CHURCH CAMP – FOR THE LIFE OF THE WORLD

As I sit down to write, the rectory’s washing machine is running, various boxes with camp gear and Prayer Books and other religious programming stuff are laid out in the dining room and, upstairs, my packing list is sitting atop my open suitcase. (And the cat’s probably sitting inside.)  It’s the day before staff training begins for Camp EDOW, our diocesan summer camp.  This, the day before camp is always an exciting, nervous, anxious, and anticipatory day.

Before I head off to the woods of western Charles County, pretty much leaving behind my other life for two weeks, I want to share my thinking about church camp: why it’s important, what it’s about, and for what purpose.  Maybe I’m doing this merely for myself, just as well, for in spite of the fact that some people think camp is all just fun and games (and it is mostly that), camp’s also a lot of work, a lot of coordination and planning.  The reason why we do this – for whom, that is – is what makes the difference.  It makes a difference not only for the kids, not only for St. George’s, Valley Lee, not only for the Episcopal Church in southern Maryland, and not only for the Diocese of Washington.  The reason we do all this is about the Body of Christ, the constant and patient work of making disciples and sending them forth.

Church camp is about the future of the church. Camp is the one week in a kid’s life that, most likely, makes the other 51 weekends at church meaningful and important. It was for me, at least. I would not have remained in the Christian church if it wasn’t for church camp. I definitely wouldn’t have gone in search of a campus ministry in college if my only memory and experience of church was attending my Sunday morning congregation. I’m not knocking my home church, mind you, but if my brother and sister and me – and our church friends – didn’t have the experience every summer of going to the Rock River Bible Camp, I wouldn’t have known that there’s so much more to Christ than Sunday mornings.

It’s just as much about the present of the church, even (especially?!) for the adults. Pastoral care and worship and prayer and exercising a public, prophetic role for Christ in our southern Maryland community are a big part of my job. They’re, in fact, the most important parts of my job. But in order to get there, along the way toward making an impact, there are a lot of phone calls, meetings, emails, social media activity and paperwork, too. Camp, on the other hand, is pure church. Camp is spending time in community, having fun, learning about God and ourselves, worshipping every day, and practicing what it means to be the Body of Christ. Anything and everything is an altar at camp, from a picnic table to an overturned canoe to a conversation at lunch to late-night bible study with Compline to the “see you next summer” as we part ways on Friday afternoon.

It’s about celebrating, indeed growing the Episcopal Church in southern Maryland. St. George’s, Valley Lee – that’s right, little St. George’s in hidden St. Mary’s County, a place that folks in our diocese tend to think of as “sooooo far away” – started Camp EDOW, our diocesan summer camp. In the late summer of 2011, Katherine Humphries from St. George’s asked a simple question: “Why doesn’t the Diocese of Washington have a summer camp?” This led to conversations and more conversations and, ultimately, a gathering of leaders from our diocesan community who, themselves, had a heart for summer camp and also knew the potentially transformative power camp could have on our entire diocesan structure and sense of ministry.

The Diocese of Washington is, at times, very, um, ‘Washington’. We pride ourselves in having The National Cathedral; in fact, the Cathedral pre-dates the diocese itself and is very much the reason there is a Diocese of Washington in the first place. (That’s also why we, in this part of southern Maryland, were gerrymandered into this diocese!) [See, for more, Richard G. Hewlett, "The Creation of the Diocese of Washington and Washington National Cathedral" in The Journal of Anglican and Episcopal History, 2002, vol. 71, No. 3]  The Diocese of Washington is a prophetic voice and leader in social justice causes, which is an important and holy role. And the Diocese of Washington, at least historically, tends to think of itself as the religious compliment to everything Washington.

Where, then, does summer camp fit in? And not a fancy, summer-long camp in New Hampshire, say. Where does one week of simple, straightforward church camp in rustic and rural southern Maryland fit in? It didn’t in our diocese.  Not for a long time.

But now it does, and it’s increasingly growing. Part of it’s success is in the celebration of place.  Equally so, a big part is letting change seep in from the margins; that is, from southern Maryland up-river.  You see, I accepted a call, now, seven years ago to St. George’s, Valley Lee, having already developed a fondness for St. Mary’s County in my year as seminarian in nearby St. Mary’s City. I knew I was coming to the Diocese of Washington, a forward thinking and progressive community, and that was icing on the cake. But my primary call was to the people and families, the woods and waters of southern Maryland; in particular, this peninsula from Callaway, Maryland to St. George Island (though, of course, we welcome people from as far away as Lexington Park and Leonardtown!), this place where people make their homes and pattern their lives on relationships, these communities where people find meaning in the play and joy and work of St. Mary’s County.

We are not the National Cathedral. We are not the fancy establishment and, in fact, even when those folks come down here, to St. Mary’s, to spend time in their summer/weekend homes they take off their suits and hang out in their blue jeans and swimsuits. So you don’t know them, anyway!

For too long, in my estimation, the Episcopal Church in St. Mary’s County tried to play the Washington game, tried to come up to that level and join them on their terms.  But they didn’t realize or else they forgot that that game, itself, was falling apart, many having come to realize that there’s no gain in winning. My initiative behind helping start summer camp was, then, very much a congregational development cause for St. George’s, Valley Lee – and all the other southern Maryland congregations. My hope was that we would be able to share with our Diocese of Washington what we have, where we are, and who we are. We don’t have soaring cathedrals, we don’t have (too much) power obsessions, we don’t have prestige and fancy-ness.  We do, however, have honest-to-God folks who know who to build community and practice relationships; we do have expansive waterways, and scenic vistas, and lots of land to play and make community within.

 

And that brings me back to the really big “why?,” the ultimate reason for Camp EDOW: it’s because the world needs Christ – needs, indeed craves the reconciling work that God is doing through the Body of his Son, Jesus.  Doing my laundry, packing my bag, getting my stuff ready so I can go and spend a few weeks in the woods and on the water with the awesome kids and adults of the Diocese of Washington is for nothing less than the life of the world.

Speaking of packing, I’d better get back to it…

BLESSING WHAT GOD IS HAVING US WITNESS

The other big news to come out of Episcopal-world / South Carolina-edition this week is that the Rt. Rev’d Charles vonRosenberg, bishop of The Episcopal Church in SC (that is, those who’ve remained faithful to The Episcopal Church), “on July 8 granted permission for priests to bless the committed relationships of same-sex couples in The Episcopal Church in South Carolina,” according to an Episcopal News Service (ENS) report. “In authorizing the use of [The Episcopal Church’s 2012 authorized liturgy,] ‘The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant,’ vonRosenberg gave permission for priests to respond pastorally to couples who are in committed relationships, including those who have been married in states where same-sex marriage is allowed.”

CHARLES vonROSENBERG Bishop Provisional of South Carolina

This is big news, indeed. It represents not only a wider movement toward greater inclusivity but also, and chiefly, a process which has been grounded in substantial theological reflection over many, many years.  And that long and significant process has everything to do with the Holy Spirit’s apparent progress. As ENS reports, “Since [2012], more than 60 of the 110 dioceses of The Episcopal Church have allowed some form of liturgy for blessings of same-sex relationships. Regionally, 15 out of the 20 dioceses of Province IV – an area covering nine southeastern states – now permit the blessings. In the Diocese of Upper South Carolina, Bishop Andrew Waldo announced May 8 that he would permit the blessings.”

Then again, life-long covenants and the theology of human relationships is much more clearly a gospel issue than, say, property disputes – that being the other matter going on currently in South Carolina.

Some responded to my previous post about that other matter in SC – in which I called out the knee-jerk reaction of the anti-liberal conservatives as well as, in turn, the foolhardy anti-conservative liberalism – saying that, in doing so, I was choosing sides against justice. Sadly, they only prove my point that theological liberalism – which has been a genuinely orthodox Christian movement, yet hardly practiced in our church, or any church, today – is profaned nowadays, made into little more than an issue-determined litmus test for membership. That’s just sad.

But this isn’t that. This is a story worth telling.

That the majority of Episcopal dioceses have already approved this rite for blessing same-sex relationships, including most of the dioceses in the American southeast, and that ‘The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant’ is meeting with such support is truly good news. On one level, it says that we are better able to move forward toward justice and inclusivity when we deal with more straightforwardly theological matters (not property, that is, even though the latter’s part of our mission, too). Accordingly, there will be deep conversation and prayer at 2015′s General Convention when the issue of marriage, itself, comes up, but let no one say this is the first time they’re hearing about it, nor let anyone say that the church hasn’t done sufficient and prolonged theological work around it.

