the Nashotah House trustees. It's exhausting, but we are making watershed progress on issues that have dogged the institution for decades. The ATS (the Association of Theological Schools, our accrediting agency) is providing "severe mercy," but it is all to our good. This is work to which I am passionately committed for its own sake, but Nashotah House continues to bless the Diocese of Springfield in tangible ways, training many of our clergy and renewing the ministries of others via graduate-level and continuing education programs.
Tuesday, October 22, 2013
Began the day with an hour on the treadmill in the fitness center at the Hampton Inn, Elkhorn, WI. From there it was only about a 45-minute drive to Nashotah House. The Executive Committee convened at 11:30. Then, after lunch, the full board came together at 2:00, and met until 4:15, when we adjourned for Evensong. I would say it was a very positive and productive session, devoted mostly to preparing for our interaction with the ATS visiting team. We also discussed our evolving mission statement, which is nearly completely refined. After Evensong I joined four of my board colleagues, plus one spouse, for dinner at Revere's in Delafield. The board then came back together at 7:30 for an hour of give-and-take with the two-person ATS visiting team. When that was finished, I met for another hour with the two of them privately. Long day.
Monday, October 21, 2013
Until 2:30 this afternoon, I was doing typical day off things--sleeping in, reading, walking. Then I had to pack and otherwise prepare for a 3:30 departure for points north--tonight in Elkhorn, WI ahead of tomorrow's first session of the Nashotah House Board of Trustees (which, for my sins, I chair), culminating with an academic convocation and the awarding of honorary degrees on Friday.
Sunday, October 20, 2013
St Stephen's, Harrisburg has adapted a building that began life as one of the hundreds of Carnegie Libraries that dot the U.S. landscape. This morning there was a spirited congregation of around 30--richly multi-generational, and I didn't lower that average age by being there. We received two adults and confirmed one. Very encouraging visit.
St Stephen's, Harrisburg--II Timothy 3:14-4:5
Let’s talk about the Bible. You know, that’s something we don’t actually do it very much. We read it and study it, and, honestly, those are the best things we can do with it. But, once in a while, it’s a good thing to step back and ask ourselves some fundamental questions about our relationship with that collection of sacred writings that we call Holy Scripture.
In the second reading for the past several Sundays, we’ve been working our way through St Paul’s two letters to his younger protégé Timothy, a man who held the position that we would now call Bishop in the Christian community of the great ancient city of Ephesus. Paul writes to Timothy, “All scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, equipped for every good work.”
All scripture is inspired by God.
Some find this sort of affirmation kind of scary, and understandably so. To put it bluntly, St Paul’s words have been abused, abused in many ways. People have tried to make the Bible something it’s not—a textbook on science, or history, or psychology, or economics, or a manual for making moral and ethical decisions. It’s none of those things. To affirm the inspiration of scripture does not relieve us of the responsibility of using the brains God gave us, and the words of scripture are certainly complex and demanding enough that we have plenty of opportunity to engage those brains.
All scripture is inspired by God.
Of course, it’s also possible that we find these words scary because we perceive them as threatening—threatening to some of our habits of thinking and behaving that we have grown very attached to. We instinctively recoil at the idea of anything objective, anything outside ourselves, cramping our style, presuming to sit in judgment over us in some way. But scripture itself, if we pay attention to it, reminds us that we see the world through distorted eyes. Our vision is clouded. We can’t help it. We inherited the condition. We do well not to fully trust our own perceptions, and this is where the witness of scripture—a witness that is “inspired by God”—can be very helpful. Attending to scripture can protect us from a condition that Paul refers to in his letter to Timothy as “itching ears.” “Itching ears” might be described as a compulsive curiosity that can be relieved only by “scratching” with interesting and spicy bits of information, bits of information that simply confirm our prejudices. There are several cases of itching ears on our political landscape, with most everyone gravitating toward those news sources that will tend to just confirm the opinions they already have, and dish dirt on their opponents. Speculation and the scandal-mongering do little more than harden us in whatever prejudices we already incline toward. We have made ourselves—our whims, our desires, our perceptions—the sole measure of our experience. The more we scratch our itching ears, the less of the truth we are able to hear.
All scripture is inspired by God.
As I’ve said, this affirmation is subject to distortion. The Bible isn’t a science book or a history book, and needs to be interpreted properly. But it’s nonetheless our foundational document. For the Church, Holy Scripture functions in a way similar to the way the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights and the Gettysburg Address function for our nation. It’s the lens through which we read our past, interpret our present, and anticipate our future. The Bible is not just a source we turn to when questions arise about what we believe or how we should behave, and it’s not the only source, but it is the first such source and the last such source, and the one to which we hold ourselves accountable as an authority. Being judged is never pleasant, but we do, collectively and individually, sit under the judgment of Scripture. It’s not an option that we can take or leave, or a cafeteria from which we can eat what appeals to us and ignore all the rest. It’s the word of God.
