NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD, AN ANNUNCIATION PRAYER

On this end of the parish hall, where my office sits, things are quiet once again. There’s some coming and going down the hall, in the kitchen; folks getting ready for the fish dinner Friday: bustling, cleaning, prepping. And I, for my part, am supposed to be working on any number of things connected to Holy Week and Easter, not to mention a few bits of diocesan work I’m wrapping up and, oh right, summer camp and General Convention, both of which will be here before I know it.

Late yesterday afternoon, I dumped in a box a bunch of loose papers which had becoming nothing more than an annoying pile of clutter; it’s now titled “Open & File after Easter.” I told myself I was going to focus on the people and projects and things which God was placing in front of me right now – not yesterday, not even tomorrow.  I said I’d be more present in these hectic days, more present to, well, being present. And I’ll let God fill in the spaces I might leave open, which I seldom do anyway.

I will get around to the paperwork and these other things. I will, I told myself.

And then I worked until 9:30pm.

I’m not such a good learner.

Earlier today, we gathered, as we regularly do, for mid-day healing prayers and Holy Communion in the church. Generally, it’s a quiet half-hour of contemplation and prayer, occasionally interrupted by someone coming forward to the altar rail.  I lay hands on them and ask God to heal them. Communion follows, a simple yet intimate and holy gathering. Joking, as per usual, JoAnn said I should put up a sign that read, “Handicapped ONLY on Wednesdays.” She was referring to the average age of those who show up, mid-day.

Today is the Feast of the Annunciation, the day Gabriel announced to Mary news that would change the world; March 25 being nine months – the time it’d take a baby boy to grow in the womb – before Jesus’ birthday. The gospel reading for today is a scene from Luke’s first chapter, the story featuring that lively conversation between Gabriel and Mary, herself a young, confused but by no means unassuming girl.(Lk.1:26-38)  I love the back-and-forth, the give-and- take; it’s kind of like a bargaining session. For some reason, today, what stood out for me was Mary’s own “Huh?” when Gabriel shows up. What gets her going is not merely the fact that an angel is in her room; it’s not bafflement, but that she’s puzzled, perplexed at his strange greeting! (Lk.1:29) The conversation ensues: he has a promise, she has questions; he has wisdom, she has strength.

“Well and good,” she (kind of) says, “but how is this supposed to happen?” To which Gabriel says: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (v.37)

Nothing.

Will be impossible.

With God.

Nothing.

I said these words to Kitty, to Charlotte, to JoAnn. Kitty’s the oldest of those three, Charlotte and JoAnn are quick to point out; she’s 90. The other two aren’t far behind, though, and they’ve all lived fascinating, rich, full lives. They are also, one to another, dealing with their limitations and their struggles, confronting their own mortality in ways which are, somedays, difficult; other days marked by at least a hint of a smile; better: a smirk.

“’Nothing will be impossible with God’ scripture says. Do you believe it?” I asked. One shrugged a halfway answer; it seemed to sit heavily on all. No one gave me a straight-up “Yes!”  Good.  At this point in life, no one’s studying for the test. It’s time to get real. Time to take off the masks and be honest: “Lord, I don’t know what you’re doing and why I’m even here. I don’t know why I’ve outlived my own husband,” I could hear the prayers at night; “I know my life is filled with good things and that all is in your hand but …” These are real thoughts, real prayers, real lives. That’s why we pray, not because we have the answers or because we once had the answer but we’re afraid we’ve drifted too far from it. We pray because we know no other way to live. We pray life. We pray our lives, as rich and textured and, sometimes, bumpy and perplexing as they may be. We pray our lives.

“Nothing will be impossible with God” is precisely such a prayer, in and of itself. When you do believe it, pray it: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” And when you don’t believe it, especially when you don’t believe it, pray it: “Nothing will be impossible with God.” When you don’t know the answer or what the plan is or what you might even hope to have God do, if ever God was going about doing what you were asking God to do, pray it: “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

Their lives, JoAnn’s, Kitty’s, Charlotte’s – yours and my life, too – are probably, more often than we care to admit, caught up in this prayer. Most likely, we’ve been praying this prayer, day in and day out, even though our lips may not utter the words and the thought may not even cross our mind.  “Nothing will be impossible with God.”  Our life is its own offering to God, and a constant journey toward the One who reveals Himself to us, just as with Mary, time and time again.