I am reminded, on yet another level, that a huge part of the way the Holy Spirit’s helping usher forth this wider move toward justice is by bringing up such a topic not as an issue but an invitation, not as a political litmus test but, rather, a bright and open space in which we, God’s people, may ask how and in what ways God is blessing the lives of all God’s people: straight and gay couples alike; those who desire to have children, say, and those who wish to have no children, all the same.

Here’s a case in point:

I’m preparing to celebrate a wedding this weekend, and have been working with this couple for a long time. They are a wonderful couple. They know who they are and they know who God is calling them to become through their marriage. Specifically this weekend, they also know why and for what greater purpose they’re gathering friends and family. Like every other couple whose marriage I’ve celebrated, they live together; in fact, they have for 14 years! Like every other couple I’ve worked with (since 2013), when it came time to start planning the wedding liturgy, I showed them ‘The Witnessing and Blessing of a Lifelong Covenant.’ And like every other couple since, they, too, adore and resonate with this newer language. They happen to be a man and a woman.  But this new liturgy, yes, for blessing same-sex relationships, is just as relevant to opposite-sex couples who are preparing to pray themselves into a life-long covenant as it for same-sex partners.

The language is more justice oriented, echoing profound themes of partnership and covenant. Compare the opening words of ‘The Witnessing & Blessing’ (scroll down to page 5), with those of the marriage service from the Book of Common Prayer .

See it? “A relationship of mutual fidelity and steadfast love,” instead of “the bond and covenant of marriage.” Or: “Christ stands among us today, calling these two people always to witness in their life together to the generosity of his life for the sake of the world,” strikes a different tone than “marriage is not to be entered into unadvisedly or lightly, but reverently, deliberately, and in accordance with the purposes for which it was instituted by God.” Here, now, there is language of mutuality, partnership, balance, equal support, and, of course, love. Meanwhile, we’re still talking about a life-long, monogamous commitment.

I want to scream whenever I hear someone say “gay unions ruin the institution of marriage,” for, in fact, what I’m finding is precisely the opposite. I’m finding that, finally, all God’s people now have adequate language, fresh language to name eternal, holy truths.  We’re in a unique and rich moment as a church today. In the wake of a prolonged theological and prayerful conversation about human relationships and sexuality, following decades of discerning whether and how we are called to experience God in this work and these commitments, we are now able to utter new words which are truly new life for all couples — whether young or old, gay or straight, even those who are single and discerning or graying near the ears and married for 50+ years.

As we pray in that wonderful collect, “In the Morning” (BCP p.461), we have been given “the Spirit of Jesus” and, as such, our “words [are made] more than words.”  They are being made into new life.

PRAYING SOUTH CAROLINA

This morning in St. George, South Carolina, a very unfortunate trial begins, pitting the Episcopal Diocese of South Carolina against The Episcopal Church (calling themselves in this case The Episcopal Church in South Carolina).  Those who’ve been even mildly following this tale will recall that in November 2012 a majority of the parishes of South Carolina, under the leadership of their bishop, the Rt. Rev’d Mark Lawrence, voted to leave The Episcopal Church.  Under the oversight of judge Diane Goodstein, the trial to determine, pretty much, who is the rightful overseer of The Episcopal Church in the Palmetto State is slated to last through next Friday, July 18.

It’s hard to know what to pray for today.  Peace?  Justice?  I suppose praying, as Jesus taught us, for “thy will” is a pretty good start. 

As it is, the whole affair seems unfortunate.  There is, on the one side of this fight, that egoistic vitriol and vaulted self-righteousness of those who cannot abide in participatory, representative movements of the Body of Christ; the very definition of what it means — or at least what it has meant since the 18th century — to be a practicing Anglican in this country.  And, on the other side, just think of all those (probably) millions of dollars being spent by The Episcopal Church on drawn-out legal affairs.  We should also admit that there has been such an emerging liberal orthodoxy in The Episcopal Church — the fundamental basis of which should shock no one — but which, unfortunately, nowadays, seems more aligned with secular progressive politics and less with sustainable, theological diversity in the Body of Christ.

It’s hard to know what to pray for today. 

In the meantime, then, while we’re being honest and holding at bay the agendas of both sides, don’t quote to me Paul’s injunction against taking a fellow Christian to court (1 Corinthians 6).  Neither, for that matter, do I want to hear how this process clearly goes against Jesus’ conflict resolution plan, as given in Matthew 18 (vv.15-20).  Jesus and Paul are right.  We are wrong.  Yet while those injunctions in the New Testament are clearly the stated goal of those who practice life in the kingdom of heaven – and for a while at least Jesus’ followers were more akin to bringing the kingdom of heaven a bit closer to earth — we, the followers’ followers, have created an institution of this world with power and prestige and, yes, property.  That’s why it’s in the secular courts; that’s why a secular judge is dealing with this matter, starting today, in St. George, South Carolina.  If you want to cast stones, throw them both ways.

Instead, though, I’d suggest prayer.  But it really is hard to know what to pray today.

MARK LAWRENCE Bishop of South Carolina

I’ll suggest, for starters, that Bishop Lawrence, himself, should re-learn how to compose a Collect.  Writing a Pastoral Letter to the Diocese of South Carolina yesterday, July 7, Lawrence offered “a prayer crafted earlier by the Very Rev. John Barr, soon to be retired rector of Holy Comforter, Sumter, which I have slightly adapted for this present trial:

Gracious and Sovereign Lord, we pray that your will be done during July 7—18th. May we want what you desire. Guide and be mightily present with Alan Runyan and the other attorneys who represent us and with those who testify on our behalf. May the courtroom be filled with the pleasant aroma of Christ, and at the end of the day, protect this diocese and its parishes that we might bring the redemptive power of the biblical gospel to the South Carolina Low Country, the Pee Dee and beyond. Let not our fear of outcomes tarnish our joy or deter us from the mission you have given us. Enable us to bless and not to curse those on the other side of this conflict. Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. And in the power of the Holy Spirit make us victorious over-comers wherever this road leads us. For we ask all in the name above all names, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

It starts well: praying for “your will,” and that we may “want what you desire.”  That the courtroom be filled with the “pleasant aroma of Christ” is a nice touch, although I don’t know what that would smell like, but then to pray that God “protect this diocese and its parishes,” those parties who, apparently, are preaching the “biblical gospel” is a bit heavy-handed.  That presumes your opponents really are something stinky!  I also have no problem with praying for your attorneys, but I’d also suggest that you may then want to pray for the attorneys who represent the other opinion.  “Enable us to bless and not to curse” is also a nice offering but, as you’ve stated, it’s for those “on the other side” and it’s hard to balance fighting language and peacefulness in the same line in the same prayer.

The gift of the Anglican tradition is that we’ve learned and, with the exception of Bishop Lawrence’s prayer, above, taught others how to write prayers that do not serve as a political rallying cries, issuing forth their own heavy-handed agendas.  Rather, we’ve developed the patient craft of praying Collects that enable God’s people to say, time and again, “thy will be done.”  This principle goes both ways: resisting those who are conservative just as much as those who preach liberal messages.  This principle is not only important but holy and good.  This principle which creates, in effect, a church constituted solely as a praying body, gathered under one Lord, Jesus Christ, is perhaps the only thing that will, in the end, save North American Anglicanism — positioning our Christian movement to be represented as the one, trustworthy place in our communities that’s authentically working on building true diversity and real community, grounded not in our moment but for eternity.

I’d say the Collect from last Sunday (Proper 9) is the perfect one to pray:

O God, you have taught us to keep all your commandments by loving you and our neighbor: Grant us the grace of your Holy Spirit, that we may be devoted to you with our whole heart, and united to one another with pure affection; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

WHERE’S THE SACRIFICE IN THE “SACRIFICE OF PRAISE AND THANKSGIVING”?

I’m struggling or, I’ll be honest, I’m continuing to struggle with the self-centered, fairly vapid ideas on the marketplace today about how people go about growing congregations or doing Christian ministry.

My particular lens, these days, involves the work we’re currently engaged in at St. George’s, Valley Lee: expanding our music program and helping take our worship life in new directions.  I’m finding a rich world of music and worship thought-leaders, both within and beyond The Episcopal Church, but most often there’s this underlying implication, this nagging insistence connecting growing music and growing churches.

Sure, those connections are there.  But they may not be related causally.  And I suspect they’re not linked as much as we might think.

Life-giving worship has everything to do with what the Prayer Book calls “the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving,” that very phrase which is grounded in scripture (Hebrews 13:15, Psalm 100:4) and which Archbishop Cranmer himself inserted in the original text.  That worship is a “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving” reminds us that the church is not about us — not about re-sacrificing Christ on the altar, not about a priest standing in persona Christi.  Worship is for the purpose of proclaiming, once again, the work that God in Christ has already done, namely, reconciling the whole of creation to its Source and Creator.  Worship is about God, adoring God just like the Angels and Archangels apparently do without ceasing for no other reason than that is “right and a good and joyful thing” to tie our story to the divine.

