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Lapis Lydius and Other Alchemies

Hi friends, a few weeks ago our Gospel passage was Luke 8:26-39.  In it, Jesus crosses out of Galilee into “the country of the Gerasenes, “and while there meets a “man of the city who had demons” (Luke 8:26-27).  Before Jesus banishes the demons into a herd of swine, Jesus and the man have a sort of conversation.  The man (or the demons in him) shouts at Jesus, “What have you to do with me, Jesus, Son of the Most High God?  I beg you, do not torment me” (8:29).  The verb we translate as “torment” has a metallurgical, or perhaps alchemical, weight to it.  This alchemy is on my mind and heart this week.
 
In Greek, the verb we translate as “torment” looks like this: βασανίζω.  (We can pronounce it, “bah-sah-NID-zo.”)  In one sense, it means exactly what we read: to torment or to torture.  The demons know Jesus has power over them, and so they’re pleading that he not use that power to torment them.
 
But another vein runs through this word.  This same verb is used in the testing of metals to determine their purity, or whether they’ve been alloyed with something less precious.  There was a special stone called lapis Lydius (from Lydia, in modern Turkey) that was believed to have the power to reveal the contents of metal.  So, if a potentially untrustworthy person paid you a large sum of silver, for example, you might apply the lapis Lydius to the silver to test whether it actually was silver you had been given, or if the charlatan had alloyed it with a metal less precious.  To test the silver in this way was to βασανίζω it.
 
Another way of understanding the Gerasene episode from Luke 8, then, is to say that our demon-haunted citizen falls under the pressure of Jesus, who is God’s lapis Lydius.  All the impurities, all this man’s demons, are revealed and thereby expelled from the shining image of God within.  What is left of our Gerasene citizen is his real substance.  His neighbors “found [him]…sitting at the feet of Jesus, clothed and in his right mind.  And they were afraid” (8:35).
 
In Jesus of Nazareth, it’s as though God reaches down and pressures each of us with a divine lapis Lydius.  To bear the weight of the cross is to fall beneath this lapis Lydius of heaven: our impurities are revealed, our purer substance distilled.  The prophetic weight of this Stone unsettles and discomforts.  After all, to apply the lapis Lydius and to torment are the same verb.     As the psalmist says, “For you, O God, have proved us; you have tried us just as silver is tried” (Ps. 66:9).  Silver is purified by fire from the ore (Ps. 12:6).  The metallurgy of discipleship burns with holy discomfort.
 
Sometimes, when we find ourselves discomforted or unsettled about something, what we are feeling is something like what the Gerasene man felt in Jesus’ presence.  Our demons are provoked because they know they’re being forced to name themselves that they might be burnt away.  Beneath the smears of dross, gold begins to glint.  Christ the lapis Lydius is at work.
 
I have been discomforted and unsettled this summer, and I think it is holy.  Like many of you, I have been angered and saddened and even occasionally despairing of the conditions many children are living in at Border Patrol jail cells along the border as we on this side try to decide how best to deal humanely with this influx of minors.  (You may have read a recent letter from our bishops calling on our elected state and national leaders to act swiftly in response.  If you’ve not read it, I commend it to you.)  For me, worse than the anger and sadness has been the sense of helplessness to do anything real or meaningful.
 
This discomfort has converged with another.  For a while now, I’ve been discomforted by how little outreach we do as a community of faith.  We certainly have individuals and families who engage regularly in outreach, with Hays Drive a Senior and at Tom Green and with Meals on Wheels and elsewhere.  And as a congregation we do supply drives supporting different efforts a couple times a year.  I do not mean to diminish the importance of these efforts.  I think it is true, however, that regular and deliberate life-giving ministry efforts beyond our physical campus are simply not yet an integral part of our common life.  I am troubled by this, both as one Christian amongst others and as your priest.  I have no grand plan or program or anything in mind; for now, just a persistent discomfort. 
 
Things at St. Liz are going really well: we’ve had a year of substantial growth, new playground equipment, new roof, new air conditioners, and a new kids’ camp.  We’re on track to be financially independent from the diocese soon and are even beginning to talk about the exciting milestone of transitioning from mission to parish.  All of this is good. 
 
It is also seductive, and I will admit that this is particularly true for me as your priest and most visible leader.  Because growth and energy and joy and affection are some of the many gifts we enjoy at St. Liz, it would be easy just to stay put and let those things become our sole driving purpose(s) or lull us into complacency.  The truth is that there are kids in our own community who don’t have multiple changes of clothes, good food, or reliable transportation.  They may not be sleeping under shiny refugee blankets, but they might be sleeping on concrete.  Or forced to relocate from place to place each week in a kind of migration without end in time or geography.
 
As I have prayed about all of this, I have come to believe that my discomfort about the border crisis and my discomfort about our own (specifically my own) comparative lack of outreach efforts at and through St. Liz are converging for a reason.  They are being pressured together by the presence of Jesus, God’s lapis Lydius.  On the one hand, the demon of helplessness about the border is being named and banished by an increased awareness of needs in Hays County; there are things we can do.  On the other, the seductive demon of something like ecclesial success is being named and banished by the sheer magnitude of heartache I experience at the plight of children.  What could parish status or financial independence or a second service or improvement to our facilities mean if it has no bearing on the lives of the least of these in our community?  What irreducible substance will there be beneath those tangibles?
 
I offer all of this simply as my experience of the Holy Spirit’s alchemy this summer.  In my own life, plans for success and a paralyzing sense of helplessness are the impurities God’s touchstone is pressuring to the surface, naming, and, I believe, ridding me of.  Flashes of a more precious metal beneath are fleeting and ore’d over still, but so far they look like Love made local.  You know, Church. 
 
Again, I have no new outreach plan or program to announce, and am unsure if all this will even lead to a clear one.  I just have discomfort that will not subside, a kind of inner torment at being confronted anew with the brokenness of the world and my own complicity by virtue of “what [I] have done and…what [I] have left undone.”  I am doing my best not to run away from it, into the Gerasene tombs or into the wilderness, but to remain—in prayer and in front of the news—until I have learned what it’s trying to teach me.
 
