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Johnny Cash and the Priesthood of All Believers

Johnny Cash and the Priesthood of All Believers
 
Hi friends, as many of you know, Lucy and I live in the seminary apartment building at Seminary of the Southwest in Austin, TX.  Our little apartment is cheap, easy to clean, and small, measuring a positively palatial floor plan of 400 square feet.  If I’m honest, I like it quite a lot.
 
There are two doors: the main door from the breezeway, and then a sliding glass door that leads out onto a balcony.  If there were no refrigerator or furniture, you could open both doors and throw a Frisbee from the breezeway in through the front door and then right out the balcony door into the courtyard behind.  When the weather is nice, we prop the front door open and let the wind move in and out as it pleases. Lucy and I go about our business reading or washing the dishes, while Zooby schemes against the squirrels travelling their powerline highways.
 
Now that it’s already in the nineties most of the day, early in the morning is about the only time we open the doors.  One of my favorite ways to pray is just to sit silently on our couch with the doors open, not doing anything but delighting in the presence of the breeze.  Sometimes I try to imagine that I’m a mountain with deep roots and that all my cares and preoccupations are just clouds drifting by, light and free.  I sit with coffee, silence, the occasional sound of a garbage truck as the city wakes up.  That is, of course, unless the Varsity Pizza Bar across the street has forgotten to turn off its outdoor radio.
 
Our apartment, small and well kempt as it is, is two blocks north of UT’s football stadium.  In addition to the live oaks and skyline, our neighborhood is home to a few bars, and, closest to us, the Varsity.  The Varsity has a good-sized patio area, and they play music out there for patrons.  They don’t always turn it off at closing, however, so every now and then, I have a morning like I did today: my coffee is poured, Zooby is dozing, the doors are open for the breeze, and just as I’m settling into the peaceful presence of God, I hear Johnny Cash lamenting that his daddy left when he was three and didn’t leave anything to ma and me, just this old guitar and an empty bottle of booze.
 
I like Johnny Cash.  I like “Boy Named Sue.”  But when my mind is soft with sleep and I’m trying to center myself for the day, I’d rather not hear how Some gal would giggle and I’d get red, and some guy’d laugh and I’d bust his head. 
 
When I sit down for quiet like that, I try to let thoughts and distractions just drift by.  But this morning, when I tried to imagine that I was a mountain, the voice of Jonny Cash came stomping across the top of my head like a giant in big black boots.  I started to fight the song, to push it out of my mind.  I’ve fought tougher men, but I really can’t remember when.  He kicked like a mule and he bit like a crocodile.
 
Even after the song ended and something else was playing, I could still hear the deep voice of the man in black in my head.  For whatever reason, Johnny Cash had all my attention.  I was no longer a mountain; I was a Texas dance hall.  My subconscious mind started mixing in lyrics and guitar licks from “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Man in Black.”  Before long I was imagining Joaquin Phoenix’s face from that movie about Johnny and June Carter, Walk the Line.  I remembered how Johnny Cash struggled with addiction, was in and out of rehab, divorced, constantly on the road working, and careful to keep up his outlaw musician image.
 
Addiction, divorce, over work, the constant anxiety of keeping up appearances.  Sounds an awful lot like the struggles of real people leading real lives. 
 
When I sat down to pray this morning, I had something I wanted from God: peace, rest, comfort.  What I got instead was the Holy Spirit: a country music song from the cigarette-strewn bar patio across the street, a reminder that the world is filled with people who hurt and who are hurting.  Folks for whom struggle is guaranteed while affection is not, those are the people we’re called to serve, neighbor and dark-eyed stranger alike.
 
And there was I, just wanting to be still. Prayer is funny like that.  Maybe the bar patio radio across the street wasn’t a distraction after all; maybe it was God’s way of changing what I was praying about today.
 
Like Johnny Cash, Episcopal priests usually wear black.  We’re up front during worship, and we usually have a microphone.  Ordained priests wear black as a symbol of the work we do and of the particular community we represent, but make no mistake: the whole community is called to the work of Jesus.  All baptized people serve as the priesthood of all believers.  So, you wear the black, too, only it doesn’t stand out as much in grocery stores.
 
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin' in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he's a victim of the times.

 
I wear the black for those who never read,
Or listened to the words that Jesus said,
About the road to happiness through love and charity,
Why, you'd think He's talking straight to you and me.

