Friday, December 30, 2016
Thursday, December 29, 2016
- Customary Thursday weights and treadmill workout.
- Morning Prayer (memorized short form) in the car en route to the office. Devotions and intercessions in the cathedral.
- Brief email volley with the Dean, working out the weekday Mass rota for the first quarter of 2017. Normally I cover Wednesdays, except when I'm traveling. Hit the mother lode this time, with lots of my favorite saints days falling on Wednesday. Entered these occasions into my task planning application.
- Spoke by phone at some length with Fr Mark Evans about the (fairly brief) trip to Peru it now looks like we are both making in early February to check in with out companion diocese there, which is very much in flux.
- Spent some mental energy and time building out the nugget of my homily for this Sunday (Feast of the Holy Name, at St Barnabas', Havana). This time I won't be showing my work, as it will be delivered extemporaneously.
- Many times I have arrived at the office only to discover that I've left my key at home. (This is a function of driving a car that does not have an actual key that lives on a ring with others.) So I stopped by Ace Hardware on Wabash and had a couple of copies cut, which are now strategically hidden in undisclosed locations. You'll have to waterboard me. And then try to get past the alarm system still.
- Lunch from Popeye's, eaten at home, and then extended a good while helping Brenda run a medical errand.
- The new canons require Eucharistic Communities to submit a Mission Strategy Report to the Mission Department annually. But we don't yet have a format or process in place for that. So I did some really careful thinking and made several broad stroke notes toward that end, which, in due course, I will share with the Mission Department for further development.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral, just slightly on the early side.
Wednesday, December 28, 2016
- Usual weekday AM routine. Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Prepared to preside and preach at the midday Mass.
- Dashed off an email to the new(ish) United Methodist Church bishop for this area, whose installation I missed during my sabbatical, inviting him to set a lunch date sometime in January.
- Conducted a thorough review of our diocesan mission strategy. Noted where we have had incremental success, where we are spinning our wheels, where we need to keep doing what we're doing, and where we need to do new things. This should happen every six months, but it's been about eleven--again, due to my sabbatical.
- Scanned and otherwise processed accumulated hard copy in my physical inbox.
- Reported to the cathedral chapel to celebrate Mass, but I was a party of one. When this happens on a ferial day, I just pack up and leave. But today is a feast day, when there is a general obligation to have a Eucharist, if at all possible. So I vested and began the liturgy solo. However, in the Anglican ethos, if the celebrant gets to the Great Thanksgiving and there's no one to respond to "The Lord be with you" and "Lift up your hearts," things come to an abrupt halt, and "Ante-Communion" is entered into the service register, with an attendance of one. It happens sometimes; thankfully, not very often.
- Lunch at home. Leftovers.
- With no travel in December, and with the pace generally slackening because of the holidays (life is different in that regard for a bishop than for a parish priest), I've made great progress on my once-intimidating task list (106 action items in play when I returned from sabbatical in mid-October), and gotten down to some very non-urgent items, like hanging my framed Doctor of Divinity (honorary) diploma on my wall, and addressing a technology issue in the system I've set up to be able to listen to music in my office--i.e. the kinds of things that get put off for months and months and become very annoying as they just keep showing up on the list. So, I was feeling all DIY today and brought in a drill from home and went out to the hardware store for a masonry drill bit and got the job done. Also solved the sound system issue. Somewhat proud.
- Spoke by phone with Chancellor Kevin Babb about an ongoing annoying concern.
- Kept up with a slow but steady stream of emails that kept arriving.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Tuesday, December 27, 2016
- Usual AM routine. Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Debriefed with the Archdeacon on various matters professional and personal.
- Responded (in Spanish) to a new email message Bishop Jorge Aguilar of our companion diocese of Peru.
- Contacted (via email) the priest in a parish where I'm scheduled to be on a Sunday in January just to touch base on some of the details of the visitation.
- Took an incoming phone call from a priest from outside the diocese who was (benignly) seeking some information about someone inside the diocese.
- After looking at a couple of other examples of the species, mentally charted a course toward an extemporized homily on the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus, this Sunday at St Barnabas', Havana.
- Scheduled an appointment with my eye doctor for an exam next week. My current glasses are not really working for me, on a number of level, and I'm due for a checkup anyway.
- Spoke by phone with a priest of the diocese over an emerging pastoral and administrative matter.
- Attended Mass in the cathedral chapel for the feast day of St John, Apostle & Evangelist
- Lunch from La Bamba, eaten at home.
- One of my big responsibilities as Chair of the Nashotah House Board of Directors is to lead an annual performance review of/for the Dean & President. Toward that end, I spent a good chunk of my afternoon reviewing a handful of articles on the subject and composing an email to my fellow directors proposing a methodology for moving ahead with the process.
- Read and responded to an Ember Day letter from one of our postulants.
- Took care of another couple of bits of administrivia by email.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Sunday, December 25, 2016
I can be something of a grouser and complainer during the weeks leading up to Christmas. At no other time of year do I find my own inner being quite so much at odds with what’s going on in the secular culture. But even I must admit that there is a certain mystique to it all. The “Christmas spirit,” however we think of it, does encourage us to look for the best in one another, which is remarkable precisely because most of the time we tend to see the worst in each other. Shoppers see inattentive and snippy sales clerks. Sales clerks see obnoxious and demanding shoppers. We see drivers expressing “road rage” on the highways. Con artists find a new sucker every day. Bad cops are paid off to look the other way at crime and office holders sell their power and influence to the highest bidder.
All this tends to make us pretty cynical about human nature. We end up defining people by their behavior: so-and-so is a drunk, someone else is a philanderer, he has a temper problem, she’s a manipulative bully, and so on. The spirit of Christmas lifts us—even if temporarily—the spirit of Christmas lifts us out of that kind of cynicism and judgmentalism.
But it is, of course, not merely the “spirit” of Christmas that accomplishes this for us, it is the decisive act of God that lies at the heart of our Christmas celebration. God has done something that forever disarms our cynicism toward human nature. Among the less well-known of C.S. Lewis’ prolific literary output is a trilogy of science fiction novels; unlike the Narnia series, these are written for adults. The first one, Out of the Silent Planet, features a self-effacing language scholar named Ransom, who is kidnapped by an evil scientist and his crony and taken in a spaceship to a planet called Malacandra. The climactic scene of the story is a meeting between Ransom and a mysterious being whose name and title are both “Oyarsa,” and who is the ruler of Malacandra. Oyarsa is curious about Ransom’s home planet—Earth. Earth also once had an Oyarsa, Ransom learns, but the Oyarsa of Earth became “bent” and turned to evil. So Maleldil, the supreme creator and ruler of the universe, quarantined Earth from all other worlds, and confined its bent Oyarsa there, so he couldn’t do any damage elsewhere in the universe. Since then there has been no contact between Malacandra and Earth, but the Malacandrans have heard rumors that Maleldil has been up to some strange and daring activities aimed at fixing and redeeming what had gone wrong there.
Ransom then tells the Oyarsa of Malacandra the Christian story of the Incarnation, how God actually entered human experience, as a human being. Oyarsa is mightily impressed, for of all the worlds and all the races of creatures in the universe, this is the only instance he has ever heard of in which Maleldil has entered one of the worlds which he made and taken the form of one of the species which he created. Oyarsa finally tells Ransom: “You have shown me more wonders than are known in the whole of heaven.”
Yes, human nature is horribly “bent,” and we experience that “bent-ness” every day of our lives. Yet, God has greatly dignified human nature by taking it up into his own divine nature. And that act of love established the means by which that bent and twisted nature of ours can be placed back in the fire, like a blacksmith would do to a damaged horseshoe—placed back in the fire where it can be softened up, and re-fashioned straight and true.
Each celebration of Christmas has the potential to change us. When we experience the “spirit of the season,” we have an opportunity to become more loving, more generous, maybe even more religious. More than once have I heard conversion stories that begin or culminate at the celebration of the Eucharist on Christmas Eve. Maybe this celebration tonight will be that turning point of conversion for somebody here, that watershed moment of insight that will be looked back on gratefully many years from now.