I don’t know if any of this resonates with you, or if you share my unease.  If so, and if we would find ourselves “clothed and in our right minds” at the feet of Jesus, chances are the only way out is through.  That’s how it usually goes with a cross of any kind.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

Patriotism as a Form of Love: Reflections from a Beginner

Hi friends, like many of you, I grow weary with much of our public discourse these days.  And like many of you, I am saddened by much of what I see in the news, most recently along our southern border.  I don’t have solutions for us in that regard, only heartbreak.  What has surprised me, however, is that despite our public anxieties and through the heartbreak of current events, God has opened within me a new depth of what feels like real patriotism.  I am somewhat insecure even using the word (and we should be skeptical when our clergy use it!), but I have to say it feels like the right one.  Patriotism: a love that is proportional to the finite, creaturely good that a country is; a love that is deeper than any crude nationalism and wider than the more caustic kinds of partisanship to which we’re exposed and tempted. 
 
I think I am a beginner in this.  I say that I am a beginner because I am realizing that I have an entrenched skepticism towards ‘patriotism.’  I’m not sure where I habituated it, but in my own life, I think it likely began in the 90s when I learned at a formative age that presidents lie.  Without going into the details, nothing since then has really rid me of a basically skeptical posture.
 
The point is that I find myself in the midst of something like patriotic rehabilitation.  The short version is that, rather than expecting my country or her leaders to convince me not to be skeptical, I’ve allowed God to take over and direct whatever patriotic love He would have me give to the United States.
 
Imagine that.  A preacher ‘allowing’ God to direct the flow of love in his life.  I feel like an idiot even having to say it out loud.  Take what follows for what you will.
 
What do we love when we love a country?  It seems to me that, at the very least, we love a community of people (hundreds of millions of them); we love a certain physical landscape; and, as citizens of the United States, we love what we might call an ideal, or a certain collection of values, laws, and principles which makes our common life possible.
 
A diverse group of people, a particular patch of land, and an ideal—when we say we love our country, we are loving a combination of (at least) those three things.  Each of us might give different weight to those three, and there would certainly be some nuance in regard to how each of us would articulate what America’s ideals are, but on the whole, I think we could mostly agree on those.
 
That’s a bit about the object of patriotic love.  So, what does it mean to love those things?  For Christians, the only love there is is the love of God.  “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God” (1 John 4:16).    Our smaller, creaturely loves—for each other, for our country—are always only a participation in the love of God.  So: how do Christians understand love?
 
1 Corinthians is a good place to start: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude.  It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (13:4-6). 
 
For me, this is where patriotic love gets difficult.  I’m supposed to love these hundreds of millions of people, this landscape, and our ideals like that?   When the public official I most like scores a point in a social media spat with one I dislike, or when I am filled with disdain for that group of people over there who believe X about Y...okay, 1 Corinthians 13 is a bit harder to come by.  The truth is that I do find within myself arrogance, the desire to boast, a persistent irritability towards those people over there who surely can’t mean the same thing I mean when I say, “I am an American.” 
 
Loving the ideal(s) for which the United States stands is rarely any easier, though for different reasons.  “[Love] does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth,” writes St. Paul.  In a country that values free speech and the rule of law, we find ourselves in an era of fake news and in a season of our country’s history in which basic human decency seems up for grabs.  It’s hard for love to rejoice in the truth when the truth rarely seems to be obvious or agreed upon as such.  As for not rejoicing in wrongdoing, again and again and again we are confronted with the reality that so many who have been successful in the United States have histories of repeated and grievous wrongdoing.  This creates an environment of public mistrust.  We pursue investigations, but then aren’t sure if we should trust the investigators or want the results we get.  It’s hard to love an ideal when the evidence so often points away from it.
 
I wish I could say that at the very least we’re all united in our love for the physical landscapes of our country, but debates about climate change, energy sources, and the use of public lands continue.  Clearly, we’re not all of a mind there, either, and these disagreements are further fuel for already long-burning fires.
 
So, where does this leave us?  What does love of country look like through this?  For me, the phrases in 1 Corinthians 13 that stick out are “love is patient; love is kind” and “love does not insist on its own way…love is not resentful.” 
 
Of all of these, that love should be “patient” is perhaps the hardest to swallow, particularly when so much is so urgent.  The urgency—on the border and elsewhere—is real; real lives are changing by the day.  Patient love for our country, then, does not necessarily mean patience with particular issues or crises.  Rather, it must be the quality of our deepest posture towards our country’s future, something analogous to the patience of God’s love towards all of human history.  In a word, patriotic love must be patient because the United States is incomplete.  We are not finished yet; we cannot rest on our laurels; we can never assume that the ideals we espouse are always and everywhere real and active for every member of our communities.  Just as you and I as individuals are incomplete and still being formed into the individuals God is calling us to be, so too is our country incomplete.  When I keep this in mind, I find that my love for these United States and all my millions of fellow citizens flows more easily, even in times as bitter as our own.  When my love is patient, the kindness follows.
 
That “love does not insist on its own way” is also a hard pill to swallow.  For me, this also follows from patience.  We vote; we (hopefully) show up to conversations open to the possibility that our minds might be changed, or at least expanded; we practice virtue; we contribute to the common good as we’re able; when decisions are made through the appropriate channels, we agree to be bound by them (though it must be said that Christian people can never forget that legality and morality are not synonymous).  
 
In the midst of all this, sometimes we are confronted with the fact that our own experience of the United States isn’t representative of the whole.  This doesn’t negate the validity of our own experience.  If patriotic love would not to insist on its own way, however, it does mean that we must make space for the experiences of others to influence how we order our common life.  This flows from patience because it means that my love must to some extent detach itself from results, or at least detach itself from results which are obviously beneficial to me in the short run.  Love does not insist on its own way because love perseveres into the future in which I am able to receive my neighbor’s flourishing as my own.  We persevere in love, but we can never be entirely sure what it is we’re loving our country into.
 
