Tuesday, January 31, 2012

What if it is all about the steps?

“For you have rescued my soul from death and my feet from stumbling, that I may walk before God in the light of the living.”
Psalm 56:12

The Daily Office readings lately are filled with people walking places. We’ve been hearing the saga of Abraham as he answers God’s call to leave his land of Ur and walk to places he does not know. He goes.

Today in Genesis 21:1-21 Abraham sends Hagar and their son, Ishmael, away because his wife, Sarah is jealous. Abraham, with a heavy heart, complies, and Hagar walks into the desert. Seeing her son nearly die, and angel rescues them, and they walk onward.

In the gospel lessons of late, Jesus is walking all over the countryside and beckoning people to “believe” in him. His invitations raise a question for me: What if we substituted the word “walk” for “believe”? How would that change our understanding of faith?

That is precisely what the Letter to the Hebrews is getting at. Today’s reading from Hebrews 11:13-22 draws on the Abraham story to tell us that faith requires going somewhere, doing something, taking steps. Walking.
“If they had been thinking of the land they left behind, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is a heavenly one.”
In the mystical Gospel of John 6:27-40 on Monday, and again today in John 6:41-51, we’ve been treated to a series of sayings by Jesus about believing:
“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…”

“All who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life…”

“Whoever believes has eternal life. I am the bread of life…”
What does Jesus mean by “believe”? Does he mean making an intellectual assent to a series of propositions or abstract philosophical constructions? That might be how Christians church of the 2nd century onward would view this, especially given the influence of Greek philosophy. It is also how many modern Christians would view this.

But Jesus wasn’t Greek and he wasn’t modern. He was Jewish. What if Jesus is getting at a Hebrew idea that is more in keeping with the saga of Abraham? What if he is talking about walking? Here the sayings again this way:
“Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever walks with me will never be thirsty…”

“All who see the Son and walk with him may have eternal life…”

“Whoever walks with me has eternal life. I am the bread of life…”
Maybe it is all about the steps each of us takes. One step at a time. What steps are each of us called to take today? Where are we called to walk?

Art: "Abraham Walking with Isaac" by Marc Chagall, 1931.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Monday Funnies

We've made it to the last Monday in January. Consider that a fine accomplishment.

Reward yourself with a smile or two, free of charge from Pat Hill and the Fiat Lux Productions Jokester Department.

Welcome to the Monday Funnies, and enjoy your week...

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A pastor was preaching an impassioned sermon on the evils of television. "It steals away precious time that could be better spent on other things," he said.

He advised the congregation to do what he and his family had done: "We put our TV away in the closet."

"That's right," his wife mumbled, "and it gets awfully crowded in there."

* * *

The children in Sunday School performed a song during service that they had been working on for weeks.

The harmony was wonderful and the kids' enthusiasm was contagious. When they finished, the congregation stood, applauding their efforts.

After the service, an eight-year-old ran up to his Mom excitedly, and exclaimed "Mom! Did you see that? We got a standing congregation!"

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Vulnerable to being a loved child of God

Gwynn Crichton
I am not preaching today. Instead, I would like to give you a homily given by our own Gwynn Crichton last Wednesday at Evening Prayer. Let me warn you this is personal but very powerful. I am grateful to Gwynn for so many things at St. Paul's but I am especially grateful for her willingness to be vulnerable.

I hope in her example, others can be vulnerable and then open to the healing that can come with inviting others into our journey. You may want to read Psalm 139 before reading this. With her permission to post this, here is Gwynn's homily:
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Living into God's Love
By Gwynn Crichton
In a literal sense, Psalm 139 paints a portrait of an omniscient, all-knowing, all-powerful God who knows our every thought, motivation and intention. This notion of God is like a story my mother used to read to me as a child called “The Runaway Bunny” in which the baby rabbit tries to elude this mother who says she will find him wherever he goes:

Once there was a little bunny who wanted to run away. So he said to his mother, “I am running away.”

“If you run away,” said his mother, “I will run after you. For you are my little bunny.”

“If you run after me,” said the little bunny, “I will become a fish in a trout stream and I will swim away from you.”

“If you become a fish in a trout stream,” said his mother, “I will become a fisherman and I will fish for you.”

“If you become a fisherman,” said the little bunny, “I will become a rock on the mountain, high above you.”

“If you become a rock on the mountain high above me,” said his mother, “I will become a mountain climber, and I will climb to where you are.”

And so on and so forth.... The mama bunny is very much like the depiction of God in the psalm: the all-powerful great protector and parent in the sky that knows all of our thoughts, schemes, hopes, secret desires, and petty grievances. This God has us all figured out and there is no deceiving or outsmarting him—he always knows and can see right through us. Yes, this is no doubt true, but the relationship between God and the psalmist is much deeper and complex than this initial interpretation.

Upon further reflection, this psalm affirms that God is not simply omniscient but that God is omnipresent in our lives, that God is within us and that God cares deeply for us. The God portrayed in this psalm is a personal God who wants to be known to us intimately in all times and in all places. This God is compassionate, attentive and tender and accepting us exactly as we are and wherever we are....in our journeys and resting places, during the day and night, in heaven and on earth, in our inmost parts to the uttermost parts of the sea. Truly believing that God loves and accepts me as I am has been one the greatest spiritual challenges of my life while the realization of God’s love in my life has yielded the most profound transformation I could have possibly imagined.

I come from a southern, blue-blood family hailing from Nashville, Tennessee and was born and bred in the Episcopal church. Our family has been afflicted by a garden variety of dysfunction: alcoholism and addiction, mental illness, severe depression, adultery, divorce, suicide, punctuated with tragic events and peppered with our fair share southern gothic quirks and eccentricities. I suppose we really got off quite lucky.

