Saturday, February 28, 2015
Up and out in time to open the Roundhouse for a 10am Standing Committee meeting, which I then attended. They interviewed a candidate for ordination to the transitional diaconate (and duly certified him for such), considered and approved two requests for consent to episcopal elections (West Texas and Southeast Florida), and then acted as my Council of Advice on sundry matters. Afterward, I had brief private meetings with two of its members. Spent the afternoon around the house on various small projects, which included worrying about how predicted snowfall would affect my planned visitation to St Bartholomew's, Granite City tomorrow. In the evening, as snow began to fall, we attended a theater production at the Hoogland Theater.
Friday, February 27, 2015
- Task planning and a little blog reading at home.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Left a text message with Bishop Godfrey (Peru) with a question about tentative travel plans this summer.
- Worked on electronically collating and organizing General Ordination Exam essays from our three candidates who took them so as to facilitate getting other eyes on them to the end of second-guessing the assessments of the official readers. (If that sounds turgid ... the whole enterprise is turgid).
- Took a phone call from a capital fundraising consultant trying to drum up business. It seems to be the season for such calls.
- Spent some quality time with commentaries, both ancient and modern, on Psalm 22, in preparation for preaching on Palm Sunday.
- Lunch from the Chinese section of the to-go kitchen at HyVee, eaten at home.
- Attended via email to a bit of business regarding somebody in the front end of the ordination process.
- Responded to an email from another capital fundraising consultant with whom I actually have had an ongoing relationship.
- Laid out the rough strokes of my second Lenten teaching series presentation at St Michael's, O'Fallon ... even though I haven't delivered the first one yet, due to delayed air travel on Wednesday.
- Composed a long (and, I hope, substantive) ad clerum (letter to the clergy), which should get sent out on Monday.
- Took stock of my available time and the number of tasks in the pipeline, and decided to forego the notes to clergy and spouses with nodal events in March ... save for one exception.
- Went over to the cold cathedral nave and walked the Stations of the Cross (using the standard liturgical form).
- Made to revisions to an old homily for Lent III, in the direction of repurposing it for use this year at St Barnabas', Havana.
- Evening Prayer in the office.
Thursday, February 26, 2015
- Woke up to the news of overnight snowfall, which meant I was soon thereafter behind a snowblower. Fortunately, with such equipment, clearing the driveway is not a very long job.
- While still at home, I processed (mostly into tasks) the usual pile of email that accumulates when I'm traveling.
- Upon arriving at the cathedral-office complex, there was a small but substantive list of administrative and pastoral items that invited themselves to be considered in consultation with the Archdeacon.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Prepared to preside and preach at the midday Mass in the cathedral chapel.
- Took care of some minor hard-copy flotsam and jetsam that appeared on my desk while I was away (e.g. "Letters Dimissory" for a priest who is leaving the diocese, signing a consent form for the election of a bishop in another diocese, etc.).
- Attended, via email and phone, to an emerging pastoral/administrative matter (one of those I had earlier conferred with the Archdeacon about).
- Celebrated and preached the midday Mass.
- Lunch at home.
- Cleaned up some detritus from the morning's activities.
- Refined and printed my homily for this Sunday (St Bartholomew's, Granite City).
- Made contact by individual emails with five priests who may turn out to be candidates for one of our vacant cures. I've promised the search committee a list.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Wednesday, February 25, 2015
I was supposed to leave the Orlando area by air around noon, in time to land in St Louis late in the afternoon and be at the first Lenten teaching series event at St Michael's, O'Fallon. But word came via text from Delta in the pre-dawn hours that my flight from Orlando to Atlanta was canceled due to snow (of all things!) in Atlanta. They rerouted me through Cincinnati, but later in the day, which meant I missed the event at St Michael's. (Fr Wetmore and I worked out a Plan B by email.) The silver lining was that I got to spend more time at the meeting I was in Orlando for in the first place. It was valuable time, well spent.
Tuesday, February 24, 2015
Productive day at the Canterbury Retreat and Conference Center in Oviedo, Florida with the Communion Partners Group of bishops, along with our "Gracious Restraint" Canadian colleagues. We are honored to be joined as well by two distinguished primates of the Anglican Communion. In odd moments, I was also able to process a fair number of emails. It's good to catch up with old friends and make some new ones.
Monday, February 23, 2015
Each of the travel commitments I made several months ago seemed like a good idea at the time. But they have combined to make me feel like a visitor in my own home. Anyway ... I left the house at 6:30 AM in order to make a 9:50 AM departure from St. Louis. All went well, and I am now safely ensconced in the conference center of the diocese of Central Florida, near Orlando. I'm here to join a gathering of the Communion Partners group of bishops. some of our Canadian counterparts are with us, along with two primates from Africa and Asia.
Sunday, February 22, 2015
We "beat down Satan under feet" with verve this morning at the Episcopal Parish of Alton (Trinity Chapel at 8:15 and St Paul's Church at 10:30), where they have apparently not prayed the Great Litany in living memory. It generally got rave reviews. Home mid-afternoon for some much-needed rest before going airborne again Monday morning.
Episcopal Parish of Alton--Mark 1:9-13, Genesis 9:8-17, I Peter 3:18-22
(Acknowledgements: Aidan Kavanagh, A Rite of Passage, and Anne Field, From Darkness to Light: How One Became a Christian in the Early Church)
Let’s take a trip—a trip not only to a different place, but to a different time. It’s the fourth century A.D., and you live in the Roman Empire. Three years ago, you came to a decision in your own heart that you wanted to become a Christian. When your parents were young, that decision could have meant imminent torture and death for you. Fortunately, that’s no longer the case, but, as you are about to find out, it will still “cost you your life,” in a very real sense. You made your decision because the family next door is Christian. You noticed a hard-to-describe quality about them—peace, authenticity, humility, consistent kindness—and when you told them how impressed you were by this quality, they told you about Jesus and what he meant to them. Eventually, you accompanied them to a gathering on Sunday mornings. They sang songs of praise to Christ, read passages of scripture, and heard the priest explain and amplify on what had been read. But, after the sermon, you and other inquirers were politely asked to leave, while the rest stayed for quite a while longer. When you asked what went on during that time, all you got were smiles and vagueness, never a straight answer.
Then, when you finally got up the nerve to acknowledge that you, too, believed in Jesus, and wanted to hang out with those who were his followers, at first you thought they were trying to talk you out of it! The leaders of the Christian community peppered you with questions about your lifestyle, and your neighbors had to vouch for you. You heard about some others who were told they had to quit their jobs and find new ones before they could become Christians. But, after an impressive ceremony where you wrote your name in a special book, you officially became a catechumen. That meant that, on Sunday mornings, after the sermon, when you were dismissed, you and other catechumens were taken to a special place with your catechists to further discuss the scripture readings of the day and the sermon. In the meantime, they continued to watch you very closely, to make sure you lived a life that was consistent with Christian teaching.
