Lent 5 Year B Sermon

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Clouds of Witnesses: Down from heaven

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which gives life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

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“…because he delighted in me”…ugh, not feeling it

Psalm 18:20 He brought me out into an open place; *

A year ago this week I paused at Psalm 18 to reflect in my personal scriptural journal on this first line of the last couplet and specifically at the phrase, an open place.  The ‘open place‘ (elsewhere in scripture referred to as the ‘broad place’) as a biblical metaphor is one of that has captured my imagination – opening doors to my understanding of the intention in God’s creation – one that allows that though the passageway to union with God might indeed be narrow, the land – the geography – the space where life is best lived in harmony with God and where God’s will be done, is broad and open and with room for all of creation to dwell.

I paused at these words last year because my experience of the open place, and specifically God drawing me into it, was different than the promise suggests.  I was newly ordained and serving in a parish I thought to continue serving for a very long time.   But the message I was receiving from my superior conflicted – thwarted? – that plan.  I was told that the congregation was too small for two paid clergy and that my preaching and teaching was better suited for a different kind of congregation. It was all said with a smile and couched in comforting words like “you know we love you here, but….”

So, last year when I encountered this psalm in Epiphany 2 I was rethinking what the open space meant in terms of my own ministry.  I thought I had discerned God’s hand in bringing me to this particular parish, but I was hearing just the opposite from the person who had initially welcomed me into the fold.  Had I discerned wrongly?  Again?

I hadn’t remembered that I had paused here last year and was surprised to find this reflection in my journal when I went to it this morning to reflect not on the first line of the last couplet but on the second line,

20 He brought me out into an open place; *
he rescued me because he delighted in me.

“…he delighted in me” Ugh.  How I do not feel it to be so.  Pause.  Breathe.  Hold back the tears.  That is what happened when I prayed the psalm this morning.  Pause. Breathe. Think.  Go deeper, think more deeply.  Why does praying this bring up tears and why does my heart begin to race a bit?

I am no longer serving God’s church in the parish I referenced above.  I now reside in that open place the Holy Spirit had me contemplate last year.  Since Advent 1 I have floated from one congregation to another, in and out of my current home state, trying to discern God’s hand.  Is he leading me out in an open place?

Or am I here in this open place, untethered to a particular church because that is where I was intended to be all along?  Was the priestly ambition mine alone?  It is difficult for me to consider otherwise right now.  The spirit landed these words, ‘because he delighted in me’ right on my heart and my first utterance at reading them today, was

…ugh.  I hear your word, Lord, I know it to be true, God, that you save and delight in each of your children, but I cannot honestly say I feel this – I do not feel that with me you delight.

Before Christmas I was having a heart to heart with a loved one.  She was sharing some of her recent trials – things that had happened over the previous year that had set her back towards her goal of getting free from unhealthy habits.  I had suspected that she had lost her way but I hadn’t known how far it had gone.  When I asked why she hadn’t come to me sooner, why she had ignored all my texts, phone calls and emails that had offered a hand, she said, “Because you make me feel badly about myself. I didn’t want your help.

Words alone don’t make something so, even divine ones that a believer may know to be true but haven’t dropped into the heart-feeling-through-every-cell-of-their-being territory.  Maya Angelou is quoted as saying something along these lines, something to the effect,

You are not remembered for the words you write to someone, nor are you remembered for the deeds you do for others.  You will be remembered for how you make people feel.

My loved one has not experienced unadulterated love from me.  Over the years she has received many words from me, many good deeds, but at the end of the day, she doesn’t feel that I delight in her.

I’m beginning to comprehend this disconnect between words, actions and experience-feeling.   I think about all the people in my life who may or may not feel loved by me, no matter what words I have used with them over the years.  I think, too, of how I have felt loved or delighted in by others and realize that if I have a hard time feeling delighted in and loved by my Lord, I have likely made it hard on others to love me.  Sorta kinda really makes me sad and grateful at the same time – that the spirit paused me today to think on these things.