 
I don’t know what Johnny Cash believed about God, but these verses from “Man in Black” have their own rough holiness.  It’s worth asking: for whom do you wear the black?
 
God’s peace,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

Free Beer

Hi friends, Fr. Daniel here.  It’s good to be back.  I’ve enjoyed reading the reflections of my clergy colleagues in the Diocese of West Texas and in our geographical area.  I trust you have, too.  I’m glad to have them as friends and co-laborers.  I’m also grateful for the break from writing they’ve provided me, and for this chance to return to it!
 
I want to tell you about an experience I had a couple weeks ago.  Part of our custom at St. Liz is that when guests at St. Elizabeth fill out one of our connection cards, I take them a newcomer bag, a collection of small gifts (including a coffee cup!) assembled by one of our members.  I usually drop by folks’ homes right after church or on Monday afternoon the next day.  I don’t stay long, just give them our gift and say how glad we were to have them with us at worship.
 
A couple weeks ago, I drove to San Marcos to drop off a newcomer bag.  Their home was in a neighborhood I didn’t know, and I drove right past their house without realizing it at first.   I turned onto a side street a block or so away, and pulled into someone’s drive way to turn around.  I looked up, and in the carport right in front of me was a young couple sitting in lawn chairs, waving excitedly.  I hadn’t seen them beforehand and was surprised, but I smiled and waved back.  Then they shook their heads and smiled and started motioning for me to come closer and join them.
 
Something I should mention: when you wear a black clerical shirt everywhere, strangers excitedly motioning for you to join them doesn’t happen very often.  When folks react to the whole priest outfit, they usually do one of two things: make it a point to offer a very polite hello, or stare a bit and move away a little awkwardly.  Excitement isn’t a usual reaction.
 
They kept motioning for me to join them and then pointed into their front yard.  There was a big grey garbage can with the unmistakable tap of a keg sticking out.  Beside it was a hand-painted sign that said, “Free Beer.”
 
I rolled down my window.  “Are y’all really giving out free beer?”  They laughed and said, “Yes!  We got married this weekend, and it’s left over from our reception.  It’s still cold!”
 
Something else I should mention: there are good and faithful clergy who think it a little inappropriate to have an alcoholic beverage in public while in uniform.  I am not one of them.  I delivered the newcomer bag, had a short but pleasant visit, and then returned to the free beer carport.
 
The couple’s names were Lisa and Andrew.  They’re perhaps thirty years old, dated for a couple years before getting married, and each has lived in the area for a while.  We talked about how Buda and San Marcos and Kyle are all growing, about marriage and weddings and receptions, about how it’s more and more common for couples to delay a honeymoon for a few months like they’re doing, and about how good advice for husbands is “do more household chores than you want to or think you ought to.” 
 
They smiled the whole time.  They were relaxed, enjoying a couple days off together at home, and having fun waving down neighbors and passersby and wandering clergy to come have a free cup of beer.  Lisa was already a member of a church, and as I poured out the last swig of my cup of cold but slightly flat Dos Equis she said, “May the Lord continue to bless you and Ms. Lucy.”
 
“Thanks.  May He do the same for y’all.  Congratulations again.”
 
The whole visit lasted maybe thirty minutes, but it was a great time.  They were so happy and generous, like they couldn’t wait to host people at their home for the first time as husband and wife.  The free beer let them extend their wedding party and show off their being-married-ness a bit, welcoming neighbor and stranger alike into the celebration.
 
Driving back to Buda, I couldn’t help but think of the Wedding at Cana.  Jesus attends a wedding in the village, and when the wine runs out, Jesus’ mother approaches him.  After a rather rude initial response to his mom, Jesus performs his first sign: turning over a hundred gallons of water into the best wine yet tasted at the party (John 2:1-11). 
 
Like Lisa and Andrew’s carport, the celebration overflowed—there wasn’t just enough, there was an abundance, and that abundance was poured out for a whole community.  This was something special, a celebration.
 
My next thoughts were less comfortable.  For a lot of us, this isn’t what our relationship to alcohol is like.  For a lot of us, beer and wine aren’t markers of celebration in community, but instead are necessary ingredients in our sense of normalcy.  A glass of wine to take the edge off, a beer to calm our anxieties about this or that.  If we miss our drink after work, we get irritable.  If we have one beer, we always seem to have two or three more.
 