But that, wonderful as it all is, is just frosting on the cake. The real cause for Christmas rejoicing is that it is the festival of the nativity of God incarnate, the birth of God in human form. The scandal of the Incarnation is that God himself is forever changed by it. He who is by nature pure spirit now has a human face, and the name of that face is Jesus. The human face of God was first revealed to an obscure Jewish couple in a remote corner of the Roman Empire, then to some humble and unsophisticated sheep herders and some strange astrologers and magicians from un-heard of lands to the east. Finally, that human face of God was revealed most completely as Jesus looked down from the cross on his mother and his disciples and his persecutors. In his dying and rising, and in the sacred ritual meal by which we remember that dying and rising—the meal that we celebrate tonight—the human face of God is revealed to you and to me. Eventually, we will all see that face when he returns as a just and righteous, but loving and compassionate, judge.
It is a venerable Christian custom, particularly at this time of year, during the Nicene Creed, to genuflect—go down on one knee—at the words that speak of the Incarnation: “...he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made Man.” I will myself do so tonight, and I invite you to join me in this gesture of adoration and acknowledgement of the Incarnation, and what a sign it is of the depths of God’s love for our fallen race.
The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.
Come, let us adore him.
Generally took it easy most of the day ... weights & treadmill ... some work on the ministry teaching document ... headed to the cathedral around 4:30, where I preached at the early Christmas Eve celebration ... out to dinner with Brenda between services ... preached and celebrated at Midnight Mass. All was lovely.
Friday, December 23, 2016
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral chapel (since there were people still putting the finishing touches on Christmas decorations).
- Responded fairly substantively, and in Spanish, to an email greeting from a Peruvian bishop whose consecration I participated in when I was there in July 2015.
- Processed some responses to the vetting request I made yesterday about the teaching document on ministry that I've been working on.
- Responded by email to one of our clergy regarding some parochial concerns.
- Read and responded to a handful of Ember Day letters from our handful of postulants.
- Re-registered the YFNBmobile with the Illinois Secretary of State's office.
- Attended to a small administrative issue pertaining to my Nashotah House duties.
- Lunch at home. Leftovers.
- Kept a 1:30 appointment at home with a notary tasked with getting us to sign a stack of documents that signify the closing of a new home mortgage loan. Refinancing was a prudent thing to do at this time.
- Back at the office, I reviewed the contents of the credenza behind my desk, culling and reorganizing. This is more or less a routine annual chore, the sort of thing that always takes longer than it seems like it should.
- Took a good long look at a catechetical resource from the Church of England called Pilgrim. There's always a quibble or two, but I rather like it.
- Friday prayer: the venerable spiritual practice of a "holy hour" spent in the sacramental presence of our Lord in the cathedral.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Thursday, December 22, 2016
- Weight and treadmill routine at home.
- Brief devotions in the cathedral, then MP in my office, as there were a couple of people putting finishing touches on the "greening" of the church.
- With a brief break to pass out staff Christmas gifts from Brenda and me, and to exploit that event by getting them to witness and attest to our signing of revised wills to reflect the birth of our youngest grandchild, and the usual lunch break, I spent the rest of the day, until 4:00pm, working on a major teaching document on ministry which has been in the hopper more more than a year. I'm pleased to say that I completed the draft, and sent it out electronically to some trusted friends for their comments before I take it public.
- Reviewed and made a few notes on a teaching resource from Forward Movement (Faithful Questions) that has been in the queue for a very long time. In spite of minor quibbles here and there, I like it, and would recommend it to parish clergy for use with folks who have a knack for asking the classic "hard questions." I can think of a former parishioner from many years ago for whom it would have been ideal had it been available then.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral. Glad that the days are now getting longer, and this activity will not always take place by the light of my iPhone.
Wednesday, December 21, 2016
- Customary weekday AM route. Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Prepared to celebrate and preach the midday Mass.
- Attended to a bit of Nashotah-related administrivia.
- Attended via email to a bit of ordination process-related administrivia.
- Refined, edited, printed, and posted by Christmas homily (to be delivered at St Paul's Cathedral).
- Reviewed and commented on the draft minutes of yesterday's Nashotah House board meeting.
- Cleaned up a handful of other relatively minor pending issues via email.
- Presided and preached at the 12:15 liturgy in the cathedral chapel, keeping the feast of St Thomas, whom I consider the patron saint of my priesthood, as I was made a priest on the eve of the feast 27 years ago.
- Lunch from McD's, eaten at home.
- Gave my consent to the Bishops of Spokane and Indianapolis to retire. (Yes, this is a thing. You have to get a majority of the House of Bishops to consent to retiring from office, even if you've reached the mandatory retirement age.)
- Scanned and otherwise process the accumulated hard copy in my physical inbox.
- Consulted for a while with Pete Sherman, with whom we have contracted to help us get our database software up and running.
- Continued work (begun several months ago and then laid aside) on what I intend to be a major teaching document on ministry, both lay and ordained. This will be a work in progress for a while yet.
- Since the cathedral church was being "greened," I headed home for Evening Prayer, stopping to run an errand first.
Tuesday, December 20, 2016
- Weekly task planning at home over breakfast.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Spent some quality time with the Title IV (clergy discipline) canons trying to sort out my options and responsibilities in a situation that has arisen.
- Took care of an administrative chore pertaining to the Nashotah board.
- Spoke by phone with the Dean of Nashotah House (laying groundwork for a PM Board of Directors meeting).
- Took care of an administrative chore pertaining to the relationship between the diocese and the national church.
- Conferred with the Dean of our cathedral in his office concerning some of the liturgical details of the Christmas celebrations in which I will be participating.
- Spoke by phone with a disgruntled member of one of our Eucharistic Communities. Hopefully he is now more gruntled.
- Lunch from Chi-Town's Finest, eaten at home.
- After some brief prep time, chaired a 90-minute conference call meeting of the Nashotah House Board of Directors.
- Spoke by phone with a priest of the diocese over an emerging situation.
- Conferred with the Archdeacon over a couple of other emerging situations.
- Responded to a couple of pending emails, one to a priest and one to a layperson, both within the diocese.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
- Got home and poured myself a strong drink. This was a taxing day for an introvert.
Sunday, December 18, 2016
Much to my horror, we were iced in today. An exchange of text messages yesterday afternoon with the senior warden of St Barnabas', Havana led to the decision to postpone my visitation there. It felt weird. This is not what Sunday is supposed to be like. We hadn't been out since our harrowing trip downtown on Friday evening for a concert, Early this evening I determined that my prophylactic salting and sanding yesterday created sufficient gaps in the ice and snow on the driveway to safely back the car out, so I made a brief foray to Smashburger to pick up some dinner.
Friday, December 16, 2016
- Usual weekday morning routine; MP in the cathedral.
- Quickly dispatched a small administrative matter.
- Wrote a letter of introduction to a Brazilian bishop on behalf a communicant from one of our parishes who will be taking a work-related trip there next summer. I wrote the letter in Portuguese, so it took a little extra time. And I first had to research the name of the diocese and the name of the bishop.
- Consulted at some length with the Archdeacon on potential candidates to beef up how our Department of Finance is staffed. It has grown a little thin. I then forwarded the names we came up with to the department chair.
- Consulted with the Archdeacon, also at some length, over the possible need to schedule a conference for wardens, treasurers, and Rectors/Vicars/Priests-in-Charge. Put the question out by email to the Treasurer and the chairs of the Audit and Finance Departments.
- Lunch from China 1, eaten at home.
- Spent a good portion of the afternoon reading three reports from our Historiography team (all very capable people from St John's, Albion), who have made tremendous progress cataloguing what we have in our archives room. This included making a few editorial observations and planning some follow-up tasks.
- Our new canons drastically pare down the administrative infrastructure of the diocese, something that very badly needed to be done. Many job titles have simply disappeared. So it falls to me to identify which of those titles represent functions that actually still need to be done by someone, and to plot the steps to see that this happens, albeit in a less juridically formal way.
- Friday prayer: Lectio on the Old Testament reading in tomorrow's Daily Office lectionary (from Isaiah 10).
