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Hi friends, on Sunday we begin our Advent observance. (Don’t forget: we’re making Advent wreaths after worship this Sunday!) We’ll put our Advent wreath up in the church, our altar hangings will change to blue, and we’ll begin a new year in our Sunday morning lectionary. This Advent, we begin reading Luke’s Gospel. I want to draw our attention to something I noticed recently about how Luke tells the story.
A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to go on a preaching retreat with Bishop Jennifer and some clergy colleagues at Mustang Island on the coast. Forty-eight hours of stillness and the sea, reading Luke’s Gospel and feeling for the deep currents of the Word in preparation for Advent and our new lectionary year. One morning I sat down and read the first few chapters of Luke, and I was struck by just how much activity there is before Jesus is even born (let alone before he starts ministering to people). Angels dropping to earth, rumors spreading, women getting pregnant, men losing the ability to speak, folks travelling. The whole Advent experience in Luke’s Gospel has the feel of a wave swelling towards shore.
If you’ve never done it, try sitting down with your bible and reading the Gospel of Luke up until Jesus’ birth. We’re told that Jesus is born in Luke 2:6-7, so it’s not much more than one chapter until we come to it. But there’s an incredibly busy eighty-five verses before Jesus is born. Here’s a breakdown:
An angel visits Zechariah in the Temple of Jerusalem, foretelling the birth of John the Baptist despite Zechariah’s and Elizabeth’s barrenness (1:8-20); the folks outside the Temple realize Zechariah has seen a vision (1:22); and Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth conceives but remained in seclusion for months because of all the hubbub (1:24)—and all that’s just in Jerusalem! Word is beginning to spread about something strange and perhaps miraculous, and it’s spreading from the Temple and into Zechariah’s family.
Meanwhile, seventy miles to the north, Gabriel has gone to Nazareth and told a young woman named Mary that she will bear a son named Jesus who will be called “Son of the Most High” (1:31). This same angel tells her that her elderly cousin Elizabeth has also miraculously conceived a child (1:36), so Mary travels the seventy miles, likely on foot, from Nazareth to the Judean hill country to visit her cousin (1:39).
As soon as Mary and Elizabeth greet each other, Elizabeth’s unborn child leaps in her womb (1:41), Mary bursts into song (1:46-55), and they hang out together for three months (1:56). If there’s never been a movie about these two pregnant cousins’ three months together, that’s a missed opportunity. Sisterhood of the Traveling Miraculous Maternity Pants.
John the Baptist is born, everybody is pumped because they thought Elizabeth and Zechariah couldn’t have kids, and everyone is confused why they don’t name him after his dad (1:57-59). John is circumcised, his dad regains the ability to speak, and then he bursts into song like Mary did (1:59-79) because apparently, Luke’s Gospel is a musical.
That’s in Jerusalem and Galilee, but there’s activity in the bigger historical backdrop of the Roman Empire, too. Emperor Augustus decrees that a census be taken, so Joseph has to leave Nazareth with his suspiciously pregnant fiancée and travel south again, this time to his hometown of Bethlehem (2:1-5).
Can you feel all the activity brewing beneath the surface of the narrative? The tension? The rising of this long-expected tide? Angelic visitations in both the Temple and in small-town Galilee two or three days’ walk north of there. Children of miraculous origin swelling from nonexistence into their mothers’ wombs. An older woman and a younger woman, both scandalously pregnant, brought together by a shared mystery. Zechariah falling mute, then singing. Even the vast political bulk of the Roman Empire seems to tip and tilt a little with unseen impact.
When we read the opening of Luke’s Gospel, those first eighty-five or so verses, we can feel something beneath the surface begin to stir. There’s a swelling in the plot, and like the unborn John the Baptist in his mother’s womb, our souls rise to meet it. It’s as though we’re standing on the shore, feet buried in the sand, looking expectantly out to sea. We watch as a wave grows in the distance, the slow tide of history rising in response to heaven’s unseen gravity. It’s still far off, just a ripple on the horizon now, but it’s there, a turning in the deep unsettling the surface.
Our Gospel passage for this Sunday includes this: “There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves” (Luke 21:25).
The roaring of the sea and the waves. Will we be there when the wave breaks? Perhaps God will speak to us out of the roar of the gale. Perhaps the sea will reach forth her foam-white hands and wash our feet. Who knows?
Welcome, friends, to Advent, this wide expectant shore.
Hi friends, we’ve witnessed more mass shootings in our country this past month. The two deadliest and most widely known were the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting in Pittsburg on October 27th and the Thousand Oaks shooting at the Borderline Bar in California on November 7th. These alone are enough to make one weep. I was further distressed to learn, however, that the Thousand Oaks shooting was not the second mass shooting since Tree of Life, but the twelfth.
The Gun Violence Archive defines a ‘mass shooting’ as a shooting in which at least four people were shot. (It’s one of the sources used here.) This means that ninety people were shot in mass shootings in the United States from October 27th to November 7th. Thirty-four of them died.