“Love is not resentful.”  Resentment is easy.  I pay my taxes, so why should that person over there get a check from the government?  I worked my tail off to get good grades, and that guy over there skipped every class and just sailed into a good job on daddy’s coattails!  We all know these feelings.  It’s not wrong to have them; indeed, so long as we remain unfinished as a country, it is necessary that we do have them.  We must guard against resentment, however, which we might say is something like allowing these feelings to calcify.  When our hearts are stony, we tend not to see our neighbors as people but as caricatures to be trolled.  The flow of love keeps our hearts open and malleable, and when this is true, we see the truth.  The truth—and at least on my best days I believe this—is that everyone is doing the best of which they believe themselves capable with the resources (spiritual, mental, emotional, material) at their disposal.  Some really are lazy; some really are charlatans; some really were born on third and think they hit a triple.  But do they believe that it is possible to live otherwise?  They, too, are unfinished people living in an unfinished country.  If we would be patriots, at least as I am trying to use the word, then the country we love must not only have room for them, but we must endeavor not to resent them for taking up the room they occupy.
 
As I said above, I am a beginner in this.  I confess I simply have never tried to understand love of country as any form of Christian love before.  Thus far in my adult life, I think my own habituated skepticism has largely blinded me to the possibility that the overlap of patriotism and Christian love might be not only possible and comforting, but exactly what we need as a nation.  Again, imagine that: a preacher arriving at the shocking conclusion that what his country needs is Christians living as conduits of the love of God.
 
There is much systemic sin and tragedy, both in America’s history and the Church’s, that has resulted from equating patriotism with a participation in the life of God.  We should remain skeptical when preachers talk about patriotic love, but we must also remember that skepticism can calcify, too.  Mine did.  I’m still scraping it off my soul’s edge.
 
Happy Independence Day, my friends.  I am grateful to be your priest. 
 
And as your fellow citizen, I am trying to do better.
 
God’s Peace,

Fr. Daniel+
 
 
 

Second Service: the Next Steps

This past Sunday (Pentecost) was our deadline for returning second service surveys.  I’ve read all of our responses thus far, but I imagine there are still a few out there!  So: if you bring yours this Sunday, June 16th, you can still return it.  This is our last call for surveys.  To those who have responded already, thank you.  The surveys have already been invaluable to me in understanding our hopes, needs, and anxieties in moving to a two-service schedule.
 
Here’s what will happen next: early next week, all the surveys will be typed up and the responses distributed to the Bishop’s Committee.  If you included your name on yours, it will be removed before being sent to the BC.  They’ll read, reflect on, and pray about our responses.  I will continue to do the same.
 
I’ll meet with the BC individually during the next few weeks to hear their thoughts.  Then, at the Bishop’s Committee meeting after worship on August 4th, I will present what I think is our best two-service schedule moving forward.  As a reminder, BC meetings are open to the congregation, and this one is no different!
 
At that meeting, I will make my case.  (I imagine that meeting will also bring up a great number of practical questions.  “If we do X at Y o’clock, then what happens with Z?” kinds of questions.  I’m excited to discover and address those together!)  I will communicate our new schedule via writing to the whole congregation in the days following the August 4 meeting.  As this is a decision about worship, it does not require a vote.  I will make the final call.  The plan is to begin our new Sunday morning schedule on Sunday, September 8th.  This is also the day Godly Play starts back after summer.
 
Between now and then, if you’d like to sit down one on one, either with me or with a member of your Bishop’s Committee, please don’t hesitate to reach out.  Given our “Campsite” experiment this spring, the surveys, conversations the Bishop’s Committee has already had, and the more informal conversations I’ve had in kitchens and over lunch and in the handshake line, I feel good about our process.  Still, I want to be sure we hear from everyone who wants to be heard.  So again, if you’d like to sit down, either with me or a member of the BC, please don’t hesitate to reach out.
 
This is an exciting and significant move in our life as a congregation, filled with new opportunities and challenges.  I’m also keenly aware that, for some of us at least, the thought of any change to our Sunday rhythm brings anxiety along with it.  I have some myself, so know that I don’t take it lightly.  I’m grateful for your trust.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

On Caring for Animals with Names

Hi friends, my eight-year-old niece, Mary Bentley (“MB”), and her family recently adopted a puppy.  The puppy’s name is Kate.  They began crate-training Kate from the get-go to help the new puppy acclimate to what life will be like with her new family (or her new pack, from Kate’s perspective).  MB might be the most empathetic human being I’ve ever met.  So on the first night, when puppy Kate began to cry from her crate, MB began to cry, too.
 
For many of us, caring for an animal as a child is how we learn some of the world’s harder lessons.  MB is learning that sometimes the best and healthiest decisions are ones that cause us to feel a measure of sadness or loss or other negative emotion.  She is learning also that the gift of being responsible for the life of a creature like Kate brings with it a heavy responsibility.  When you’re eight years old and your new puppy is crying for you from her crate, it feels like you’re being mean, even though in the long run, you’re just helping the puppy have good boundaries in her new home.  MB is learning that as a human being made in God’s image, she has to take a wider perspective on Kate’s life than Kate herself is capable of understanding.  Kate is a dog; it’s just not her responsibility to know the ins and outs of living in a house.  MB has to do that part.
 
Over the past couple months I’ve had the opportunity to pray with two different households mourning the loss of beloved animals.  One was a guinea pig named Howdy and the other was a horse named Amira.  When I pray with folks during the loss of beloved, named creatures like Howdy and Amira, there are two short passages I use which a friend of mine recommended.  The first is Psalm 36:6.
 
                              Your righteousness is like the strong mountains,
                              Your justice like the great deep;
                              You save both man and beast, O Lord.
 
“You save both man and beast, O Lord.”  All life—human, horse, and guinea pig—belongs to God.  As we read in Matthew, not even a sparrow falls to the ground apart from the attention of our Father in heaven (10:29).
 
The second passage is from Romans:
 
I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (v.18-20)
 
Here, we see Paul making it clear that all of creation will one day be freed “from its bondage to decay” and will obtain a kind of freedom and glory which we do not yet know. 
 
As human beings, when we grieve the loss of named creatures like Howdy and Amira, we do so from a perspective wider than their own, instinctive animal perspectives.  It’s our job to bear for them the weight of knowledge that our current age is beset by suffering and decay, decay which spares neither us nor the sparrows.  It’s also our job to carry the hope that one day creation itself will one day be free from this bondage.  We must live and work towards, and in anticipation of, this creation-wide freedom, the end in which the earth’s natural environment will be the glory of God.
 
