Glory? Tuesday in Holy Week

Near the end of his gospel, John ‘breaks the fourth wall,’ so to speak, and addresses his readers:

Now Jesus did many other sings in the presence of his disciples, which are not written in this book.  But these are written so that you may come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that through believing you may have life in his name.

John 20:30-31

dbb3f3db451d9dd2b1c716ce09d8900ab8ec6072Jesus did a total of seven signs in this gospel, ‘signs’ being John’s word for what the other gospel writers call ‘miracles.’  (But that’s a distinction for another blog post.)   Very likely, you remember Jesus’ first sign.  He turned water into wine at a wedding in Cana of Galilee. (Jn.2:1-11)  Do you remember what the gospel author wrote at the conclusion of that story?

Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.

John 2:11

Jesus’ signs reveal Jesus’ glory.  They show he has real power.  He has power over disease.  He can heal sick people — healing the royal official’s son (sign 2) Jn. 4:46-54; healing the paralytic at Bethesda (sign 3) Jn. 5:1-15; and healing the man blind from birth (sign 6) Jn. 6:16-24.  He has power over nature.  He can walk on water, as he did in Jn. 6:16-24 (sign 5).  He can multiply some fish and a few barley loaves and feed a multitude; John 6:5-14 (sign 6).  Speaking of the feeding of the 5,000, it’s fascinating that John’s gospel doesn’t give us a Last Supper with bread and wine, but what this gospel does is expand our understanding of God’s sacramental presence in the world.  After all, Jesus’ first sign is wine (Jn. 2) and his fourth sign is bread (Jn. 6).  The whole of Jesus’ life, and our whole life in Jesus, is a great big, never-ending eucharistic fellowship.  Lastly, Jesus even has power over death.  His seventh, and final sign is when he brings back to life his friend Lazarus (Jn. 11:1-45).

Jesus’ signs reveal Jesus’ glory.  At first glimpse, Jesus’ glory sounds like our dictionary definition.  glo-ry: High renown or honor won by notable achievements.

But that’s all going to change.

We hear about glory in the gospel appointed for Tuesday in Holy Week, John 12:20-36.  This time it’s on Jesus’ lips: “The hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified,” Jesus said. (Jn.12:23)  Given that you’ve already read about glory in this gospel, you may be thinking that Jesus must be preparing to do something amazing — show his power, reveal his strength, overcome an obstacle, knock down barriers.  But then he says a weird, counter-intuitive thing about seeds and death: “Unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies,” Jesus said, “it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” (Jn.12:24)  Wait? What?!  Wasn’t your glory just shown to conquer death?  Why are you talking about death?

As it turns out, glory and glorification, in the gospel, are not about things we define as ‘might’ and ‘strength.’  Glory, for God, is not about great achievements and notable praise.  Glory, for God, is about love — sacrificial, abundant love at that.

john 11New Testament scholars have traditionally broken John’s gospel into two books — the Book of Signs (1:19-12:50) and the Book of Glory (13:1-20:31).  With our Holy Week gospel, we’re at a transition point between those books, the threshold in which we’re leaving one and entering another.  We don’t know what we’re preparing to enter.  We do know that something has changed.  We caught a glimpse — the meaning of ‘glory’ alone just changed — but we don’t fully know what is different, what is new, and why everything feels like it’s turned over, upside down.  That’s part of the anxiety of reading this gospel.  Indeed, that’s part of the anxiety of living this life.

Stick with it, however, and we soon learn why everything changed.

A few chapters later, we have the opportunity to pray alongside Jesus.  John 17 is one long prayer: “After Jesus had spoken these words, he looked up to heaven and said…” (Jn. 17:1).  In this prayer, we finally learn what glory, God’s glory is all about.

First, glory is the power of the Ultimate Source of life.  Jesus prays that He may glorify the Father (17:1).  Jesus rejoices that He has brought God’s people more closely to God’s heart.  In 7:4, Jesus says: “I glorified you on earth by finishing the work that you gave me to do.”  Glory is God’s power, and when all things are restored to God all is well, all is right, all if glorified.

Second, glory is living as though we are already redeemed, already God’s own.  Glory is God’s power, and it is a further point of God’s nature that God imparts what is God’s own. Thus Jesus said: I am asking “on behalf of those whom you gave me, because they are yours.” (17:9)  And 17:22: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one.”  Did you hear that? We are given God’s glory.

