Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Tuesday (John Donne)

After the usual preliminaries, the working day began with Canon Evans and I emailing and phone-calling in an effort to get a diocesan Zoom account established. It felt like the blind leading the blind at moments, as we found ourselves in a sort of bureaucratic traffic circle without any clear exit strategy. Time along will reveal how productive our efforts were. I then got to work on an Ad Clerum (letter to "in-charge" clergy) about how we "do" Holy Week and Easter under present conditions. (Operating in the background of all this, of course, is grief and anxiety over those same "present conditions" and what it's doing to our social fabric and our souls and multiple levels.) With a break for lunch, this effort took me to the mid-afternoon. Ran an errand to a doctor's office to pick something up (observing all prudent protocols). Worked out on the Bowflex (which I should be doing anyway, but right now it's my surrogate for walking). Wrote emails to clergy with nodal events in April and scheduled them to be sent at the appropriate times. (With the retirement of a part-time staff member who used to prepare and organize my note cards and envelopes so I could hand-write these message, I've moved to an electronic format. In any case, my handwriting was getting less and less legible, so it's probably a good thing.) Evening Prayer with Brenda. After supper, I did some refurbishing work on a "vintage" sermon text for Maundy Thursday.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

Fifth Sunday in Lent

Not much to report. House arrest continues. The big excitement was perhaps driving to Popeye's to get dinner from the drive-thru (interacting with a masked and gloved employee) Read a good bit, watched some old movies, attended to some routine domestic chores (periodic photo organizing, finances). Significantly, though, Brenda and I again did celebrate the Eucharist together. Here's what I wrote about it on Facebook:
I celebrated a private in-home Mass today for only the third time in my ministry of 30+ years. (The other two times were last Sunday, and Wednesday, which was a major holy day.) Under normal circumstances, that would be self-indulgent. I am not unaware of my privilege; since I'm ordained to do so in general, I *can* do so. But these are not normal circumstances, and I believe it behooves those who are so ordained to do as I have done. Some have suggested that clergy should fast from the Eucharist in solidarity with all the baptized faithful, since they are not similarly privileged. I *could* do that. When walking the Camino in 2016, I was without the sacrament for more than six weeks. I learned the art of spiritual communion, and grace abounded. But, today, I was scheduled to preside at the Eucharist, not in general, but concretely with the people of St George's, Belleville. My celebration at home was not *with* them, save mystically, but it was definitely *for* them, on their behalf, for their sake. That whole community was represented, recapitulated, in our domestic oratory (aka the back bedroom) by my wife and me. Doing so was our work, our "liturgy." We offered the sacrifice that must be offered perpetually, "until he comes." The Mass must go on.

Saturday, March 28, 2020

Saturday

The productive part of my day was consumed by video-recording, editing, and uploading a homily for Lent V and a special pastoral greeting to St George's, Belleville, which I had been scheduled to visit tomorrow. Technology still tries regularly to gut-punch me, but today I was mostly victorious. The unproductive (though quite enjoyable) part of my day was spent finishing a streaming production of Wagner's Twilight of the Gods, which I began last night, but it has a 4'45" run time! This came from the Met in New York, but was made available via the Chicago Lyric because they had to cancel their much-hyped production of all four segments of the Ring Cycle due to the virus, and this is the one I had not yet seen on stage. I understand that Wagner is possibly an acquired taste, but it's one I have very much acquired, so it was ... sublime. 

Friday, March 27, 2020

Friday (Charles Henry Brent)

Another day under house arrest. They're all starting to feel the same. I had a Skype conversation with an individual who is seeking access to the ordination process. I participated in the recording of another podcast for the Living Church Foundation, this time as one of two guests, along with two hosts. We talked about how the context of the pandemic recontextualizes how we think about the Eucharist. It should be available for public consumption next week. I also opened a sermon file on Easter IV, where the place I won't be delivering it is Emmanuel, Champaign. Wrote a recommendation letter for a seminarian's scholarship application. Weighed in on an ongoing email conversation about the diocese opening a Zoom account. (We clearly need to.) Worked out on the Bowflex, since I'm still not allowed to do any serious walking. In other news, spent about 90 minutes of my life that I'll never get back wrestling with Verizon in an effort to upgrade Brenda's phone; her device is about 110 in cell phone years, and has apparently given up the ghost. Prayed both morning and evening offices. 

Thursday, March 26, 2020

Thursday

  • Usual early AM weekday routine.
  • Took care of an administrative chore for the Putnam Trust (executing a trade proposal recommendation on the part of U.S. Trust, the fund manager). I've tried to avoid looking too closely at either diocesan or personal stock market holdings lately. I'm pretty confident it will all straighten out, and suspect that money managers probably have a higher level of anxiety than many of their clients.
  • Aside from keeping on top of emails as they arrived, and paying attention to general developments on the pandemic front, I spent the rest of morning, and the early afternoon, immersed in commentaries on Luke and I Peter, toward the end of sermon preparation for Easter III, when the church I won't be visiting is St Thomas', Salem. It's necessary work for a preacher to study a scripture text quite closely, but, for me, it's also a treat, so ... win/win.
  • Shot emails to our three Nashotah House seminarians. The campus is on lockdown, with no communal worship or communal meals and classes conducted remotely. Our student each live alone, so it's a kind of modified solitary confinement. Do hold David Knox, Danté Anglin, and Mark Klamer in your prayer. Took care of some additional business with one of them.
  • Made arrangements for a video interview with someone at the beginning of the ordination discernment process.
  • Took care of a routine personal organization chore, a calendar maintenance task generated by the coming transition from March to April.
  • Spent about 45 minutes with the ongoing basement organization project. It really will never end.
  • Evening Prayer with Brenda.

