Friday, January 31, 2014

Friday

What's amazing to me about complicated travel plans is not how much goes wrong but how little goes wrong. Brenda left Springfield on the 6:30am northbound train, which actually departed at 7:15. About that same time, I drove off the Nashotah House campus after last night's glorious ordination of Ben Hankinson to the transitional diaconate. I met Brenda as she emerged from the train in Chicago Union Station right around 11. We drove out to O'Hare, parked in "Economy Lot" F, took a shuttle bus, then an airport train to the United terminal, and checked in. My boarding pass was marked "TSA Pre," which means I get through security very quickly. Alas, Brenda's was not similarly marked, and it seemed to take forever for her to get through, at which time we were barely more than 20 minutes from scheduled departure, still a good way from our gate, and Brenda's feet hurting from a regrettable choice of shoes when she left home. But when we got to the gate, huffing and puffing, we learned the flight was delayed, so we got a chance to hang out and chill out for about another 20 minutes. Once aboard, it was a smooth flight to Charleston, SC, where I am spending the weekend visiting my DEPO parish of Holy Communion. It was 59 degrees when we landed, 52 degrees warmer than the air that greeted me when I stepped out of my lodging at Nashotah. So when the rental car people asked if I would like a Chrysler Sebring convertible at no extra charge, I was in a mood to say Yes! After battling Friday rush hour traffic coming in from the airport, we settled in at the Hampton Inn Historic District and enjoyed a nice dinner at 39 Rue Jean, just two doors west from the hotel. Looking forward to a great weekend.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Tuesday (St Thomas Aquinas)

Still hanging up at Nashotah House, where I'm working with a task group of the Board of Trustees as we try to reform and beef up our governance structures. It's the ATS that has made this urgent, but they have done us a favor, as the institution will be much stronger as a result. Walking across the beautiful campus in sub-zero temperatures is ... invigorating.

Monday, January 27, 2014

Monday (St John Chrysostom)

Braved my way north 200 miles  through the bitter cold to Nashotah House, where I'm engaged in board-related business until Thursday, when, in the evening, it will be my joy to ordain Ben Hankinson to the transitional diaconate. In the meantime, there's no wifi where I'm lodging--this is being banged out on an iPhone--so dispatches will be succinct. Stay warm.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Third Sunday after the Epiphany

... except at St Paul's Cathedral, Springfield, where it was the feast of the Conversion of St Paul, observed as their patronal festival. It was my joy to preside and preach at a single 9am liturgy with a nicely fullish-feeling church. The brunch served afterward in the Great Hall was superb.


Sermon for the Conversion of St Paul

St Paul's Cathedral, Springfield--Acts 26:9-21

We all have lots of stories we could tell, about lots of things. These stories are the way we mentally organize our experience of the world, whether it’s the story of my drive to the cathedral this morning from my home, or the story of the birth of my first child, or the story of the rise and fall of Russian communism. The stories we tell provide the vocabulary and the grammar and the plot by which we make sense of ourselves, make sense of our relationships, and make sense of the world around us.

Those who study such things have a slightly more sophisticated name for these stories—they’re called narratives. We all have networks of large and small narratives. Sometimes narratives are “amplified” to serve a purpose. As the federal government tries to call attention to the new Affordable Care Act, they have seeded the media and cyberspace with a certain narrative about that law; and, of course, the opponents of the Affordable Care Act have vigorously promoted a counter-narrative.

We get very attached to our narratives. When I was in school, I was taught a certain narrative about how the United States came to be. Many of you learned the same story—about the Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock, and the Jamestown settlement in Virginia, and the growth of the colonies, the King of England oppressing the colonies, the American Revolution, and the creation of our constitution. We learned to revere names like Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Franklin, and Madison—all heroes of the revolution and founders of our republic. Most of us have simply taken that narrative for granted. But Brenda and I, just this past summer, spent some vacation time in Canada, in Nova Scotia, to be specific. It’s very historic territory, and as we visited various places, and read historical markers, and listened to presentations by docents in museums, it dawned on us that Canadians in general and Nova Scotians in particular, have a very different narrative of the British colonies in the eighteenth century and the American Revolution than do those who were raised in this country. A very different narrative indeed.

Saul of Tarsus, the first-century Jew whom we now know as St Paul the Apostle, had, as a young adult, a very clear narrative about Jesus. Jesus was one in a series of false claimants to the venerable Jewish title of Messiah. He was deservedly crucified by the Roman authorities, but his body was then stolen and hidden somewhere so his followers could claim he had been raised from the dead.  The teachings of his followers perverted Jewish doctrine and identity and subverted the structure of authority that was necessary to deal effectively with the Roman Empire. They were a dangerous menace and needed to be quashed ruthlessly

The Christian community supposedly has a corporate narrative about Jesus. He is, after all, the star of the show, and the reason we build funny-looking buildings like this and come together at inconvenient hours on Sunday mornings and other times. In actual practice, however, in many places, it’s more a matter of lumping together a bunch of personal narratives held by individual Christians, rather than individual Christians being formed by a common narrative. In this, we drink deeply from a sort of common cultural narrative, a narrative that transcends any particular church or even Christianity in general in our culture, and it goes like this: Jesus is a remarkable fellow who may or may not have been born under mysterious circumstances around 2000 years ago, but who grew up to be a popular teacher who gave us some really good advice on how to live happier lives and make the world a better place. He challenged the authority structures of his day, which got him killed prematurely. Those who are attached to his teaching gather in communities to remember him and honor his example by organizing and contributing to programs that improve people’s lives.