Let’s be clear: that’s not ninety people shot in the United States; that’s ninety people shot in mass shootings. In twelve days.
The damage this does to the communities in which the events occurred is, I think, obvious. Today I want to reflect on the less obvious impact it has on those of us who watch from afar. We live in an environment in which the sheer frequency of mass shootings does emotional and spiritual harm, even to those of us who are not directly impacted by the violence.
First, emotional harm. I want to be clear: when I use the word ‘harm,’ I’m not talking about how we feel sadness or anger or other negative emotions in the wake of a mass shooting. It is a sign of emotional health to feel sadness in the midst of suffering, or anger when we hear of a murder. What I mean by emotional harm is rather the damage done to our emotional faculties to empathize, to mourn, to lament. Simply put, when mass shootings happen so often, we become numb. We stop feeling them.
I’ve heard this phenomenon referred to as compassion fatigue. I think that’s a helpful way of thinking about it. We are, by definition, limited creatures. We must sleep, we must eat, we must breathe, we cannot work 24-hours a day. Likewise, we simply cannot feel compassion for every instance of human suffering we encounter on the news. It is increasingly the case that mass shootings tick by on the news in a series of statistics like the ones with which I began. Ninety shot. Twelve shootings. Eleven dead here, twelve dead there. This environment can exhaust the compassionate heart until it’s simply too tired to feel anything. One has compassion for a person; one cannot have compassion for a statistics.
I am not suggesting that each episode of suffering we encounter on the news should cause us to move with tectonic compassion. We would be paralyzed if it did. But if you do find yourself feeling detached from it all and feel moved to connect more deeply, here are the faces of the eleven people killed at Tree of Life. Here are the faces of the twelve people killed at the Borderline Bar. They have faces and stories, like you we do. Like Jesus does.
Or, perhaps you need to take a break from the news for a bit. That’s okay, too. Compassion fatigue is real. Just be sure it’s compassion fatigue you’re addressing and not simply a desire to avoid something painful.
Now, the spiritual harm is a bit less obvious. The regular occurrence of mass shootings convinces us that they are inevitable and that we are powerless to stop them. We see them alongside wildfires and hurricanes, which also seem to happen frequently, and so we begin to think of mass shootings as tragic inevitabilities.
This subtle shift of belief is spiritually damaging because it is not true. To speak of human actions as inevitable is to abdicate our role within God’s creation: we are beings who choose, who make objects of terrible power, who elect leaders, who pass laws and who break them. We are beings for whom mental illness is a possibility, for whom social media is a constant, and for whom free will is a great responsibility.
We are beings who tell stories. If we are not careful, the regularity of mass shootings may convince us that the only true story we can tell is one in which mass shootings are simply a tragic fact of being American in the way that flooding is a tragic fact of living in Texas or a tornado may be a tragic fact of living in Alabama.
But a mass shooting and a tornado are not the same thing. An active shooter drill and a tornado drill do not have the same moral weight. God made a world in which tornados are possible; we made a world in which mass shootings are common.
I believe in the power of thoughts and prayers. They matter, as I’ve written about elsewhere, and I believe that we are perpetuating a false story when we disparage their power. However, when it comes to mass shootings, it is simply true that thoughts and prayers do not represent our full power to respond. I am not claiming to have a solution. An American solution to this uniquely American evil will likely take more than one generation to emerge and establish a new normal.
For those of us who are adults right now in the midst of all this, repentance is a good place to start: we are Americans, and this is our societal evil. We don’t get to pass the buck. It may be that our kids or our grandkids are the ones who actually cross the Jordan into a land where mass shootings don’t happen. Or a land where they are at least so rare that we can remember all of them. In case you’ve forgotten, there were twelve between October 27th and Wednesday of last week.
Again, what is spiritually damaging in a country where mass shootings are so common is the slow, creeping belief that they are inevitable or that they are the price we pray for freedom. These are both lies. It is not clear what kind of freedom one enjoys if he survives a mass shooting in Las Vegas only to die in another a year later.
To see the choices, laws or culture of a human society as forces beyond human power to change is, for Christian people, a subtle form of idolatry. It’s subtle because it’s not as though we just decide one day to categorize mass shootings alongside natural disasters. We learn it, from each other and from the media and from public figures, slowly, over time. It’s a practice, a habit of speaking we develop and eventually come to believe. But remember: God’s decisions for human history and culture are irrevocable; ours are not. Idolatry is the word we use when we’ve lost that distinction.
Hi friends, Lucy’s and my eighth wedding anniversary was on October 9th. I was still foggy with a concussion from my (heroic, unbelievable, action-packed) scooter accident on that particular day, so we didn’t do too much celebrating. Instead, I was mostly on the receiving end of Lucy’s love “in sickness and in health.” I’m immensely grateful for and proud of her. Being Lucy’s husband is one of the forms of life into which God has led me, for my good and for hers and for those around us, and it is through my vocation as her husband that I have learned much of what I know about belonging to God. Today, I want to reflect on what being a husband has taught me about worship.