Growing up, I learned many unhealthy behaviors to cope and survive with craziness of my family life. These included overachieving, emotionally care taking my parents, people pleasing, playing the family hero and keeping things under control at all costs. Experiencing God’s unconditional love was not part of my survival manual. Fear ruled the roost. I always thought I had to work hard and perform well to earn my keep on this earth to be worthy and to be loved. I have struggled all my life with an over-developed sense of responsibility fueled by the guilt and shame of never being good enough.

I have often tried to win over people’s love and approval to the detriment of my own self- respect and worth, thinking if only this person loved me, then I would be okay. Even worse, I have tried to force, control, manipulate and change people--often those closest to me--to ensure my needs are met and I am “safe”. While these behaviors were appropriate responses to the traumas I experienced growing up, they became and in some cases still are major impediments in my adult life. They have enabled me to construct a false self or ego based on what I perceive others want or expect from me and have led me down the road of making my happiness often dependent on others’ expectations and behavior or worse yet, hurting people I love with my unrealistic expectations and judgment, critical attitudes.

Such fear-based behavior and deep insecurities have separated me from the love of God and have caused me inevitable suffering, despair and depression. As Thomas Merton says: “My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love--outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.”

I am so grateful that I was led to Al-Anon--a 12-step program for friends and families of alcoholics--at age 17 where I was introduced to a spiritual approach to dealing with my problems and coping with my relationships, family and life in which I made and continue to make the conscious decision to turn my will and life over to God’s care and love, asking repeatedly for God’s help to accept the things I can’t change, to have the courage to change the things I can and the wisdom to know the difference. Over these past 22 years in Al-Anon I have learned the hard way through many painful experiences that God truly loves me unconditionally.

Yet years I believed this intellectually, I didn’t see God’s love as essential to my existence—it was more of luxury item, optional, a last resort. So I continued to find myself in situations where I perpetuated these deep seated beliefs about myself as unworthy and unlovable and unable to relinquish my self- will. I finally hit a very low point in my life around the time I turned 30, struggling in a very sick and destructive relationship that ended badly--several times.

The worst part of it was how I betrayed and abandoned myself to such an unsafe person—that truly thought I deserved to be treated so badly. Yet by hitting this rock hard bottom and extreme despair, I had an incredible epiphany that God did not want me to feel this way anymore. God truly wanted me to be happy, free of the demons from my past, and that God truly loved me without condition—and that accepting God’s love was essential to my continued existence. Being left to my own devises and self-will was going to be a dead end, literally, if I kept going as I had been.

This was the great turning point of my life that made me willing to change, get really honest about my motivations and behavior, to allow God to heal many of the wounds of my childhood that caused me to repeat self-destructive patterns. Through God’s grace, I was free to finally consciously choose a safe and loving partner and build a meaningful and fulfilling life here in Charlottesville and at St. Paul’s.

In my experience true change has only taken place through radical surrender to God’s will—which I interpret as infinite love. Jesus says: “Abide in me as I in you....As the Father has loved me so have I loved you; abide in my love.” It is such a simple request and in it lies our salvation.

But I forget this so easily—I suffer from spiritual amnesia. Like the runaway bunny, I’m always looking for ways to seize control, exact my will, do things my way and fufill the desires of my ego for external approval which inevitably leads to trouble and pain and separates me from the love of God. I must be reminded on a daily basis through meditation, readings, worship, praying or attending an Al-Anon meeting to once again relinquish my will to God’s love and care--even when I don’t feel like I need to or things are going well.

And when that doesn’t work, inevitably, a crisis, a loss, a disappointment or stressful circumstance arises—what I refer to as a another bleeping spiritual growth opportunity—and makes me once again realize how dependent I am on God’s grace and how available and inviting God is to me any time or place no matter what state I am in, in my journeys and resting places, during the day and night, in heaven and on earth, in my inmost parts to the uttermost parts of the sea. 
But here is the punch line, folks. Realizing and coming to believe that I am a loved child of God is not just about trying to heal the wounds and trauma of my childhood and improve my self-esteem and be happy.

Receiving and experiencing God’s extravagant love for me is the necessary prerequisite for me to love my neighbor as myself and be able to give back to and serve the world from a wellspring of love, gratitude and faith rather than a place of resentment, martyrdom, or fear.

If I truly want to seek and serve Christ in all persons, be an instrument of God’s peace and minister to those in need, God requires that I also take the time to get my inner spiritual, emotional and psychological house in order so that I can be effective, so that I can love others as he loves me. I am not useful to God if I remain afflicted, angst-ridden, wracked by self- loathing, fear and doubt, if I remain separate and broken--this makes me deaf to God’s call to witness to Christ’s love in the world.

The whole purpose of the 12 steps it to reach step 12 which says: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to others, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. This is why we recover.

Barbara Crafton puts this very well in one of her books. She says:

“This is the curious forgetting of self that has to happen if we are to walk boldly into the destiny God has prepared for each of us. We must know ourselves, tell the truth about ourselves, love ourselves, we must do all of these things--and then we must set ourselves gently aside and commit everything to God’s love and power. If we skip the first part, if we think we can serve God without self-knowledge and self-regard, we will be turned away. Such people cannot serve. We are children of God, in the image of God. First we must come to see this in ourselves. But we cannot stop there. The purpose of faith is not to become a self-satisfied little puddle of self-love. It is, rather, to become a river, a fast-moving, powerful stream of love that flows outward toward the whole world.”

This is certainly a highly iterative and non-linear process. I will always be trying to balance nurturing my interior spiritual landscape with fulfilling God’s calling to me to serve others in the outside world—one is not possible without the other and vice versa—this is the healthy tension of being a Christian and an authentic spiritual person.

