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.

 

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.

THE ORIGINAL MOTHER’S DAY, A DAY FOR JUSTICE & PEACE

The first official Mother’s Day was celebrated Sunday May 10, 1907 – the second Sunday in May – at Andrews Methodist Church in Grafton, West Virginia. A woman named Anna Jarvis organized the celebration in honor of her mother, Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis. The elder Mrs. Jarvis’ favorite flower was a white carnation, so Anna, her daughter, requested that everyone who attended the services on May 10 wear a white carnation in her mother’s memory. This quickly became the tradition.  (Incidentally, it wasn’t supposed to be that the flowers were given to mothers, as is often the case today; it’s that you wore a white carnation if your mother was deceased, and a red one if she was living.)

Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis
Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis, 1832 – 1905

Anna Maria Reeves Jarvis was a fascinating woman.  Born in Culpepper, Virginia, the daughter of a Methodist minister, in 1832, she died in 1905 — just two years before that first celebration. In her childhood, the Reeves (her maiden name) family moved to present-day West Virginia when her father took a new call. Anna Maria Reeves married the son of a nearby Baptist minister, named Jarvis, and they had twelve children.  Only four lived to adulthood.

In the middle of the nineteenth century, the expansive world was bringing to these coal counties threats of civil war; battles over slavery; increasing productivity and technology, but also longer hours and dangerous working conditions – child labor laws were hardly a thing. Thus, Anna Jarvis in the 1840s and 50s organized a series of (what she called) “Mother’s Day Work Clubs” – designed to bring the wise domestic eye of women into deplorable living and working conditions, to improve health conditions for many families.  Jarvis’ first Mother’s Day Work Club raised money for medicines, deployed women to work for families in which the mothers suffered from tuberculosis, and inspected bottled milk and food. By 1860, local physicians and mothers had spread this work to at least 15 other towns.

While the civil war raged on, making their little West Virginia county a strategic stop along the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad, Jarvis urged the Mother’s Day Work Clubs to provide relief and medical care for any and all – whether Union or Confederate. The clubs treated the wounded, and fed and clothed soldiers stationed in the area. Jarvis helped preserve peace in a war-ravaged town by focusing on a common mission in which all could participate. In fact, after the war, she and her family moved to a larger nearby town only to find that tensions between North and South had escalated due to the political bickering surrounding Reconstruction. In the summer of 1865, Mrs. Jarvis organized a Mother’s Friendship Day on the courthouse steps in Pruntytown, WV, to bring together soldiers and neighbors regardless of their confederate or yankee leanings. Many feared that the day would erupt in violence, but it turned out to be a great success. That celebration continued for many years.

For the next forty years, Anna Jarvis led this Mother’s Day movement, a movement of mothers standing up against poverty, war, injustice, and bigotry. Alongside her husband and family, she was committed to the idea that in a violent time, with the ravages of warfare and industry, the voice of women – in particular, the wisdom of mothers – was a deciding factor between death and life. Two years after her death in 1905, then, it’s easy to understand why her daughter, Anna Jarvis, would want to celebrate her mother’s legacy — organizing a “Mother’s Day” on the second Sunday in May, 1907.

Fast forward seven years: President Woodrow Wilson made the second Sunday in May – now called Mother’s Day – a national holiday. That year was, of course, 1914, and this nation was faced with a new threat: a world war that threatened to destroy many advances of human civilization, and nearly did.  This seemingly quiet and quaint second Sunday in May is nothing short of a call to peace, a call to stand up for justice, a call to embrace the values that this world so easily trumps down, underfoot, yet which Jesus called us to embody.

 

This is something the world laughs at, frankly. Peace? What does that have to do with the issues we confront today: war in our streets, threats of terrorism, racial strife and ongoing tension.  Peace? And how can you show us, Christians, what peace you have brought to this planet in the last two millennia? Peace?

But Jesus’ peace is given on a night, long ago, in the midst of his own anguish, pain, anxiety and dread. Jesus’ peace does not wipe away war, neither those outside nor those inside which set people apart. Jesus’ peace doesn’t alleviate our anxiety, like taking a pill at night. The world still feeds on violence and bigotry, hatred and destruction and – yes – it’s all caused by people just like you and me. We live, today, in deadly times.  We always have.

Jesus’ peace, however, is a gift that moves us to act toward justice.  Jesus’ peace is a reality that, deep down, we are already redeemed. His peace is activated when we use it, not only to comfort the brokenhearted but to mend systems of oppression and exploitation, at least so we are no longer completely entangled in them unaware. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus told his followers long ago (John 14:1), for the peace he was giving them was none other than his own. (John 20:21-23)  Use it.

Someone we might remember this weekend, named Anna Jarvis, believed so much in the strangely counter-cultural values of justice, peace, womanhood, goodness, and compassion that she stuck out her neck in a deadly, blood-lusty time. She risked faith, and was redeemed. And you and I remember her, or at least remember her day for it.

Or do we? Honestly, how many thought of the second Sunday in May as an invitation to justice? a call to be about peace-making?

For the longer ending of the story is that Anna Jarvis, who sought to lift up her mother’s memory in establishing this holiday, died in utter poverty, having spent everything she and her sister had to de-commercialize the holiday. As early as fifteen years after President Wilson established the Second Sunday in May as a holiday, Anna Jarvis was disgusted by how quickly it grew into a buying spectacle and how suddenly it lost its focus on what her mother worked so hard to claim – a focus on mercy for the downtrodden, compassion for the prisoners, justice for those broken by oppression, and peace for all humankind.