What a gift, that God would give us God’s glory!  But in order to receive it, we must first understand it.  And, thus, one of the greatest gifts of John’s gospel, taken from beginning to end, is that we understand that, and understand why the word ‘glory‘ changes.  This is a lesson we also learn (or need to learn) from life.

We start off thinking in elementary terms.  At first, we think that glory is about amazing deeds of power, high renown, notable achievements.  But at some point we face difficulties and challenges, not only in John’s gospel but in life.  That’s the moment we start to disbelieve everything we were once told: “Phooey!” we say, “That’s just bible talk. Jesus might’ve walked on water back then, but he can’t save me now.”  Perhaps we forget that God’s glory is manifested most clearly on the Cross.  Perhaps we just don’t want to look for God in the suffering and pain, the anxiety.

Cross-shaped moments are precisely those in our lives in which Jesus is most present.

We just don’t want to look for him there.  We hardly want to recognize it ourselves.

Turns out, that the problem was our own heart, our own stubbornness and refusal.  All along, we wanted life to be carefree, and we didn’t know there was anything on the other side of pain or challenge.

Stick with Jesus through John’s story and, like a sign itself, glory changes for you!  Like a sacramental transformation, glory changes.  Not only does the meaning of the word change right before your very eyes, but you change.  You grow into God’s glory — which is more than we could ever ask or imagine.

We don’t always have Jesus. Monday in Holy Week

I read once that Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement, traveled very lightly.  She carried her breviary and a can of instant coffee.  That’s it.  Even though she said on more than one occasion, “Don’t call me a saint; I don’t want to be dismissed that easily,” she’s on her way to sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, the church in which she found a spiritual home, at times an uneasy home, but a home nevertheless.

Dorothy-DayShe wasn’t an entirely likeable person.  She had one daughter, Tamar, and their relationship wasn’t the easiest.  Dorothy wasn’t warm and cuddly; she was tough and formidable.  She struggled deeply with the inherent brokenness of this world.  She extended hospitality and yet she wasn’t a friendly Christian do-gooder.  “There are two things you should know about the poor,” she wrote: “they tend to smell, and they are ungrateful.”  She knew what it was to call Christ ‘Savior’ and she found him not only her Lord and Master but also her friend.  Interestingly, when she went to write her story she titled it, The Long Loneliness.   

I was lonely, deadly lonely. And I was to find out then, as I found out so many times, over and over again, that women especially are social beings, who are not content with just husband and family, but must have a community, a group, an exchange with others. Young and old, even in the busiest years of our lives, we women especially are victims of the long loneliness.

There are some brilliant moments in which I can viscerally feel her holding a candle against the darkness, daring the darkness to try, just try to overcome the light (Jn. 1:5):

We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.

I treasure these images of Dorothy Day — bold, visionary, faithful, fierce.  It’s not easy to love the poor, especially because it feels never-ending.  We can’t ‘fix’ them, and the system is so broken that even if we helped them get a job (which most of the poor in our country have, by the way) or help them “get back on their feet” (how many times have we heard that?) we wouldn’t be able to set most up for long-term success.  One of the leaders of the food pantry at Ascension, Lexington Park, said: “If you’re going to be in this mission business, you can’t look at the cars they drive, nor the shoes on their feet.”  I take his words to mean that you can’t judge those who come into a food pantry looking for food.  If they say they’re hungry, feed them.  By way of initial responses, compassion and hospitality make for good beginnings.

The gospels tell us that the poor teach us how to seek and serve Christ. On Monday in Holy Week, we remember the sorry in which Mary annoints Jesus’ feet in Bethany. (John 12:1-11) Jesus teaches about the end that is to come, his end.  That’s what Holy Week invites us to pay attention to, but what it really asks us is to come to terms with our faith in the here and now.

Even though Jesus is no longer here, physically, he gave a very clear teaching about how we are to shape our lives and ministries.  The poor, He said, must be at the center of our common life, the literal heart of any ministry done in His name.  But sadly this teaching has been misunderstood.  Here, I’m specifically thinking of John 12:8 — what my NRSV translates as, “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”bible3

The shorthand interpretation has sounded something like a treatise on global economics.  Poverty will always be around, it goes; there’s nothing anyone can do about it.  In fact, Jesus himself said as much.  Be nice to poor people, but there’s nothing you can do to change poverty. 