Sometimes I will be fully conscious of the fact that I swim in the river of God’s love and and other times I will feel that I am instead face down in a mud puddle. But that mud puddle is an illusion. I am always in the river of God’s love, I can’t escape and run away from it. Regardless of my circumstances, my state of mind, my inconstancy, my limitations, my willingness or unwillingness to let go and surrender, God is here, God is there, God is within, God is in those around me, God is everywhere, at all times and at all places, always available to all of us. This is so miraculous that it defies my ability to express the depths of my gratitude. Let us bless the Lord and give thanks to him.

The Lord be with you, let us pray:

That wisdom was born with me in the womb thanks be to you, O God. That your ways have been written into the human body and soul
there to be read and reverenced thanks be to you. Let me be attentive to the truths of these living texts. Let me learn
of the law etched into the whole of creation that gave birth to the mystery of life and feeds and renews it day by day. Let me discern the law of love in my own heart and in knowing it
obey it. Let me be set free by love, O God. Let me be set free to love.
--from Celtic Benediction by J. Philip Newell

Saturday, January 28, 2012

Bishop Shannon Johnston: "The future is absolutely bristling with possibilities"

Bishop Shannon Johnston
addressing the Diocesan Council
on Friday
RESTON -- This has been a memorable diocesan convention, or “Council” as it is called it here.

There were no resolutions -- none -- for the first time in recorded history in Virginia.

It was the farewell Council for Suffragan Bishop David Jones, who in a formal retirement ceremony Friday declared that he would cease to be the Bishop Suffragan at the conclusion of the Holy Eucharist that evening.

And it was marked by a remarkable address from Diocesan Bishop Shannon Johnston in which he said the bigness of this diocese allows us to do many things and lead on many fronts.

“The future is absolutely bristling with possibilities,” he said.

The Diocese of Virginia, with 181 congregations and 82,000 members on the rolls, is the largest domestic diocese in The Episcopal Church.

“As we look at ourselves,” he said, “we must never forget that from those to whom much has been given, much is expected. Precisely because of the great gifts entrusted to us, the Diocese of Virginia must lead in being productive stewards of such bounteous resources, making wise use of all that we have in order to nurture growth for the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the Kingdom of God.”

The bishop talked of the reach of the diocese, with relationships in 20 of the 34 provinces of the worldwide Anglican Communion. He challenged us to have a significant mission relationship in all of those provinces.

“We are the most 'outward' looking diocese that I know of. The Diocese of Virginia quite probably has more links, companionships and personal relationships beyond its own borders than any other Anglican diocese anywhere. The numbers tell a very compelling story. We currently have ministries with 40 international dioceses involving 75 of our congregations!

“Within the United States, Diocese of Virginia churches made 102 domestic mission trips over an 18-month span during 2010-2011, including ministries in Appalachia, Louisiana and Mississippi, Iowa, Native American Reservations and various urban areas of the country.”

He called upon the diocese to have an impact not just across the seas or in other corners of the United States, but to use our influence to impact public policies particularly in Virginia. It was the strongest such statement any of us have heard from a bishop in Virginia.

“The simple formula of strength-in-numbers means that we can be real leaders in local and state-wide advocacy,” the bishop said. “We are blessed with a big voice–a constituency that is too large to ignore–and we are also blessed with a history that lends true 'gravitas' to our witness. Again, we find ourselves to be stewards who are challenged to make a difference precisely because we are able to do so.

“We can make a true impact on the governor’s office and the General Assembly. Both from my own office and in our partnerships with the Virginia Interfaith Center for Public Policy, the Virginia Council of Churches and the LARCUM fellowship (Lutheran, Anglican, Roman Catholic, United Methodist) we have done and will continue to do just that. My own view of what is at stake right now is justice for the poor and the protection of funding for the “safety nets” that ensure care for them. This funding is now most imperiled and our voice must be heard–now. Get personally involved.”

Bishop Johnston also talked about the next chapter in the long saga of the Diocese of Virginia's legal attempt to regain church properties that had been claimed by congregations that broke away from the Episcopal Church in the aftermath of the election of an openly gay bishop in New Hampshire. The Diocese of Virginia won a recent court ruling that the 9 church properties in dispute must be returned to the diocese.

“The future is absolutely bristling with possibilities,” the bishop said. “This is a truly historic time in the life of our diocese. It is not overstating the case to say that this is one of the most defining moments in all of our 400 year history. As such, this is no less a most exciting time! But, steady now: the next several months and, for some places, even years, will be a time for discernment before decision.”

Bishop Johnston said that no existing congregation will be evicted from its buildings, and he announced the formation of a team called “Dayspring" to guide the diocese as it discerns how to reincorporate such congregations back into the life of the The Episcopal Church.

“There must be a spirit of graciousness whenever and wherever possible,” he said. “On the purely practical level, this means that if and when the present ruling stands and we retain the disputed properties, no community of faith, no ministry program will be summarily thrown out of its current place. We will be as open as possible to creative agreements, generous provision, and true mutuality, while protecting the needs of our own ministries and the integrity of our witness.”

To read the full address by Bishop Johnston, click HERE.

Photo of Bishop Shannon Johnston at the 217th Diocesan Council, by Lori Korleski Richardson.

Friday, January 27, 2012

St. Paul's African Development Project wins Bishop's Outreach Award

Bishop Johnston, left; Sue Rainey, middle;
Wilma Bradbeer right;
receiving the award this morning
RESTON -- The big news for us as the annual Diocesan Council opened this morning is that our very own African Development Project won the Bishop's Award for Outreach, conferred by Bishop Shannon Johnston. Hundreds of people applauded as Sue Rainey and Wilma Bradbeer accepted the award on behalf of the dozens of volunteers here and in Kenya who have worked so hard on this project since 1985.