Our tears over the loss of beloved animals are sometimes part of this work, just as MB’s tears over crate-training her new puppy are.  Our tears demonstrate our deep knowledge that human beings are not separate from ‘the natural world’ but that we are part of a single, created order of which Christ alone is the head (Ephesians 1:10) and within which we have a unique position and role.
 
A couple weeks ago I wrote about Adam and Eve in the garden and about Adam’s naming of all the animals.  This is part of the unique work of humans: knowing and speaking and telling stories about all of creation is part of our human work, just as running and snorting is part of the work of horses.  In Eucharistic Prayer D, we Speaking Creatures join with angels and archangels and give “voice to every creature under heaven” as we glorify the Name of God (BCP 373).  We are the creatures who make explicit in word and ritual what creatures like Amira and Howdy can only do through natural instinct.  We are the priests of the created order.
 
I have so far avoided using the word pets.  There’s nothing wrong with that word, but it does convey a kind of sentimentality I am trying to avoid.  At its deepest level, our caring for pets—animals we’ve given names—is just one particular capitulation of our deeper role as the priests of creation.  In German, the word for “pets” is Haustiere.  It literally means “house-animals.”  I like this word because it captures more fully what’s going on.  A pet is one who has been brought into the close orbit of human domestic life.  They’re animals who belong to a house, and this proximity usually bestows on them a name: Howdy, Amira, Kate.
 
When MB and her family bring home a new puppy and name her Kate, they are undertaking the work God gave to Adam and Eve in an intentional and particular way.  By bringing Kate into their house, and by using a crate so as to accommodate Kate’s doggyness, they are creating a little outward and visible sign of one of the fundamental roles God has given human beings: to govern the world so that dogs can be dogs and guinea pigs can be guinea pigs.  We might say that it is simply part of our humanness to steward the horseness of horses.
 
When an animal becomes a pet, becomes a Haustier, we usually give it a name.  When a puppy belongs to this particular little girl, the puppy becomes Kate.  We move beyond categories like “humanity” and “creation,” which are so big as to become abstract.  But we do not live in abstraction.  We have particular loves and particular sorrows.   Even our love for the natural world takes particular shapes and trajectories.  Each of us is committed to a particular patch of ground, this or that particular corner of the Edenic new creation to which we are slowly returning.  It is for this new creation that we hope and work, even as we shed tears for the horses and guinea pigs, the Amiras and Howdys, we have lost along the way.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
 

Continuing Education

Hi friends, I’ve just returned from a little over a week in England.  I was there attending some lectures and talking with professors as part of a large and extended continuing education project.  (And enjoying the pubs, too.)  I’d like to reflect some on why continuing our educations is so important, and then tell you a little about this specific project I’m doing.
 
One of my favorite passages in the bible is God’s leading all the creatures of the earth to the first man “to see what he would call them” (Gen.2:19).  God engages a faculty the man did not know he had: learning, matching mind to world.  God educates him.  To educate is to ex ducere, “to lead out.” God leads the creatures out from burrows and nests and shadows that they might be known by Adam, a Creature-Who-Knows.  That’s part of our job as human beings: to be the creatures on earth who are reflective, who not only engage physically with our environment as animals do, but who also tell stories about it, interpret its past, imagine its future.  Of all God’s creatures, we are the ones tasked with discovering and creating meanings.  We’re the ones whose currency is symbol.
 
To do this, we must learn.  We are all God’s students.  When God leads all the other creatures out so that Adam can name them, we are witnessing Adam’s learning how to think.  It is not enough, apparently, that tigers and hummingbirds and javelinas simply exist; they must be named and thought about.  When we see Adam naming all the creatures, we see their becoming recognizable to him.  They’re thinkable now.  Adam can remember that tigers are scary and best watched from only a great distance, and because of this, he can communicate to Eve and Cain and Abel that God’s power is terrifying—like the ferocity of a tiger.  Adam can think and communicate that hummingbirds are beautiful as they flit about the flowers, filling their throats with rubies.  Because Adam can name this, he can contemplate it.  He can communicate to his friends and family that the grace of God comes to us like nectar from a flower.  They, in turn, can understand him, and can respond with their own wisdom.
 
What does all this have to do with education the way you and I usually experience it?  When we learn—whether by reading a book or conversing with a friend or going to a class or traveling—God ‘leads out to us’ a new idea or experience or emotion, and we put language on it.  We ‘name it’ as Adam named the javelinas.  This gives the idea or experience or emotion a distinct shape in our minds.  We learn its contours.  As it becomes uniquely recognizable to us, it becomes communicable to others.  When a new parent says, “having a child is like having your heart walk around on the outside of your chest,” they are naming a new reality.
 
Another example might be helpful.  The other day I was meeting with someone who is working through some significant questions related to her work.  We prayed together, and as we prayed we arrived at asking God to make her “patient and relentless” as she seeks clarity about her questions.  We were both a bit surprised at the word choice, but were struck by how fitting it was.  One can be unceasing in prayer, or diligent, or disciplined.  But none of those have quite the force of being relentless.  In naming her experience in this way, we were better able to recognize it afterwards.  The naming is part and parcel of the learning: “ah, yes, this is what it’s like.”  Going forward, each of us has now learned that some of life’s big questions demand that we be relentless in pursuing them.  Until we had named the experience in that way, neither of us could have identified it quite rightly.  As speaking beings, we can’t think what we can’t name. 
 
The same is no less true of more formalized kinds of education: books and syllabi and taking classes.  For example, for decades Christians talked about the Holy Spirit, about Jesus Christ, and about the God who is Jesus’ Father in Heaven.  But until a man named Tertullian used the word Trinity at some point late in the 2nd or early in the 3rd century CE, the unity that exists between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit was even more difficult for Christians to think and speak about.  By committing his reflections to writing, generations of Christians thenceforward have learned a helpful way to name, and therefore to contemplate, the particular mystery that is God’s triune oneness.
 
This brings me to the specific continuing education project I’m working on.  This past fall, I began an MA with the University of Nottingham in England.  (Yes, Nottingham as in “Sheriff of.”)  It’s a distance degree, largely self-paced and research-oriented, with regular supervision and feedback from professors.    Once every spring, there are lectures at the university which distance students like me attend.  That’s where I was this past Sunday.  I’m working on the degree at the slowest possible pace, only turning in essays every six months or so.  This degree is how I’ve chosen to invest the continuing education and travel budget St. Liz provides as part of the vicar’s compensation package.
 
