A week ago I was blessed to preach again at St John’s Norwood Episcopal Church and I invited everyone to join me on an exercise, to begin each day with gratitude praying with the Book of Common Prayer on pg. 836… A General Thanksgiving. In case you don’t have a BCP, I’ll include the prayer here, and I invite you to read it aloud. It’s also available in the online version of the BCP…
Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have
done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole
creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life,
and for the mystery of love.
We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for
the loving care which surrounds us on every side.
We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best
efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy
and delight us.
We thank you also for those disappointments and failures
that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.
Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the
truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast
obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying,
through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life
again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.
Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and
make him known; and through him, at all times and in all
places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.
My hope was that intentionally beginning each day with gratitude would help orient me toward seeing things each day in which I could give more thanks, and I would be better able to fend off the things which would move me toward ingratitude, spite or anger.
My reflections on the week include my joy and deep gratitude for my wife, with whom I often shared this prayer in the morning. I also reflected how she is in a season of accomplishment at her work, and we are constantly delighted by her reaching new goals and heights in her efforts at work and school. And I think I felt a deep connection to the community of Christ, not only in the Episcopal tradition, but in a broader sense, to the community of souls who see God’s love and touch in both the ups and downs of daily life.
I’ve decided to keep this up for another week. Want to go along? I lack the discipline to be doing this at the same time each morning, but at some point in each morning I make time to read and center myself in all of God’s goodness in my life. I’d love to hear of your practice and any reflections after the week!
You know, there’s not anything huge on my mind at the moment, but it feels like a good time to throw this out. StickerMule, my fav company that I use to make my custom pins and stickers sent me a deal this week to make 50 stickers for $19 and I thought, “Hmmmmm, what would I say on a sticker right now?”
This is what came bubbling up… “I support, love, need, appreciate, include, welcome, admire and will defend my LGBTQ friends, family and neighbors because I’m a Christian.” Not in spite of my faith, but fully from within it. We find ourselves in a time in our country when certain people within the Christian faith are taking the time and opportunity to speak out against these friends, family and neighbors, with renewed vigor and probably energized at least in part by our current Administration in the White House.
This trend really bums me out, but that’s almost all the power it has over me, to bum me out. The trend is far more detrimental to anyone who finds themselves on an LGBTQ journey in life. And if anyone finds themselves sidelined or excluded by those Christians, please know that they are not the sum total of our voice, faith or heart for you.
What trending am I talking about? Well there’s the Trump Administration’s targeting of Transgender military service members. And not because they have neglected their duty or underperformed in their service in any way… simply because they are Transgender. In my own church family a local Episcopal Bishop in his state has defied our decision as a national church to fully honor the dignity and right of all people to have access to full participation in the church and its rites. And there seems to be no end to spiteful signs waved in the name of Christ.
So yeah, I love you. I admire your courage to own the journey behind you and to face the journey ahead of you. You should be included because you are a valuable part of the human whole. And no, the Bible is not your enemy, and neither are Christians… at least, they shouldn’t be. So please know you’re welcome in my life, my faith and my journey, not because you necessary need me, but because I need you. Hang in there and we’ll work together to make the best of 2019 for all people.
To start off the new year of 2019, and in recognition that I need this so badly right now, I’ve worked on a simple novena with the Holy Spirit. I welcome anyone who would like to join me for the next nine days and I’d love to hear about your experience!
What is a Novena? The short answer is that a novena is a nine day stretch of special prayer emphasis. This is an ancient Christian practice which is connected to many things including a traditional count of nine days between Christ’s Ascension and the day of Pentecost in the lives of the Apostles, and even a pre-Christian period of mourning and prayer in Roman culture. There’s nothing magical about a novena, or the number nine, and it surely cannot put any obligation on God. It is prayer, and as such God hears us and loves us. Prayer changes us by helping us stay focused and in tune with God, and this novena practice is simply a method of prayer.
With this novena we’ll look into some scriptures, a new passage each day, but we aren’t doing scholarly theological work. We’ll look into these holy words for inspiration and encouragement. We’ll see how these scriptures illuminate the work of God’s Spirit to bind us together into a whole, with one another and with the Divine.