That went on for more than two-and-a-half years. Now you’re on the final leg of your journey. It’s the beginning of Lent, and when Easter arrives, you’re going to be baptized. For this Lenten season before your baptism, you’ve literally had to move from your own home in a small town into the major city of your region, where the bishop and his cathedral are located. Some members of the cathedral community are supplying you with lodging. Every morning, you and the other catechumens will be instructed personally by the bishop. You will also spend a lot of time meeting with your catechists, and in personal prayer.
Beyond that, you know very little about what’s going to be happening to you. For the first time, you will hear the words of the Apostle’s Creed and the Lord’s Prayer. You will be instructed as to their meaning, and required to commit them to memory. About halfway through Lent, you will be very seriously prayed over by the Bishop, who will exorcise you of any lingering influence from Satan that you have brought with you from your pre-Christian way of life. You will be anointed with oil as an outward sign of this exorcism. On the eve of Easter, you and the other catechumens will be led into a magnificent room and told to take off all your clothes. You will face toward the west, and renounce all forms of evil—cosmic evil, social and political evil, and personal evil. Then you will face toward the east, and proclaim your acceptance of Jesus Christ as your Savior and promise to follow and obey him as your Lord. Next, you will be directed into a large pool of flowing water. The bishop will ask you once more to affirm your faith in the words of the creed, as a deacon dunks you in the water three times. When you come out of the pool, another deacon will greet you with a warm white baptismal garment as a sign that, as St Paul said, those who have been baptized into Christ have “been clothed with Christ.” You will also be given a burning terracotta oil lamp.
When all the baptisms have been completed, you will be led into the church, where the whole Christian community has been keeping vigil all night, waiting for this very moment. To them, you represent the living Christ himself; you are a walking icon of Jesus raised from the dead. For the first time, you will get to stay in church after the sermon! For the first time, you will take part in the Prayers of the People. For the first time, you will exchange the Sign of Peace with your Christian brothers and sisters. For the first time, you will “lift up your heart” as the bishop invokes the Holy Spirit to infuse the gifts of bread and wine with the body and blood of Christ. And for the first time, you will dine on that precious food. After a day of feasting, and a good night’s sleep, you will finally get to go home—not to resume your normal life, but to begin a new life in the same place.
Not too many decades after that fourth century scene that I’ve just described, it became not only legal, but fashionable, to be a Christian. The process leading to baptism was, shall we say, significantly relaxed from the earlier norm. Western society entered an era in which the church and culture were united with one another like a hand in a glove. Baptism was routine; the society was pervasively Christian. I think it’s safe to say that we’ve are presently witnessing the unraveling of that alliance between church and society, but we certainly still live in its afterglow. As a result, we are likely to be shocked, maybe even scandalized, by the baptismal discipline that existed in the first three or four centuries of Christianity. We are conditioned to look at baptism as an essentially private event—a quaint and vaguely symbolic cultural ritual that provides parents an opportunity to “go public” with their new baby. I suspect there are those here who can remember when it would have been unremarkable to receive an invitation to a “christening” that would be held in the “drawing room” of a fashionable home. After a very brief ceremony, during which only a minimal amount of water would moisten the baby’s forehead, the family and a few invited guests would retire to the garden for a genteel party, with champagne punch and finger sandwiches. All very refined, all very harmless.
In truth, however, there is nothing either harmless or refined about the sacrament of Christian baptism. It is the most profoundly important event any of us will ever experience, and there isn’t even a close second. Baptism is a drowning—a death. Baptism is a bath—a cleansing. Baptism is birth—the font is the womb of the Church, and the water in it is amniotic fluid, through which new Christians are born again by water and the Holy Spirit. The primary purpose of Lent is still to serve as the final run-up to the celebration of baptism at the Great Vigil of Easter. By saying that, I do not intend to demean the traditional Lenten disciplines—self-examination and confession, prayer, fasting, self-denial, reading and meditating on God’s holy word. But we must never forget the context in which those disciplines occur. It is a baptismal context.
It is an established part of the church’s lectionary that, on the first Sunday in Lent, we read the account of our Lord’s wilderness temptation. This being Year ‘B’ of our three-year cycle, we have St Mark’s version to deal with. It is certainly the leanest of the three gospel narratives that speak of this episode. There’s no dialogue with Satan; in fact, the familiar temptations that we know so well are not even mentioned. So, we need to look at Mark’s account of Jesus’ wilderness temptation, as it were, out of our peripheral vision. When we do so, we get a glance at what took place just before the desert retreat, which was—you guessed it—Jesus’ baptism. To tell you the truth, Mark doesn’t waste very many words on this event, either. But we also have the Old Testament reading from Genesis, about the covenant that God established with Noah. God had used water, not only to destroy most of the world, but also as the means through which a remnant of human and animal life was saved. Noah’s ark, then, prefigures Christian baptism. The covenant with Noah, represented by the rainbow, prefigures the baptismal covenant. I’m not just dreaming this up, by the way. It’s the way St Peter explained it in his first epistle, which we also read today.
The sidelong reference to the baptism of Christ, combined with the Lord’s covenant with Noah as interpreted by Peter, serves to remind us of the overwhelming significance of baptism. Unfortunately, because of the minimalist way many of us have experienced baptism, it’s difficult for us to fully grasp this point. Is it not ironic that, without meaning to, we look at ordination the way the earliest Christians looked at baptism, and we look at baptism the way they looked at ordination? Think about it. In the ancient church, potential baptismal candidates were carefully screened as to their manner of life—much like aspirants to ordination are today. The ancient catechumenate lasted three years—about the same length of time a candidate for ordination spends in seminary. In the early church, baptism was celebrated with all the festive pomp and circumstance the community could muster, which is exactly what we do today when someone is ordained deacon, priest, or bishop. In the ancient church, ordinands were chosen seriously, but quickly, and the actual ordination took place within a very short period following election—not too differently from the way people get baptized today. On the wall of my study are my ordination certificates, all three elegantly framed. When I was made a deacon, in the Diocese of Oregon, a talented calligrapher personally prepared my certificate, and it is a thing of beauty. The certificate I received when I was ordained a bishop is large and bears the wax seals of the other bishops present. As for my baptismal certificate—I don’t even know for sure that there ever was one; I certainly haven’t seen it. It should be the other away around. All of us should have our baptismal certificates beautifully framed and prominently displayed, so that we are constantly reminded that we have clothed ourselves with Christ, that we are sealed with the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own forever.