All Scripture is inspired by God.
Scripture certainly comforts us in our affliction. This is why St Paul tells Timothy that it’s “profitable” for “encouragement.” Few among us have not heard the words of the 23rd Psalm at a time of grief or loss and taken heart from them in some measure. How many brides and grooms choose to have Paul’s own ode to love from I Corinthians 13 read at their wedding liturgies precisely because it offers them encouragement right when they’re stepping into the abyss known as marriage. And scripture also, and rightly so, afflicts us in our comfort. This is why St Paul says that its good for “reproof” and “correction”, and urges Timothy to “convince, rebuke,” and “exhort,” in his ministry as a bishop, employing scripture as one of the useful tools in that ministry.
All scripture is inspired by God.
Comforting us and afflicting us, I would suggest, are important functions of Scripture, but not its primary one. The primary purpose of Scripture is to enable us to see with God’s eyes, to see what God sees, in effect, and in a scaled-down way, to know what God knows. In the pages of the Bible, we know ourselves as we really are—as created in the image and likeness of God, as infinitely loved by God, and as fallen creatures with distorted perceptions, under the grip of Sin and Death. In the pages of the Bible, we know the world as it really is—the creation of an almighty and majestic God, and something that has been entrusted to human care as stewards, not something to merely exploit and destroy. In the pages of the Bible, we see an alternative to our own mercurial whims and prejudices—an anchor, a rock, an objective reference point.
It is our privilege, in our public worship and in our private study, to bathe ourselves in Scripture, to let its vocabulary and phraseology plant themselves in our hearts and imaginations, to become second nature to us. Doing so enables us to resist the allure of “itching ears,” and gives us the sort of quiet confidence that is not bigoted or pugnacious, but is not timid either, because it is rooted in the magnificent reality of God himself.
All scripture is inspired by God. As our collect four weeks from now will exhort us, let us “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest it,” to our great good and God’s great glory. Amen.
Saturday, October 19, 2013
I indulged myself in a leisurely morning. Breakfast, newspaper, fiddling with email and Facebook. Morning Prayer in my easy chair. Then a long and brisk walk, mostly around the beautiful Washington Park. Then it was time to pack for an overnight, enjoy a bowl of soup, and head out the door with Brenda at 12:30 for points south. We arrived at the community center in Carterville just ahead of the 4:30 start time for a celebration of the 50th wedding anniversary of Fr Tim and Carol Goodman. It was my honor to preside at the renewal of their vows, and then there was a nice party, with lots of stories, good food, and dancing. What a treat to be included in such things.
Friday, October 18, 2013
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Discussed some administrative issues with the Archdeacon.
- Processed my email inbox.
- Attended to some clergy deployment issues.
- Started in on a 700-word writing assignment for the Lent 2014 issue of the Missioner, Nashotah House's quarterly magazine, in which I have a regular column.
- Lunch from TG, eaten at home.
- Resumed and completed the writing project.
- Made some personal preparations for next week's meeting of the Nashotah House board of trustees, which I chair.
- Plotted some tasks related to content on the diocesan website.
- Friday prayer: Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary, in the cathedral (where, I was pleased to discover for the first time, there are tained-glass windows depicting each of the five, along the south side of the nave).
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Thursday, October 17, 2013
- The day began with a brisk 30 minutes on the treadmill before breakfast.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- More debrief with the Archdeacon and the Administrator on the recent synod, discussing some possible tweaks for next year.
- Reviewed, scanned, and emailed some financial forms to the representative of the other co-trustee for the Putnam Family Foundation, i.e. a Bank of America trust officer.
- Prepared the paperwork for a wire transfer from my Discretionary Fund to a priest/seminary professor in Pakistan whom I met in Thailand two summers ago, and whose ministry operates on a shoestring under extremely adverse conditions. Walked the paperwork up the downtown branch of Illinois National Bank, and finally got the job done, but had to wait rather longer than I was happy about because they were short-staffed today.
- Lunch at home--more chicken soup.
- Refined and printed a working script of my homily for this Sunday at St Stephen's, Harrisburg.
- Processed the paperwork by which I gave consent to the retirement of two colleague bishops.
- Finished drafting, then refined and printed a working script of my sermon to be given a week from tonight in the Nashotah House chapel.
- Left at 4:30 with the Archdeacon ahead of a 6pm congregational meeting at St Barnabas' in Havana, with a quick fast-food dinner at McD's. I hope and believe we made some substantive progress in pressing the reset button on the mutual ministry there between priest and people. Home a little past 9:30.
Wednesday, October 16, 2013
- Began processing email at home over breakfast.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Continued to process email, now in the office. This consumed most of the morning, and included responding to a handful of Discretionary Fund requests that have been piling up of late.