Even worse is suggesting that Jesus asked us to make a choice: pay attention to Him, on the one hand, or do the works of the social gospel, on the other.

I’ve come to appreciate another way to read John 12:8.  Let’s look at the language more closely.

First, the Greek for “have” (“you always have the poor…” and “you do not always have me…”) is echete, which is used throughout the New Testament to talk about ‘having’ or ‘holding’ something. It can mean holding something in the hand, but it also has a deeper sense of “holding one’s self to a thing,” or “being closely joined to a person or thing.”  It’s not just about possession.  The word choice implies a relationship.

Second, even though echete appears to be the present indicative form of the verb (“you have“), the construction for the present imperative is exactly the same. It could also be a command, as in: “you should have”  or “you must have…” According to this compelling sermon, John 12:8 could mean so much more:

The verb “exete” meaning “you have” used in this passage is in an imperative form and not in the future tense. It is, therefore, a command, not a prediction. I am inclined to interpret this command as Jesus instructing the listeners to hitch themselves – throw their lot in – with the poor. In John 12:8, Jesus says “Here! Have the poor with you! In everything you do, keep in mind the poor!” And then the parallel of “Because you do not have me always” reminds us that the poor are the stand-in group for Jesus. Because Jesus is saying he is not going to be physically present forever, here is a group that is Jesus. To remember Jesus is to remember the poor.

Jesus may be issuing a command: “Keep the poor with you.”  Keep the poor with you because you will not always have me.  Because you won’t always have me, Jesus says, the very least you must do is keep the poor near you, near your heart, near the life-blood of your ministries every moment of every day.

Third, even the conjunction could change.  The NRSV puts a “but” in there — “You always have the poor with you, but you do not always have me.”  This “but” is the Greek de, a common conjunction which can mean “however” or “but,” but can also mean “and” or “moreover.”  For instance, it’s “and” throughout Matthew’s genealogy: “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah …” (Mt. 1:2)  Likewise, de is effectively translated “moreover” in passages like this one between Jesus and John the Baptizer (Mt. 3:14-15):

3:14 – Moreover (de), John would have prevented him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?

3:15 – Moreover (de), Jesus answered him, “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.”

A simple re-translation of the conjunction in John 12:8 tends to release the verse from misunderstanding.  Try this – “You always have the poor with you, and you do not always have me.” Or: “You always have the poor with you; moreover you do not always have me.”  We’re not being asked to make a choice between Christ and serving the poor; in fact, they are one and the same: the One we adore as He is made known in scripture and the breaking of bread, and the ones we hold close when our Lord and Master has ascended at God’s right hand.

Keep the poor with you always.  In fact, keep all kinds of poverty with you — in your heart, in the ways you see and experience the world.  There is poverty everywhere.  We must keep the poor with us always.

Like Dorothy Day in her time we, too, are surrounded by so many levels of poverty.  The challenge is to figure out how to relate to poverty, and especially how to relate to those who are poor.  Dorothy Day showed us a truly Christ-like way to respond, even though she wasn’t always so sweet and kind.  Don’t pretend it’s not there, she taught us.  Don’t try to push poverty and the poor away.  Recognize brokenness. Recognize those persons who have been broken.  Hold poverty and, especially, hold the poor close to your heart, Jesus teaches: Keep the poor with you always, He says, for you do not always have me.

Why?

Because it’s entirely possible to go through life giving without loving.  But it’s absolutely impossible to love without giving.

Something has changed. An Invitation to Holy Week

I don’t know much about astronomy, although I often wish I could recognize constellations and recall specific names of various ‘goings on’ in the night sky. I don’t know much, but I know just enough to know that something’s different, that I should notice something.

1 (1)I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but the moon these past several nights has been fascinating from our vantage point. Only a few days ago, I don’t remember seeing it at all. Then a crescent in the night sky, but only the tiniest sliver. Then a bit more. Then last night, while walking home, it was even brighter and reflecting even more light our way — but not taking away from the other stars around — all while promising to wax even more.

We’re on our way to a full moon — April 19, www.moongiant.com tells me. Perhaps you know that Easter Day is connected with the lunar cycle. “Easter Day is always the Sunday after the full moon that occurs on or after the spring equinox on March 21,” says our Book of Common Prayer, p.880. And if you’re especially adventurous there’s a fairly convoluted “Table and Rules for Finding the Date of Easter Day” in the Prayer Book, pages 880-881, but you have to find ‘The Golden Number’ and know ‘The Sunday Letter.’ Ancient monks and astronomers were a lot smarter than I am!

