Thursday, January 31, 2013
Even sad duties bring relief when they are accomplished. Today was already set aside on the calendar for Archdeacon Denney and me to travel to Paris (not that Paris, but the one you can drive to from Springfield) and deconsecrate St Andrew's Church. The mission was dissolved and worship ceased there during Advent of 2011, there being only two regular communicants remaining, and we recently received a purchase offer on the building. (Not what we might have gotten for it some years ago, but a fair price in today's market.) My predecessor nine times removed, Bishop George Seymour, took title to the land sometime in the 1880s. The original church was razed and the current one built in 1966. As recently as the 1990s the congregation had parish status. But rural Illinois has not exactly boomed, even during boom times, and St Andrew's was never one of the larger churches in town. So it just dwindled away. We can ask ourselves a lot of "what if ...?" questions, but what happened happened, and doing what we have now done was the most prudent action for us to take. So Fr Denney and I, with the help of the buyer and a couple of her associates, moved the altar (which is from the original church) out of the chancel and into the bed of the borrowed pickup we had driven over from Springfield. We boxed up a few items of archival value, and a small assortment of vestments. Then we drove over to the local Rural King Farm Supply store to buy a tarp, some bungee cords, and a couple of plastic totes. Then we went back to the church and prayed the brief liturgy for the secularization of a consecrated building. It was the second time I have done this, and it felt like I was presiding at an execution, audibly "rescinding the sentence of consecration" that had been just as audibly pronounced by Bishop Chambers in 1966. After securing our load in the bed of the truck, and grabbing a fast food lunch, we appeared at a local bank for the closing. We turned over the keys to a very happy buyer--an auctioneer who will use it as her place fo business--and walked out with a check. The Bishop of Springfield relinquished title to property that the Bishop of Springfield has received some 130 years earlier. The funds will be invested until we can once again deploy them in service to the apostolic mission of the Church.
Wednesday, January 30, 2013
- Processed a long batch of emails while still at home, then had a longish phone conversation with the conductor of next week's clergy retreat. MP in the car on the way in. It was nearly 10 before I arrived.
- Between other tasks, much of my day was consumed with preparing for a Commission on Ministry meeting a week from Saturday. We are introducing several new potential ordinands to them and I want it to be as smooth a process as possible, which required a bunch of ducks to be gotten in a row via telephone and email and personal conversations with the Archdeacon.
- Approved drafts of the clergy retreat worship booklet.
- Produced a working script for this Sunday's homily at Trinity, Lincoln.
- Talked with Fr Evans about this Sunday's visit and some business related to our companion diocese relationships.
- Lunch at home.
- Descended into successive layers of technology hell as I tried to complete online (as it is required for the first time this year) a United Thank Offering grant application on behalf of our companion diocese of Tabora (in Tanzania). The system is clearly not ready for prime time and I am unspeakably frustrated. The project sucked up most of my afternoon and a good chunk of my evening and it is still not completed. Error messages abound. Breathing deeply.
Tuesday, January 29, 2013
Had breakfast with my old friend, Bishop Little of Northern Indiana. Then it was back to the Province V Bishops meeting for the balance of the morning. We discussed matters of pastoral policy. We're all in slightly different places on a range of different questions, and we all benefit, I believe, from one another's differing perspectives. It's good for us to have a community of accountability in our ministry of oversight.
We adjourned right before lunchtime (for which we were on our own). As it turned out, Bishop Ousley of Eastern Michigan also had a train to catch. So we took the CTA Blue Line together to the Loop, then enjoyed Italian beef sandwiches--a Chicago classic--at Al's Beef on E. Jackson. Then back to Union Station to await our respective rides home. It was fun to hang out.
Unlike yesterday morning, this time the Wi-Fi on the train was fully functional, enabling me to be a productivity machine the entire way. It's amazing how fast that trip seems when you're busy.
Monday, January 28, 2013
Caught the 6:32 Amtrak departure from Springfield (it actually arrived early) to Chicago for a short meeting of the bishops from Province V. Despite the lack of a wi-fi connection (a decal on my window said "Your seat is a Hot Spot") I got a pretty fair amount of work done on my laptop. Time efficiently spent, and much less expensive than driving.
After negotiating the CTA Blue Line from Union Station to a hotel near O'Hare without incident, I was able to check in to my room and process some emails. Then it was the rest of the afternoon with my bishop colleagues. Our agenda for these things is always rather informal. We discussed administrative changes in the national church office, the situation in South Carolina, and some ecumenical concerns.
We had a splendid dinner at Carlucci's, the restaurant attached to the Marriott.