- Celebrated and preached the regular 12:15 Mass in the cathedral chapel, keeping the lesser feast of the "Oxford Martyrs" (Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley).
- Lunch at home (Brenda's amazing spicy chicken soup).
- Spoke by phone with the rector of a parish in another diocese that is interested in establishing a DEPO relationship with me.
- Attended to some clergy deployment-related tasks. Clergy deployment is like trying to throw a football not through one swinging tire, but two.
- Attended to a pastoral/administrative matter that I wasn't necessarily sure how to handle, but in the end, it came to me.
- Refined and printed working notes for my homily on Proper 25 (October 27 at St Matthew's, Bloomington).
- Spend a good bit of time on hold, and then spoke with a human being at AT&T regarding a temporary plan for voice, texting, and data usage while in Tanzania next month.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
- Grabbed a sandwich from Subway, then took a brisk 20-minute walk up Second Street as far as Washington, then back down.
- Attended the regular October meeting of the cathedral chapter ... more or less just because I could. Schedule conflicts have prevented me from attending the last several months.
- Later in the evening, at home, I finished a rough draft of a homily for this coming Sunday, to be delivered at St Stephen's, Harrisburg.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
- Task prioritization (from a list of 66 for the week; they won't all get done) at home; Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Debriefed with the Archdeacon and Administrator over the recent Synod, making some mental notes and tossing around some tentative plans for the next one.
- After consultation with the Archdeacon, charted a response to the national church's request for some idea regarding our 2014 financial contribution.
- Began to work on writing a post for the Covenant blog, something I had been scheduled to do yesterday, but it got by me.
- Joined a scheduled conference call in my capacity as co-trustee for the Putnam Family Foundation, which benefits two of our churches in the diocese.
- Lunch from Smash Burger, eaten at home.
- Finished the blog post I began before lunch. It's about a rather controversial hamburger.
- Conceived, hatched, and substantially developed a homily I will deliver next week at the Thursday evening Solemn Mass at Nashotah House.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Sunday, October 13, 2013
Alton Parish is one parish with two altars (St Paul's Church in "lower Alton" and Trinity Chapel in "upper Alton"--not to be confused, I learned today, with 'north Alton'). There are two quasi-distinct communities, worshiping at Trinity at 8:15 on Sundays and St Paul's at 10:30, sharing on priest, one vestry, and one set of finances. It seems to work, and is potentially a model for other areas of the diocese. So I reported to Trinity in time to preside and preach at the early celebration, and then spend some time with folks in the parish hall afterward. Then it was down the hill to St Paul's, where we confirmed seven adults at the later liturgy. Fr David Boase, their rector, has done a splendid job of pastoral care with both congregations, also managing to weave himself into the larger social fabric of the Alton-Godfrey area in a quite exemplary way.
I got home around 3pm, in time for a nap, some relaxation in front of the TV, and a welcome after-dinner walk around the neighborhood with Brenda. I also managed to attack my email inbox, making significant progress.
Alton Parish--Luke 17:11-19
Those of you who have been around during the cycle of liturgies that lead up to, and include, Easter each year know that these are very rich and spiritually rewarding experiences. They are the very essence of what makes us who we are as the people of God, the people of the New Covenant between God and humankind. They are also very intense and quite demanding, particularly on those who plan and lead and assist with them. Of course, planning and preparation is less of a burden for me than it was when I was a parish priest, but I still involve myself at the cathedral in everything that leads up to Holy Week and Easter. It’s a lot of work—work that can sometimes begin to feel like a chore, something to be endured until it’s over with. So every year, as the process of preparation picks up, I have found that it helps keep me focused, it helps keep my enthusiasm fresh, if I think of one person—there’s usually more than one, but one person, at least—who I know will be experiencing the liturgies of Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday and Good Friday and the Easter Vigil, observed in all their symbolic richness, for the very first time. I discipline myself to look at my experience through the eyes of an “outsider,” and this renews and refreshes the experience for the benefit of my own soul.
But the liturgical observance of Holy Week is a relatively trivial concern when weighed against the fundamental and everyday experiences which are also vulnerable to going stale and flat and becoming more of a chore than a joy. Many of us have been blessed to have found daily work that we consider to be truly a vocation, a calling. I am among those; I feel like I have absolutely the best job in the world! Yet, even among those who are so blessed, there are days when our work feels like drudgery, and we’d rather be doing any number of other things. Many of us are or have been a partner in a marriage that was once fantastic, but later became just okay—still on solid ground—or so we hope—but kind of ho-hum, lacking the pizazz that it once had. Many of us are faithful in saying our prayers daily, and may have had profound experiences in the past of God’s presence and involvement in our lives, but lately our prayer life is kind of flat and uninspiring. Many of us are commendably regular in our attendance at public worship, and make an honest effort to participate in the liturgy with heart and mind and soul. Yet, when Sunday morning comes along, we find ourselves drawn in other directions. There was a mother once who knocked on her son’s bedroom door and said, “Son, it’s Sunday. Time to get up and go to church.” The son responded, “But I don’t want to go to church. I want to stay in bed.” The mother responded, “But you have to go to church. So get up and get dressed.” “But, Mom, why? Why do I have to get up and go to church?” “Well, son, I’ll give you two reasons. First, because I’m your mother, and I said so. Second, because you’re the rector and they’re paying you to be there.”
