What is your Reward?

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Every school day at 6:30 AM, I trudge up the stairs to make sure Eliza and Lainey are starting to wake up.  Yesterday, I had more of a lilt in my step as I came through the bedroom door smiling and saying, “Happy Pancake Day!”  They were a bit confused by my excitement, and weren’t quite sure what to make of Pancake Day.  We chatted for a moment about Shrove Tuesday and the practice, at least in the Episcopal Church, of eating pancakes before the beginning of Lent.  I realized in the course of that conversation that I’ve probably eaten pancakes on Shrove Tuesday for each of the last 36 years.  While our girls have been doing it since birth, for them, these habits are still rather new, and in a lot of ways, foreign.

I had a similar experience about two weeks ago when I invited Vonda, our Parish Administrator, to join me for the burning of the palms.  Vonda didn’t grow up in a liturgical tradition, and so, much of what we do around here – from albs, cinctures, stoles, and chasubles, to Shrove Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and the Easter Triduum – are brand new to her.  We talked a bit about the ways in which the liturgical actions of Palm Sunday help us remember Jesus’ last week, from marching up 12th Avenue waving palm fronds shouting “Hosanna!” to hearing the Passion and crying out “Crucify him!”  I shared with her how we save those palms each year to be burned and ground into ashes that, on Ash Wednesday, get smeared across our foreheads as a reminder of our mortality and a symbol of our penitence – an outward and visible sign of our need for forgiveness and God’s deep desire to forgive.

It is easy, especially for me as a clergy person, to get so used to these symbols and events that I forget what they are really meant to be about.  I can get so caught up in the details of a printer that is acting up, palms that need to be burned, and new fronds that need to be ordered, that the whole season of Lent can turn into one long to-do list.  Before I know it, a season that is meant to be set aside for the intentional work of holiness can just become another season of busy work.  I imagine that clergy aren’t the only ones who are susceptible to this condition.  Cultural LentÔ, with its 2 for six-dollar fast food fish sandwiches and giving-up-chocolate, can become so routine that it loses all of its depth of meaning.

I think this might be what Jesus was on to when he admonished his disciples to beware of practicing their personal piety before others.  To Jesus’ mind, the regular practices of the faithful had become so monotonous as to have lost all real meaning.  Giving alms, prayer, and fasting, the three-legged stool of spirituality for the faithful Jew had become, for some, nothing more than a chance to show off.  Going to the Synagogue was, for some, merely a chance to get their ticket punched, to go through the motions required by the law, and then to go back out into the world as if nothing had really changed.  “When you approach the throne of God just so others will see you, being seen is all the reward you will get,” Jesus says, “But, if you approach the throne of God with humility, penitence, and the desire to be changed, then God, who sees in secret, will reward you with a depth of relationship that is beyond even your wildest imagination.”

In just a minute, Mother Becca will invite us, on behalf of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.  She will ask us all to take on intentional practices of self-examination, self-denial, and prayer.  As a symbol of our accepting that invitation, an ashen cross will be marked upon our foreheads, not so that everyone can see that we got our Ash Wednesday merit badges, but so that, when you see yourself in the mirror later today, you might remember that the season of Lent is meant to change you.  The practices you take on this season, those done in public and those done in secret, are meant to bring you into a deeper, fuller, richer relationship with God who, Lent also reminds us, sent God the Son into the world, who taught and lived a life of love, compassion, and grace, who was betrayed by one of his closest friends, condemned to death in a sham trial, crucified on a trash heap, died an excruciating death, and was hastily buried in shame on the eve of the sabbath.

The work of a holy Lent is not easy work, but it is of great reward to those who engage it with integrity.  Whether this is your first or your ninety-first Ash Wednesday, I hope you will heed the invitation and spend these next forty days engaging in the practices of holiness and preparing yourself, your body and soul, for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, for the indwelling of the Kingdom of God, and for the resurrection life to which God invites us all.  May your Father who sees in secret reward you richly with grace and mercy this Lent.  Amen.

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Don’t Feel Holy, Be Holy – a homily

UPDATE: This sermon can be heard over on the Christ Church website.


One of the outreach ministries that I was most proud of during my time in Foley was the role Saint Paul’s played in Family Promise of Baldwin County.  Family Promise is a part of the Interfaith Hospitality Network, a national network that began in New York and seeks to help homeless families get back on the path to stable living conditions.  In Baldwin County, we were one of fourteen churches that opened our doors four weeks out of the year to host homeless families over night while their children attended school and parents worked or found jobs and learned how to make a budget, plan for the future, and save up enough for the deposits required to restart the housing search.  For two weeks at a time, we would provide safe and private sleeping quarters, a hot dinner, and the makings for breakfast and lunch to as many as twenty people spread across four families.  They would arrive on campus at about 5pm and leave often before the sun came up so that their kids could get to school on time.