Sunday, January 27, 2013
I intentionally try to schedule visits to my closer-in parishes during the months with the highest potential for disruptive weather. This morning reinforced that strategy. With freezing rain coating the pavement, it might have been difficult or impossible to reach some parts of the diocese. But with a little extra caution, St Luke's right here in Springfield turned out to be eminently doable. And we ended up with nearly a full house. St Luke's is an eminently vital eucharistic community, and it was a joy to share word and sacrament with them.
St Luke's, Springfield--Luke 4:14-21
Of all the jobs around a parish church that have to be filled by a lay volunteer, the most challenging has got to be that of Junior Warden, or, as we say in the Diocese of Springfield, Parish Warden or Mission Warden. This person’s area of oversight is usually the physical plant, so he or she gets the phone call when the basement floods or there's a fire in the kitchen or the furnace won't come on. I've known many Junior Wardens who have performed in an exemplary fashion—and are even still Christians when their term expires!—but I would guess that even those good ones have embraced the position more as an opportunity to serve than for the inherent rewards of the job itself. It is a daunting responsibility.
Not all of us will get to put in time as a Junior Warden. I, for one, have gone so far as to get ordained so as to be permanently disqualified! But many, if not most, of us have had the experience of taking on a leadership position in a volunteer organization—a service club, the PTA, organizing an office event, a birthday or anniversary celebration, a bridal or baby shower, or the like. Sometimes we take on such a job because we really expect to find some joy in it. Other times we take it on, even when we'd rather not, because, by some combination of circumstances, it just falls in our lap. We throw ourselves into the task, and for a time—it may be a very brief time, it may be longer—for a time all goes well. But, sooner or later, something doesn't go quite right. We meet resistance, or lack of cooperation, or clashing expectations. If we're lucky, the grumblers and complainers confront us directly—that is, if we're lucky. More often, unfortunately, the grumbling and complaining takes place behind our back, and all we hear are rumors and gossip. The next act in this drama is some sort of outburst on the part of the dumped-on leader. It may be private, it may be public, but it usually contains some version of "I don't need to be doing this" ... often with the added implication: "...for such ungrateful wretches." Sometimes this outburst makes us feel better, and we re-commit to the task. But it might also be a parting shot, as we walk out in a huff. And even if we don't walk out in a huff, we are surely tempted . . . we are surely tempted.
You may remember a movie from about 25 years ago now called The Last Temptation of Christ. If so, you may also remember that it was just a little bit controversial. Why was that? We are familiar, of course, with the temptation of Christ in the wilderness prior to the commencement of his public ministry; it’s going to be our gospel reading three weeks from now. The devil tempted Jesus to turn his back on his vocation, his mission, on the Father's will for him. In the film, there is a fourth temptation, only it doesn't take place in the desert, it takes place on the cross. Jesus is hanging on the cross, at the age of 33, his bodily systems slowly beginning to shut down. Suddenly he has an apparition of a sweet young child. The viewer is led to understand that this sweet young child is the devil in disguise, but she looks anything but devilish. This attractive devil invites Jesus to consider throwing in the towel on this whole messiah thing, coming down from the cross, and leading a normal life.
The next big chunk of the movie depicts an elaborate fantasy that is attributed to Jesus as he struggles with the temptation to accept the devil's invitation. It shows him miraculously escaping from his ordeal, settling down with a nice Jewish girl, buying a house, raising a family, growing old, playing with his grandchildren, and preparing to die peacefully in his bed of natural causes at an advanced age. In case you're wondering, at the end of this fantasy, Jesus rejects the temptation, and we see him back on the cross, completing the sacrifice that the son of God had become one of us to offer.
But the story asks an important and intriguing "What if?" question. What if Jesus had come to the conclusion, "I don't need to be doing this . . . especially for these ungrateful wretches." What if Jesus had reached the red zone of his frustration level, and walked out in a huff? Well, who can say? But it's a pretty good bet that you and I would still be slaves to the power of sin and death, and devoid of hope for any lasting happiness. I don't know what demons Jesus wrestled with during his hours on the cross, but I do know that he stayed on the cross, that he finished what he started.
We can only speculate, of course, about what Jesus knew and when he knew it. When did he realize he wasn't just like all the other kids in the neighborhood? When did he begin to understand his mission on this earth? When did he know that he was born precisely to die? Nobody can answer these questions. All the New Testament tells us is that he did accept his divine vocation. St Luke's gospel gives us the dramatic story of his public acknowledgement and proclamation of his messiah-ship. He attends the synagogue service in his hometown of Nazareth. It's apparently his turn to read the lesson and make some comments on it. The master-of- ceremonies hands him the scroll that contains the writings of the prophet Isaiah, and he finds the passage appointed in the lectionary:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.