Perhaps that’s the Christian story in a nutshell:  future generations might not know us for our great deeds and monumental tales but we do them nevertheless. We stand against violence and war-mongering. We love the downtrodden. We clothe the naked. We feed the hungry. We tend the poor.

Not because it’s popular, but because it’s right.  And the right, the only way to peace.

…..

An earlier version of this post was published on The Episcopal Café on 8 May 2011.

BECAUSE WE HOPE TO TURN AGAIN – Ash Wednesday, 2014

If you could go back in time, say, to your teens or your twenties and, knowing everything you do today, live within your person at that time, and experience what you experienced, would you do it?  At first, your answer might be, “Of course!” You might be reminiscing about those halcyon high school days or those late nights and good friends in college.  But do you also remember the awkwardness and confusion?  The sense of wanting to move on in life but also the really dumb decisions you made?

You might still do it.  You might not.  Whatever your answer, this should be a hard question.

In some ways, that’s what we’re doing today.  We’re not just lamenting our own sins and wretchedness.  In fact, we make a great mistake if we think that Ash Wednesday is just about our sins and sinfulness.  In part, many of us are already over on the other side; many of us know for what we are preparing and for whom and why.  The season Ash Wednesday inaugurates, Lent, is an intentional, forty-day preparation for the only joy that can worthily be called by that name – resurrection, new life, Easter.  We are already Easter people, already there, already set free.  And we know it.

So why go back?  Why on Ash Wednesday, do we deal with our sins and our brokenness, that which we have failed to do and that which we have left undone?

We go back because this world needs us to.  Well, not so much us, but this world needs whose we are.  Having been gathered as this unique and counter-cultural society called “the church,” having died to our old lives and brought into a new life in Christ, we are no longer who we once were, although that self hasn’t gone away; we live no longer only to ourselves but, now, we live to God.  Now, we are his body in this world, the very Body of Christ.  The 16th century Spanish Carmelite, Teresa of Avila, said it best: “Christ has no body but yours: no hands, no feet on earth but yours. Yours are the eyes with which he looks compassion on this world. Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good. Yours are the hands with which he blesses all the world.”

That’s precisely how and why we can go back.  We know we are already redeemed, already loved, already “sealed by the Holy Spirit and marked as Christ’s own for ever,” as we do so profoundly in the service of Holy Baptism.  Knowing that, we can go back.  Those sins and that wretchedness you confess today is what you have done or have failed to do, and it’s who you are apart from Christ.  But that is not who you are, at the deepest level of your being.  That’s not who you are in Christ.  You know, and know at your core, what Paul said in his letter to the Philippians: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” (Phil.  4:13)

The reason so many don’t go backward, don’t revisit their past and deal with their shortcomings is because they’re afraid they’ll get stuck there.  I don’t think it’s inconsequential that T. S. Eliot began his collection of poems, “Ash Wednesday,” with the following stanzas:

Because I do not hope to turn again

Because I do not hope

Because I do not hope to turn …

Because I do not hope to know again

The infirm glory of the positive hour

Because I do not think

Because I know that I shall not know

The one veritable transitory power

Because I cannot drink

There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Many are afraid to go deep because, like Eliot wrote, they “do not hope to turn again.” But not us.  This, then, is the mystery of Ash Wednesday.  This is not a day in which we dance around our sins, naming them lightly or in a quick rush while we’re off to our next step on our day.  We don’t brush over our past unfaithfulness or what or whom we’ve ignored, quickly adding pardon and hope and a promise of something better.  No, this is a day when we dig and dig deeply into our own struggles and suffering and pain.

We do this because we know we won’t get stuck there.  We do this because we know we are not stuck there.  We do this because, yes, because we are already Easter people.

In fact, doing it the other way around is confusing and, frankly, a bit dangerous theologically, spiritually.  When we turn this day, as many have, into a day to be present at train stations or commuter bus stops or wherever the marketplace is – dispensing Ashes-to-Go – the tendency is to cut short this soul searching, to add a note of blessing and renewal to these ashes, these signs of unmistakable death.  Just look at what the Book of Common Prayer has already done; specifically, the (optional) prayer over the ashes on page 265:

Almighty God, you have created us out of the dust of the earth: Grant that these ashes may be to us a sign of our mortality and penitence, that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Savior. Amen.

This is liturgical theologian, Howard Galley’s, very 20th century revision of a much earlier, medieval prayer from the Sarum rite.  The original prayer is much heavier, much darker, much more concentrated on our sins and, for my taste, much more honest.  You can see the similarities and the very real differences between the two prayers in the original, here:

God, you desire not the death but the repentance of sinners: Look kindly upon the fragility of our human condition, and of your mercy deign to bless these ashes which we have resolved to put upon our heads as a token of humility and for the obtaining of pardon, that we, whom you have admonished are but ashes and know that for our depravity we deserve to revert to dust, consequently may be found worthy to receive pardon of all sins and the rewards promised anew to penitents.

Galley’s revision speaks of “our mortality and penitence,” but leaves out the reminder that these ashes are “token[s] of our humility and for the obtaining of pardon.”  Galley’s prayer skips over Sarum’s most cutting line, “for our depravity we deserve to revert to dust,” and entirely replaces the result of the prayer: today, the result is grace (“…that we may remember that it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life”); in the original, it is hope (“…consequently may be found worthy to receive pardon of all sins and the rewards promised anew to penitents.”)