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
- Back to the on-and-off Thursday morning routine of a fairly short weights workout followed by 45 minutes on the treadmill.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Made air travel and hotel arrangements for a trip to Philadelphia next month in order to attend the annual Mass and meeting of the Society of King Charles the Martyr. Since they were kind enough to grant me an honorary life membership last year, and then elect me to their board, it seemed the right thing to do. I've never been to Philadelphia, so that will be an added bonus. (Plus, I'm preaching the next day in a friend's parish.) I took the time to familiarize myself with a map of downtown, and with transit options from the airport.
- Conferred a bit with Pete Sherman, with whom we are contracting to get our new database software up and usable. Handed him my Mac laptop for him to install a Windows emulation program, since the new software runs in a Windows environment.
- Kept a scheduled telephone appointment with the Archbishop of Calgary, who is a longtime friend and seminary classmate. We try to check in with one another for mutual support on a regular basis.
- Lunch from Taco Gringo, eaten at home.
- Debriefed with Pete on the back end of the software installation. I can now run Windows programs on my Mac.
- Met with a group of key players in our diocesan summer camping program in order to assess the impact of the recent news that our longtime partner, the Diocese of Quincy (originally TEC, then in its ACNA incarnation), has ended their participation in the relationship. Between dollars, campers, and staff members, the dollars can be fairly easily made up, and there was a consensus to embrace the challenge of lower numbers of campers and staff members and move ahead with plans for the coming summer.
- Responded via email to a pastoral care request from an Episcopalian in a diocese where theological views that are fairly mainstream in Springfield and profoundly marginalized. This happens fairly regularly.
- Responded via email to a message from a communicant in one of our own parishes whose views on a controverted issue are marginal in this diocese. See, it works both ways. The expression "communion across differences" says it best, I think.
- Sent a batch email to all our deacons (of which there are only five at present) in an attempt to set a date and time to gather them for a meal and some conversation. Negotiations are ongoing.
- Attended to a routine monthly calendar-related chore.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Wednesday, December 14, 2016
- Did a good bit of email processing and task organizing while still at home.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Prepared to preside and preach at the midday Mass.
- Conceived and hatched a homily for Christmas (eve and morning), St Paul's Cathedral.
- Attended to an important issue with one of our clergy, via voicemail and text message.
- Began work on an Ad Clerum (letter to the clergy)
- Celebrated and preached the regular liturgy in the cathedral chapel, keeping a ferial Wednesday in the Third Week of Advent,
- Finished the Ad Clerum and delivered it to Sue for transmission.
- Lunch from McD's (craving for McNuggets the last couple of days), eaten at home.
- Since it has been so long since this diocese has ordained a vocational deacon, we're a little rusty. There has been a major reform of the Title III ministry canons since our last diaconal ordination. However, we have one candidate ready to be examined for ordination, and two more in the pipeline, and strong hints of others to follow. So the time has arrived for us to get on this. To this end, I sat down, focused, and drafted a set of "rubrics" (not in the liturgical sense, but as the world of education uses the term) by which to apply the new canons to diaconal ordinands. By way of vetting, I then shared the document electronically with all clergy who are in charge of a Eucharistic Community that has a deacon assigned to it, or where a parishioner is a postulant or candidate for diaconal ordination.
- Pondered requests from two dioceses for consent to the consecration of a priest whom they have elected to be their next bishop. My default is to say Yes, if for no other reason than to acknowledge the drama and difficulty that surrounded my own consent process six years ago. I certainly can't maintain a "default Yes" policy and expect to withhold consent from electees simply because I have significant theological differences with them. But I do have some non-negotiables, and one of them is a commitment to support the traditional (and currently canonical) practice of reserving Holy Communion for those who have been baptized. By that measure, I withheld consent to one of the elections before me today. I didn't do so lightly.
- Blew through a handful of smaller action items that had been accumulating.
- Evening Prayer in the chapel.
- Attended the regular meeting of the Cathedral Chapter, held following dinner at the home of one of its members.
- Usual weekday morning routine. MP in the cathedral.
- Responded by email to an enquiry from the senior warden of one of our Eucharistic Communities in transition.
- After some technological issues, I finally managed to wire via Western Union some designated outreach funds to the bishop of our companion diocese of Tabora (Tanzania).
- Spoke by phone at some length with one of our rectors over an emerging pastoral issue.
- Refined, edited, and printed (and scheduled for posting) the text of my homily for this Sunday (at St Barnabas', Havana).
- Lunch from McD's, eaten at home.
- Substantive phone conversation with the Dean of Nashotah House.
- 45 minutes of quality time on the treadmill.
- Headed north with Brenda at 3:15, arriving at St Paul's, Pekin in time to get oriented and situated and otherwise prepared for the 5:00 rehearsal ahead of the 6:00 liturgy at which we ordained Matthew Dallman to the priesthood. After all the festivities, it was 11:00 before we got home.
Sunday, December 11, 2016
Up and out with Brenda at 8am, headed eastward. Due to an inordinately long wait at the McDonald's drive-through, we arrived at Trinity, Mattoon with only about fifteen minutes to spare before their regular 10am liturgy. Presided, preached, and confirmed. Trinity has a really happy vibe going on under the part-time pastoral leadership of Fr Jeff Kozuszek. We were home by 2pm, grateful that the winter weather that had a more severe impact on northern Illinois came only in the form of light rain during our drive.
Trinity, Mattoon--Matthew 11:2-11
Several years ago, I saw a news item on the internet that caught my attention—one of those “odd but true” stories—about the dissolution of the local branch of a nationwide service club, due to lack of new members. After several decades, they just decided to give up, to disband. Of course, what made the event worthy of note was that it was a branch of the Optimists Club, and disbanding seems … well … the opposite of optimism. At any rate, in our society we tend to value the quality of optimism. You know the old contrast between a “glass half empty” attitude and a “glass half full” attitude. Most of us would rather work with a “glass half full” person than a “glass half empty” person. Robert Kennedy captured this way of thinking, and galvanized a generation of young people nearly a half a century ago when he said something along the lines of, “Some people look at the evil we’ve done and ask, ‘Why?’ I look at the good we haven’t done and ask, ‘Why not?’”
I think we can all see the point Mr Kennedy was trying to make. A person who looks at human experience and sees only suffering and evil, and never beauty or goodness, goes through life perpetually discouraged, with a permanent frown. I think we’ve all known such people. Are they fun to be around? Are they easy to love? Do we not rather tend to build emotional hedges between ourselves and them, in order to protect ourselves from their toxic view of the world? Left alone to unfold naturally, it leads only to bitterness. Ultimately, it leads to a kind of false atheism. I’ve talked to people who are certain there is no God, because a real God would not allow all the suffering that goes on around us. But at the same time, they are awfully angry with the God they claim does not exist!
My hunch is that this bitterly ironic condition is grounded in a failure to exercise the gift of faith. Faith is a gift—a gift from God. And we are not all apportioned an equal quantity or an equal quality of faith. Some are given an extraordinary measure of faith, so they can accomplish extraordinary things for the sake of the Kingdom of God. But every human being is given a sufficient amount and a sufficient quality of faith—faith sufficient to lead away from atheistic bitterness and toward optimistic joy. When we exercise even this minimal measure of faith that is available to all who desire it, we begin to look at life from a very different and very interesting perspective: God’s perspective. When we start to see things from God’s point of view, rather than our own constricted point of view, we see all sorts of things we were not able to see before. This is why, in the New Testament and in the early church, baptism is referred to as “illumination,” and the newly-baptized are spoken of as “enlightened ones.” Through the eyes of faith, we see that God is actively involved in our world, bringing to fulfillment, bit by bit, the petition that Christians offer every time we gather for worship: “thy kingdom come.” When we exercise the gift of faith that each of us has been given, when we see the world through God’s eyes, we start to see signs of wholeness where we previously saw only fragmentation. We start to see signs of life in places where previously we saw only signs of decay and death.