Nothing out of the ordinary to that point. Jesus was simply performing the normal duty of an observant Jewish male. What happened next, though, was not quite so ordinary. He handed the scroll back to the attendant, sat down, got everybody's attention, and made a fantastic claim: "Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing." He just comes right out and says that he is the anointed servant of the Lord in the book of Isaiah. That means that he clearly saw two important things: First, that he was called by his Father, called by God, to his ministry. It wasn't something he chose, like a college student deciding what to major in, or a professional deciding whether to join this firm or that one. Second, that he was equipped by the Holy Spirit for the work to which he was called. It wasn't a matter of wondering whether he would have the ability to preach good news to the poor and proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind and set at liberty those who are oppressed. He spoke in the confidence of his faith that the Holy Spirit had gifted him for these tasks.
And in recognizing that he was both divinely called and divinely gifted, Jesus serves as an example to us. I don't believe that anyone here is called to be the savior of the world (!), but we are all—those of us who are baptized, at any rate—we are all called by God. We are called generally in the covenant we make at our baptism and/or confirmation. We are called specifically in our ongoing relationship with God in the church. More to the point, each and every baptized Christian is called to ministry. We are all called to be a minister in some way.
Now, obviously, I do not mean that all Christians are supposed to spend three years in seminary, get hands laid on them by a bishop, and wear collars that fasten in the back. A minister is simply anyone who is performing ministry, whether that person is lay or ordained. And ministry takes a literally countless number of forms and shapes. Today, in this very liturgy, we are experiencing the ministry of lectors, acolytes, musicians, intercessors, and altar guild members, as well as the ministry of a priest and a bishop. But Christian ministry is much larger than liturgical ministry alone. Serving on the vestry, teaching Sunday School, helping out with Vacation Bible School, organizing and cleaning up after special events—these are all valid and vital ministries. But we are still only nibbling around the edges of Christian ministry, because the real substance and heart of Christian ministry takes place beyond the walls of the buildings at the corner of South Grand and Loveland Avenue on the east side of Springfield. The ministry of the church takes place in the world: in homes, schools, shops, factories, offices, prisons, hospitals, nursing homes—anywhere that one human life can touch another. Every baptized Christian is called to ministry, and every baptized Christian has the raw equipment for that ministry.
So, how will each of us deal with our own "last temptation?" How will we respond to that beautiful, cherubic devil who appears to us and tempts us? "Don't worry about taking up your cross. You don't really have to do that. Put that thing down and enjoy what pleasures your life may yet hold for you." None of us, you know, none of us who bear the mark of baptism, none of us who have been marked as Christ's own forever, have the luxury of leading a "normal" life anymore than Jesus did! Whatever ministry we may be called to, it involves being a witness, a martyr, living on the edge, trusting God to meet our needs, not necessarily being prudent, but always being faithful. The last temptation of Christ is our last temptation too. It is the temptation to walk away and say, "I don't need to be doing this." But it's just that—a temptation—and you know where temptations come from. Resist him, firm in your faith. Let the intention of your heart for this very celebration of the Mass be that the grace of Holy Communion strengthen your resolve to hear and respond to God's call, confident that you are equipped to fulfill that call. Amen.
Friday, January 25, 2013
- Brief devotions in the cathedral; MP in the office (the cathedral is cold!).
- Consulted various commentaries on the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, did some active listening, and emerged with a basic message that I trust will evolve into a sermon before I stand up to preach in the cathedral on February 17.
- Hand-wrote notes to clergy and spouses with milestone events in February.
- Lunch at home.
- Did some more liturgical prep for the clergy retreat.
- Consulted some sources in preparation for the annual Chrism Mass (aka Liturgy of Collegiality) and laid plans for a few changes to recent past practices.
- Friday personal prayer: Meditation on the passage from Acts narrating the conversion of St Paul. What a stunning and completely sovereign act of God--the same God who is still capable of such sovereign acts. How many "enemies of the cross of Christ" will one day be disciples--yea, apostles--of that same Jesus?
- Took care of some personal organization and website maintenance chores.
- Evening Prayer in the office.
- Attended the retirement dinner for Dean Bob Brodie, whose last Sunday at St Paul's is 10 February. There was a great turnout of both parishioners and friends from near and far.
Thursday, January 24, 2013
- Usual Thursday morning weight/treadmill workout routine. (Also happens most Saturdays and most Mondays.)
- Morning Prayer in the car on the way in. (I can do most of the canticles and prayers from memory; I looked over the readings when I got into the office.)
- Processed a batch of emails.
- Produced a complete but as yet unrefined script of a sermon for Epiphany IV (Trinity, Lincoln).