The problem, however, is that current thinking about dynamic congregations has more to do with technical, mechanistic, directorial, astonishingly secular business models of ‘leadership,’ models we’ve been fed as clergy and lay leaders in mainline (old-line?) American Protestantism.  Even more astonishing is that in spite of the obvious crumbling of those cathedrals of thought — consider, for instance, the effective shuttering of The Alban Institute — they’re the very same models we keep feeding ourselves, time and time again.

We’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of cultural criticism and post-modern analysis.  I read this stuff, too, and I know it has, potentially, positive gifts, but I’m afraid too many of us mainliners are better able to quote cultural trends and talk about the end of Christendom than we’re able to re-tweet the words of Jesus in the gospels.

We’ve borrowed the language of post-modernity, whose self-critical apparatus was actually supposed to lead to some series of profound change, in order to prop up our decidedly modern, self-obsessed institution.  We steer close to and then quickly run away from the fact that that death, that seed which needs to die so it can grow into something new (John 12:24), also involves us, involves The Episcopal Church, and involves getting over the fact that we may not appear or even act as competently and be as effective as this secular world needs its so-called ‘leaders’ to be.  “‘Effectiveness’ is not a Scriptural concept,” writes the Rev’d Justin Lewis-Anthony, “and neither is it one affirmed in traditions of Christian theological reflection.  The foundational model of the Christian Church, that of Jesus and his disciples, was expressed in a radical powerlessness.”  (Lewis-Anthony, You are the Messiah and I should know, p.33)

At St. George’s, we’re exploring a new model of music and worship.  I’ve promised I’ll more intentionally blog about this and share, at least, my own thinking.  Just last week, I already started doing so on the Episcopal Church Foundation’s ‘Vital Practices’ series (click here).  Similar pieces will come, both on this blog and at ECF Vital Practices.

Before we begin, though, we also need to be exceedingly clear about our purpose.  Ever since I arrived in Valley Lee, now, seven summers ago, we’ve been at work on a huge goal, and we’ve been pulling this thread through every other aspect of our life together at St. George’s.  We’ve revised our By-Laws and our approach to financing and budget-making.  We’ve effectively changed how we share ministries and authority and power.  Fundamentally, the goal is to make this institution, this organization in St. Mary’s County, Maryland vastly more like an unmistakably Christ-centered organism and less like a self-obsessed consumer of people’s time and energy, much more like the early apostolic fellowship of believers, a gathering that also drove them to serve and live more boldly in the world, and less like an institution that appears to take more it gives.

We haven’t yet touched Sunday mornings.  That is where we are right now, and it’s going to require the same level of clarity, self-critical reflection, strictly theological discernment and, perhaps, sacrifice as those processes which led to the other changes in the ways we function and relate to one another.  It’s going to require us to be honest about the purpose of worship and the role of music and, above all, to be exceedingly cautious whenever we stray near the dangerous, solipsistic thinking that growth in music will bring about growth in the church for the purposes of growing the institution called ‘church’.  To be fair, these pitfalls are already there in the dominant literature’s careless assumptions, forgetting at its core that there’s sacrifice involved in the “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving.”

Some weeks ago, I invited the Rev’d Justin Lewis-Anthony to join us at our southern Maryland Episcopal clergy gathering.  The Associate Dean of Students at the Virginia Theological Seminary, Lewis-Anthony is also the author of the wonderfully challenging book, If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him (subtitle: “Radically Re-Thinking Priestly Ministry”) and has recently published an equally excellent book, You are the Messiah and I should know (subtitle: “Why Leadership is a Myth (and probably a heresy)”).  His talk that afternoon was as thorough and challenging as his corpus of work — and, yes, as witty as is his clear knack at titles.  He’s helped deepen and challenge, for me, dominant strands of thinking about music and worship and the life and work of the Christian church today.

Take our southern Maryland Clericus as an example, you see.  A group that averages fifteen or so come out once a month from September through June for lunch and prayer and conversation.  From time to time, mostly when I get around to it, our afternoon is enriched by a guest conversation partner, someone to pick our brains or stimulate our thinking or, too often, someone who’s part of the institution called The Episcopal Church / The Episcopal Diocese of Washington and who may have a great idea or who has to suffer through listening to what we think is a great idea.  Mostly, however, our purpose is fellowship because, frankly, when we do get some brilliant idea — or when someone else’s brilliant idea is imported to our lunch table – it generally goes nowhere.  People on the bishop’s staff are busy taking care of what the bishop wants taken care of and when those rectors leave that lunch table they, too, are overtaken by the matter their senior warden needs them to think about or what the altar guild chairperson is busy fussing about this week.  The Christian church has figured out a remarkable way to serve itself – dioceses serve the goal of dioceses and congregations serve their own purposes.  Even more frightening, we’ve developed a whole language of management and ‘leadership’ to justify doing what we do and why we do it.

Because it’s about us.

But it’s not, is it?  It’s not about us, nor has the purpose and mission of the Christian church ever been. If we really are Christ’s body, we’d better start acting like that self-sacrificial organism and learn, in turn, what “glory” really means.  And if our primary gathering is worship, that work which we’re now focusing on at St. George’s, we’d do well to re-discover the particular role of sacrifice in that “sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving”.

For my own part, I’m considering Justin Lewis-Anthony’s words of caution:

“We do not know what we are talking about when we attempt to talk about leadership.  When we do talk about leadership, we are, unknowingly, not being theological, in the sense of speaking coherently about the God who revealed Himself to us in the Scriptures, in the traditions of the Christian church, and, pre-eminently, in the person and ministry of Jesus Christ.  There is a savage disconnect, between attempts to treat leadership in a pseudo-theological manner and the real nature of leadership, which should become apparent in the remainder of this book.  We are, dangerously, attempting to yoke ourselves with unbelievers.  We are pretending that heresy can be put in the service of the church.”  (Lewis-Anthony, You are the Messiah, p.34)

THE TWIN OF GOD

In addition to being a schoolteacher, my dad was also a carpenter, and is a very gifted one at that. In the afternoon, he’d come home from work – having served all of his nearly 35 years teaching in one school district in a town just outside of Chicago – change clothes and head out, again, to replace a kitchen floor or hang cabinets or do other handy-man jobs.

In the summers, sometimes, I would go out for the day with my dad. Sometimes I’d be called on to do something; mostly, I was just there, taking it in, as children do so well.

The shapes and the names, let alone the functions of the tools were fascinating to me, and sometimes my dad would send me out to get one in particular: the terms, ‘crescent wrench’ or ‘mitre saw,’ sounded to my childhood mind like code words I could decipher. One summer day, I must’ve grown restless and wandered out to the station wagon and began to play with some of the tools, making up a game and passing time with that boundless creativity children muster. He was inside, I was outside. He was in his world, I was in mine. Later that afternoon, my dad asked me to go to the car and get something. I didn’t know which tool he was talking about, and I suppose that showed on my face. “Crowbar,” my dad repeated, “it looks like a heavy little cane. It’s the one you were playing with earlier by the station wagon.”

He had seen me playing. At once, I felt both ashamed and loved; ashamed for having been playing what must’ve seemed a silly game; loved because I was seen, recognized, the distance between our worlds not being a distance at all, not for my dad, at least.

 

 

All four gospel authors in our New Testament tell us that one of Jesus’ disciples was named Thomas. He’s there in Matthew, Mark and Luke, but as one of the supportive cast, no brighter than, say, Thaddeus or Bartholomew. But Thomas comes out of the shadows and into the limelight in the fourth gospel.

When, in John’s gospel, we first meet Thomas, back when Lazarus was about to be raised in chapter 11, the evangelist tells us that Thomas was called the Twin. In fact, he says it again in this morning’s gospel lesson as well as the next chapter. Most often when, in John’s gospel, Thomas is named it’s “Thomas, called the Twin.” It’s strange to continually offer up a nickname, alongside someone’s other name, and as any good reader – let alone a reader of the bible – knows, if something seems odd or a word is chosen regularly, it’s got to mean something.   Twin, in Greek, is didymus, as any study bible will tell you, but what they don’t tell you is that Thomas, the name itself, might not be his actual first name. In fact, toma is Aramaic, the spoken language of Jesus and his friends, meaning “twin.” “Thomas, called the Twin” is really just saying “Twin, called the Twin,” just in two different languages. It’s likely the apostle’s first name wasn’t Thomas, after all, and it’s likely that his real name is, well, not named.