To live the gospel, to preach the gospel, to share the love and good news, it has to be felt – embodied.

Praise God from whom all blessings – and smiles and tears and feelings and open places  – come.

Daily Office Readings Year One, Thursday:  AM Psalm 18:1-20; PM Psalm 18:21-50
Isa. 41:17-29Eph. 2:11-22Mark 2:1-12

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No conversation, angry or loving = No relationship

A loved one recently texted to me, “no more,” adding that they “didn’t care or want to talk any more.” They had reached a point – the point – where they just didn’t have the patience to connect with me whenever the stars might align to do so.  To their way of thinking I was just too busy for conversation, spontaneous or otherwise.

I apologized.  I owned that certainly over the past few weeks I have been otherwise occupied and busy.  I didn’t make excuses but I did try to explain that I had intentionally carved out me-time to take care of a long overdue ‘to-do’ list and to begin the process of discerning new vocational settings – of landing a new job.  I texted,

So sorry to miss you tonight – I know I’ve been out of touch for the past couple of weeks – been holed up with church biz and trying to get a grip on healthy daily habits food, sleep, excercise wise- so I’ve been going to yoga a lot, spending time in prayer and trying to write and get caught up on stuff calendar wise through the end of November – I hope we can touch in and talk tomorrow or Friday xo

My loved one pushed back,

Forget it.  I am fed up with everyone’s busy schedules. Really forget it.

Ouch.  Then they wrote,

What is everyone here waiting for to connect? When things are perfect?

I thought it was an opening and responded,

…a good thing to talk about when we talk – hope we will in the next couple of days – love you

To which I received this reply,

Stop being overly sweet and  understanding…just forget it – it doesn’t matter.

I didn’t reply back.  And we haven’t talked.  If they were now indifferent, how to move forward?  The text-conversation hung with me hovering in the background like a shadow in my study, reading, praying time (searched for a Word all week in the lectionary readings – none to be found until this morning) in the yoga studio, in my ‘church biz’ administrative work, reminding me that this relationship was wounded.

My loved one is angry – not just with me, but with others – others they have loved or have an ongoing relationship with and find connecting and conversation on a regular basis hard to come by.  In the language of therapy, anger = hurt.  If you feel ‘hurt,’ if your feelings are hurt, if you feel dissed or dismissed, you’re angry.  Maybe with the person, maybe with yourself – but you are angry.  And if conversation about that anger is cut off – ‘forget it, it doesn’t matter,’  there’s little hope of resolving, let alone healing.

Conversation is essential for relationships to thrive.  Cutting off conversation intentionally or not, signals the end.  That was the Word that finally came to me this morning in the Old Testament reading from Job.

We’ve been reading Job all week and most of us know his story well, but it was at today’s opening verse that the Lord sent me the Word I needed to hear to attend to the hovering shadow of the relationship I had injured.

Job, as angry as he was with God, as justified as we think he might have been to be angry with God, keeps the conversation going. Just look at how he hangs in there with God, engaging, provoking even, God to keep talking,

‘I loathe my life;
I will give free utterance to my complaint;
I will speak in the bitterness of my soul.  Job 10:1-2

Think of how easy it would have been for Job to have sent a different text message, something like this, instead:

‘Forget it, God, you just don’t care, it doesn’t matter…’

That would have ended the conversation right there.  No more headache for Job trying to figure out this or that, or  ‘why,’ all these bad things had happened to him and his life.  Instead, Job stays in conversation.  And conversation keeps him in relationship with God.