- Consulted with cathedral staff over liturgies of Ash Wednesday and Lent I, at which I am presiding and preaching.
- Lunch at home.
- Saw to a small but important task related to mission strategy.
- Did some personal organization maintenance of the "once every year or two" variety; namely, thoroughly going through the top and innards of the credenza behind my desk, throwing out a bunch of stuff and trying to impose some semblance of order on the rest.
- Fleshed out an refined the second of four addresses to be delivered at the diocesan ECW retreat in March.
- Did a little more very short-form musical composition for clergy retreat worship (a simplified Anglican chant).
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Wednesday, January 23, 2013
- Task planning and some light reading at home over breakfast; Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Refined my homily for this Sunday (St Luke's, Springfield).
- Spoke at length via Skype video with Canon Ian Montgomery of the Diocese of Peru (he was in his office in Lima). Peru is one of our two new companion dioceses, and it was good to be able to develop a better mental map of the country and the work of the church there. It's time to start serious planning about sending a delegation from Springfield down there for an initial visit.
- Attended to various relatively trivial administrative and personal organization matters.
- Lunch at home.
- Worked a good bit more on a UTO grant application for our other new companion diocese--Tabora in Tanzania. We're trying to help Bishop Elias get funding for a new vehicle, which he desperately needs.
- Spoke by phone with one of our clergy over a rather sensitive pastoral/administrative matter.
- Scored some epically cheap Amtrak tickets for next week's meeting of the Province V bishops in Chicago.
- Processed a small batch of emails.
- Loaded some more sung eucharistic Psalm refrains and pointed verses (of my own composition, from many years back) on to the diocesan website. This project is now about two-thirds complete.
- Did a little musical composition--a Simplified Anglican Chant tune to be used with a Psalm at Evensong at the clergy retreat.
- Took care of a smallish but important literary task in connection with one of our parishes that is in transition.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Tuesday, January 22, 2013
- Weekly and daily task planning, and some email processing, at home.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Aside from some brief consultations with the Archdeacon and Administrator, spent the rest of the morning clearing my desk, literally. Lots of reading, scanning, and task-creating.
- Lunch at home.
- Processed a batch of emails.
- Worked on liturgies for the clergy retreat.
- Worked on some issues around the process of discernment and formation for ordination.
- Began work on an "aspirational" liturgical customary for churches of the diocese, something that grew out of last November's conference for clergy and musicians.
- Evening Prayer in the office.
- In the evening, finished writing a book review for The Living Church.
Sunday, January 20, 2013
After I send out my visitation schedule for the coming calendar year sometime each fall, there is a bit of shuffling and re-dealing. As a result, I ended up with no visit scheduled for today. At the same time, our son has an exhibition of his art going on in Chicago, and the show's opening reception was last night. So we decided to make it an overnight. This morning I got to sit in a pew at St Paul's-by-the Lake, Chicago. It was a privilege to worship in that devout and astonishingly ethnically diverse parish. Afterward I met for a while with the rector and a Nashotah House seminarian who is from St Paul's.
Friday, January 18, 2013
Back now from a six day sojourn in Charleston, South Carolina. Over the weekend, I had a chance to spend quality time with the clergy, vestry, and people of the Church of the Holy Communion there. Holy Communion has for more than a century been the Angl0-Catholic shrine parish of the Low Country (and probably the entire state). They are in the uncomfortable position is holding great affection for and being largely in sympathy with Bishop Mark Lawrence and the majority of the diocese, which has severed its ties to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church, but not being inclined to follow their friends in that move. It was a privilege to be able to offer them some pastoral care and encouragement.
While in the area, Brenda and I took the opportunity to indulge in a three day mini-vacation Monday through Wednesday. The weather was unseasonably lovely (70s every day), and it turned out we were there for Restaurant Week, so there were tasty deals to be had throughout that city's culinary establishments. And we did lots and lots of walking--several miles a day--which hopefully balances out some of the eating we did! We made it out to Fort Sumter, toured historic churches both downtown and out on the Ashley River road, and spent some fascinating time at the gardens and natural areas at Magnolia Plantation, which has been in the same family for 350 years.
So yesterday was a travel day and today was back to something resembling normal.
- Processed lots and lots of emails that has accumulated in my absence.
- Morning Prayer in the car on the way in to the office.
- Since the Archdeacon and I have both been traveling and have not seen one another yet this year, we spent a good bit of time debriefing over various things.
- Conferred with the Archdeacon and the Treasurer when the latter popped in over a rather bizarrely unusual situation.
- Processed more emails.
- Lunch from TG, eaten at home.