The certificate states: "The Bishop's Outreach Award honots an Episcopal church or related faith-based non-profite organization within the Diocese of Virginia whose mission and ministries for those in need give practical expression of exemplary Christian service and love of neighbor."

Here is more background on the African Development Project from the nomination forms:

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Begun in 1985 at St. Paul’s Memorial Church in Charlottesville, the African Development Project has supported specific, effective programs in East Africa that enable participants to grow more food, improve their heath, education, and income, and care for the sick and orphaned. ADP has direct links with the leaders of these programs, many of whom have visited Virginia over the years. This means that ADP’s supporters often feel a personal connection with those they are helping and are confident their donations are well used. ADP’s assistance goes directly to these programs and involves no overhead expenses.

Since its inception, ADP has worked with World Neighbors, an international development organization with several projects in Kenya, and the Oyani Christian Rural Services, directed by the Rev. Peter Indalo in western Kenya. Many guests from Kenya have spoken at events such as ADP’s fund-raising dinners called “Harambees.” They have taught ADP volunteers much about their needs and what works to bring lasting change. In 2007, Melanie Macdonald, the CEO of World Neighbors, discussed how communities are organized to solve problems in sustainable ways. Brief descriptions of these two projects follow:

World Neighbors program in Busia district, directed by Chris Macolo, teaches soil and crop improvement, goat and poultry management, and better nutrition for children and those with HIV/AIDS.

Oyani Christian Rural Services, led by the Rev. Peter Indalo, plants trees, provides clean water, teaches cabinetry and metal work, and provides school uniforms and fees for over 60 orphans.

Since 2005, when three women from ADP went Kenya, these projects have stretched its resources to help several additional organizations, including two that focus on helping AIDS orphans and their caregivers by creating new “families” in local communities:
Nyalwodep Project for Orphans, led by Rev. James Ouma, pairs orphans with widows who look out for their wellbeing, and provides meals and education.

The Kitui Development Center, led by Janet Mumo, enables thousands of villagers to meet their basic needs primarily through women’s groups and combats child labor and exploitation by teaching vocational skills. During the terrible unrest after the contested election in December 2007, the leaders asked for special contributions for their endangered participants; with generous donations from ADP supporters we sent emergency gifts that made a real difference.

The African Development Project holds an annual fund-raising dinner, the "Harambee," at St. Paul's Memorial Church, and sometimes at Trinity Episcopal Church, in Charlottesville. Since 1985, more than $600,000 has been raised for ADP through the Harambee dinners and with other gifts. The last fund-raiser, on September 30, 2011 had more than 100 people who attended. Those who attended heard inspiring, informative talks by two special guests from Kenya: Pastor James Ouma, and Kenya's Ambassador to the United States, Elkanah Odembo.

Pastor Ouma, who with his wife Alice directs the Nyalwodep village, where 65 widows care for 120 children orphaned by HIV/AIDS. The pressing needs are for money for food, better shelter, school fees, and a better water source.

Ambassador Odembo is an old friend of ADP, who visited here twenty years ago when he worked with World Neighbors. He described numerous positive changes in Kenya that inspire hope for the future. He also met privately with ADP and church leaders, talking candidly about the challenges facing East Africa and how the Episcopal Church can strengthen its presence and partnerships in his country.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Glowing sunrise, glowing ruby: How is your January?

I am up before dawn most mornings and I sit by a lit candle and look out a window into the bleak darkness. My window faces west, and as I write this, the sky is dark gray. Eventually there will be a pink or orange glow on the Ragged Mountain range a few miles distant.

The sun will rise to my back behind our house, and will soon see its reflection on these mountains as I look at the window to the west. Each morning, I often think of the people I love who are beyond those mountains who will see that sunrise a few minutes, or a few hours later. I feel very connected to them by the glow of the sunrise.

Later today we are heading north to Reston for the annual Diocese of Virginia Council, the gathering-in-convention of clergy and lay delegates for the business of the diocese. This year's Council has no major controversies that anyone has seen. The Council's main business will be to thank and honor Bishop David Jones upon his retirement after 17 years as Bishop Suffragan. I will be blogging from the Council, so stay tuned to this space.

I leave you this morning with a gift from our friend Karen in Tennessee. This poem is on the sensual side, but our bodies are temples from God, so I hope you will take it in that spirit. I also give you Karen's commentary that went with it. Enjoy your day:

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January is an unusual time for all of us in the spiritual sense. One the one hand it provides us with a time of cleansing and redefinition. But this month also reminds me of a quote about alcoholism, "When you stop, the problem is that you have to deal with yourself." No one wants to deal with their own self in January. But this is the gift that is given to us in the bleak and cold and dark- this grace period of opportunity and beginnings.

The Sunrise Ruby
By Rumi

In the early morning hour,
just before dawn, lover and beloved wake
and take a drink of water.

She asks, "Do you love me or yourself more?
Really, tell the absolute truth."

He says, "There is nothing left of me.
I’m like a ruby held up to the sunrise.
Is it still a stone, or a world
made of redness? It has no resistance
to sunlight." The ruby and the sunrise are one.
Be courageous and discipline yourself.

Work. Keep digging your well.
Don’t think about getting off from work.
Submit to a daily practice.
Your loyalty to that is a ring on the door.

