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.
Saturday, November 19, 2016
Other than attending a three-hour meeting of the Commission on Ministry, and taking a healthy long walk in the afternoon, I must confess that I had an utterly unproductive day, spending my evening watching three consecutive episodes of the Netflix series The Fall. So, those who have been counseling me, "Bishop, get some rest," take due note. The Bishop got himself some rest.
Friday, November 18, 2016
- Usual AM routine at home.
- MP in the cathedral.
- Liturgical and homiletical prep for the Diocesan Council Mass.
- Quick conference with the Archdeacon on a couple of emerging matters.
- Began work on refining my homily for this Sunday.
- Presided and preached at the Diocesan Council Mass (keeping the lesser feast of St Hilda of Whitby).
- Presided over the regular quarterly meeting of the Diocesan Council.
- Conferred briefly with two of our clergy following the meeting.
- Lunch from Taco Gringo, eaten at home.
- Resumed work on Sunday's sermon (to be delivered at St Michael's, O'Fallon).
- Spoke by phone with the Dean of Nashotah House for a bit.
- Put this Sunday's homily in the can and began cleaning of the text of next week's (Advent Sunday in both Eucharistic Communities of Marion County Parish).
- Signed the form consenting to the Diocese of Haiti electing a Bishop Suffragan.
- Put the finishing touches on and sent along an article for the Covenant blog.
- Conferred with Dean Hook over a handful of relatively minor matters.
- Registered to attend the annual Mass of the Society of King Charles the Martyr in January in Philadelphia.
- Prayed the Luminous Mysteries of the Rosary.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Thursday, November 17, 2016
Wednesday, November 16, 2016
The retreat with Diocese of Mississippi clergy concluded by midday. I was driven to Jackson, taken to lunch, and dropped off at a Hampton Inn, where I spend the afternoon resting, responding to some emails, and writing an article for the next print edition of the Springfield Current. (But you don't have to wait, you can click here and see it now.) In the evening, I attended a small dinner party at the home of a prominent Episcopalian laywoman here in Jackson. Beginning the journey home (via Houston and Chicago) in the morning.
Tuesday, November 15, 2016
Another good day of candid, sometimes raw, and always grace-filled conversation with the bishop and a group of clergy in the Diocese of Mississippi over how we continue to be with one another despite deep theological differences over sexuality and marriage. This is really important work that I am honored to be included in as a guest.
Monday, November 14, 2016
A day of air travel, then getting settled in at the Gray Center near Canton, MS. Spending a couple of days with the Bishop and some of the clergy of the Diocese of Mississippi, facing into deep differences around marriage and looking at how we might remain in communion across those differences.
Sunday, November 13, 2016
Here's the combined parish of Tazewell County (St Paul's, Pekin and All Saints, Morton) gathered after Mass this morning at All Saints. There is a spirit of optimism there under the new energetic leadership of Matthew Dallman, whom we will ordain to the priesthood a month from today at St Paul's.
Tazewell County Parish--Luke 21:5-19, II Thessalonians 3:6-13
We are less than six weeks away now from the end of a calendar year and the beginning of a new one. When I was much younger, that sort of thing used to impress me, but I don't really give it much thought anymore. Those of us who were old enough to be conscious of the passage of time 17 years ago may remember all the hype that surrounded not only the arrival of a new year or a new decade, but a new century and a new millennium. We all took a deep breath, and when we saw that everything didn’t grind to a halt because of a Y2K virus, we exhaled and moved on. And when the western world marked the transition from the year 999 to the year 1000, there were widespread apocalyptic predictions. Surely such an occasion was a fitting time for God to bring history to an end and declare Judgment Day. Many sincerely thought that would be the case. Of course, many thought that would also be the case if the Cubs ever won the World Series, but, hey, we’re still here, right?!