With Kitty back in the summer of 2012
With Kitty back in the summer of 2012

St. Augustine said as much, I reminded them, way back in his day, preaching to the people in northern Africa that “God created us without us, but he did not will to save us without us.” (Sermon 169)  This may be one of those things we see a bit more clearly at the end of our life, when we are facing the limits of our mortality head on, but I, too, see glimpses of it, faintly and sometimes, at the end of a day.  I, too, see this mystery when I remember that I’m also a partner with God in this gift called creation; that I have a responsibility and a role to play; that I am asked to bless and heal and love and share; that I, too, have a role to play in my own salvation and that salvation is not mine, alone, but ours, only ours, a collective returning to God in Christ. “God did not will to save us without us,” the good Doctor preached, which is nothing more than yet one more invitation to make our lives a prayer – a richly textured, very real, heartfelt prayer, not only with our lips but with so much more.

Here we are, gathered for a simple lunch on Annunciation afternoon - March 25, 2015
Here we are, gathered for a simple lunch on Annunciation afternoon – March 25, 2015

THOSE WHO GET WISDOM OBTAIN FRIENDSHIP WITH GOD

“I prayed, and understanding was given me;

All good things came to me along with her.

I learned without guile and I impart without grudging.

It is an unfailing treasure for mortals;

those who get it obtain friendship with God,

commended for the gifts that come from instruction.”

Wisdom of Solomon 7:7,11,13-14

It was the early fall, no air conditioning in the room, and we were already wading through some pretty dense stuff not an hour into our first class session in that upstairs conference room.  “Philosophy and Religion” did seem, to my advisor at first, an odd way to kick-off my freshmen year in college, but I was all for it.  She couldn’t stop me, she said, and it’d at least knock off one of my two philosophy core requirements.  Plus, she reminded me, once I officially declared myself a Religious Studies studies, I wouldn’t be meeting with her.  (“They’ll clean up this mess,” she seemed to imply!)

The professor was an older man, ‘Crean’ was his name, I believe, and he meticulously opened and set on the conference room table in front of him a travel alarm clock.  I guess it was to make sure that his ramblings — brilliant, but rambling no less — didn’t carry us too far over the hour and a-half time allotted.

“We’ll begin with Thomas Aquinas,” the professor began after some very brief introductions.  He gave us a bit of biographical information on the 13th century Dominican philosopher and theologian and introduced us to the term Summa Theologica — or the various competing ways to transliterate the Latin.  I was wowed by the idea that one could, literally, summarize theology.

To be fair, I was already awed that one could, well, do theology.  I had a long way to come.

In my evangelical high school, mere months prior to this seminar, I had a wonderful time.  I pretty much majored in goofing off and playing football and dreaming about girls — sometimes, actually dating one.  It was a lovely high school experience: the Chicago Christian High School, though not actually in the City of Chicago itself, was connected to the Dutch-immigrant Christian Reformed (CRC) and Reformed (RCA) churches in America.  I learned about Calvin and I learned the bible.  And, right, I learned about girls and football and having fun.  I really had a great time, and I’m especially grateful to the ways in which my parents really stretched their household budget and raised me and my brother and sister with the Christian values of education.  In our close-knit home church and community and family and, add to that, our high school, it was expected that you would be a Christian, that you would love God, and you would feel loved by God.  It was the days of late-80’s and early 90’s evangelical pop Christianity, carried through by an appealing soundtrack of rock ballads that sounded a lot like singing love songs to your high school sweetheart — only, this time, the Son of God.  It was an awesome, heart-warming, emotional experience.