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

Annunciation

  • Regular weekday early AM routine (personal devotions, intercessions, Morning Prayer, tea, breakfast, Facebook, crossword, task organizing).
  • Exchanged a couple of email with Hannah about various things that we've got going.
  • Prepped for and recording a weekly video greeting to the diocese.
  • Participated in a video meeting of the Province V bishops, which looks to become a weekly thing during this extraordinary season.
  • Worked on editing my video greeting (with a little help from my son upstairs), got it uploaded to Vimeo, and handed it off to Hannah. (It's now on the website.)
  • Celebrated Mass for the feast day with Brenda in our domestic oratory (which I'm going to have to settle on a proper name for, I think), which included, of course, a recitation of the Lord's Prayer, in keeping with the request of the Pope, the Presiding Bishop, and the Archbishop of Canterbury.
  • Lunched on leftovers, slightly on the late side.
  • Conferred by phone with Canon Evans over a few things.
  • Wrestled with my exegetical notes on the readings for II Easter and arrived at homiletical message statement that, barring a miracle, I won't be able to deliver at St Paul's, Pekin.
  • Too advantage of a beautiful early spring afternoon and, doing an end run around my foot doctor's orders, took a modest walk with Brenda around the neighborhood. The boot I have to wear actually makes me dial back my cruising speed to her natural pace.
  • Worked on developing a promised reading list for a postulant to the diaconate.
  • Evening Prayer fell through the cracks, as I got caught up in making chicken enchiladas for the other family members who live in our building, which we all ate together in our dining room.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Tuesday (Oscar Romero)

As bizarrely abnormal as all days are now, today felt at one level like a return to normal. Last week was hijacked by the pandemic and my need to keep responding to it pastorally. Most everything else got lost in the shuffle--at least mentally and emotionally, if not actually. So now we're all hunkering down at home--well, I work from home at least three days each week anyway, which accounts for why it feels "normal" to be organizing tasks and making my way through the list. Of course, like I said, the situation is not normal at all; it just feels that way to me on one level. Today I spent a lot of time *communicating* with the Communicator, toward the end of some special responses to our newly straitened circumstances. The Living Church Institute has begun a podcast, and YFNB is the first presenter--on the subject how to think about the Eucharist during a time of pandemic. It went live this afternoon. I also spent a chunk of time preparing a Palm Sunday homily, just as if I were actually going to be at St Paul's Cathedral to deliver. I will, instead, deliver it by video from our domestic oratory. It's important that we still, as far as we are able, do the things we do. Sadly, one of the things *I* do, as you know, is walk, but my foot injury from a week ago finds my right foot in a boot and instructions to avoid any unnecessary walking. I did make a foray to the grocery store nearby for some essentials, taking all due precautions, but even that made my adult children all squirrelly. They would prefer I stay indoors, or venture no further than the alley to put the trash out. Apparently, I am a man under authority.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Fourth Sunday in Lent

This has been the strangest Sunday I have ever spent, and, while I fear there will be many, many more like it, I can guarantee that it will never cease to feel strange. Brenda and I celebrated the Eucharist together in our domestic oratory. It seemed meet and right to begin with the Great Litany, and many of its petitions leapt off the page at me like they never have before.  The other accomplishment was doing the exegetical work on a homily for the Second Sunday of Easter. Of course, it won't be delivered in the context where it was initially intended, but I've determined to keep up with all the sermon preparation work that I'd planned, even if only to produce a video. This is all really hard, and while I understand that my cabin fever will soon get unbearable, I expect to bear it anyway, knowing that there are tens of thousands of people whose lots in this is very much worse than mine. 

Saturday, March 21, 2020

Saturday (Thomas Ken)

Today was a day for embracing technology to cope with the temporary "new normal" of highly restricted social and commercial exchanges. I did the finish work on a homily for Lent IV (tomorrow), which I will not get to deliver in a liturgical context, but instead of scheduling for posting, I recorded a video of it and posted that on the diocesan website. I also recorded a short pastoral greeting to the diocese. There will be much more of this sort of thing in the coming weeks. And toward that end, as I would anyway under normal circumstances, I took a first pass at the readings for Easter III, which is theoretically the date for my visitation to St Thomas', Salem. I'm not optimistic about that event actually happening, but the sermon will get developed nonetheless. One day at a time now.