Here’s the plan, in two easy pieces, 1) Morning & 2) The Rest of the Day:
MORNING: (or morning’ish if you get busy) Begin each day by reading its passage and the very short reflection, and then use the following prayer, changing it to reflect your own faith and experiences if you’d like, to begin a time of prayer. The whole morning exercise might be ten minutes long.
“Holy Spirit, here I am. I would draw nearer to you,
nearer to my God and nearer to my Savior Christ.
I would be more fully present with my family, friends and neighbors.
Help me be the person you would make of me.
Through Christ. Amen.”
DAY-NIGHT: Throughout the rest of the day, let the passage and your prayers go with you. Reflect on them when you can. If anything comes to your mind or heart, you can journal those notes to keep them. If you’d like, feel free to read the passage again and pray as often as you like. As you go to bed, give a few minutes of prayer to reconnect with God in gratitude for the day and hope for tomorrow.
Easy peazy, right? I’ll be doing this for the next nine days, January 1-9, and I invite you along for the ride. Again, I’d love to hear about your experience with this novena practice. Be well, beloved, and Happy New Year!
Spirit of Life – Galatians 5:22-26 “By contrast, the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires. If we live by the Spirit, let us also be guided by the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, competing against one another, envying one another.”
We begin with this beautiful metaphor of the way that opening ourselves up to the Spirit of God can change us. The best things are grown from our hearts and minds when we allow the Spirit to change our hearts and minds. Can I imagine God transforming me to show and to share more love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in an often hurting world?
Spirit of Community – Ephesians 2:13-22 “But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of the two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone. In him the whole structure is joined together and grows into a holy temple in the Lord; in whom you also are built together spiritually into a dwelling place for God.”
In Christ our racial and national divisions are made inconsequential. God’s Spirit would grow us together, removing barriers and binding us to one another. Am I open to less hostility in my life, open to more peace between myself and all my neighbors, and open to being together with people not like me?
Spirit of Service – Romans 12:1-8 “I appeal to you therefore, brothers and sisters, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect. For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned. For as in one body we have many members, and not all the members have the same function, so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually we are members one of another. We have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us: prophecy, in proportion to faith; ministry, in ministering; the teacher, in teaching; the exhorter, in exhortation; the giver, in generosity; the leader, in diligence; the compassionate, in cheerfulness.”
Has the Spirit called me to ministry? To service? Have I felt at times that I have a gift? This is all for the building up of our community of faith. Have I worked to move my ego aside and desired to be put to service for others around me?
Spirit of Diversity & Unity – 1 Corinthians 12:4-12 “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. To one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the discernment of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. All these are activated by one and the same Spirit, who allots to each one individually just as the Spirit chooses. 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.”
The Spirit seems to be a powerful player among us, enabling us for ministry and communal service. We aren’t all made to be alike, but in diversity we are made to be one whole. Have I appreciated all the people around me who are not gifted as I am or talented in the things I enjoy and have pursued? Have I told them?
Spirit of Hope – John 14:25-27 “I have said these things to you while I am still with you. But the Advocate, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you everything, and remind you of all that I have said to you. Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.”
Jesus spoke these words to the apostles about the coming of The Spirit. Have I sought The Spirit’s presence for wisdom, truth and peace? Am I more focused these days on things which blind my wisdom, hide the truth and steal my peace?
Spirit of Strength – Romans 8:24-27 “For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
Does it help to know that The Spirit is praying with us, even when we can’t hear those prayers? Does it help to know that our weakness is not a sign of or cause of God’s absence, but our weakness is actually an open door for God’s Spirit and presence in our lives and struggles?
Spirit of Renewal – Titus 3:3-5 “For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
I have to admit that I often feel like I am still quite stuck in life dominated by thoughts and habits very foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating… So, can I pray with an extra depth, “O Spirit of God, renew me!”
Spirit of Freedom – 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.And all of us, with unveiled faces, seeing the glory of the Lord as though reflected in a mirror, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord, the Spirit.”