Ours is not the only age when some Christians have thought the world was approaching the end times. There has always been a cacophony of voices, Christian and otherwise, making similarly strange and dire predictions. Some will strike us as obviously crazy. You may remember a guy named Harold Camping who covered himself with embarrassment not too long ago by trying to predict the day and the hour. Others will seem to make more sense. Those that make sense will, no doubt, enumerate the events of the last 120 years in support of their case. Take yourself back to the late 1890s. There was, in that time, a widespread sense of optimism about the future of the human race. There was even a suggestion to disband the patent office, because everything that needed to be invented was already invented. In the wake of Charles Darwin’s radical theory of biological evolution, with humankind constantly evolving into a higher form of life, it was thought that intellectual progress, moral development, and social improvement were likewise inevitable. If we could just educate the masses, then slavery and war and poverty and child labor and all of our other social problems would soon disappear. Utopia was just around the corner. This sense of optimism even infected Christian theology. The duty of Christians was to usher in the kingdom of God. God had given us both the duty and the ability, so it was thought, to work in such a way that, within a generation or two, the lion would be lying down with the lamb and children would safely play with poisonous snakes.
Then came something we now call World War I. It decimated an entire generation of young men in western Europe and shattered the myth of inevitable human progress. And then, as if to drive home the point, the Second World War picked up the pieces of that shattered myth and ground them to dust and scattered them to the winds. And in case we're ever tempted to forget that fact, our attention is periodically refocused by the likes of a Hitler or a Stalin or groups like ISIS or Boko Haran.
But it doesn't stop there. Of course, we can't turn on CNN without hearing of “wars and rumors of wars,” hundreds of them scattered over the world. And after the wars come reports of periodic outbreaks of famine and disease: Ebola, MRSA, flesh-eating bacteria, resurgent forms of the plague, etc. etc. But we really don't need CNN to tell us what 's wrong in the world, because few of us feel safe walking the streets of our own neighborhoods at night, and we can witness firsthand the erosion of the family as the primary social unit, and the breakdown of any notion of objective morality, sexual and otherwise. Thank God for the Church, which is a safe harbor in a stormy world.
But is it?
Even within the Church there is unrelenting pressure to treat the scriptures and creeds as documents of purely human origin, and to remake God into the image of what we would like God to be, rather than how God has actually revealed himself. So even the Church is not the refuge we sometimes assume it to be.
No wonder it's so easy to draw a crowd by announcing a study of the Book of Revelation! Wars, diseases, natural disasters—it feels, at least, like we are living in apocalyptic times. Hear these words once again that appear in our liturgy today from Luke's gospel: “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and pestilences; and there will be terrors and great signs from heaven.” For Luke's original readers, these were the signs that were meant to accompany the destruction of the holy city of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD. But subsequent generations of Christians have understood this passage to refer to the end of this world and the beginning of the next—in other words, the second coming of Christ, Judgment Day, the end of history. So when we read the Bible, and then read the newspaper, it is very tempting to simply head for the nearest hilltop and wait for the Lord's appearing. Leave the world to rot in its own decadence; Jesus is coming soon.
Leave the church to its own decadence; Jesus is coming soon.
Withdraw. Disengage. Wait. This was the attitude apparently adopted by at least some members of the infant church in the city of Thessalonica. They reasoned that since Jesus was coming soon anyway, why work? Why get involved with the life of the world and the problems of the world? Why not just live off the groceries that are already in the cupboards and the money already saved in the mattress? So they quit working! St Paul, who had led that community to faith in Christ only a few months earlier, had to write and use stern language with these people: Let those who refuse to work not eat!
Paul's word to the Thessalonians is also a good one for us to hear as we read the ominous signs of the times and face the temptation to withdraw from the world, or the church, or from wherever it is that the Lord has placed us, in expectation of the imminent collapse of the status quo. The way of withdrawal is not the way of the gospel. It is not the way of Christ, in whose way you and I are pledged to follow.
For Jesus, the path leading to the glory of the resurrection led straight through the cross! He went not up to glory before he was crucified, and entered not into joy but first he suffered death. For us, the path that leads to redemption and forgiveness and reconciliation leads right through the middle of the world—yes, even the world which lies under a sentence of condemnation.