I like how theologian and writer, Walter Brueggemann in his book, Finally Comes the Poet, writes about Job his healthy relationship with the Lord, God:

Job pushes his attack on God as far as a voice in Israel dare push. In chapter 9 Job asserts not only that God is unrelaible, but is in fact a liar (20-22). Job never pushes to God’s nonexistence, for then he would quit speaking and be reduced to silence. Muteness is practical atheism. Job keeps believing and speaking; he lives for the dispute. Likely that is why in ancient Israel there are no atheists. The conversation of faith is the best action in town. Job is characteristic of Jewishness that finds dispute a viable, crucial form of faith. Job delineates his experience of negation, of God’s absence and silence, of God’s refusal to deal with his issues. Job yearns most for an answer, any answer, because he prefers harsh dialogue to an empty monologue. (Finally Comes the Poet, pg 61, 62)

Muteness is practical atheism – humorously depicted in Dan Piraro’s panel from Bizarro, to the right – no conversation to be had, nothing believed in to be discussed.

This goes for personal relationships, too.  When we cut off the conversation, resign ourselves to the dispute and don’t deal or talk about it with each other, we – I – am basically saying, “I don’t believe in this relationship anymore.”    It’s a blank pamphlet – an empty thing.  There’s no there, there.

But I do believe in the relationship – so I will keep speaking and asking and trying.  Avoiding each other, “forget it, it doesn’t matter” ain’t right.

Cutting this short.  Gotta make a phone call.

Praise God from whom all conversation, angry and loving, and blessings, flow.

Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 20, 21:1-7(8-14); PM Psalm 110:1-5(6-7), 116, 117
Job 9:1,10:1-9,16-22Acts 11:1-18John 8:12-20

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Look Up

Acts 7:55But filled with the Holy Spirit, he gazed into heaven and saw the glory of God and Jesus standing at the right hand of God.56‘Look,’ he said, ‘I see the heavens opened and the Son of Man standing at the right hand of God!’

I have to remember to look up when I’m feeling down.  Took this pic on my drive home last evening feeling blue even after a glorious day of worship with God’s people in God’s church.  Stopped to take the pic of the skies that beckoned, testifying and witnessing to me God’s glory, reminding me that I am not alone, that I am in God’s hands, following wherever my Lord would have me.

I wonder if the skies weren’t as they were then just so I’d sync up today that reminder as I prayed the Daily Office and encountered the scripture reporting Stephen’s martyrdom.

Look up when feeling down. And be thankful.

Praise God from whom all #cloudsofwitnesses and blessings flow.

Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 106:1-18; PM Psalm 106:19-48
Judges 17:1-13Acts 7:44-8:1aJohn 5:19-29

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Persevere in Prayer

Note:  A reminder for new readers of this blog.  I pray the Daily Office every morning and when prompted by the Holy Spirit by a pause or a thought-like bubble, I reflect in writing, here.  The reflections, thus, are spontaneous, sometimes requiring much more explanation than a daily reflection allows.  Today’s reflection touches on only one small aspect of the current child abuse and cover-up scandal in the Roman Church that erupted on Monday.  One aspect.  One moment.  One thought from the Holy Spirit.  Maybe this is one way to begin to understand, ‘how,’ and help all God’s people find a way – the right way – forward.

Amid all the discussions, reports and justified rants, I’ve heard in the last few days since the Pennsylvania  Attorney General released the grand jury report alleging decades of child abuse by hundreds of Catholic bishops and priests one question among the thousands loomed in the background – how? – how could this have continued and been covered up 16 years after the Boston Globe’s exposé of the egregious offenses in Massachusetts and a new pope that suggested zero tolerance and accountability?

Just last week before this shocking and appalling news came to light, I heard Christian History professor and theologian Diana Butler-Bass interviewed about her new book, Christianity after Religion: The End of the Church and the Beginning of a new Spiritual Awakening, in which she identifies five significant events[1] at the turn of the century which catapulted the ‘spiritual but not religious’ generation away from the institutional church – likely forever. They each occurred within the first decade of the new century, sending shock waves through institutional Christianity – Evangelicals, Pentecostals, Protestants and Catholics alike – resulting in a loss of not just attendance, but also agency. At the top of the list, following The September 11 terrorist attacks was the Roman Church’s worldwide pedophilia scandal. According to Butler-Bass the fall out was at least as significant as the Reformation and possibly the greatest seismic shift in the Roman Church, ever.