Matthew’s gospel tells us that, toward the end of his life, John the Baptist sat in Herod’s dungeon feeling rather doubtful and dejected. He had poured out his life announcing the imminent arrival of one who would separate the wheat from the chaff and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire—in other words, one who would stand up for righteousness and justice and kick all evildoers into the next millennium. But it wasn’t quite happening that way. Jesus wasn’t kicking anybody anywhere. There were a few healing miracles, but no real action on a grand scale. It was mostly just talk. John began to wonder whether he’d gotten it wrong, whether he’d put all his money on the wrong horse. He sends some of his own disciples to ask Jesus point-blank: “Are you he who is to come, or shall we look for another?” And how does Jesus respond?: “Go and tell John, the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them.” Go and tell John what you see. He’ll know what conclusions to draw.
You and I, of course, as well as those around us, can readily empathize with John the Baptist. We’ve been praying “thy kingdom come” for 2,000 years. But in the century that most of us here this morning have lived most of our lives in, the twentieth century, not only did we fight two world wars, but there was more attempted genocide, and more nearly successful genocide, than at any other time in human history. My friends, this is the point where we are vulnerable to being sucked in to atheistic bitterness, to becoming “glass half-empty” people. Jesus’ word to John is God’s word to us: “Go and tell my people, ‘Look around you. Exercise your faith. See the world through my eyes. Now, what do you see?’”
Well, what do we see? I’ll tell you what I see. I see people overcoming addiction, getting clean and sober, breaking free from the bonds of alcohol and nicotine and heroin and cocaine, and I see this being done through faith, and I give thanks and glory to God for the abundant grace that responds to even a minimal amount of faith. I see marriages that stay intact, even when the vows that brought them into being have been violated in every conceivable way, and I see this being done through faith, and I give glory and thanks to God for the abundant grace that responds to even a minimal amount of faith. I see offenses that get forgiven, even when forgiveness is undeserved, even when forgiveness remains unrequested, and I see this forgiveness healing the lives of those who do the forgiving even more than it benefits the ones who are forgiven, and I see this happening by faith, and I give glory and thanks to God for the abundant grace that responds to even a minimal amount of faith. I see stupid decisions that turn out OK, I see hungry people who get fed, I see stranded people who get reunited with their loved ones, I see first-generation college graduates, I see terrorist attacks that don’t happen, I see wars that get averted, I see nuclear bombs that don’t get built—I see all these things through faith, and I give thanks and glory to God for the abundant grace that responds to even my paltry and minimal amount of faith.
And the best part—the best part for those of us who have made a commitment to live as disciples of Jesus Christ—the best part is that in the gospel ministry of the Church, in our witness to Christ, in our proclamation of the good news, in our works of service to the world, we are already partakers in the blessings of the age to come. In this very celebration of the Eucharist, we, the community of God’s holy ones who have been baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ, we are assembled as a sign, a living icon, of the reality that God’s kingdom is coming, that God’s will is being done. The question before us today is, Is Jesus the one who is to come, or are we to look for another? For the answer, we simply need to exercise the faith we’ve been given, look around us, and see the world through God’s eyes. Then we’ll know what conclusion to draw.
Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.
Saturday, December 10, 2016
After some time on the Bowflex and the treadmill in the morning, Brenda and I were on the road to Jacksonville by 11:15. There we ordained Zachary Brooks to the priesthood, and instituted him as Rector of Trinity Church. This was the second of three close-in-succession presbyteral ordinations, and it was such a happy time.
Friday, December 9, 2016
- Late start to the morning owing to the late end to the prior evening. (There was a time in my life when I could just plow right through such things, but that time is evidently past.) I was in the office around 10:30.
- Attended via email to a fairly minor pastoral concern with one of our clergy.
- Did the same with a fairly minor administrative concern (noting, at the behest of the Treasurer, the odometer reading on the YFNBmobile, and adding up all the non-diocesan related miles I have driven during 2016. Got to keep the tax people happy.
- Reviewed and commented on the draft minutes of the last Diocesan Council meeting.
- Reviewed the draft minutes of the last board meeting of the Society of King Charles the Martyr.
- Responded to a couple of appeals for modest donations from the Bishop's Discretionary Fund.
- Lunch from Rally's, eaten at home.
- Back to the office in time to take part in a two-hour conference call meeting of a Nashotah House committee tasked with one element of preparing for our next accreditation review. This will be a monthly event for a while.
- Plotted master sermon plotting work for 2017 (not as big a job as it sounds).
- Responded via Facebook message to a fairly significant pastoral issue.
- Friday prayer: Ignatian meditation on the Lukan version of the Last Supper narrative.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
- Brief Bowflex workout upon arising. It's been lying fallow for several months and needs to be re-engaged. This is a cyclical thing.
- Short-form MP in the car on the way in to the office. Angelus and intercessions in the cathedral after I got there.
- Participated in a Nashotah-related conference call that lasted about 20 minutes.
- Edited, refined, printed, and posted my homily for this evening's ordination.
- Met with the Administrator and an individual whom it appears we will engage as a temporary contract employee to help us get up and running with the database system we purchased before my sabbatical, but which we don't have the human resource bandwidth to learn how to avail ourselves of yet.
- Played with hot wax: Signed and sealed three ordination certificates.
- Lunch from China One, eaten at home.
- Spent 45 minutes on the treadmill.
- Departed at 2:30 for points east, arriving at Holy Trinity, Danville a couple of hours later.
- Got Richard Lewis properly ordained to the priesthood. Joined in the post-liturgical festivities. Back home right around 11:00.
Thursday, December 8, 2016
Feast of the Immaculate Conception (Holy Trinity, Danville)--John 19:25-27; Genesis 3:8-15, 20; Romans 8:18-30, Psalm 131
What a complete joy it is for us to be together this evening, in this place, doing what we’re doing. It’s been a long time coming. St Paul wrote to the infant Christian community in Rome, in a passage we heard read from this very spot just a few minutes ago, “the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God.” While this is not quite the event Paul had in mind when he wrote those words, perhaps, it’s certainly true that Holy Trinity Parish, and Richard Lewis, have been doing their fair share of “eager longing” for this occasion ever since Father Scanlon moved fully into his well-earned retirement. But Richard’s journey began some good bit even before that. So, tonight is the culmination of an extended process of reflection, discernment, education, formation, preparation, and on-the-job training. As your bishop, I take special joy in the knowledge that, beginning tonight, the people of Holy Trinity will once again have access to the full sacramental ministrations of Holy Mother Church, for which I know you have been hungering and thirsting. You will once again have the Mass on the Lord’s Day and on Holy Days. You will once again have someone to hear your confessions, to baptize your children, to bless your homes, to be for you the iconic presence of Jesus the Good Shepherd, calling you into holiness and missionary faithfulness.
We came together a little more than six months ago to make Richard a deacon, on the feast of the Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary, and here we are now, on another great Marian feast day, which is only a little bit contrived, in deference to the historic piety of this parish, but not very much; the calendar just kind of worked out that way. One of the ways St Paul, in his correspondence with the Corinthian church, speaks of Christ is as a “new Adam,” recapitulating in himself the first Adam, laboriously, in his passion and death, undoing the damage done by Adam’s sin. Developing that theme, then, one of the ways that the Christian tradition speaks of Our Lady is as a “New Eve.” Eve, of course, is complicit in the “original sin” of Adam, and the Church has seen Mary as also complicit with her Divine Son by means of her cooperation in bearing him and becoming the model disciple, capitulating in herself the entire Church. And there is a strong tradition, not yet formally received in Anglicanism, but not formally denied either, that Mary was the beneficiary of God’s prevenient grace in sanctifying her, as it were, in advance, from the moment of her own conception; hence, this feast of the “Immaculate Conception.” A fragment of tonight's epistle reading from Romans hints at this: "Those whom he predestined, he also called; those whom he called, he also justified; those whom he justified, he also glorified." As Eve is the mother of all who live, and the mother of all who sin by putting themselves in the place of God, so Our Lady is the mother of the Church, the body of those who have vowed to forsake sin and return to the worship of the true and living God. There’s a delightful hymn—and we even have it in our hymnal—where this is illustrated by a play on words: the Latin version of “Eve” is “Eva,” and if you swap out the vowels on either side of the V, you get “Ave,” as in “Ave Maria.” We rightly speak of Mary, then, as Mother of the Church. In herself, she personifies the Church; she is an icon of the Church.