Lest you think I’m offering mere speculation, I’ll say, first, there is a point and, second, I’m not alone.   My friend and former Divinity School classmate (and, now, professor at Harvard Divinity School), Charlie Stang, recently wrote a fascinating piece about this, pointing out that: “A number of texts from the second and third centuries speak of an apostle by the name of Judas Thomas Didymus. Judas, of course, is not only the name of Jesus’s betrayer, but also one of his four brothers (Mark 6:3, Matthew 13:55). The Gospel of John refers to a ‘Judas, who is not the Iscariot’ (14:22), and in one of the Syriac translations of the Gospel of John, this ‘Judas’ becomes ‘Judas Thomas.’ One interpretive possibility then, seized upon by some early Christian traditions, is that the apostle called ‘twin’ in the Gospel of John is none other than Jesus’s own twin brother, Judas. The most famous single text from the Nag Hammadi library discovered in Egypt in 1945 is a collection of sayings ‘which the living Jesus spoke and which Didymus Judas Thomas wrote down.’”

Set aside, for a moment please, any fears that just jumped into your brain about Jesus’ birth and whether there was another boy born that night – something I’m not suggesting – and wonder, instead, with me about what it means to be a twin.

What would it be like to be a twin? What would it be like spiritually, emotionally, cognitively? So like the other you’re nearly indistinguishable but, yet, you are different, you are unique, you are your own person, too. I am not a twin, but I know this feeling, in part, when I look at my own daughter, Carter, who is flesh of my flesh, bone of my bone, who is so like me and, yet, so unlike me; so close and intimately known and, yet, so remarkable, fascinating and strange. Or take the context of your marriage, if that’s the case for you, for there is, as theologian Benjamin Myers writes, “no one more mysterious than a spouse – not because they are distant and unfamiliar, but because they are so near and so well known.”[1] Isn’t it true that the longer you stare at something, the longer you think about that thing, a spouse, a child, a twin, a tool – crowbar – the more it becomes both known and strange; at once, recognizable and unfamiliar?

What is it, then, that bridges the division, that harmonizes the discord between that which we think we know and yet that which seems so distant, even strange?

Just as when I was as a boy, playing near my father’s station wagon, thinking he was in his adult world of work and duty and I was in my own, what dissolved that distance was love – my dad’s love for me, such love that, from time to time, at least, he stopped what he was doing and peered out a window, wanting to know where I was, see what I was doing and, maybe, when he saw me playing a silly game, watched just a while longer. (Just the other day, in fact, I was putting away clothes in Carter’s bedroom, upstairs, and she and our dog, Phoebe, were playing in the rectory front yard – Carter would throw a ball, Phoebe would get it and run away; Carter would get another ball, throw it, Phoebe chasing after that one and dropping the first ball which Carter would pick up and throw, again. I watched them do this, back and forth, all the while the child talking to the dog as she does one of her best friends. I watched them do this for a long time and, honestly, I could’ve watched them play like that all afternoon, a girl and her dog simply enraptured in play and happiness.) That which reaches across what seems, to us, a mysterious distance is love, always love.

 

 

In part, we know this. We hear in scripture’s story that we are loved, that we are knit by God’s design and animated by God’s breath.

The hard part is living it. Because we also know that we are not God and, sometimes, we’re pretty far from it. Sometimes, we fear, we’re downright wretched and not at all worthy; other times, we’re not so bad, just muddling around down here. We are in our own world. God is in God’s. From time to time, we’ll throw up a prayer and hope for something but we understand when we don’t get what we want; that’s just the distance between God and us, and so go the explanations, etc. etc.

The love I’m talking about is not the feeling we try to generate nor is it the zeal we attempt to muster for God. What I’m talking about is the only love that can truly be called ‘love,’ that profound, shattering, unconditional, no-strings-attached love that only comes, first, from God. It’s the love of One who knows us as his own twin, the love of One who is, as St. Augustine put it, “more inward to me than my innermost self,”[2] the love of One who is always, already crossing the mysterious divide between creation and Creator. Long before we can ask or imagine and not because we deserve it, God always, already loves and is in love with God’s creation.

I fear we’ve missed that message all these years hearing about old doubting Thomas, so in closing let me suggest a different spin on this story.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas, by Caravaggio (c. 1601-02)

Look, again, at the gospel story (vv.27-28), just after Jesus tells Thomas to touch him but before Thomas makes his declaration of faith. Question: did Thomas actually touch Jesus? You might say “yes,” and you’d be in good company. Most artistic depictions show Thomas touching Jesus, some downright gory paintings show him actually sticking his finger in Jesus’ side, but my friend Charlie Stang suggests, on the basis of the words of the text itself, that that did not happen. That Thomas did not touch Jesus. That Jesus merely invited him to do so.

The story is actually better, richer if Thomas did not.  For then Thomas’ great declaration – “My Lord and my God!” – would be not because he knew Jesus but because, first, Jesus knew him; because Jesus knew what Thomas was hiding; because Jesus said to Thomas what Thomas said in secret the week before. What bridged the distance, for Thomas, was not his ability but Jesus’ love; not our action but God’s, first.

We are all, in a sense, Jesus’ twin. We are all made of the same stuff, flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone, created of the earth and endowed with God’s spirit. We, too, are capable of living a life that will be a blessing to this world. It’s just that we, like Thomas, like Mary Magdalene last week, we who are alive are surrounded by death. We breathe it in, ingest it even when we do not wish to as our daily bread. It’s we who, somedays, turn life from a gift to a series of obstacles to overcome or a to-do list to check off.

It’s then that our Divine Twin comes to us. God, the lover of souls, comes to us. The One who was dead and came to life stares in the face of we who are alive but shrouded in death, and He loves us, first, loving us as none can and none will ever again, giving us the capacity for yet one more day to try and mimic the same.

 

 

———-

A sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Easter (Year A) at the Episcopal Church of the Ascension in Lexington Park, Maryland, a Sunday in which we swapped pulpits between St. George’s, Valley Lee; Trinity Church, St. Mary’s City and Ascension.

 

[1] Benjamin Myers, Christ the Stranger: The Theology of Rowan Williams (London: T & T Clark International, 2012), p. 4

[2] Augustine, Confessions 3.6.11

THE COST OF THE PRESENT MODEL

There are a lot of reasons why we need to start exploring new models of ministry in the life of the Episcopal Church. Most of these reasons, for me, have to do with a genuine and gospel-based desire to be more collegial and collaborative and mission-minded – to get over ourselves, get outside of ourselves, and better form disciples of Jesus Christ. That argument goes over pretty well with the lay leaders I have the pleasure of working with at St. George’s, Valley Lee. I’m also blessed that several neighbor Episcopal congregations – their clergy and lay leaders – are also on board with this desire to do more and be more, together.

Pitching ‘collaboration’ and ‘mission’ to top-level leadership in the Episcopal Church comes with conceptual approval, but also hesitancy and critical distance from suggestions from the field, coupled with good, if not uselessly airy and idealistic wonderings about whether and how we can “tweak the existing system(s)” and who has the power and authority to do so anyway.  The further you get from day-to-day life on the ground in the Episcopal Church, the further you get from life as a parish priest or congregational lay leader, the more you see only the meta-data and larger trends.

Here’s yet one more reason why we need to start exploring new models of ministry: we can’t afford the current one much longer.

In 2012, the missions and congregations of The Episcopal Church brought in $1,303,458,185 in pledge and plate contributions. That’s based on the 6,667 congregations and missions – both domestic and non-domestic. Simple division gives us $195,508 as, let’s say, Average Pledge & Plate Giving. I know that pledge and plate giving is one part of determining the Parochial Report’s Normal Operating Income (NOI), and I know the NOI is more than pledge and plate.  But let’s use this $195,508 number for three reasons: first, Kirk Hadaway and the Episcopal Church statistics gurus don’t report the average NOI (and I really don’t care that much to search further); second, the latter – namely, pledge and plate – is the singularly most reliable, albeit lagging indicator of actual ministry-based participation and giving in a given community; and third, I’ve already written about how utterly useless and stupid the NOI is.

Take our average Episcopal congregation, then: St. So-and-So’s, with their annual pledge and plate offering of $195,508.

Let’s say they tithe to the diocese (give $19,551), leaving $175,957. Now let’s do the math.

Based on the clergy compensation scale in the Diocese of Washington, a priest with, let’s say, three years of ministry-related experience should earn at least $49,057 in cash stipend, but when you follow the diocesan personnel guidelines you’ll also factor in pension contribution (18% of the stipend is $8,830.26) and health insurance (two-person medical and dental in 2014 is $18,336) and a modest car and cell phone reimbursement (say, $5,000) and a continuing education line item (go with $1,000) and you’ll get the total amount budgeted to having a full-time clergyperson is $82,223, leaving a remaining $93,734.