In a time when organized religion is not always associated with freedom, but sometimes with oppression and captivity, can I revel in the freedom of the Spirit? Can I gift that freedom to others around me, loving them and serving them with a whole heart?
Spirit of Presence – Acts 2:1-4 & 14-18 “When the day of Pentecost had come, they were all together in one place. And suddenly from heaven there came a sound like the rush of a violent wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. Divided tongues, as of fire, appeared among them, and a tongue rested on each of them. All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other languages, as the Spirit gave them ability… But Peter, standing with the eleven, raised his voice and addressed them, “Men of Judea and all who live in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and listen to what I say. Indeed, these are not drunk, as you suppose, for it is only nine o’clock in the morning. No, this is what was spoken through the prophet Joel: ‘In the last days it will be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams. Even upon my slaves, both men and women, in those days I will pour out my Spirit; and they shall prophesy.”
Have I had any dreams or visions in this novena time? Have I heard God? Have I felt the Spirit? Have I grown in my desire to know God’s Spirit? It’s not always like we think it should be, and the apostles were even considered drunk when the Spirit was poured out on the world and they spoke in all those languages. Maybe I’m expecting one thing and God is doing something else?
After the Novena:
Is there an insight you want to carry forward? Write it down, pray over it and share it with others in your faith community. And I’d love to hear about your experience! All to God’s glory and the benefit of the earth. Amen.
I had to go to the MVA yesterday. Yes, the dreaded Motor Vehicle Administration of Maryland. It might be the DMV where you live or some other innocuous sounding jumble of letters, but it means the same thing: a little death. My vehicle registration had expired on June 1, and yesterday was June 13, but it had taken me that long to track down all the flags and little things to tidy up before I could renew, to the tune of several hundred dollars. I thought it was all done, and I thought I’d be in and out of there.
I arrived to find that EZPass, the nefarious organization which runs a local crime syndicate called “Tollway” had more outstanding fines for me to pay than their enforcer had told me on the phone last week. I had been told that the $50 I paid last week would get me in the clear, but their mob muscle at the MVA detailed another $650 or so I’d have to pay before I could ever drive legally again on Maryland turf. I posted the Gif here of a collapsing baby on Facebook from a place of inner pain and hopeless I thought could only be visualized by the falling innocence and dejection of an infant who would surely also flop right off the couch and land on their face. #carpetburn Really, this was all too much to take in… so much worse than their only having Diet Pepsi available as the low calorie soda option in the vending machine.
I was upset. I was stunned. I did not have $650 to clear my good name and my Nissan’s registration. Of course, I could have yelled and stamped my feet. I really, really, really wanted to yell and stamp my feet and basically wig the fruit right out of my grits and bacon. But let’s be real for a minute… everything and I mean everything my faith is supposed to be about is about not doing that kind of thing. I am supposed to be forgiving, patient, kind, joyful in distress and expectant of good things, among other things, all of which sound great in sermons and hymns and are really difficult at the MVA. I don’t know what exactly the woman with EZPAss saw in my face, the hopelessness, the patience, or just a face not screaming obscenities at her from a mess of my own making, but she next says these amazing and unexpected words: Have you ever had a one-time waiver?
A one-time waiver? I’ve suddenly got that feeling like Katniss when the salve dropped in on a chiming parachute to heal Pita: hope.
I have not had this thing, tell me more. She goes on to detail that she has the power to give me this waiver and bids me wait a moment while she checks and receives instructions from a small robot overlord on her desk she reverently called “My System.” She smiles and explains that all my many $50+ fines adding up to almost $650 can all be magically changed to $3 fines, but only once in my life. There can be only one. I had not had this done for me ever, so she could do it now, and all my fines and fees and great debt were shrunk to a total of $70.
I like to rant about the MVA. It’s fun to rant on the MVA. But once I cleared things with EZPass, I was out of there in barely more than thirty minutes updating the address on my license and renewing my registration. So as much as ranting might be fun and even funny, I have to be grateful. I have to be thankful. I’m so thankful that EZPass is housed at the MVA and I didn’t have to travel across the state to find them. And I’m glad I didn’t go nuts, because I’m supposed to be nice. I’m grateful for the ease with which things were settled, and for keeping my fruit together. Amen.