- Made a first pass at the readings for the First Sunday in Lent, in initial preparation to preach at St Paul's Cathedral on that day.
- Took care of some administrivia, which included creating an email for someone else to process!
- Revised and refreshed the text of a sermon that I will deliver at St Luke's, Springfield on Epiphany III (27 January).
- Spoke by phone at some length with a potential candidate for one of the upcoming clergy vacancies we will have.
- More administrivia.
- Friday prayers: Ignatian-style meditation on the daily office gospel reading for today's feast--the risen Christ asking Peter, "Do you love me?".
- Evening Prayer in the office.
Monday, January 14, 2013
We had a wonderful time with the clergy and people of Holy Communion, Charleston over the weekend. I preached at both Masses yesterday and celebrated the principal liturgy, which included the baptism of a 10-week old little girl. What a joy that is.
Holy Communion is one of the parishes in the Diocese of South Carolina where there seems to be a consensus toward remaining in the Episcopal Church even as the diocese itself has formally departed. It is a painful place to be, since they love their bishop and the web of relationships they have with the diocese. My job was to be an encouraging presence. a sign that they are not alone in their awkward place.
Brenda and I are now going to enjoy a three day mini-vacation here in Charleston and its environs (and enjoying the beautiful and unseasonable days in the 70s!). We fly home on Thursday. Appropriately, then, this space will go dark during that time.
Sunday, January 13, 2013
Church of the Holy Communion, Charleston, SC--Luke 3:15-16,22-22; Isaiah 42:1-9
As you might imagine, the work I did for 22 years in parish ministry, and now nearly two years in the episcopate, put me regularly in touch with the entire array of human need, from the trivial to the profound. You may not believe this, but, when clergy get together informally, we sometimes try to outdo one another in sharing our favorite Discretionary Fund request stories—those that are true, those that are obvious fabrications, and especially those that are clever fabrications. And as if the human need I and other clergy actually have to face personally weren’t enough, all we have to do is turn on a news station on the radio, and the scale of human need seems incalculable. I sometimes have the sense of the whole world being one big need, one big problem, one big bottomless-pit demand.
The world is indeed a needy place; human need abounds. There is hunger, there is pain, there is poverty, there is grief, there is captivity and tyranny, there is addiction, there is loneliness, there is guilt, and as if all this weren't enough, there is death. So most of us will look for hope, for the plausible possibility of meeting these abundant needs, wherever, and in whomever, we think we might find it. If we're hungry, we hope for the one who will feed us. If we're in pain, we hope for the one who will bring relief. If we're held captive, we hope for the one who will set us free. If we're poor, we hope for plenty. If we're lonely, we hope for companionship. If we're guilty, we hope for forgiveness, and if we're surrounded by or facing death, we hope for life.
But very often, we're disappointed in our search for hope. We find someone or something that might meet one of the items on our list of needs, but instead of being grateful, we become angry and resentful that this person or thing can't meet all of our needs. Who and what are these "stopgap saviors" that disappoint us? The list is a long one, and includes spouses, children, this parish—or any parish, a twelve-step program, a therapist—or therapy in general, a form of prayer, a priest, or even a bishop (!), an author, a politician, a career, or a beautiful body. It's kind of silly to be angry with one or more of these for not being able to meet all our needs—it's like being angry with a cat for not being able to bark!—but we do it anyway.
The people of the Old Covenant, the nation of Israel, were a people of hope. They shared each and every one of these human needs that we've just catalogued, and they hoped for one who would meet those needs. Over the centuries, over times of hunger and captivity and guilt, they were promised, through the words of the prophets, just such a deliverer, just such a hope bringer. At times, this savior, this object of hope, was characterized as a servant of God who would suffer on behalf of God's people. Isaiah writes:
Behold, my servant, in whom my soul delights ... He will
not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the
street; a bruised reed he will not break, a dimly-burning
wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth
At other times, the hope-bringer is characterized as a king, as an anointed one, or, in Hebrew, a messiah. Isaiah also writes:
The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has
anointed me to bring good tidings to the poor; he has
sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty
to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those
who are bound; to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor.
This suffering servant, this messiah-king, became the figure in whom all the hopes and aspirations of Israel were focused. The Greek word for messiah is christ, and as Christians, followers of the Christ, we have a conviction about who the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed-one of God, is, namely, Jesus.
The feast which we keep today, the feast of the Baptism of the Christ, the baptism of Jesus, reveals Jesus as the one promised by Isaiah and the other prophets, the one who embodies and shows forth the hope, not only of the people of Israel, but of "the nations", the goyim, us!, all people, in every place and in every time. In each of the four gospels, the account of this incident marks the beginning of Jesus's public ministry. Before this moment, he was, if you will, a "private citizen", Jesus the carpenter's son. After this moment, he is very much a public figure: teaching, healing, and planting the seeds of the community that would spring to life following his death, resurrection, and ascension.