I’m no Puritan.  Many of us in the Episcopal Church have deliberately fled Christian traditions where alcohol is considered intrinsically sinful.  (Hopefully we left for better reasons that just that one!)  I think that view is hard to square with the Wedding of Cana.  However, that view takes seriously the fact that alcohol can quite subtly slide from being a treat to mark celebration and community to a socially acceptable anodyne for whatever anxiety, grief, or boredom we’d prefer to keep below the surface.
 
I’m no expert, and I’m not trying to parse the line between what is healthy and what is self-medicating or is symptomatic of dependence.  I’m simply reminding us that the line exists, and that alcohol can’t bear the weight of the responsibility we sometimes unknowingly place on it. 
 
Let’s free beer and wine and the rest from the burden of doing work it can’t do.  It goes better with a lawn chair and some new friends in the carport.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

Easter Season Guest Author Series: the Rev. Zac Koons on Mark 16:8

“So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”
 
Curtain. Black.

You’ve got to be kidding me, Mark.
 
Seriously? That’s it?! IT’S OVER?!! DON’T DO THIS TO ME, MARK!
 
It’s like the movie that when the black screen hits and the credits roll your jaw drops, your eyes stop blinking, and you have to catch your breath because, well, there’s no way it’s over, right? There’s so much unresolved tension. So many unanswered questions. Am I going to have to wait years now to see the sequel to Infinity War??
 
The other gospels end with scenes of resurrection bliss: with a theological frolicking in fields, with segue tours on rainbow roads lined with puppies. All is well. All is tidy. All is sparkling in resurrection splendor.
 
But in Mark we get none of that. Here we get terror and amazement. We get panic. We get running away. We get questions instead of answers and fear instead of promise. Why?
 
Why? Because St. Mark is a freaking genius.
 
Let me explain.
 
Imagine if Mark was the only Gospel you had. Imagine that you’ve been reading through the Gospel. You binge-read it. The very first verse—“The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”—is like lighting the wick at the end of a firecracker.  You were stunned by his miracles of healing and feeding. Compelled by his teaching in parables. Amazed by his radical commitment to befriending the poor. You were refreshed by the way he called out the hypocrisy of the religious leaders. You were confused by his claims to be the Messiah but given everything else you began to wonder whether or not he really was. You began to wonder whether or not you were going to have to do something about it yourself. And just then everything falls apart. He’s killed. And just when you thought everything was going to be different everything turns out to be just the exact same.
 
But the grave is empty. And before you can even fully swallow that reality, the Gospel ends. It just ENDS in stubborn ambiguity. Maybe the body was stolen. Maybe it was misplaced. Maybe the tomb was laced with an hallucinogenic mist. Maybe, just maybe, he was raised from the dead.
 
But the key, the genius, is that Mark doesn’t decide for us. He introduces a crisis that must be acted on, and then leaves no one behind to act on it. Which means at the end of the story, it’s YOU AND ME who are left, jaw dropped, eyes wide, desperate to catch our breath, on the outside of this empty tomb. We must be the ones to act. The women run out into the night, seized by “terror and amazement”—again, ambiguous—and they leave us standing there, seized ourselves by Mark’s rhetorical mastery. It’s like we’ve been tricked, abandoned in the bistro just when the check has come. Whatever we do is a decision: paying, running, even doing nothing is still a reaction to this crisis. The resurrection of Christ may be the most important thing that’s ever happened in the history of the world, but if it is, precisely because it is, Mark refuses to make the decision for us. He’s led us up to the finish line, but we have to cross it ourselves. With the final stroke of Mark’s pen, we’re left as the only characters in the world’s most important story.
 
So what are you going to do now?
 
See?
 
Genius.   
 
The Rev. Zac Koons currently serves as associate rector at St. Richard’s Episcopal Church in Round Rock, TX.  However, Zac has recently been called as the next rector of St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Austin, TX.  Zac’s first Sunday as rector of St. Mark’s will be Sunday, July 15th, 2018.
 

Easter Season Guest Author Series: the Rev. Alex Easley on Mark 16:7

“But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.”
 
I have an Australian Shepherd named Francis. Francis sort of resembles a Muppet; he is a little silly looking and irresistibly cute. He is an excellent companion, especially if you enjoy snuggling on the couch. Francis is always happy to lounge and laze. But if you want him to get up and get moving, you just have to say the magic word: “Vamos!”
 