So, what is this degree in?  The degree is in Systematic and Philosophical Theology.  The simplest way to define theology is just to say that theology is the practice of speaking true statements about God.  In this sense, we’re all theologians.  What academic theologians do is frequently different in depth, breadth, and technical rigor than what we do on Sunday morning or in Life Groups, but at root it’s not fundamentally different.  The tools Christian theologians use, at universities and at St. Liz, are scripture, tradition, and reason.  (This last should be as broadly defined as possible, including experience and imagination.)  These are not neat and mutually exclusive categories—but that’s another post for another day!
 
What makes theology systematic?  If theology is the practice of crafting true statements about God, then systematic theology is the discipline of gathering those true statements together and showing how they are part of a coherent whole.  This involves responding to the myriad questions these statements raise, either on their own or when held next to each other.  For example, it’s one thing to say, “God loves all people.”  It’s another thing to say, “God will judge all people and nations.”  And it’s yet another thing to say, “the human soul is eternal because it is the imprint of God’s image.”  All these are theological statements; they are all true from an orthodox Christian perspective; and yet it’s not at all clear how we can hold all three of them together in a coherent whole.  If God is the judge of all people and nations, and if the human soul exists eternally, then it would seem that God’s judgments on human beings will endure eternally.  Well and good.  And yet if God is also loving, then how could God render a judgment of condemnation?
 
We become systematic theologians when we undertake the task of articulating as fully as possible how these three statements might coexist.  In short, a systematic theologian is simply someone who is trying to be consistent and clear when they speak of God and God’s relation to the created order.  If I say X about God, I am accountable to that utterance when I also try to say Y or Z about God.
 
What makes theology philosophical?  I confess that “philosophical theology” is a newer phrase for me.  From what I can tell, theology is philosophical when it does not shy away from concepts that can only be discussed in the abstract.  For example, we might say that qualities like goodness or truth can inhere in any number of more concrete objects, but to talk about goodness itself can only be undertaken in the abstract, which is to say philosophically.  For example, a bicycle can be good and a grape can be good, but because they are good for quite different reasons—ever try to ride a grape or make jelly from a bicycle?!—articulating the quality of goodness that they have in common, and which they get from God, demands a level of philosophical abstraction.  You can’t point to goodness the way you can point to a grape, but this does not mean that goodness is not real and worthy of our reflection.
 
If all of that leaves you a bit cold, don’t worry; theology of this sort isn’t for everybody.  (And thank God for that.  Church would be a miserable place if we all went around pontificating about metaphysics!)  I’m undertaking this degree for several reasons.  The first is that part of my job as a preacher, teacher and pastor is to help us as a community put language on our experience of God and of the world.  This helps us to name it, to recognize it, to communicate it to each other.  The discipline of study keeps me encountering newer and newer ‘creatures,’ so to speak, and therefore keeps the repository of language and concept from which I draw fresh and fluid and intelligible.  (Well, hopefully.)  The second reason I’m undertaking this degree is simply because learning is a source of great happiness for me, and I like being happy.
 
As I said earlier, I’m working on this degree at the slowest possible pace.  I began in the fall and only just turned in my first essay at the end of February.  That one was seeking to articulate how we understand the authority of Holy Scripture.  I’ll probably write about that in a couple weeks.  I’ll turn in another essay at the end of August.  That one will be about how the New Testament Canon became what it is today.  When I finish that one, I’ll be sure to write about what I learned!
 
Finally, thank you for supporting me in this.  St. Elizabeth and the Diocese of West Texas are making this degree possible, both financially and in supporting me with the space and time actually to work on it.  I am profoundly grateful, and I pray that this course of study bears fruit in our community of faith.
 
More soon.
 
Gods Peace,
 
Fr. Danie

Ecclesial Snark

Hi friends, as a minister whose email address is available on our website, I get a great deal of mass emails from various ministry-related organizations.  Solicitations of what new books are out; dozens of different community organizations (local and otherwise); bulk invitations to gigantic preacher conferences; and all kinds of church consultants looking to help me do x, y, or z.  I don’t read any that I’ve not signed up for personally or that aren’t from the Episcopal Church.  Usually, I just delete them or unsubscribe. 
 
But on Maundy Thursday I got one that pushed a button.  Maundy Thursday is one of the most powerful services of the Church year.  Jesus gathers with his disciples for a final time.  They share a meal—the meal which Christians will continue as the Holy Eucharist—and Jesus washes their feet.  Judas leaves the gathering to betray Jesus.  Our Lord goes into the Garden of Gethsemane and prays, “Father, let this cup pass from me, but thy will be done.”  At Church, the altar is stripped and the cross shrouded in black as we enter into the beauty, drama, and holy terror of Good Friday.
 
The mass email I got was from a consulting firm I’d never heard of, and they were offering to help me grow our church budget by some ridiculous percentage during Easter Sunday and the weeks following.  The email itself was filled with Alleluias and images of Easter Lilies.  Again, they sent it on Maundy Thursday.
 
I was alone in the office at the time, so I indulged in a brief…ah…monologue, might be the best word, as I scrolled down to the unsubscribe link hidden in teeny, tiny letters at the bottom.  I was delighted to find that this particular email distribution gave me options as to why I was unsubscribing, including one that said “Other,” followed by a comments blank.  I ticked this option, and—filled with righteousness!—what I said was something like:
 
You sent me an Easter-themed email on Maundy Thursday.  This does not engender confidence in your organization.
 
This is pretty tame as far as responses go, but at the time I felt that my restraint was simply further evidence of my ecclesial superiority, a way of communicating “I don’t have time for you” while actually going out of my way to respond.  So let’s call this what it is: unnecessary Church snark.
 
Not all traditions observe Lent the way we do.  Nor do all traditions observe Holy Week with the level of intentionality that Episcopalians do.  I’m sure the staff of such and such consulting firm is just doing their jobs.  After all, I, too, make plans for Easter season before Easter is actually upon us.  There’s no way around it.
 