Friday, March 20, 2020

Friday (St Cuthbert)

Events continue to unfold at breakneck speed. I was supposed to drive to Springfield early this morning and spend the weekend. Even without a visitation on my calendar, I had agreed to cover an altar on Sunday. Plus, I had a service appointment for my car. Then, between Brenda's ribcage injury and the rapidly evolving public health environment, I pulled the plug late last night. This morning I spent some special time in discerning prayer--using the Sorrowful Mysteries of the rosary as a vehicle--and then wrote my fourth pastoral letter to the diocese in a little over two weeks. I am not exaggerating when I say that directing the suspension of public worship in the diocese was the most agonizingly difficult decision I have made in my entire life. It stabs me in the core of my heart. But here we are. Within a few minutes of posting it, the governor of Illinois rendered much of what I said moot by imposing a stay-at-home order. There's no way to tell when this bizarre situation will end, but my suspicion is that it will be longer than we realize at this moment. But, even though we may not have Easter this year, Christ will be no less risen from the dead. So there's that. 

Working into the evening, I finished a draft of a homily for Lent V, which I now will not be delivering at St George's, Belleville. But I plan on making a video recording of it for the edification of all who wish to watch it.

Brenda is doing rather better than she was 24 hours ago. The ribcage pain is still there, but it's no longer incapacitating.

Thursday, March 19, 2020

St Joseph

Nine years ago today I was ordained and consecrated Bishop of Springfield. I could scarcely have imagined then the sorts of leadership challenges that this day, and the last couple of weeks, have put in my path. But it was well into the afternoon before I could contemplate such things. Brenda woke up with severe pain in her ribcage area, something that has been developing since Monday evening. So we spent the morning in the ER at Swedish Covenant Hospital. The good news is that the X-ray was negative for fracture, which, by inference, means it's a strained muscle. But, even pretty doped up, she's continued to be in a lot of pain much of the time. That pretty well wore me out, and it was into the afternoon before I was back from the pharmacy having collected her prescriptions, Of course, then, in the afternoon it was all-COVID19-all-the-time. I'm getting hammered from multiple directions, and it's difficult to know my own mind, let alone listen for the voice of the One tho whom I am alone ultimately accountable. But figuring out where my duty lies is clearly my cross to bear in this moment, and I intend to bear it as faithfully as the grace supplied me will allow. Jesu, mercy. Mary, pray.

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

Wednesday (St Cyril of Jerusalem)

Life is still pretty much dominated by that ^&(#$% coronavirus. Lots of email exchanges with clergy and laity, in and out of the diocese. The big accomplishment of the morning was the development of an outline for a Palm Sunday homily, even though there may or may not be a Palm Sunday liturgy in which to deliver it. The main accomplishment of the afternoon was the development of a teaching audio (essentially a podcast) on the significance of the Eucharist in a time of pandemic--this was done at the request of The Living Church. After dinner, I recorded it and sent the audio file off to them. I also participated in a video conference call with some Living Church Foundation contributors as we brainstorm over developing resources in response to this extraordinary moment. In the midst of it all, both offices got prayed, and I did a bit of household straightening. A looming challenge for me is how to get exercise while I'm on "footrest."

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

Tuesday (St Patrick)

My life has been taken over by the coronavirus. No, I'm not symptomatic, nor is anyone I know. But the situation is evolving so rapidly that I've now had to put out three pastoral letters on the subject inside of a two-week period. Most of today was spent crafting the third, first with poring over the CDC website to make sure I wasn't missing anything (having decided to adopt the CDC as my benchmark for guidelines). Did some consulting by phone and email, and the letter dropped late in the afternoon. I did manage to get a little work done on a Palm Sunday homily, but not as much as I'd planned on. Email, text, and social media distraction on the subject at hand were never-ending, and it was just emotionally laborious in the first place that it kind of wore me out mentally for doing anything else. Anyway, it's done, for whatever it may be worth. Good Lord, deliver us.

Sunday, March 15, 2020

Third Sunday in Lent

Because I was originally supposed to have been in Texas all last week for House of Bishops (which ended up being a virtual meeting via Zoom instead), I scheduled a "soft" weekend for myself, with no visitation, intending to worship in one of the local Chicago parishes. However, Chicago is one of the dioceses that has chosen to shut down as. response to the coronavirus, so that wasn't an option. So I made last-minute arrangements to celebrate the principal cathedral liturgy in Springfield, making a day-trip out of it. It was a lovely time, and I'm really glad I did it. As I would have imagined, attendance was down about 40% from normal. Everyone was cheerfully compliant with public health strictures: no hand-shaking, no passing of the offering plate, no intinction, general "social distance." Back home around 4pm.

