A Good Work Begun

Given the baptismal theology of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer, that is that baptism is “full initiation by water and the Holy Spirit into Christ’s Body the Church,” it has often been said that Confirmation is left as something of a vestigial service, a liturgy in search of a theology.  While I’ve not done the deep research to confirm, I have it on good authority that in the months leading up to the 1976 General Convention, it was thought that Confirmation would not end up in the final draft of the revised Book of Common prayer.  Evidence in the book suggests that even as it was inserted late in the game, its placement in Pastoral Offices, rather than the Episcopal Services, betrays the fact that many thought that it was unlikely Confirmation would stick around as the thing bishops did when they showed up in a parish.

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Deep within this vestigial liturgy, tucked way behind eight graders looking to graduate from Sunday school and that certain kind of person who actually takes changing traditions seriously enough to mark it liturgically by way of Reception, is the possibility for one to reaffirm their Christian faith.  It gets nary a mention in Concerning the Service or the Additional Directions, so we’ve had to kind of make up what it means.  Still, I think it is actually the most useful portion of this service, and we ignore it to our detriment.  Although it only gets less than three lines of text, the prayer that the bishop is to pray for those who are reaffirming their baptismal promises is a powerful one:

N., may the Holy Spirit, who has begun a good work in you, direct and uphold you in the service of Christ and his kingdom. Amen.

If you’ve been reading ahead to Sunday’s Second Lesson from Philippians 1, you might recognize these words as being grounded in Scripture.  In the opening acclamation appointed for Advent 2C, we hear Paul doing his normal thing by heaping prayers and praises upon the heads of the Christians in Philippi.  Included are these words, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”

In the Greek, the words translated as “completion” has its root in telos, which means something deeper than simply checking a task off the list.  Instead, the telos of God’s good work begun is its perfect end.  It is Paul’s prayer for the Church in Philippi, and while the Reaffirmation prayer doesn’t include the full text, I believe it is what we are praying for in that service as well.  Those who come to make a public reaffirmation of their baptismal promises do so for a reason.  It might be because they are coming back to the Church after time away.  It may be because they’ve found a new calling in lay ministry.  Whatever it is, the prayer we offer to God on their behalf is that whatever good work has begun, whether 9 weeks or 90 years ago, might be brought to its perfect end, to the benefit of the Kingdom, through God’s direction and upholding.

The Bishop won’t be coming for several months, but this Advent 2, my prayer for each of you, dear readers, is that God’s good work begun in you might be sustained and fulfilled by its perfect completion.

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The Calling of a Prodigal God

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It is week five of the Good Book Club, and we are more than halfway through Luke’s Gospel, with an eye toward Acts during the Great 50 Days of Easter.  Next week, Lent’s penultimate week, will be Holy Week in the GBC, but before we get there, we have some famous parables, including the one commonly called “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,” from which this week’s Acts 8 BLOGFORCE question comes.

Prodigal (n) – a person who spends money in a recklessly extravagant way – is often used to describe the younger son in the well known parable, but what if the point of this parable is the prodigality of the father?  Tell of a time you were aware of God’s recklessly extravagant grace.


Recently, I have found myself in several different conversations about call.  It is a hazard of the job, I suppose.  For some, it is the early inklings of a call to ordained ministry.  For others, it is the frustrations of the innumerable midway points in the process that make progress impossible according to physics.  For a few, these conversations have revolved around the second way we discuss call in the Episcopal Church: finding a job.  See, once you have, with God’s [significant] help navigated the process of discerning a call to ordained ministry and been trained for that vocation, is discerning a call to a position, or more colloquially, a job.

In the past, that process hasn’t really been about call.  The Bishop, to whom you are beholden throughout the process, would often simply place seminary graduates in congregations that needed holes filled.  Certainly, there was some discernment involved, but three people to fill three holes means everybody gets placed, whether they are all a good fit or not.  In this system, the job was usually for at time-certain, often two years, and then the next call process would commence.  Except, when you know your paychecks will cease on a certain date, you don’t have time really let the Spirit work, and so discernment can quickly dissipate while the search for a job takes over.  In many cases, it wasn’t until the third call that someone really had the chance to experience the fullness of discernment and the joyful nature of call.