It is indeed true that our Lord has commanded us to not be of the world. We who bear the name of Christ are to eschew the values and priorities of this world, and any of its social conventions or institutions that are dishonoring to God or that deny the dignity of any of his human creatures. But while we are busy making sure we are not of the world, let us not forget the other part of Jesus' command: We are to be in the world. We are not to be of it, but we are to be in it. This means that disengagement and withdrawal are not options for a faithful Christian, even as we recognize that the world is rotten, that the rottenness has even spilled over into and infected the Church, and even as we believe that things will not really get much better until the Lord does intervene and bring history to an end.
Rather, we express our faith in the Lord of history by continuing to do our duty within history. There's a story about one of the monastic saints—I honestly forget whether it was supposed to have been Benedict or Francis, but it was one of the two—one of these fellows was hoeing a garden one day when he was asked, “What would you do if you knew the second coming of Christ were going to happen within the next minute?” Without even stopping to think, this saint calmly replied, “I'd try to finish hoeing this row.” In other words, if Jesus comes today, I want him to find me doing my duty, I want him to find me faithful in the task to which he had assigned me.
This is, I realize, an intimidating and fearful prospect. It is much more appealing and comforting, in the face of all the nastiness in the world, to hole up and batten down the hatches in our secured subdivisions and not worry about how to make the streets safer for everyone, to no longer concern ourselves with feeding the hungry and clothing the naked, to not bother with making wise political decisions that reflect the values of the gospel, to let the rest of the Church go to hell in a hand basket as long as we have our parish and our diocese. Easier, and more comforting, but also irresponsible.
However, my friends, we are not without hope and encouragement in this high and difficult calling. First, we have Jesus's promise that he will always be with us, and that we will suffer no eternal harm. “Not a hair of your head will perish,” he tells us in today's gospel, “by your endurance you will gain your lives.” Second, we have the sacramental manifestation of that promise in the fellowship of the Church, the community of God's faithful ones. Put bluntly, we have one another. We are the presence of Christ to one another. We can claim God's promise that for those who worship the name of the Lord, in the words of the prophet Malachi, “the sun of righteousness will rise, with healing in its wings.” And every time we present ourselves at this altar, the same Lord who makes that promise provides us with a foretaste and an assurance of its fulfillment. We live in a world filled with evil and sin, sickness, random violence and death, poverty and injustice, moral depravity of every sort. But we serve a God who is a God of life and hope and healing and forgiveness and justice and peace and love. Our job is not to run away from that nasty world, but to introduce that world to its God. He will supply what it takes to accomplish that task.
Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.
Saturday, November 12, 2016
Aside from a leisurely morning and a late afternoon walk, I devoted my productive energy today to finishing up my prep for next week's clergy event in Mississippi. Still on the mend from the traumas of the week before last, but progress has been very, very good. I'm almost feeling like myself again.
Friday, November 11, 2016
- Usual AM routine. MP in the cathedral.
- Did the usual homiletical surgery on an old text for Proper 29 (Christ the King), to be delivered at St Michael's, O'Fallon, freshening it up for contemporary use.
- Finally read and responded the autumnal Ember Day letters our postulants, candidates, and transitional deacons sent me in September. What a great group of upcoming ordinands we have.
- Resumed prep work for my trip to the Diocese of Mississippi next week.
- Lunch with Fr Dave Wells, one of our recent ordinands in a status I call "ready reserve," where he can be deployed to a variety of situations on a supply and short-term basis.
- Participated in a tw0-hour conference call with a Nashotah House committee in connection with our accreditation review self-study. This will be a monthly gig for a while.
- Back to work on my Mississippi prep. Finished this particular phase of the project.
- Attended to some routine December personal planning chores.
- Spent a period of silent prayer in front of the Blessed Sacrament before reading the evening office.
Thursday, November 10, 2016
- Usual AM routine; MP in the cathedral.
- Reviewed some documents in preparation for two morning meetings.
- Sat down with the Administrator to do some 2017 calendar work.
- Began working on the final refinement of my homily for this Sunday (Tazewell County Parish).
- Attended the regular semi-annual meeting of the trustees of the diocesan investments, along with our investment advisor from Bush-O'Donnell in St Louis.
- Met briefly with the Chancellor (who was here for the Trustees meeting).
- Chipped away some more on the sermon for Proper 28.