In the 1662 edition of The Book of Common Prayer, there was no exchanging of rings in the marriage service. The only ring involved was one the man gave to the woman. After the vows, when it came time for the ring, the man said to the woman, “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow….”
Let’s pause here and acknowledge the obvious: this one-sided giving of rings is one of a few places in the 1662 marriage service that reveals an unhealthy relationship between the sexes. Perhaps the most glaring is the discrepancy in the vows themselves: only the woman promises to “obey” and to “serve,” and only the man promises to “comfort.” As though wives don’t deserve obedience and service, or husbands comfort!
Having said that, I confess that despite the problematic contextual dynamics that contributed to this piece of the service, I find these words to be beautiful and true: “With this ring I thee wed, with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow….” The ring is a symbol of a total and unequivocal offering. All my worldly goods, even my body itself—they’re no longer simply mine because I am no longer the center of my universe. My body and my wealth have found a newer, richer home in the presence of one who is not I.
That line, “with my body I thee worship” is probably the sexiest thing ever said in a church outside the lines of the Song of Solomon itself. But those words are not simply about sex. At their most basic, those words are a way of acknowledging that everything we do as human beings we do with our bodies: run errands, fold laundry, wash dishes, walk the dog. When we enter into a relationship like a marriage, we have new disciplines and demands placed upon us, and those disciplines and demands change our physical experience of the world. I wash dishes I didn’t dirty; I fold clothes I don’t wear; I try to go to bed and rise when Lucy does; I no longer ride scooters after dark.
This is no less true of “all my worldly goods.” None of the money in my paycheck is simply mine; it’s ours. The stipend I receive as Vicar of St. Liz is our only household income. I am the one who does the work of vicar’ing, yet Lucy need not ask before buying a book or getting a haircut. The mutual commitment of worldly goods made in our marriage precedes any change of job or income status. What I mean is that it’s not the case that, on payday, I ‘give’ Lucy ‘my’ money. The work I do at St. Liz and its compensation is all part of our marriage. I’m not ‘giving’ Lucy ‘my’ money because those categories have been subsumed by the categories of marriage: our worldly goods, one household, shared life and work.
When I do all of these things, I am ordering my physical, embodied life and my material resources so as to acknowledge the worthiness of Lucy’s desires. Her desires are a gift given to me, and they lay a unique claim on my life. They safeguard me from the illusion that I am the center of my own universe.
We can begin to see how these words from the 1662 marriage rite might be instructive in learning about worship, not just for husbands but for any Christian person.
To worship God is to acknowledge God’s worthiness and the worthiness of God’s desires. Since God is our creator, God’s worthiness is absolute. To worship God is to ascribe ultimate worth to our Creator. (The words worship and worth have the same root.) When we acknowledge the worthiness of God, then God’s desires begin to lay upon us new gifts, new disciplines and demands.
God’s desires are two, and they constitute a total claim on our lives: “you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength….You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12:30-31). This claim is also unique: “you shall have no other gods before me” (Ex. 20:3).
Our bodies and our worldly goods are no longer simply our own. We kneel in prayer, we use words instead of fists when we’re angry, we listen to each other, we visit the sick, we care for each other with food and affection, we receive this bread and this wine, we open our homes for life groups, we pledge to our church. All of these things are simply ways we acknowledge the worthiness of God’s desires—worshipping with our bodies and all our worldly goods, receiving as a gift the disciplines and demands of living in God’s presence.
This past weekend we had our bishop’s visit. We witnessed several folks, most of them new to St. Liz, be confirmed or received. Others reaffirmed their baptismal vows, and if you were present at church on Sunday, you renewed your own baptismal covenant. You promised to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself.” You promised to “continue in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” You promised “to strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being.” You promised to “proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ.” (Book of Common Prayer 1979, pgs. 416-417).
These are not little promises. It’s as though we all looked at God and said, “with my body I thee worship, and with all my worldly goods I thee endow….”
Powerful vows. Imagine God’s pleasure, Her Divine Joy, at having the promise of your whole life glittering on the gentle finger of heaven. Imagine your own unending joy, for as long as you both shall live, the life everlasting.
Hi friends, one of my favorite books is The Divine Comedy. It’s a poem about a lost pilgrim named Dante who is rescued from perdition and travels through the realms of the afterlife as he understood them: hell, purgatory, and heaven. The third section of the poem is called Paradise, and it’s about Dante’s journeying through the spheres of the heavens, meeting saints and learning to drink more and more deeply of God’s blessing.
Near the end of the poem (Canto XXVIII), Dante emerges into the ninth sphere of heaven, the primum mobile, which in his worldview represents the very edge of the created universe. Outside of this particular sphere, there is nothing but the dwelling of the Triune God and the countless souls enjoying God for all eternity. Needless to say, it’s a particularly mind-blowing moment of an already mind-blowing poem.