In this day and age, as well, a congregation poised for growth needs a support staff. Factor in a competent parish administrator who, let’s say, only works twenty hours each week. That employee would earn at least $19,508 according to the Diocese of Washington lay compensation guidelines. Also, given the church’s well-intended desire to achieve parity between lay and clergy ministers, there’d be an additional cost to health insurance (one person medical / dental is $10,224) and a matching contribution to a retirement savings account, say, $2,000. Added up, such a vital minister would cost $31,732. (If the parish administrator were full-time, that position would cost $51,241 – leaving $42,493 for everything else we haven’t paid for yet.  Such a package would never fly, however, so let’s keep maintaining the delusion that there’s a plethora of people on the job market with sufficient skills and gifts who are waiting, just waiting for part-time parish administrator gigs. Two further pieces are also important to maintaining this delusion: for one, you’ve got to pretend that this 20-hour/week parish administrator is able to move mountains and accomplish everything everyone wants him/her to do in that span of time; and, for another, you’ll need to pretend that the former delusion also means that absolutely no administrative work will ever keep the rector at her/his desk and away from the ministry field.)

A part-time organist with a bachelor’s degree and a mere five years’ experience, one who’s contracted to work only ten hours each week, would earn $12,524. Let’s also be exceedingly kind to this fictional congregation and suggest that the music director, in question, doesn’t need health insurance and opts out of the church providing some measure of retirement savings. Looking at the numbers, though, a local colleague of mine just hired a new organist / music director and the going rate, she reported, that most of the applicants quoted was $300 per service. With 52 Sundays in the year and three extra services (certainly Christmas Eve and maybe one or two others) that’d be a total compensation of $16,500. Splitting the difference, then, between the diocesan scale ($12,524) and the actual going rate ($16,500) let’s say that a gifted and competent music director would cost $14,512.

Between the rector ($82,223), part-time parish administrator ($31,732) and very part-time music director ($14,512) this sample congregation would’ve spent $128,467 — and that’s not including someone to clean and, maybe, a bookkeeper and/or a nursery caregiver or, perhaps, a formation director or youth minister. Let’s pretend that the floors magically clean themselves and that there’s a sufficient network of volunteers. Even among that limited personnel pool – rector, parish administrator and musician – that’s 65% of St. So-and-So’s pledge and plate collection. That startling number puts an even finer point on the financial struggle of most congregations; Kirk Hadaway from The Episcopal Church, in fact, softens this reality by focusing on Normal Operating Income (NOI), not pledge and plate.  Based on a 2008 survey, Hadaway reports that congregations with an Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) between 51 and 100 spent 52% of their total NOI on staff, and those with an ASA of 151 – 350 spent 51%.  Those percentages go down as the ASA gets smaller than 50 or larger than 350 (those with ASA between 1-25 spend 31% of the NOI on staff, 26-50 spend 45%; conversely, those with 351+ spend 49%), but that’s because in smaller congregations there is hardly any staff support and a congregation has to have a lot of people in order for it to sustain the idea that there can be a full complement of staff.  I know that ministry is more than paying staff positions, but it is hard to imagine that these reductions won’t have a negative impact on how the Episcopal Church is able to deliver meaningful, transformative encounters with the living God in the various contexts and communities across this country.   The unquestioned dominance of the one-parish/one-priest system is financially unsustainable, and we are quickly heading to a church in which there will be plenty of buildings but decreasing ministries. 

If you’re running the numbers in your head, St. So-and-So’s would, at this point, have $67,041 remaining. They would need to budget that money on heating gas and/or oil ($10,000?), electricity and other utilities ($7,000?), household supplies and modest kitchen expenses ($4,000?), office expenses and staples and copier leases and paper and information technology support and needs ($7,000?). They would need to find some money for communion bread and wine, and they’d barely squeak out enough to really support the ministry of the altar guild and provide for meaningful and dynamic worship experiences ($6,000?). They’d most certainly continue to defer maintenance on their buildings and grounds and I’d suspect that they would only have a little bit to invest in modest clean-up or capital improvement efforts ($5,000?).

This isn’t even mentioning Christian education programs ($10,000?) or social justice outreach work ($10,000?), ministry and mission that is the bread and butter of the Body of Christ. Apparently there won’t be much, if any money left-over for supply clergy or guest organists, so those key ministers, the clergyperson and music director and parish administrator, will be limited in their ability to go away on vacation or retreat. So much money is spent on presence and personnel and property, I’ll bet, that there’s not a lot of room for dreaming about mission and ministry and what we can be doing in the wider community to make disciples of Jesus. At this point, we’re down to about $8,000 remaining in wiggle room.

Add to this that even if the clergyperson has a truly missional calling and is ready to serve in this ministry context, the rector will, if s/he tries to follow the clergy compensation scale, price her/himself out of that congregation in less than five, probably fewer years of service there. That is to say, when that rector gets to eight years of ministry – this is, again, based on the Diocese of Washington’s 2014 clergy compensation scale – s/he will be eligible for such a cash stipend and comparative increase in pension, not including the obvious increases to health insurance and other costs, such that the clergyperson’s entire compensation package will consume any remaining surplus in the parish’s checking account and start to drive down spending in other areas. In short, the clergyperson has less than a five year ministry in that place, lest s/he be the very reason why the congregation has to raid their savings account or investment income in order to manage cash flow, pay the heat bill, buy sufficient crayons for the Sunday School, or provide substantial help to someone who is truly in need.

And it is sure to follow that a congregation with a nearly guaranteed turnover of clergy leadership every five years, on average, is a sure bet for a congregation that will only continue on a downward spiral in energy — sure it’ll spike with the new arrival but fall just as quickly thereafter — and a subsequent decline in time and giving and potential.

Not only can we much longer afford the currently dominant model of ministry in the Episcopal Church, but this is a time in which the moment is hot and, frankly, will quickly pass us by. Like it or not, we’ve arrived pretty late to the evangelism / mission game, but not so late that our numbers – our people and money, our total resources – are insufficient to the task at hand. We’ve actually got a healthier level of resources than many churches in our present situation.

But this is not a time to commission further studies or wonder who has the power to do what or ask fairly inane questions about how to transition the dominant system or shift the blame between diocese and congregation. No, this is a moment in which we know where we need to go and we have a pretty good stock of resources by which to do it.

So let’s do it.

‘BOTH THESE IN THEE, ARE IN THY CALLING KNIT’ – Balance and Vocation, John Donne

A few weeks ago, I had lunch with the new priest of our neighbor Roman Catholic church – also St. George’s.   It was a good meeting and we shared a worthwhile conversation. What impressed me most of all was his deep faith and sense of God’s call.   For him, it’s a call that came in his 20s – while he had already studied pre-med in California – and not one without demands and limitations.

It also seemed that this was the first time he’d spent a substantial period talking with an Episcopal priest. Noting the small-town grapevine that’s our best (and sometimes worst) news source, he said: “Some of the ladies in my parish told me they heard I was having lunch with Fr. Greg. They call you ‘Father’. Is that normal?” I explained that, yes, in different contexts many male Episcopal priests are called ‘Father.’

“You have the sacraments?” he asked.

“Yes,” I explained (not wanting to visit the distinction the 39 Articles and our Catechism make between ‘Sacraments’ and ‘Sacramental Rites’, still unclear to me), “all seven. We, too, are a catholic church.  We only disagree theologically on the issue of authority.”

“And you have a family?” he asked. I told him about my daughter and showed him some pictures. He, for his part, spoke beautifully that part of his priestly vocation meant that he would not have children biologically, even though his life would be filled with profound relationships, and such honesty shone through as a fundamental part of his Christian, indeed priestly character. I explained that children are certainly a gift and yet, in the demands of ministry, I’ve sometimes found it hard to balance my vocations as Daddy and ‘Father.’

It’s hard to find balance in life because we are often tossed to and fro between various responsibilities and opportunities and choices and challenges. In classical teaching, those are cares and occupations. The Christian church has often suggested the concept of vocation as one way to resolve this tension – that vocation is who you are (theologian Frederick Buechner suggested that ‘vocation is where our greatest passion meets the world’s greatest need’).  The argument goes that your vocation, then, should guide your life’s choices and inform your occupation, being defined as merely what you do. I think, for this reason, many are attracted to the religious life, in part because it seems so peaceable and serene and marked by prayer and solitude and scripture study. Plus, priests seem only to work one day a week – a joke that’s not always a joke – and your priest shows up to your family reunions and friendly gatherings and takes part in your life’s celebrations, such as baptisms and weddings, and your life’s most fragile moments, such as funerals. In many ways, inasmuch as the concept of vocation is appealing, the fact is that the priesthood – as well as other vocations in the church – seem to be the last clear-cut ‘vocation’ around.