Prayer and worship had evidently become a little flat for that particular priest! But it can happen to any of us, and, as we have seen, in a number of different ways. And we are most vulnerable to this experience of life and work and marriage and prayer and worship feeling stale and dry and confining when we are focused inward, looking only at ourselves. And when this happens, when our gaze is inward, when our perception is limited to our own perspective, our own point of view, then it becomes alarmingly easy for us to stray from our faith and commitments in these areas. This is what lies underneath mid-life career crises and infidelity to marriage vows and the abandonment of worship and prayer.
When this happens to us as individuals, life becomes “all about me.” We descend into a psychology of victimhood, and obsess on how we are being ill-treated by the world. But it also happens to communities—nations, cities, corporations, and, of course, churches. When institutions and communities get stuck looking inward on themselves, seeing themselves and the world only from an “insider” point of view, they indulge in an inordinate focus on the past, and are easily consumed by survival anxiety. Group morale sags because there is very little sense of mission, and it becomes an inexorable downward spiral into oblivion.
What would happen, though, if we began to train ourselves to look at our experience, not through the weary and glazed-over eyes of an insider, but through the fresh and wondering eyes of a stranger, a foreigner? In St Luke’s gospel, we encounter a compelling example of seeing the familiar through the eyes of the unfamiliar. Jesus encountered ten men with the dreaded skin disease of leprosy. Lepers in that culture were complete pariahs, social outcasts. It was a terrible existence. Jesus, in his mercy, healed all ten men of their leprosy. Only one, however, returned to praise God and offer thanks. And this one, it turns out, was a foreigner, an outsider—a Samaritan. And if there was anything worse than just being a leper, it was to have been a Samaritan leper! Yet, this Samaritan, who had every reason to be suspicious of Jesus, a Jew, because of the tremendous ethnic hostility between the two groups—this Samaritan, an outsider, came and fell at Jesus’ feet and poured out gratitude from a heart that was now wonderfully appreciative of all things Jewish.
And what we see in the Samaritan leper, most of us have seen with our own eyes. We have all either known or at least heard about a naturalized American citizen who is more patriotic than most native-born Americans. Many of us have known people who come to faith in Christ as adults, and whose devotion and enthusiasm puts to shame many who have always known the Lord, who have never been unbelievers. And within the Christian family, when someone discovers a particular expression of the faith that makes him feel like he has found the home he never knew existed—well, there’s no zeal like that of a convert! I encountered the Anglican tradition as a young adult, and that describes my feelings. Now that I’ve been an Episcopalian for nearly 40 years, I feel very much an insider—susceptible to jaded cynicism, so when I encounter someone who is eager to learn about our glorious Anglican inheritance, it lifts my spirits to see my “old” reality through that person’s “new” eyes.
This is a move we all need to make, time and time again. The Samaritan leper stands before us today as an invitation to see our old reality, not through our tired insiders’ eyes, but through his fresh outsiders’ eyes. He invites us to shift our attention outward, to involve ourselves authentically in the lives of those around us, to be consumed by the mission to which God has called us, both as individuals and as a community, to re-connect with our vocation with the same sense of wonder we felt when we first knew ourselves to be called to it, to not settle for an “okay” marriage but to insist on a superior one, to nurture our love affair with the Lord so that prayer is not simply a chore but the very air we breathe, and wild stallions couldn’t prevent us from worshiping at the Lord’s own altar with the Lord’s own people on the Lord’s own day. And in the process, we become more appreciative of the advantages and blessings that are ours. Among Anglicans who have had some sustained experience with the services of Morning and Evening Prayer, the words of the General Thanksgiving come to mind here: “We bless thee for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life, but above all for thine inestimable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ, for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.” As we view our experience through the eyes of the Samaritan leper and the stranger in our midst, our personal holiness is refined through the development of an “attitude of gratitude,” a habitual mindset of thanksgiving, and on that day when all secrets are revealed and the piercing eye of the Holy One looks into every human heart, our hearts will reflect back to him his own image, brought to perfection through his Son and our Savior, Jesus Christ. To him be all praise and glory. Amen.
Saturday, October 12, 2013
We reconvened the synod at 8:30am and were finished two hours later. No election required more than one written ballot, there was zero conversation about the budget, and no resolution were offered save the customary resolutions of courtesy. There was a positive spirit throughout. We are on our way into discipleship and mission. So I mean it when I say I have the best job in the world in the best diocese in the world.