Even if we don’t actually go home and do this—though I hope some of you might!—we can at least use this realization to begin Lent with the “end” in mind—in other words, to begin Lent already thinking about the renewal of our baptismal vows at the Easter Vigil. This will enable us to approach the paschal feast in a prepared state, to celebrate the resurrection of Christ with genuine joy. But it will do more than that. The one detail that St Mark includes about Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness, a detail that Matthew and Luke omit, is this: “…and he was with the wild beasts; and the angels ministered to him.” Jesus was in a wilderness—dangerous territory—but he was not alone. His needs were met, and he was kept safe. He had victory over every evil. Our baptismal identity—our having been clothed with Christ—gives us that same blanket of protection in the wilderness, whether that wilderness is merely Lent, or life itself. Amen.
Saturday, February 21, 2015
Upon awakening, the wisdom of yesterday's decision to cancel this morning's scheduled Diocesan Council meeting was apparent, as there was nearly a foot of fresh snow on the ground. After allowing myself to just laze around for a while, I suited up appropriately and engaged the snow blower (first time this season). After a few hiccups, it started, and I was able to make short work of the very fine powdery snow that lay on the driveway. As the day progressed, the temperature rose enough to melt off even the detritus of the morning's efforts. That meant that, by 4 o'clock, when we rolled out for points south, it was completely clear. The same can be said for all the roads between Springfield and Alton, which was suffering from freezing rain only last night. We arrived at the (surprisingly now former) Holiday Inn in time to rest up a bit before enjoying dinner on the same site with the vestry, search committee, and assorted spouses of the Episcopal Parish of Alton (St Paul's Church and Trinity Chapel).
Friday, February 20, 2015
The second of only four "normal" weekdays in the office during the month of February.
- Task planning and substantive work on this Sunday's sermon (Alton Parish) while still at home.
- Brief devotions in the (extremely cold) cathedral; Morning Prayer in the office.
- Made the decision to cancel tomorrow's scheduled meeting of the Diocesan Council after examining the forecast for road conditions.
- Consulted with the Archdeacon and the Administrator over a range of issues.
- Finishing refining and printing Sunday's homily.
- Took a planned phone call from the (new) Dean of Nashotah House.
- Fleshed out and fine-tuned my working notes for the first session of my Lenten teaching series (beginning next Wednesday evening) at St Michael's, O'Fallon ("From Getting Wet to Getting Saved: Occupying Our Baptismal Vows").
- Lunch from McD's (hot mustard is back!), eaten at home.
- Fleshed out, refined, and submitted the next post of my to the Covenant blog, which should appear next week sometime ("Sabermetrics for the Church?").
- Took my homily for Lent II (St Bartholomew's, Granite City) from "developed outline" to "rough draft" stage.
- Belatedly, communicated via email to four individuals who were interviewed by the Commission on Ministry on January 30, letting them know the results of the exchange, and something of what the future holds for them.
- Plotted further steps in the larger work of compiling a list of candidates for one of our vacant cures.
- Friday prayer: Listening to some Lenten hymns and choral music via Pandora.
- Evening Prayer in the office.
Thursday, February 19, 2015
A day mostly devoted to travel, though I did spend some time in the morning reading and making notes on another ordinand's General Ordination Exam. On the airport shuttle a little after 11am, and on the ground in Springfield around 5:30pm. Lately, it's felt like I am as familiar with the B, C, and F concourses at O'Hare as a commuter is with his or her regular train station. Anyway, back home now for two nights in a row, and three of the next four.
Wednesday, February 18, 2015
It was a joyful privilege to serve Trinity School for Ministry today. I was honored to preside and preach at the Eucharist, give two quiet day meditations, hear confessions, talk with faculty and students, and get a tour of the campus. For an introvert, though, it was a workout, so I'm grateful for the opportunity to rest in the evening. I did, however, process a few emails and read and make notes on the General Ordination Exam responses of one of our folks in the ordination process.
Trinity School for Ministry--Isaiah 58:1-12
Ash Wednesday is about facing the fact that we are sinners, all living under a sentence of death. We're not sinners because of how we've lived our lives, although we have all said and done things which give ample testimony to that fact. Rather, it's a matter of simply having been born a human being, a condition inherited from our primeval forebears who opted to put themselves in the place of God.
We will, in a few minutes, receive a black mark on our foreheads as a reminder of our sinfulness and our mortality. Then, the rest of Lent—the rest of our lives, actually—will be devoted to walking the road that God tells us leads out of our universal human predicament, the road that leads to redemption and immortality. Part of that road leads through a territory called repentance. Before we receive our black marks, we're going to do some public repenting. We're going to get down on our knees and tell God we're sorry for a whole bunch of things. We may or may not actually feel sorry, but we're going to look and sound like we are. God, we can rest assured, sees what we do here, and hears what we say. We might well ask ourselves, how does the knowledge that God is looking in on us affect what we do and say?
I once listened to a prominent radio talk show host debate with himself on the air on whether to allow C-Span television cameras into his radio studio for a day. He was afraid that C-Span's viewers would not actually see him and his staff as they normally are, but that people would dress differently and act differently and generally play to the camera. The knowledge that we are "ever walking in [God's] sight" certainly does tempt us to "play to the camera." "Look, God, I’m actually on my knees! And listen to the long list of things I’m sorry for; isn't it impressive?" We want God to see. We want God to notice. And we're distressed by the possibility that he might not be as impressed with us as we are with ourselves. In the words of Isaiah, paraphrasing the sentiments of his contemporaries, "Why do we fast, but you do not see? Why humble ourselves, but you do not notice?" Such words betray the insincerity of those who mouth them. Repentance is a show, and God is the audience, and if he's not looking at the stage, then why bother?
If our reason for being here on this occasion is to impress God, then we may as well adjourn right now and go do something more worthwhile. Then again, maybe there's enough of an emotional payoff from the act of saying we're sorry for our sins that it's still worth doing even if God may be looking the other way. It was once said that the job of a preacher is to "make 'em laugh, make 'em cry, make 'em feel religious." Just "feeling religious" can be kind of comforting in a vague sort of way, can't it? Maybe if we can't impress God, we can at least impress ourselves with an occasional display of piety. The problem with feeling religious, however, is that it is entirely subjective—focused on my feelings, my experience, what I want and need.
Through the pen of Isaiah, God pronounces judgment on this kind of repentance which is turned in on itself, concerned with "feeling religious":
Is such the fast that I choose, a day to humble oneself? Is it to bow down
the head like a bulrush, and to lie in sackcloth and ashes? Will you call
this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?
No, if our repentance is wrapped up either in the notion that God is approvingly watching what we do today, or in the warm feelings of religious piety that we will experience when we receive ashes and spend a long time on our knees, then it is not really repentance at all. Authentic repentance, the sort of repentance that is pleasing to the Lord, is found in the ordinary daily living of our lives, the extent to which our behavior is a reflection of God's righteousness and God's justice. Isaiah continues:
Is not this the fast that I choose, to loose the bonds of injustice, to
undo the thongs of the yoke, to let the oppressed to free, and to
break every yoke? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and
bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked,
to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin?
At the risk of saying something so self-evident as to sound almost corny, living in God's righteousness and justice can be as simple as practicing the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.