Somewhere during the many years I made announcements to drum up volunteers and let people know that we had guests on campus, I realized a problem with my language.  I would stand up on the Sunday Family Promise was scheduled to arrive and say something like, “when you see our guests on campus, please be sure to make them feel welcomed.”  I realized at some point that making them feel welcomed really wasn’t what I was hoping for.  No, what I really meant to say was “make sure you welcome them.”  Notice the difference?  Making someone feel welcomed is easily done superficially.  A smile and a “hello” is enough to make someone “feel welcomed,” but to actually welcome a stranger takes a lot more work.  It requires a change within ourselves.  In order to welcome someone else into my space and my life means that I have to make room for them, for all of them, the good and the bad, and the many ways in which welcoming them will change me.  More than making them simply feel welcomed, I hoped that they were welcomed fully into the life and ministry of Saint Paul’s.

I think that difference is what Jesus is trying to make clear in this difficult passage appointed for Ash Wednesday.  As we prepare to put on an outward symbol of our piety, we hear Jesus clearly asking us to check our motivations.  Do we put on the cross of ashes in order to feel like we have done the work of repentance?  Do we keep these ashes on when we leave this holy place so that we can look like we are holy?  Or, do the ashes mean something more?  Jesus didn’t have Ash Wednesday to use as an example, but in his age, as in ours, there were plenty of religious practices that people could bend to their own devices.

“When you give alms,” Jesus says, “don’t give alms so that others can see how much you give and how generous you are.  Don’t give alms so you can feel holy or seem compassionate.  Give alms because God wants to bless the poor through your generosity.  If you are giving in order to feel good about yourself, that’s all the reward you’ll get, but if you are giving in order to make a difference in the world, your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

“When you pray,” Jesus says, “don’t make it look like you are praying by standing in the marketplace wearing long, fancy robes and saying beautiful and flowery words, but pray as if your life depended on it.  If you pray in order to feel good about yourself, that’s all the reward you’ll get, but if you pray in order to make a difference in the world, your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

“When you fast,” Jesus says, “don’t just make it look like you are fasting so that you can gain the respect of the crowd.[1]  Don’t fast so you can feel like you’ve done what you are supposed to do.  Instead, actually fast, so that you can gain a deeper relationship with God.  If you fast in order to feel good about yourself, that’s all the reward you’ll get, but if you fast in order to make a difference in the world, your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”

“When you attend an Ash Wednesday service,” we might add, “don’t wear your ashes so others can see that you went to church and are therefore that much holier than they are.  Wear your ashes as a reminder of your mortality, your sinfulness, and your total dependence on God.   If you wear your ashes in order to feel good about yourself, that’s all the reward you’ll get, but if you wear these ashes in order to make a difference in yourself and a difference in the world; If you wear these ashes as a reminder that this Lent, and every day of your life, is a chance to join with God in the up-building of the Kingdom, then your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

It is too easy to make someone feel welcome or to make yourself feel holy.  The harder work comes when we risk change by actually welcoming the stranger and engaging in the hard work of discipleship.  As we begin this Lenten season of intentionality, don’t just look like you are fasting, but really fast, don’t just look penitential, but really repent, don’t just look like you are praying or reading the Bible, but really do it.  It’s risky, scary even, to really take on these discipleship practices.  They will change you.  They will change how you see the world, but in taking that risk, you will find yourself closer to God, and I can assure you, there is no greater reward than that.  This Lent, don’t settle for feeling holy, but rather, be holy.  Amen.

[1] Nurya Love Parish, “Sunday’s Coming” Christian Century weekly email, 2/27/2017.

God acts, we respond, und wiederholen

One of the hardest concepts of Christian theology to wrap my mind around is God’s grace.  Every time I try to explain it, I end up caught in a loop of work’s righteousness.  Take for example, the classic, God’s grace is a gift argument.