Turn the page, instead, and the BCP gives us the date of Easter all the way to the year 2089. Whew!Book_of_common_prayer_(TEC,_1979).pdf

All of this, in a weird sort of way, is a beautiful reminder of the importance of what we’re preparing to do — enter our holiest week and prepare for Easter joy. What we, as Christian people, are preparing to do is something like being aware, being made aware that something has changed, something is showing up that we need to pay attention to, something we need to notice.

We’re not always aware of what God is doing in our life and in our world. We’re not always aware, for instance, that normal, everyday dinner-table companionship is nothing short of a sacrament, a gift, given by God. Sometimes we forget to pray. Sometimes we hurry through our meal, forsaking companionship, joy, blessing. Nor are we always aware that a particular challenge, say, is like Good Friday, a day when our God, also, felt pain, felt abandoned. We’re not always aware, not always.

That’s when seasons shift — phases of the moon, for one — giving moments which heighten our awareness, help us pause and remember, return, renew. Years ago, Charlie Price and Louis Weil, two great liturgical scholars of the mid-20th century, wrote: “Our life regularly makes contact with Word and Sacrament as time runs through its recurring cycles.” Liturgy for Living, p.220.

My life, and your life regularly makes contact with Word and Sacrament. It’s just that I’m not always so aware. Nor are you. We get busy or, better, we keep ourselves busy so as not to be bothered. We think we’re in charge. We don’t think we need God or the traditions or worship patterns of the church, or, if we say we do, we don’t always act like it. We actually behave like nothing bad will befall us — no Good Friday challenges here; no abandonment issues in this life; no blessings for which I need to give thanks.

Holy Week, the Christian season which starts with Palm Sunday this weekend, is an excellent interruption to those lies we tell ourselves, the deceptions that make us think we’re in charge and we’re all good. Holy Week asks you to stop, take notice, return, re-orient, be renewed. Holy Week calls you to move your relationship with God and your true self back to the center — back to the place where you keep shoving it off. Holy Week is a time of spiritual introspection and growth. It is God’s gift of a holy interruption.

Take it. You need it. We all do.

I look forward to seeing you in church!

Holy Week storyicons

When we don’t know what else to do

Responding to the March 20 shooting at Great Mills, our local high school, a number of faith communities in St. Mary’s County, Maryland came together for a Community Prayer Service at Ascension, Lexington Park.  The location and time were picked.  We knew we needed to be together.  We knew we needed to hear scripture, sing hymns, say prayers, and turn to God and one another. But then, at some point in the middle of the afternoon, I realized I had no idea what to say, what to pray. My wife, Iman, sent me a beautiful litany written by the Rev’d Laura Everett.  Written after 2013’s Boston Marathon Bombing, click here to find it on Building Faith, a ministry of the Virginia Seminary.

Ascension Prayer Wall 3
The Prayer Wall at Ascension, Lexington Park

Below is the litany we used at Ascension on Tuesday evening, March 20, 2018, slightly adapted from the Rev’d Everett’s original.  Somewhere between our need to bring about real change in the public sphere and the kind of crippling hopelessness that wonders ‘Why here?’ is a deeper Christian conviction, and one we need to keep tapping into.  This litany says as much as it begins: “This is what we do when we don’t know what else to do. We cling to one another, voice our grief, and offer up our prayers to God. Please join in the response … “


 

This is what we do when we don’t know what else to do. We cling to one another, voice our grief, and offer up our prayers to God. Please join in the response.  When we say, “Gracious God,” we invite your response: Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for those injured, those who have died.  May the God of Life welcome them into that place where there is no pain or grief.  In this hour of darkness, surround their families with a peace that passes all understanding.  Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