Now, a Christian priest, of course, is a priest of God, in a generic sense. Jesus is our Great High Priest, according to the Epistle to the Hebrews, a generic priest “after the order of Melchizedek,” a mysterious Old Testament figure who came from nowhere in particular and departed to nowhere in particular, who just was. The priesthood to which we are ordaining Richard is, among other things, derivative of this generic priesthood. A priest, generically, is one who stands in the breach between a sinful humanity and a holy God. More specifically, however, a Christian priest is a priest of Christ, a recapitulation of Jesus our Great High Priest. As we present Richard with a chalice and paten after anointing his hands later in this liturgy, we will recognize that he is being authorized to “offer sacrifice for the living and dead,” which is the fundamental work of a priest, and the way he will do so, as a Christian priest, is to presides at celebrations of the Mass, standing at the altar in persona Christi, “in the person of Christ,” as alter Christus, “another Christ,” standing in the position of the host at the sacred meal.
But it’s vital that we always remember—Richard, and all of us—it’s vital that we always remember that a priest of Christ never exercises ministry apart from the context of being a priest of the Church, the Church of which the Blessed Virgin Mary is the personification, the iconic recapitulation. In the gospel reading appointed for this occasion, Jesus, hanging on the cross, commends his own mother into the care of John, the Beloved Disciple. He says to John, “Behold your mother.” A Christian priest, as a priest of Christ, can do no less. Richard’s job, and the job of everyone ordained to the priesthood, is to point men and women and children toward the Church and say, “Behold your mother.” Embrace with your mind what the Church teaches and has always taught. Embrace with your heart the inheritance—the traditions, the lore, the collective story of the people of God; embrace it all as your own story. Embrace with your will and your actions the mission and ministry of the Church, to call all people everywhere to reconciliation with God and one another in Christ. In short, embrace your Mother!
I realize, of course, that I am calling you in this into some very “high church” territory, and what I mean by that is that such an understanding of priesthood is rooted in a very “high” ecclesiology, a high view of the nature and identity of the Church. It presumes that the Church is not merely a human voluntary society, but, rather, a complex divinely-created and sustained organism. Richard, certainly in his doing, but more importantly in his being, will proclaim to the baptized faithful of Holy Trinity Church, and, through them, to all of Danville and Vermillion County—Richard will say, with the authority that is being sacramentally conferred on him tonight, “Behold your mother.” Behold the Church. That will happen in the context of proclaiming and fostering the sort of Catholic faith and practice that has long been the hallmark of this parish.
But, it’s a two-way conversation, because the baptized faithful at Holy Trinity, along with his clergy colleagues in the Diocese of Springfield, will also always continuously incarnate “mother” back to Richard, getting in his face, as it were, being Holy Mother Church back to him, and reminding him whose priest he is, and for whom both his being and doing are wondrously configured. That process of configuration has been going on intensely for the last six months, but it’s been ramping up and rolling out gradually over a period of years. It will come to a culmination about ten minutes from now, but the process will not end until Richard can look in a mirror and see a saint, when he can look in a mirror and see Jesus, because now Richard’s very salvation and sanctification is of a piece with his priesthood. We’re not messing around here, my friends. This is serious stuff.
Richard, my brother, please stand.
This whole sermon, as I hope you’ve surmised, has been a “charge” to you, and, when we continue with the liturgical formalities in about a minute, I will give you another one right out of the Prayer Book. So, by way of a homiletical charge, I can’t resist just deploying some of the language of the appointed Psalm for this feast day, Psalm 131. It’s one of my personal favorites, and I commend it to you as a mantra for your life and ministry going forward:
O Lord, I am not proud;
I have no haughty looks.
I do not occupy myself with great matters,
or with things that are too hard for me.
But I still my soul and make it quiet,
like a child upon its mother’s breast;
[and here I will interpolate, remember who your mother is!]
like a child upon its mother’s breast;
my soul is quieted within me.
I suspect that, in this moment, your soul is anything but quiet within you! But that’s OK. Grace is about to abound in a big way, and, with grace, comes peace. Amen.
- Usual weekday morning routine; MP in the cathedral.
- Prepared to preside and preach at the midday Mass.
- Took a final editorial look at the draft program for Richard Lewis' ordination to the priesthood on Thursday evening.
- Dealt by email with some questions from an individual in the ordination pipeline.
- Spoke with the Administrator and the Treasurer over some administrative and financial issues.
- Arranged for a donation from Discretionary Fund to an organization that provides assistance and advice to seminary administrators and board members.
- Took notice of a meeting of Communion Partner bishops in April.
- Worked on my homily for IV Advent (18 December at St Barnabas', Havana).
- Meet with Deacon Tom Langford to discuss the deployment of his gifts for ministry.
- Presided and preached at Mass, keeping the lesser feast of St Ambrose of Milan.
- Lunch from Taco Gringo, eaten at home.
- Dealt via substantive email with a pastoral issue involving one of our clergy.
- Spoke by phone at some length with a priest from outside the diocese who is intimately involved with our companion diocese of Peru, as we try to help out brothers and sisters there navigate some choppy waters.
- Reviewed the draft minutes of our last annual synod, submitted by the secretary, and offered several observations.
- Attended to a routine chore in connection with my membership on the board of Forward Movement.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Tuesday, December 6, 2016
- Task planning at home over breakfast.
- Quickly processed a modest stack of hard-copy items on my desk when I got to the office.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Dealt via email with a pastoral-administrative item that has been on the radar for a few days.
- Got to work on my homily for this Thursday's ordination of Richard Lewis to the priesthood.
- Conferred with the Administrator, the Archdeacon, and the Treasurer on an emergent administrative concern that has financial implications.
- Lunch at home.
- Returned to the ordination sermon, bringing it to the rough draft stage.
- Refined, edited, and printed a working text of my homily for this Sunday at Trinity, Mattoon.
- Hand-wrote notes to a selection of clergy and spouses with December birthdays and anniversaries.
- Cleaned up the desktop on my computer, a periodic routine maintenance chore.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Sunday, December 4, 2016
I intentionally put my closer-in visitations during the months of high-risk weather, since I don't want to be stranded in some of the outer reaches of the diocese (as winsome as places like Albion, Harrisburg, and Carbondale might be). So this morning I lollygagged around the house until it was time to drive three whole miles for preside and preach at St Luke's right here in Capital City at their regular 10:30 liturgy. But now I have a reputation among the parishioners there for making it snow, because it did, just like on the occasion of my last visit. I hope I fed them well sacramentally and homiletically, because they certainly fed me well physically after Mass.
St Luke's, Springfield--Isaiah 11:1-10, Matthew 3:1-12, Romans 15:4-13
None us who are at least 20 years old or so, and had access to a television on the morning of September 11, 2001, will ever forget the image of the massive twin towers of the World Trade Center, still standing, with smoke and flames billowing from their upper stories. They had not yet collapsed, and I don’t think it had even crossed our minds that they might. Yet, as we look back, we know that such damage had already been done that, even as they remained 110 stories tall, they were as good as destroyed. The process was irreversible. We could call them “collapsed skyscrapers standing” the way a condemned prisoner on the way to execution is called a “dead man walking.”
If we were to pause and reflect, we could probably come up with several more instances in our experience when appearance is one thing, and known reality is another, and it’s only a matter of time before the appearance catches up with the reality. Only a matter of time. Time. That’s the catch. In some cases, there is virtually no time at all between reality and appearance. When a tornado hits a trailer park, it’s all over in a matter of seconds. Appearance matches reality. In other cases, there is more of a lag time, and the result can be excruciating. I’ve looked at more than one person in a hospital bed who is warm and breathing and apparently just taking a nap, but whose brain is injured beyond repair and is therefore effectively dead. There is a jarring disconnect between appearance and reality, but at least we know the reality, even if we can’t reconcile it with what we’re seeing.