We make this turn, this Ash Wednesday turn inward to deal straightforwardly with our sins and sinfulness, not because we know the why and wherefore of grace – that’s the greatest mystery of all; in fact, if we think too long about grace we’ll realize we don’t deserve it.  No, we make this turn because we are a people of hope.  We have walked through the fallen-ness of our lives and, we suspect, we will from time to time still fall short of the glory of God, but we also know we are already redeemed, already set free, already capable of so much transformative power – not because of our sins but in spite of them, and only because God in Christ loved us first.  That’s why we can go back, not because we want to nor because there is good back there, but because we can, in Him.

TO BEAR WITH THOSE WHO DIFFER

“Every wise man therefore will allow others the same liberty of thinking which he desires they should allow him; and will no more insist on their embracing his opinions than he would have them to insist on his embracing theirs.  He bears with those who differ from him, and only asks him with whom he desires to unite in love that single question. ‘Is thine heart right, as my heart is with thy heart?'”

– John Wesley, “Catholic Spirit,” a sermon first preached in 1750

……….

In the life of the church, March 3 is set aside as a day to celebrate the ministry of John and Charles Wesley, most famously known — if known at all — with some historical inaccuracy as the founders of Methodism, a misunderstanding the Episcopal Church calendar of saints is quick to correct with the title: “John and Charles Wesley, priests.”  They were raised in a Church of England home, after all — their father, Samuel, was rector of Epworth, Lincolnshire — and the brothers were thoroughly Anglican.  Being caught by the zeal of missionary activity in the world was perfectly in keeping with the English churchmanship of their native 18th century.

JOHN (left) & CHARLES WESLEY

Not only because it’s their day but also because we presently find ourselves in a church obsessed with talking about mission, though seemingly leery of making that into a verb, it might be wise to spend a bit of time learning from our history.  Let me go ahead and say it: a potential consequence of investing carefully in this will be the creation of a broad and truly united coalition of Anglican churches in North America, if not one Anglican/Episcopal church which knows how to live out Anglican comprehensiveness in the 21st century.  Quite specifically, I believe the mission challenge of the Episcopal Church in the next several decades will be to find and forge a way in which conservative Episcopalians and those Anglican groups who have already left will find a place in a wider structure to return and form a much more comprehensive Anglicanism in North America, side by side with those of us who are already their brothers and sisters in Christ.  As an Episcopalian, I don’t want to (continue to) make the same mistake that our forebears did when the Methodist controversy started to boil over.

Not unlike our own, the 18th century was a period in which the institutions of yesteryear had become so consuming that concepts such as freedom and independence were high on the list for anyone interested in charting a more vibrant future.  Over the course of that century, such values obviously spurred creative re-thinking in the political sphere and equally creative missionary attempts in the ecclesiastical world.

ST. GEORGE’S EPISCOPAL CHURCH
Valley Lee, Maryland, est. 1638
The oldest continuous Anglican congregation in Maryland

It was certainly possible to do this work within the established institutions of their day; just look how long the British system tolerated the men whom Americans vault today as heroes: Washington and Adams among others.  Likewise, the Church of England found a way to balance missionary zeal with their commission as a national church.  Every Sunday and Wednesday, for instance, I pray the Mass in a chancel in St. Mary’s County,  Maryland in which there sits embedded into the floor a large stone dedicated to a former rector of the parish, the Rev’d Mr. Leigh Massey.  Massey, we’ve learned, was of Irish descent, educated at Brasenose College, Oxford, and at the tender age of nineteen and in the year 1723 — when John Wesley was twenty years old and a full twelve years before John would set sail for the colony of Georgia — Leigh became a truly missionary priest and rector of William & Mary Parish in the new world colony of Maryland.  The stone in St. George’s chancel reads: “Near this place lies inter’d the Reverend Leigh Massey.  He was educated at Oxford, the rector of this Parish, the darling of his flock and beloved by all who knew him. He died Jan. 10, 1732/33 aged 29 years.”  (What appears to be confusion regarding the year of Massey’s death is attributable to the fact that Britain and the eastern portion of what would become the United States had, by that time, not yet accepted the Gregorian Calendar, a move that would become official by Act of Parliament as late as 1752.)

One very real danger, looking backward, is to be romanced into the deception that the church as missionary and church as institution are somehow opposing entities or concepts.  They are not, nor have they ever been.

The fact is the divorce of Methodism from Anglicanism is a sad chapter, and was itself a prolonged and painful transition.  There’s fault on both sides.  For one, the Church of England didn’t help itself, failing to recognize that it was in some ways the very mission field the Wesley’s — and countless others, no less the Rev’d Leigh Massey — engaged which led naturally to the renewal or, at least, the desire to renew which they in time helped bring about.  The equally and, maybe, more inflammatory evangelistic efforts of George Whitefield didn’t help the Wesley’s gain a wide audience in the seats of power of the church of their day.  And yet they, John and Charles, were offering a much more thoroughgoing ‘Anglican Methodism’ than was the more stridently Calvinist Whitefield; the former brothers’ more Arminian emphasis on the necessary balance between justification by faith and works of mercy running clearly in line with the Caroline Divines, especially Jeremy Taylor whose most notable work is his profound devotional contribution, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living.