Ascension Prayer Wall 1We pray for the wounded.  Those wounded in their bodies.  Our community and all who have been wounded by the events of this day. Our eyes have seen more than they should.  Our hearts are rended open.  Attend to the wounded bodies and spirits of the survivors. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for the EMTs, doctors, nurses and staff who tend to brokenness. Bind up their unseen wounds. Make steady shaky hands, mend broken hearts and wipe away every tear. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for the police, fire and emergency personnel who risk their own safety to preserve ours. In a time of chaos and uncertainty, O God, steady those who protect us. For generations, you have been our refuge and our strength.  Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for our counselors, clergy and mental health professionals. May they guide troubled minds and broken spirits. Bless those who devote themselves to the care of others. Give them strength for the long days ahead. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for the media, our reporters and photographers. We give thanks for those who strive to share stories of suffering and hope. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for all the students, teachers, and staff of our local schools, and all schools and places of learning.  Give them comfort and courage to name their struggles and delight in seeking one another’s love, and yours. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for our children startled by such chaos in our community today. Give us wisdom to raise them up in the paths of peace. Be with our County’s parents, teachers and child care providers who try to answer the questions of anxious children. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O GodAscension Prayer Wall 2

We pray for the FBI, the investigators and all who guide our justice system. Help us not seek vengeance but truth and justice.  Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for the perpetrators of violence. We confess the dark places in our own hearts that lust for revenge. Give us a love stronger than hate and a peace stronger than violence. May peace flow through our community like the rivers which frame our places. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

Convict us to rise above the hatred that wrought such violence. Guide us to resist gossip and rumor. Preserve us from quick judgments. Give us wisdom in the days ahead. Reveal to us peace and truth. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

We pray for our County Commissioners, our Governor, Senators, Representatives, and all elected officials. Give them gentle words and wise hearts in the days ahead. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

Train our eyes to see acts of kindness in our community. Prod our hands to reach out to strangers. Silence our tongues when we are tempted to lash out in frustration and fear. Give us all words of comfort and love. Gracious God,  Heal and Renew Us, O God

Give us the courage to endure what cannot be avoided. Bring us hope that we will be made equal with whatever lies ahead. Knit us together, neighbors and friends.  Draw near to us in this time of sorrow. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God

Even as we grieve, we will remain steadfast in charity, defiant in hope, and constant in prayer. Though the race before us this day is hard, remind us again and again, that we do not take a single step alone. Gracious God, Heal and Renew Us, O God.

Calling All Angels

I haven’t thought much about angels.  Maybe I did when I was younger.  I remember a book my mother gave me sometime during junior high school, something about an angel in my backpack.  It gave me a lot of comfort in those awkward adolescent years, but that’s part of the problem now, I suspect – I’ve probably associated ‘angel’ with ‘adolescence’, as if these are kinds of beliefs someone grows out of. 

But ask me about moments in the bible, or in our worship life as a Christian community which continue, year after year, to reveal God’s truth to me, and generally there’s an angel somewhere in that story.  Christmas? A whole host of them.  Easter? “He is risen.”

host-of-angels
“Host of Angels,” by Joanna Morgan

 

One of my favorite biblical characters is Jacob.  I could go on and on about Jacob, himself, and there’s so much liveliness in Genesis chapters 26 through 36.  Within that cycle of stories, I’ve always returned to the famous tale of Jacob’s ladder, Genesis 28:10-22.  The heart of the story is a dream in which Jacob sees “a ladder set up on the earth, the top of it reaching to heaven; and the angels of God ascending and descending on it.” (v.12)  The astonishing thing, however, is that this is a dream, a moment of rest in the midst of real anxiety for Jacob.  He’s on the run from his brother, Esau, whom he cheated out of his birthright and inheritance.  Plus, he’s lying on a stone as a pillow – which I’ve always thought would be the least restful thing!  Jacob is at a turning point in his life, but he doesn’t really recognize it as much of a turning point because, frankly, he’s running for his life, fearful and probably despondent about any hope of a future.  If he can just make it through the night, Jacob thinks, he can wake up tomorrow and run again.  Maybe he’ll do the same thing the next day and the day after, the literal definition of a rat race.

In that moment, he receives not only rest but a promise: “I am the Lord, the God of Abraham your father and the God of Isaac,” God says, “…Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (vv.13-17)  When Jacob wakes up, his life’s direction is fundamentally changed.  No longer is he a nervous fugitive, a criminal on the run, but a man who is relatively confident that whatever happens he is, nevertheless, kept in the love of God.  “If God will be with me,” Jacob says that next morning, “and will keep me in this way that I go, and will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear, so that I come again to my father’s house in peace, then the Lord shall be my God.” (vv.20-22)  The very next day what does he find?  Water, a well, which leads him to family and the creation of a new, abundant chapter in his life.