Friday, March 13, 2020

Friday (Theodore James Holley)

Never in my more than 68 years have there been so many successive days so full of surprises. Iconic cultural and sporting events canceled and venues closed, schools closed, and now even whole dioceses calling off Sunday worship. Few among us would have thought any of this possible even earlier this week. The ground seems to shift from one hour to the next. I have made the decision to direct churches in the Diocese of Springfield to adhere to normal Sunday worship, with several precautions to preserve public health. (See the diocesan website for these guidelines.) Many of my colleague bishops are doing something similar; others are much more cautious. So, when my time wasn't being consumed by attention to these things, my emotional energy was, almost non-stop. In the midst of all this, I devoted most of my morning to an appointment with a foot doctor, following up on the initial I received over last weekend after falling while leaving the house a week ago. Doctor, then away to the lab for an X-ray, then back to the doctor. The sad upshot is that I'm stuck in an unwieldy boot for the next several weeks, as the images revealed two small fractures, and putting any weight on the foot impedes healing. So I'm deprived of my only real form of exercise. I need to take u0 swimming, Much of the afternoon was devoted to writing an article for the next issue of the Springfield Current, due to come out around Easter. I also worked my way through a stack of other deferred tasks, pastoral and administrative. Evening Prayer with Brenda. In deference to social distancing, we ordered dinner delivered.

Thursday, March 12, 2020

Thursday (St Gregory of Rome)

This was the third and final day of the reconfigured spring meeting of the House of Bishops. The presenter was the Revd Jennifer Strawbridge, an American who teaching New Testament in the UK. She was tasked by the Archbishop of Canterbury to convene broadly-representative task force of biblical scholars from across the communion and beyond to prepare Bible study resource for the Lambeth Conference, and her presentation was a sort of sneak preview of the fruit of her labor: The First Letter of Peter: A Global Commentary.  I was particularly pleased that the Archbishop chose I Peter as the focus for scriptural engagement at the conference, as it is some of my favorite material in the New Testament. Our table discussion groups were supposed to discuss some questions posed by the presenter, but we instead found ourselves mostly talking about our responses to the rapidly-evolving public health situation. It's a vexing situation, and, before the end of the afternoon, I found myself issuing another pastoral statement, and, this evening, a clarifying email to the clergy. There's a wide divergence of response among bishops in the Episcopal Church. I'm not going to judge any of my colleagues, even though I'm making a very different call than they are. Maybe they're right. Maybe I'm right. Time will tell. What we can all agree on is the imperative of praying earnestly for a rapid end to this plague.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Wednesday

After the usual early morning routine, and working on a few details of the Chrism Mass liturgy, I once again joined the virtual Day Two of the spring 2020 House of Bishops meeting. The presenters today consisted of a trio of (I must say, impressively young) members of the Archbishop of Canterbury's staff--Program Coordinators from his reconciliation team. Archbishop Justin has, from the time he took office (and before) been vigorously committed to the ministry of reconciliation among any who are, as the Prayer Book puts it, "at variance and enmity." To that commitment I must add my own pale shadow of the same. For many years, I have come to increasingly understand that reconciliation is not some aspect of the gospel, some adjunct of the gospel; it is the gospel. It's explicit all over the writings of St Paul and implicit throughout the rest of holy scripture. So, for the second day in a row, I was glad to see what the focus was, and our presenters made a solid contribution.

I am moved to add, however, that, for the most part, the Christian community deserves to hang its head in shame. We are so divided into our various brand names, and so divided even among those who share the same brand name, that it's amazing the Holy Spirit can get anything done at all by way of calling women, men, and children to become disciples of Jesus. The actual disciples of Jesus can't stop fighting. Just this morning, there was a reading at Morning Prayer from I Corinthians 6, in which Paul laments that fact that Christians sue one another in secular courts. A good bit of the Bible is difficult to interpret and apply. This is not one of those passages, and we who bear the name of Anglican in North America have a great deal about which to be embarrassed. 

It also became clear in the material that was shared with us today (especially a short film clip from a Palestinian Christian who is involved in reconciliation work with Israelis and Muslims) how important it is to be tell hard truth and hear hard truth. I'm afraid we have done very little of either in the Episcopal Church over the last couple of decades (at least). We are nowhere near able to articulate one another's truth in ways that the other can see himself or herself in the way we tell their story. We have made great progress, I can say--in some quarters, at any rate--in learning to speak to one another civilly and charitably. This is good. But we are still not able to deal with how people holding profoundly different conceptions of what the Christian faith is, what the gospel is, can begin to share the same institution.

Once again, with only a minor glitch, the technology worked well enough to permit another hour-long table group interchange. When we actually do meet in person, at a literal table, we will have been well-served by this experience.

In other news ... aside from keeping on top of the non-stop inflow of email, the main accomplishment of the remainder of the day was to wrestle with my exegetical notes for Matthew's passion narrative and come up with a homiletical message statement for my Palm Sunday sermon (at the cathedral in Springfield).

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

Tuesday

A week ago, I expected to be making this entry from Camp Allen, outside of Navasota, Texas, which was expecting to host the regular spring meeting of the House of Bishops. The COVID-19 virus had other ideas, though, and the Presiding Bishop made the decision mid-week to cancel the in-person gathering. Instead, we are spending time today, tomorrow, and Thursday attending virtual sessions via internet. In essence, we're getting the planned content from outside presenters, and foregoing the daily Eucharist, meals together, and the informal interaction that is really the best part of these things. That said, we did manage to have an hour of virtual table group time (the table assignments having been uncharacteristically shuffled and re-dealt mid-triennium because of the number of new bishops who have been elected and consecrated). In my group, the Zoom technology worked quite well and we had a fruitful hour of discussion of the morning presenter's material.