Vamos in Spanish means, “Let’s go!” Growing up in South Texas, a few Spanish words naturally worked their way into my vocabulary. As kids, when my Mom wanted my sisters and me to hurry up and get out the door for school or church, she would shout, “Vamos!”
 
Now I say the same to my dog Francis. When I say, “Vamos, Francis,” he jumps into the air like he’s received an electric shock. Tail wagging, trembling with excitement, he runs to the door. He knows that “Vamos” means that he gets to go on an adventure, like go for a walk or for a ride in the car. And his whole furry little body seems to say in return, “Let’s do it! Let’s go!”
 
In the Easter season, we celebrate and contemplate the ways that the Risen Christ made himself known to his disciples after his resurrection and continues to make himself known to us today. All four Gospel accounts of the resurrection share a common theme: when Jesus’s disciples discover the mysteriously empty tomb, they are told to go. In Matthew, the angel tells Mary Magdalene, “Go quickly,” and when Jesus meets her on the road, he, too, says to her, “Go” (Mt 28:7,10). In John, the Risen Lord tells Mary, “Do not hold on to me, but go” (Jn 20:17). In Luke, Jesus first appears to disciples who are indeed already on the go; he walks and talks with two disciples who are going to Emmaus (Lk 24:13-35). And finally, in Mark 16:7, the angel tells the women at the empty tomb, “But go…and there you will see him.”    
 
What the Risen Christ said to his first disciples, he says to us: “Go! Vamos!” Go tell people about me. Go proclaim forgiveness. Go show grace. Go make friends. Go serve your neighbor and your enemy. Go on an adventure and find my Spirit at work in new places. Go!
 
The Resurrection is an urgent matter. When we witness that resurrection, when we get a glimpse of the risen Christ, it wakes us from our torpor and timidity. Resurrection animates us the same way that Francis is exhilarated by the prospect of a new adventure. If we listen, we can hear Christ saying to you and to me, “Vamos! Let’s go.”
 
Alex is the rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Seguin, TX.
 

Easter Season Guest Author Series: the Rev. Brian Tarver on Mark 16:6

“But he said to them, ‘Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him.”

Cannons blast with pastel colored confetti. Trumpets sound in victorious cheer. Lilies erupt into bloom. The heavenly chorus sings Alleluia in resounding joy. Finally, the Easter declaration resolves the melody. “He has been raised; he is not here.” The long expected finale to what seemed a bummer of a story. But is it?

Don’t be mad, but…

Whether a friend begins with this phrase instead of a greeting or these words come from a toddler with paint covered hands, you brace yourself for what is to follow. Often what comes next will most likely cause anger, or they would not have started their sentence in that way. This phrase serves as a precursor for something unpleasant. We know to brace ourselves when someone begins by telling us not to be mad.

Do not be alarmed…

What follows will definitely cause alarm. Throughout scripture, heavenly beings begin with a greeting encouraging humans not to be afraid. This greeting is typically followed by something that definitely causes alarm or fear. This phrase serves a precursor for God upending the norm. Earlier, in chapter six of Mark, a synagogue leader begs Jesus to heal his daughter. Others distract Jesus on his way to accomplish this task. Some people approach the synagogue leader, informing him of the terrible news that his daughter has died. Jesus overhears this conversation and interrupts, saying, “Do not fear, only believe.” Jesus finds the leader’s daughter and raises her to life again.

These words do more than indicate something difficult lies ahead; they signify that God is at work. This phrase voices the offer of comfort for what will come. We know that God is doing something incredible and that God asks for trust when we hear “Do not fear” or “Do not be afraid” or “Do not be alarmed” in Scripture.

Do not be alarmed, for God is with you.

The young man in the white robe announces the Easter proclamation. This is not the resolution but a beginning. This greeting indicates that God will upend in the norm. The Easter proclamation leaves us more in suspense than in resolution. He has been raised. This will cause alarm, but trust that God is at work. Do not fear, only believe.

The celebration of Christ’s resurrection unfolds so quickly in the church. We spend an entire week contemplating the events leading up to Christ’s death, but the emotions of the empty tomb are a blur. There is little time to reflect on the uncertainty and suspense in seeing the place where they laid him empty. It is like the slow expectation of a roller coaster clicking its way up the first incline and the whirlwind of the downslope. At the turning point, the heavenly call away from fear turns us toward renewed hope. It is a gift for those places in our lives that feel unresolved.

Do not be alarmed. He has been raised.