- Met by phone, wearing a different trustee hat, with the two individuals at U.S. Trust with whom I work in connection with my trusteeship of the Putnam Trust, which generously benefits two of our parishes.
- More work on the sermon.
- Lunch from McD's, eaten at home. (Yes, the McDonald's on MacArthur still has hot mustard sauce; a relief every time.)
- Completed refining my homily, printed it out, and scheduled it to appear online on Sunday at 10am.
- Wrote a belated condolence note to a member of the Nashotah House corporation on the loss of his wife late in the summer.
- Responded to a couple of emails that had been in abeyance.
- Devoted the rest of the afternoon (about two hours) to preparing for my participation next week in a clergy event in the Diocese of Mississippi, following up on some similar work I did there about a year ago.
- Evening Prayer in the cathedral.
Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Clergy conference continued. We had Morning Prayer after breakfast, a morning session, Mass (Votive for the Unity of the Church) at 11:15, lunch, and an afternoon session. We wrapped it up a little past 2:00. Brenda and I headed north to Springfield, stopping by an urgent care clinic before going home. An allergic reaction to conductive gel used in my many procedures last week has become an issue. They gave me a steroid shot, which I hope will quickly make it a non-issue.
- A "normal" weekday morning--the first, actually, since the end of my sabbatical more than three weeks ago.
- Task planning with breakfast, at home.
- Stopped by the local polling place to cast my ballot on the way into the office. Only nine minutes from my car and back to it.
- Morning Prayer in the cathedral.
- Created service leaflets (of a rather minimalist sort) for worship at the clergy conference.
- Reviewed my December visitations. Read an email report about one of them. Created some tasks.
- Walked across the alley to chat with the Dean about celebrant/preacher duties at the cathedral for Christmas and Holy Name. I'll be there for both weekends.
- Lunch from La Bamba, eaten at home.
- Worked with Brenda on some of the liturgical-musical details for the clergy conference.
- Hit the road with her for Toddhall Retreat Center, which is exactly a two-hour drive from our home.
- Ate, worshiped, and talked with the diocesan clergy assembled. We're looking at classic texts to think about issues of missionary strategy and cultural engagement.
- Hung out in the lounge watching election returns until about 10:30, then called it a night.
Sunday, November 6, 2016
Up and out with Brenda and down to St Paul's, Carlinville by 8:45, ahead of their regular 9:15am liturgy. As always, we were received with great cordiality, and the talents of their organist, Diane Aiken, make being there a treat. We were home a little past noon, and I indulged in a long nap. Still feeling, as they say, "puny" after last week's medical adventures. Later in the afternoon I did a good but of sermon planning organizing, so my homiletical work is planned through the end of the 2017 post-Epiphany season.
St Paul's, Carlinville--Luke 20:27-38, Job 19:23-27a
Is anyone here into video games? I’m not, but, apparently, a lot of my “friends” on Facebook are addicted to something called Candy Crush. A long, long time ago, in the days before the internet was available to ordinary households, my children persuaded their mother and me to get them something called Nintendo, which I think you can probably now get at antique shops, but, for a while there in the early 1990s, was the “state of the art” in home video game systems.
The most popular Nintendo game was something with the unlikely name of “Mario Brothers.” Mario is the character whose actions are controlled by the one playing the game—he looks sort of like a Venetian gondolier in painter's overalls. The object is to guide Mario through a series of 32 increasingly hostile environments that are known as "worlds.” In each world, Mario confronts various hazards—deadly objects being thrown at him and monsters that want to eat him, and the like.
There are two very interesting features of the worlds that Mario travels through. First, they allow him to behave as if he's immortal, because, most of the time, he is. Mario is able to cheat death by performing various feats —some rather routine, some more heroic—and thereby earn extra “lives.” So when he gets eaten or falls off a cliff—not to worry, there's usually an extra life waiting for him. Second, when Mario makes the transition from one "world" to the next, he takes with him all the weapons and other paraphernalia and extra “lives” that he had earned in the previous one. In these two respects, Mario is an expression of two common human fantasies and aspirations.