I heard an echo of Jacob’s ladder while we read in church the story of Jesus’ call to Nathanael (John 1:47-51), the gospel lesson appointed for today.  Nathanael is shocked that Jesus knows about him, even more so because Jesus got all that from noticing him under a fig tree.  So Jesus says, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these. …You will see heaven opened and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of Man.” (vv.50-51) 

We don’t know all that much about Nathanael, except that he has “no deceit,” as Jesus says (v.47), and that’s obviously the antithesis of Jacob who goes on to wrestle with God, getting re-named Israel.  But Nathanael, like Jacob, is at some kind of a turning point in his life, even though, also like Jacob, he probably doesn’t recognize it as such.  His friend Philip finds him and points him to Jesus.  Nathanael doesn’t seem to jump at the chance to ditch his old life and follow this itinerant teacher but, still, he is drawn closer and closer to Christ.  Maybe he was starting to question his old life; he and Philip seem awfully inquisitive, searching.  But maybe he wasn’t entirely sure what he was supposed to be doing in the future.

Let’s face it: we are always, at all times at a turning point in our life.  Every decision we make in the course of a day can and does impact our future.  Sometimes it’s a simple thing.  What should we have for dinner tonight?  Where will we celebrate Thanksgiving this year?  Sometimes it’s a big thing.  Where should I go to college?  What should I do after retirement?  And most of the time we don’t really know how something that seems so simple might turn out so big, though we often know in retrospect that our most impactful decision started with a small seed – a conversation, an article, a thought, a wrong turn into a new town.

The truth is that God’s preferred future doesn’t require a grand vision on my part.  God’s future doesn’t require much except my willingness to go into it, sometimes boldly, sometimes anxiously, sometimes with calculated steps, but to go nevertheless.

 angels-and-archangelsAnd because we are, at times, fearful and anxious, not always so bold and courageous, we get reminded, looking back, that in those moments there was what we might call this ‘angelic host’ – this ladder of messengers, going up to heaven from earth, and touching earth from heaven.  There are always messengers and messages from God, all around us, every moment of every day.  These messengers are what the bible calls ‘angels’ and God surrounds us with the economy of salvation at every moment, waking and sleeping.  This is what we celebrate today, Sept. 29, which in the life of the church is the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, the prayer which reminds us that “…as [God’s] holy angels always serve and worship you in heaven, so by your appointment they may help and defend us here on earth.” 

No, we don’t ‘grow up’ so much that angels no longer matter, becoming a theological holdover from our Sunday School past.  But it’s also true we probably don’t notice until we look back on those big moments, seeing later, sometimes much later that that small thing became a life transition, or a conversation turned into a new vocation, or a seemingly insignificant seed transformed in the ground of our life to become a great abundant tree.

 

I lift up my eyes to the hills

I like to know where I am, what I’m doing, what I’m supposed to be working on, and how long it’ll take – maybe what it’ll take to get there. Driving out to western North Carolina, we took our time, Iman and Carter and me. We drove by exit signs announcing little towns, miles or so off the interstate. I wondered, as I often do, what it’d be like to live there, what it’d feel like to start over, maybe slow down. Then I remembered that I’ve already stepped off the urban grid – I left a metropolitan lifestyle so many years ago that I can’t call myself a “Chicagoan” any longer. Carter herself only knows that city as the place where her grandparents and uncle, aunt and cousin live. 

I suppose I should say “I don’t like to get lost,” but I’ve never really been lost, not that I can remember. Maybe that’s my own selective memory.

Hiking in mountains I’ve never been, following trails that seem to make some sense on a map, well, this is about as close as I’ll get to getting lost. There’s something freeing in walking, wondering, looking around, not exactly knowing where I’m going (and, yes, for safety’s sake, knowing that Kanuga is only down the other side of this mountain, somewhere down there). The trail goes up and turns, off in a direction I can’t see. So I follow it, and go. It bends down along a dried riverbank. I follow it. I’ve gotten lost plenty of times, too, and even found other trails that loop back to more familar terrain.
The Psalmist begins his question, “From where is my help to come?” with the statement, maybe the literal posture: “I lift up my eyes to the hills…” (Psalm 121, Levavi oculos)  The question could’ve been one of doubt, confusion, fear, anger. Maybe it was, at first, and for any number of good reasons. “From where is my help to come?” I’ve probably asked, wondered, puzzled this question – or some such like it – in my head countless times.