For another, the Wesley’s didn’t really help themselves.  There was, it seems, a bit of the rogue in the Wesley DNA: at one point, Samuel took such a strident stand on an issue in his parish that the villagers burned down his house, nearly killing his young son, John.  (Those biographers who make a big deal of this psychological trauma in the development of John’s theology have probably read too much Freud, although today’s United Methodist symbol — a flame and cross — is an ironic choice.)  Likewise, John was equally staunch, the one noteworthy instance being the time he refused to offer communion to the daughter of a well-connected colonist — either because she refused to marry him or he, not wanting to marry her, nevertheless didn’t want her marrying the man she did, the facts depending on the particular biographer — an act which led to his being shipped back to England.  Add to that that John, eventually, had enough with the foot-dragging of the church of his day and uncanonically commissioned elders, among whom Francis Asbury would become the most significant, to spearhead the organization of the church in America.  Charles bitterly opposed his brother’s decision and even John, himself, feared for the direction of the new Methodist Episcopal churches in America, especially when in 1787 Francis, nicknamed by some “the American Pope,” changed the title ‘superintendent’ to ‘bishop’.

We, too, have become eerily skilled at making minor differences, mostly differences in emphasis, the cause and consequence of our divorce.  Do you need an institution in order to do mission?  Or do you need a mission to have an institution?  Or, to God, do those distinctions make any bit of difference?  From what I can tell, there’s no basis in these contentions for anything like a substantial argument, so let’s move on.  But moving on, in practice, means that we would need to place obvious limitations on what we can and what we cannot institutionalize — meaning, specifically, what we can and what we cannot legislate or wrangle over at gatherings such as General Convention.  If the devil’s in the details, that’s a big one.

Another very real danger is the tendency to calcify the Anglican theological tradition.  Ever since the Church of England recognized that it had given birth to a worldwide family of churches, interestingly, on account of the American Revolution and around the time ‘Anglican’ began to become a term, itself, we knew we had a problem or, at least, an issue with authority.  Looking back, removing the primacy of the Bishop of Rome in the 16th century was still a safe thing to do, provided the king could exercise sufficient power.  Once that power dynamic shifted, everything else did, too.

Ever since, there is and has become a contested core of Anglican thought and practice.  Within, there is indeed a core; a way of being and thinking in a uniquely Anglican fashion.  And it’s contested, sometimes with great vitriol, and it will continue to be so.  That’s actually part of the charm of our theological tradition.

WILLIAM LAUD
1573- 1645

As I hinted earlier, the Wesley’s themselves were in many ways giving a contemporary voice to that contested core, aligning their evangelical and missionary efforts with the thinking of Lancelot Andrews and Jeremy Taylor and those Caroline Divines who preceded them by at least a century.  So named for their support of King Charles (hence ‘Caroline’) and similar emphases to the reforms of Archbishop Wm. Laud (Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 to 1640, executed in 1645), whose 17th century reforms stressed a sacramental and liturgical piety, the restoration of episcopal authority, and the downplaying of Calvinist themes and preaching, these heavily influential theologians (a.k.a., ‘Divines’) were not in many ways united in their conclusions or arguments but, strictly speaking, in their methodology.  They drew heavily on biblical and liturgical sources, most notably the Book of Common Prayer, and sought to demonstrate the continuity of Anglicanism within the great, albeit broad Christian tradition.  They placed a strong emphasis on patristic studies and brought back many of the Eastern (Greek-writing) Christian theologians that had long been dismissed from the largely Latin (Western) Catholicism of recent centuries.

Into this context, then, it’s very easy to place the emerging theology of John and Charles Wesley: they, too, emphasized a liturgical and bible-based method of working out one’s salvation; they, too, taught that regular attendance to one’s spiritual, sacramental life was important, and they steered away, as I’ve already mentioned, from a more dominant Calvinist stress on predestination and toward a the thinking of the 16th century Dutch Reformer, Jacobus Arminius, who affirmed that our works to some degree, while not justifying, have something to do with God’s plan of salvation.

Equally so, we have much to learn from our past.  A friend lent me what I can only call a book-length rant, Anglican Difficulties: A New Syllabus of Errors (2004).  Author Edward Norman’s contribution (?) was an insightful and somewhat fun read, if only for its caustic dogmatism and bold self assertions.  The author, Norman, contends that contemporary Anglicanism is a theological mess.  I’d say he’s right.  Not wanting to legitimize this sloppiness or our church’s generally slipshod course, I can’t go so far as Norman does in tracing the root of the problem.  Here, below, Norman establishes the thesis; note that he traces the issue back to the Wesley’s (whom he clearly likes) and those who came after them (whom he doesn’t):

“The genesis of Evangelical revivalism at the end of the eighteenth century suggested no threat to the Church of England’s unity, for it occurred within a general consensus about the inherent Protestantism of Anglicanism.  It was possible for Methodism, for example, to continue to worship at parish churches for fifty years before they separated into a distinct denomination.  But when the new High Church movement appeared, in the 1830s, the appeal to Catholic antiquity, and to the past unity of Christianity, divided the Church of England in a manner which was instantly recognized. … It is also true, as some others noticed, that the ritual observances complained of were not, anyway, authentic revivals of early Catholic uses, but Tridentine splendor re-defined in the sharp light of nineteenth-century Ultramontane extravagances.  The outcome was the beginning of disintegration.  At the very time that the word ‘Anglican’ was coming into familiar parlance, in the middle years of the nineteenth century, the Church of England was in fact losing the semblance of unity which the name was supposed to express.  Since then there has been an uninterrupted internal crisis of identity. … The Anglican way — almost the hallmark of Anglicanism — is to compose vacuous forms of words within which hugely divergent viewpoints can be accommodated.  It is the promotion of expediency over principle, and is the manner in which Anglicanism is held together. … Not much force would be needed to flatten the Church of England as a coherent religious institution.  It is a house of cards.”  (Norman, Anglican Difficulties, pp. xi – xii)

Apart from his witty command of the English language and regardless of whether you agree or disagree with Norman’s overall point, he seems to commit the other problem we should’ve learned from the Wesley years — a dangerous seizing up of one or several parts of the Anglican theological tradition.  To Norman, what does the “general consensus about the inherent Protestantism of Anglicanism” mean, anyway?  And who’s in the “general”?  Likewise, even though I’ve stepped back with some critical distance from the Anglo-Catholicism in which I was formed, I wouldn’t go so far as to argue that such churchmanship and its related customs in any way voids the merits of that rich tradition within Anglicanism.