I bring all of this up to highlight a tension I know some of us (and perhaps many of us) feel: the tension between respecting other ways of doing Church and claiming unreservedly our convictions about the way that seems genuinely best to us.  Many of us in the Episcopal Church, and at St. Liz specifically, are self-described refugees from other denominations.  I’ve heard more than one person describe themselves as a “recovering [insert previous denominational affiliation].”  For others, it’s not so much about a worldview or denomination, but about the music of a church.  Or whether a church does communion.  Or the extent to which it can be described as ‘traditional.’
 
To return to my silly little email example: I actually do believe it’s inappropriate to celebrate Easter before it’s time.  I do believe it’s inappropriate to shout (or type!) giant Alleluia’s on the night Jesus is betrayed.  I do believe that observing Holy Week with all the rituals and drama of palm processions and washing feet, of stripping the altar and sinking into the heaviness of Good Friday, with a great big celebration once it’s time for Easter—I do believe that’s the best way to do Holy Week.  We are embodied creatures, ones who experience the world with our senses and who observe rhythms in days, weeks, seasons, and years.  We are people of the Incarnation, people who believe that God is with us in this bread, in this wine, in these feet we are washing on this one special night of the calendar.  Indeed, Jesus has marked the very calendar itself with His death and resurrection.  To bring out the white lilies and talk about beefing up the church budget on Maundy Thursday really does strike me as a gross trivialization of a profound mystery.
 
I believe all of this, and I believe that my belief is good.  When I emailed our anonymous consultants, however, I was not resting in the truth of what I know, let alone remaining open to the possibility that there might be goodness in other ways of doing things.  Or open to the possibility that there might be more to this consulting firm’s perspective than simply one email.  (Or, perhaps more realistically, the possibility that this email really wasn’t worth the time!)  I could’ve just unsubscribed and gone about observing Maundy Thursday.  But instead, I chose to snark a little at people whom, for a moment at least, I held to be unenlightened barbarians.
 
That’s what ecclesial snark looks like on me: a sort of pointed smugness.  This is one of the sins of the Episcopal Church, and I occasionally perpetuate it, I’m sorry to say.  We’re an old and beautiful tradition.  Lots of poets.  Lots of intellectuals.  Lots of royalty.  Lots of founding fathers amongst our historical numbers.  That means lots of assumed superiority to shed.
 
I don’t know what ecclesial snark looks like on you.  Maybe it has to do with those ‘fundamentalists’ who don’t drink or dance.  Maybe it has to do with the hierarchy of Rome.  Maybe it has to do with church music.  Maybe you’re like me and are outraged that, instead of observing a holy day with the proper dignity, someone would offer to help your church raise a bunch of Easter money.  Or perhaps you’re simply not guilty of this particular church sin.  I hope that’s the case.  In my experience, there are a great many people at St. Liz who possess that particular brand of holiness called not taking ourselves too seriously.
 
But if you’re like me and you do suffer from the occasional bout of snarkiness, I hope you’ll attempt some appreciative inquiry about whichever group it is that drives you snarky.  Perhaps there’s some ascetic virtue in the abstinence from drink you can’t abide in those ‘fundamentalists.’  Perhaps there’s great value in having a Magisterium, a value which has somehow been obscured.  Perhaps the sense of righteousness that came with sending that email is something else entirely.
 
I also hope you’ll be intentional in articulating the conviction you hold that, perhaps in your less kind or less patient moments, manifests as snark.  The conviction might very well be a deep and holy one.  Oftentimes snark is simply the result of a good thing bent to bad use.
 
God’s Peace,
 
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

St. Liz Kidz Registration is Live!

Hi friends, you may have heard rumors of a new summer program St. Liz is starting.  The rumors are true!  We are proud to introduce St. Liz Kidz (SLK), a four day evening camp for all kids who will be entering kindergarten through fifth grade in fall of 2019. 
 
Some basic info: 
SLK will run from Monday, June 17th – Thursday, June 20th from 6pm-8pm and will be held onsite at St. Liz.  There is no cost to participate.
 
Registration is available at this link. Registration questions go to Krista Piferrer at events@st-liz.org Please register by May 10th.
 
Ina Jensen is our Team Lead for SLK.
 
Our theme this year is “In the Beginning.”
 
As this is our first year and we’ll inevitably be working some of the organizational kinks out as we go, space is limited.  However, this event is open to all families, regardless of whether they call St. Liz home.
 
We have a host of volunteers helping with this event, and we are still looking for older youth (jr. high and high school) to help serve as ‘sheepdogs’ alongside our adult shepherds.
 
A blessed Holy Week everyone.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
 
 

Holy Week Observance

Hi friends, on Sunday we begin Holy Week, the most sacred time in the Church year.  A full schedule of services is available on the website and on take-home calendars at the church.  Today, I want to suggest something simple: mark this week, amongst all weeks, as special by adopting some kind of intentional devotion.
 
I don’t necessarily mean anything grand or dramatic; one need not wear sackcloth.  But there are lots of practices available to us.  Fast on Good Friday (from meat, from alcohol, from lunch entirely, etc. as appropriate for age, health, and activity level).  Come to Morning Prayer on Tuesday like you’ve been meaning to do for so many weeks.  Write that letter to your godchild you’ve been meaning to write.  Plant a flower bed.  Tell the coach your family is skipping baseball/track/volleyball on Good Friday, just this once, because, well, this Friday is different.
 
Holy Week is a lot: a lot of worship, a lot of bible passages, a lot of divine and human drama, a lot to think about, and—in the end!—a lot to celebrate.  Any special devotions we observe, whether privately at home or publicly in worship, don’t get us extra sainthood points.  They’re simply ways to remind us that it’s good and right to let first things come first.  For us, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth is the first thing.  (It’s also the last thing.)
 
So, if you’re looking for a way to let this week be special during your own time, here’s one very simple but specific idea.  On Palm Sunday, we’re going to hear the Passion Narrative of Luke’s Gospel.  It’s the full Last Supper, trial, and crucifixion narrative.  If you’re like me, hearing a text just once in worship on Sunday doesn’t always let it sink in all the way.  So tonight, why not sit down with your own bible and read it?  The full passage is Luke 22:14 – Luke 23:56.  Read the whole thing; hear it again at worship on Sunday; and then maybe read it again on Monday or Tuesday of Holy Week.  Sit with all the betrayal, the confusion, the tension, the violence, the strangeness of it all.  Sink with Christ into the darkness as he is blindfolded.  Listen to the voices of the thieves crucified with Jesus on either side of him.  Feel the Centurion’s…well, what exactly does he feel?
 