A boy watched as the older kids celebrated. It was his older brother’s birthday party. The younger brother watched as all the invited guests gathered around the cake. As everyone prepared to sing an off key rendition of the birthday song, the father slid over to the small boy. He knew something that the rest of the party did not. While everyone had been in the other room, the father had exchanged the candles on the chocolate cake with trick candles. No one else knew that the magnesium flakes in the wick would reignite the flame. Making a wish, the older brother filled his lungs with as much air as possible. Just as he released his deep breath, the father leaned over to the younger brother, and said, “Watch this…”

 

Brian is the rector of St. Philip’s Episcopal Church and School in Beeville, TX.

Easter Season Guest Author Series: the Rev. Bert Baetz on Mark 16:5

“As [the women] entered the tomb, they saw a young man, dressed in a white robe, sitting on the right side; and they were alarmed.”                                                                                - Mark 16:5
 
Following the Maundy Thursday service, a woman who has spent her entire life in our church said to me, "I have never noticed the altar looking like it did tonight.  With everything gone, it looked like a tomb." 
 
Every year, with the stripping of the altar on Maundy Thursday, we ritualize the words Jesus spoke from the cross: my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?  It is on the Thursday in Holy Week when we celebrate the Eucharist for the last time in the season of Lent, and we then remove all the vessels, hangings, worship books, candles, the consecrated elements, and everything else that feeds our deepest spiritual hunger.  That night, when all had been stripped away and all the living sacrifices had been taken out of the sanctuary, our limestone slab of an altar and the large rough rock on which it rests looked like a tomb, no doubt. 
 
Three days later, on Easter Day, the sanctuary had a completely different look and feel to it.  That morning, the children in our parish had flowered the cross inside the sanctuary, and so at the appointed time for their sermon, I invited the children to come forward and peer into the sanctuary.  They could see the flowered cross, the Easter lilies, and the living bodies dressed in white robes.  Coupled with the Easter story from the gospel of Mark, we could still see the large stone in our sanctuary, but in that spiritual territory, the stone had been rolled away, and we discovered life.
 
In the final verses of Mark's gospel, the stone clearly assumes great significance in the story; it represents something to everybody involved and invested in the outcome of this story.  In an Easter Day sermon, the Rev. Dr. Sam Wells brought this to light for me in just how strong of a symbol the stone can be in the story.  We can imagine that stone, he says, through the eyes of the different participants in the Easter story.  [1]
 
Interestingly, on their way to the tomb, the women were concerned about one thing in particular, the stone.  The women had been saying to one another, "Who will roll away the stone for us?"  The stone was that inanimate, but seemingly immovable object that kept them in the past; the stone only represented the memory of the dream that had died.
 
The stone represented something else to the Roman and Judean authorities; it was the immovable object that seemed to demonstrate their power and control in that present moment.  For those authorities, the stone seemed to suggest that things were going to stay the same. 
 
And yet, because the stone had been rolled away, we can be sure that everything about the past, present, and future has changed.  In his sermon, Sam Wells says, "For Jesus, the stone represented the future.  It was the symbol that nothing can separate the Father from him or him from us."
 
We have our own stones, and we might ask the same question as the women: who will roll away this stone?  It is that large and seemingly immovable object between us and God.  Who will roll away this stone?  And then, on Easter Day, with the women, we discover the Truth; the stone has been rolled away and nothing will separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.  We enter that space where we come to know the future with Christ raised from the dead.
 
On Easter Day at St. Peter's, I watched the children enter the sanctuary and flower the cross.  They entered that space so freely; it was not unlike the first Easter when the women so freely entered the tomb to find a young man, dressed in a white robe.  In my white vestments, surrounded by lilies and children, I sat on the small wooden step-stool inside the sanctuary, told the story, and shared in the good news of Easter.  Alleluia.  Christ is risen.  The Lord is risen indeed.  Alleluia.
 
Bert is the rector of St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Kerrville, TX.

[1] http://chapel-archives.oit.duke.edu/documents/April24TheRollingStones.pdf
 
 
[1] http://chapel-archives.oit.duke.edu/documents/April24TheRollingStones.pdf

Easter Season Guest Author Series: the Rev. Madeline Shelton Hawley on Mark 16:4

“But when they looked up, they saw that the stone, which was very large, had been rolled away.”
 