The Christian and, specifically, Anglican theological enterprise is much broader than we’ve made it.  And if we want to talk seriously about mission we’d be wise to start by acknowledging the single-minded theological dominance in the Episcopal Church of a 20th-century Protestant liberalism, as well as get much more serious about reprising Anglican comprehensiveness and bringing back that truly contested core.  Regardless of whatever theological tradition in which you find yourself at home and, as such, better able to articulate what God in Christ is doing in your life, it does not seem — nor should it be — an exclusive concept to welcome the more robust participation of those who work from a different, even completely different methodology.

And so I’ll close with a more personal reflection.

The Episcopal Church was really my saving grace while I was enrolled in the Divinity School at the University of Chicago.  I was starting to feel that academic theology, which I really do love, was beginning to work on my soul like paint-thinner does on old finishes.  I looked and looked for a church community that could strike a balance between prayer and, yes, honest-to-God prayer to Jesus Christ as well as not forsake the intellectual and secular world in which we found ourselves.  The campus ministry, Brent House, was led by a gifted chaplain, the Rev’d Sam Portaro, and I was initially brought there by a fellow housemate with whom I lived in intentional Christian community, a Ph.D. student named Randall Foster.  Sam and Randall were certainly at opposite ends of the theological spectrum, but both men could speak in profound and powerful ways about Jesus and about their Christian life as well as the ways they carry out reconciling ministry in the world.  Sam is a priest in the Diocese of Chicago and I am proud that he was one of the presenters at my priestly ordination.  Randall is now a priest in the Diocese of Forth Worth (the Anglican Church in North America) and today, on the Feast of John and Charles Wesley, he celebrates the anniversary of his diaconal ordination.  I, too, celebrate Randall’s ordination and I celebrate, very much, that Randall is a minister of Christ’s redeeming Gospel.  I know without a doubt that Randall is a light to those who come into his path.  It saddens me, however, that he and I can only claim our continuing brotherhood in the larger, less visible Anglican Christian communion.

When will that time come, I wonder, when we really will come into the one-ness for which our Lord prayed?  Probably around the time when we learn from our mistakes, one of which occurred during the ministry of John and Charles Wesley, lights of the world in their generation.

WHY DOES THE TRINITY MATTER?

Following Sunday School last week, I asked one of our kids what she learned.

“Nothing,” she said.  (That’s not an uncommon response from lots of kids, but this was strange for this particular child.)

“Nothing?” I responded. “Surely you picked up something?”

“It’s the same thing we heard last year,” she said, “the Trinity, God is three and also one.”

I’m willing to wager that the vast majority of people, like that 9-year-old, are so far beyond being tired of Christian preachers asserting dogmatic truths that they’ve started to feel as if Christianity is nothing more than a wierd code language, and some of us some of the time as part of our commitment to grow deeper and help change the world are forced to listen to words which don’t actually convey meaning.  In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that those who are not in churches and not likely to darken the door of any church are a lot like many within those sanctuaries — wondering about the purpose of their life and how they can help make this world a more just and equitable place and if they care, whatsoever, about what Christians are doing on Sundays they’re probably wondering “Why? What’s the big deal? So what? What’s the point?”

It’s not important whether one understands Christianity.  Take the doctrine of the Trinity, for instance — that God is one and in three persons.  For starters, this is hardly comprehensible.  And, on another level, understanding it doesn’t really matter.  Ask yourself, instead, what difference it makes.  That’s what the world’s asking, and it’s a very good question.

In short, the Trinity makes a difference, a big difference.

The doctrine of the Trinity wasn’t officially settled until the Council of Chalcedon in 381 A.D.  That doesn’t mean that everyone still agreed, but it’s interesting that a lot of years passed between Jesus and this church council.  In that time, there was a lot of wondering and figuring stuff out and discerning and talking but, if you haven’t figured out by now, there was also a whole lot of arguing, screaming, kicking out and fighting.  The story of Christianity, in many ways, is also the story of a big, drawn-out family argument.  Perhaps you’ve experienced or, maybe, started one.  The table erupts into contention, everyone’s involved even if they don’t want to be, and as much as you want to walk away and scream and say “I’m done with all you people!” you don’t.  No, they’re still your family and as much as you don’t know why you love them you still do, in spite of your radically differing opinions about whatever it was that started that argument.

That’s a real gift, the gift of different opinions and arguing parties.  A brief journey through the story of how early Christians wondered and wandered toward a definition of the Trinity might highlight some of this.