Keep knocking, and the joy inside
will eventually open a window
and look out to see who’s there.
Photo by Vidal Peterson of the Ragged Mountains at sunrise.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Brian McLaren to join us at St. Paul's

A few years ago I came across the writings of Brian McLaren, and then I saw him on a webstream as he addressed the Anglican bishops at their worldwide gathering at Lambeth in 2008, a once-every-ten-years convocation of hundreds of bishops. I was quite taken by Brian's vitality, creativity and his ability to make recast ancient concepts, and make them alive in our complicated multi-cultural chaotic world.

I've been trying ever since to get him to come to St. Paul's. And he will soon be with us!

Brian McLaren will conduct an all-day workshop called "Why Everything Must Change" on Saturday March 3, and he will preach March 4. He has a book by that title that I would recommend reading before he comes. We are then planning to build our Sunday Lenten adult education around what we hear from Brian and the issues he raises. I am very excited, and if you are in our area, I hope will come. His appearance is made possible for us by the Koinonia Foundation.

Let me also recommend another book that is terrific, and take a deep breath -- it has a long title that by its length tells you something of his perspective: A Generous Orthodoxy: Why I am a missional + evangelical + post/protestant + liberal/conservative + mystical/poetic + biblical + charismatic/contemplative + fundamentalist/calvinist + anabaptist/anglican + methodist + catholic + green + incarnational + depressed-yet-hopeful + emergent + unfinished Christian.

I am very excited that we will be hosting him and I hope you can join us.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Sacred stones: Observations from a friend

My friend and former journalism colleague, Ilana DeBare, recently visited Israel and she has posted a number of fascinating observations on her blog, Midlife Bat Mitzvah, about what she experienced and the conflict there. I don't usually mention a person's religion, but it does help to know that Ilana is Jewish and she had once lived in Israel for time.

She posted this yesterday, and I think it quite insightful and very much worth your consideration:

Walls, stones and what is sacred

January 22, 2012
I’m a writer and I swim in words. But occasionally, there is an image that expresses things better than any words I could write.

When I was in Israel back in November, I took several photographs of the stones of the Western Wall because I loved all the textures and colors. It’s a classic image; I thought it might be useful sometime for this blog.
Then, as I wrote about in an earlier post, we walked a few hundred steps outside the Old City to the disputed Arab neighborhood of Silwan. And this is what I saw:
Photo by Ilana DeBare
Photo by Ilana DeBare
When I squinted my eyes, those images blurred and became the same — both patchworks of textured white stone.

One was the Wall, the most sacred site in Judaism. The other was a workaday Palestinian neighborhood.
The Torah portion for my Bat Mitzvah service almost a year ago concerned construction of the Tabernacle, and I talked about how places — official “sacred” places, places in wild nature, other kinds of places and settings — can help us get in touch with the spiritual part of ourselves.

But physical places can also become idols, false gods.

I understand how, for many people, the Western Wall is a sacred place. But what those photos say to me is that living communities — the people in them, no matter the nationality or religion — are equally sacred.

To me, the people of Israel and Palestine will always be worth more than any particular place. No stone wall is worth a human life, no matter how many thousands of years of Jewish history it embodies. No olive tree is worth a human life, no matter how many generations of Palestinian family tradition it represents.

That’s the basis of the land-for-peace concept, the basis of a two-state solution. Both Israelis and Palestinians must give up some places that are precious to them in order to save lives that are ultimately more precious.

With right-wingers like Netanyahu and Lieberman running the Israeli government, and the rejectionists of Hamas tying the hands of Palestinian moderates, that solution seems almost impossibly distant these days.

But governments can change — maybe Israel’s will. And perhaps a more open Israeli government will spark a parallel openness among Palestinians. What we can do, in the meantime, is keep reminding ourselves and our leaders that human lives are more sacred than any walls, trees or stones. That’s why I support groups like J Street and Americans for Peace Now.

There! It just took me 379 words to deliver this preachy message.

When really, all it takes is looking at those two images.

Monday, January 23, 2012

The Monday Funnies

The Jokester Department took the weekend off -- again. Something about the football playoffs and the 49ers. Anyhow, I dug through the departmental filing cabinet and found this oldie from Pat Hill. Enjoy your Monday .  .  .

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Bible Theme Songs

Noah "Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head"

Adam and Eve "Strangers in Paradise"

Lazarus "The Second Time Around"

Esther "I Feel Pretty"

Job "I've Got a Right to Sing the Blues"

Moses "The Wanderer"

Jezebel "The Lady is a Tramp"

Samson "Hair"

Salome "I Could Have Danced All Night"

Daniel "The Lion Sleeps Tonight"

Joshua "Good Vibrations"

Peter "I'm Sorry"

Esau "Born To Be Wild"

Jeremiah "Take This Job and Shove It"

The Three Kings "When You Wish Upon a Star"

Jonah "Got a Whale of a Tale"

Elijah "Up, Up, and Away"

Methuelah "Stayin' Alive"

Nebuchadnezzar "Crazy"

Sunday, January 22, 2012

The real miracle of Jonah

Today is the Third Sunday after Epiphany and the lessons are Jonah 3:1-5, 10Psalm 62: 6-14
1 Corinthians 7: 29-31 and Mark 1:14-20. Here is my sermon from this morning:
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Today we wade into the water with one of the most extraordinary but overlooked books in the entire Bible, the Book of the prophet Jonah.

You may be familiar with the tale from popular lore. Jonah is tossed overboard and is swallowed by a fish. He prays to God to be saved, and ends up on shore, where he delivers his message to the city of Nineveh and they are saved.

This biblical story has a major footnote in our modern conflict between religion and science.

In the Scopes trial of 1925, wherein a school teacher in Tennessee was charged with a crime for teaching evolution, the great trial attorney, Clarence Darrow, famously cross-examined his rival attorney, William Jennings Bryan, about whether he believed that every word of the Bible was factually true.

Bryan said that he did.