But the question’s changed when, at first, “I lift up my eyes to the hills…” It doesn’t go away, that initial question. Nor is it solved. Nor am I entirely certain of where I am, what I’m doing, what I’m supposed to be working on, and how long it’ll take – maybe what it’ll take to get there.

To lift up my eyes, I suppose, is a first step to lift up my heart, lift up my life, know in my core what the Psalmist then proclaims: “My help comes from the Lord, the maker of heaven and earth.”

Because it’s not really about the direction of the particular trail – which, to me, is good news, given the amount of times I’ve gotten lost up here. Time and again, the trail goes up and turns, off in a direction I can’t see. I follow it, or at least try to. It bends down along a dried riverbank. I follow it. Or I think I’m following it. Whatever I’m doing, I’m going somewhere.

But that’s not the same as “the life that truly is life,” as Paul writes to Timothy (1 Tim. 6:19). Following a map or a path or a compass heading isn’t the best metaphor for that kind of life. For a relationship with the Lord – literally “the maker of heaven and earth” – is a deep, a fixed, a rooted thing, not so subject to whims and wishes, twists of the trail or bends further out, at least not in God’s part. That’s precisely the mystery. That’s why  the Psalmist echoes such stationary tones in what seems to be a traveling poem. For the Lord will “not let my foot be moved,” watches over my “going out and my coming in,” preserving me from all evil, keeping me safe.

Where am I going, then? I’m going lots of places, and it’ll continue to be an exciting journey. But perhaps life in Christ is not so much a new destination, but simply the freedom to wander far because I’ve already been found.

Back to the Rectory Porch

When I first interviewed with the St. George’s search committee – now, wow!, nearly nine years ago – they took me on a tour of this campus, a tour which of course included the rectory.  The rectory is a beautiful, stately, Cape Code-style home – grand and simple, while, at once, elegant without being too big.  Simply put, I love the house.

“What a beautiful front porch,” I mentioned, pointing to the broad covered porch that overlooks the church and churchyard, the belltower and parish hall.

“Indeed,” said one of the committee members, “many wonderful prayers have been offered here, and many sermons developed, too, I’m sure.”

When it came time to kickoff my own digital ministry, via this blog, the title instantly came to me: From the Rectory Porch.  (I seem to remember a Milton quote, somewhere in Paradise Lost about a porch, and try as I might — though I haven’t gone so far as re-reading it! — I haven’t come up with anything.)  But for those who might’ve been checking this site, here and there, for any new news or good gossip or, well, anything you’ve no doubt noticed a lull.  It’s not that little is happening in my life and at St. George’s.  Quite the opposite!  Little time has been spent, however, writing about my more situated ministry, pondering Milton, like I just tried to, above, or Herbert or any of those more quaint aspects of ministry in this place.  For one, I’ve been blogging – and blogging regularly for the Episcopal Church Foundation’s Vital Practices series. I submit a blog for them every other week, and you can read behind most of those blogs to figure out what’s on my mind and what might be going on at St. George’s.front porch rocking chair

For another, St. George’s is in the midst of some very significant and holy conversations about who we are and what God’s future for this congregation might be.  You probably think I should’ve written “what our future is” – that being the obvious corollary to who we are – but I think identity and calling are not always the very same thing; connected, just not one and the same.  St. George’s is at a moment, right now, where we’re asking fundamental questions of our current operating model – namely, why does this one congregation, which has been and continues to grow, year after year, still operate with the assumption that we need to have one (full-time) priest, and should we, can we come up with a different, broader, more mission-focused model?  All the while, we’re also trying to invite God into this conversation so that our answer is not a dollars-and-cents fix, but a Gospel-based call.  Creating that space to discern, to wonder, to talk, to remain open to what God is calling me and us to become has taken a lot of focus and energy on my end.  It’s made me to set aside the writing and strategizing (which I confess is my go-to, maybe sometimes my ‘get-away’) and spend time in prayer and conversation with God’s people, one on one.

So that’s where I’ve been, in a nutshell.  Feeling excited and hopeful and, honestly, really optimistic about who we might become, if we lean into God’s future.  And, at the same time, still crazy busy trying to keep up all of these structures we’ve inherited and which I, personally, have also created.

By way of illustration, I’ll close with a slightly more amusing tale.

Yesterday, something came over me to write again for the Rectory Porch.  Maybe it was the rain and the chill; maybe that it was Ascension Day, after all, and I wanted to say something about the Ascension.  (That blog is halfway done, and still sitting on my desktop.)