And sometimes the delay between the reality and the appearance is so long—not days or hours or months, or even years, but centuries—sometimes the delay between reality and appearance is so long that we lose track of any connection between the two. People are born, live, and die—generations come and go—all during the lag time between reality and appearance. And if we live during that lag time, we can be forgiven, perhaps, for failing to make the connection, failing to put the pieces together. We could be forgiven, perhaps, except that we are warned. We are warned continually. We are warned by the season of Advent. We are warned by the prophets of the Old Covenant. We are warned by John the Baptist.
“In those days came John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judea.” So begins the third chapter of the gospel according to St Matthew. John, as we know, did not mince words. He was never known for being subtle, or refined, or even polite, for that matter, let alone sensitive to anyone’s feelings. When the Pharisees and Saducees came out to meet him on the banks of the Jordan River where he was baptizing, his response was, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? … Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees.” Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees. That tree may still be standing. It may have the appearance of a healthy tree, with the prospect of a long future. But in reality, it’s as good as chopped down. You may as well call it “living lumber.” You Pharisees and Saducees may have the appearance of power and prestige. It looks like you are distinguished and influential leaders of the religious establishment. But you are as good as judged. You are as good as cast into the fire. We may as well call you “hamburger on the hoof.”
You see, the God we worship is a God who acts, a God who gets things done. He’s not god the concept; He’s God the Father. He’s not god the theory; He’s God the Son. He’s not God the abstraction; He’s God the Holy Spirit. He is alive and on the loose and He’s always up to something, so He can sometimes be kind of nuisance if we turn our back on him and a little dangerous if we’re not careful. God has big plans for the universe. God has big plans for us—for you and for me. We don’t know everything about the details of God’s plan, and even less about the timing, but we do have several hints as to its broad outline. The prophet Isaiah, writing almost 600 years before Christ, gives us one of the more compelling visions of what God is up to:
The wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, and the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. … They shall not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
This is nothing less than the Peaceable Kingdom. This is nothing less than Eden restored. This is everything as we might wish it, but dared not even ask for. It is a state of affairs so appealing that we go nearly delirious just thinking about it. All the sources of human suffering are eliminated. The world is bathed in peace and love and unspeakable joy. How amazing would it be to live in a world like that?
My friends, this is the reality. The Peaceable Kingdom is reality. Appearance, as we know all too well, has not caught up with reality. Much of the time, in fact, the reality and appearance are so far apart that we don’t make the connection. We assume that what we see and feel is reality. We live as though depression and anxiety and fear are normal. We live as though violence and injustice and oppression and exploitation were permanent features of the human experience. That’s certainly the way things appear. But the good news of the Second Sunday of Advent is that the reality is something else entirely. The structures of evil and sin and death are doomed as surely as were the World Trade Center towers the second they were hit by airplanes. It’s a long lag time, to be sure, and we can, as I have said, be forgiven for missing the connection. That’s why we have Advent. That’s why we have John the Baptist. We need to be reminded.
God’s future is continually breaking into our present. Ever since the forbidden fruit was eaten in the Garden of Eden, God has been on the loose, up to something big. The plan was kept secret for long ages, but, in the fullness of time, it was revealed. It was revealed in the person of Jesus—the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One of God. It was established on the cross and secured in the empty tomb. That’s the reality. When we come together in celebration of the Eucharist, we get a brief glimpse of reality. This glimpse of the reality stirs us to prepare. When the appearance fully catches up with the reality, we want to be ready. John the Baptist tells us how to prepare: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand. …. Bear fruit that is worthy of repentance.” Repentance is not mere breast-beating sorrow or contrition for what we’ve done wrong; it’s a profound change of heart and change of mind leading to change in behavior. Repentance is the work of a lifetime, but it’s particularly the work of Advent.
But repentance is only the first part of preparing—preparing for the appearance of what God is doing to catch up with the reality of what he has done. Repentance leads to the experience of forgiveness and forgiveness strengthens faith, and faith gives birth to hope—abundant and inexpressible hope. The selection from St Paul’s letter to the Romans that forms our second reading at this liturgy begins and ends on a note of hope: “For whatever was written in former days…”—meaning, in Paul’s case, the scriptures of the Old Testament, but we can extend that meaning to cover the New Testament as well—
Whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that by steadfastness and the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope. … May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, through the power of the Holy Spirit.
To that blessing I can add nothing but, “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.”
Friday, December 2, 2016
I spent the bulk of the day at St Barnabas', Havana, meeting with transitional deacons Zach Brooks and Matthew Dallman, both of whom will (God willing) be ordained to the priesthood in a matter of days, to do some last-minute colloquium and practicum on matters liturgical. It's one thing to know a lot about the details of liturgical practice, but there's nothing that quite compares with actually being at the altar presiding at the Eucharist. So we worked through some of the details that you only notice if you're the one doing it. I got back home around 4:00, and spent some time with homiletical spiff-up--both for this Sunday (St Luke's, Springfield) and next (Trinity, Mattoon). Also had a substantive Nashotah-related conversation by phone on the way up to Havana in the morning. All in a bishop's day's work.
Thursday, December 1, 2016
Our bishops-of-small-dioceses meeting ended officially after breakfast, but, since my flight home wasn't until 4pm, I hung out at the conference center with a handful of others whose flights were also later in the day. Processed some emails as they came in, caught up by phone with an old friend, spoke by phone about a more immediately substantive concern, and eventually took the very fine light rail train out to the airport. To my great relief, the air travel all went smoothly and on schedule, and I pulled into my driveway around 10:15.
Wednesday, November 30, 2016
Still in Salt Lake City for the meeting of the "bishops of small dioceses" group. (The Presiding Bishop was also with us last night and this morning.) We discussed a wide range of issues, some planned and some spontaneous, all broadly concerned with what might be labeled "missionary strategy," with particular attention to our rapidly-changing societal environment. This included looking at a couple of General Convention resolutions from 2015, one of which encourages dioceses to consider merging and consolidating (not a popular concept in any given diocese) and the other creating a task force to examine the means by which bishops are chosen. In the afternoon, we heard from a representative of the Church Pension Group about the rollout of some major changes (all positive, IMO) in the pension plan for clergy. In the midst of all this, I managed to squeeze in two quite substantive phone conversations about emerging pastoral matters. We celebrated the Eucharist at 5:00 and then walked to a nearby restaurant for a lovely dinner.
Tuesday, November 29, 2016
Up and out at an ungodly hour to catch the 5:40am United flight from Springfield to Chicago, then a 9:10 departure for Salt Lake City. I'm here for an annual (more or less) meeting of a group called "bishops of small dioceses," which is self-selecting. By any measure, though, Springfield qualifies. Last time we met, there were only about five in attendance. This year there are more than double that number, including two from the Anglican Church of Canada. There always seems to be something substantial coming out of these meetings that benefits our life together in the Diocese of Springfield.
Sunday, November 27, 2016
Celebrated, preached, and confirmed at St Thomas', Salem. As always, a tasty post-liturgical repast and lots of good conversation. Hit the road for home just before noon and pulled into the driveway a little past 2:00. Sunday mornings are the highlight of my week, every week. And I get paid to do this. Amazing.
Marion County Parish--Matthew 24:37-44, Isaiah 2:1-15, Romans 13:8-14
Having raised three children into adulthood, I’ve had many occasions on which to reflect, over the past several years, on the differences between the environment in which they were raised and the environment in which I was raised. In many respects, my children and I were raised in very different worlds. But there is one experience, at least, that they and I share. We’ve all had some version of the following conversation—I with my parents, my children with me: “Why do you want to do that?” “Because all the other kids are.” “Well, if all the other kids were jumping off a cliff, would you want to do that too?” And the conversation usually breaks down at about that point with a sigh and rolled eyes. Peer pressure wasn’t new yesterday and it won’t be old tomorrow. It’s part of growing up, a universal experience that young people have to deal with.
