A Shining Light

Last year, I had the opportunity to review and then co-teach a class based on A Resurrection Shaped Life by Jake Owensby.   As you can read in the linked review, I highly recommend this book, from cover to cover.  The way in which the author takes you from death to resurrection is powerful.  Anyway, in that book, Owensby uses an image from Anne Lamott’s Hallelujah Anyway.  Lamont compares the grace of God with the Japanese art of Kintsugi.  Kintsugi artists mend broken pottery with a lacquer of gold.  This technique, which you can see in the bottom image of the collage below, is meant to draw the eye to the imperfections and to see the beauty that can result out of the broken places.

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I was reminded of Kintsugi this morning as I read the collect for Epiphany 2.  In it, we pray that God might illumine us through Word and Sacrament so that we may shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.  As I read that prayer today, my initial reaction was to think of shining Christ’s light like a mirror.  In my perfected state, I am able to reflect perfectly the love of God into the world.  Quickly, however, another Japanese art from came to mind.  Dorodango uses earth and water to create a shining sphere.  The Mythbusters once used the technique to polish a turd, and concept with which Martin Luther would have had a lot of fun.

I think our prayer for Sunday is probably less about asking God to make us perfect mirrors, but maybe more like a Jack O Lantern.  The light of Christ can only shine through the places where we are cracked open, vulnerable, and willing to let our messiness be visible for the sake of the Gospel.  This assumes that the light we have resides within us, which isn’t a bad assumption, but maybe, just maybe, there’s a little bit of both pumpkin carving and Kintsugi in our prayer.

Shining with the radiance of Christ’s glory, we are called to both reflect the grace of God by way of the glorious scarred wounds of our brokenness, even as we have to be willing to let the light of Christ shine through the cracks in our facade.  These cracks, sometimes self-inflicted by sin, sometimes brought upon us when the brokenness of the world breaks our hearts, are, as Owensby suggests so wonderfully, gifts for they make us more able to accept and extend grace to the people around us who are also cracked, scarred, and vulnerable.  Rather than trying to attain mirror status, my prayer this week is for the Holy Spirit to do some Kintsugi on my heart so that I can shine with the radiance of Christ’s glory.  I pray the same for you as well.

Speedy Delivery

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It isn’t just the holy Scriptures that are living and active, but truly every written text can be multivalent, carrying many different levels of meaning and open to various interpretations.  This came to mind this morning as I read the Collect appointed for Advent 3 and my mind was immediately taken to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood’s mailman, Mr. McFeely who’s catch phrase was “Speedy Delivery.”  In the prayer, sadly, the only “stir up” prayer we have left in our current Prayer Book, we that God’s abundant grace and mercy might “speedily help and deliver us.”

It is likely due to the fact that A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is in theaters now and that Mr. Rogers has been in the media spotlight of late that I heard this prayer in a new and different way, but I think that’s how God works through written texts.  As we read words, especially those that are familiar to us, with intentionality, God, through the Holy Spirit, is at work in our minds, causing synapses to fire, memories to be triggered, and new meaning to burst forth.  So it was this morning as the words I’ve read hundreds to times “speedily help and deliver us” made me think of Mr. McFeely and took me down a rabbit hole of what we mean when we ask God for deliverance.

My first stop was my trusty copy of the Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms.  That’s right, when they’re not holding internationally famous dog shows, the folks at Westminster are publishing dictionaries for nerds.  In it, the word deliverance is noted to have come to us from the Latin deliberare which means “to liberate.”  The deliverance we ask for in this prayer and hope for in our faith in Christ is liberation – freedom from our enslavement to sin.  It makes sense, then, that we would pray for such deliverance to come quickly.  Anyone who has taken honest stock of their lives will realize that the consequences of sin are what make life hard.  Broken relationships, dysfunctional systems, out of balance power dynamics, hurt, and sadness are just some of the things we pray would end “speedily” when we ask God for deliverance.

Next, I cracked open Marion Hatchett’s Commentary on the American Prayer Book, which expanded my understanding even further.  Hatchett notes that this phrase “speedily help and deliver” is a 1662 expansion of the original prayer from c. 750 AD.  By adding the word help, the revisers of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer made this an intentionally Advent-y prayer.  “… this prayer sets forth better than the others the themes of the two advents: the first in which [Christ] came in great humility, and the second in which He comes in power; the first in which He came to save (read, “deliver”), the second in which He comes to help and relieve.

So, a random synapse fire helped me learn some new things today and will deepen my prayer life going forward.  I hope it helps you too, dear reader.