Whether or not it was then, with this most recent news out of Pennsylvania, what would Butler-Bass say of the most recent events, now?  Was 2002 simply a tremblor? Should we have seen or known it wasn’t the Big One?

One commentator at the press conference I heard said it would be remiss and blatantly ignorant of the country to assume that Pennsylvania is unique and not the norm – that we must assume that any other state that pursued the Roman church along these lines would uncover a similar sordid history of crimes and cover-ups. He added that the Pennsylvania report revealed nothing had changed in the Roman Church from the top down  – charging that  “…a cancer had a grip on the seminaries, religious houses, schools, and parishes.” He wasn’t alone advocating for radical chemotherapy killing all the ‘cells’ to restore health to the institution. If the church died in the process, so be it.

I understand the rage. I don’t disagree with the reporter or the Attorney General from Pennsylvania who pressed the public …” to eliminate the statute of limitations law that …keeps most of them (the Priests and Bishops) from ever seeing criminal charges.“ This may be one way to hold the offenders accountable simultaneously offering victims some sense of justice. But, will it change the mess inside the church? Even begin to? Hasn’t so far.

I tuned into the Catholic Radio channel to hear how my brothers and sisters of the Roman Church are talking about this and listened to a discussion between a former Franciscan, now therapist, and a Catholic Lay moderator. To the question of how the abuse and the insidious cover-ups have persisted through decades – the therapist suggested that the leadership within the communities is populated by men with personality disorders, namely Narcissistic Personality Disorder[2]. That caught my attention as I’ve known and worked with a few such untreatable narcissists through the years.  Such dysfunctional leadership strips away any hope of honesty and trust, stripping the biblical principle of obedience of its essence, virtue.  Such leaders are toxic.

The discussion moved to the question of how celibacy, the prevention of marriage, and the barring of women from ordained ministry, had mis-shaped the body of Christ, – which for most of us outside the Roman church, seems obvious – and whether or not the church should and could maintain these non-biblical requirements for clergy.

I’m not here in today’s blog to reflect upon that huge issue. Rather, my question is how did these men of God, these men who were called to proclaim the gospel, to feed the poor, the comfort the orphan and widow, to bless the little children – how did these men get so distanced and detached from God? Generation after generation?

The verse from today’s psalm (Psalm 142) was where the Spirit paused me,

3 When my spirit languishes within me, you know my path; 

The former Franciscan offered that the brotherhood in all its manifestations – Religious Orders, Diocesan priests, Bishops, Schools, Missions, Spiritual Directors, Charities – the community of brothers had let slip over the years the ancient practice of the Liturgy of the Hours.  Prayer.

Perseverance in Prayer.  The practice was to keep the men of God (and women who were part of a Holy Order) in constant – hourly – contact with the Lord, keeping the Lord near enough to ‘know my path,’ and thus amend thoughts and behaviors to align rightly with the Lord.  He explained how easy it had been for monasteries and brotherhoods to just let that requirement go in favor of trusting the clergy had developed an individual prayer life that sustained them in their ministry.  Spiritual Directors assumed and presumed and just stopped asking any longer for the priest or brother to describe their prayer life.

The ordained promise to their Bishops and the Church to keep the Liturgy of the Hours. And they don’t. And everyone from the Pope down to the local Spiritual Director allows.

Daily prayer – whether every five hours or not – is the essential practice of the Christian life.  The psalm today cannot be uttered, let alone written, had the psalmist not had a healthy, robust prayer life with the Lord, one in which s/he has been before the Lord every single day of her/his life.

1 I cry to the Lord with my voice; *

to the Lord I make loud supplication.

2 I pour out my complaint before him *

and tell him all my trouble.

3 When my spirit languishes within me, you know my path; 

in the way wherein I walk they have hidden a trap for me.