Now just let that sink in, and ask yourself whether it pretty well resembles the prevailing common attitude about Jesus in our society. That’s our culture’s narrative about Jesus.

Back now to Saul of Tarsus: Something quite remarkable happens. He actually meets Jesus—directly, suddenly, and dramatically. As a result of this encounter, his narrative is instantly shattered, because he’s right in the undeniable presence of the risen Christ. Everything he had been saying about Jesus was revealed to be just untrue. And everything Paul’s enemies had been saying was revealed to be true. It would be difficult to imagine a change in perspective quite so sudden and quite so complete. Like I said, it was shattering. It led to temporary blindness. It led to old friends now becoming new enemies, and old enemies now becoming new friends. Imagine a baseball player who plays for both teams in a double header because he was traded between games, and you get a faint inkling of what happened to Paul. Think of a  spy who is “turned” and defects to the side that had been his mortal enemy. Think of the painful experience of finding out you’ve been deceived by someone you love, and having to suddenly call into question the entire narrative by which you have understood a significant relationship in your life. Paul had to suddenly embrace a whole new narrative. Over the years that followed, he would set forth the details of that new narrative in a series of documents that we now read from in church most every Sunday. They’re part of the Bible. But the change in narrative about Jesus happened for him the instant he heard the voice of the risen Christ asking, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?”

After visiting Nova Scotia, and worshiping in the Anglican parish church where 500 colonists from New York who were loyal to King George took refuge, along with their priest, I have had to modify my narrative of the American Revolution. It’s not quite as simple, not quite as black and white, as the narrative I learned in school. This doesn’t come anywhere near the change in narrative that Paul had to embrace when he met the risen Christ; it wasn’t at all what I would call shattering. But there are plenty of examples of others who have had their narratives shattered as a result of meeting Jesus. Did you see the movie Amazing Grace a few years ago? Then you may recall the story of a fellow named John Newton. He went from being a participant in the horrible slave-trading industry in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, to being an ardent abolitionist. Through meeting Jesus, he laid aside one narrative, and embraced a new one. “I once was lost, but now am found; was blind, but now I see.”

Be careful what you ask for: If you want to know Jesus, prepare to be shattered, and then prepare to be transformed. I have no more earnest prayer than for people all over this diocese to lay aside the harmless, toothless, narrative about Jesus I described a few minutes ago. I have no more earnest prayer than for people all over this diocese to encounter the risen Christ and to have all their narratives shattered and to begin to engage in missionary endeavor in the shadow of and in the spirit of St Paul. I have no more earnest prayer than for this very cathedral congregation to discover the courage to realize that your best days are ahead of you, not behind you. But this can only happen if we are willing to stand beside Paul the Apostle, our patron saint, and lay our cherished narratives at the feet of the risen Christ, to be shattered by the encounter, and to lay hold of a new narrative that expresses truly who we are in Christ Jesus.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Friday

  • While still at home, posted the teaching video I've been working on to the diocesan website, and edited a blog post I wrote yesterday evening and launched it into cyberspace.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Processed a few emails.
  • Produced a rough draft of a homily for the feast of the Presentation, to be delivered February 2 at Holy Communion, Charleston, SC.
  • Lunch at home--leftovers.
  • Processed some more emails.
  • Having perceived a need for me, as the one who sits at the top of the pyramid, to be more personally conversant regarding diocesan finances, I spent a good bit of time looking at a recent Balance Sheet, asking some questions, and making some notes. Yes, we are blessed to have competent and dedicated people who take care of these details, and I don't need to learn to do their jobs. But it behooves me to be more knowledgeable than I have up to this point been.
  • Friday prayer--lectio divina on the part of Isaiah 45 appointed for Morning Prayer on tomorrow's feast day, the Conversion of St Paul.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral. 