After greetings from the Presiding Bishop (who admitted to discomfort not being able to see his audience), we were addressed by three people associated with Episcopal Relief & Development. The subject, as you might imagine, was the coronavirus pandemic. My two takeaways were: 1) there has never been any evidence that infection is communicated via the common chalice at Holy Communion--it's fingers and hands that are, along with airborne droplets from coughs and sneezes, the major culprits to be concerned about, and 2) while social isolation measures are advisable, the chances are that the exposure rate will eventually approach 100%. The silver lining of this somber prediction is that, since way more people are presently infected at this moment than we realize, the actually fatality rate is probably much lower than the 2-3% figure we're using to seeing in the media. 

The major presenter for the day was Professor Andrew Root from Luther Theological Seminary in St Paul, MN. He has researched and written extensively on the nexus between Christianity and culture, particularly the latter's long slide into secularity. In fact, he has developed a taxonomy of secularism that attempts to foster understanding among Christian leaders of just what the mission field these days is like. I won't attempt to summarize his paradigm, but I found it stimulating, and it was quite adequate grist for the discussion mill when it came time for table groups.  In all, we met this way from 10am until 1:30pm. 

After that, I was able to delve into my non-HOB to-do list, the major item of which was brining my homiletical message statement for Lent V (St George's, Belleville) to the "developed outline" stage. Also made more progress trying to develop a travel itinerary for a visit to Tanzania and the Lambeth Conference in July. (As of today, at least, the word from Lambeth is that the event is happening. But I guess that's subject to change.)

Sunday, March 8, 2020

Second Sunday in Lent

Having survived the trauma of the time change (I jest; it's not a trauma at all), we were on the road southbound from Effingham at 0900, rolling into Trinity, Mt Vernon an hour later. Had a splendid time preaching and presiding at the Eucharist with this currently priest-less congregation. (It looks, however, that we will have a good number of Sundays covered by supply clergy for the foreseeable future.) Visited with folks over a spaghetti-and-meatballs luncheon. Headed toward home at 12:45, arriving at 5:15.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Saturday (St Perpetua)

The way my foot felt when I got out of bed, I wondered whether the day would be salvageable. But the activity of the morning routine managed to calm the pain down to a manageable level. We drove from Bloomington to Lincoln, arriving at Trinity Church about the 75 minutes ahead of the scheduled 1100 ordination of Chris Simpson to the transitional diaconate. The liturgy went splendidly, the sermon by Canon Mark Evans was exceptionally good, and the congregation was joyful when it was announced at the reception that, upon ordination to the priesthood, Chris will succeed Mark at Trinity. A doctor in the congregation had a look at my foot and recommended I get it X-rayed, so, while en route to Effingham for the night, we stopped at an urgent care clinic in Decatur. The radiologist's use of the term "boney irregularity" meant that I walked out with a huge therapeutic boot, and instruction to follow up with a podiatrist, not an outcome I had hoped for. So we completed our journey to Effingham, checked into the Hampton Inn, grabbed dinner at Friday's, and all will be well.

Friday, March 6, 2020

Friday

The day began with residual trauma and ended with new trauma. Somehow, we managed to leave Wisconsin last night without Brenda's purse, which contains her phone. So I woke up and immediately started working all the available technology ("Find My iPhone")--which actually worked, and her purse is being sent to us--and getting an unused iPad set up for her use in the interim. The concluding trauma was that, on the way out of the house in the early evening to head to Bloomington for the night, I fell on our back stairs. My right foot is painful and swollen. Tomorrow afternoon, after an ordination in the morning, I'll have time to seek medical attention. In the meantime, I cannot say that I was running on all cylinders today. I journeyed down to the Apple Store to retrieve my laptop, which is great to have back, but the chore was a time-hog. I finished and submitted a writing project to the Living Church, wrote emails to clergy and spouses with nodal events in March and scheduled them to be sent on the appropriate day, and tied up a couple of administrative loose ends. Here's hoping for a better tomorrow.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Thursday

The work of the day consisted of a day-trip to Nashotah House, where I was the invited guest preacher for their solemn celebration of of the Eucharist. It's always a delight. I leveraged the opportunity for some quality face time with our three residential seminarians, all of whom are ensigns of hope for the future of the diocese. I took them all out to dinner following the Mass. Brenda and I arrived back home at 10:45. A good day.

Sermon at Nashotah House

Chapel of St Mary the Virgin, Nashotah House--Matthew 7:7–12

I don’t know this for certain, but one of my claims to distinction might be that I have the longest period between my visit to this campus as a prospective student and my actual matriculation as a member of the residential community. It was more than eleven years. I made my prospective student visit in June of 1975, but various circumstances conspired to prevent me from beginning my seminary formation until the fall of 1986. But I still remember that occasion, nearly 45 years ago, when I was ushered into the office of Dean John Ruef for my interview. I was all of 23 years old. Here I was, on a campus that was already legendary in my mind because of the stories my own parish priest had told me of his time here in the 1940s, and while Dean Ruef was not in any way unkind, his countenance was, in my perception at least, a bit severe. I was more than a little intimidated. I remember virtually nothing of the content of that conversation, save for this tidbit: “If you come to Nashotah House,” Dean Ruef told me, “you will learn to pray.”