You’ve maybe seen the story and the headlines floating around which declare that the NRA banned guns during the Vice President’s appearance at their convention. And many of us shared it right along to lay a zap on those bad NRA peoples… and even fewer thought to check it out. A few moments searching would reveal that those tantalizing headlines weren’t entirely accurate. And yes, I’m going to chide you for sharing them.
If you know me, then you know I’m no fan of the NRA’s leadership and agenda. I don’t believe they support the 2nd Amendment, but a dangerous and dishonest interpretation of the 2nd Amendment. I also find misinformation equally distasteful. In this day and age of so much information being shared, posted and promulgated, we must learn to fact check things and dig deeper! Or we look silly, dishonest and gullible. We like to make our opponents look bad, to score easy points, to zap’em and to “win.” Please. There’s more at stake than points in a political game of words and insults!
The truth of the story is that the NRA did not ban guns during Pence’s speech, but the Secret Service did. Why? To protect Pence, of course. The moral of the story is still the same… more guns in public do not make people safer, but in fact no guns make them safest. The government knows this. The Secret Service knows this… and safety is their job. But if we rush to make this a story about the NRA’s hypocrisy, then the really valuable and true lesson is lost, along with our credibility. We need a safer future, one with fewer guns in our public lives, one with sane and common sense gun legislation, and one with less misinformation banging around in our Facebook echo chambers.
Let’s do all we can to keep it real. Yes, those inaccurate headlines appealed to me, and yes they fit so nicely with my own worldview and assumptions. Too well, in fact, and that’s exactly why I didn’t share them. Instead, I checked the facts. Be blessed all, and be careful what you share!
I’ve had several things on mind for my first follow up post to “Why am I still a Christian?” Those several things were completely derailed by the school shooting in Florida. We must do more than pray, but that doesn’t mean we don’t pray. We must believe in more than the new status quo of gun violence, and that means we all need some time searching our souls, engaging in conversations and building stronger bridges between diverse communities in our society. Can our faith add meaning to this dialogue?
Let’s talk about some meaning in life. Growing up in church I remember the Beatitudes as regular Sunday School material, but somewhere along the way to adulthood we seemed to leave that section behind. Other than good material for kids to memorize, I can’t honestly say I recall our giving too much energy to this passage of Jesus stating some of his core values and beliefs about the world. His beliefs about what the world should be.
Blessed. Blessed are… In this short passage Jesus begins a sermon full of pretty radical content with a framework for what constitutes blessing, or what should constitute blessing. Jesus mentions eight things, eight conditions or states of life, which we should view as conditions of blessing. We know what blessing means, even if we don’t use the word except when someone sneezes. Blessing means gifted, having a reason to celebrate, happy, and it is well-wishing, empowering, a desire for someone’s good or betterment. So here they are, the states of life which constitute blessing, from Matthew’s Gospel: 1) the poor in spirit, 2) those in grief, 3) the humble, 4) all seeking justice and rightness, 5) those who show mercy, 6) those who work to keep their intentions pure, 7) all who work for peace, and 8) those who suffer for doing right in the world. There’s a ninth one at the end that usually stands alone in scholarship as it feels far more focused on the audience with Jesus that day than a broader universal blessing. We’ll stick with the generally accepted list of eight.
Can we hear these as value statements? Is this Jesus expressing a worldview? He seems to be reversing the way we think about getting ahead in life, what we want from life and how we share this life together. Too often we trade mercy and justice, peace and rightness for dominance, winning and revenge. Too often we avoid the hurting, close our ears to the grieving and make a wide detour around folks who need us most. These statements of blessing first and foremost call us to lift our eyes from our own small worlds and see more than just our own interests and pursuits. We must look to the people around us in mercy and with humility. We don’t turn away from people in grief or our hurting neighbors. We seek peace, for all people. We desire justice in the world, and we work to make that desire a reality.