And then, at sundown on Saturday, just before Easter, read the Easter account, Luke 24:1-12.  It picks up right where the Palm Sunday Passion ends, and it’s where we’ll be for Easter morning…with flowers!
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

Contemplative Prayer, or How to Play with a Flying Squirrel

Hi friends, one of my Lenten practices this year has been to spend some time every day in contemplative silence and stillness, ideally a solid twenty minutes each day.  This has never come easily to me, and this Lent has been no different.  If my ‘success’ at this Lenten practice were recorded in a fitness app on my phone, it would probably say, “Personal Best: 18 mostly contemplative minutes.  Longest Daily Prayer Streak: 3 days.”
 
It’s a discipline I resist, actively and passively, but it’s also one of whose importance I am convinced, if for no other reason than because wiser souls than mine have told me it’s important.
 
I think part of why I resist prayerful stillness and silence so relentlessly is that, of all the ways one could pray, this one perhaps renders us the most passive.  It’s rare that anything ever happens in stillnessAt least when I pray the Daily Office, I’m saying words and reading the bible and bowing and doing church things!  But simply to sit (not even kneeling?!) and let my mind wander without attaching myself to any of those wanderings…wait, why am I doing this again?  This is a waste of time.
 
And yet this contemplative practice (or ones like it) has been of fundamental importance to some of the greatest Christian practitioners in history, from the desert mothers and fathers of the early church to Thomas Merton to Sarah Coakley to some of the regular, unsung saints I meet all the time.  Why is that?
 
As I am still very much a beginner with this practice, I don’t really know.  My best guess is that contemplative silence returns us to the most basic ontological truth of being a human person: we are here on God’s terms, not ours.  If nothing ‘happens’ in prayer, well, that’s God’s prerogative.  Besides, because prayer is concerned with the deepest level of our being, the bright core of us where God alone lives, it’s not clear why we should expect to be aware of what change God is working in us, anyway.
 
All this is on my mind as we cross the halfway mark of Lent.  I still don’t like being still; I am still a beginner at all this; and yet I can see it on the faces of so many people whose words and wisdom I trust that twenty’ish minutes of contemplative prayer each day is spiritually good for us in a profound way.
 
A couple weeks ago, I had an experience that has helped me put some words on what might be happening in contemplative prayer.  Lucy and I were in Alabama, visiting our godson, Thompson.  He’s six, and it had been a while since we’d gotten to see him.  As part of our catching up, we heard about all the major life events that have happened since the last time we saw him: lost teeth, flag football games, new dance moves learned or invented, etc.  One major life event since the last time we saw Thompson is that his family has gotten a new pet: her name is Roo, and she’s a Southern Flying Squirrel.
 
This is big news.  Roo was still young when they found her hiding in their church (Thompson’s dad, Corey, is a priest), and it wasn’t clear if her family was still around.  So, they took her to the vet, learned she was healthy but maybe got lost from her squirrel family, and then adopted her. 
 
Now Roo lives in a big cage in their living room, replete with numerous hidey holes and lots of wooden climbing things.  Roo is tiny, and because she is so tiny, Thompson and his older brother explained, there are rules about how you can play with her.  These are the rules:
 
First, you bring Roo’s cage into the small hallway in the middle of the house.
 
Second, you close all the doors leading into and out of the hallway.
 
Third, you grab lots of towels from the closet, and you wedge them under the doors.  Roo is so tiny she could crawl under the doors and get into places that might not be safe for her to go.
 
Fourth, everyone sits very quietly on the floor, and then you open the door to Roo’s cage.  You’re not allowed to reach in and grab Roo. You can’t force her to play with you; you have to sit very quietly in the hallway, and let her come to you.
 
So there we were: Thompson, his brother, their dad, two other friends of ours, Lucy, and me—all sitting in total silence on the floor of the hallway, waiting on this flying squirrel to hop out of her cage and find one of us.
 
For a while, nothing happened.  But eventually, Roo hopped out of her cage, and ran into the corner, between Corey and the wall.  A moment later, she appeared on Corey’s shoulder, and then on top of Corey’s head.   We laughed quietly, at once thrilled with the prospect that Roo might alight on us next, but also trying not to break our shared silence, the spell that makes it safe for Roo to play with us.
 
Roo disappeared from Corey’s head, then reappeared on top of her cage.  Another disappearance and then—ooh!—I felt her tiny claws climbing up the back of my shirt.  From my mouth erupted a sound I will likely never be able to repeat (a mix of surprise, excitement, and anxiety, all suppressed into an awkward kazoo chirp as I tried not to frighten Roo away).  I involuntarily hunched over, my face to the ground.  Roo climbed up my back until she perched on the back of my neck, sniffing the air and looking around at all the laughing faces.
 
We played this game a while longer, Roo vanishing along the baseboards only to reappear on a shoulder or on top of her own cage, and all the while we never spoke in anything but short, expectant whispers.  After maybe twenty minutes, Corey scooped Roo back into her cage, we stood, opened all the doors, and the spell was over.  Of the seven of us crammed into the tiny hallway, Roo had alighted on maybe four of us.
 
This experience with Thompson and his family and their new pet has become a kind of parable for me for what prayerful stillness and silence are like.  The rules are quite simple: go into the innermost corridor of yourself, and close the doors of distraction.  Even wedge towels under the gaps of the doors, so you can’t hear your phone buzz with emails or texts.  Sit very quietly, being very still, and wait for the Holy Spirit to come out.  She’s been with us this whole time, but we tend to be so loud or frantic that we won’t let Her touch us.  When She does come out, we may be aware of Her presence, or we may not.  She moves on Her own terms; She is not a tame squirrel.
 
But when She does land on you—ooh!—it’s a strange sensation, so strange that you’d almost rather see Her land on other people’s heads than feel the wild intimacy of Her claws up your neck. 
 