He was quite right, of course. My time here as a student solidified the anchoring of my practice of prayer in the Thorntonian triad of Mass, Office, and private devotion, and these things have become the veritable “operating system” of my life, always running in the background no matter what other “app” I’m trying to use at the moment. But another quantum leap for my in my practice of prayer happened rather more recently, in the late summer of 2016, when I walked the ancient pilgrimage route across northern Spain to end up in Santiago de Compostela to venerate the relics of the Apostle James. I did a lot of spontaneous praying during those 38 days, initially because, quite frankly, there wasn’t much else to do. If I didn’t have anybody else to walk with, which was usually the case, Jesus was still my constant companion. Along the Camino, I significantly deepened my practice of intercessory prayer; I prayed constantly for people and about situations. I had a sense of carrying these people and situations with me into the presence of God; I even understood my backpack as a sort of sacramental sign of this “burden” I was bearing before the throne of grace, very much a priestly act, in the generic sense.

So, all of this autobiography is simply by way of providing some useful context for how prayer is treated in the snippet from Matthew’s gospel, a snippet from the Sermon on the Mount, actually, that we heard read a few minutes ago. To be candid with you, I’ve always found this passage rather disturbing. It appears to offer a sort of unconditional, money-back guarantee that we get what we pray for. God is a profligate dispenser of “answers” to prayer. Yet, this flies in the face of actual experience. More than once have I stood at a hospital bedside, next to unspeakably frightened family members of the person in the bed, and implored God for a miracle. I once had a parishioner whose only child had committed suicide only a month earlier suffer a massive stroke. I stood there next to his wife and we prayed our hearts out that the Lord would restore him to health. Yet, I presided at his funeral a few days later, and his widow was alone. “For everyone who asks receives, and the one who seeks finds, and to the one who knocks it will be opened.” Yeah, right. Whatever.

There are, of course, some stock responses to the obvious exceptions to “Ask, and it will be given to you.” Some would say, “Oh, you have to be sure you pray persistently.” Indeed, in other contexts, Jesus seems to encourage us to nag God, to pester God with our petitions and intercessions. While on the Camino, I pestered God every day about a whole list of people, a list that grew as I moved along, thanks to my nightly connection to the internet. Indeed, one of those about whom I nagged God underwent a spectacularly successful back surgery and was relieved of years of chronic pain. Another continued to get sicker, and died soon after I finished my journey. I was persistent in my prayers for both. Did my prayers “work” for one and “fail” for the other?

Others have said, “Yeah, God answers prayer, but you have to be sure that what you’re asking for is in accord with God’s will.” Well, that certainly sounds like a bit of a cop-out, doesn’t it? God will do whatever he’s going to do anyway, and if we just happen to pray along those lines, then chalk that up as an answer to prayer. Now, I don’t want to completely belittle this response, because I think there’s actually some truth to it at a deeper level. But without getting to that deeper level, it’s just too ... slick.

Still others erect a qualifying condition focused on the quality of the faith of the person doing the praying. If we set this gospel passage alongside the epistle of James, that makes a certain amount of sense. So, if we don’t get what we ask for, we can always say, “Oh, well, I must have not had enough faith. I must have doubted too much. That’s why God didn’t answer my prayer.” This has the advantage of not compromising God’s dignity, because it’s our fault, not God’s.

Well, as is invariably the case, it’s a good idea to look at the material surrounding the actual liturgical pericope. As I mentioned, tonight’s reading is part of the Sermon on the Mount. But, more specifically, it follows a command of Jesus that we not judge others, lest we be subject to judgment ourselves. And it concludes, of course, with the proverbial Golden Rule, as I originally learned it in the King James Version: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” So it’s a bit of a hermeneutical sandwich, with the injunction to not be “judgy” as the bottom layer and the Golden Rule sitting on top, with the arguably troubling material on petitionary prayer as the main content of the sandwich.

As the New Testament scholar Robert Gundry argues (that is, he who taught at my undergraduate alma mater when I was a college student)—as Dr Gundry argues, “The purpose of Jesus’ teaching on prayer here is not to offer a comprehensive hermeneutic on petitionary prayer,” but to “buttress the Golden Rule ... [which] demands a Father-like graciousness” that “forestalls the judging prohibited at the start of this section.” Or, to put it more succinctly, authentic prayer broadens the scope of our concern. Prayer, it turns out, is not primarily about what we pray for. We are indeed instructed to pray for things, to pray for specific outcomes. I pray every day for a whole list of sick people. I pray for their healing, for their health and wholeness. I pray by name for each of the postulants and candidates from the Diocese of Springfield, with a conscious awareness in God’s presence of the particular challenges each one faces. I pray for this institution, for those who lead it and those who bear the burden of governance—again, aware in the presence of God of those things that stand in the way of its complete flourishing. But the outcome of my prayers, if one can even use such language, is of marginal importance alongside of the effect that such a habit of prayer has on the health of my own soul—resting on the foundation of eschewing the judgment of those whom I am in no way qualified to judge, and crowned with a habitual disposition of generosity toward others, behaving toward them as I would have them behave toward me.