It’s not often that we come face to face with boulders blocking our path.  But maybe you’re more of a hiker than I am!  More often than not, I find what blocks my path these days is an internal struggle. It’s the resentment I can’t seem to shift, the jealousy I can’t move beyond, the self-doubt that stops me from moving forward.  These existential boulders feel all the more weighty and substantial for being so intangible!  I often crave something concrete and physical to grapple with.  Then I might be able to push my shoulder into it and give into the illusion that I might have some control.  But these internal boulders are the kind that I have to ask God to help me shift through prayer. Simply put they’re unmanageable on my own.
 
A few years ago I found that I was stymied by a large boulder in my way. I had been trying to move around it for several years with no success. I couldn’t move forward. You see, I used to be an artist. I painted, I doodled, I made sculpture, I sewed. Making things was a part of my life. But a big old creative block sat in the midst of my path, and I couldn’t even budge it. I stopped painting. I stopped making sculpture. I stopped making pottery. I spent creative energy on writing sermons instead of on art. And the internal boulder began to become more and more substantial. The more I ignored it, the more I realized I couldn’t shift it myself.
 
So I began to ask God to help roll away that creative block. It started small, journals and prayers for clarity and vision.  I began to ask God to help me nurture others’ creativity. I began to believe that God wanted my art to bring beauty into the world. Even if it was only my little corner of the world.  The first paintings and doodles became precious, and even more precious was the process that let me engage again with art. When the stone that blocks the flow of new life is rolled away, it’s like letting out a breath you didn’t realize you were holding. It’s a moment of relief and moving forward. The thing that stood in your way has been pushed aside. God has made possible what before was impossible.
 
I wonder what stone in your own life you need God’s help to move? Where is new Easter life seeking to burst out and make you feel God’s love?
 
God is waiting. Waiting to bring new life and new promise to your soul.
 
Faithfully yours,
 
The Rev. Madeline Shelton Hawley
 
Maddie is the rector of St. Christopher’s Episcopal Church in south Austin, TX.
 

Easter Season Guest Author Series: the Rev. Mike Woods on Mark 16:3

“They had been saying to one another, ‘Who will roll away the stone for us from the entrance to the tomb?’”
 
Have you ever noticed how, when you’re typing, if you get your fingers just one key off, everything becomes distorted?  This usually happens in the dark, but has been known to happen with the lights on as well.  If I set my left pointer finger on the “d” instead of the “f” (thank you 5th grade typing class), even though the action of typing feels normal, everything comes out wrong.  One millimeter difference changes  “hello there” to “gwkki rgwew.”
 
But, with the tiniest little shift of our fingers, suddenly everything makes sense, things become clear.
 
I was sitting in a staff meeting a few weeks back and one of my co-workers was sharing his story of how he ended up working at St. Mark’s.  As many young people do, this young man had been wondering about what he was supposed to do with his life.  He had spent the past year thinking and praying about what direction his life would take.  In the meantime, he got a job cleaning floors and bathrooms at our church.  Just an ordinary job, he would say, but something to get him out of his normal routine while he figured out what was next.  He explained how there was a particular day at work when he was busy mopping the parish hall floor that God spoke to him.  He said there wasn’t anything special about this day above any other day, and the task wasn’t any different than what was part of his normal routine.  He was mopping floors and God spoke.  He said it was as clear to him as anything else had ever been that he was supposed to go back to school to become an engineer.  He said he knew in the moment that through this ordinary job, he found what he was supposed to do.   An ordinary job with extraordinary results, I would say.
 
His story reminded me of a story of my own.  During college, I would often take a day or two out of the month for myself for a quiet retreat. I would use this time to get away from the noise of school and the busy-ness of life. Getting back to nature, maybe my own nature, as it were, was where I found myself soaring instead of being stifled. I would usually end up at Enchanted Rock State Park with my tent in hand, hiking shoes on my feet, all the while looking for a change of rhythm.  I felt like being close to the earth, the “outdoors”, would do me some good.  My routine was the same each time I went.  I would get my gear out and set up my campsite.  Then, I would head up to the top of the large granite dome either from a boulder crack on the side of the dome or just trek up the main trail on the front side of the dome.  Once at the top, I would find a quiet spot to sit so I could look out over the view and get lost in my thoughts.
 