In the eastern church, it is the baptism of Christ, not the coming of the Wise Men, that is the primary symbol of his epiphany, his showing forth, his manifestation, his revelation. More accurately, it's not the actual baptism that is the epiphany, but what immediately followed: the heavens were parted, the Holy Spirit descended in the form of a dove, and the voice of God the Father gave his seal of approval on the whole occasion: "You are my beloved son, with you I am well-pleased."
In this wonderful moment, all signs point to Jesus. Earlier, John the Baptist had been asked if he were the Messiah, and he quickly set the record straight: "I baptize you with water, but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire." John points to Jesus and says, "He's the one, the anointed-one of God who will establish justice and righteousness and forgive the sins of those who are penitent." The voice of God the Father points to Jesus and says, "He's the one, the one in whom I show you myself, the one through whom you can share my very life." The Holy Spirit not only points to Jesus but almost lands on him and says, "He's the one, the one who will proclaim good news to the poor and liberty to those who are held captive." Jesus is in the center of the picture, pointed out, recognized, designated, revealed ... as the one in whom all the deepest hopes of human beings are gathered, or, in the words of the Bach chorale, "Jesu, joy of man's desiring".
I hesitate to try and illustrate by contemporary example what was going on at this moment, because anything I can think of seems utterly pale by comparison, but this is such a substantial landmark, such an important element in the pictorial vocabulary of our faith, that I want you to really grasp it. On a much less cosmic scale, it's like a university athletic director calling a press conference to introduce a new head football or basketball coach, and saying, “This is the one on whom our hopes for a winning season are fastened."
If we can open our eyes to see this picture of time and space transcended, of heaven and earth momentarily joined, we can face the neediness of the world, the neediness of our own lives, not with panic, not with desperation, not with despair, but with authentic, deep, and abiding hope, because we see the one who alone is worthy of our hope.
Several years ago—decades, actually—in the realm of pop psychology, there was a technique called the "relaxation response". It was said that, by assuming the right physical position, and engaging in the right mental exercises, we could make relaxation a learned, conditioned response. I tried it and it worked—for me, at least—and I still use it from time to time. I would like to think that, as the relaxation response provides a shot of stress relief, the picture of Jesus at his baptism, being pointed to and designated as the focus of our hope, can provide a shot of faith; that to conjure in our mind's eye the picture of Jesus standing waist-deep in the water, with an unkempt John the Baptist looking on, with heavenly light emanating from a hole in the sky, and a dove gently descending toward Jesus, can provide us with the moment-to-moment spiritual lift that we need to walk the road that God puts us on.
The Lord has shown forth his glory, come let us adore him.
Friday, January 11, 2013
Thursday, January 10, 2013
I returned last night from my two-day trip to Virginia to take part in a "conciliation" conference with respect to the Title IV disciplinary complaints that have been filed against made and seven other bishops. Sadly, I am constrained by several forces from saying anything more about either the process or the fruit of the meeting at this time. I know there is apprehension and speculation in many quarters, and it is immensely frustrating to me that I cannot say anything to allay anxiety and quiet speculation. Please be patient ... and pray for my own patience!
Dealing with some of this detritus kept me up until the neighborhood of 1am, so I did not get a very energetic start to the day. Emails always accumulate when I travel (despite my attempts to process many of them on the go), so I had a good batch to deal with at home. I arrived in the office just in time to attend the 10am Standing Committee meeting. I very much value their ministry to me as a Council of Advice. After the meeting, I met with Fr David Boase, the Standing Committee president this year, over an ongoing pastoral concern.
Lunch was at home, then back in to deal with more emails and phone calls. Eventually I did manage to attack my to-do list, making some progress on preparing an application for a companion diocese UTO grant to help get the Bishop of Tabora a reliable automobile, and made major progress on some liturgical matters related to next month's clergy retreat.
Tomorrow morning Brenda and I head by air to Charleston, South Carolina, where I will preside and preach at the Church of the Holy Communion on Sunday, after which we will take a three-day mini-vacation there in a warmer climate.
Sunday, January 6, 2013
Today marked the beginning of my third cycle of parish visitations, and it was an honor to be with the good people of Trinity Church, Jacksonville. We celebrated the feast of the Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ in spirit and truth. The memorable sign of the times took place in the parish hall after the liturgy. There was a video loop with a musical sound track being projected on a screen at one end of the room. When it came time for me to "say a few words" to the group, the sound track, while turned down low already, was noticeably annoying. Fr Ashmore got up to turn it down, but ... nothing changed. I turned and saw a flummoxed look on his face. Then a lovely ten-year old girl calmly got up, walked over, picked some a remote device, and the sound went down. There was nothing more to say.