In this, the Christian church has done itself a disservice. All of us balance multiple vocations, not just a cornucopia of cares and occupations. Even celibate clergy have other callings; my neighbor and colleague is still vocationally a son to his parents and a brother to his siblings. Likewise, there’s no dissonance between my vocation as Carter’s father and that as priest of the church. This is not to say there aren’t tensions and times when one gets greater stress or needs to come into better balance with the others. This is to say, however, that a life that seems all too clean and pure, as if there is only one vocation, one guiding principle, is probably not real and, if one is trying to live life that way, it will only end badly.

Lucky for us, we have a plethora of examples of lives lived well and fully and lives lived only halfway.  In fact, we have more of the latter than the former, but even in that imbalance is the call to find a more wholesome middle.

For starters, when God came among us in the person of Jesus he became the only one who lived wholly as one integrated person, at union with God and with himself. God did this in the person of Jesus because, well, God is God and only God is at perfect union with Godself and God’s creation. We who live on the other side of perfection are not able to fully replicate such balance, a fact which reminds me that Christ is not so much a model, nor an exemplar, but rather an eschatological hope, a promise of who we will ultimately become.

That’s why we get into a bit of trouble, then, when we turn God’s action and our hope for the life of the world into our action and God’s hope for the life of the world. There’s a story told around here of the Roman priest who, several years ago, was transferred from his parish in another part of St. Mary’s County to a new pastorate in the Archdiocese of Washington. He was a good and faithful priest, beloved by many, and he was ready to follow the Cardinal’s orders but also upset. In his mind and according to many who knew him, he was prepared to die as the pastor of that congregation – at the ripe age of somewhere in his late 40s – and he was miffed that God hadn’t taken his life just yet! Turning Jesus into a model of what ministry and vocation should look like in this world, on our part, is a highly dangerous thing. We, unlike Christ, are profoundly unable to sustain the fullness of the union between God and world, the balance among God and self and neighbor, the creative tension between an absolute love and convicting judgment.

“George Herbert at Bemerton”

In our own Anglican tradition, George Herbert is the one shimmering and, equally, dangerous beacon of this all-or-nothing stance. I’ve written elsewhere of the unhealthy patterns we’ve established by reading backward into Herbert’s life the countours of his poetry and prose, and I maintain, along with Justin Lewis-Anthony’s poignant contribution, If you meet George Herbert on the road, kill him (subtitle: ‘Radically Re-Thinking Priestly Ministry’), that George Herbert, at least the peaceable country vicar Herbert we’ve created posthumously, is not a sufficient nor a healthy model for the priesthood, not in the 21st century, neither in his native 17th. I am a huge George Herbert fan, don’t get me wrong; I love his penetrating religious poetry and moving prose and I’m attracted very much to his story. At the same time, there is a greater deal of complexity in the actual man than we’ve allowed to surface and, at once, a truly dangerous tendency in him toward an extremist, all-consuming determination, couched in pietistic language and single-minded vocational certainty.

A balance to such extremism, in our tradition, is John Donne, whose feast day is today, March 31 (the day he died in 1631). An elder contemporary and, at times, mentor and guide to the aspiring young George Herbert, John Donne’s path is similar in many ways to his younger fellow priest but markedly different. Where it differs, there’s a notable level of health and wholeness, at least of balance. I’ll be honest that I’m not such a fan of Donne, at least not as much as Hebert, at least not in the literary sense. I am, from time to time, moved by the stirring metaphysics, indeed sacrament of language Donne crafts but, unlike Herbert’s apparently natural gift, Donne seems to work awfully hard at it; the mechanics are too obvious and the not un-occasional stretches clunky, forced.

For these reasons, as well, Donne has been in and out of favor among literary communities. He was admired among circles in his day – first as a poet among a relatively small circle [only a few of his poems were actually published in his day] and then, on a much grander scale, as a preacher in the final stage of his life – but in the Restoration and throughout the 18th century his work was dismissed, as by Samuel Johnson, as “no more than frigidly ingenious and metrically uncouth.”[1] Coleridge in the late 18th and Robert Browning in the 19th centuries were appreciative of Donne, but Matthew Taylor’s 1880 anthology of English verse had no mention of him and appreciation only resurged when, in the 1920s and 30s, T.S. Eliot and William Butler Yeats saw in Donne “the peculiar fusion of intellect and passion and the alert contemporariness which they aspired to in their own art.”[2]

More than a comment on his reception among literary communities, this vacillation has as much to do with Donne’s own life, and the hard choices and rather circuitous path he took. His early years were spent choosing between his ancestral Catholicism and the Church of England which, obviously, he went on to join, but not without losing some family members and friends, some to the bloody siege of those violent times. His intellectual and literary gifts earned him access to good schools and desirable positions in civil service. But in 1602 he lost his job as secretary to Sir Thomas Egerton, the lord keeper of England – a result of his secret marriage to Anne, the young daughter of one of Egerton’s relatives.  Even though he would become the father of twelve children in sixteen years of marriage, Donne did not find regular, paid employment until he was ordained a dozen years later. Instead, we find in Donne’s earlier years a vast collection of passionate love poems, many quite good and now famous, and, in the middle years of his marriage, verse and prose written to several benefactors and friends who provided for the growing Donne brood – among them, Lady Herbert, George’s mother. Donne exercised his wit and intellect in countless genres in these years, no doubt the expression of his searching and wondering mind. There was satire and theology, love poetry and scores of letters, prose and epigrams and sonnets – all a working-out of a long vocational journey.

JOHN DONNE 1572 – 1631

Early in January 1615, John Donne was ordained a priest in the Church of England. Given that he was, then, forty-two years old and had tried out a number of jobs and fields and occupations, the tendency would be to think that Donne settled, at long last, on his life’s one true pursuit: the vocation of clergy. That tendency, rooted in the idea that life has certain definitive chapters and is not one long narrative, has little to do with the historical John Donne and is, itself, a dangerous misconception for us, today. In an elegy for his contemporary, John Cudleigh noted: “He kept his loves, but not his objects, wit / He did not banish, but transplanted it, / Taught in his place and use, and brought it home / To Pietie, which it doth best become”[3] Indeed, becoming a priest, for Donne, “should be regarded … not so much as a decision [but] a response to a totality of circumstance which had been accumulating over many years in both his private and public life.”[4]

When we think of John Donne, today, many may think of the erudite and well-known preacher and Dean of St. Paul’s – the great success he went on to enjoy in the last decades of his life. But focusing too much on that ending, alone, would only blur the long journey and overlook the searching back-and-forth of the man himself. Or, conversely, he may be compared too much with his contemporary, George Herbert, perhaps (in my opinion at least) a better poet and more compelling read, but one who threw himself over to the grip of a single-minded imbalance and exhausted himself, serving barely three years until his untimely death as rector of Bemerton. Does John Donne look more worldly, less holy next to George Herbert? Does Donne’s long religious searching and spiritual journey, his bouncing between those many and, at times, conflicting roles of devoted husband and aspiring socialite, priest and man of the world, father and scholar make his priestly vocation seem any more or less a retreat from the world, or his long life’s story more or less a working-out of holiness and sanctification?  Does worldly success run contrary to the Gospel of Jesus?  Does a pursuit of simplicity and relative poverty mean therefore, that it’s either God or the world?  Does an invitation to try new things mean we must cut off the old?  Does vocation grow, in time, and do new vocations also emerge?

In his poem, printed in full below, “To Mr. Tilman after he had taken orders,” Donne reminds Mr. Tilman, apparently, and us that “Thou art the same materials, as before” and that only the image, not the substance of “God’s old Image by Creation” is changed to “Christ’s new stamp.”  That at every stage in life we have the opportunity to realize there is a fullness in our story, which is hardly as long as God’s own hope for us and for the world.  That opportunity is not necessarily to know or achieve or ‘get there’, but to be and keep becoming, to progress and keep growing, to emerge as a child of the living God.

I don’t suspect that God is calling us to one thing and one thing only, whether it’s a job or a place or a community or an entire lifestyle.     Rather, I suspect that God is inviting us, sometimes challenging us to find in life a more wholesome balance, a middle way so we, too, might catch a glimpse in this world of that eschatological hope in the next.

 

 

TO MR. TILMAN AFTER HE HAD TAKEN ORDERS

John Donne

 

Thou, whose diviner soul hath caused thee now

To put thy hand unto the holy plough,

Making lay-scornings of the ministry

Not an impediment, but victory;

What bring’st thou home with thee? how is thy mind

Affected since the vintage?  Dost thou find

New thoughts and stirrings in thee? and, as steel

Touch’d with a loadstone, dost new motions feel?