At this point in the journey, way out there at the very edge of creation, Dante has a vision: a single, blindingly bright point of light, and around it spin all these shining rings at various speeds. What Dante comes to understand about his vision is this: God is the shining point of light at the center, and all around God are the many, many layers of creation—earth and us critters, the moon, stars, angels, the whole shebang.
This is a comforting image. God, our creator and redeemer and sustainer, is the shining center of complete unity, stillness, and peace at the heart of everything. In Dante’s vision, creation moves around God. The angels, who are more perfect than we, move at fiery speeds with musical regularity. For us on earth, however, our orbit is fitful, frequently torturous, and prone to haphazard change.
Yet the Word God speaks, the Word through whom all things were made, is that bright Truth at the center, the gravity which anchors our many flights of being and allows us to belong to part of a coherent, intricate whole.
One of the ways to describe Christian prayer is to say that when we pray, we are sharing in Dante’s vision: we are being centered, seeing clearly that I am not the center of the universe because God is. In fact, I am not even the center of my own life because God is. It’s as though when we pray, we are being attended by an angelic orthopedist setting a spiritual break, re-centering our souls dislocated bones.
Sometimes, when we have to make a difficult decision, we do something similar. We ponder, we take time, we occasionally agonize, hoping that the anxiety and fog will part and we’ll catch a glimpse of where the center is. Ah, yes, I see now. This is the path of faithful action or inaction.
Imagining God as the center of all that is helps us to navigate the world. Because God is a fixed point of stillness, we have a kind of reference point, a north star on the horizon. We can discern important questions, judge truth from falsehood, recognize when we are in need of repentance and seeking forgiveness. This is not to say that we ever fully understand the decisions before us, let alone God, but it is to believe in something solid and unchanging by which we can attempt to make faithful judgments about the world. We do this through prayer and worship, study, and participating in a community of faith.
Another poet I like uses a similar image to describe God, suggesting that God is “the still point of the turning world.” What I have begun to notice is that, when the world whirls too chaotically, the still point becomes difficult to discern. And when that happens, we start looking for substitutes, for anything that has the appearance of God’s fixity and stillness, anything that we can grab hold of and say, “This much I know to be true; I’ll stand here and judge accordingly.”
This desire for a still point in a turning world is a way of banishing the terror of the unknown. It’s made acute when we know we are in the presence of someone who must be lying, perhaps someone who has lied to us in the past. Family members with certain mental illnesses, situations with loved ones in the midst of addiction, even something as simple as two siblings trying to explain which of them is responsible for the cat’s being covered in blue Kool-Aid. The presence of deliberate untruth decenters us: without a clear vision of the still point against which we make judgements about ourselves and the world around us, by what are we to discern the way forward?
When I lie, I build a world of which I am the architect, in which I am the primary author of history. If it is a world and a history of my own invention, then it is a world of which I am the center, not God. This world will inevitably collapse because the task of a human being is not to create and sustain an entire world. In the Rite I confession at Morning Prayer, we confess that “we have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts” (BCP, pg 41). It’s an apt phrase for our decentered lives.
In our public life as a country, as we watch the hearing and investigation around Judge Kavanaugh’s potential Supreme Court appointment unfold, we cannot help but feel that someone is lying about something. Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony is incompatible with Dr. Ford’s and vise versa. Whether deliberately or not, someone is preventing the whole truth. When we watch clips of one or the other’s testimony, we are thrust into a room of which it would seem God is not the center. We’ve entered the devices and desires of a human heart.
Human beings were not made for such an environment. Thus, as we watch, and as the turning of the world inside the senate hearing threatens to jettison us into the void, we begin to search for a still point of any kind. Without knowing it, we begin to settle for the security of a world built around a subtle lie.
The subtlest of lies is when a partial truth is treated as the whole truth and nothing but the truth. For example, did you ever notice that the serpent isn’t lying when it says, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:4). When Adam and Eve eat the fruit, they don’t die; their eyes are opened; and they do become like God in that they now distinguish between what is good and what is not. The serpent isn’t lying; it’s just not telling the whole truth and nothing but.
Seen in this light, it’s ironic that a witness should swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth “so help me God.” It is ironic because the simple fact of our not being God precludes us from telling the whole truth and nothing but the truth. We are finite creatures, and thus any truth we tell cannot be the whole of it. We do not have the capacity to create and sustain the world; how could we then tell the whole truth? We are broken creatures, and thus any truth we tell cannot be ‘nothing but’ the truth.
Each of us has been born into and grown up in a broken history in which best intentions go awry, where an accidental tone of voice can lace a simple ‘thank you’ or ‘goodbye’ with unintended sarcasm or condescension. It is impossible for us to communicate ‘nothing but the truth’ because the truths communicated to us are rarely clear, whole, and purely motivated. In a history like this, the admission of being unable to remember details of an event over thirty years old should be expected, yet it renders us untrustworthy. In a history like this, the admission of having drunk too much as a young man is not surprising, yet it renders us wicked and incapable of having changed.