What about the whale swallowing Jonah, Darrow asked.

It was a fish, Bryan corrected.

Ok, a fish. Do you think a fish swallowed Jonah?

“If the Bible said so,” Bryan replied rather smugly. “One miracle is just as easy to believe as another.”

Or just as hard, Darrow shot back.

And so the Book of Jonah, at that very moment, began to stand as a great continental divide between those who read the Bible as inerrant fact and those who think it a fishy tall-tale.

Unfortunately that divide did something else to the Book of Jonah. Modern people – Christians especially – lost sight of the point of the story of Jonah – and the point was not that a fish swallowed Jonah.

To gets the real point, it helps to hear the story of Jonah through the ears of the people who wrote it.

Start with a bit of background about the book of Jonah that Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan were apparently clueless about:

Jonah was written as a satirical tale. If you lived 2,000 years ago in Israel, you would think it a funny fish tale, and funny with a sharp point. In fact, one commentary I read pointed out that the structure of Woody Allen's humor is based on Jonah.

Jonah in Hebrew is Noah spelled backwards.

Instead being saved on the ark – a boat – Jonah is tossed overboard from the ark. Instead of Noah saving all the creatures from the flood, Jonah is tossed into the flood and saved by a creature.

How did Jonah get himself in this fix?

Jonah has been sent on a mission by God to warn the people of Nineveh that they will be destroyed if they don’t return to the way of God. But unlike Noah, Jonah wants no part of what God wants him to do.

Jonah loathes this mission – he is from Israel, and Nineveh is the enemy of Israel.

Jonah doesn’t want the people of Nineveh to repent; he wants God to destroy them.

Nineveh, by the way, is the same city that is now called Mosul in Iraq.

Jonah tries to escape his mission by going in the opposite direction. He gets on a ship bound for Tarshish, or Carthage, on the African coast.

A storm kicks up, and the ship’s crew tries to figure out who is responsible for the storm. It’s Jonah, so he tells them to toss him overboard.

He’d rather die than complete his mission to save the enemies of Israel.

Jonah is swallowed by a fish, and he realizes he cannot escape God or his mission, and he prays to be saved. The fish spits him out on shore.

Jonah begrudgingly goes to Nineveh, and warns them of the peril they face. Then to his disgust, the people of Nineveh repent and are themselves saved.

Jonah can’t believe God would save Nineveh, and so Jonah sulks. He resents that these foreigners – his enemies – are just as loved by God as he is.

The writers of the Hebrew Scriptures put this book in the Bible to remind us of this universal truth – that God really does love all people – people who aren’t like us – people who don’t share our language, or our religion, or our politics, or our way of doing things.

God loves even our enemies, and that may be as hard a concept for us to comprehend as it was for Jonah.

The miracle for Jonah is not that he is saved by being swallowed by a fish.

The miracle is God’s grace that connects Jonah to his enemies, and connects all of us together on this earth.

The sin of Jonah is his lack of compassion for people who aren’t like himself. His sin comes from not seeing the connection he has to the people unlike himself.

In Jewish tradition, the entire Book of Jonah is always read aloud on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, which this year begins at sunset September 25.
The reason Jonah is read on Yom Kippur is the story is presented as a lesson about how the entire nation of Israel needs to repent for the sin of ignoring the poor, the foreigner, the enemy, the other.
Everyone is responsible, no one is off the hook. Repentance is not just personal, its communal.

Our idea of Lent as a season of personal atonement and repentance is directly based on Yom Kippur, so as Lent draws near, we do well to pay attention to Jonah.

We are on the hook, too, and like our ancestors, we are called to repent for the sins we share together.

“Repent” means to turn around, to change and to see what is in front of us that we’ve ignored.

Repentance has no meaning unless it comes with actions. Like Jonah, we are called to act with compassion toward those we overlook, especially for those we find it hardest of all to see and love.
Yesterday we had the first of our listening sessions as we discern where God is leading us as a parish.

A participant in our group mentioned that a good starting point for us as a parish is to ask what repentance would look like for the entire Church if that repentance contained not just words, but actions?

That is not a question easily answered but is one central to who and what we should be about.
There is great hope in this story of Jonah. In spite of himself, Jonah does what God calls him to do.

Jonah is certainly an imperfect messenger, but God chooses him anyway.

The biblical accounts are filled with stories of imperfect messengers.

In the Gospel of Mark today, Jesus calls his disciples to follow him, and they know not where they are going or how it will come out.

They are ordinary fishermen, and in the days ahead, these fishermen will be filled with doubts and fears, and their flaws will be on full display. They don’t always get it.

These first followers will encounter to people not like themselves, just as Jonah does. They will be called to pray for their enemies, and they do. They will be called to cross social and religious boundaries, and they do.

And they will surprise even themselves, and we are the beneficiaries because they answered the call to follow.

“The time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God has come near,” Jesus proclaims. And so it is, even with us. May we learn how to answer that call and follow, and bring the Kingdom closer to all God’s people. AMEN

Saturday, January 21, 2012

A look at recent Catholic and Episcopal Church relations

I've been staying out of church politics for a good long while on this blog, not out of any lack of interest but more out of a feeling others are more knowledgable and saying things better than I could. And as I have mentioned a number of times, church politics is like plate tectonics -- it mostly moves beneath the surface, but erupts now-and-then with an earthquake.

We've had several of those tremors recently from the Vatican, and while those events may not directly affect daily life at St. Paul's  Memorial Church, it is nonetheless worth looking at for how it may impact our greater Church and sense of who we are as church. Here is a commentary published Friday in the Erie Times-Union that is quite readable written by The Very Rev. John P. Downey, the Dean of the Cathedral of St. Paul and the Ecumenical Officer for the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania:

Downey: What's next for Episcopalians, Catholics?