I have, during my adult life, been both a landlord and a tenant. In fact, I still am a landlord. I like to think that, walking in both pairs of shoes as I have done, having been a landlord made me a better tenant, and having been a tenant makes me a better landlord. Stephen Covey, the late author of the best-selling book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, suggests an exercise that I find both wholesome and challenging, and this is, when involved in conflict, to work on expressing your opponent's position better than he or she can do so. That is living in righteousness and justice. Simple honesty and fairness—honesty in fairness with family members, honesty and fairness with fellow members of the church, honesty and fairness in our business dealings—this is living in righteousness and justice.
But it also has a social dimension. Our personal morality may be beyond reproach, but we are also participants in social structures that are systemically unrighteous and unjust. We cannot right all the wrongs in the world, nor does God expect us to make that our primary aim in life. But God himself is in the business of righting wrongs, and it would be a good idea to make sure that, when he engages in that sort of activity, we are not one of the wrongs he rights! It would be embarrassing. I wonder how the Christian owners of dilapidated rental properties, just to cite one example, sleep at night with that knowledge. Perhaps the most important thing that a citizen of a democracy can do keep a clear conscience in the area of social righteousness and justice is to vote responsibly. I am not advocating, nor will I ever publicly advocate, a particular political philosophy. (I have one, but it’s not only not my job to share it, it’s my job to not share it, if you can see the distinction, and I would entreat those of you in or headed for pastoral ministry to adopt the same self-imposed restriction on your public speech.) I honestly believe it is possible to be either a liberal Democrat or a conservative Republican and a good Christian. But whatever philosophy you adopt, make sure it is grounded in moral considerations that are truly Christian, and not merely a reflection of your own self-interest.
Our faith is a sacramental faith, so outward displays are important. It is good that we are here today doing what we're doing. But we are walking a dangerous road if our outward display is only that, an outward display. Our faith is also a spiritual faith, a religion of the heart, concerned with the interior life. We are walking a dangerous road, though, if our spiritual exercises on this occasion do nothing more than make us "feel religious." But if our outward display, and our inward feelings, combine to produce words and actions that are consistent with God's own righteousness and justice, listen to what Isaiah says will be the result:
Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall
spring up quickly; your vindicator shall go before you, the glory of the
Lord shall be your rear guard. Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer,
you shall cry for help, and he will say, "Here I am."
Who could ask for anything more?
Tuesday, February 17, 2015
After about ten hours at home, six of which were spent sleeping, I was back in the friendly skies at 6am, headed for Pittsburgh, where I look forward to giving the Ash Wednesday quiet day at Trinity School for Ministry. Arrived midday, grabbed some lunch, then attacked my task list via an internet connection. Lovely dinner in the evening with Dean Justyn Terry, along with some faculty and staff members.
Monday, February 16, 2015
Mostly a travel day, with some sermon prep, email processing, and task planning squeezed in here and there. Our departure itinerary from Charleston was at a humane hour (11:30), so we had time for a civilized morning of packing, breakfast, and a little work, before having to head to the airport. Gassed up the rental car, turned it in, checked our bags, and boarded, all in good order. The view of a frozen Lake Michigan on approach to O'Hare was stunning. Our four hour layover was productively spent, thanks to the wifi connection available in the United Club. I feel like my grip on things is a little more secure, which is a relief. The major angst of the day was when we found finding a taxi at SPI after claiming our luggage inordinately difficult. (The YFNBmobile was parked at the Amtrak station owing to our outbound flight being canceled last Friday morning.) All ended well, but it was frustrating in the moment. Home literally just for a few hours, because, airline gods willing, I'm on the early flight out tomorrow, headed for Pittsburgh to give the Ash Wednesday quiet day at Trinity School for Ministry.
Sunday, February 15, 2015
At Holy Communion in Charleston, SC, one of my two DEPO parishes. Peached at the 8am Low Mass; presided, preached, and confirmed (five adults) at the 10:30 Solemn High. Spoke at the adult forum between services. Outstanding music, glorious liturgy--a wonderful way to celebrate the splendor of our Lord's transfiguration as we look into the valley of Lent. Brenda and I are both uplifted by our interaction with this fine parish. We took the afternoon to rest, do a little work, and walk up King Street for a fine seafood dinner. More work done in the evening. Gotta love the internet. Heading home in the morning. (BTW, it was not warm here, by any definition. Only less cold.)
Holy Communion, Charleston (SC)--Mark 9:2-9
Most people can testify, at one time or another, to an intermediate state of consciousness that is neither fully waking nor fully dreaming. In my own experience, it happens most frequently either in those groggy moments after I have awakened in the morning, but before I get out of bed, or during the day, when I sink into the chair at my desk and close my eyes for a few moments without allowing myself to actually take a nap. At those times, it seems like we can suddenly, though fleetingly, grasp complex realities in a single flash of intuitive insight. All sorts of visions and fantasies and intimations of wonder and beauty that are beyond words dance across the stage of our imagination, teasing us with possibilities that are both greater and clearer than either our aspirations when we are awake or our dreams when we are asleep.
These are premonitions of glory, almost subliminal glimpses of reality as it should be and could be and—dare we hope?—will be. They are experiences of deep peace, the peace that passes understanding, an inner assurance that, in the words of Julian of Norwich, “All shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.” These spiritual experiences—whether they be mundane or mystical, calm or ecstatic—these experiences are channels, or even reservoirs, of grace that sustains us when we have to eventually wake up and disengage from them and deal with reality.
Ah, reality! “Reality happens.” Mystical experiences, mountaintop experiences, even when they take the form of three-second baby dreams, are wonderful. But while the view from the top of the mountain is spectacular, actually living there is not practical. And when we have to come down, disappointment is inevitable. The vision of wholeness which we saw so clearly and seemed so powerful is now faded, like the morning dew evaporating in the noonday sun. When we see something so beguiling, so compelling, fade before our very eyes, we cannot resist surrendering to disconsolation and despair.
This was certainly the experience of the inner core of the inner core of Jesus’ followers: Peter, James, and John. One day Jesus takes them aside and says, “Let’s go on a hike.” So they grab their walking sticks and pretty soon they find themselves on some high ground that would probably not be very impressive to people in the higher elevations of your lovely state, but by the standards of the Low Country, at least, qualified as a mountaintop. Then it got dark, but they didn’t need a campfire, because Jesus himself glowed in the dark, throwing off more light than any number of Coleman lanterns. The heroic and highly symbolic Old Testament figures of Moses and Elijah suddenly appear as well, and strike up a conversation with Jesus.
Peter and James and John are appropriately awestruck. They want to build some kind of monument to commemorate the event, perhaps as an excuse to stay on the mountain a little bit longer. It’s understandable that they wouldn’t want to come down. Reality, by comparison, was boring on a good day, and frightfully stressful the rest of the time. But Jesus leads them down the mountain as resolutely as he had led them up it. And what lay ahead of them in the—shall I say it?—low country? Suffering and death. The suffering and death of Jesus was what awaited them in the low country.