But what we may be less aware of is that peer pressure is not just for young people anymore. All of us—whether we’re seven or seventy-seven, or any other age—we all experience a tremendous amount of sometimes subtle but always present pressure from our peers in the culture around us. Pressure from our cultural surroundings is intense, virtually irresistible at times. I was raised in a Christian subculture that was opposed to social dancing. (If you were to ever see me on a dance floor, this fact would become painfully obvious.) When I was in first grade, my teacher decided that, on the last day of school, we’d have a dance. She told us to bring our favorite records. When I conveyed this request to my mother, she had a fit! She instructed me to tell my teacher that dancing was “against my religion.” My mother and I experienced peer pressure from our culture. Now, I can’t say I was crushed by having to be a wallflower at my first dance; that’s kind of my personality anyway. But I didn’t quite get it either. Dancing seemed pretty normal to me—people did it on TV all the time. Later, when I was in high school, I was a little more wistful about it. I was aware that being the kind of Christian that my parents had raised me to be placed me outside the norm of the larger culture. What was normal for most people was not normal for me.
We all want to be normal. We want to fit in. We don’t want to call attention to ourselves by being odd or quirky. And most Christians like to think that it’s possible to be a Christian and still “go with the flow,” to be a Christian and still be quite “normal.” Episcopalians, in particular, seem to be invested in not calling attention to ourselves by our religiosity. We don’t want our piety or our prayer or our religious language to cause us to stand out in a crowd. We want to practice Christian religion in the most “normal” way possible, along with being “normal” voters and normal drivers and normal homeowners and parents and grandparents and patriotic citizens.
We have much in common with some of our prehistoric ancestors, those who were around in what Jesus refers to as “the days of Noah.” Now, when you read the book of Genesis, it’s quite clear that the reason God destroyed the earth with a flood in “the days of Noah” was because of rampant violence and evil in human society. But Jesus, curiously, doesn’t mention anything about that violence and evil. When Jesus talks about the “days of Noah,” he mentions eating and drinking and marrying and giving in marriage—all pretty normal, boringly normal, stuff. It was, in fact, their attachment to those and other perfectly normal activities that caused them to be blindsided by divine judgement when it arrived in the form of a flood.
I fear that we in our society are also allowing ourselves to be set up to be blindsided by divine judgement. We want to eat and drink and marry and give in marriage, and go to school, and travel, and work, and make friends, and save for and enjoy a comfortable retirement, and have some fun along the way, and—some of us, at least—to even be a little religious along the way, as long as we don’t make too big a deal out of it. Until relatively recent decades, our society fostered the notion that being a good Christian is really just an extension of being a good citizen—live by the golden rule and attend the church of your choice on Sunday. All very normal. Until it starts to rain and the flood waters rise and we realize, too late, that we should have been paying more attention to that kooky fellow named Noah (nothing normal about him) who spent so much time building a boat in his backyard.
However, it’s not only our attachment to the normal that will blind us to the impending judgement of God, but also our seemingly endless capacity to normalize that which is really ab-normal or sub-normal. There are several examples I could point to, but one in particular impresses me just because of the years I spent in parish ministry. I would suspect that, forty or fifty years ago, an unmarried couple who were living together, but wanted to do the right thing, and get properly married, would probably expect that the priest whom they hoped would officiate at their wedding would require them to first move to separate addresses, and probably also ask them to plan a sort of low-key wedding. There was an element of appropriate shame involved in the whole process. Thirty or forty years ago, the same couple would at least try to conceal the fact that they share sleeping quarters, and if they couldn’t conceal it, to at least smile shyly and act duly apologetic and embarrassed. Nowadays, and for the last couple of decades, the same couple wouldn’t even think to either conceal what they’d been doing or be embarrassed about it in the least. They’re not being rebellious; it just wouldn’t occur to them. It strikes them as eminently normal, simply the way things are done—and they’re right, it is the way things are done. You meet somebody, sleep together, live together, and then, if everything works out, you get married. You may even have a child or two first!
We have indeed normalized the sub-normal, in this and in so many other ways. And in our attachment to the normal—whether it’s true normality or false normality—the last thing we want to hear is the message of Advent, which is a message of consequences, a message of responsibility, a message of judgement. It’s a message that confronts us, of course, all throughout the year, but in Advent it takes on a tone of urgency. Jesus says, “Watch, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Right there is a challenge to the normal. It’s not normal to be always watchful, always vigilant, always aware that cataclysmic radical change may arrive at any moment.
But that’s the attitude that Jesus urges us to have. And if we’re looking for comfort on this first Sunday of Advent, we won’t find it from St Paul. His message is just as pointed at Jesus’:
“...you know what hour it is, how it is full time for you now to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand. Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light...”.
Advent is God’s alarm clock, waking us from our complacent attachment to the normal. It’s time to wake up and smell the coming of Christ! It’s time to get up, and lay aside what’s normal and make a radical decision, a radical commitment to Christ, lest we find ourselves in the position of those who lived in the days of Noah, but also died in the days of Noah, because they weren’t on the ark when the rains came. It’s time for us normal Episcopalians to start doing and saying things that risk getting the attention of those around us, things that might relegate us to the margins of our culture, for the sake of Christ and the gospel of Christ. We need to learn from the experience of some of our Christian brothers and sisters in other traditions—traditions we may have looked down on as marginal or fanatical or a little odd—but traditions that have maintained a healthy critical distance from the prevailing secular culture. We may not agree with them in the details—I, for one, don’t think the dance floor is the beginning of the road to Hell—but they have learned a point of view, a habit of the heart, that we would do well to imitate. Dancing will not damn us, but an attachment to being “normal” just might.
Jesus says that when he comes again in power and great glory to judge the world, people will be found doing normal things. Two men will be working in the field, two women will be grinding at the mill. We might add signs of normality that are more appropriate to our experience: two men on the same factory floor, or on the same putting green; two women working in the same office, or taking their children to the same park. At first glance, one is indistinguishable from the other. But Jesus says, at the moment of his coming, they will look very different indeed. One will be revealed as among those who have been co-opted, seduced, by normality, who have persistently excluded God from their lives, and will therefore be allowed to reap the fruit, the natural consequences, of those choices. The final portion of the Godless is to be without God. The other will be revealed as part of the community of the redeemed, the company of those who have yielded their hearts and lives to the Lord of history. They will enjoy the vision of universal justice and peace which Isaiah, the prophet of the Advent, writes about so movingly: “...they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore.”
Are we willing to risk being a little bit “different,” a little bit “abnormal” now, for the sake of being numbered among those who are “taken” rather than “left” on that great day? Now is the hour of decision, the crisis is now. Jesus wants to do business in your heart, in my heart, today. But he can’t do the work he wants to do if we don’t let loose of being normal. Are we ready to give it up? The phone’s for you. It’s Jesus. He’s on hold, waiting for your answer. What’s it going to be?
Come, Lord Jesus. Amen.
Saturday, November 26, 2016
Grateful for two days of extended-family time (basically, my family-or-origin, including my 90-year old mother), with assorted offspring, spouses of offspring, and lots of babies and toddlers. The total count, at its peak, was well north of 30. Brenda and I returned to Springfield Friday evening. Today I indulged in a leisurely morning, processed a stack of emails, did some task organizing, took a walk, packed for an overnight, and headed south around 3pm. That put me at St John's, Centralia in time to preside, preach, and confirm one adult. I'm now camped out at the Hampton Inn in Mt Vernon ahead of tomorrow's visitation to the other Eucharistic Community of Marion County Parish--St Thomas', Salem.
Wednesday, November 23, 2016
- Task planning, as well as substantive attention to an emerging pastoral issue, at home.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Prepared to celebrate and preach at the midday Mass.
- Attended to that same pastoral issue, via a couple of phone calls and an email.
- Gathered and duly submitted expense documentation for my trip to Mississippi last week.
- Looked around at various pockets I might pick and put together some short-term financial aid for one of our postulants.
- Scanned the pile of items in my physical inbox.
- Finally gave up on writing any birthday/anniversary notes to clergy and spouses with nodal events in November, and received the December stack.
- Went over to the chapel to celebrate Mass, but it was one of those relatively rare occasions when nobody showed.
- Lunch from La Bamba, eaten at home. Stayed home to work for the afternoon.
- Finished tagging and organizing the items I scanned before I left the office.
- Dealt with correspondence from "national church" officials regarding the diocese's relationship to the budget of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society (aka "the national church").