My point is that if none of us lives the whole truth and nothing but the truth, how can we expect to testify otherwise? And if this is true, how can we observers expect more from witnesses than we ourselves would be able to provide?
This is not to say that we should therefore assume that Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh are both equally telling the truth. But it does allow some room for grace. Dr. Ford and Judge Kavanaugh have both testified in a world-history whose brokenness is not their sole responsibility. They have each inherited a world in which men all too often assault women and get away with it, a world in which the voices of men are valued more than the voices of women. They have each also inherited a world in which people lie and obfuscate under oath, even people with significant public responsibility. This is a world in which, at best, any truth a person tells is partial and contains a sliver of falsehood, and yet nevertheless we expect the whole truth and nothing but.
By now, I’ve watched, listened to, or read almost all of Judge Kavanaugh’s testimony and responses to questions, and I’ve watched, listened to, or read almost all of Dr. Ford’s testimony and responses to questions. Like many of you, I have drawn conclusions, and like many of you, I have drawn them from wrestling with two mutually exclusive stories.
But what I crave is certainty, and this I do not have. I have had moments close to certainty, but if I am honest, when I heap the burden of my desire for the Truth on the conclusions I have drawn, the weight is too much. This is not to say that, at the end of time, I will discover that my conclusions have been wrong, or that you will discover your own to have been. It is simply to acknowledge that here and now, they are finite. The truth we build from partial, imperfect truths will inevitably be partial and imperfect. It cannot bear the full responsibility of being the still point of a turning world. Only God can do that.
It is worth noting that Dante does not start off with his vision of God as the pure brightness at the core of everything; his journey through creation ends there. When his journey begins, he is lost in a dark wood and beset by temptations of every kind. He has no still point of reference amidst the shadows that haunt and threaten to devour him. His journey is long, and on it he is confronted by his own sinfulness before seeing clearly the Still Point of the turning world. His journey is one of repentance followed by blessing.
The Christian life is one of discerning the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, the Truth Who is God alone. This takes a lifetime of repentance and receiving God’s blessing. At the end of all things, when we’re gathered together before the throne, the devices and desires of our own hearts will be cracked open and revealed as hollow, and together we’ll finally see ourselves and each other and the vicissitudes of history clearly in the light of God’s stillness. On that day, we’ll know for sure the answer to the drama we’re seeing unfold in the arena of American politics.
Between now and then, however, be wary that your confidence in Judge Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence is not the serpent’s voice tempting you to treat a partial truth as the whole truth and nothing but. Dr. Ford’s testimony and Judge Kavanaugh’s are mutually exclusive in regard to Judge Kavanaugh’s guilt or innocence, but it does not follow that one of them is simply willfully and knowingly lying and that the other is a lone beacon of virtue. Human lives are messier than that because the history into which we are born and in which we tell our stories is messier than that. For example, Judge Kavanaugh himself does not deny that Dr. Ford was assaulted. Surely if the man accused can afford his accuser at least that much good faith, we can do the same for all parties involved.
One last thing needs saying before I bring this partial, imperfect truth to a close. On Tuesday of this week, President Trump held a rally in Mississippi in which he mocked Dr. Ford’s testimony. This is abjectly sinful behavior and what one should expect from a tyrant, not an American President. Even if we were to suspend all belief in the veracity of Dr. Ford’s specific allegations (a thought experiment which should discomfort us), the unmistakable message to the victims of sexual assault who nevertheless hear their own stories being told by her is this: “Don’t speak up. The abuse will only continue verbally and in public.” Thankfully, the bipartisan criticism of President Trump’s actions suggests other leaders are aware of this.
In the vocabulary I have been laying out here, President Trump’s mockery of Dr. Ford demonstrates the degree to which it is possible for us as human beings to follow the devices and desires of our own hearts. Yet President Trump himself is not simply inventing whole cloth a world of which he alone is the center. Like each of us, he lives and acts in a broken history. What I mean is this: not only did he mock Dr. Ford’s testimony, but he was cheered for doing so. Had we not already been willing to cheer, he would not have been able to mock.
It is too easy simply to say, “Well that’s the Mississippi crowd’s problem!” Again, that’s turning a partial truth into the whole truth and nothing but. Rather, it seems a thicker truth would be to say that each of us is culpable for the environment in which we as the United States find ourselves. I mean American Christians; I cannot claim to speak for anyone else. We too quickly settle for a partial truth rather than the whole because God does not simply show up in a senate hearing room and tell us what is what. This is deeply uncomfortable for Christian people because our natural disposition is to order ourselves around that shimmering, immutable center which is God alone. Yet being willing to sit still in the midst of anxieties like our current climate is precisely the path towards the Truth. Remember Dante’s vision: drawing near to the still point of God’s clarity means first passing through the whirling anxieties of creation, including the dark woods and tempests of our own sins and subtle lies. The only way to the light is through the dark.