Jesus has a clear message and meaning for our lives. His value statements in Matthew’s Gospel show us a picture of people trying to work with God to make a world that’s more livable, more fair and deeply healing. How would my daily decisions and life choices be different if guided by these values? And when I find myself grieving and in need of mercy, what a state of blessing I might be in if I’m surrounded by people who are following this vision of the world? The world will still have grief tomorrow, and human lives will need mercy, humility and justice. What Jesus offers us is a pattern of mind and belief which enables us, invites us, to co-create a world with God that heals and unifies. I want the world that Christ visions for us, wants for us and calls us to help realize.
“In great and small matters cause no harm,
and do not become an enemy instead of a friend.”
Yeshus Ben Sira, Ecclesiasticus 5:15-6:1
“For we are what he has made us,
created in Christ Jesus for good works,
which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
Paul, Ephesians 2:10
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Jesus, Matthew 5:43-48
I’d like to start with a confession, and then an admission. First, I’d like to confess that 2017 was a tough year for me, and I often vacillated between feeling neglected by God and neglectful of God. I was riding the struggle bus, front row. In a tough year like that it’s hard to pray, and I didn’t pray like I wish I had. In a tough year like that it’s easy to let one’s emotional desolation color all things, even the blessings, in a shadowed undervalued light. My admission is that I am still devoted to my Christ, to the call that God placed upon me so many years ago to be a servant of the world and the church. I’m ready to get off that struggle bus and begin again to serve and share life in a close-knit community of faith. But as I started this new year a question occurred to me and continued to feel very relevant for this time in my life: Why am I still a Christian?
It’s not a bad question. I’ve been a follower of Jesus Christ, by conscious choice, since my baptism when I was fifteen years old. That’s almost 33 years… my 48th birthday is next month. For the vast majority of my adult life I have been employed by churches in different positions of ministry and service. I’ve studied Christianity and other religions, and I have had many deep and wonderful relationships in and outside of the church. I have left the church tradition of my youth, pastored outside of all the established denominations, and eventually landed a few years ago in the Episcopal Church. For the last three years I’ve worked for Apple (full-time for the last two years) as a retail store technician, salesperson, trainer and most recently in store leadership. Two years out of ministry and after a rough year in 2017, I’ve been feeling very unemployable in ministry. At this moment I don’t have any firm path or prospect back into the religious vocational calling of my life.
Maybe we should start with a couple of reasons I don’t accept for why I’m still a Christian, after all these years and after so many recent disappointments. Reasons which are not accurate for why I’m still a Christian: 1) “I’m paid to be a Christian.” Nope. No one has paid me to be a professional religious person for over two years. I don’t think that was ever a reason why I was a Christian, but it’s worth mentioning that my paycheck does not depend on my faith. 2) “I have to be a Christian because all other religions are so wrong.” Nope. I’ve been leaning over the years toward something that many would call a form of universalism, though I would not say I’m a universalist. I’m not a Christian because I think that Jesus wins the grand cosmic religious competition, because I don’t think religions are intrinsically in competition.
Why still be a Christian? I’m going to be breaking this into several blogs for while, sort of a Lenten expedition for myself. Yes, next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday and Valentine’s Day! In short I have been looking at a few ideas, answers to my question: journey, experience, meaning and witness. We won’t necessarily take them in that order or hesitate to add to the list. On April 8th I’ve been invited back to the pulpit at St. John’s Norwood to preach, and the Gospel passage that day is from John 20 when the Apostle Thomas touches the wounds of his resurrected Lord. He previously rejected the witness of the women and men who had seen Jesus and demanded his own evidence. In our passage Jesus graciously allows Thomas to feel his wounds and then gives a blessing for all who accept the witness in faith without demanding a touch of their own. Today, we have the question of what to do with this amazing witness. The graphic I chose to include with this blog post is an example of meaning, the meaning that faith can give to words and decisions, to life.
Why I’m still a Christian is also a great question in view of my coming pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine in April, just 65 days away! I will be walking where Jesus walked, and seeing places and landscapes central to the lives of those early witnesses who still speak to us, today. I’m going to blog my exploration of this question to help myself hear my own thoughts, to gain clarity and hopefully to hear from you as well. May God bless your 2018, and may all our efforts to be faithful and authentic be pleasing to God and enriching for us and the world around us.