In the pages of the New Testament, there’s no doctrine of the Trinity, but there is a threefold understanding of God and in places where the context wouldn’t otherwise demand it.  The Apostolic Fathers of the late-first and early-second centuries, such as Ignatius of Antioch, didn’t concern themselves with figuring out dogma – they were too busy tending the lives of growing congregations – but God is clearly affirmed as creator and Jesus is not only Son of God but also “our God” (as in Ignatius’ Letter to the Ephesians) and a triadic formula is often used.  Justin Martyr and other Apologists of the early second century began to develop an understanding of how the one God can be both eternal and, at the same time, also revealed in the Son.  Using logos — Greek for ‘word’ and ‘speech’ – Justin affirmed that God is one but, just as your own speech comes from within your own mind, so too does God bring forth something of Godself from time to time.  Building on that, Irenaeus (late second century) developed a more thought-out understanding of how the Spirit plays in all of this: there’s an economy in God, Irenaeus taught; God’s nature is one but, at various points, God’s Word (Son) and God’s Wisdom (Spirit) are disclosed.

Irenaeus’ “economic trinitarianism”, as it’s called today, sparked fervor because many felt it denied an essential part of the Christian faith: monotheism.  And in the third century there was a backlash against emergent trinitarian thinking, leading to the belief that there was no distinction in the Godhead.  Into this argument stepped the third-century theologian, Tertullian, who not only affirmed the one-ness of God but, going beyond Irenaeus and Justin Martyr, also showed that in God there are three unique, distinct persons.  Tertullian’s synthesis of Latin and Greek philosophy with emerging Christian doctrines remained central for some time, until in the fourth century a preacher from Alexandria named Arius returned the original fear that all of this denies the belief in one God.  Arianism was so popular that it led, in time, to the Councils of Nicea (325 A.D., figuring out the relationship between the Son and the Father) and Chalcedon (381 A.D., addressing the first question as well as dealing the Trinity).  Both Councils officially denounced Arianism as heresy and proclaimed that the Son is fully God (so we say in the Nicene Creed: “…God from God, light from light, true god from true god…”) and that there are, in fact, three distinct persons in the one God.  This we call the Trinity.

Perhaps this sounds like one of those big family blow-outs in which everyone’s argued about something for so long that someone, at some point, says “What is it we started arguing about again?”, at which the entire table erupts in laughter.  Surely, parts of the story I just told do sound a lot like starting World War III because someone forgot to put out the salad dressing!

But there’s a reason why this conversation got started, and there’s a reason why it turned into an argument and why it took so long to get worked out.  There is a why?, a so what? to this entire story and that is far more important to know than the answer itself.

The Trinity is essentially a very profound and progressive understanding of God.  The desire which fuels all of this is the search for a way to understand with some degree of comprehension that God is both eternal, true, for all time and, at the same time, new and fresh and living.  You know that God is, and if you’ve ever flirted with atheism – or tried it out for a while – you know, I’ll bet, the limits of cutting off all possibility of something beyond, something else, something more to life.  But just because you experience an open-eyed wonder you might not be entirely comfortable with feeling locked into a belief system which seems to assert with dogmatic authority that there are things you must believe about God.  You want to be rooted in something true, something lasting, something real … and yet you don’t want to get stuck.

The reason why Christians stumbled upon the idea of the Trinity is to explain these real-life issues.  The Trinity is our way of explaining how we can be both rooted in God but not bound by that rootedness, tied to something real but not restricted by that tether, not cut-off to the ways in which God is revealing new riches and, yes, challenges.  The Trinity is our way of explaining how we can be both religious and spiritual, both rooted and open.

A catch-phrase for many is that they’re “spiritual but not religious” (SBNR).  Ironically, there are so many ‘SBNR’s that even though it feels to them like something avant garde it’s a lifestyle which is so caught up in the mainstream that there’s no real substance, if anything there’s a palpable absence of meaning.  (It’s not dissimilar to the experience of buying some new fancy outfit that everyone says is the latest in fashion while you also know, as you’re making the purchase, you’re going to dump it in the second-hand shop box in less than a year.)

We are living in a new apostolic age, and it’s much more similar to the early centuries of Christianity than these latter ones.  This is not to say that the answers and the doctrines are invalid or, somehow, less valid.  I am saying, though, that the challenge for us is to get underneath our dogma and listen and respond attentively to the voices and experience of real women and men, people who are really searching and quite honestly struggling to make meaning in a relatively unmoored world.  The democratization of technology and widespread availability of information in our western, internet-connected world has not only led to a greater dissemination of knowledge but also, ironically, a profound disconnect for many with what it feels like to have an intellectual, spiritual home — a native language, a base-line understanding of how the world works.  The challenge and, I’d say, gift is that we live in a world in which people are free and sophisticated enough to ask, with integrity, why? and so what difference does that make?  And when they ask this question they are really, truly wondering and searching and yearning for something that sounds like a refreshing place to lay their spiritual and intellectual heads … but not get stuck there.

This also means that we are free, in fact we are expected to no longer simply give the answers to the test but share with a compelling narrative that our faith is progressive and open-minded, that we are spiritual people who are seeking and, when we stumble upon the Holy, we pause in the presence of a living God.  Because of that, then, we’re unafraid to put down roots and journey deeper into the heart of that mystery, that God who is eternal and true and yet, at once, involved in this world and revealing something new, indeed “new every morning.” (Lam.3:23)

…..

Excerpts from a sermon preached at St. George’s Episcopal Church on, you guessed it, Trinity Sunday. May 26, 2013.  For the full text, click here.