St Mark tells us the story of the Transfiguration in hindsight. He and his first readers were aware of the rest of the story. They were Christian believers. They knew not only about suffering and death, but about resurrection and glory as well. And we have even more hindsight than they did. We know about suffering and death and resurrection and glory, plus we have 2000 years of collective experience through which we can witness the power of the gospel to change lives—to promote healing, health, and wholeness, and to keep evil and destruction in check until that day when the victory won on the cross and in the empty tomb is brought to fulfillment and completion.
The clue to our understanding of the Transfiguration is found in a brief command Jesus gave to the three disciples as they were on their way down the mountain. Mark tells us that “he charged them to tell no one what they had seen until the Son of Man should have risen from the dead.” He did not want them, or anyone else they might tell, to look at the Transfiguration as an isolated incident. He wanted to be sure they understood it in the total context of what followed: the passion, the cross, the grave, the empty tomb, and ascension into glory, and—one might add, borrowing from other New Testament material, the coming of the Holy Spirit. Jesus wants us to understand that suffering and glory are inseparable. They are the proverbial two sides of the same coin. They are mutually interpretive—one sheds light on the other, one gives meaning to the other. The idealism of the mountaintop
cannot be understood apart from the reality of the valley, and vice versa. Joy cannot be recognized apart from the sorrow from which it is born. Depression and despair are devoid of meaning apart from the promise of hope and deliverance. The crown of glory is, in the alchemy of grace, fashioned from the cross of suffering.
Those mystical moments of transfiguring glory that we experience—the flashes of insight, the moments of intuitive connection with the transcendent, fantasy that seems more solid and enduring than anything made of actual atoms and molecules—the mystical moments of transfiguring glory that we experience are gifts from God that illuminate the valley of reality in which we actually live our lives. The fantasy, the dream, the intimation and premonition of glory—these are the sources of grace that sustains us in the real, the concrete, things that are said and done in actual time and space; the place where we suffer, the place where we die, not just the one quick and final death, but the countless hundreds of lesser and slower deaths that we endure in the course of a lifetime.
But this same stuff, this same concrete material out of which life in the valley is constructed, the actual words and deeds which both wound us and heal us—these constitute the very vehicle by which reality itself is transfigured, the means by which the ideal becomes real and the real becomes ideal. And then it will no longer be a fleeting dream in the mist between waking and sleeping, no longer a mere premonition or glimpse or foretaste, but a fully unobstructed view of our heavenly inheritance, “where sorrow and pain are no more, neither sighing, but life everlasting.”
It all boils down to something quite simple, but not at all simplistic. The author Fredrica Mathewes-Green, who spent her first years as an adult convert to Christ in the Episcopal Church, but is now Eastern Orthodox—Mrs Mathewes-Green writes:
“All we can do is persevere, and trust that if Jesus was raised, we, too, will be raised,
and all our suffering will be made right.” You and I have some good bit of trusting and persevering to do as we walk the floor of this valley. But today we have a glimpse of the view from the mountain, and we realize that we are being changed from glory to glory, and that all shall be well, all shall be well, all manner of things shall be well.
Saturday, February 14, 2015
Up and out of our Charleston (historic district) hotel in time to be at the Church of the Holy Communion for a 10am meeting with tomorrow's confirmands--five adults, aged 25 to 90. They were gracious enough to spend the better part of two hours with me, as we talked about the shape and contours of Christian discipleship, their commitment to which they will be bearing witness in the morning. Then back to the hotel, from which Brenda and I walked a few blocks to find some lunch (at a brew pub/BBQ place we had visited on each of our last two visits). More walking around with no particular purpose. Then some rest at the hotel, and time for a scheduled phone conversation with our senior seminarian. In the evening, Fr Sanderson and Fiona took us out to dinner. Ironically, we had to drive off the peninsula and into a Mt Pleasant strip mall, owing to the confluence of our visit with Valentine's Day and a wildlife festival in Charleston.
Friday, February 13, 2015
Using a small-market airport is convenient but risky. As we were packing late last night an email came through that our 6am departing flight to Chicago was canceled. After considering several options, we booked ourselves on the 6:32 train and changed our reservation to a later flight from Chicago to Charleston. Took advantage of Amtrak's internet connection to get some work en route to Union Station, and had a substantive phone conversation with the Dean of Nashotah House. Once in Chitown, we elected to take a taxi to O'Hare rather than deal with the CTA Blue Line on a cold day. Once checked in and through security, we had time for a simple but leisurely meal, and some more productivity. We touched down in Charleston around 5pm local time, picked up our rental car, and made our way to the Doubletree in the historic district. After settling in, we walked over to King Street and got reacquainted with a wonderful BBQ joint that we discovered two years ago on our first visit. Looking forward to an active weekend with the people of the Church of the Holy Communion.
Thursday, February 12, 2015
- The first of only three weekdays in the office during the month of February. Usual AM routine; MP in the cathedral.
- Conferred with the Archdeacon over an emerging situation in one of our parishes.
- Prepared to preside and preach at the midday Mass.
- Conferred with the interim Provost over an administrative matter.
- Refined and printed my homily for this Sunday, at the Church of the Holy Communion in Charleston, SC.
- Met with an individual in the ordination process to take counsel together over plans going forward.
- Dashed off an email to somebody else in the ordination process.
- Made arrangements to cancel a planned clergy day in June. This was in light of a conversation we had yesterday at the clergy retreat.
- Presided and preached at a votive Mass "Of the Holy Eucharist."
- Lunch at home; leftovers.
- Met with a delegation from the cathedral Chapter to iron out the last wrinkles in a Letter of Agreement for the Provost-elect.
- Rough prep for the first session of my Lenten teaching series at St Michael's, O'Fallon ("From Getting Wet to Getting Saved: Soundings in the Baptismal Covenant").
- Got about halfway through a draft of an article for the Covenant blog ("Sabermetrics for the Church?").
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
- In anticipation of their imminent departure from the diocese, Brenda and I took Fr Gene and Deb Tucker out to dinner.
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
Began the day in Belleville as we wound up the clergy retreat: Morning Prayer ... breakfast ... a lively discussion of how we would like to order and configure clergy gatherings going forward ... an equally lively discussion of some presenting issues at this summer's General Convention ... Mass for the lesser feast of Our Lady of Lourdes ... lunch, which concluded the retreat. I then logged in to a conference call of a committee of the Living Church Foundation board, which I then took leave from a couple of times to clear out of my room and pack the car and begin to make my way out of Belleville and toward Carbondale, including a stop for gas. I was on the call when it concluded 90 minutes after beginning. Arrived in Carbondale in time for a 3:30 meeting with the rector and a couple of key lay leaders of St Andrew's to discuss some issues and opportunities in the life of that congregation that is enjoying a growth spurt these days. Then I swung by the hospital to look in on Fr Tim Goodman, still recovering from his recent heart attack. He's in excellent spirits, considering all he's been through. Headed north finally, and arrived home a little past nine ... an appropriately tired.