Thursday, January 23, 2014

Thursday (Phillips Brooks)

  • Thursday early AM exercise: weights and treadmill.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Attended to some travel details on behalf of a Pakistani priest who will be visiting us in the diocese next month.
  • Got started on uploading the video I edited yesterday. It took all day and then some. I must be doing something wrong.
  • Spent the rest of the morning straightening and cleaning out the credenza behind my desk. This is an annual chore. It's not glamorous work, and might even seem frivolous. But it always seems to yield a hidden treasure or two--things tucked away rather haphazardly, and then forgotten. In any event, I can safely say I'm more organized now than I was 24 hours ago.
  • Lunch from Chi-Town--Italian beef--eaten at home.
  • More scheduled maintenance, this time a semi-annual tightening up of my general document files (in my case, all in Dropbox). Ditto what I said above about feeling more organized.
  • Processed the hard-copy in my physical inbox--mostly scanning. This was short work, as I've lately been pretty good about keeping up with this chore weekly.
  • Attended to some personal organization issues related to the transition from one calendar month to the next (a little early, as I'll be away all next week).
  • Drove home to snag Brenda and deposit her at the Amtrak station. She's headed to Chicago to be present for a musical gig our daughter-in-law and son have there.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Wednesday (St Vincent of Saragossa)

  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Attended to some details and wrote an email in connection to next week's ordination of Ben Hankinson to the transitional diaconate.
  • Hand-wrote notes to clergy and spouses with February birthdays and anniversaries.
  • Lunch from KFC, eaten at home.
  • Followed up with a long-delayed project of chasing down a lead for a company that might be able to help us move our database management at the diocesan level out of the Middle Ages. I'm cautiously optimistic.
  • Followed up on another long-delayed project: Finding a convenient way for churches and others who didn't get around to ordering a formal portrait of YFNB to be able to do so, not that my late brother is no longer able to fulfill that function. A substantive step in the right direction.
  • Edited video of Session 4 (of 5) from last Lent's series Reading the Bible for Dummies. Hope to have it available on the website tomorrow sometime.
  • Began to flesh out plans for *this* year's Lenten teaching series at St John's, Decatur. No name yet, but it will have to do with classic Lenten themes of baptismal renewal, repentance, and spiritual discipline.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Tuesday (St Agnes)

  • Weekly task planning at home. Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Edited and refined my homily for this Sunday (Conversion of St Paul, celebrating the cathedral's feast of title).
  • Met with the Provost and the organist to begin the process of planning music for the liturgies of Holy Week.
  • Lunch at home. Leftovers.
  • Followed up on some tasks emanating from the morning's meeting.
  • Produced a first draft of a homily for Epiphany V (9 February at Trinity, Lincoln).
  • Spoke by phone with the Rector's Warden of one of our parishes over an emerging and potentially sensitive issue.
  • Attended to some administrative details related to the coming youth pilgrimage to England.
  • Made an important first step on what will be an extended project to recast a vision for diaconal ministry in the diocese.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Sunday, January 19, 2014

Second Sunday after the Epiphany

The roads were not horrible this morning, but they were dicey enough that I was glad I didn't have to drive very far for my Sunday visitation, Christ Church in Springfield being less than three miles from my home. Presided and preached at their two regular services, and spoke to a lively adult class between them, giving an account of our November trip to our companion Diocese of Tabora.

Sermon for Epiphany II

Christ Church, Springfield--John 1:29-41

How’s your day going? We hear that question from time to time, don’t we? So, what’s your definition of a good day? I’ll tell you mine: A good day is when I feel like I’ve been efficient with the tasks that were set before me and effective with the people associated with those tasks. Most of the time, that happens, so most of my days are “good days,” though certainly not always. Our lives are complex and elaborate. With the internet now, we pretty much have information on anything we want information on within a matter of seconds. Then it becomes a full-time job just to organize and keep up with all the information. It commands our constant attention. It invites us to define “success” in very short-term categories—tactical categories, we might say—things like getting the bills paid, completing a project at work or school, accomplishing a particular household chore, remembering to channel our anger and express our positive feelings appropriately, or whatever we think we need to do ensure that we have … a good day.

These tactical victories can be very distracting. They can distract us from deeper issues of identity, deeper issues of finding a purpose in life. They distract us from whatever it is we might be aware of if we were able to be still and silent and listen to the deepest longings of our hearts. Sometimes we’re secretly grateful for the distraction of everything we call life-as-usual, because it excuses us from facing some of the uncomfortable things we would need to face if we didn’t have something else jumping up and down in front of our face and yelling, “Look at me!” Things like broken relationships that were never set properly, so they didn’t heal straight, and now we walk through life with a limp, though we’ve quite forgotten why. Gimpy has become the new normal for us. Things like bad decisions we have made that have ended up hurting ourselves and others, but which we’ve never looked square in the eye and taken responsibility for and said, “I renounce you. Now leave me alone.” Instead, we struggle through life with a hobbled conscience. Things like hurts we have suffered at the hands of others that they have long-since forgotten about, but which have bound us with resentment and anger for decades. These are some of the things we get to deal with when we get off the train of daily distraction. So it’s no wonder most of us don’t make the effort.