All that is rather mystical, but scripture provides us a plainer example. Remember Jesus’ trial before Pilate: Pontius Pilate cannot bear to linger with the discomfort of his own question, “What is truth?” and so he proceeds directly to crucifying the very Still Point of the turning world which he so desperately seeks (John 18:38). Pilate, too, was part of a broken history not entirely of his own making. Political pressures and hierarchy, a cheering crowd, the doubts of his own heart, his utter perplexity about the strange testimony of Jesus. It’s a familiar environment for us.
Our leaders will make a decision about Judge Kavanaugh’s appointment. It may be a good decision, or it may be a bad one—and we may not know which for a long time. As you draw your own finite conclusions about this, remember that the hammer and nails of Golgotha will always be there for us to pick up, as they were for Pilate. If we would avoid crucifying the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth, we must arrive even at our partial, specific judgments, judgments like whether Judge Kavanaugh should be appointed to the Supreme Court, by passing first through the dark wood of our own ignorance. There we will find a way to the still point of the turning world.
Thank you for reading, and God’s Peace,
I’m humbled and excited by the opportunity to be a guest author in our weekly newsletter! A few weeks ago, I had an opportunity to share with you a message that has become something of a recurring theme in my life. That is, the idea of walking – not necessarily as a physical activity – but as a spiritual activity. The last few years of my time at St. Liz have been increasingly devoted to finding new ways to walk with God, and grow in faith, and I’m grateful to be walking alongside this wonderful community that we’ve built together. In that spirit, I’d like to share with you once again, a very exciting personal journey that will unfold in September, and invite you to join me in prayer and reflection as we move into our seasons of Stewardship, and Thanksgiving.
When I was a boy growing up in South Florida, my family endured Hurricane Andrew, a vicious Category 5 storm which devastated our South Miami community, and took with it the sense of normalcy and tranquility we had enjoyed in the years prior. Following the storm, there was no electricity or clean water for months on end. It was nothing short of a disaster zone, and it was hot (think August in Texas, but slightly less forgiving). The roads were impassable, and we were frequently forced to walk together in order to acquire the things we needed – clean water from the National Guard Armory, food from the local supermarket, shelter from the unrelenting rain, or just simple peace of mind from checking in on our family, neighbors and friends. In those days, it was an unambiguous reminder of how we took for granted the ease with which we went about our lives, and secured the things we needed from day to day. We prayed for strength to find a way forward amid the devastating circumstances, and we found that despite the hardships, walking and praying together brought us closer as a family, and gave us the courage to persevere.
Sometime later when my mother was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and slowly became unable to walk, we lost the ability to enjoy those familiar things we had always done together – roller skate, go to the beach, or just have an impromptu dance party in the living room. We took for granted that we would always retain our physical abilities; we didn’t really spend a great deal of time thinking about something as simple as walking, until we couldn’t do it anymore. Here, it was my mother’s inability to walk that ultimately brought us closer together as we found new ways to enjoy familiar things, even if they didn’t quite look and feel the way they did before. We found new ways to walk together, and continued to pray for the patience and clarity we knew we would need to accept this new stage of life.
And so it seems only natural that walking would re-emerge as a central theme in my own spiritual growth at St. Elizabeth where I’ve made new lifelong friends, baptized my children, and consistently sought new ways to give thanks and pray for the extraordinary community we’ve build together over the years.
The Way of St. James, or the Camino de Santiago is a medieval pilgrimage route that runs across the north of Europe, primarily through northern Spain. For more than a thousand years, the faithful have embarked on religious pilgrimages from their doorsteps, walking until they reached the cathedral in Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, where tradition holds the remains of the apostle St. James were located in 812 AD. Today, pilgrims from all Christian denominations embark on Camino journeys to renew their connection with Christ and the natural world, and to find peace and comfort in an otherwise noisy and sometimes turbulent world. Pilgrims walk together for hundreds of miles on personal journeys to seek meaning in the greater world, reconnect with their faith, unburden their souls, and find healing and comfort from the losses that have devastated their hearts.
At St. Elizabeth’s, none of us has ever walked alone. In that spirit of community and friendship, I’m excited to invite my church family to continue to walk with me on a version of this journey, undertaken in the name of our congregation. On the audio table at the front of the church throughout the month of August, you’ll find a small letter box next to a scallop shell – the symbol of the Camino – and some stationery, where I’d like to invite you to send your prayers, letters, thoughts, poems or other petitions with me on this spiritual journey of renewal. My walk begins on August 31st in St. Jean Pied de Port, France. Your devotions and prayers will be sealed and remain confidential, and will be carried from the town of St. Jean across the Pyrenees mountains, stopping in of Santiago de Compostella for the traditional Pilgrim’s blessing at the journey’s end. They will then continue on to the capital of Madrid, where on Sunday, September 16th, they’ll be placed upon the altar of the Anglican Cathedral of the Redeemer, our sister church within the worldwide Anglican Communion in Spain, for a blessing and prayer of kinship between our respective churches.