JUST BECAUSE IT BURNS DOESN’T MEAN YOU’RE GONNA DIE

“Peter felt hurt because Jesus said to him a third time, ‘Do you love me?’” (Jn. 21:17b)  ‘Felt hurt’ or, as in some translations, Peter ‘grieved’ is the Greek word (lupeo) that means to be distressed. When Jesus told his disciples he would be killed (Mt. 17:23), for instance, or when at the Last Supper he declared that one of them would betray him (Mt. 26:22) they became “greatly distressed” (lupeo).  It can indicate being ‘in heaviness’ or ‘suffering’ as in 1 Peter 1:6: “…you have been (lupeo) in heaviness in various trials.”

It’s odd that Peter is distressed when, in fact, Jesus is reaching out to him, asking him three times to love him.  Jesus’ actions are a counterpart to Peter’s earlier three-fold denial, a rather passionate denial, at that, with cursing and swearing in Matthew’s telling: “…Then Peter began to curse and he swore, ‘I do not know the man!’ At that moment the cock crowed.  Then Peter remembered what Jesus had said: ‘Before the cock crows, you will deny me three times.’ And he went out and wept bitterly.” (Mt. 26:74-75)

Peter’s once ‘bitter weeping’ becomes, in time, a different kind of grief – Peter’s heavy heart as Jesus restores the relationship once broken.  When God meets us, face to face, we are undoubtedly, like Peter, not just sorry but profoundly distressed, even to the point of grief.

And it feels so good.

Let me explain by way of a story.  (It’s a story told in Adam Makos’ book, A Higher Call; click here.  And in John Blake’s CNN report, “Two enemies discover a ‘higher call’ in battle; click here.)

CHARLES BROWN

Several days before Christmas 1943, high in the skies over France a young American B-17 pilot named Charles Brown was struggling mightily to get his nearly sacked plane and injured crew back to England.  Brown was all of 21 years old, a West Virginia farm boy flying his first combat mission when his “flying fortress” was shot to pieces by swarming fighters.  Half his crew was wounded, and the tail gunner was dead.

In a moment, Brown glanced outside his cockpit and froze.  Spencer Luke, his co-pilot, saw the same horrible thing.  A German Messerschmitt fighter sat just feet from their wingtip, having closed in ready for the kill.

“My God, this is a nightmare,” the co-pilot said.

“He’s going to destroy us,” Brown added, knowing that that moment was the end of his life.  Never again would he see his family and friends.  Never again would he breathe the mountain air of his hometown.  High above France, alone and frightened, that was how it ends.

But what they saw next was an odd thing.  The German fighter pilot didn’t shoot.  Instead, he nodded at the pilots.  And then did an even more amazing thing.

Second Lt. Franz Stigler was an ace fighter pilot.  One more kill and he’d earn the The Knight’s Cross, the highest award for military valor.  By late 1943, however, Stigler was no longer motivated by thoughts of glory or pride.  Earlier in the war, his older brother, August, a fellow pilot, was shot down and killed.  The tide of the war was shifting, and the war in the skies was increasingly difficult.  Exhaustion, war fatigue and untold loss were starting to get to Stigler.  By war’s end, it should be noted, of the 28,000 pilots who fought for the Luftwaffe only 1,200 survived.

FRANZ STIGLER

Dark and sinister emotions flooded Stigler. While he stood smoking a cigarette near his plane one afternoon, he heard the roar of Charles Brown’s “flying fortress,” a plane that was wreaking destruction upon the homeland he vowed to protect.  Filled with thoughts of revenge, he hopped in his fighter, saluted a ground crewman, and took off in hot pursuit.

Coming upon the American plane, he decided to attack from behind.  His hand was on the trigger.  Then he hesitated – no one was firing at him.  Flying closer to Brown’s B-17, he saw the tail gunner humped over and lying still, his white airman’s collar covered in blood.  The American plane was a sorry sight – its skin had been peeled away by shells, its guns knocked out.  Inside, he could see men tending the wounds of other crewmen.

He nudged his plane alongside the bomber’s wings, and locked eyes with the pilot whose own eyes were wide with horror.  Stigler eased his index finger off the trigger.  He couldn’t shoot.  It would be murder.

In that moment, alone in the skies with the crippled bomber, Stigler single-mindedly changed his mission.  He nodded at the American pilot, and began flying in formation so German anti-aircraft gunners on the ground wouldn’t shoot down the slow-moving bomber. (The Luftwaffe had B-17s of its own, shot down and rebuilt for secret missions and training.) Stigler escorted the bomber over the North Sea and took one last look at the American pilot. Then he saluted him, peeled his fighter away and returned to Germany.

“Good luck,” Stigler said to himself. “You’re in God’s hands.”

The horror of facing his own death, for Charles Brown, which quickly turned to his salvation is its own shock.  Franz Stigler’s turning from vengeance to empathy was an inner-struggle.  Setting aside revenge for compassion brings its own heaviness.  They saw the other’s humanity.  They met on equal terms.  The ending was happy but the process was heart-wrenching.

And it’s the kind of sorrow that just feels so good.

……….

Because it’s perhaps the one biblical passage with the single worst translation, across the board, any English version of the seaside conversation between Jesus and Peter about love (John 21:15-19) so utterly fails to convey what’s actually going on.  In the Greek of the New Testament, there are multiple words for love.  Agape is perfect and selfless love.  It’s looking out for the interest of the one who is loved, putting them ahead of self.  It’s what we call unconditional love, the love God has for us.  There’s a lesser kind of love, as well; the affection we have for a friend or family member, brotherly love.  In Greek, philios.