When I think about the prodigality of God, I’m often reminded of my own difficulty with call.  It was the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday of my senior year of seminary when I found out that I would not be placed.  What felt like an earth shaking moment in which the rug fell out from under me, has, in hindsight, been a moment wherein I relish in God’s recklessly extravagant grace.  It didn’t fell good at the time, not unlike, I’m sure, the younger son returning home to his father’ house, but I quickly realized the gift that was waiting for me.  As I moved from discerning a vocational call to discerning a call to a position, I became aware of how joyous that process can be.  As I’ve said many times in the last ten+ years, riding the wave of the Spirit is a whole lot of fun.

I am grateful, everyday, to know what call feels like.  To have experienced it in TKT’s living room in Foley in April of 2007 and in a rental car in Bowling Green in October of 2016 is a gift of God’s recklessly extravagant grace.  It is my prayer for all in discernment, whether they will graduate from a seminary with an MDiv or a diocesan school for ministry with a certificate, that they will, sooner rather than later, get to experience the same gift and blessing.

And, lest this post be another point in the accusation of my penchant for clericalism, I would note that I think this type of discernment isn’t exclusive to those of us in the professional class of ministry.  When God’s call is followed, in our work and in our churches, the experience of God’s grace can be overwhelming, in a good way.  May God bless you with the reckless extravagance as you take your place in the building up of the Kingdom of God.


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Amazed by Authority

I’ve written a couple of times on the topic of authority, but it seems to be a popular one in the Gospels.  Sunday’s lesson is bookended by it.  In the Synagogue, the crowds were first astounded by Jesus’ teaching, for he taught as one with authority.  Then, after he heals the man with the evil spirit, they are amazed (a different Greek word, btw), again because of the authority with which Jesus both taught and acted.  This shouldn’t surprise us.  I don’t mean we shouldn’t be surprised that Jesus had such authority, though if we believe him to be the Son of God, we shouldn’t be.  What shouldn’t surprise us in this story is the reaction of the crowd.

True authority is so rare in this world.  It is true today.  One need only to look at Washington, DC or Frankfort, KY to see that many who claim to be leaders lack any real authority.  It was, it seems, equally true in Palestine in the first century.  It is also true that people are hungry for leaders who have true authority.

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My favorite definition of authority comes from the Rev. Dr. Craig Koester, Vice President of Academic Affairs at Luther Seminary.  In a commentary on the “all authority” passage in Matthew 28, Koester defines authority as “followability.”  Many people follow many leaders because they have to.  Plenty of governments, businesses, and even churches operate this way.  Someone is in a position of authority because of a job title, and others follow because they say so.  In the case of the authority of Jesus, it seems clear that people followed him not because they had to, but because they wanted to.  People were drawn to Jesus not because he was born in the right place or studied at the right school or was the son of the High Priest, but because God had poured out on him the gifts that are necessary to bring people along.

One of the things we don’t like to talk about in the church very much is this type of real authority.  In the name of the cult of nice, we don’t put much stock in followability when it comes to raising up leaders, both lay and ordained.  I can’t help but wonder if we do this to our own detriment.  The Gospel writers were not afraid to name the authority of Jesus.  Jesus, as he commissioned his disciples to be apostles, was not afraid to name their authority.  As the Church seeks leaders, we ought not be afraid to seek those who have that natural followability, the true authority that comes with giftedness rather than position and education.

Answering the Call

Give us grace, O Lord, to answer readily the call of our Savior Jesus Christ and proclaim to all people the Good News of his salvation, that we and the whole world may perceive the glory of his marvelous works; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

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Father Thomas and me at my ordination

This post is nearly a decade in the making.  Truth be told, it is probably better suited on January 24th, when I will celebrate the 10th anniversary of my ordination to the priesthood, but given the bookends of today, it seems appropriate to move things up a week.  As I noted in Monday’s post, today two Colleges of Presbyters will gather.  First, in Mobile, Alabama, the clergy of the Central Gulf Coast will gather at the altar of All Saints’ Church to give thanks to God for the life and ministry of the Rev. Cn. Maurice Branscomb. Then, this evening, priests from around the church will join with those of us in the Diocese of Kentucky to lay hands on the Rev. Becca Kello as she is ordained to the sacred order of the priesthood.  All of that, coupled with the Collect for Epiphany 3 and my 10th on the horizon, I guess I can’t help but be a little nostalgic today.