Tuesday, February 10, 2015
On retreat with the clergy of the diocese: Morning Prayer ... breakfast ... 2nd Address ("Christ is risen") ... Mass ... Lunch ... afternoon free time (six 30-minute private conferences for me) ... Evensong ... dinner ... 3rd Address ("Christ will come again") ... social time.
Monday, February 9, 2015
Usual early AM internet surfing and email processing ... Bowflex and treadmill workout ... did some logistical and homiletical prep for the clergy retreat --- ran a small errand ... packed in time to be on the road toward King's House in Belleville by 2:30 ... got settled in at the clergy pre-Lenten retreat, attended Evensong and dinner ... presented the first of my three retreat addresses.
I learned this morning that Abraham Lincoln won the freedom of a slave as an attorney participating in litigation that took place in St Paul's, Pekin--though it was in an earlier building, since the one currently in use wasn't erected until 1875. None of those attending this morning could personally remember the incident, however. In any case, the "new" St Paul's is one of the prettiest churches in the diocese.
Sunday, February 8, 2015
St Paul's, Pekin--Mark 1:29-39, I Corinthians 9:16-23
I enjoy history. I enjoy reading about, and seeing movies about, famous and important events and people. It is sometimes tempting for me, as I suspect it has been for many of you, to fantasize about living in some other time in history. When I get grumpy about the state of the world, or society, or the church, it’s easy to entertain the notion that I would have been more appropriately born in some earlier era.
What brings me out of that fantasy, however, is my knowledge of another side of history, which is concerned not with famous people and events, but with the ordinary details of people’s lives in times past. I’m aware that I would be very quickly unhappy with the basic amenities of life—sanitation, heating and cooling, clothing, communication, transportation, and food. But the one factor that would outweigh all others in my decision to not go back in time, if the opportunity presented itself to me, is the quality of health care. Even going back to the standard of medical practice five or six decades ago, at the time of my own childhood, would be an unacceptable sacrifice. There are too many things that people died of, or were crippled by, throughout most of human history, that are now completely preventable or treatable.
And at no time do I feel more connected to my preference for life in the early twenty-first century than when I read about the earthly ministry of Jesus. That ministry consisted of two activities that almost completely eclipsed all others—teaching and healing. I would venture to speculate that, with his teaching, Jesus had the luxury of being proactive. He could choose where and when he was going to speak, and what he was going to speak about. With his healing, however, as I read between the lines of the gospels, it seems to me that his ministry is more reactive than proactive. Especially in his adopted hometown of Capernaum, Jesus is incessantly confronted with sick people. He can’t escape them. As soon as he heals one, ten more appear. They multiply exponentially. At that time in history, there were a lot more things to make people sick than there are in the developed world today, and a lot fewer resources to make them well.
This is not to say, of course, that sickness isn’t still a major issue with us. It is. In my own pastoral experience, cancer definitely tops the list of life-threatening and anxiety-provoking diseases. Until fairly recently, AIDS wrought such havoc in Africa as can scarcely be imagined, let alone described—along the lines of the bubonic plague in the European middle ages. Of course, now there’s the Ebola virus that has made us all sit up and take notice. But our relative freedom from a long list of lesser medical evils simply enables us to pay more attention to more subtle—but potentially just as deadly, from a spiritual standpoint, at least—more subtle forms of illness. Depression, for example, would hardly have been thought of as a disease even a hundred years ago. Yet, we now know that that an actual chemical imbalance in the brain can lead way beyond a blue mood to a whole range of destructive behaviors that, unfortunately, culminate in suicide, and there are hundreds of thousands of people, just in our own country, who are affected by this condition. We all know some; maybe you are one. Then there’s addiction—addiction to alcohol, drugs, nicotine, gambling, sex, work, power, sugar—the list could go on and on. Again, just a few decades ago, addiction would have been seen as mostly a defect in one’s moral compass, a flaw in one’s character, and therefore most appropriately dealt with through various punitive strategies. We generally have a more complex understanding of addiction nowadays. We know that addicts suffer from bondage to a power that is beyond their control, and we therefore tend to be more compassionate.
Of course, once we open the gate to a broader perception of “sickness,” it’s easier to look at it from an overtly spiritual perspective. Moral categories—like pride, anger, lust, envy, gluttony, greed, and sloth—come into play. These are, of course, the “seven deadly sins,” and if one or more on that list didn’t pull your chain, then you either aren’t human or you’re already most of the way to perfect sainthood. Most of us—all of us, when we’re completely honest—have some experience of being in bondage to sin in the same way that a cancer patient or an alcoholic is in bondage to those diseases. We would like to be free of it, but we know we’re not. If my neighbor goes out and buys the exact kind of new car I wish I had, and I obsess on that fact and nurture the feelings of resentment toward him that well up inside me, I am in bondage to envy. I have willfully committed a sin, to be sure, but I am at the same time a victim of it; I am sick with envy, and I need to be healed. If I am successful in acquiring something that I need or desire—money comes to mind most readily, of course, but it can be electronic devices or works of art or sports equipment or household knick-knacks or just about anything—if I continue to hoard something long after I have more of it than I could possibly use, then I am sick with greed, and I need to be healed. If I’m constantly anxious about how I look to others, if everything is eventually “all about me,” then I am in bondage to pride, and I need to be healed. If I find it impossible to have a plate of my favorite food put in front of me without grabbing a piece of it, I am sick with gluttony, and need to be healed. If I, as a man, cannot look at an attractive woman without wondering what if would be like to have a sexual encounter with her, then I am sick with lust, and I need to be healed. The same thing applies to anger: Simply feeling the emotion of anger is not in itself sinful, but when we consciously feed that emotion and savor the prospect of revenge on someone who has wronged us, we are sick with anger and need to be healed. And if we consistently pass up opportunities to demonstrate love or compassion or fidelity, then we are guilty of sloth, and need to be delivered from that bondage.
So, even though you and I enjoy a standard of medical care that is vastly superior to that which prevailed in first century Palestine, I think it’s safe to say that, if God had chosen our society in which to become incarnate, if Jesus cruised the highways of central Illinois with his disciples in a thirteen-passenger van, he would not be any less a sought-after celebrity than he actually was. Yes, there would certainly be some conditions that were presented to him two millennia ago that could now be taken care of with an over-the-counter pill, but there would still be plenty of demand for his healing ministry.