A couple of friends of mine knew I took these trips and had been bugging me to go on one with me. So, in the midst of my own personal grumblings, I took them on my next trip. My two friends and I arrived at the park and unloaded our gear.  We set up camp and then headed to the trail to get to the top of the dome.  I asked them if they wanted to try something a bit more challenging by going up the boulder crack to the top and they both agreed it sounded fun and interesting.  For the next two hours I coached, encouraged, laughed, learned, and journeyed with my two friends up the side of this huge granite dome.  It was a journey of joy and clarity for me. I learned how in adjusting my own expectations and desires, that old journeys can be made new, can become life-giving.
 
As I sat with this phrase from the Gospel passage where the women worry over who will do this “thing,” this rolling of the stone, I wondered if their hearts were set on doing what was normal to them, what was routine, or just what needed to get done even in the midst of deep sorrow and despair. They were doing their ordinary duty as faithful followers of their leader and custom. Maybe it had been something they had done a hundred times before.  They knew the routine and they knew what to expect.  What they didn’t expect was to be surprised by God - not if they were worried about rolling away a rock.  I’m not saying the women’s perspective was wrong, but I find it interesting how often their thoughts or my thoughts settle on mundane, practical, logistical things instead of divine things. I am quick to get caught up in my own daily-ness and routine, or my own expectations and desires that I sometimes forget to be able to be surprised by God. Isn’t this our Eastertide calling?  To be surprised by new life?
 
If you’re in a place where your life feels “off” or where life doesn’t feel particularly incredible, maybe you don’t need a whole new life. Maybe you just need a millimeter adjustment, a tiny new perspective. And when you sit in that place, maybe everything will look different. God shows up in the ordinary and mundane.  God shows up in our daily-ness and routine.  God shows up in our grumbling and in our deepest sorrow and despair.  God can’t help but show up.  Sometimes we just need to shift our fingers over a bit to see it.
 
Mike is the Assistant to the Rector at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in San Marcos, TX.
 

Easter Season Guest Author Series: the Rev. Dr. Travis Helms on Mark 16:2

“And very early on the first day of the week, when the sun had risen, they went to the tomb.”
 
Greetings, Friends — “Grace and peace from God our Father, the Lord Jesus Christ,” and your friends at St. Matthew’s, Austin! When Fr. Daniel graciously invited me to reflect on a passage from the Gospel of Mark, I felt humbled and excited. However, I then realized the invitation was to reflect on a single verse of scripture, which truly is humbling in its difficulty — and also tremendously exciting in potential. Like a little prism you can spin in the sun, the more you contemplate a single verse of Scripture, the more you spin it and spin it, the more it flings and rainbows out its light — its insight that then can soak into our lives (Rabbi Ben Bag-Bag said of Torah, in the 1st or 2nd century, “Turn it, and turn it, for everything is in it!”). Let’s spin this verse of Scripture, then.
 
The first thing to notice about this particular verse is the time of day. It is early — very early. The sun has just risen; and this fact, I suppose, is the central focus or main emphasis. Those who go to anoint Jesus do so as soon as possible. Even though the task they face bears with it an almost unimaginable burden of grief, they get up early. They cannot help but do so. They know this is the needful thing to do; and they go, as early as they can.
 
Many mornings I have risen early, as I imagine you have. The reasons that typically compel me to consciousness “when the sun had risen”: fishing, traveling, finishing a sermon. Sometimes (as in the first two cases) it is excitement that wakes me. Sometimes, as in the latter, it is worry. Little needlings of anxiety begin prickling in the early a.m., and intensify, until finally I rise to face the task at hand. Would it not have to have been fear — fear mixed, perhaps, with love for their Lord — that drew those women so early to the tomb? Fear mingled with love then.
 
Fear is the feeling — biologically and spiritually — that tells us to pay attention. Uncomfortable, even paralyzing as fear can be, it is often an indicator that a moment of consequence is at hand. Fear is an indication that something important is approaching — and in this sense, it is also an invitation — an opportunity to be transformed.
 
We are arriving at the heart of Mark’s meaning here. I think that the immediacy of the women’s action is meant to show us that, whenever we are faced with uncertainty and fear, our only choice is to go and face it. I think Mark is inviting us to look at the places in our lives that might feel like tombs (our jobs, our homes, our schools, our public square?), and “go there” — pay attention to them — and believe that in those places we may encounter Resurrection.
 