Home in time for lunch, a nap, a walk, and a little email processing before packing up once again and heading down to Alton, where I enjoyed a very gracious dinner with vestry and spouses (and, of course, their fine rector, Fr David Boase).
Friday, October 11, 2013
Household chores and a couple of errands in the morning. Then it was time to pack for an overnight and head out to Decatur around 11:15 for the 1:30 start of the 136th Annual Synod of the Diocese of Springfield. We conducted some business, held some election, and I delivered an address. At 4:15, we recessed and headed down to St John's Church for the Mass, followed by a lovely banquet at the Decatur Conference Center.
Synod Mass at St John's, Decatur--Acts 8:26-40, Matthew 28:18-20, Isaiah 53:7-11
There are two Philip’s in the New Testament: Philip the Apostle, who shares a feast day with James the Less on the 1st of May, and Philip the Deacon, whose feast day we celebrate at this liturgy. Philip was one of the original seven deacons, who were chosen to pursue administrative work and liberate the apostles for the ministry of teaching and evangelism. So it’s a little ironic that what Philip the Deacon is mostly known for has nothing to do with waiting on tables on serving the poor, but is a marvelous act of evangelism!
It’s also providential that Philip the Deacon’s feast day falls during a synod—indeed, during a season in the life of the whole church—when evangelization is a frequent topic of conversation, and an ever-present concern. Back in the meeting hall, we’ve just talked about a vision for discerning those pockets of the population around us whom the Holy Spirit may be preparing, softening, to respond to our proclamation of the good news of God in Jesus Christ. We are keenly aware of the Great Commission, which we just heard once again a couple of minutes ago: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.” We’ve talked about the need to pitch our tent among such people, to walk with them in their world, making Jesus incarnate in their midst even before we speak his name. In preparing for this sort of apostolic ministry, we have anxiety about techniques and methods. What, precisely, are we going to tell them? What images and metaphors and figures of speech will we use to translate the gospel into terms that will touch their hearts? And how will we seal the deal? How will we move from introducing them to Jesus to the waters of the baptismal font? These are all questions that both excite us and weigh on us in this vulnerable moment in our life together.
We have all these questions, and it seems to me that we have, in the story from Acts, Chapter 8 of Philip’s encounter with the Ethiopian eunuch on the road to Gaza, in a “compressed file,” as it were, something that is labeled on the internet as FAQs—“frequently asked questions”—we have here some answer to our frequently asked questions about the work of evangelism. And the overarching rubric seems to be this: Effective evangelism happens when we share what we know about Jesus with those whom the Spirit has prepared to receive that knowledge.
So let’s look into this. Philip is contacted by an angel, who instructs him to “Rise and go toward the south to the road that goes down from Jerusalem to Gaza.” There he finds the Ethiopian court official, sitting in his chariot, trying to make sense of a biblical text—in this case, a snippet from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 53. Part of it was our first reading at this liturgy. We hear it every Holy Week; the words are very familiar. “He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” So, before Philip even arrived on the scene, the Holy Spirit was at work in the heart of the Ethiopian, stimulating his mind to curiosity, afflicting him with the burden of holy confusion! He knew that he was reading something very significant. The words tugged at his heart. But he wasn’t able to connect the dots. He wasn’t able, on his own, to put the pieces of the puzzle together. I think we need to rely on the promise that the Holy Spirit will not only go with us in our missionary endeavors, but will also go before us. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that the Holy Spirit is already in those places and among those people whom we have not yet even identified, troubling the waters, disturbing the homeostasis, preparing the ground for our arrival. Do you not find that an utterly comforting and heartwarming thought? I certainly do.
Now Philip sees the eunuch, pulled over to the side of the road from Jerusalem to Gaza, sitting in his chariot, reading a scroll copy of Isaiah. He asks him if he understands what he’s reading, and the eunuch says, “Nope. Not a clue. Makes absolutely no sense to me. Who is this guy who’s despised and afflicted and crushed and brought to grief? I’m confused.” Philip must have indicated something of his own ability and willingness to answer those questions, to explain Isaiah 53, because the Ethiopian scoots over and pats the seat next to him and says to Philip, “Come on up and sit beside me. Let’s take a ride.” And off they went. So we see here that Philip literally entered the eunuch’s environment, observed what he was doing, and made contact based on what he saw. He didn’t just start a conversation about a completely random subject; he based his question on what he saw the eunuch was already interested in: “Do you understand what you are reading?”
This becomes for us a pattern of missionary activity: Entering the environment of others, being present while respecting appropriate boundaries, being curious and sensitive, doing way more listening than talking, building relationships, and earning trust. Philip looked for a hook by which to engage the Ethiopian in conversation, and he found that hook in the man’s curiosity about what he was reading. As we pursue our missional vision, we will do well to keep looking for hooks, and then to allow those hooks to draw us into deeper conversation about what God is up to in their lives and in their world. But notice that Philip at first kept a respectful distance from the eunuch’s personal space; he didn’t invade it headlong, but waited for an invitation to hop up into the chariot. The work of evangelization is always gracious and gentle, never aggressive, coercive, or bullying.