We all go through a phase in life—generally in childhood and young adulthood—when we really do feel like we're immortal, like we're immune to death. As the list of those people whom we've known and are indeed now dead gets longer and longer, and as the physical decline of middle age sets in, we tend to lose that particular fantasy. But it usually takes a much longer time—if indeed we're ever able to do it—to let go of the notion that, like Mario, we can take it all with us when we move from this world to the next one. Those of us in “civilized” cultures, of course, are sophisticated enough to know that we can't literally transport our physical possessions, including money, into the afterlife. But we're not so sophisticated that we don't cherish the idea that we can hold onto our accomplishments, our experience, knowledge, relationships—in other words, our status, in this world. We want to get credit for all that, to have it all be transferable to whatever comes next.
In the Mario Brothers Nintendo game, each of the worlds is different from the others, but there is an essential consistency between them. The terrain and the hazards vary, but the same rules apply. What you do and what you learn in one world can help you in the next.
This was precisely the assumption that the Sadducees were working under when they presented Jesus with what they thought was an unsolvable conundrum. The Sadducees were a party within Judaism. They were known, in particular, for not believing in any resurrection of the dead—when you're dead, you're dead; no afterlife, no immortality, no resurrection. That's it. So the Sadducees asked Jesus, suppose a woman's husband died, and she married one of his brothers (as was the custom under the law of Moses) and then, in succession, she married each of her five remaining brothers-in-law, each of whom also dies. Whose wife will she be at the resurrection of the dead? (My first question would be, what's she feeding them for dinner?)
The Sadducees didn't believe in a resurrection, but they figured, if there were such a thing as a resurrection of the dead, or immortality of the soul, or a kingdom of heaven—in other words, a world beyond this present one, then there must be some consistency between this world and the next. The same rules must apply. Two plus two equals four in both places. The difference between the kingdom of this world and the kingdom of heaven is merely one of degree, and not of kind.
And this is not really very surprising, is it, when anybody makes such an assumption, whether it's the Sadducees, or us, or the manufacturers of Nintendo? We have no other experiential model to work from. Most people see quite a bit of variety in a lifetime, but whatever we do or wherever we go, there are certain things we can count on to remain the same. Water is wet, when you drop something it falls down and not up, and all forms of life do what is necessary to procreate themselves, reproducing after their own kind.
But Jesus's answer to the Sadducees' puzzle suggests that “it ain't necessarily so,” that the rules which apply in this world don't necessarily apply in the next, that the kingdom of heaven is not only grander or more glorious than the kingdom of this world, but that it is an entirely different kind of reality.
Is anyone here a trekkie? Brenda and I not only enjoyed classic Star Trek, but also Star Trek: The Next Generation while it ran for several years. As one who is interested in language and communication, one of my favorite episodes of that show is when the crew of the Enterprise encounter an alien being who seems to speak their language, but they still can’t understand him, nor he them. The words he uses, and even some groups of words, made sense taken by themselves, but none of it seem related to the situation at hand. It was as if he were just talking nonsense. As long as the crew of the Enterprise assume that this alien uses the same basic categories of grammar and syntax that govern all human languages, they continue to be baffled. Only when they are ready and willing to jettison that assumption do they make any progress in deciphering the deceptively familiar-sounding gibberish that comes out of the alien's mouth. They have to realize that they are not just dealing with a different reality, but a different kind of reality.
In the early 1960s, following Fidel Castro's communist revolution in Cuba, thousands of refugees fled, with only the clothes on their back, most of them ending up in south Florida. A good many, if not the majority, of these refugees were from the cream of Cuban society: affluent, well-educated, highly skilled. I was very young at that time, but I do remember hearing about Cuban refugee doctors who were earning a living in Florida sweeping floors and hauling trash. These were trained, licensed, and experienced physicians who found that their status in the world they left behind was not immediately transferable to the new world which they had entered. Most of us associate the saying “you can't take it with you” with the moment of death, but these folks found out that it can sometimes apply much sooner. The only thing they were allowed to take with them was their living and breathing selves. In this new world, the old rules didn't apply. Their education, skills, and standing in the community had to be reconfigured to the new reality they were living in.