This invitation reminds me of a parable of the medieval mystic Julian of Norwich. An anchoress, Julian lived in a small cell that was constructed into the walls of a church in eastern England. She had a series of visions, which she called ‘shewings,’ and collected as Revelations of Divine Love. Here is a portion of Chapter 51:
 
               Our gracious Lord answered in showing very mysteriously a wonderful illustration
of a lord who has a servant …
 
               The lord sits solemnly in repose and in peace, the servant stands near, before his
lord reverently, ready to do his will. The lord looks upon his servant most lovingly
and sweetly, and humbly he sends him to a certain place to do his will.
 
               The servant not only goes, but he suddenly leaps up and runs in great haste because
of his love to do his lord’s will. And immediately he falls into a deep pit and receives very great injury. Then he groans and moans and wails and writhes, but he cannot rise up nor help himself in any way.
 
               In all this, the greatest misfortune that I saw him in was the lack of reassurance, for
he could not turn his face to look back upon his loving lord (who was very near to him and in whom there is complete comfort), but like a man who was feeble and witless for the moment, he was intent on his suffering, and waited in woe …
 
               … I watched deliberately to see if I could discover any failure in him, or if the lord             would allot him any blame, and truly there was none seen — for only his good will
and his great desire were the cause of his falling …
 
               And in the same way his loving lord constantly watched him most tenderly …
 
The servant in Julian’s parable, like the women in Mark’s narrative, runs forth with a desire to serve his lord. He falls, as we all do. Bruised and battered, he lies discouraged in the ditch — and worries his Lord will be displeased. But the Lord is pleased, and even rejoices in the fact that he has run so boldly. Jesus echoes this teaching in many of his own parables (such as the Parable of the Talents). We are to take risks, to do the best we can with what we have — with love, desire to serve our lord, as our guiding drive.
 
There is something mysterious, even mystical, about the early morning. It feels as if its mists are pregnant with possibility. This is the magic for us as readers; we who know the story, know what these women, when they reach the tomb, will find … nothing — empty space … and yet in that nothing, everything. The tomb becomes a womb; and creation begins to be reborn again. May we have the grace to see what God is birthing, and resurrecting, in us this Season — and the courage to run and serve, as quickly as we can.
 
Travis is the Curate and Family & Youth Pastor at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Austin, TX. 
 
 
 
 

Easter Season Guest Author Series

Hi friends, Easter is this Sunday!  Allel—oh, sorry, I got excited. It’s not quite time for that yet…but almost!

We usually make two mistakes with Easter Season.  First is that we sometimes start to celebrate Easter too soon—Easter Egg hunts on Holy Saturday, for example.  It’s important to wait: Lent is still Lent. Holy Week is about the way of the cross, Jesus’ last supper with his friends, the foot washing, his death and being laid in the tomb.  The story loses some of its power when we skip straight to the last chapter.

The second mistake is that we sometimes don’t celebrate Easter long enough: Easter Season is a full fifty days, all the way until Pentecost on May 20th!  Think about it: Lent is about fasting and repentance and mortality, and it’s forty days long.  Easter is about new life and resurrection and forgiveness of sins and rejoicing—so it’s a full ten days longer!  Easter isn’t just one day; it’s a whole season.  If you took on a Lenten discipline, maybe take on an Easter one, too—only let your Easter ‘discipline’ be fun.  Go to a movie with your spouse every week.  Learn to two-step. Make fancy desserts. Adopt that puppy you’ve been wanting to adopt for six months.  Die your hair pink. You get the idea. Fasting and repentance are practices of Lent. Celebration and refreshment are practices of Easter.

Part of my practice for Easter, and part of ours as a church, will be a seasonal change to our newsletter.  Many of you know that I write an article like this every week. This practice is a joy and source of learning for me, and I hope it’s thought-provoking for you as well in some small way.  For Easter Season, I’ve invited seven guest authors, one for each week, to write instead. Each is a priest, each is a friend and colleague of mine, and each serves a church either in the Diocese of West Texas or in Austin.

Our Gospel passage for Easter Sunday will be Mark 16:1-8.  This will be our newsletter theme for Easter Season. It’ll work like this: I’ll focus on Mark 16:1 in my Easter sermon.  Each week after that, a guest author will focus on one of the other verses. Mark 16:2 the week following Easter, Mark 16:3 the next, and so on until Pentecost.  Not only will this give us a chance to hear from (and celebrate!) some talented clergy in our area, but it will also give me a little end of year refreshment in the form of a break from writing for a few weeks.

I look forward to hearing from them.  I hope you do, too.

God’s Peace,

Fr. Daniel+

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