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God’s grace is sparkly

Logically, if grace is a gift, then all we have to do is open it in order to receive it, but isn’t the act of opening a gift work?  And if it is, then does it mean that those who aren’t able to receive the gift are excluded?  Does God’s grace require some level of cognitive ability in order to understand what it is and intellectually assent to it?  I have my doubts about that.  How then do we explain grace without getting caught in this quagmire?  I think I might have found my answer in the Collect for Ash Wednesday, which seems to put the action in the proper order:

God acts, we respond, und weiderholen
(and repeat, all good theology needs to have some German in it)

After an introductory clause naming God’s desire to restore all things to right relationship, we ask God to “Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of you, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness…”  God acts by placing within us “new and contrite hearts.”  Contrite is one of those fifty-cent church words that means feeling sorry for the sins we have committed and desiring forgiveness through confession.  It is because of the contrite heart that God places within us, and nothing we can do in and of ourselves, that we then respond with contrition.  That is to say, our new hearts naturally feel what they were made to feel: lamentation of our sin and acknowledgement of our wretchedness.  Because of the actions of the heart that God has placed within us, God forgives.  In this equation, there is nothing that we do of our own power.  God’s action causes us to respond, and God acts again.  This cycle continues, daily (sometimes hourly or even by the minute) for the rest of our lives as we seek to grow into the likeness of Christ.

Is this a perfect definition of God’s grace?  Of course not.  It raises questions about free will: can we override the contrite heart within us?  It raises questions of forgiveness: does God forgive even if we refuse to be penitent?  It raises questions of time: when exactly does God install that new, contrite heart?  Like I said, God’s grace is a difficult concept to explain, but on this Ash Wednesday, as I prepare to receive a cross of ashes on my brow and be reminded of my mortality, my sinfulness, and my need for a savior, I’m grateful for the Collect that reminds me that God is constantly at work, rebuilding my heart and forgiving me of the sins and offenses that I, from time to time, most grievously have committed.

Ash Wednesday Homily

You can listen to today’s homily on the Saint Paul’s Website or read it here.

“Take heed!  Watch out!  Beware! Give some extra thought about practicing your piety before others.”  These words from Jesus that we hear every Ash Wednesday took on real meaning for Cassie and me back in 2006.  Ash Wednesday fell on the First of March that year, our third wedding anniversary.  I was in Seminary, serving at a parish in Potomac, MD and we planned to have dinner on our way home after the 6pm Ash Wednesday Liturgy – at an Indian restaurant.  You might not know this, but in Indian culture, many women wear a Bindi on their foreheads. The Bindi is a red dot worn to represent the third eye, one that sees spiritual things that are beyond ordinary sight.  We had a long conversation in the car on the way to dinner.  Should we keep the black smudge on our foreheads or not?  Jesus told us to beware about practicing our piety before others.  Would our dinner hosts think we were poking fun at their culture?  Would they even notice or care?  Ultimately, we decided to rub the black smudges off our foreheads, knowing that the true work of repentance in Lent happens on the inside.

In just a few minutes, Father Keith will invite us all, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.  Over the next forty plus six days, we’ll take on the challenge of sanctification, the work of becoming more in line with the will of God for our lives and for the world God created.  This work is not to be done in showy ways.  If you’re giving up Facebook for Lent, maybe just disappear, don’t change your profile picture to say, “I’m off Facebook for Lent because I’m holier than you are.”  If you’re going to fast on Fridays, don’t spend the day complaining about how hungry you are because you’re fasting, unlike the rest of us wretched sinners who insist on eating delicious food.  If you are taking on reading the Bible or praying  the Daily Office, you can probably do it without interspersing, “While I was reading Leviticus this morning” or “During Morning Prayer, which I read every day, you know…”  The work of a holy Lent is intended to strengthen our relationship with God, not make us the annoyance of our fellow human beings.

In the Episcopal tradition, we are invited to take part in a holy Lent in three ways: self-examination and repentance; prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and reading and meditating on God’s holy Word.  The first thing you’ll notice is that these are strung together by the word “and” not by an “or.”  These three observances, when combined, offer the full expression of the work of a holy Lent.  First comes self-examination and repentance.  I think they are listed first because it is the part we are least likely to do.  While most of us are our own toughest critics, it usually has to do with our weight or our work or our pocketbooks.  Rarely do we take the time to take honest stock of whether or not our lives are being lived in accordance with the will of God.  The questions we need to be asking this Lent are more like: How am I doing at loving my neighbor?  What about loving God with all my heart, soul, mind and strength?  What areas of my life need to be purged or cleansed – what do I need to change – in order to follow God’s will?