Jesus's answer to the Sadducees' conundrum makes the same basic point. “The sons of this age marry and are given in marriage, but those who are accounted worthy to attain to that age and to the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage ...”. They live in a new kind of reality. Rules and relationships from the old order don't carry over into the next. The only thing we take with us, the only constant factor, the only true point of reference, the only reliable anchor we can hold onto, the only "rule" which applies equally to this world and to the world to come ... is our relationship with God, our relationship with the one who brought us into this world and will bring us into the next. We don't have any hidden weapons or extra lives to fall back on. We don't have any certification or credentials to give us a head start on establishing our status in the world to come. We only have Jesus, to whom we have been bound in the waters of baptism. We have only Jesus, who has given us his Holy Spirit in order to give voice to our prayers. We have only Jesus, who nourishes us with his own life in the sacrament of the altar. We only have Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, blazing a trail for us into the uncharted and unknown wilderness of death and resurrection. We can say, with job, “I know that my redeemer lives ... and though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” The knowledge that this one relationship alone is all we take with us on our passage from this world into the next gives us all the motivation we need to invest in that relationship, to cultivate it, to strengthen it, to nurture it so it's as healthy and vigorous and dynamic as it can be. It's all we’ve got, but it’s also all we need! Amen.
Saturday, November 5, 2016
With the trauma that my body (or, at least, certain parts thereof) has been put through this week, I tried to take things pretty easy today. I did run a few shopping errands--very slowly--around midday, attended to some business regarding our companion diocese relationships, and did some homiletical heavy lifting in prep for next Sunday (Tazewell County Parish).
Friday, November 4, 2016
- Short-form Morning Prayer on the way in. Devotions in the cathedral upon arrival.
- Participated in a conference call meeting of the board of the Society of King Charles the Martyr. It's one of the classic Anglo-Catholic devotional societies of which I am proud to be a member.
- Did final editing and printing of the text for this Sunday's homily at St Paul's, Carlinville.
- Attended to some details pertaining to worship at next week's clergy conference.
- Met with a group of three men--Mark Waight from O'Fallon, Fr James Muriuki from Redeemer, Cairo, along with one of Fr Muriuki's parishioners, to hear about their concrete and exciting vision for the revitalization of Cairo. It is an amazing proposal, and as it unfolds, I will be happy to lend my support to it. Stay tuned.
- Lunch from Taco Gringo, eaten at home.
- Kept an appointment at my urologist's office. My condition is slowly improving, but there's no denying that my body has been through an ordeal this week.
- Attended, via email and phone, to some pastoral matters related to two of our clergy.
- Roughed out a visitation calendar for 2017. It may have a couple of kinks left in its yet, but should be public by this time next week.
- Evening Prayer in my recliner.
Thursday, November 3, 2016
- A slow start to the morning, given my recent medical issues. Morning Prayer and task planning at home.
- In the office around 10am, where I attacked a modest pile of hard copy items that had accumulated since I dropped by a couple of weeks ago. A couple of them were unexpected zingers that demanded immediate serious attention and consultation with the Archdeacon.
- Met with a potential aspirant to Holy Orders and mapped out the contours of a parish discernment process for him.
- Listened to and responded to a couple of voicemails.
- Home for lunch, from whence I worked for the rest of the day. Feeling slightly underpowered.
- Identified a homily for Proper 27 that was amenable to being reconstructed for use this Sunday at St Paul's, Carlinville, and went about the process of said reconstruction.
- Attended to some of the transportation details of an upcoming trip.
- Did the broad stroke planning for worship at next week's clergy conference.
- Evening Prayer in my recliner.
- Dealt with feelings of withdrawal owing to the fact that there was no baseball to watch on TV during the evening!
Wednesday, November 2, 2016
Sometimes things just go wrong. I had eagerly anticipated yesterday as my first day actually back in the office following my sabbatical. But, on Monday, I had an outpatient surgical procedure that resulted in complications such that Tuesday was consumed trying to attend to them. As it turned out, I spent the night hospitalized. This morning I submitted myself to a second surgery to fix the complications caused by the first one, and the recovery has not been smooth. (I have what is known in the urology trade as "retention.") I'm home now, and, because of some interim measures, reasonably comfortable. I do hope to keep some of my schedule tomorrow.