Trinity, Jacksonville--Matthew 2:1-12, Ephesians 3:1-12
Today we hear from Matthew’s gospel about a very strange and mysterious encounter between God and a group of Persian (most likely Persian, at any rate, according to most scholars)—a group of Persian astrologers (there’s no concrete indication that there were three of them, nor is there any evidence that they were actually kings, though there’s nothing radically wrong with our traditional popular images of them)—we hear today from St Matthew’s gospel about these “Wise Men” or “Magi,” as they are often referred to, who felt an inexplicable invitation and urge to follow a strange and mysterious sign in the sky to an obscure village an hour or so (by camel, that is) from Jerusalem. But they didn’t really have a whole lot of solid material to go on, despite what we sing about the symbolic significance of their gifts
We also sometimes feel a strange and mysterious sense of the presence and invitation of God in our lives. We would probably be surprised by the stories that could be told, but perhaps never have been told, just by the people in this church this morning. But, like the Wise Men, we often feel like we have very little concrete to go on. Even if we come to a place where we are ready to recognize and name this presence as God, still “God” is such a large concept, an expansive and complex notion, that there are a great many ideas, many of them conflicting, about who God is and what God is like and what God expects of those of us who are “not-God.” It’s easy to feel like we’re in a game of “20 Questions”—Are you all-powerful? (Yes or No) Are you present everywhere? (Yes or No) Do you know everything, even before it happens? Do you love me? Would you get upset if I told a little white lie to my neighbor? etc. etc. etc.
One possible response to the mystery of God is to fall into despair: If God is unknowable, if God leaves so many unanswered questions, if it feels like God is absent, then what good is he? We like to think that God watches over us and protects us, but try telling that to the families of the children and teachers who were killed at Sandy Hook School last month. If some get spared but others don’t, then it’s nothing but a game of chance; it’s as if God didn’t really exist. What good is the “presence” that I feel if that Presence neither says anything nor does anything that I can see or hear or understand? I am trapped in my misery. There is nothing available to me but despair.
Another response is to fill in the blanks with information of our own making—as it were, creating God in our image, making God what we would like God to be. Some years ago I heard about a religion called Sheilaism. It had, at that time, precisely one adherent, and her name was—you guessed it—Sheila. Sheilaism was a designer religion worshipping a designer God. I’ll grant you, this is a rather extreme example. But it’s only extreme in the degree to which the logic is followed. Truth to tell, you don’t have to scratch the beliefs of even many conventional Christian churchgoers, even conventional Episcopalian churchgoers in the Diocese of Springfield, very deeply before you find an impulse to, if not make up a religious system from whole cloth, at least pick and choose various elements from the available options—according to taste, as it were. Left unchecked by any restraints of habit and societal approval, it leads inevitably to a virtually infinite numbers of variations on Sheilaism.
When the Wise Men finally reached Bethlehem, they saw the infant Jesus—the Word made flesh, the Messiah of God, the savior of the world—they saw Jesus with their own eyes. In the western branch of Christianity, of which we as Anglicans are heirs, this moment of seeing with their own eyes is the primary symbol—the “picture that says a thousand words”—of the Epiphany. But the reality of Epiphany is much larger than its symbol. In earlier versions of the Book of Common Prayer, the subtitle of this feast is “the Manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles.” The Magi represent all non-Jews, in other words, us! In that moment of face-to-face connection between these Persian stargazers and a little Jewish baby boy, we see the key to our own redemption. For the first time, non-Jews are explicitly included in the promises of God. Through Christ, salvation is available not only to his own people, the Jews, but to all of us who are not born into the house of Israel.
Yet, there is more we can mine from this lode: “Epiphany” means, literally, to show, to demonstrate, to take that which is hidden and make it visible, to take that which is privately visible to the few and make it publicly visible to all. St Paul writes to the Ephesians about “the mystery of Christ, which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit…” For us, the good news of Epiphany is that God is a mystery but not a secret. God is unknowable, but God has made himself known. Everything we need to know about God, God has told us—revealed, disclosed, manifested. Knowing who God is and what God is like and what God wants from us is not a game of 20 Questions.