But once Philip got into the chariot, he wasn’t shy about sharing what he knew. He connected the dots. He put the pieces together. He explained that the text from Isaiah that the Ethiopian eunuch was curious about and troubled by was all about Jesus—that Jesus is the Suffering Servant, the Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, the one who bears our iniquities and by whose stripes we are healed. Jesus was the one the Philip’s new Ethiopian friend was looking for, the one who alone could satisfy the deepest yearnings of his heart and complete him as a human being.
In the vows and promises of baptism, which we will shortly renew, we declare our intention to “proclaim in word and deed the good news of God in Jesus Christ.” It is quite true that we probably need to think in terms of “deed and word” rather than “word and deed.” Proclaiming the gospel in deeds earns us the privilege of proclaiming it in word—“Please step up into my chariot and explain to me what I’m reading about.” And when that moment arrives, we need to be ready. We need to have our story straight, and be able to tell it confidently and concisely, because we don’t know when we’ll get another opportunity. “Let me connect the dots for you: Jesus is the one you’re looking for; Jesus is the one who will bring you peace, purpose, and joy; Jesus is the one who conquers sickness, evil, and death, and in whom we share the very life of God.” We don’t want to give that all away too soon, before we’re invited, but when the right time comes, we’d better have it ready. Philip did, much to the delight of the Ethiopian eunuch.
So then it was time to close the deal. Philip had patiently explained the gospel to the eunuch. It all came together in his mind and heart. The lights came on, bells rang, birds sang; he was ready to make a commitment. Luke tells us that “as they were going along the road they came to some water, and the eunuch said, ‘See, here is water! What prevents me from being baptized?’” Philip led him to Jesus, then the Ethiopian virtually led himself to the waters of baptism, with a great big assist, no doubt, from the Holy Spirit, who had animated this exchange from beginning to end. As the clergy here know, we keep a lot of statistics in the Episcopal Church. Every winter, churches are required to file a document called the Parochial Report, and fill in all sorts of numbers about membership and attendance and activity and sacramental events. These are all very interesting to me, and I do look at them, usually online after the numbers have been crunched by the national church. But, going forward, there’s one number that’s going to be way more interesting to me than any other, and that’s the number of Adult Baptisms. When we start to see a sharp increase in the number of adult baptisms across the diocese, then we will know we have truly become a missionary church; then we will know that we are beginning to live into the vision that we’re mostly just talking about now. To loop back into my address back in the meeting hall, that’s the moment when people driving by will notice that there’s a new coat of paint on the house. That’s the payoff; the delivery of the goods.
My friends, the Holy Spirit is active, both among us, and among those with whom we will yet share the good news of Jesus. The job we have been given is frightfully intimidating, but eminently doable, the Lord being our helper. Blessed Philip, pray for us. Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.
Thursday, October 10, 2013
- Once again, Morning Prayer in All Saints Cathedral, Milwaukee at 9am, this time with the whole membership of the Living Church Foundation, in addition to the board.
- Productive Foundation annual meeting in the morning, electing two new members to the Foundation and two new members of the Board of Directors. We also received the resignation of long-time board president, Fr Thomas Fraser, after 12 years in that job, and 24 on the Foundation.
- We celebrated a Requiem Mass for departed benefactors of the Foundation, at which it was my privilege to serve as Presider.
- Lunch in the cathedral library.
- Our afternoon session featured to short talks on issues of leadership--one by YFNB, and one by Fr Michael Cover, a priest of the Diocese of Dallas currently living in Northern Indiana. This was followed by a very rich a fruitful free-ranging discussion.
- The board reconvened at 3:30, upon the conclusion of the Foundation meeting, and elected officers, with Bishop Bruce MacPherson (recently retired of Western Louisiana) chosen to serve as President.
- I was in my car right at 4pm, and home a little past 10.
Wednesday, October 9, 2013
- Morning Prayer at 9am in All Saints Cathedral (Milwaukee) with the Living Church Foundation board.
- The board meeting resumed from yesterday and continued until around 3pm, with a break for lunch eaten in our meeting room. It was productive and positive, but TLC faces some daunting short-term challenges. When we get past this bump, by the grace of God, this ministry is poised to play a major role in the life of the whole Anglican world.
- After accompanying Executive Director Christopher Wells as he purchased supplies for tonight's Foundation dinner, we both paid a brief visit to the Milwaukee Art Museum, which is itself a work of art, set on the scenic shore of Lake Michigan.
- The larger circle of Foundation members (as distinct from the smaller circle of board members) joined us for dinner, catered by some of the TLC staff and friends in the library of All Saints Cathedral.