So here we are near the beginning of the season “after Epiphany.” It’s one of those rare Sundays when we have a gospel selection from John. (John doesn’t have his own year in the lectionary the way Matthew, Mark, and Luke do; we find him in various “pockets” during the three-year cycle.) Jesus is all grown up now. He’s been baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan River, and is ready to begin his public ministry. This means, of course, that it’s time for John the Baptist’s ministry to wind up. The main event has arrived; the warm-up act’s work is done. So Jesus walks by one morning, and John shouts out, as Eugene Peterson translates it, “Here he is, God’s Passover Lamb.” And immediately two of John’s disciples get up and take after Jesus. After a bit, Jesus pauses and looks at them and asks, “What are you after?” What do you want? What do you seek?  Jesus’ question to these disciples of John who are apparently “defecting” to him might appear to be casual, but I want to suggest that it is more fruitful to read it as very, very profound: What do you seek? What do you really want? What would have to take place for you to feel unshakable peace about who you are and your place in the world? What conditions would constitute for you a reservoir of lasting joy? What would give you such happiness as would eliminate all fear and anxiety? These are not casual questions. This is way beyond, “How was your day?” This is way beyond the sort of life-as-usual concerns that distract us from the deeper questions we really need to be asking. These are the deeper questions we really need to be asking.

And so the disciples respond to Jesus’ question with another question of their own, “Where are you staying?” This might also be interpreted on two levels. It certainly makes sense, from a literal, natural, point of view, for them to be curious about where Jesus was lodging, and perhaps even angle for an invitation from him to come on over and continue their discussion, which is exactly what happened. But, more helpfully, and, I would submit, more likely, they may have been tapping the same root, drinking from the same well, from which the Psalmist drank when he wrote, “Lord, I love your house, and the place where your glory abides.” These disciples have figured out that where Jesus is “staying” is indeed the place where God’s glory abides, the place where God doesn’t just occasionally show up for a quick cameo, but where he is guaranteed to be “in” whenever anyone walks in looking for him, a presence that is so dependable that it leaves no room for doubt, no room for anxiety, no room for fear. It invites the sort of transparency that reveals the deepest needs and desires of the human heart, of those who come seeking a knowledge of who they are and who they are called to be.

So the good news today is very simple. It’s this: Jesus, and only Jesus, knows and satisfies the deepest desires of the human heart.

Jesus is probably not of any use for the short-term, distracting, tactical goals that define “success” or “a good day” for us. He won’t help us beat the next traffic signal change, or guarantee a parking spot close to the store, or cause the market to smile on the particular stocks we own. But in those moments of silent stillness, when the clutter of our lives is set aside, we hear the voice of Jesus ask us, “What do you seek?” and our response is, “Where are you staying?”—Where does your glory abide? Where can we always find you?—and Jesus responds, with great love and with great tenderness, “Come and see!”—in those moments, Jesus is all the world. This is the Jesus I want you to see. This is the Jesus I prayed I would be able to show you in the words of this sermon. This is the Jesus who has been at my side during the darkest days of my life, and whose faithful servant I will endeavor to be for the rest of my days in this world and then for all eternity. Jesus says to us all, Jesus says to you, “Come.  Come and see. Come and see like you’ve never seen before. Follow me and you will have your eyes opened like you never dreamed possible. Follow me and you will know yourself like you never thought possible. Follow me and you will know God, you will share the very life of God. Come and see.”

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Confession of St Peter

Aside from my usual weight and treadmill workout in the morning, it was a relaxed day at home. I did process a thick handful of emails. In the evening, fulfilling a desire and intent to get back into regular blogging, I posted these thoughts. Have a look. 

Friday, January 17, 2014

Friday (St Antony)

  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • With the exception of breaks for brief consultations with staff members over sundry issues, I spent the morning--till about 12:30, actually--plotting out my sermon prep from Lent through Pentecost. This involves taking stock of where I'm going to be on any given Sunday, looking back through old sermons written for the same propers to determine whether previously-used material can be repurposed, or whether I need to start from scratch--each of which generates a different set of tasks that have to be assigned to particular dates ... it's complicated, but if I do this about three times a year, it makes everything else much less stressful.
  • Lunch from KFC, eaten at home.
  • Communicated by email with Bishop Chakupewa in Tabora over the possibility of trying again for a UTO grant.
  • Cleanout the downloads folder on my laptop. Would the world have stopped if I didn't do this? Of course not. But it's been on my to-do list for several months, and I've always kicked it down the road, so now it's done. Took most of the afternoon. Have you looked at the size of your downloads folder lately?
  • Dealt with some administrivia related to the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC).
  • As part of my Friday prayer discipline, found a nice rendition on YouTube of the classic Wesley hymn, Love divine, all loves excelling, sung to the Welsh tune Blaenwen. It wasn't long, but it was a few moments of the Beatific Vision. The Anglican choral tradition touches my soul in a profound way.
  • Evening Prayer in the (really cold!) cathedral, by the light of my iPad.