The problem was that if you didn’t feel loved or if you were having a bad day or if you didn’t feel the capacity to love there wasn’t much more there.  It was a pretty thin veneer of formation, and looking back I’m not so sure I’d call it ‘faith’ formation. Maybe indoctrination.  Maybe belief inculturation.  I suspected, even at the time, that faith meant something far deeper, something much bigger, something more profound than simply loving and being loved.  Under their pretty basic platform was an even more basic idea — God gave us the bible, you see, so we should learn it, and know it, and believe it.  That’s that.

But Thomas, Thomas Aquinas was different.  Sure, it was pretty dense and hard to slog through, but Thomas didn’t talk about feeling or even a whole lot about love, and there was no rock ballad accompanying the pages.  They were Aristotelian logical equations; honestly, I didn’t know what that even meant, let alone who Aristotle was.  Reading Thomas was an exercise of the mind and it was deep, provocative, probing, profound.

According to St. Thomas, I learned, one could prove, yes, prove that God exists, using five fairly self-explanatory proofs.  They made sense to me but, more than that, the entire way he went about thinking, yes, thinking about God connected the dots between science and the more ethereal matters running through my mind; between math and belief; between what I felt was lacking in my own relationship with Jesus and what I never knew I could ask or wonder or imagine.  Thomas’ way of thinking helped pull together in me things I once thought entirely disparate and disconnected — the love of God being more important, I was taught, than venturing outside of the predictable patterns of my Truman Show-esque faith community.

But here was a way to think, to truly think.  Here, in Thomas, was a way to understand that this world — my own brain and my body no less — are not (completely) marked by sin, not entirely cut off from grace.  No, the whole created order of which I am a part is not only a gift but also a signal, indeed a symbol that points to a gracious God who wants to be in relationship with us.  Yes, a God who loves us and who wants us to love Him but, even more, a God who wants the fullness of our lives and hopes and struggles and dreams and thoughts.  The God who knows me more intimately than I, even, know myself.  And the God who, knowing me, still wants me.  All of me.

Sometimes, I’m afraid, we tend to forget what we’re really practicing, and what the content of this faith really means.  I know I forget it from time to time.  Just the other day, a wonderful leader in our congregation said we need to have a conversation with the Sunday School teachers and other interested parents and grandparents and folks about Christian formation.  She and others hope to stem this creativity into a youth group.  “She doesn’t want to come to Sunday School any longer,” this leader said referring to her granddaughter; “We need to find a way not to lose her.”

I’m not faulting this idea; in fact, it’s a great idea and I’m especially glad to be part of a Christian community, such as ours, that’s strengthened by such dynamic leaders.  We will have that meeting, and it’s going to happen after worship this coming Sunday, Feb. 1.  (You should come if you’re so inclined or interested!) We are going to create a youth group and build upon the successes and growth we’ve had with Sunday School / Christian formation at St. George’s.  No, we’re not going to rest on our laurels and think we’ve perfected the enterprise of forming people, let alone our children and youth, into what it means to “grow into the full stature of Christ.”

But the one caution we also need to have, if only in the back of our minds, is that this isn’t about ‘keeping them’ or letting them have fun or have a good experience of church.  Whether faith in the living Christ will be formed in one’s inner being is not at all contingent on whether they, the kids or, for that matter, a given adult, wants to come to church, wants to participate, wants to learn.  Those simple desires and surface matters-of-the-heart will come and go and, frankly, they go all too quickly.  They go when times get hard or when someone doesn’t feel loved or, because we all have bad days, they’re not able to love, not that day at least.  Those are the moments when that ethereal and life-altering truth, no less than faith in the living Christ, can slip away and go, and go all too quickly.

Because we are really talking about knowing God in one’s inner being, and being known — and loved — by that same God.  We are talking about intimacy, which requires vulnerability and which requires knowledge and, yes, which also requires that strange warming of the heart, to borrow Wesley’s phrase.  We are talking, through and through, about friendship with God, which is the fruit of wisdom, and that is what gives birth to a lively faith.

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