It’s a good thing, then, that Jesus is still a healer! We serve a God who wants us to be whole. God does not wish sickness on anyone—not cancer, not alcoholism, not depression, not any of the seven deadly sins, not even so much as dandruff or bad breath! Jesus brings healing. That was an integral part of his ministry when he walked this earth, and it is an integral part of his ministry even today. When we come to Jesus in faith, and in the sacramental community of his Church, we open ourselves to his healing ministry. We open ourselves to deliverance from bondage—bondage to disease, bondage to fear, bondage to evil. The healing ministry of Christ in the gospels is the token and sign of his ongoing healing presence in our midst. In the time of the gospels, not everybody got healed. We hear about the ones who did, but there were plenty who did not. And the ones who did get healed all eventually got sick again and died. Even those whom Jesus raised from the dead all eventually died again, of something. Jesus, in his mercy, chose to heal some—an extremely high number, in fact, though not all—Jesus chose to heal some as a sort of down payment on what will become the universal norm when his kingdom is fully come.
The coming of Jesus into this world two thousand years ago can be compared to D-Day, the Normandy invasion. That event turned the tide of World War II and effectively sealed the fate of the Nazi regime. Yet, it took another ten months of fairly bloody combat in order to turn that fate into an accomplished fact. You and I live, figuratively speaking, within that ten-month period in between D-Day and V-E day. On the cross, and in the empty tomb, Jesus sealed the fate of sickness and pain and fear. On that holy weekend, God pronounced a death sentence on cancer and AIDS and addiction and all seven of the deadly sins and anything else that might keep any person anywhere from fully thriving with abundant life. Indeed, He pronounced a death sentence on death itself. During this interim period, we struggle on, and the fighting can get bloody. We await the final consummation of the Kingdom of Heaven, when God’s perfect rule of justice and love and joy will be the only order of the day. The waiting can feel very long, and it is tempting to feel discouraged. I was still a few years from being born at the time, but I suspect that those ten months between June 1944 and April 1945 felt a lot longer than ten months to those who were doing the fighting and those who were praying for their safe return. God knows about discouragement, so He sends us periodic morale boosters in the form of miraculous healings. Healing cannot be produced on demand, but miracles happen every day, to lots of people. Even if we have not experienced a miraculous healing ourselves, we probably know somebody who has, or have at least heard accounts of such healings. Doctors do a final X-ray or ultrasound before a surgical procedure, and find, to their amazement, that the reason for the surgery has inexplicably disappeared. It happens. A person who has spent years as a slave to addiction, and been in and out of treatment several times, prays in desperation for deliverance, and is suddenly released from bondage—I’m not talking about going into “recovery,” but instantly being fully recovered. It happens. Someone else who has had a long and unsuccessful struggle with anger falls before the Lord in contrition and utter dependence, and suddenly finds that burden of anger lifted and replaced with a completely sweet spirit along the lines of what happened to Ebenezer Scrooge. It happens.
It doesn’t always happen. Many times, the answer to our prayer for healing is, “I will heal you, but not now.” That isn’t the answer we hope for, but we must not let it bring us down. Nor should we let the prospect of that answer keep us from praying for healing in the first place, and repeating that prayer often. It’s important that we ask. Asking is, in fact, the first step in the process of healing—whether that healing takes place suddenly, through a miracle; or gradually, through natural processes; or, shall we say, eschatologically, in the world to come.
Then, even if the Lord does not heal us in the way we want Him to, the act of asking is beneficial to our souls. At the very least, it consecrates our illness, and offers it to the Lord as a tool that is now formally at His disposal for the perfection of our holiness. And it is our lack of holiness, of course, that is the ultimate sickness that should concern us. When we have been made holy, when the image of God is fully restored in us, then the job is done. Nothing can hold us prisoner anymore; we find perfect freedom in the service of the One who is the true lover of our souls. Jesus heals. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Saturday, February 7, 2015
Slept in ... Morning Prayer in my recliner ... worked through a slew of emails that accumulated during my trip to Florida; made tasks out of many of them ... ran an errand to the dry cleaners ... worked out on Bowflex, then took a long and vigorous walk on an unseasonably warm and beautiful day ... showered, lunched, napped (something that began as I was held hostage by a sleeping cat on my lap) ... refined and printed my sermon for tomorrow (St Paul's, Pekin) ... dealt with sundry administrative and pastoral matters via email ... dinner from Popeye's, which Brenda went and got ... more administrivia, developed sermon notes for the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (Holy Communion in Charleston, SC, one of my DEPO parishes) to certified "rough draft" form.
Friday, February 6, 2015
Reconvened with the Nashotah trustees at 9am and we finished our work around 11:15. I have high hope that we have charted a sound course as we try to negotiate the parameters of our work together. When dedicated people come together around the welfare of an institution they love, the moment can be fraught. Nashotah House is the only seminary available to Episcopalian candidates for ordination that will soak them in the Catholic and Benedictine inheritance of Anglicanism and send them out not only with the skills but with the sense of self that will enable them, more often than not, to be effective as priests and pastoral leaders. If you care about that end, then please support one of the major means toward that end, and give generously to Nashotah House.
Having a small amount of extra time on my hands (we had expected to work until noon), I caught an early shuttle to the airport and deferred eating lunch until I was all checked in. The more I travel, the more grateful I am for TSA Pre-check status.It makes clearing security much less traumatic. Checked in by phone with Carol Goodman, wife of Fr Tim, who is recovering from a major heart attack. Everything went well and my layover in Chicago was mercifully short. Landed in Springfield just as the sun was setting, and in time to take Brenda out to a lovely birthday dinner.
Thursday, February 5, 2015
More of the same. I wouldn't call it quite "grueling," but it was persistently demanding. Our facilitator led us through some very sensitive territory that touched on some quite raw nerves and had the potential to be explosive. It wasn't, though some very frank observations were shared. My sense is that we made believable progress as a seminary board both in our ability to be courageously truthful with one another and to add further to the developing framework of a new and much healthier way of working together for the good of Nashotah House, to the best interests of which all of us are committed.
Wednesday, February 4, 2015
Full day of sometimes intense and always demanding work with the Nashotah House board of trustees, meeting at the Church of the Redeemer in Sarasota. We have both internal and external challenges. The outcome we look for (a well-governed and well-led thriving seminary) makes the effort worthwhile. But it's not a walk in the park ... even in beautiful southwest Florida.
Tuesday, February 3, 2015
If it's February, I must be traveling. Alarm set for 4:20am in order to be up, showered, dressed, and out for the 6am United flight to O'Hare. Cooled my jets there for a couple of hours, then boarded another flying tube pointed in the direction of Sarasota. (Getting on the plane was like walking into an Episcopal church on a Sunday morning; pretty sure, at 63, that I lowered the average age.) Got settled in my hotel, took a long walk to find some lunch, and began to prepare mentally for the next few days. I'm here until midday Friday for a special meeting of the Nashotah House board of trustees. We're wrangling with some challenging stuff. Our time together began with a gracious dinner at the home of Fr Fred and Linda Robinson. Fred is rector of the Church of the Redeemer, which is hosting the meeting. More anon.