And I practice this habit, this garment, of prayer, confident in the love and grace of a “Father who is in heaven” to “give good things to those who ask of him.” I learned to pray at Nashotah House. I learned to pray on the Camino. And the effect of my prayers is measured not in the outcomes of what I prayed for, but in whatever progress I may have made toward being able to look into the face of God and not be turned to dust.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.

Wednesday, March 4, 2020

Wednesday

  • Regular early AM routine.
  • Refined, edited, printed, and scheduled for posting my homily for tomorrow evening at the Solemn Mass in the Chapel of St Mary the Virgin at Nashotah House.
  • Leveraged the fine weather and the fact of a doctor's appointment a bit short of two miles away (annual physical) and traveled on foot. Going there and back got me most of my step quota for the day. Pending lab result, it appears that I'm in pretty decent shape for a guy my age.
  • Lunched (late) at home on leftovers.
  • Did the same sort of homiletical finish work as before, this time on my sermon for this Sunday (Trinity, Mt Vernon). Sent a copy to a layperson in one of our communities that will be priestless this Sunday so he can read it there.
  • Got the word that next week's scheduled meeting of the House of Bishops in Texas has been cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak. (We will still "meet" online for a bit.) Dealt with United to get myself a credit toward future travel.
  • Evening Prayer in our domestic oratory.
  • After dinner, cranked out a brief pastoral statement on the epidemic and posted it to the diocesan website.

Tuesday, March 3, 2020

Tuesday (John & Charles Wesley)

  • Usual early AM routine.
  • Took Brenda to a doctor's appointment.
  • Exchanged several emails with Chris Simpson, whom we are ordaining to the transitional diaconate on Saturday, nailing down details of the liturgy.
  • Made an appointment with the Apple "Genius Bar" for later in the day. My laptop's display is starting to wig out, and it seems prudent to nip this in the bud.
  • Communicated with our Nashotah seminarians toward the end of setting on one-on-one time with each of them when I'm on campus the day after tomorrow to preach.
  • Reached out by phone to a priest of the diocese who has recently suffered the death of a close relative.
  • Lunched on leftovers.
  • Got to work on finishing my next-due post for the Covenant blog, which I began last week.
  • Headed down via the Brown Line to the Apple Store in Lincoln Park. As I expected, my MacBook Pro needed to be sent to the shop. The good news is that it's still under warranty.
  • Once back home, I had to resurrect the old MacBook, which has been out of action for 17 months, and had to spend a chunk of time getting it reconfigured and operational.
  • After dinner, finally finished and submitted the Covenant post. Feels lie a day lost to technology. A necessary evil.

Sunday, March 1, 2020

First Sunday in Lent

Up and out of my Urbana hotel room at 0800 heading east to arrive at Holy Trinity, Danville 30 minutes later. Presided, preached, and confirmed one adult at their regular 0900 liturgy. The parish seems to be quietly thriving under the pastoral care and leadership of Fr Richard Lewis. I was in the YfNBmobile pointed northward around 1145 and home in Chicago at 2:30. 

Sermon for Lent I

Matthew 4:1-11--Holy Trinity, Danville

On the first Sunday after the Epiphany each year, we are with Jesus as he meets John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan River and is baptized. Then we follow him around Galilee as he begins to go public with his ministry of preaching and teaching and healing, and attracts a band of followers. But we have skipped over something very important, something quite significant. The first Sunday in Lent each year, then, offers us an opportunity to go back and pick up that missing piece. Right after he was baptized, and before he began his public ministry, the gospels tell us, Jesus was “driven by the Spirit” into the Judean wilderness, for the express purpose, it appears, of being tempted by Satan.

Actually, the temptations take place not all throughout our Lord’s retreat in the desert, but at the very end, just as he’s about to re-enter the real world. The Evil One tries to capitalize on the acute sense of need that anyone who had been alone in the wilderness for that length of time would undoubtedly feel.

The first of these needs is pretty low on the hierarchy of human needs, right above the need for oxygen, the need for immediate personal safety, and the need for water. I’m talking about the need for food, the need—well, at this point, we can probably call it a desire—the desire for a good meal, for a warm loaf of freshly baked bread. “You’re hungry? Just turn these stones into bread.” The devil tempts Jesus to meet that need, to satisfy that desire, in a gratuitously inappropriate way.

The second temptation is more psychological in nature. It appeals to the innate human desire for recognition. “Jump off the pinnacle of the temple and let the angels catch you. Everyone will see you! You’ll be famous overnight!” How we long to be recognized, to be acknowledged, to be known.

The third temptation is almost spiritual. “Fall down and worship me and all the kingdoms of the earth will be yours.” We may not all aspire to world domination, but we do all want some measure of control over our lives, some power to influence our own future.