When Jesus asks Peter if he loves him, in John 21, the text alternates between different words.  You can’t hear this story let alone understand the message, unless you hear it closer to its original tongue.  Let’s give it a shot:

When they had finished breakfast, Jesus said to Simon Peter, ‘Simon son of John, do you (agape) love me unconditionally?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know I (philios) love you like a brother.’

… A second time Jesus said to him, ‘Peter, do you (agape) love me unconditionally?’ Peter said to him, ‘Yes, Lord; you know that I (philios) love you like a brother.

…Jesus said the third time, ‘Peter, do you (philios) love me like a brother?’ Peter felt hurt because he said to him the third time, ‘Do you (philios) love me like a brother?’ And he said to him, ‘Lord, you know everything; you know that I (philios) love you like a brother.’

Peter felt hurt, but it wasn’t remorse.

Peter felt the profound life-altering hurt of being truly, wholly loved.  God met Peter, face to face.  God comes to our level and loves us.  The response when we are so profoundly known and still loved, oddly enough, is a piercing heart-wrenching pain that is, at once, so refreshing.  Time and again throughout history — above all, when God became a vulnerable baby born in the utter darkness of the year — God risks everything, God risks God’s own majesty and stoops to our level, to our humanity.  God comes to us not in pomp or power, but in humility: along the shoreline for Peter and his fellow fisherfolk; for us, in the context of our own particular circumstances.

God doesn’t expect us to be better or in a different place but where we are, right here, right now.  And God asks us, like Jesus asked Peter, to love him in the way we can, putting aside any question of how we should.  There’s no judgment here, no brow-beating or submission.  There are no power ploys or manipulative games.  Just an honest invitation to relationship, as we can, with the One who loves us in all the ways we can’t.

The story Christian people need to re-learn and tell others is that we are moved to follow Christ not because we feel things that are better than an ordinary person does but, rather, because we are perfectly ordinary people who actually let ourselves feel, who are unafraid to be broken by love.  Perhaps Pink’s wisdom sums it well.  In her song, ‘Try,’ she sings: “Where there is desire, there is gonna be a flame / Where there is a flame, someone’s gonna get burned / But just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die / You gotta get up and try.”

Peter was broken by love.  How much more wonderful for you and me that God, the author and lover of souls, would so love us that we find ourselves weeping and laughing, distressed and refreshed, in heaviness and set free, all at the same time.

……….

Whatever happened to Charles Brown and Franz Stigler, you ask?  Brown got married, had two daughters, worked for the State Department and eventually retired to Florida.  Shortly after retirement, he began to have nightmares about that incident with the German fighter pilot. Wanting to find him, he asked around at pilot’s reunions.  He put out an ad in a German newsletter for former Luftwaffe pilots, telling his story and asking if anyone knew anything.

On January 18, 1990, Brown got a letter in the mail.  It read:

“Dear Charles, All these years I wondered what happened to that B-17.  Did she make it or not?”

It was Franz Stigler.  In 1953, he moved to Vancouver.  In the letter, he told Brown he’d be in Florida that summer and, his words, “it sure would be nice to talk about our encounter.”

As the years went on, their acquaintanship became a friendship.  One time, the former members of that B-17 crew assembled a reunion and invited Stigler as guest of honor.  There, they put on a slide show of all the children and grand-children and great-grand-children who were born, all because Stigler didn’t shoot.  Their wives became friends, as well, and Charlie and Franz went on regular fishing outings.

Charles and Jackie Brown, from left, with Hiya and Franz Stigler

The war cost Stigler nearly everything; as I mentioned earlier, of the 28,000 Luftwaffe pilots, only 1,200 survived the war.  They were orphans to their own cause and country; no one to talk to, no one to commiserate with and, as in Franz’s case, not even his own brother remaining.  For Stigler, there was nothing redeeming about the war.  Nothing except that B-17 he let go.  Stigler’s and Brown’s reunion was not only profound but salvific.  At long last, after too many generations of others making war, they had the opportunity to write their life’s score.  When they did, they let love win.

A love, it should be noted, which broke them both.  At one of their earlier meetings, Stigler was asked what he thought of Brown.  In heavily accented English, straining to fight back tears, he said: “I love you, Charlie.”  Sometime later, Stigler gave a book about German fighter jets to Brown, knowing that both of them were country kids who loved, when they were boys, to read about planes.  In the inside cover, Stigler wrote an inscription:

“In 1940, I lost my only brother as a night fighter. On the 20th of December, 4 days before Christmas, 1943 I had the chance to save a B-17 from her destruction, a plane so badly damaged it was a wonder that she was still flying.

The pilot, Charlie Brown, is for me as precious as my brother was.

Thanks Charlie.

Your Brother,

Franz”

In 2008, they died within months of one another.  Stigler was 92.  Brown was 87.

Franz Stigler, on left, with fishing buddy Charlie Brown

Love broke them, permanently, irreparably, wonderfully.  Loving and being loved in that way wasn’t easy, I’m sure, and it brought its own hurts and pains, its own heart-heaviness and distress, its own suffering and sorrow.

And, I’m also certain, it must’ve felt so good.

Be willing to be loved, then, like Peter and Charlie and Franz.  Be willing to be so broken by love so God is, in fact, re-making you.  Be willing to be distressed by God’s love, for surely it means you’ll find yourself in prayer crying pain and joy, all at once.  And it’ll feel so very good.  Just because it burns doesn’t mean you’re gonna die.