I was deep into a fun little post – fun to me, mind you; not everyone thinks the history of liturgical observances of the Ascension in western Christianity is ‘fun.’  Like I said, I was about halfway through when the call came.  Iman had come down the night before and we made tentative plans to go out to lunch.  “A half hour,” I said to her, just after I said hello to the pest control guy who was out for his quarterly check on this campus. “Just a half hour, and I’ll be done.  Oh, by the way, the pest control guy is coming over to spray in and around the rectory.  Just let him in.  He knows what to do.”

Shortly thereafter, the phone rang.  It was Iman.  Looking up, across the churchyard, I could see Iman on the phone, her red rain jacket, outside, walking around with the dog, Phoebe.  “Greg, you need to come home right now,” she said.  “Phoebe got into something in the guy’s truck, and ate it.”  (If it were me talking, I’d have added lots and lots of exclamation points, but Iman is great under pressure and she’s not an exclamation-point kind of speaker.  If I could’ve better emphasized the periods in that statement, I’d have done so.  Come. Home. Now.)

Here’s how the rest of the afternoon felt:

Phoebe to the vet.  Iman back to the house so she could get her car (which we left there, not checking the time) so she can get to her afternoon appointment. Me back to the vet: pacing, worry .  “She should be fine,” the vet tech says. “Give her some of these pills…”   Something about blood work.  Something about rat poison inhibiting Vitamin K.  Note to self: Google ‘Vitamin K.’

“Oh, and continue to monitor her for any loose blood or vomit.”

Back at the rectory, Phoebe and me.  On vomit / loose blood watch.  Call from the lady who lives down the lane.  Something about her grandson, a tie, a presentation.  “I’m over at the rectory,” I say.  Moments later, a white truck pulls up.  Grandson gets out, on his way to make a final presentation for a business class he’s taking in college.  He forgot to how tie a tie.  (I’m afraid after all these years of wearing a backwards collar, I might’ve forgotten, too).  Necktie instruction in the rectory living room.  The dog is asleep, exhausted.

Neighbor lady, the grandmother, shows up in her golf cart.  We chat, something about gravestones.  Another truck pulls up.  “This the rectory?”  “Yes.”  “Need to mark phone lines before the perc test.”  Rectory septic went out, or is going out, or at any rate is going to be investigated for what’s wrong when the health department perc test happens Thursday of next week.

Iman and Carter back home; Iman picked her up from school, and they went to the grocery store.  Carter’s working on a mother’s day gift for Iman, who is not (yet, officially) her mom, of course, but whom Carter has come to adore and truly love, and for whom Carter is looking forward to the day, which is soon coming, when she is, officially, ‘Mommy.’

Carter and Iman
The finished project at this morning’s breakfast, Carter’s painting for Iman.

 

Friends come over for dinner.  It was going to be a 6 o’clock conversation at the parish hall about youth group, and the great work they’ve done and how we can work together to build it stronger next year and in coming years, but with Carter’s project and her shower and our dinner – you get it, I’m sure – the ‘meeting’ is moved to the rectory, and to the rectory dining room table, and to dinner.  It’s a much better meeting than it would’ve been, anyway, and even more wonderful to spend time together with friends, fellowshipping, praying, playing, eating, talking.

Even Carter got to stay up a little later than usual and play the second hand of a fun board game.

We all said goodnight.  Carter upstairs, saying our prayers, kisses and off to sleep.  I sat down in the living room chair.

I never even made it to the rectory porch.  It was too dark and cold last night, but also some kind of birds, back in March, made a nest in the one front porch light that’s missing a glass pane, so I left them alone for the past five or six weeks. Their bird babies are all grown and they flew away, just this week, so I went up there two nights ago and cleaned out the light fixture and removed the old nest — now ready to take the rocking chairs up from the basement, wash them, maybe paint a fresh coat, and set them up in prime porch position.

Just this morning, however, I saw a few more twigs and branches back in that same porch light, the one missing a pane.  I reached up and took them out.  This time, I’ll get ahead of those birds.  One round is enough.  I’m about to reclaim that porch.

 

And many a new, fresh prayer will be offered.  And the beginning of, I hope, many good sermons and stories will emerge.  And I know that God will continue to reveal His grace and goodness, His will and His hope for me and for us.  Right there, among so many other holy places, from the rectory porch.