Thursday, January 16, 2014

Thursday

  • Regular Thursday weight and treadmill workout.
  • Morning Prayer (short memorized form) in the car on the way in to the office.
  • Interacted on a listserv over the draft of a liturgical customary that I posted there yesterday. There were some very helpful comments that will enable me to refine the document.
  • Produced a rough draft of a sermon for the Feast of the Presentation (February 2 at Holy Communion, Charleston, SC).
  • Interacted more with the listserv.
  • Lunch from the Chinese place next to TG (the name of which I forget at the moment), eaten at home.
  • Attended to some administrative work relative to clergy deployment.
  • Sketched some of the broad strokes of the Lenten teaching series I have been invited to give at St John's, Decatur.
  • Shopped online for a couple of albs. Two of the alb-styles that I like to have on hand are worn by decades of use. It's time to replace them.
  • Attended via email to a couple of tasks relating to the diocesan mission strategy.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Wednesday

  • Enjoyed a major technological learning curve victory while still at home, as Session 3 of my Reading the Bible for Dummies teaching series from last Lent successfully posted to YouTube, and then to the website. Now if I can remember what I did when I try to do it again ...
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Took care of some administrivia--namely, printing out a form and signing it, indicating my consent for the Bishop of Central Pennsylvania to retire. Yes, sometimes my life is that exciting.
  • Arrived at a central message and plotted the major moves of my homily for the feast of the Presentation--February 2 at the Church of the Holy Communion in Charleston, S.C. This part of the sermon prep process is probably the most difficult. I find it very laborious, and would compare it to giving birth if I didn't think virtually all women who have given birth would find that a little silly.
  • Lunch at home. Leftover brisket tacos.
  • Cleaned out, via scanning, my physical inbox.
  • Finished preliminary editing of the long-awaited liturgical customary and sent it to a group of trusted friends outside the diocese for their hopefully constructive comments, which I will take into account as I revise the document yet again before going public with it.
  • Laid some preliminary plans to welcome an Anglican priest from Pakistan, whom I met when we were both in Thailand in the summer of 2012, to the diocese next month. He is already going to be in Minnesota for a conference, and we're arranging an event in Springfield on February 9 where he will share from his experience of being a leader of the Christian community in an overwhelmingly Muslim environment.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Grabbed dinner from Subway before returning to the office and working some on a blog post before attending the regular January meeting of the cathedral chapter.

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Tuesday

  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Spent most of the morning handling a range of emails, some of which generated ancillary tasks.
  • Met with the cathedral Provost to begin the process of planning the Holy Week liturgies.
  • Lunch from TG, eaten at home.
  • Refined and printed a working text for this Sunday's homily, to be delivered at Christ Church, Springfield.
  • Worked on editing a video of one of last year's Lenten teaching series events in Bloomington. (Yes, a little behind on this project.) Did battle with iMovie. When it was time to go, iMovie was still winning. I then continued the struggle after dinner at home for most of the evening. Cautiously optimistic that I have made some progress. I hate learning curves.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Sunday, January 12, 2014

First Sunday after Epiphany (Baptism of Christ)

Great visit to St Michael's, O'Fallon. Baptized one and confirmed a bunch (about 8, I think). 105 souls in the room. Under Fr Wetmore's leadership of about one year, the median age has decreased dramatically and giving is up. May their tribe increase. 

After wrapping things up at St Michael's, we headed east on I-64 for Mt Vernon, where I had a brief but highly productive meeting with their vestry. We needed to talk about transition issues arising from Fr Tucker's intended departure for points east.

Sermon for Epiphany I

St Michael's, O'Fallon -- Matthew 3:13-17, Isaiah 42:1-9, Acts 10:34-38

Those among us who have been to college, or who have sent children to college, have all probably run across a particular type of professor. This person is firmly convinced it is his or her job to “weed out” unworthy students. The class is made so demanding that only the brightest and luckiest can pass it, and a great percentage of students fail, even though they are intelligent and conscientious. A little bit of extra effort and consideration on the part of the teacher would have enabled them to master the material and pass the course, but that was considered outside the job description. One wonders what lies behind such behavior. Is it pure sadism? Incompetence? A sense of duty to let only a certain number into a particular profession?

Whatever the answer is, it’s one thing to engage in such speculation about a college professor. It’s quite another to go through the same sort of mental gyrations about God. Yet—subconsciously, at least—this is something we all do from time to time. It’s so easy for us to slip into habits of thinking in which God is, at best, apathetic towards us, not caring one way or another what we do and say and think and feel. Much of the time, however, it’s not apathy, but outright hostility that we attribute to God. God does care about what we do and say and think and feel, and He’s not too happy about it! God is just itching for an excuse to push the “Smite” button on His celestial control panel.

We are susceptible to such thinking because none of us have had an experience of God that is absolutely objective and absolutely unambiguous. This is not to say that our experience of God cannot be very real and very powerful. I believe I have had such experiences and I believe many of you have as well. But, bottom line, we have to take one another’s word about our experience of God. I cannot show you my experience of God. I can only tell you about it, and act in ways that are consistent with what I tell you. And in the end, there is always the possibility that I might be deceiving you, or I might be just plain crazy.