Second on the list is prayer, fasting, and self-denial.  This is probably the most popular Lenten observance: giving something up for Lent is still a strong cultural phenomenon.  You’ll note that in our Prayer Book, it isn’t just about giving something up for the sake of giving something up, but rather prayer is tied in with the other two.  The goal of our fasting is to make us better able to focus on our relationship with God.  If chocolate or wine take away from your prayer time, then by all means give them up, but I think the intent of this practice in our hyper-connected-an-iPhone-in-every-hand-and-a-television-in-every-waiting-room culture is less about losing weight or quitting smoking and more about turning our attention toward the Father.  Maybe instead of reading that Young Adult Vampire novel for an hour every night, you can spend 15 minutes in prayer.  Or log off Facebook and use the time you’d spend getting angry at political posts offering God thanks for the day that you’ve been given.  Or put your cell phone away when you get home from work and focus your attention on being thankful for the gifts that are right in front of you: family, friends, pets, Pat Sajak, you name it.

Finally, we have the invitation to read and meditate on God’s holy Word.  Daily Bible study is key to the observance of a Holy Lent.  You don’t have to read the whole Bible in the next 46 days.  The call is not just to read, but also to meditate.  Take small chunks and read them slowly, prayerfully listening for what God is saying through the scriptures.  The Gospel of Mark has something like 675 verses.  If you read and mediate on 15 verses a day, you’ll read the whole book by Easter.  Romans, the Mount Everest of the Bible, has only 433 verses: 10 a day will take you through the best theological text book you’ll ever read.  Living a holy Lent doesn’t have to be all consuming.  You don’t have to be like the ancient Celtic Christians who went neck deep in the North Sea and recited all 150 Psalms from memory.  You don’t need to lament and bewail your manifold sins every waking moment.  What you do have to do is be intentional about it.  Make the choice right now to accept the invitation of the observance of a holy Lent.  Set aside three 10 minute blocks each day.  Confess your sins from the day before each morning and ask God for forgiveness.  Give up watching the news over lunch and pray for your coworkers and family instead.  Read a few verses of Scripture and ask God to open your heart to his will for you before you go to bed each night.  Small actions, not big showy displays, are what the Lord desires.  He wants to be in a relationship with you, one that will change your life forever.  As with all relationships, it’ll start small, but with some effort, it’ll bloom into something beautiful, and it all begins by accepting an invitation to a Holy Lent.  Amen.

Happy Mardi Gras, Fasnacht Day, Shrove Tuesday!!!

In yesterday’s post, I stressed the importance of taking time out of our busy lives to mark a day of fasting on Ash Wednesday.  Given my stats yesterday evening and this morning, that post struck a chord with a few folks, and for that I am grateful, but truth be told, it was a little bit of putting the cart before the horse.  Before we get to Ash Wednesday and the Season of Lent, we first get to enjoy a feast.  Today marks the final day of the Season after Epiphany.  For my readers in areas of Germanic settlement, it is called by the redundant misnomber of “Fasnacht Day.”  While there is a delicious donut called a Fasnacht, when the term is translated from German it actually means “Fast Night,” the night before the start of the Lenten Fast when the best foods are eaten, and lots of it, to empty your cupboards of fats and sweets.  Shrove Tuesday, the traditional name in English settlements, means to be absolved of sins by way of confessing them.  It seems that the tradition is to eat copious amounts of pancakes and go to confession in preparation for the penitential Season of Lent.  It is in those places settled by Romance Language speakers that have the most fun, however.  Carnival, or Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) as it is called in French/Cajun settled Mobile and New Orleans, is a whole season of food, drink, dancing, and parades leading up to a day of excess, Fat Tuesday, and the start of Lent on Ash Wednesday.

Me at the Gulf Shores Mardi Gras Parade

Me at the Gulf Shores Mardi Gras Parade

Americans are really good at excess.  We use any excuse we can find to drink or eat too much.  We do it up for New Years, the Super Bowl, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter, Cinco de Mayo, Memorial Day, the Fourth of July, Labor Day, Halloween, Thankgiving, and don’t get me started on Christmas.  It all seems to be too much.  And yet, these days of feasting and celebration are important.  When done properly, they are an opportunity to remember and be thankful for all the many gifts God has given us.  We’re grateful for a plentiful harvest, for sugar and oil in the cupboards, for the gift of a new year, for the freedoms we enjoy, and for the blessings poured out through God’s plan of salvation.  We feast in order to prepare for the fast, and that is a good thing, or as the English might say, it is meet and right so to do.

So live it up.  Enjoy the day.  Celebrate responsibly.  We’ll confess our sins tomorrow.  Today, let’s give thanks for the gifts God has given us.