Don’t Call Me a Prophet

One of the silly idioms that I’ve learned from my dad over the years is one that gets a lot more use that I would have expected.  I’m not sure where it came from, but when someone would ask my dad, “What should I call you?” he would respond, “Just don’t call me late for supper.”  Being a priest, ordained at 27, and serving in a denomination with an average age of about 8,000, I get this question a lot.  It comes from folks who don’t feel comfortable calling someone their grandson’s age “Father.”  It comes from people who didn’t grow up in a tradition that used any honorific other than “Reverend.”  It comes from inside and outside the church.  Over the years, I’ve borrowed and adapted a response from the late Right Reverend Mark Dyer who would say, “When I die and get to heaven, Jesus won’t call me Bishop (I say Father, which is even more true) and you don’t have to either,” but recently, I’ve found myself living deeply into my dadness and replying that I don’t really care what folks call me as long as they don’t call me late for supper.

There is one other title that I don’t really wish to carry, but it was bestowed upon me way back in my seminary days.  Advent 2 being all about the Prophets, I’ve been reminded of the deep cut my spiritual director, Kathleen Staudt, gave me after one session in which I expressed some of my deep concerns about how the Episcopal Church seemed to be headed into a deep quagmire of Moral Therapeutic Deism and self-preservation naval gazing.  She told me, with a straight face and no wiggle room, “Steve, I think you are called to be a prophet to the church.”  Allow me to revise my earlier dad joke.  Don’t call me late for supper or a prophet.  The life of those who are called to speak God’s truth to the systems of power are never easy.  These systems create intentional barriers to protect themselves from those who are willing to call them out.  People who say difficult things often find themselves on the outside looking in, if they’re not on the inside of some kind of prison cell longing to get out.

In the years since Dr. Staudt bestowed that moniker upon me, I’ve had the pleasure of working alongside a lot of great people who carry out the prophetic task with grace and dignity.  I’ve learned that while early John the Baptist might have liked the “You brood of vipers” imagery, the key to the prophetic word is creating space for it to be heard, and coming in hot isn’t always (or ever) the best way to make that happen.  The heavy handed approach often leads to one’s metaphorical and/or literal head on a platter.

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JBap’s message wasn’t well received

Rather, as the Collect for Advent 2 intimates, the call to repentance must always come with an idea about what salvation looks like.  Being a prophet isn’t just about carrying a big stick, but about casting a vision of the future that is built on hope, restoration, and renewal.  One can’t tell the full story of God’s redemption without a call to repentance, but if it ends at shame, guilt, and grief, the take of the prophet is only half done.  Like Isaiah, modern day prophets are called to share the good news of God’s ongoing work of planting and re-planting the root of Jesse so that one day, the Church that follows Jesus Christ might live fully into the vision of the wolf and lamb living together in harmony for the welfare and peace of the world.

Vestiges of Rite I

Yesterday marked the twelfth anniversary of my GOE scores and comments arriving by USPS.  I can still remember the power that silly day held over so many of us.  In the two years I studied at VTS before I took the General Ordination Exams, we were all but told to walk on egg shells around the seniors on GOE score day.  These Exams held our futures, and whether we passed or not could mean huge delays in the ordination process.  Of course, by the time January 2007 rolled around, several dioceses had started ordaining folks to the transitional diaconate in the fall semester of their senior year, thereby neutering the power of the GOEs for many.  As I am wont to do, I engaged in some of the anxiety around it all, after all, I wouldn’t be ordained a deacon until after I had successfully graduated from seminary, but I was also keenly away that the GOEs were wearing no clothes.

Rather than ramp up the anxiety machine by making the next generation of GOE takers scared to death to talk to me, I immediately blogged my scores, comments and all, because honestly, like any comprehensive professional certification exam, the whole thing is process of market manipulation and hazing, and ain’t nobody got time for that in the church.  Back in those days, scores were 1-5, with anything less than a 3 was considered a failing grade.  The Liturgy and Church Music question my year asked us to compare Eucharistic Prayer 2 from Enriching our Worship to Eucharistic Prayer I from Rite I in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.  I got a 3 and this was part of the comments, “The limited use of theological terminology inhibits the paper’s capacity to compare and contrast the two prayers.”  So, I guess I answered the question barely, which was enough to pass.

Anyway, my focus in that essay was the basic posture from which the prayer is made.  In EOW, the anthropology is quite high.  We come before God almost in our post-resurrection state.  In contrast, Rite I’s basic anthropology is our sinful wretchedness.  I used to think that EOW missed the boat and Rite I was way more accurate a read of humanity, but over time, I’ve started to realize that depending on they day, sometimes, we might need to be bolstered up in our belovedness rather than weighed down in our brokenness.  That being said, it is helpful to occasionally be reminded that God is God and we are not; that God is good, and by and large, we are not.  Which is why I’m grateful for the collect for Epiphany 6/Proper 1.  This prayer, which dates from the mid-eighth century, is quite clear in where humanity falls on the goodness meter.