So there is always an inescapable element of doubt. It may not be very large, but it’s always there. And because of that little tiny sliver of doubt, many Christians lead lives that are dominated by anxiety, filled with pessimism, and rooted in dreadful fear. It isn’t that we don’t have moments of joy, but such moments are tinged with fear and sadness, because we know they can’t last. And so we seek anesthetic refuge in more “accessible” gods, gods that may be less powerful than the true and living God, but which are “there” for us, in their limited way, without any ambiguity or doubt. I’m talking about such gods as work, success, power, influence, playing hard with the best “toys,” gods like health, beauty, family and social relationships, to say nothing of alcohol, drugs, and sex. Sure, we know these are false gods. We know they will let us down in the end. But we can see them with our regular old eyes, and everybody else can too, so there’s no doubt about the matter. And for now, at least, such gods are a lot less demanding, a lot less expensive, than the real God. For now, at least.

And this is why the baptism of our Lord Jesus Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan is such blessedly good news on this First Sunday after the Epiphany. We might think of this event as the “family portrait” of the Holy Trinity. God the Son, very much incarnate, very much in the flesh, is standing up to his waist in water, his hair dripping from just having been dunked by John the Baptist. St Matthew tells us than that a hole appeared in the sky—a portal to Heaven, we might say—and out of this hole two things came: First, a dove, representing God the Holy Spirit, wafting down toward Jesus. Then, the voice of God the Father: “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased.”

Now, there’s a great deal of gold that can be mined from this particular “Kodak moment.” But what really gets my attention is the hole—the hole in the sky, the portal into Heaven. That hole is a sign of hope. That hole is a sign of comfort and peace. That hole is a sign of God’s desire to have fellowship—communion, interaction—between “heaven” and “earth,” between God and Man, between the infinite and the finite, between the holy and the sinful. And it is specifically the incarnate Son with whom the Father is well pleased. This is an unequivocal affirmation of the Incarnation, a ringing endorsement of God’s union with the material world in the person of Jesus. Out of this hole in the sky comes the voice of the Father. Out of this hole in the sky comes the power of the Holy Spirit. And out of this hole in the sky comes the inexhaustible grace of God, stirring our hearts toward faith, soothing our troubled consciences, and calming our anxious hearts. Out of this hole in the sky come the sacraments—things that we can taste and smell and touch, and which mediate to us the presence of the Eternal and Almighty God. And out of this hole in the sky comes our assurance that we have a place at the Heavenly banquet table, because human nature now resides in the heart of the Blessed and Glorious Trinity.

Because of this hole in the sky, we need no longer be plagued by anxiety and pessimism and doubt. We have the basis for an underlying attitude of profound optimism. It’s not that Christians don’t continue to have cares and concerns. It’s certainly not that we don’t have to endure suffering—the fact is, suffering is guaranteed, especially for Christians, because the way of following Christ is the way of the cross.  But, as we walk the way of Christ, we do so with a sure confidence—not merely a fond wish, but a sure confidence—that all will be well in the end. Life, from this perspective of Christian faith, this perspective of knowing that there’s a hole in the sky, is a little like watching a scary movie for the second or third time. The first time around, we’re on the edge of our seats gnashing our teeth. But once we know that it has a happy ending, and watch it again, we may still get a little antsy at certain times, but it’s not the same. We’re excited, but not anxious. We know everything’s going to be OK.

My friends, grace—God’s favorable disposition towards us—grace is the beginning and grace is the end of Christian theology. Life is not a college course, and God is not a professor who feels it’s His job to weed out the riff-raff. Instead, there’s a hole in the sky. Heaven and earth are joined. Amen.

Saturday, January 11, 2014

Saturday

Met in the morning with the task force charged with reimagining (and therefore eventually rewriting) our diocesan constitution and canons. I delivered myself of some broad stroke observations, with a few finer points laced in, and then left them to their work. It's a group of very smart people, and I look forward to seeing what they come up with.

After some exercise and reading (and a bit of napping) time in the afternoon, we packed up and headed for O'Fallon, where we blessed the home of Fr Ian and Kathy (and Sarah) Wetmore, along with some of the folks from St Michael's Church. A really lovely occasion. Looking forward to tomorrow's liturgy of Baptism, Confirmation, and Eucharist.

Friday, January 10, 2014

Friday (William Laud)

  • Back to a more normal routine; Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Refined and printed a working text for this Sunday's homily, to be delivered at St Michael's, O'Fallon.
  • Finished (finally!) a full first draft of An Aspirational Customary for Celebrations of the Holy Eucharist in the Diocese of Springfield. Now on to editing and vetting before publication.
  • Lunch from La Bamba (eaten at home).
  • Reviewed my notes from last year's observance of Holy Week at the cathedral, in preparation for sitting down with the Provost and talking about this year.
  • Laid out all the specific tasks I can think of in connection with preparing for this June's youth pilgrimage to England.
  • Reviewed and mulled over some materials from Renewal Works, a resource for spiritual vitality that I believe has great potential for our diocese.
  • Took phone calls from two of our parish clergy.
  • Small bit of administrivia in connection with one of my DEPO parishes.
  • Evening Prayer in the cathedral.