Contributing writer
Two recent events mark a significant change in the ecumenical relationship of Roman Catholics and the Episcopal Church.

First, a new translation of the Mass was introduced at the beginning of Advent. Then, on New Year's Day, the Anglican Ordinariate for the United States was officially launched. The Ordinariate will serve much like a diocese created especially for Episcopalians and others of Anglican heritage who wish to be in full communion with the Pope. Such folk would fully accept Roman Catholic teaching and authority while retaining some aspects of their former life in the Episcopal Church such as liturgical texts, married priests, and (limited) democracy in governance.

With regard to worship, the recent change is a departure from decades of working together along with other ecumenical partners to provide common worship texts in the various churches and denominations.

The new Mass translation was undertaken unilaterally by the Roman Catholic Church, apparently with no ecumenical consultation. Other Christian bodies, including Episcopalians and Lutherans, made major liturgical changes after Vatican II with ecumenical optimism and a commitment to shared translations among themselves and Roman Catholics. This hopeful project has been abandoned by Rome and we have the curious situation that the "old" Mass texts can now be found in Lutheran and Episcopal churches!

As for the Ordinariate, it is likely that very few will take advantage of the offer, however grateful those few might be for the opportunity. Life in the Episcopal Church is an entire culture, and it remains to be seen if a few parts of it can be successfully grafted onto a very different understanding and practice of Church. Given that Roman Catholics will not be permitted to join Ordinariate congregations, its future will depend on further conversions and evangelism.

This does bring into focus, however, the deep distinction these events and others have revealed between Roman Catholicism and the Episcopal Church, which is the matter of governance. The Roman Catholic Church is structured as a monarchy, governed by the Bishop of Rome. Even though this governance is shared in communion with other bishops, in the end, full authority is vested in the Pope, trusting that this is Christ's will for the Church.

The Episcopal Church is structured as a representative democracy, modeled after the United States Congress. All matters are deliberated and decided upon by elected governing bodies that include bishops, clergy and lay people. Episcopalians trust that, even if some of their decisions are mistaken, the Church will not fail in it basic grasp of the truth, and God will eventually correct any errors.

The relative merits of these two understandings can be debated, but it has become clear that this is the source of the differences between Roman Catholicism and the Episcopal Church. The ecumenical progress of the last decades has shown that both churches share a wide and deep range of common doctrine, including some areas where conflict was once assumed, such as the meaning of the Eucharist and the priesthood. This has allowed a sense of friendship that will probably not go away despite the recent changes.

Nonetheless, the different forms of governance have led to differing outcomes in matters such as contraception, remarriage, ordination of women, and the full inclusion of gays and lesbians in all aspects of the church's life.

We have entered a time of differentiation that will probably not be resolved in the foreseeable future. Traffic is moving in both directions across the Roman Catholic/Episcopalian border.

Hopefully, this time will be lived with both honesty and charity and with the prayer and hope that these differences will not harden divisions, but will motivate a desire to discover a godly diversity in unity that will be a gift to the world.

THE REV. JOHN P. DOWNEY is dean of the Cathedral of St. Paul and ecumenical officer of the Episcopal Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania.

Copyright 2012 The Erie Times-News. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Finding the place where you can breathe of the Holy

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well, and her encounter with Jesus, continues today with Jesus telling her about her life with five husbands in John 4:16-26. Hearing this, she recognizes Jesus as a prophet, but says that he is not fitting into her familiar categories of religious dogma and debate.

She notes that her people believe God should be worshipped at their mountain, the place of Jacob's well, and they have a firm historical basis for making that claim.

Jesus's people, she says, maintain that God should be worshipped at the Temple in Jerusalem, on Mt. Zion. She could have said, but politely did not, that Jesus's people have a shakier historical claim. The Temple can only trace its lineage to King David, rather late in comparison to Jacob's well, the founder of all Israel.

Jesus cuts through all this religious muck by telling her: "Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem."

You will worship God everywhere because God is everywhere.

Last summer on our journey through the Holy Land, the members of our pilgrim group came to roughly the same realization at roughly the same time: That we all felt stifled by the religious conflict and the oppressiveness of religious dogmas on full display.

The wall separating Palestinian communities
from Israeli communities
The Armenian monks sneered at the Greek monks, the Hasidic Jews looked disdainfully at the Reform Jews, and the Muslims kept to themselves or live behind walls and checkpoints built by the Israelis to keep them separated. Everyone wore distinct garb to separate themselves from everyone else. No one could be neutral, and certainly no one could openly question their own religious dogmas and identity, not without being ostracized or worse. "There are no atheists in Jerusalem," someone told us.

It was hard for us to feel the presence of God in this place that is supposed to be "holy." God felt confined so tightly God could not escape.

Let me explain this another way, because I think Jesus was getting at the same idea in his encounter with the Samaritan woman.

Jesus declared: Let God out.

Look for God beyond the confines of the expected and the dogmatic.

God cannot be enclosed in a temple or a well or in a book, no matter how sacred all of those are. To attempt to confine God into a box is to stifle the holiness within ourselves. God needs to breathe for us to breathe.

As we walked through Jerusalem I began to appreciate more deeply how my own sense of the Holy had grown and been nurtured in sacred places other than Jerusalem. The Holy City was amazing and I would certainly go back. But my sense of the holy has come more deeply in small retreat centers, in the Mojave Desert, on the Karuk Indian rancheria,  and in the churches where I have worshipped and formed lasting friendships. I longed to go somewhere like Iona in Scotland.