Or, as a ship after much pain and care

For iron and cloth brings home rich Indian ware,

Hast thou thus traffick’d, but with far more gain

Of noble goods, and with less time and pain?

Thou art the same materials, as before,

Only the stamp is changèd, but no more.

And as new crowned kings alter the face,

But not the money’s substance, so hath grace

Changed only God’s old image by creation,

To Christ’s new stamp, at this thy coronation;

Or, as we paint angels with wings, because

They bear God’s message and proclaim His laws,

Since thou must do the like and so must move,

Art thou new feather’d with celestial love?

Dear, tell me where thy purchase lies, and show

What thy advantage is above, below.

But if thy gainings do surmount expression,

Why doth the foolish world scorn that profession,

Whose joys pass speech?  Why do they think unfit

That gentry should join families with it?

As if their day were only to be spent

In dressing, mistressing and compliment.

Alas! poor joys, but poorer men, whose trust

Seems richly placèd in sublimèd dust,

—For such are clothes and beauty, which though gay,

Are, at the best, but of sublimèd clay—

Let then the world thy calling disrespect,

But go thou on, and pity their neglect.

What function is so noble, as to be

Ambassador to God, and destiny?

To open life? to give kingdoms to more

Than kings give dignities? to keep heaven’s door ?

Mary’s prerogative was to bear Christ, so

‘Tis preachers’ to convey Him, for they do,

As angels out of clouds, from pulpits speak;

And bless the poor beneath, the lame, the weak.

If then th’ astronomers, whereas they spy

A new-found star, their optics magnify,

How brave are those, who with their engine can

Bring man to heaven, and heaven again to man?

These are thy titles and pre-eminences,

In whom must meet God’s graces, men’s offences;

And so the heavens which beget all things here,

And the earth, our mother, which these things doth bear;

Both these in thee, are in thy calling knit

And make thee now a blest hermaphrodite.[5]

 

 

 

[1] “John Donne,” at The Poetry Foundation website. http://www.poetryfoundation.org/bio/john-donne

[2] Ibid.

[3] In John Booty, “Introduction” in John Donne in The Classics of Western Spirituality (New York: Paulist Press), p. 21

[4] Charles M. Coffin, “Introduction” in The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne (New York: Modern Library), p. xxxvi

[5]Donne, John. Poems of John Donne, vol I. E. K. Chambers, ed. (London: Lawrence & Bullen, 1896.) 191-193.

 

 

MARYLAND DAY AND THE ANNUNCIATION

O Lord Christ, whose prayer that your disciples would be one, as you and the Father are one, inspired certain of your followers to create on American shores a colony that would practice tolerance, consecrated in the name of your blessed mother to whom the angel announced this day a new gift: Grant that the people of this land may continually give thanks for your protection and uphold the liberty of conscience and worship, until all shall receive the benefits and follow the disciplines of true freedom, endowed by the Name of the same, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

……….

 

On my grandmother’s kitchen windowsill sat a decorative ceramic tile, maybe it was a coaster or a trivet.  It never moved, not that I remember, and yet I noticed it as a boy.  It said “Maryland,” and had an image of that state’s flag.  Surely, my aunt and uncle who lived in Maryland had given it to my grandmother, or she bought it there on one of her trips to see them.  I, too, had been to visit my aunt and uncle, and I remember that it was a faraway place, not just geographically but historically and, in many ways, another world entirely.  That tile, you see, and my grandmother’s kitchen was in Illinois – my birthplace and obviously, personally, a significant place, if only for my family and the particular meaning it had for me.

I remember staring at that flag, the checked black and gold set in quarter panels opposite red and white crosses; the family crests, I learned in time, of the Calverts (black and gold) and their ancestral Crossland family.  I’d seen nothing like it before.  It suggested another world, an ancient world and yet something enticing.

I’m now a Maryland resident and, what’s more, my daughter was born here, not only in this place that once seemed so far off but in the birthplace of the colony: St. Mary’s County.  And after nearly seven years of residency, I still feel honored to live here, blessed to participate in an ongoing experiment of community building, a gift we celebrate today.  It’s Maryland Day.

On 22 November 1633, a group of English travelers — about 150 in all — boarded two ships, the Ark and the Dove, and set off from their mother country from the Isle of Wight.  Most of the group were indentured servants who would help settle the new colony and prepare the way for future arrivals, roughly equal numbers Catholic and Protestant, in fact, and on board was also at least one Jesuit priest, Fr. Andrew White, as well as Leonard Calvert, the intended future governor of Mary’s Land, the third English colony in the so-called “new world,” and Lord Baltimore’s younger brother.  Rough sailing met them as they traversed southward down Europe’s coastline and even more demanding storms beset them as they made a direct western trek across the ocean.  At one point, the Ark separated from the smaller Dove, only to be reunited in Barbados, and they eventually, together, made their way to their new home, even pausing for a bit to make a temporary peace treaty with the native Conoy tribe in advance of their landing.  When the time was clear and the setting just right they waited just a few more days.  They waited until March 25 – the Feast of the Annunciation, the Christian remembrance of the moment when the angel Gabriel announced to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive and bear a child (amazingly exactly nine months before December 25!)

On 25 March 1634, Fr. Andrew White, along with the others, stepped off the boat onto the shores of what is now St. Clement’s Island — a rather tiny little island in the Potomac River, a quick swim from what is now northern St. Mary’s County – and celebrated Mass, presumably the first such Catholic celebration in this part of the Americas.  Even though it would be several more years before religious toleration was officially the policy of this new colony — the Maryland Toleration Act or, as it’s known, an Act Concerning Religion wasn’t signed until 21 April 1649 – it was clear from the earliest days that this new place, named for and consecrated in Mary’s name, was going to practice a degree of forward-thinking inclusivity, if only toleration that was unknown in their homeland and yet unpracticed in this new frontier.

Today, March 25, is “Maryland Day” around these parts.  We in St. Mary’s County uphold our role as the birthplace of the colony; for some among us, it’s important as the birthplace of Catholicism in America (just as it was back in the 17th century Episcopalians are vastly outnumbered by Roman Catholics down here); for still others, this place shimmers with the bright and not uncontroversial origin of a new thing in a new land: religious toleration, if only, given the obvious limitations of that founding century, freedom of worship specifically for Trinitarian Christians.  This is a pretty special day celebrating a pretty special place.  Mary’s Land is a unique contribution to the American experience, and it’s well worth the time to pause and consider what implications the ideas that led to this colony’s founding had on the development of the rights and privileges we enjoy — some may say, ‘take for granted’ — today.

It’s not inconsequential, as well, that March 25 is the Feast of the Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38).  Maybe it was just good timing, after all; it seems to me, though I don’t have any cross-Atlantic navigational experience, it’s unlikely they would’ve been able to time their arrival to the month.  But the story we hear in Luke’s gospel is very much the story of their 17th century trek, a tale about God doing a new thing and in a new way with a new setting and new people, even the most unlikely people and settings, in fact.  I know the benefits and give thanks for the particular implications of this specific action of God but, today, I also pause and consider what it means that the King of the universe would’ve acted in this way, this strange, on the face, and unexpected way – inviting a marginal, poor, young, frightened girl not only to say “Yes” but, depending on her answer, re-route the world and overturn the powers-that-be.

The special gift of these juxtaposed stories — Maryland Day and the Annunciation — is that they are new revelations, new ‘showings forth’ of ancient, eternal mysteries.  When, after hearing Mary’s striking tale, you read the story backward, turning once again through the pages of prophecy and the unexpected showings-up of God in scripture, it all starts to make sense.  When you see what those Calverts — and the kings who supported them — were up to and trace the lineage of their thinking back in time, the pieces start to come together.  And when you live, like I do, and have your being in a place that will constantly humble you by the very imprint of its history and historicity, its tradition and profound staying power, you realize that you are both new and, at your best, part of the old; that your creativity is truly fresh and yet, at once, also just another instance of the long story resurfacing.

When, that is, you’ve had the gift of practicing new revelations for a very long time, you realize that the old is the handmaiden of the new and the new the reason of the old.  You realize, in a far deeper sense, what the writer to the Hebrews was trying to say: “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and for ever.” (Heb. 13:8)

YET MORE WONDERFULLY RESTORED

O God, who wonderfully created, and yet more wonderfully restored, the dignity of human nature: Grant that we may share the divine life of him who humbled himself to share our humanity, your Son Jesus Christ; Amen.

Collect of the Incarnation, Book of Common Prayer

……….