Thursday, January 9, 2014

Thursday

... and we're back. Out of retreat mode now and fully plugged in. The ad hoc undisclosed location worked pretty well, and I feel like I got the physical and mental rest, the spiritual challenge and refreshment, and the slightly more integrated prayer that are normally the expected fruits of a retreat. Very grateful.

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Tuesday

Heading now into a time of personal retreat--about 48 hours. It was supposed to be at St Gregory's Abbey in Three Rivers, MI, but road conditions resulting from the polar vortex nixed that plan. So I'm retreating at an undisclosed location. I'm will be sans wifi, with only a 4G iPhone connection to the outside world. Going dark on social media. See you Thursday afternoon.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Second Sunday after Christmas

When I make my annual visitation calendar, I try to plug the closer-in churches into months when the weather could potentially be challenging. This morning was an example of why this is a wise thing. After it snowed most of the night, with blowing and drifting out on the highways, it would have been highly problematic to get anywhere out of town. But making it to St Luke's, barely three miles down South Grand Avenue from my house, in time for a 10:30am celebration, was eminently doable. Attendance was down, of course, but we still have what I would guess is around half the normal attendance for that liturgy on a normal weekend. So the feast of the Second Sunday after Christmas was duly kept, including a coffee hour with substantial food.

Sermon for Christmas II

St Luke's, Springfield--Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

OK, indulge me for a little while, because we’re going to rehearse some really basic stuff—“Christianity 101” kind of stuff. This sermon will be short and to the point.

First, God made the world. Whether you believe He did it literally in seven 24-hour days, or over millions of years through evolutionary processes, makes no difference. Either way, God made it.

Second, God made human beings to have a special relationship with Him, unique among all creatures. We are made in God’s “image,” which means that we have the ability to understand the difference between right and wrong, to make rational decisions, and—most of all—to love and be loved.

Third, we—meaning all of us collectively and each of us individually—we have screwed up big time. We have wasted the gift of being made in God’s image. We have inherited what is, in effect, a defective gene, one that causes us to put ourselves, our own big egos, in the number one position, where only God should be. As a result, we suffer. We both suffer and we spread suffering. We are both victims of and perpetrators of suffering. We know fear, jealousy, anger, hatred, and disease. In the end, we will all know death. This is the state we are in.

Fourth, God has never had any intention of just letting this situation be. You see, He loves us too much. We are the apple of God’s eye. From the very beginning, God has endeavored to save us from ourselves. The pages of the Old Testament give us the highlights of Divine efforts on our behalf. God entered into an agreement with a Semitic nomad named Abraham. Abraham would become the father of a great nation, a nation through whom the whole human race would be blessed.

Fifth, sinful human pride attempted to thwart God’s saving activity at every turn. We have been like a drowning man who keeps throwing back the life preserver every time it’s offered. The very nation that God formed and chose to be a light to all nations—even the Jews themselves—scorned God. They went whoring after the two-bit deities of their penny-ante neighbors, and forgot the one that brung ‘em to the dance. They weren’t alone, of course, but they, of all peoples, should have known better.

So what do we have? We have a human race that very much needs to be saved, but which apparently does not want to be saved. We persist in our foolish pride, and appear content to be doomed to oblivion, never to have the vision of God’s face which is the only way we get to experience joy, the only thing that can fill the void—the gaping, aching emptiness—in the center of our souls. Now, if any of us were in God’s place, what would we do? I know what I would do. I would give up. I would press “Delete,” and make a fresh start. Those ungrateful wretches don’t deserve my love. I brought them into this world, and I can take ‘em out, and make new ones that won’t be such idiots.

That’s what I would do. But—News Flash!—I’m not God. And we should all be grateful for that. Yes, God is loving and patient and kind, but the really good news on this Second Sunday after Christmas is that God is also amazingly persistent and stubborn! God perseveres.

Think about it. We’ve got the Holy Family—Joseph, Mary, and baby Jesus—hanging around the Bethlehem/Jerusalem metro area while Mary gets her strength back from the ordeal of giving birth in a barn. Jesus is, of course, the ultimate weapon in God’s plan to save the human race from itself—to bring us back into harmony with one another, with Him, and with the whole created order. This is the final assault. This is God Himself landing behind enemy lines. Everything hinges on the birth of this child, and his growing to maturity, so he can bring to fruition the plan kept secret for long ages.

At the same time, we’ve got a group—tradition says three, but it could have been more—we’ve got a group of oriental astrologers chasing some strange sign in the sky that’s supposed to indicate the birth of a king. They stop by Jerusalem to pay their respects to the currently reigning king—Herod—who feels immediately threatened by this talk of an infant king being born right under his nose. So, just to be on the safe side, he orders his henchmen out to slit the throat of every little boy in Bethlehem under the age of two. You know, just to be on the safe side.