What a strange but wonderful gift for God to make a home with us here, to build into the architecture of a human life a quiet hallway in which the Divine Wildness might leap and scurry freely about.  It is a brave and necessary thing to enter the quiet hallway of prayer, however much we may resist it, a brave and necessary thing to offer God’s Wildness our fullest and most patient attention.  It is brave because God is wild and does not simply appear when we call; God resists our attempts to force Her out of hiding.  It is necessary because it is natural: we are people of the Incarnation, which is to say that our bodies, sole to crown, are the ecosystem in which the Holy Spirit has chosen to play.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 

The Goal is Good Churching

Hi friends, 2019 is already an exciting time at St. Liz.  A new playground, a new Godly Play group for older kids, our experimental new Campsite service at 8:15am, plans for this summer’s St. Liz Kidz camp, increased clarity around volunteer roles in the form of job descriptions, and a new roof going up…and that’s on top of all the good things that are already part of our life together!
 
Much of this growth is exciting and easy to embrace.  Lots of kids can be a bit chaotic, but it’s a joyful chaos.  A new playground is good news. (It was the site of an intense game of Simon Says after church this week.  Alas, I never got to be Simon….)  A complete set of volunteer job descriptions may not be an obvious cause for celebration, but it’s a big step towards sustainable, long-term health.  Our spring class of newcomers are engaged and getting to know everyone.
 
Something like adding a second service on Sunday mornings, however, is a kind of change that brings a bit more anxiety.  A brief update: as you’ll recall, we are currently in the midst of a temporary experiment with an 8:15am Eucharist that is pared down from our 10:30am service.  Before we settle on a more permanent schedule, however, we need a lot more feedback from the congregation.  Your Bishop’s Committee will focus on this at our next meeting on April 14th, and the plan is to solicit broad congregational feedback during Easter Season (April 28th – June 9th).  As of now, the earliest we would begin a more permanent two-service schedule would be fall of 2019.
 
Today, however, I want to address some of our anxieties about this new, ‘second service’ territory.  Anxiety about adding a second service is natural because let’s face it: right now, Sunday mornings are really good.  Not perfect, certainly, but really, really good.  Why risk that by adding a second service?  What’s our goal in doing this?
 
The first question is more difficult because it’s the one that confronts us with the hardest truth: the Church doesn’t belong to us, and therefore, neither does our Sunday morning schedule.  The Church is the Body of Christ, which means that our life together takes its form and content from Jesus of Nazareth.  Jesus is the One whom God sent into the world that the world might be saved; His very life was not his own, but an offering from God to the world.
 
If we would be the Body of Christ, we must likewise be an offering from God to the world, the bread of heaven given from the doors of St. Liz.  In simpler terms, we might say that the Church is an organization which exists for the benefit of people who are not (yet) its members.  We are the Church, but our identity as Christ’s Body is given to us, not something we have earned or made for ourselves.  This identity exists in large part in our offering the whole of our common life to those without a community of faith to call home.  This self-offering is our mission, and it includes our worship schedule (which is reaching capacity).
 
As Jesus says of his own mission, “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life in order to take it up again” (John 10:17).  If we would be a living testament to the life of Jesus of Nazareth, then we should be prepared to do likewise: for this reason the Father loves us, because we lay down our Sunday schedule in order to take it up again.
 
Right now, some of us are feeling the anxiety of realizing that we may have to lay it down.  Some of us are already excited about what it might look like when we take it back up again, which is to say what its resurrection might look like.  One day soon, Sunday mornings could look different than they do now.  Or, they could be largely the same.  We just don’t know yet.  What we do know is that the Holy Spirit is with us constantly in this.  Because this is the same Holy Spirit who has formed us into the loving community we are, then we can rest assured that whatever a two-service St. Liz will look like, she will still look like us. 
 
So, as you think and pray about this, remember that this is conversation is about our mission, our self-offering to those without a faith community.  Thus, I hope our guiding questions are not primarily ones of what is most convenient, interesting, or comfortable for us.  Rather, I hope they’re questions like, “What gifts has God given St. Liz, and how can we adapt and change and create space in our Sunday schedule to share those with more people?”
 
This brings me to the second question: what’s our goal in all this? 
 
Our goal with a second service is the same goal we’ve always had: being the Church, the community in which Christ reigns as Lord.  Nothing more and nothing less.  Our goal is simply to continue proclaiming the Good News of God in Jesus Christ, the forgiveness of sins and the hope of life everlasting.  The only reason we’re discerning how best to add a second service is because y’all are good at proclaiming and practicing this Good News.  Folks are catching wind of it, and we need to make room for them. 
 
In other words, growth is not our goal; it’s just the fruit of the goal.  Right now in Buda, growth is also the environment in which we find ourselves.  Growth is not only the fruit of good Churching; it’s also the context in which we must carry out our mission.
 
Here’s what I mean: the population of Buda within a seven-mile radius of St. Liz is projected to grow by 20% by 2023.  That’s the fastest growing area in the Diocese of West Texas.  That’s the environment we’re in, the sheer fact of a growing town.
 
But St. Liz is also bearing fruit.  Because of your good Churching, St. Liz has grown even faster than Buda recently.  I did the math today, and double checked it with the congregational development folks at the diocesan office to make sure I was reading the data correctly.  I wasn’t; we’ve grown faster than I thought we had.  If the city of Buda is projected to grow by 20% by 2023, St. Liz has grown by almost 39% since this time last year.
 
Now, we’re a congregation that tends to have higher attendance in the spring than in summer and fall, so I don’t expect we’ll finish 2019 with an average Sunday attendance we currently have (around 111).  And because that 39% growth rate is so high, and because it’s a fairly recent trend, we shouldn’t expect to continue growing quite that rapidly.  (A measure of relief is appropriate!)  But make no mistake: this is fast, and everything points towards a continued upward trend.
 
You heard it right, folks: it’s probable that St. Liz is growing faster than the fastest growing area of the Diocese of West Texas.  I will say it again: growth is not our goal; our goal is always and only good Churching.  Growth is just a fact of the environment in which we pursue this goal.  Because y’all are who you are, St. Liz is just growing a little faster than the community around us.  I’m grateful to be a part of it.
 
Let’s keep doing what we’re doing.
 
God’s Peace,
 
Fr. Daniel+
 
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