Daily Prayer is also a promise the ordained in The Episcopal Church make to their Bishop and the Church. Not specifically to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, though praying one from our version, the Daily Office (Morning Prayer, Noonday Prayer, Evening Prayer, or Compline) is my practice.

During the part of the ordination called The Examination, the Bishop asks,

Bishop Will you persevere in prayer, both in public and in
private, asking God’s grace, both for yourself and for
others, offering all your labors to God, through the
mediation of Jesus Christ, and in the sanctification
of the Holy Spirit?

Persevere in prayer. How could these men of God not? Their spirit languished but they were not before the Lord to be put on the right path.

For today, this little pause and whisper helps me begin to comprehend how this travesty against God’s church persisted while it was going on and after it was exposed.  And the pause is before me – and you the reader, to ask about our own prayer lives.  Is every day of your life beginning with God? In prayer? Every single day?  God help us all that if not, it be so from this day forward.

Praise God to whom all supplications are prayed every single day of our lives and from whom all blessings flow.

AM Psalm 140, 142; PM Psalm 141, 143:1-11(12) 
Job 2:1-13Acts 9:1-9John 6:27-40

[1] The events referred to here, “revealed the ugly side of organized religion, challenging even the faithful to wonder if defending religion is worth the effort, and creating an environment that can rightly be called a religious recession. (77):
  • 2001: The September 11 terrorist attacks.
  • 2002: The Roman Catholic sex abuse scandal.
  • 2003: Protestant conflict over homosexuality. The Episcopal Church election of Gene Robinson to Bishop, right theology but wrong way, from top down forcing schism
  • 2004: The religious Right wins the battle, but loses the war. …the real victory of the religious Right has been to alienate an entire generation of young people…conservative evangelical politics may have been the worst marketing campaign for the word “Christian” since the Salem witch trials. (81)
  • 2007: The Great Religious Recession. As the Great Depression of the early twentieth century paralleled a religious depression, so too the Great Recession has twinned with a great religious recession. (82)
[2]Narcissistic Personality Disorder: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/narcissistic-personality-disorder/symptoms-causes/syc-20366662
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Courtesy Calls: how do you pronounce ‘Chrysostom’?

During the discernment process for ordination to the priesthood, I attended a weekend with others who were discerning the same call. These ‘discernment weekends’ are scheduled annually for the coming together of aspirants (that’s what I was) with a committee of folks, lay and ordained, whose vocation was to help discern for the institutional church whether or not each of us should continue – cross over to the other side of the Jordan – or whether we might consider a different path for ministry. The name of the committee is, the Commission on Ministry, and in The Episcopal Church they serve a critical function of …

…assisting the bishop “in determining present and future needs for ministry in the diocese” and to assist “in enlisting and selecting persons for Holy Orders.” …they interview candidates prior to their ordination … (https://www.episcopalchurch.org/library/glossary/commission-ministry)

Many such interviews and weekends occur in the journey of seeking Holy Orders, but during this particular one, I found myself to be a sort of foreigner. I was new to all the people present having moved into a different diocese and starting the process all over again – a three-year process I had nearly completed, elsewhere.

As welcoming as everyone was, including the four other aspirants, I felt like I often had – not so much a fish out of water, but sort of like a fish dumped into the San Francisco Bay from the ballast of a ship that had come from the English Channel. That might be stretching the metaphor too far but bottom line, I knew that though I received my seminary education at a more progressive seminary, (gratefully, by the way!) my thoughts about God’s church and its mission landed more on the conservative end of that spectrum. And so, I entered the weekend with some wariness – how would I be received? Would my experience in ministry thus far be accounted for?  How would I be judged?  Would there be any sort of litmus test?

At the end of the first day, I was paired with another to lead Evening Prayer. This was to be expected – all the aspirants would lead one worship gathering or another over the course of the next days.