Get your Ash in Church

I have been openly critical of some of the recent marketing attempts by Church leadership.  Thankfully, my friend and colleague, Adam Trambley wrote a reasoned response to the 2013 Episcopal Church marketing debacle so that I could just be snarky on Facebook, but honestly who thought this was a good idea?

Anyway, in recent years there has been an up and coming trend called “Ashes to Go” in which clerical and lay representatives from congregations set up shop at a busy intersection, outside a popular coffee shop, or near a subway entrance and engage in the imposition of ashes on Ash Wednesday for those who are too busy to be bothered to come to Church on one of the very few days of obligation remaining in our overly scheduled culture.  This post will not weigh the merits of Ashes to Go because honestly I’m conflicted about it.  On one hand, I think the notion of getting outside of the church walls and engaging in guerrilla liturgy is a good and noble thing.  On the other, I think that the imposition of ashes is a sacramental symbol that can’t be done in isolation from the rest of the liturgy for Ash Wednesday and it loses is value outside of a community of faith.  That being said, there is no way Ashes to Go would work in Foley.  There is no central hub of walking activity.  Everyone is in their own cars going to their own jobs.  Unless I figured out a way to rain down ashes like confetti at the corner of AL-59 and US-98, it’d be a fruitless endeavor, no matter how well I tied up the liturgical quagmire into a neat bow to make sense of it in my own brain.

So it is that I’ve fallen in love with what seems to be the Council of Trent to the Ashes to Go’s 95 Theses, a movement summed up by this great button that you can buy from oldlutheran.com.

The Liturgy for Ash Wednesday is, to my mind, a uniquely powerful one.  It is our habit, those of us who attend the Holy Eucharist with regularity, to approach the altar rail ready to receive the body and blood of Jesus in the species of bread and wine.  We are entrenched in the pattern of coming forward, kneeling (for most of us) at the altar rail, and reaching out our hands to obtain “the Body of Christ, the Bread of Heaven” and “the Blood of Christ, the Cup of Salvation.”  On Ash Wednesday, that experience is very different.  We come forward.  We kneel (most of us).  But we don’t hear the common words.  We don’t taste the familiar elements.  Instead, we feel the cold scratching on our forehead as roughly ground palm ashes mixed with oil are smeared across our brow as we hear the words, “Remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return.”  It is an arresting experience, so different than what we’re used to, and very much needed in a world that moves, as my Rector would say, “at break neck speed on the road to no where.”

One can’t have that experience without stopping for a few moments, without stepping out of the passing lane and taking a pause.  It is the one thing that even the best expression of Ashes to Go can’t offer, the intentionality of changing the normal pattern of just one day in order to hear the voice of God as he speaks through the Church.  I get that some simply can’t step out of the patterns of life, and for them, I’m glad Ashes to Go exists, but for the rest of us, honestly the 99.9% of us who can take the time to stop for 30 minutes and invite God into our hearts and onto our foreheads, I say, “Get your Ash in Church.”

If you’re in Foley, join us at 506 N. Pine Street at noon and 6pm.
A nursery will be available at 6pm.

Writing Exercise – Spend 6 Minutes Writing About Dust

In class this afternoon, the Rev. Dr. Lauren Winner invited us to spend six minutes writing about dust to see what it teaches me about Ash Wednesday.  Here’s what I came up with.

Remember that you are but dust and to dust you shall return.  As one who suffers from seasonal allergies, I’m keenly aware of dust.  I know when it is prevalent.  I know when it is on the move.  I know when my body is responding to dust all around me.  I also know that most of what dust is comes from me and my body.  Dust is the microscope residual of skin and hair and sweat and silva.  Dust is part of who I am even as it is part of what ails me so.  Dust is a microcosm of life.  That which is a part of me is often what keeps me from fully being me.  Inordinate love of self keeps me from actually loving myself.  My desire to be considered special keeps me from actually being special.  The things that I chase after keep me from realizing the one who is chasing after me.

God created humankind out of dust.  Ad’am.  But what makes us fully alive, the people who God intended us to be, we must move beyond our dustiness and be infused with the breath of God: the Holy Spirit.  When we live into the fullness of our createdness, we live a life of the Spirit who is our advocate, who calls us back into relationship with our creator, who reminds us of the dream that God had in mind when out of love he created us.  Dust is who we are, but not fully.  Dust keeps me from being fully me.  God’s Spirit makes me fully me.