Today, I have in mind all of those bishops, priests, and deacons who have had an impact on my ministry.  I’m reminded of Bishops like Creighton, Duncan, Kendrick, White, and Brewer; Priests like Bill, Cindy, Albert, and Keith; and Deacons like Patrick and Kellie.  My prayers are especially drawn to those who have entered into the joy of their master: Bishop Mark, Father Thomas (pictured above), Deacon John, Father B, Norm, and Mark come immediately to mind, but there are others.  I continue to hold in prayer those who are discerning calls to ordained ministry: John, Billy, and Ken.  As I think back on a decade of ordained ministry, I can’t help but recall how intense an experience it is to follow that call; how the Tempter always seems to be around the next corner, how the process is infuriating and deeply powerful, and how, in the end, it all makes sense.  I often still hear the voices of my lay discernment committee at St. Thomas, internship committee at St. John’s, and my field ed committee at St. James’, and I give thanks, daily, for the opportunity to develop an understanding of what call really feels like deep in my bones.

It would be easy to get lost in the idea of call exclusively as it pertains to ordained ministry, but that would betray the meaning of the Collect, and the reality that the ministers of Christ’s Church are, first and foremost, the laity.  Sure, we talk about call most often when it comes to ordination, but that is our failure, not God’s.  The truth of the matter is that every follower of Jesus is called.  Called to proclaim the Good News. Called to share in the restoration of all relationships.  Called to vocation.  You see, call isn’t just about the servanthood of a deacon or being pastor, priest, and teacher or, for a few poor souls, being made one with the apostles, but it is about being a bearer of the Kingdom of God no matter where one lives and moves and has their being.  Call is about being a witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ as a doctor, lawyer, grocery store clerk, small business owner, student, stay at home parent, or retiree.  Call is about sharing the love of God within one’s unique sphere of influence.  Call is about allowing the light of Christ to shine through us, so that the God’s good dream for creation can be seen.  Call is about each of us taking our part in the making Jesus Christ known.  If you are feeling a call, be it to ordination or to a deeper lay ministry, talk to someone.  You local clergy, having some experience with call, would love to walk that road with you.  In the meantime, here is one more prayer for all of us who are called to the service of our Lord, lay and ordained, alike.

Almighty and everlasting God, by whose Spirit the whole body of your faithful people is governed and sanctified: Receive our supplications and prayers, which we offer before you for all members of your holy Church, that in the vocation and ministry they may truly and devoutly serve you; through our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.  Amen.

Are you paying attention?

The good folk over at WorkingPreacher’s Sermon Brainwave spend a pretty good amount of time during their Epiphany podcast on a tangent about the stars.  After going back and forth about the delicate way in which a Christian preacher should treat astrology and suggesting that maybe the star is more Garmin GPS than it is horoscope giving future teller, they got me thinking about the fact that these wise men pay attention to the star at all.

They were tuned into stars.  They paid enough attention to the night sky to realize that something new had appeared.  “We saw the star at its rising,” they told Herod, “and we’ve come to pay homage to the newborn king.”  Star gazing isn’t a part of my personal spirituality, but listening for God’s call certainly is.  Whether you are Zoroastrian or Christian, the key to a fulfilling religious life is paying attention.

God might work through stars.  God might work through loved ones.  God might work through budgets or car repairs or the struggles of addiction.  There are myriad ways in which God can come to us, seeking to “wonderfully restore” our relationship with God and with the world He created, but if we aren’t paying attention, if we aren’t attuned to the voice of God, then most likely we’ll miss an opportunity for great things, and the key to paying attention is practice.

As TKT said in his sermon yesterday, a life of prayer is one in which God speaks, something happens, and we respond.  When our response is more often than not to actually do something, to see God’s hand at work and to roll up our sleeves and join in, then we become more and more able to see God in the little things.  We become accustomed to the nuances of the Spirit, the little nudges, the still, soft voice, the burning in our hearts.  Paying attention to God at work in the big stuff, enables us to pay attention to God at work in the little stuff, and allows us the opportunity to see the amazing works of God all over our lives.

Yet the world is full of distraction.  So many things battle for our limited attention.  Often I’m so busy worried about me and my stuff that I forget to look for God in the world around me, and when I’m not paying attention, I miss out on opportunities to bless and be blessed that are beyond my wildest imagination.  As I prepare to preach Christmas 2, while “off” this week and looking forward to 48 hours of nothing but football in the middle of it all, my prayer is that I can pay attention, that my eyes might be fixed on the hand of God, and that I might answer the call to follow his lead, no matter when he calls.