My worship partner – a young man who had only just entered Holy Orders, having come from a different tradition entirely (Baptist) and only in the first year of his divinity degree, asked me – the older, cradle-born, MDiv graduate, GOE completed, aspirant – to introduce at the end, the Prayer of St Chrysostum[1] admitting that he had not yet learned to pronounce the saint’s name properly.

I recalled the challenge of mastering pronunciations in seminary – of learning to say names and prayers correctly – the right intonations, pauses, accents, etc. I was somewhat prepared when I entered having learned the liturgy phonetically as a cradle-born.  But ugh – not this name – I hadn’t learned or mastered Chrysostom even though his prayer I prayed nightly at Evening Prayer in seminary chapel.

It was crazy how I was flooded with all the feelings of inadequacy when my liturgy partner asked me to lead. Was this the litmus test?  I didn’t belong here on this weekend I wasn’t ‘the stuff’ of ordained ministry.   Who was I kidding?

As a seminarian, I felt woefully inadequate. I thought differently than my fellow seminarians and professors, not as critically, not as deeply or objectively. Seminary was hard for me on every level but most especially in thinking and writing and reading as an academic.

At this moment on this important discernment weekend, perched at the river bank desiring to be ‘one of them’ on the other side, all my insecurities about my critical thinking skills, worthiness, and scholastic shortcomings flooded my head. “Why don’t you lead the Prayer of St Chrysostom, since I’m just a newbie at this,” my partner suggested.  Ugh.

How that moment came back to me upon the reading from Judges, this morning.  The tribe of Gilead used a word to help them determine ally or enemy, to judge whether or not those attempting to cross the Jordan were worthy – all based upon their pronunciation of the word, Shibboleth.

…the tribes of Israel were divided by the Jordan River—some located on the west and some on the east. The eastern tribes, including Jephthah’s, had adopted certain pronunciations and practices of foreign nations, distinguishing themselves from their brothers in the west. The word shibboleth was an example. Those in Gilead pronounced it “shibboleth,” but those in Ephraim, west of Jordan, pronounced it “sibboleth.” The dialect was different – [2]

‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ When he said, ‘No’, 6they said to him, ‘Then say Shibboleth’, and he said, ‘Sibboleth’, for he could not pronounce it right. Then they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand of the Ephraimites fell at that time.

Pronunciation, vocabulary, cadence all matters when God’s people gather to worship together – not as a test of worthiness as it was used in Jephthah’s story, but simply to feel comfortable and be a part, no matter from whence you came and landed in our pews.

I wonder what it is like for people new to our parishes and liturgy. Does the liturgy itself make a newcomer feel inadequate? A friend who worships in a non-denomination church once commented to me how the cadence of our worship was strange and how difficult it was to keep up with the prayers – that they seemed to be ‘said’ and ‘recited,’ and not prayed.

I hope that all of us in the pews alongside someone we see struggling to stay with liturgy, might pause and show them the way across the Jordan. Take note of the fish who have landed in your congregation from a different bay. And worship leaders might do well to announce before worship the location of prayers in the bulletins, pronunciations, page numbers and the like – sort of like providing at the doors a Courtesy Call phone, as depicted in Dan Piraro’s Bizarro strip I have included here.

I think we need to be reminded to do this over and over, and not presume that even return worshipers know the ‘correct’ pronunciation. Our liturgy should never be for anyone a test of worthiness.

Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Daily Office Readings: AM Psalm 89:1-18; PM Psalm 89:19-52
Judges 12:1-7Acts 5:12-26John 3:1-21

[1] Almighty God, you have given us grace at this time with one
accord to make our common supplication to you; and you
have promised through your well-beloved Son that when two
or three are gathered together in his Name you will be in the
midst of them: Fulfill now, O Lord, our desires and petitions
as may be best for us; granting us in this world knowledge of
your truth, and in the age to come life everlasting. Amen.

[2] https://www.gotquestions.org/shibboleth.html

 

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