Sunday, February 1, 2015
As a matter of policy, I try to schedule my close-to-home parish visitations in the dead of winter, and today was an illustration of why. We got only about a half an inch of slush in Springfield, but it was much worse elsewhere in the diocese. So I was glad my trip to Christ Church was only about three miles. Preached and celebration 8 and 10:15. Attendance was affected somewhat by the weather, but the word of God was proclaimed and the sacrament celebrated.
Christ Church, Springfield--Mark 1:21-28, Deuteronomy 18:15-20
It’s amazing how comforting words can be. A distraught child brings a broken toy to a parent. The parent says, “Don’t worry, Daddy will fix it,” and the child’s eyes immediately dry up. We go to the doctor with a mysterious complaint. The doctor looks us over and tells us calmly, “It’s nothing serious. We can treat it, and you’ll feel fine in no time.” A great weight of anxiety immediately melts away, our breathing relaxes, our heart rate settles down, and color returns to our cheeks. A wife screws up her courage to confront her husband about something in his behavior that is really bothering her. He responds with complete lack of defensiveness. “Honey, I’m so sorry. I’ve really been a jerk. I promise, things are going to change, beginning right now.” Talk about relief!
It is, indeed, amazing how comforting words can be. Yet, when we stop and think, it’s not the words themselves that are comforting, but the expectation that there will be deeds to back up those words. If Daddy says he’s going to fix the toy, but doesn’t do it, the child’s original disappointment is only compounded. If the doctor can’t follow through on the promise of an immediate cure, the original anxiety of the patient is greatly multiplied. If the annoying husband makes endearing promises, but fails to change his behavior, his wife’s relief upon first hearing his promise of reform turns mysteriously into an equal degree of anger.
Words alone are empty, but they do not remain empty. If they are fulfilled by corresponding deeds, they become sources of health and life and joy. If not, they become sources of conflict and bitterness and despair. And what is true of words in general is certainly also true of words about God, specifically. Bible verses and phrases from the creeds and theological affirmations can be immensely comforting. I have never been to an Episcopal funeral and not come away with a renewed admiration for the power of words—in this case, the words of Scripture and the Prayer Book—the power of words to assuage grief and promote healing. Many people find even abstract and academic theology to be fascinating and absorbing.
Yet, theology—literally, “words about God”—theology must eventually be applied to concrete human experience if it is to retain its power. In two different dioceses, before I became a bishop, I served as one of a group of clergy known as Examining Chaplains. Our job was to examine candidates for ordination to the diaconate and the priesthood, and certify to the Commission on Ministry and to the Bishop that they were competent in the knowledge of the seven subject areas prescribed by canon law. These areas include Systematic Theology, Holy Scripture, Church History, Moral Theology, Liturgy, and Issues in Contemporary Society. However, it is possible to be a veritable genius in all of these areas, and still not be equipped for ordained ministry. That’s why there’s one more subject area the canons require us to examine in. It’s called Theory and Practice of Ministry—or, more succinctly, “practical theology.” How would they use their knowledge under the actual conditions of ministry? We want clergy who are not only scholars, but pastors; people who can articulate the gospel in ways that apply and make a difference in people’s lives.
And, of course, the same considerations that apply in words about people and words about God, also apply to the words of God. Only here, there is a great deal more at stake. Each of us, personally, has a great deal more riding on it. When we encounter God’s word to us—in scripture, in the liturgy, in the corporate memory of the Church—certain very practical questions float to the surface:
How can God help me find direction in my life?
How can God help me stop the destructive behavior I keep going back to over and over again?
How can God help me be a better spouse, a better parent?
How can God help me with the complex ethical and political decisions I am struggling with?
How can God help me satisfy the empty feeling in the pit of my soul, that desire and longing which I can’t even express because I don’t even know what it’s for?
During his time among us on this earth, our Lord Jesus, if he did anything, spoke the word of God. This was a central element in his calling, his sense of mission. As recorded for us in St Mark’s gospel—still in the very first chapter, so it’s quite early in his ministry—Jesus taught in the synagogue on the Sabbath, and people were mightily impressed. They were impressed because of the contrast between him and the usual teachers they were accustomed to listening to. Unlike them, Jesus taught with authority. He acted confident, like he knew what he was talking about. Apparently, he wasn’t timid, or excessively artful, or coy. He made no attempt to sugar-coat the truth; he told it as it was. His words were strong. His words were compelling. To searching minds, they provided answers. To wounded hearts, they provided comfort. To weak wills, they provided strength. They were words of challenge, words of promise, words of assurance.
But Jesus didn’t stop at words alone. He backed up his words of power with deeds of power. Right after Jesus is noticed for the authoritative quality of his teaching, a man with what Mark calls an “unclean spirit” barges into the synagogue, and before the ushers can stop him at the door, he causes a disturbance. St Mark, of course, did not possess the vocabulary of modern medicine, so we don’t know whether the man may have been epileptic, or schizophrenic, or literally demon-possessed. Whatever it was, though, it was powerful. But Jesus was more powerful. The unclean spirit, convulsing the man and causing him to cry with a loud voice, came out. The man was delivered, healed.
Jesus not only speaks the word of God, he does the word of God. Jesus is God’s active word. Jesus is God’s word become God’s deed. The authority with which he speaks and the power with which he acts are two parts of the same package deal. So, when we think about God, when we theologize about and discuss our relationship with Him, but keep it all at a verbal, conceptual, abstract, theoretical level, we are unfair to ourselves and others. It may be only candidates for ordination who are tested in their grasp of “practical theology,” but it is the baptismal birthright of every Christian to experience it. It is part of the normative experience of every Christian to not only hear the authoritative words of God, but to experience the powerful deeds of God.
God wants to act with power in human lives—our human lives. God wants to deliver us from the “demons” that “possess” us. God wants to set us free from the addictive and compulsive behaviors that are so strong within us, yet so destructive in their fruits. God wants to lovingly heal the wounds and get rid of the scar tissue left by the unfulfilled promises of others. God wants to replace despair with hope, loneliness with community, aimlessness with purpose, disease with wholeness, darkness with light, death with life.
God is not a mascot subject to our beck and call, not a magician under our command. We cannot manipulate Him. But God can and does change lives in extraordinary ways, ways that, except for their sheer undeniable reality, can only be explained as impossible. So we all do well to ask ourselves a penetrating question on this Fourth Sunday after Epiphany in the Year of Our Lord, 2015. Are we settling for too little? Have we asked and expected too little of God? Are we contenting ourselves with the word of God and denying ourselves the power of God? Have we given ourselves to him fully, in faith—faith not only in the authority of his words, but the power of his deeds?
Perhaps it is not too late to make a resolution. Maybe we should resolve to give God a green light, permission, to act with power in our lives—in your life, and in my life, and in our life together. Imagine the difference that would make!
Praised be Jesus Christ.