- Kept an appointment for a donation of red cells at the blood bank.
- Evening Prayer in my recliner.
Tuesday, November 22, 2016
- Task planning at home; MP in the cathedral.
- Addressed a bit of administrivia pertaining to our diocesan church camp program, which is processing the shock of our longtime partner, the Diocese of Quincy (once TEC, now ACNA) is pulling out of the relationship.
- Briefly addressed a bit of pastoralia concerning one of our seminarians.
- Took a phone call from a priest regarding someone else in the ordination process.
- Refined, edited, and printed the working text of my homily for this weekend in Marion County Parish.
- Went to lunch with John-Paul Buzzard, communicant of St John the Divine Chapel in Champaign, and organ builder extraordinaire.
- Kept a dental hygiene appointment. Good marks this time (in contrast to last time).
- Performed major surgery on an old text of a homily for II Advent, repurposing for use at St Luke's, Springfield.
- Wrote a note of encouragement to a colleague bishop who is facing some serious health issues.
- Conceived and hatched a homily for the ordination of Richard Lewis to the priesthood on December 8, the Feast of the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Sunday, November 20, 2016
St Michael's, O'Fallon--Colossians 1:11-20, Luke 23:35-43, Jeremiah 23:1-6
As many of you know, my father was born and raised in Brazil. He immigrated to this country when he was in his twenties, and became a naturalized U.S. citizen when he was about forty. Being Brazilian, of course, he knew nothing about that quintessential American pastime—baseball. I, on the other hand, was raised in the suburbs of Chicago, so, despite my Brazilian ancestry, I was keenly interested in baseball. When my dad, being the dutiful father that he was, took me to my first big league ball game, he brought along an issue of TIME magazine to keep him occupied! Now, if you know about baseball, you know that there’s a certain subtlety and relaxed sophistication to the game that causes those who are not brought up on it to find it boring. When you’re raised on soccer, a baseball game must seem like nothing’s going on most of the time. That isn’t true, of course, but it seems that way. Until you reach a certain threshold of knowledge and experience, baseball can be both confusing and dull. But when you cross that threshold, a baseball game becomes a work of performance art, always a potential masterpiece in the making, a thing of beauty and a source of joy.
I cannot help but reflect that there is a similar dynamic at work in the liturgy of the church, the worship of Almighty God. There are those who attend church—certainly the majority of our “Christmas and Easter” friends, but even many who attend more frequently—for whom the liturgy is like a baseball game for my Brazilian father 54 years ago. There are those for whom being in church is something to be endured—patiently much of the time, but often with a good bit of fidgeting and even resentment. Their minds are not challenged by the mystery of the gospel, their hearts are not uplifted in praise to the God of all creation, and their wills are not moved to obedience and sacrifice in the cause of Christ. Our response to being present at Christian worship is commensurate with our experience of the living God. Experience shapes perception
Imagine for a moment that you work for the newspaper, The Daily Planet, and one of your colleagues is a reporter named Clark Kent. You’re likely to think of him as a nice enough guy, a good reporter, good-looking, perhaps, and a decent human being. But if I were to suggest that you should be in awe of Clark Kent, respectfully silent in his presence, because he’s faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound, you would think I’d gone around the bend. And your opinion of my suggestion would be based on your experience of Clark Kent, mild-mannered reporter.
Two of our readings from scripture today lead us to perceive our Lord Jesus in the same light in which an employee of The Daily Planet might perceive Clark Kent. Jeremiah describes a wise and righteous king whom the Lord will raise up to rule over his people. The church has always understood this passage to be a foreshadowing of the coming of Christ. But the king that Jeremiah describes is not a conquering hero, not overflowing with machismo, not enthroned in royal splendor. Rather, this righteous king rules over his people with the gentle care of a shepherd. Talk about a mild-mannered profession! A shepherd-king is not likely to evoke a sense of awe and wonder.
The reading from Luke’s gospel is even less flattering. Jesus hangs on the cross, in abject weakness. The guards and the soldiers and the temple authorities are mocking his claim to kingship as he hangs there bleeding to death. Every indication is that they will indeed have the last laugh. This scene is poignant, and it may evoke pity. But taken by itself, it does not present us with a picture of the kind of king we would want to pay homage to. Experience shapes perception, and the experience of a mild-mannered shepherd king, and a young man dying in weakness on a cross, does not lead us to a perception of Jesus Christ as a king worthy of our adoration and worship. We are like the foreigner who finds baseball confusing and dull. We have not crossed the necessary threshold of knowledge and experience.
The epistle reading appointed for this last Sunday of the Christian year comes at the mystery of the kingship of Christ from an entirely different direction. Listen to the words of St Paul to the Colossians:
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or principalities or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be pre-eminent.
This is no docile shepherd, no dying figure on a cross. This is the Lord of the universe, the be-all and end-all of everything that is. This is Ultimate Reality.
So why aren’t we shaking in our boots?
We remain unmoved because it seems so far away. If the portrait of Christ painted in the letter to the Colossians were the only one I had, my attachment and devotion to him would be about as profound as that which I feel toward the manufacturer of my iPhone. It is intricately designed, with a great deal of sophistication that is beyond my comprehension. But one of these days it will break or wear out, or just be superseded by a newer model. It will then be unceremoniously tossed in a drawer, and the person or persons who made it will neither mourn nor even know of the demise of their handiwork. If our perception of Christ is like our perception of a cell phone maker, it is no wonder that our minds and hearts and wills are left cold and unmoved by worship. We have not yet experienced an object of worship that is worthy of free-flowing praise and adoration.
It is only when we combine the images of Jeremiah’s shepherd-king, and Luke’s dying savior, with Paul’s pre-eminent cosmic Lord of all creation, that we begin to get a clue. It is when we bring those visions into coherence and focus that we leap over that threshold of perception that moves us from boredom and confusion into wonder and awe. And the clue that makes this movement possible is this: it is precisely through—not in spite of, but through—his suffering servanthood that the cosmic Christ demonstrates his worthiness of our praise and adoration and thanks. This is the mind-bending, heart-warming, action-inducing paradox of the gospel. This is the mystery which, if embraced, will make regular worshipers out of Christmas and Easter churchgoers, and devoted followers of Christ out of complacent pew-warmers.
There is no illustration that can do justice to this paradoxical mystery of divine kingship revealed through suffering servanthood. But there are any number of telltale traces in our experience; it’s as if Christ our servant-king has left markers all over the place which, if we will observe them, will lead us to him. In the early 1980s, when Great Britain mounted a successful military campaign to oust Argentine forces from the Falkland Islands, many were impressed that the Queen’s own blood was on the line, in the person of her son, Prince Andrew, who was the pilot of a Royal Navy helicopter. More recently, one of the Queen’s grandsons was for a brief while in harm’s way as a member of the British military in Afghanistan. The sight of royalty putting its own neck on the block is ennobling, and stirs the spirit. It is a marker that points us to Christ the king who was obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
Every Holy week, on Maundy Thursday, the Bishop of Rome, spiritual father to a billion Christians, humbles himself to wash the feet of twelve members of the congregation in St Peter’s Basilica. Of course, the pope is himself waited on hand and foot the rest of the year, but his actions on Maundy Thursday nevertheless are a marker that points us to Christ the King, in all things pre-eminent, in whom and through whom all things were created, but who did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself, taking the form of a servant. When we follow these and other markers that God, in his mercy, has left in our path, we come to know Christ the King. We cross that vital threshold of knowledge and experience that elevate us from grudging observers of worship to full-throated participants.
In time, my father learned the game of baseball. At the meal following his funeral, we all wore Cubs hats specifically in his honor, because he had become a true fan of both the Cubs and the game of baseball. And if my Brazilian father can become a baseball fan, that, to me, is a sign of abundant hope that, even as we are here today in the very courts of the Most High God, the scales can be lifted from our eyes and we can catch such of glimpse of his glory that our hearts will burn within us and our voices will shout with praise to Christ, who is our tender shepherd, and our crucified savior, and our heavenly king. All hail the power of Jesus’ name, who alone is worthy to be crowned with many crowns. Alleluia and Amen.