As we approach our stewardship season, I would humbly ask each of you to reflect upon this theme of walking together in a continuous renewal of our faith, and of our commitment to one another as members of this extraordinary spiritual community. I’m very thankful for all of your prayers and good wishes (for safety, serenity, and strong knees), and invite you to follow the journey as it unfolds on a blog I’ve established to capture the good, the bad, and the muddy along the path. Link: https://wpiferrer.wixsite.com/camino.
It would be my privilege to carry your prayers and expressions of faith on my shoulders, and in my pack, across the miles as we walk together in Christ.
Hi friends, you may be puzzling over the title of this article. 584,000,000 miles is the distance the earth travels in one full revolution around the sun. In other words, it’s the distance we travel through space in a year. This week—Wednesday, August 1, to be exact—marks one year since I first came to St. Liz as vicar, my first year as the priest in charge of a worshipping community. I don’t know if this year will prove to be typical of all the years we’ll spend together as vicar and mission or not. I do know that it’s been busy, but more important, it’s been fruitful. It’s also gotten me thinking: what does a vicar do in a year? For that matter, what does a mission do in a year? I tracked down some statistics.
Three vicar-specific numbers: in this first year at St. Liz, I’ve preached 53 sermons, counting funerals and non-Sunday holy days like Ash Wednesday. I’ve knocked on the doors of 54 visitors to say how glad we were to have them at worship. (That’s a lot of coffee cups!) I’ve written 45 newsletter articles of various kinds.
There are other numbers I could track down, but those three are important ones. The preaching number will likely stay about the same. I sincerely hope the number of coffee cups I deliver only goes up! The newsletter number will likely decrease. For this next year, I’m considering cutting that number in half and writing an article every other week, though I’ve not made up my mind yet. Regardless, we’ll continue to send out relevant events info every week.
Now, what have we done as a community in our first year together? Here are just a few reminders: we filled hundreds of bags with necessary supplies for people fleeing or displaced by Hurricane Harvey. 4 people reaffirmed their baptismal vows during Bishop Reed’s visit in October, and we witnessed 1 confirmation. Our corps of LEMs and lectors doubled. We had 9 participants in our fall newcomer’s class and another 6 in the spring. We blessed all kinds of critters—including a horse, a squirrel, a lizard, and a guinea pig—at our Blessing of the Animals for the Feast of St. Francis. Our Tuesday Morning Prayer Group has grown from 2 or 3 to 7 or 8.
We had an amazing Epiphany Bonfire—really, you missed out on that event if you weren’t there! (And nobody got hurt!) Some of our acolytes served in the Diocesan Council Eucharist. We provided breakfast tacos to 100 hardworking teachers and staff at Tom Green Elementary School at the end of the spring semester. We’ve continued—and are almost finished!—with our work wit Dr. Whitesel, our consultant. We took field trip adventures to the Wildflower Center, McKinney Falls, and the Camp Mabry Air Museum. We saw Phyllis Bess graduate from seminary, and we got our very own Andrew Green ordained to the diaconate!
We buried Fred, George, and Keith. We baptized Joni, Evelyn, Jacob, and William David.
We’ve increased in some important ‘bottom line’ kinds of numbers, too. For 2017, our average attendance on a Sunday was 90. That was a drop from 2016, which had us at 102. But given that 2017 was a year of transitioning from one priest to another, that 12-person drop really isn’t too significant. As of the end of June 2018, that number is back up to 95. A few new families have joined us over this summer, and I expect that number will continue to rise—so long as y’all continue to spread the good news about what God is doing here at St. Liz!
Our financial situation continues to improve as well. From 2017 to 2018, our total number of pledging households increased from 50 to 62 (24%). Our total amount of pledge dollars increased from roughly $153k to $171k (12%). This allowed us to decrease our reliance on diocesan support from $50k in 2017 to $40k in 2018. As many of you know, continuing to strengthen our financial stability and independence is part and parcel of approaching parish status. Because of the good work financial work y’all have done, Bishop Reed has appointed me to the Diocesan Department of Stewardship. I hope to make us proud.
And all of that is just some of what’s in the year behind us!
I hope you’re as excited as I am about what’s to come. Who knows what the next 584,000,000 miles will hold?
Hi friends, two weeks ago we looked at questions of authorship: which letters in the New Testament did the historical Paul actually write and which ones were likely written by a later follower of his? Last week, we looked at two characteristics that often help us distinguish between a letter of the historical Paul (an undisputed letter) and a letter composed by one of his followers (a disputed letter). While I’ll continue preaching on Ephesians for another week or two, today I’m going to wrap up our newsletter series on the epistles. In a similar vein to last week’s post, I want to compare an undisputed letter (1 Corinthians) to a disputed letter (Ephesians) as a way of showing how early Christian ideas about God and Christ grew and developed over time; they didn’t just drop whole cloth out of heaven.