It’s hard to be human, very hard indeed to be a grown-up adult with responsibilities and demands and others to look after.  It’s hard and, somedays, we may look back fondly when we were small children and didn’t have to worry about a thing; our food was already provided, our decisions made in advance by elders.  But you can never really go back or, at least, you can never really unlearn what you’ve already learned, for good or bad, like it or not.  As it turns out, then, it’d be even worse if we were forced to go back, forced to become like children once again, to have others make our decisions and usurp our place as adults.

So we press on, striving to do those things which we know to be right and avoid those things which we know to be wrong.  That’s why we continue to learn how best to love God and our neighbor and our self and, in addition, not leave those things undone which need to be done.  There are a lot more gray areas of life.  That’s the case when things aren’t so crystal clear or roadmapped ahead of us.  We fail, from time to time, and we also succeed and grow.  Life is designed this way.  It’s so we might become a better, more wholesome creation.   That’s precisely why we’re in the midst of life with all of its complexity and challenge, for it yet has so much potential and joy and beauty, too.  That’s what it means to be created in God’s image, no longer a mere child but one with knowledge and potential, creativity and agency.  That’s what it means to be fully human, indeed that’s the very way in which we become like God, fully divine.

Likewise, it would be a mistake to read the scriptures that annually inaugurate Lent — the gospel stories about Jesus’ temptation – as if they had little to do with our created nature.  For when God determined to change the course of history, God immersed Godself in the fullness of our humanity, taking our createdness upon himself and dealing firsthand with temptation and desire and struggle.  God did this not to show us what we are incapable of but, rather, to prove to us who we are, being made in God’s image.  God did this not only to save us but to restore in us that created, that original blessing with which we can, and always could, use our human agency.

Salvation is much more the act of restoration than it is of pulling us out of the mire and pit of where we have sunk so low.  Salvation in a very real sense is restoring in us that original blessing, that primal gift of what it means to be human, the only way proven through the pages of scripture by which we also might become fully divine, like God.

That’s why we take on these Lenten spiritual disciplines, some of which may have to do with self-denial and penitence; some of which may also, I hope, have to do with restoration and promise, with rekindling in you what it means to be a living member of the body of God.

For this reason, I find such meaning in this poem – the origins and author of which I couldn’t find.  Do not fast, then, at the expense of feasting.  And make this season an opportunity, once again, to be restored in Christ.

Fast from judging others; feast on the Christ dwelling in them

Fast from emphasis on our differences; feast on our oneness

Fast from the darkness around us; feast on the light of Christ

Fast on thoughts of illness; feast on the healing power of God

Fast on words that pollute; feast on words that purify

Fast from discontent; feast on gratitude

Fast from withholding anger; feast on sharing our feelings

Fast from pessimism; feast on optimism

Fast from worry; feast on trust

Fast from guilt; feast on freedom

Fast from complaining; feast on appreciation

Fast from stress; feast on self-care

Fast from hostility; feast on letting go

Fast from bitterness; feast on forgiveness

Fast from selfishness; feast on compassion for others

Fast from discouragement; feast on seeing the good

Fast from apathy; feast on enthusiasm

Fast from suspicion; feast on seeing the good

Fast from idle gossip; feast on spreading good news

Fast from being so busy; feast on quiet silence

Fast from problems that overwhelm us; feast on prayerful trust

Fast from talking; feast on listening

Fast from trying to be in control; feast on letting go.

———-

Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church, Valley Lee, Maryland on the first Sunday of Lent (2014); click here for the full text of the sermon.

LENT: WITHDRAWAL AND EVANGELISM

One summer, I went to the Chicago Bears’ training camp in Platteville, Wisconsin, a quaint small town that for a few weeks every summer was literally overrun by orange and blue and the entire machinery of an NFL organization.  We camped at a local campground and, from time to time, made treks into town to see the practices and get autographs.  One night, we found ourselves hanging out on in a place on Main Street, feeling we were best buds with the squad of hulking professional athletes who also happened to be in the bar – letting us buy them drinks, mind you.

It’s an odd thing, these mobs of fans who gather around spring training for their favorite baseball team (or is it just a good excuse for Midwesterners to travel to Florida?) or flock to little towns in the late summer to watch their favorite football team practice.  That’s what they’re doing, after all: they’re practicing.  Occassionally, they have scrimmages and occasionally there’s something to watch, but the point is, well, practice.

Lent is Christianity’s spring training, our tradition’s practice field.  There’s nothing wrong – and everything right – with being intentional and serious about practicing.  The introduction to a holy Lent, found in the Book of Common Prayer’s Ash Wednesday liturgy (pages 264 & 265), summarizes it quite well:  “Dear People of God…” the Celebrant or Minister says, telling the story about why we do Lent, why we do what we do on Ash Wednesday, in particular, and for what we are preparing.

There’s a great deal of ‘company speak’ in these Prayer Book paragraphs.  It’s not really for public consumption and, no, for once we’re decidedly not talking about filling up our pews, bringing those who do not yet know Jesus into the church.  Lent, we say, is about “converts to the faith” being “prepared for Holy Baptism.”  They’re newbies, but newcomers who’ve already converted, who’ve already joined the body.  Lent isn’t necessarily the season to meet them on the street and bring them in.  Lent is a time to help them prepare.  We also tell ourselves Lent is about bringing back those “notorious” sinners who’ve been “separated from the body of the faithful,” reconciling them and, indeed, all of us.  Lastly, Lent is about reminding “the whole congregation,” those already active members of the body, that they, too, need “continually … to renew their repentance and faith.”

Learning to more intentionally practice the Christian faith is an important discipline and accords with everything early Christianity held dear.  The early Christians had no problem with and, in fact, thrived because they were considered outcasts and oddities, they were counter-cultural and perfectly fine with that.  That afforded them the opportunity to withdraw and gather together as a new and distinct society.  That afforded them the opportunity to develop their own spiritual and evangelistic muscles.

And yet everything shifted when Christianity was no longer persecuted but made legal (Constantine, 325 CE) and then, a few decades later, the official religion of the Roman empire (Theodosius, 380CE).  Everything changed further around the 8th century with Charlemagne and the unique coupling of the eventual establishment of the Holy Roman Empire and the Carolingian Renaissance which swept across Europe, firmly planting the ideal of Christendom in the western world’s  consciousness, a chain of events which leads up to our contemporary moment.

Sadly, we can place the theological revisions to Lent and Ash Wednesday alongside these cultural, largely political changes.  As Christianity became legal, then official, then the very definition of the status quo, so too did Lent become less counter-cultural, less inward and more about maintaining good order and a Christianized society; likewise, so too did Ash Wednesday become less and less about authentic, heartfelt repentance and more and more about community norms and practices.

It’s ironic that behind the movement to make Lent and, in particular, Ash Wednesday so much more public, so much more accessible, so much more a sign of what we can bring to this world there’s an implicit vaulting, once again, of the ideals and norms of Christendom.  When some among us realized they weren’t coming to us any longer, at least not so much on this inaugural fast, we went out to find them and bring them back.  Further, we brought a veritable symbol of the establishment, carrying out into the public square the very Christendom so many of them had long ago left, some quite intentionally so.  “You know where you were supposed to be today!” I’m afraid Ashes to Go implicitly insists, like a liturgical father berating his flock.  Sure, some respond positively; some are no doubt appreciative.  But many were just too busy to come to church in the first place and most probably didn’t make the connection between the obvious smudge of inescapable death and the real gift of new and life in Christ.  The creativity [and as I've written elsewhere I do think Ashes to Go is creative] of this movement is a good spark for a day or two, but making disciples and empowering the body of Christ isn’t done in a flash.

Making disciples is done in the quieter, less visible work of practice.  There’s nothing wrong with withdrawing, at least for a six week season of intentional spring training and spiritual preparation.  In this world in which we think we need to be ‘on’ all the time, 24/7; in this culture in which we, the current incumbents of the institutional Christian church, feel like it’s our fault that average Sunday attendance isn’t what it was, say, in 1957, it’s okay for at least a few weeks to quiet the anxiety and set aside the marketplace and deal, first and foremost, with ourselves, our own struggles and blessings, our own failures as well as our gifts.

In fact, there’s everything right with withdrawing for a season.  Try as we might, the images and symbols we’ll inevitably display still bear the unmistakable sign, for many, of Christendom, of establishment; we haven’t yet developed the language of a counter-cultural society.  The world needs vibrant, living members of Christ’s body; the “saints” the writer of Ephesians talked about, reminding us that the reason God gives a multitude of gifts is “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.”

Sometimes withdrawing for a season to train and practice, to develop new language and more subtle and no less revolutionary skills is much more important than spinning our wheels and expending more energy.  The circus of this world and the draw of others will be there, sure enough, and there’s nothing wrong – and everything right – with the quiet, less visible, diligent, demanding, interior work of practice.