Our observance of Epiphany also reminds us that we have no need to “design” God to our own specifications of what we think he should be like, what we would be like if we were God. Indeed, if we presume to do so, we are refusing the knowledge, the enlightenment, that God has graciously given us. We would be like the adopted child who, upon meeting her actual birth parents, and finding them not like she imagined, says, “Oh, no, you can’t possibly be my parents. My father is taller and darker, and my mother’s hair is curly, not straight.” She has the option of not having anything to do with her parents, but she doesn’t have any say-so over their appearance or personality or anything else about them. They are who they are. God is who God is. He has revealed himself to us, and we don’t have the option of sending him back to the drawing board.
Rather, with St Paul, we have the option of saying, “To me, though I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given…”—not found, not seized, but given—“to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make all men see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things; that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known…”—made known by God, that is, through the Church, not made up by any human mind or any human organization—“…[made known] to the principalities and powers in the heavenly places.”
Our job—our job as the Church and our job as individual believers—is to ever go deeper into this mystery, to soak ourselves in what God has revealed, and to tease out the implications for each of our lives. The feast of the Epiphany comforts us with the knowledge that God is not aloof and distant, toying with us by creating guessing games and smiting us with thunder bolts if we get the answer wrong, and the feast of the Epiphany challenges us to humbly and gratefully receive and lay hold of that which God has revealed. The saving and life-giving truth about God that God has made available to us is simple and accessible so that any person can perceive it and make it his or her own. But it is also inexhaustible such that the greatest minds, the keenest intellects, among us are always called to mine fresh nuggets from its riches and to apply them in concrete and compelling ways to the lives of real women and men and children. The Lord has shown forth his glory: Come, let us adore him. Amen.
Friday, January 4, 2013
- Usual morning routine; MP in the cathedral.
- Processed a small batch of snail mail that had arrived on my desk.
- Wrote an email to a colleague bishop on a matter of mutual concern.
- Prepared the readings and made mental notes for a homily at this evening's Eucharist with those gathered for a Youth Department-sponsored lock-in at the cathedral.
- Worked on planning worship for next month's clergy pre-Lenten retreat.
- Lunch at home--leftovers.
- Continued and completed my worship planning project.
- Made the final physical preparations for the Eucharist (which we celebrated in the Great Hall, so there was nothing routine about it). It involved several trips across the alley and back--as well as a drive home to retrieve some communion bread that Brenda had just baked for us.
- Spoke by phone at some length with a sales representative for one of the church database service companies we have begun conversations with.
- Evening Prayer in the office.
- Answered an Ember Day letter from one of our postulants.
- Wrote an email to a priest who has indicated an interest in the interim position at St Andrew's, Carbondale.
- Spent about the next 90 minutes at the lock-in--talking the group through what we were going to do, and then doing it. It was an informal but symbolically and spiritually rich "Rite 3" celebration that I think was well-received.
Thursday, January 3, 2013
- Usual Thursday morning weight and treadmill workout. Morning Prayer (short form) in the car on the way in. Arrived in the office a little past 9:00.
- This was "one of those days" when there were not only unscheduled distractions, but unscheduled distractions interrupting other unscheduled distractions (and sometimes yet another layer on top of those). It was hard to get traction on my planned to-do list. No tragedy. Not even a minor frustration.
- Produced a working script of my sermon for January 13, which is set to be delivered at the Church of the Holy Communion in Charleston, South Carolina. Trying to lock this one down early since next week is heavy with travel.
- Take-out lunch from China 1, eaten in the office. (If you go there for the buffet, get there early. I arrived at 12:20 and it was cleaned out, so I had to order off the menu.)
- Met with Abby Yeley, one of the youth members of the Youth Department, to further develop plans for tomorrow night's Eucharist at the beginning of their lock-in.
- Spent the rest of the afternoon (save for a couple of incoming phone calls) on a single task that I should have know would take a long time, but forgot: plotting the preparation of sermons for Ash Wednesday through Trinity Sunday. Here's what makes this both time-consuming and interesting: With as many years as I've regularly preached, I have a number of sermons that are potential candidates for refurbishing and updating. So, for any given occasion, I have to look at what I have available, look at the readings (since the RCL is very often different from the 1979 lectionary that many older sermons were based on), think about the parish where it will be delivered, and decide whether there is an older sermon I can use or whether the situation calls for something original. In the former case, there are only two tasks I have to generate and assign to dates. When I have to prepare a "from scratch" homily, that number expands to six, and in both cases I have to take into account how my weekday travel schedule impacts available prep time, and avoid creating problems for myself in already busy weeks. So I do this about four times a year, and it takes a couple or three hours, but it makes my life considerably less stressful downstream. There, that's probably way more than you wanted to know.
- Spoke by phone at some length with a priest outside the diocese seeking counsel over discernment of a potential call to the episcopate (in a particular diocese that is getting ready to go into election mode).
- Evening Prayer (short form) in the car on the way home.