Satan is a smart cookie in the way he goes after Jesus, and in the way he goes after you and me. He appeals to our sense of need, our perception of desire and longing. Indeed, the very way we think of God and the place where God dwells is couched in terms of our felt needs. What does the expression “Heaven on earth” or “earthly paradise” conjure up for you? Probably some tropical resort where the weather is always perfect and we’re constantly waited on hand and foot by a staff of very attractive servants whose only desire is to satisfy our every whim.

There was once a poor working man who took his young son to the wealthy part of town on a Saturday morning, set him down, and said, “Look around you, son. This is the only heaven there is. Do whatever it takes so that you can someday live here.” This man was utterly consumed by his sense of need, his perception of being deprived, his experience of unfulfilled desire. And he was doing his best to pass all of his baggage of discontent on to the next generation. That much in itself is reason enough to pity the boy. The really ironic and profound—almost tragic—element in this story, though, is the limited vision it communicates. The fact is, there are probably countless hundreds of places on this earth that are many times more appealing and attractive and wonderful than the wealthy residential neighborhood to which the man took his son that Saturday morning. So not only was he encouraging the boy to define himself according to his felt needs, he was defining the needs way too narrowly!

The fact is, our vision is woefully limited. We are prisoners of our own finitude. What we would consider heaven-on-earth would not even qualify as a waiting room for the real thing. When I was 19, having been born in South America, raised in the Chicago suburbs, traveled to Europe only a year earlier, gone to college for a year in California, and about to embark on a month-long visit back to Brazil, I was with my family visiting some old friends of my parents in the borough of Queens, New York City. These people had a son who was about my age. He and I started to compare notes about travel experiences. His notes were very short: “I went to Connecticut once.” Now, the truth is, living in New York City, he didn’t feel at all deprived by never having been out of the metropolitan area. But I was stunned by what a limited, constricted vision that gave him.

This is what Satan was counting on in his wilderness confrontation with Jesus. His hopes were pinned on Jesus having a limited vision, a vision limited to his own sense of need. Instead, Jesus’ response to the Tempter challenges us to see our felt needs in the light of God’s plan—God’s plan not only for us individually, but for the entire created order, to understand our desires as threads in an infinitely larger fabric—the fabric of God’s creative and redeeming and sustaining activity in the world He has made.

The essence of the Devil’s strategy with Jesus was to persuade him to take the “cheap and dirty” route to the accomplishment of his mission. In the old Roman empire, it was said that an emperor could stay in power as long as provided the people with “bread and circuses.” In his wilderness temptation, Satan offered Jesus the opportunity to adopt the same strategy. The Jewish people were expecting and waiting for a messiah who would be a popular liberator, a revolutionary leader who would throw off the yoke of Roman oppression. Jesus could have gone this route. When he was tempted to turn stones into bread, it was more than the satisfaction of his own hunger that was at stake. It was the hunger of the people for “bread” that gave this temptation its appealing edge. Rather than being the messiah he knew he was called to be, Jesus could have been the messiah the people thought they wanted. The odds of success were higher, and it was a lot easier than getting crucified. But he said No to this temptation.

Jesus could also have descended even further, and pandered to the basest instincts of the people—in other words, “circuses.”  The temptation to throw himself off the pinnacle of the temple, only to have the angels catch him at the last second, offered a route to instant celebrity. He would have been the Jerry Springer of first century Palestine! Again, it beats dying on a cross. Jesus said No to this temptation.

The third temptation is the most subtle. It employs the nearly irresistible logic of “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em.” Instead of standing in the tradition of the Old Testament prophets, who criticized the establishment from the position of outsiders, Jesus is tempted to sell out to the system, to go over to the dark side, to become part of the social and political structures it was his job to challenge. It would be a very smooth career path, there would be a great many personal rewards along the way, and—who knows?—maybe he could even use his power and influence to accomplish something positive before the end of his days on earth. But Jesus said No to this temptation.

Jesus said No to all three of these wilderness temptations because he realized that the whole messiah business was not about his needs, or even about visible success. It was about humility, and obedience, and suffering, and—eventually—death, in order to accomplish God’s purpose of rescuing mankind from the iron grip of Sin and Death. There was no nobler purpose, there was no higher calling, than this. To allow his own sense of need to distract him from this vocation would have led to the ultimate tragedy of human history.

As baptized Christians, you and I have embraced the holy vocation of discipleship. We are followers of Jesus. His destiny becomes our destiny. And his life is an example for us. It is our calling to participate in his redeeming work, to share his sufferings that we may also share the power of his resurrection, to be the Lord’s faithful servants as He carries out the plan of salvation. When we understand the life of faith, the life of relationship with the living God, as primarily about getting our needs met, we will be tempted to take the quick and dirty route to success, to pander to the felt needs of others, to enslave ourselves to human social structures. We will be tempted to interpret our unmet needs and our unanswered prayers as evidence that God has abandoned us. This will lead to irritation, then bitterness, and, ultimately, despair. But we can say No to these temptations. When we understand the life of faith, and our relationship with God, as primarily about vocation and ministry and servanthood and the cosmic purposes of an infinite and loving God, we have access to such grace as will enable us to transcend the limits and constrictions that circumstances seem to impose, and lead lives of patient faith.

Praised be Jesus Christ. Amen.