I said last week that in an undisputed letter of Paul, which is to say in one of the older letters written by Paul himself, we frequently find Paul addressing very specific concerns. This is true of 1 Corinthians, a church with a great deal of potential but also a great deal of troublesome habits. One of the issues plaguing the Corinthian church was internal divisions. There were two kinds of division: socio-economic and spiritual.
First, the socio-economic. In the earliest Christian communities, it’s likely that communion, or the Lord’s Supper, involved a full meal, a kind of ritualized dinner party. Some of the Corinthian Christians were more well off than others, so when it came time for the Lord’s Supper, the wealthier Christians started partying and eating all the best food and drink before the less wealthy ones arrived (1 Cor. 11:17-34). This meant that the Church wasn’t unified: it was split into rich and poor. Imagine if we all came to communion in the order of how big our paychecks were!
The second kind of division was spiritual, particularly in regard to spiritual gifts. It appears that in Corinth, speaking in tongues was regarded as a sign of God’s special favor. Those who could speak in tongues got a little puffed up with themselves and looked down on others (1 Cor. 12-14).
How does Paul address these divisions? Paul reminds the Corinthians that they are one in Christ:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. […] Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it (1 Cor. 12:12-13, 26)
This is where Paul makes his famous analogy of the body: “If the foot would say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ that would not make it any less a part of the body. […] If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be?” (1 Cor. 12:15-17)
The important thing to keep in mind here is that Paul is using the image of the Body of Christ as a way of instructing a specific community to be united. Hands need feet; ears need eyes; the nose isn’t more important than the toes. What is important to Paul is that the community change their attitude and behavior; the emphasis on the oneness of Christ’s body serves to strengthen that exhortation.
Now, let’s fast forward a decade or two to Ephesians. In the two short passages from Ephesians below, notice that the church is described as Christ’s body, just as it was in 1 Corinthians. However, the image of the body of Christ is now expanded and put to different use:
[God] has put all things under [Christ’s] feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all (Eph. 1:22-23)
…speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in the building itself up in love” (Eph. 4:15-16)
Notice anything different? While the image of the church as Christ’s body is still of central importance, and while the contexts of both passages emphasize the importance of unity in love (1 Cor. 13, Eph. 4:15-16), in Ephesians the image of Christ’s body has expanded to emphasize Christ as the head of the body. Furthermore, in Ephesians, Christ is not only the head of his body, which is the church, but Christ is now also referred to as the “head over all things for the church” which God has put under Christ’s feet.
Let’s highlight again the specific similarities and differences. Both 1 Corinthians and Ephesians employ the image of the Church as Christ’s body, and both use that image to emphasize a kind of oneness. In 1 Corinthians, however, this unity is local and specific to a community riven by socio-economic and spiritual divisions. Ephesians, however, emphasizes a cosmic unity in which Christ is the head not only of his body the church, but of all things. 1 Corinthians lacks both the emphasis on Christ as the head of the body and Christ as the head of “all things.”
What we see, then, is that this passage from Ephesians retains the tradition of 1 Corinthians that refers to the church as Christ’s body, but that this central idea has grown and gained
additional emphasis. By the time we reach Ephesians, the image of the Church as Christ’s body serves not primarily to exhort a specific community to practice unity, but to emphasize the exaltation of Christ: the Church is Christ’s body, and Christ is the head. However, Christ is also the head over all things which have been put under his feet. Since we know already that the church is Christ’s body, and that therefore the feet are also part of Christ’s body, Ephesians also subtly emphasizes the exaltation of the Church: Christ is the head, the Church is the body, and all other things are under Christ’s feet.
Why does any of this matter?
This matters because too often Christians talk as though God is done speaking to us. What I am trying to demonstrate is that what’s clear from the New Testament itself is that the Church’s knowledge of God, empowered by the Holy Spirit, grows and develops over time. As we’ve seen in the transition from the undisputed letters of the historical Paul like 1 Corinthians to the next generation of Christian leaders in Ephesians, old images gain new significance. Local problems spark cosmic reflections. In short, there’s always more to be said.
Because God is a mystery and cannot be known fully, we can never ‘finish’ reflecting on His presence with us. Our reflections are always incomplete. And yet because God has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ, God has made himself profoundly known and knowable. Therefore, we should expect that no matter how new our reflections on God are, they are always somehow recognizable. The letter to the Ephesians riffs on and expands the wisdom of letters like 1 Corinthians. The wisdom of Ephesians, however innovative, is therefore both new and recognizable as a ‘Pauline’ take on Christ.
With God, there is always more to know. Yet every innovation and development of a theological idea will also be somehow familiar to us if it is true; the Holy Spirit prompts us to ‘recognize’ Jesus in it. Hopefully, our own spiritual journeys are marked by ever-renewing encounters with the Truth of Who God is, encounters in which the Holy Spirit comes to us as fresh and familiar. Hopefully, like the first folks to hear the letter to the Ephesians, we have occasion to say, “Wow, I never thought about it that way before—but that makes sense. That fits with what I know to be true of God.”
P.S. Thanks for reading.
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