Tuesday, October 8, 2013
Woke up in the Chicago condo where my son and daughter-in-law live, having had a good visit with them the night before. It was easy to make it to downtown Milwaukee in time for a lunchtime beginning to the fall meeting the Living Church Foundation board. We had a productive afternoon and a lovely dinner together. Work continues tomorrow and Thursday.
Sunday, October 6, 2013
Out the door at 7:15 and back home at 3:30. In the meantime, we celebrated the Lord's Day with the people of St Thomas' Church, enjoyed a sumptuous roast beef meal, and engaged in a lively discussion about the future of that Eucharistic Community.
St Thomas, Salem--Habakkuk 1:1-13, 2:1-4; Luke 17:5-10; Psalm 37:3-10
OK, I’ve got to level with you right at the beginning here. This gospel passage is not one of my favorites. I’m talking about the little mini-parable Jesus tells about the landowner who has a field hand working beside him all day, working just as hard, doing the same stuff, and when quitting time rolls around, the boss puts his feet up and makes the field hand—now turned into a domestic servant—he makes his servant fix dinner and serve it to him, and only then can the servant sit down and have some for himself. The insufferable arrogance of that landowner! The obvious injustice of it all! And we’re supposed to see this guy as a symbol for God, and identify ourselves with the hard-working but exploited servant? Who would want to serve that kind of God, anyway? He certainly isn’t the kind of God that makes you proud to call Him your own!
I suspect that many of you have a reaction similar to my own, and in that—I hate to tell you—we’re being quite typical twenty-first century Americans. For us, the motto that gets us through life is, “It’s all about me.” When we go out to a restaurant, we expect top-notch attentive service, and if we’re working at a restaurant, we expect courteous customers who tip generously. When we buy something at a store, we expect to be able to return it for a full refund with no questions asked. As employees, we expect top pay with full benefits, flex-time, and a generous company contribution toward our retirement plan. As employers, we expect workers who don’t have a personal life, and preferably never have to go to the restroom during working hours.
Well, Jesus’ little illustration encourages us to realize that it’s not all about us. That’s a hard lesson for Americans to learn. Our British cousins perhaps have an easier time of it because, until rather recently, theirs was a rigidly class-oriented society. When the now-retired Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, was appointed to that position in 1990, he was considered a remarkable exception to the rule, because he had been born into a blue-collar working class family, and didn’t have the benefit of a prestigious private school education. The fact the he even was made a priest, let alone appointed bishop and then primate, was seen as evidence that he was one the very few who was able to transcend the class into which he was born. Even during his term as Archbishop, there were those who saw him as a sort of country bumpkin, and explained various things that he said or did with reference to his supposed poor breeding. The majority are taught to be content with their “place.” If you’re nobility, do not aspire to become royalty. If you’re a commoner, do not aspire to become a noble. If you’re a coal miner, learn to accept the fact that you will never have a country estate. This can be a tough lesson to learn, because we are all naturally self-centered, and want to think of ourselves as exceptional, in a good way.
Jesus’ disciples say to him, “Lord, increase our faith.” It’s no surprise, then, given how we’re conditioned, that, when we think of the notion of faith, we associate it with hoping that God will choose to act in accord with our own best interests, according to our own desires—our own desires for safety, for health, for love that is returned in equal or greater measure than we give it, and for material prosperity. There’s a prayer attributed to a certain British noble and wealthy landowner of the nineteenth century that beautifully capsulizes this attitude. It goes something along the lines of, “O God, I beseech thee of thy tender mercy on behalf of the counties of Essex and Lancashire, that is may please thee to spare them excesses of wind and rain, and also on behalf of certain estates in the county of Hertfordshire, that thou mayest establish such civil tranquility as shall issue in the prosperity of the region. In all other diverse parts of the country, thou mayest exercise thy divine providence according to thy holy will.” Well, it doesn’t take Sherlock Holmes to figure out where this guy owns property, does it?! Seriously, though, the problem with identifying faith with God granting our wishes—aside from the fact that it buys into the “It’s all about me” syndrome—is that, when our wishes are not granted, it becomes a crisis of faith for us. Where is God? Why has He abandoned me? Why am I being punished? What did I do to deserve this? God must not love me. God must love my adversaries more than He loves me. Where is God? After all, it’s all about me, isn’t it? Isn’t it?
This is where it becomes wonderfully good news that grace abounds and that God is an opportunist. In that place of brokenness and self-pity, God comes to us and enables us to transcend our own egos. When that happens, we see faith in a whole new light. There’s a pop song from the early seventies with the repeated refrain, “If you can’t be with the one you love, honey, love the one you’re with.” Now, that can certainly be interpreted in a rather cynical and scandalous way, which I’m sure is what the author of the lyrics intended (!), so let me see if I can redeem it with a paraphrase: If faith doesn’t make what God is doing conform to what you want, then let what you want conform to what God is doing. Faith is not about God doing what we want; faith is about wanting what God does.