O God, the strength of all who put their trust in you: Mercifully accept our prayers; and because in our weakness we can do nothing good without you, give us the help of your grace, that in keeping your commandments we may please you both in will and deed; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

As Marion Hatchett writes in his Commentary on the American Prayer Book,  “The collect reminds us that without the grace of God we can neither will nor do any good thing nor be pleasing to God.”  This certainly doesn’t jive with modern “I’m OK, you’re OK” theology, but let’s face it, that’s got to be ok.  If all we do is good, then there is no need for God.  It doesn’t take too long in the world today to recognize that everyone has fallen short of the glory of God, and that, as Dr. Cox would remind us:

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I’m grateful for the vestiges of Rite I, and for the occasional reminder that no matter how good I might think I am, I, like everyone else, am in need of a savior who can lead me into the goodness that God has planned for me.

Do you hear what I hear?

 

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One of the unintended consequences of “church on the floor” is the reality that I am now sitting four feet from the first person in the pews.  In our usual arrangement, I’m up half a flight of steps, through the choir, and a good forty or more feet from the pews.  As a result of this new experience, I find myself paying attention to the way in which our people are engaged in worship.  For example, during Deacon Kellie’s sermon yesterday, as her mic cut in and out, people were genuinely engaged in her preaching.  They were paying attention, actively listening, in order to hear the good word that she was offering, the Gospel she was proclaiming.

As much as we’d like to believe that our people are consistently engaged in worship on Sunday morning, the reality is, like it is everywhere else, there are moments in the liturgy when the congregation is somewhere else.  I’m not sure where they are: pondering brunch plans, stressed about money, planning the week ahead, or deep in prayer are all possibilities.  However, I am keenly aware of where our folks are during the reading of the lessons – they are in their bulletin, following along with the text that is set before them, and I’m not 100% convinced that is a good thing.

Our collect for Proper 28 is specifically focused on the role of Scripture in our lives.  (I’ve written a chapter on this collect in “Acts to Action,” which I hope you will read (you can buy at forwardmovement.com (and, full disclosure, for which, I do not receive any compensation))).  It highlights that Scriptures’ primary role in our lives is as a teaching tool, and that the primary way with which we are to engage the Bible is not through our eyes, but through our ears.

There is something unique that happens when we just listen.  Our brains receive the information in a different way than if we are following along, anticipating the next word that is printed before us.  When we listen to the text, we join with the majority of our illiterate siblings in Judeo-Christian history in receiving God’s great love story as it was originally told, out loud, as a tale passed down from one generation to another.  In listening, our imaginations go to work.  We can find ourselves inside the story.  We can hear it in our own unique way.  We may not hear what our neighbors’ hear, but we can hear what God has to say to us in that exact moment.

This Sunday, as we pray the collect for Proper 28, I hope that you’ll join me in putting down your bulletin and just listen.  Listen for the word that God has for you.

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.

Inwardly Digest

Life is a lot more hectic these days.  I feel like my schedule is not my own.  I try to plan for the unexpected, but it always lives up to its name.  It was about a year ago that I began the process of transitioning from being the First Associate Rector at Saint Paul’s in Foley to the 25th Rector of Christ Church, Bowling Green.  During that period of saying good-bye, pondering hello, and experiencing more change than I can recall in my life, people offered me a lot of advice.  Much of what they told me was wise.  Some of what I heard was ominous.  The most frightening thing someone told me in those two months was “good luck keeping up your blogging schedule.”

A year later, I am keenly aware that I have not kept up this blog with the rigor I once had, though I am proud of what I have accomplished this year.  Rather than four days a week, I’m probably averaging three.  It is a 25% reduction, which I lament, but it is better than a 50% or 100% drop.  Still, while some of you have noticed the infrequency, and especially the occasional week of silence, I assure you, no one feels my change in writing more than me.  For nearly 15 years now, I’ve been writing a blog about the Bible.  More than any other spiritual discipline, I have kept up the practice of reading and journaling the Scriptures.  Each year, on the week of Proper 28, I am reminded of the gift blogging has given me when we pray this collect.

Blessed Lord, who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning: Grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them, that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

This blog is, for me, an opportunity to inwardly digest the Scriptures.

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Each day, I take time to read the lessons appointed for Sunday.  As a word jumps out at me, I pay attention to or mark it.  I take that word to BibleWorks or Studylight.org or to one of my commentaries and try to learn more about it.  Finally, I turn my attention to how I might take what I’ve learned and inwardly digest it so that I can explain that understanding to someone else.  Honestly, I would write this blog if nobody else read it.  Though, if I’m honest, I do check my stats daily.  But it is in the action of taking what I’ve learned and turning it into words on a screen that I really begin to deepen my understanding of what God is saying through the Scriptures.

Blogging may not be for you.  Perhaps you don’t think people need to hear your thoughts on the Bible, or aren’t so conceited as to think you have some insight to offer.  Journaling privately might be your way into the Scriptures, but then again, maybe that isn’t for you either.  No matter how you do it, I hope this week, as you pray the Collect for Proper 28, you might take some time to consider how you will live it out by hearing, reading, marking, learning, and inwardly digesting the holy word of God.