In the meantime, though, Joseph has a dream. An angel appears to him in the dream and says, “It’s about to get a little hot around here, so you’d better get out of town. Take Mary and Jesus and get on down to Egypt, until I show up again and give you the all-clear signal.” So that’s exactly what Joseph did. He loaded his wife and child back on the family donkey and headed in a southwesterly direction.

The flight of the Holy Family to Egypt is an oft-overlooked detail of the whole familiar Christmas narrative that is stitched together from Matthew and Luke’s gospels. We don’t even deal with it on a Sunday, except in those years when there are two Sundays between Christmas and Epiphany—and even then, we have the option of choosing instead the story of twelve-year old Jesus getting left behind in Jerusalem. Yet, this easily overlooked detail is a wondrously important sign of God’s constant providential perseverance in His plan to save us. A God who was ready to give up on us never would have spoken to Joseph in a dream. A God who was ready to give up on us would not have done a lot of things that God has actually done. It’s quite significant, for instance, that Egypt is the place where the Holy Family is sent for their brief exile. Their own ancestors had once lived in Egypt—first as refugees and honored guests, later as slaves. It was in Egypt that the Lord worked His most impressive wonders, culminating in the parting of the Red Sea for the people of Israel to walk to their freedom on dry land.

Yet, just days later, those who had been so miraculously delivered were grumbling and complaining against God, and this was only a token of things to come. So it is poetically appropriate that the prophet Hosea would pen the lines, “Out of Egypt have I called my son”, and that Matthew would pounce on this text to illuminate the meaning of the Holy Family’s Egyptian sojourn. It’s as if he was trying to ask, “Does this sound like a God who would give up? A God who would throw in the towel? A God who would start from scratch?” No, it doesn’t. Because that’s not the kind of God we have. That’s not the kind of God who made us and loves us. That’s not the kind of God who took our flesh and shared our nature in order that we might share His nature. That’s not the kind of God who appeared to Joseph in a dream. We appropriately praise God for lots of things. But today we praise God for His holy stubbornness, His tenacious refusal to take our “No” for a final answer. God perseveres. Come, let us adore Him. Amen.

Saturday, January 4, 2014

Saturday

  • Still in recovery from the post-Christmas bug. The cough is still problematic, but I feel pretty well otherwise. Brenda, however, is about three days behind me.
  • Morning Prayer in my study at home.
  • Got back into my exercise routine--weights and treadmill.
  • Did some grocery shopping in anticipation of a lot of snow. The stores were mobbed.
  • Responded to a sensitive email request.
  • Worked on my sermon for the Conversion of St Paul (January 26 in the cathedral). Arrived at a central message and plotted the broad strokes of the delivery.
  • Evening Prayer in my study.
  • Processed a stack of emails, pastoral and administrative.
  • Still waiting for the snow to arrive.

Friday, January 3, 2014

Friday

  • Morning Prayer at home.
  • Began preparing for the Eucharist I had promised to celebrate for tonight's Youth Department lockin: identified the propers, printed out the readings, prepared for the Prayers of the People. 
  • After tending to some relatively minor administrative details, headed out at 10:30 toward Decatur.
  • Met with Fr Swan in his office at St John's. Then we went to lunch at Lock, Stock, & Barrell near the Millikin University campus. I'm doing the teaching component of the midweek Lenten programs this year, so this was an opportunity to sketch the broad strokes.
  • Returned to the office a little past 2pm and continued with my liturgical preparations: setting up the room (the Great Hall at the cathedral), thinking through some of the physical details of the liturgy, and roughing out a homily in my head. 
  • Processed some emails as they arrived.
  • Brought to maturity a rough draft of the sermon that has been gestating for Epiphany II (to be given the 19th of this month at Christ Church, Springfield).
  • Friday Prayer: the Joyful Mysteries of the rosary.
  • Presided at the Eucharist I had been preparing.

Thursday, January 2, 2014

Thursday

  • Brisk start to the day behind a snow blower taking care of the 2-3 inches that piled up overnight. Dreading the bitter cold that is yet to arrive.
  • Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
  • Took care of some administrative chores relative to clergy deployment.
  • Addressed on ongoing pastoral issue via email.
  • Refined and printed a working text of my homily for Christmas II--this Sunday at St Luke's, Springfield.
  • Addressed, via email, a small issue concerning an upcoming parish visit.
  • Began the work of exegeting the gospel reading for February 2, when the feast of the Presentation trumps the Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany, and I will be visiting my DEPO parish in Charleston, SC--Holy Communion.
  • Lunch at home--yummy chili soup.
  • Continued the exegetical work I began before lunch. This is a rich passage, and Joseph Fitzmyer's classic commentary is probably still the best out there in English.
  • Scanned and otherwise processed the pile of hard copy items in my physical inbox. If you ever send me anything, please no not use staples! It makes this work even more laborious.
  • Took a first fly-by of my Sunday visitations in February, scheduling reminders about connecting with clergy if I don't hear from them first.
  • Evening Prayer in the car while en route home.