We have a fascinating reading today from the Old Testament prophet Habakkuk. Habakkuk starts out by complaining about how miserable life is, and why doesn’t the Lord do something?
O LORD, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you "Violence!" and you will not save? Why do you make me see wrongs and look upon trouble? Destruction and violence are before me; strife and contention arise. So the law is slacked and justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous, so justice goes forth perverted.
But God replies, in effect, “I am doing something. You just don’t see it yet.”
Look among the nations, and see; wonder and be astounded. For I am doing a work in your days that you would not believe if told.
And not only that, but look at the instrument God has chosen to carry out His plan:
For lo, I am rousing the Chaldeans, that bitter and hasty nation, who march through the breadth of the earth, to seize habitations not their own. Dread and terrible are they; … They all come for violence; terror of them goes before them. They gather captives like sand. At kings they scoff, and of rulers they make sport. They laugh at every fortress, for they heap up earth and take it. Then they sweep by like the wind and go on, guilty men, whose own might is their god!
In other words, these Chaldeans are really nasty guys. And God has chosen them to be the means of accomplishing what He wants to accomplish with His chosen people of Israel. So, let’s see if we have this straight. We complain to God that life is miserable, and ask Him why He isn’t doing something about it. God replies that He is doing something. And we go, “Oh, by using the neighborhood bully, the Bad Boy on the block, our worst enemy? What are we not getting here?” And the answer is, Yup. But wait, there’s more! God is not only doing something we can’t see, and God is not only using the Chaldeans to do it, but He’s going to take His own sweet time! God says to Habakkuk:
Write the vision; make it plain upon tablets, so he may run who reads it. For still the vision awaits its time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie. If it seem slow, wait for it; it will surely come, it will not delay. Behold, he whose soul is not upright in him shall fail, but the righteous shall live by his faith.
There’s that word “faith” again. Faith in a God whose love will never let us go, faith in a God who redeems even the most distorted and twisted set of circumstances for His glory and our good, faith that God can use even our worst enemies to accomplish His purposes, faith in a God to whom one day is as a thousand years and a thousand years as one day, faith in a God whose grace is ubiquitous and permeates every situation we might find ourselves in. When we place our faith in this God and what He is doing, rather than spinning our wheels waiting for Him to do what we want, we are on the path which leads to peace, to patience, to contentment in life, and to growth in holiness. And the best part is, it’s also the road to increased faith.
Saturday, October 5, 2013
Friday, October 4, 2013
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Spent the morning refining and printing my synod address, creating and editing the PowerPoint slides to go with it, and preparing an online version that will go live on the diocesan website about an hour after it's delivered.
- Lunch at home ... leftover brisket ... yum.
- Began drafting my homily for the synod Mass, celebrating the lesser feast of St Philip the Deacon.
- Took a call from the President of the Living Church Foundation board, in advance of next week's meeting in Milwaukee.
- Friday prayer--lectio divina on II Kings 19 (tomorrow's daily office lection). See reflections here.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Thursday, October 3, 2013
- Woke up feeling a great deal better than I had 24 and 48 and 72 hours earlier.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Took care of a long-delayed response to an administrative/pastoral issue.
- Refined and printed a working script for this Sunday's homily at St Thomas', Salem.
- Took a call from the rector of Alton Parish regarding some of the details of my upcoming visit there.
- Took a call from a colleague bishop who has a parish that would like to engage me as a DEPO bishop.
- Began refining a working script of my homily for Proper 23, to be delivered in Alton (Trinity Chapel and St Paul's).
- Served as a last-minute pinch-hitter celebrant and preacher for the 12:15 Mass in the cathedral chapel. We anticipated the lesser feast of St Francis of Assisi. Fr Roderick was delayed returning from a funeral in another part of town.
- Takeout lunch from Dynasty, the Chinese place next to Taco Gringo, eaten at home.
- Finish the work on the Proper 23 sermon I had begun before lunch.
- Met with Kathy Moore and Brian Maves from the Youth Department over a range of YD-related concerns. Chief among them is the possibility that the youth pilgrimage to England, scheduled for next June, may be in some jeopardy due to lack of pilgrims. It would sadden me greatly if we had to cancel this. It has the potential to be an utterly life-changing time of spiritual growth for the young people who come, exploring our very DNA as Anglican Christians. Yes, it's expensive. We have some resources that can mitigate that expense, but we need to have a clear picture of how many kids are actually interested so we can more intelligents deploy those resources and find new ones. Please help make this happen!
- Finalized the agenda for the Nashotah House board meeting later this month.
- Left a voice mail with a fellow member of the Living Church Foundation board regarding next week's meeting in Milwaukee.
- Evening Prayer in the car en route to by charcoal so we could grill burgers for dinner. But when I got home, rain was threatening, so we cooked them indoors.