There are many holy places on this earth. God dwells everywhere and with each of us, in every living creature, in every rock, in every sea, in every tree. We are connected through the sacred, and that makes us sacramental beings to our core. I hope and pray you will find the sacred places and sacred moments that touch you deeply so that you might breathe of the holiness within yourself.

Art: Depiction of Jesus at the well with Samaritan woman painted in the 4th century in a Rome catacomb.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

What inside you is thirsty for the living water?

Today's gospel reading John 4:1-15 is the story of the Samaritan woman at the well. Jesus pauses on his journey back to Galilee. He and his followers have taken a route through Samaria, considered by their pious countryman to be unclean, not because of the water but because of the people who live there.

Jesus breaks several religious, gender and social taboos by asking a Samaritan woman for a cup of water. She is startled that a Jewish man such as he would ask her, an untouchable, for a cup of water.

Then he goes all mystical on her.

"Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but those who drink the water that I will give them will never be thirsty," he tells the woman.

She responds by asking for his water "so that I may never be thirsty."

I am struck by many things in the story, and many have preached it from many directions. It is a declaration of faith in Jesus as the "living water." It is a story of a woman who sees him for who he is and responds by following. That may be lesson enough from this story.

But there is more.

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well is a story of Jesus reaching the untouchable, the one who others consider foreign and unworthy for a holy man to reach. She is the wrong gender, the wrong religion, the wrong ethnicity. That makes the story a clarion call to the followers of Jesus to reach the outsiders, the untouchables, the lowliest in our own country. Who are the untouchables for us? The homeless? The alien? The poor? Who are the religious untouchables in our land? Jesus reminds us that the water of his living well connects us all together. If we really are followers of Jesus, we will go to the well and find the people who live there and invite them to have a cup of water.

John's Gospel is also a mystical gospel, and it can be heard as a story of the inner life, not just the outer life. The entire gospel can be heard as a pathway for how Jesus draws people to a deepening awareness of their union with God, and a deepening awareness of what they need to change inside themselves to be living in the fullness of their life with God.

The story of the Samaritan woman at the well invites each of us to ask a very hard questions about ourselves: What is untouchable inside each of us? What is poor in ourselves? What inside us is thirsty for the living water?

Art: "Samaritan Woman at the Well," by He Qi.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Water is a miracle: A homily by Dudley Rochester

One of the great treats of being at St. Paul's Memorial Church is our Wednesday Evening Prayer at 5:30 pm. We invite members of the congregation to give the homily, and we have been treated to some extraordinary reflections (and I wish more people would come).

Last Wednesday, Dudley Rochester gave this homily on the spirituality of our Earth's limited water resources. Dudley has spent a great deal of time studying and reflecting on this, and he has ably served on the Diocese of Virginia Committee on Stewardship of Creation. We've posted his homily on our sermon website. Here is the top of his homily, and below that is a link to the full text:

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Earth, Water and Creation
By Dr. Dudley Rochester

The literature of the Bible and other ancient works indicate that man 5,000 years ago was as intelligent, creative, thoughtful, emotional and aggressive as we are now. I like to think that we who live now have some ideas in common with the authors of Genesis about the meaning of creation. Of course, how we think about creation in the 21st century is profoundly influenced by science, but I believe that miracles and mysteries remain in abundance.

Earth is a miracle. The universe as we know it has unfathomable dimensions, and our planet Earth is an incredibly small fragment of the total. Imagine a sphere big enough to contain our sun and its planets. A sphere that big could hold almost a billion, trillion Earths. The whole universe can hold that many solar systems!

Water is a miracle. The chemistry of water is exquisitely right for Earth itself, as well as for life on earth. All our water has been on Earth for almost 4.5 billion years, being used and re-used countless times. Indeed, water contributes to its own stability. 
How Much Water Is There?

Far out in space, in the Orion Molecular Cloud, enough water molecules to fill all of Earth’s oceans are made every 24 minutes. Unfortunately, that water is not available to us.

It is thought that Earth received its water from space, very early in its existence. Ever since, the amount of water on Earth has remained remarkably constant.

Roughly 80% of the water on Earth is totally inaccessible. It is contained in, and is chemically part of, rocks that are hundreds of miles below Earth’s surface. Oceans cover 71% of Earth’s surface, but comprise only 1/1000 of Earth’s diameter. All the water in Earth’s oceans, ice caps and atmosphere comes to 0.03% of the mass of the planet. Only 2.5% of all the oceanic, ice cap and atmospheric water is fresh water, and accessible fresh water is about 1/4000th of that.
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To read the full homily, click HERE.

Photos by the extraordinary Gary Hart.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Lift Every Voice and Sing!

Today is when we remember the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. And we can't just let the day slip away without this. Get out of your chair!

The Monday Funnies

The Jokester Department here at Fiat Lux Productions is lurching back into high gear -- or low gear -- now that the egg nog season has finally finished. Here are a couple of very bad jokes from Pat Hill. Enjoy your Monday . . .

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A preacher was making his rounds to his parishioners on his bicycle when he came upon a little boy trying to sell a lawn mower. 
"I've been needing a lawn mower. How much do you want for it?" asked the preacher.
"I just want enough money to go out and buy me a bike," said the little boy. 
After a moment of consideration, the preacher asked, "Will you take my bike in trade for it?" 
The little boy asked if he could try it out first, and after riding the bike around a little while, "Mister, you've got yourself a deal." 
The preacher took the mower and began to try to crank it. Pulling on the cord a few times with no response from the mower, the preacher called the little boy over, "I can't get this mower to start." 
The little boy said, "That's because you have to cuss at it to get it started." 
The preacher said to the little boy, "I am a minister, and I cannot cuss. It has been so long since I have been saved, that I do not even remember how to cuss." 
The little boy looked at him happily and said, as he rode off, "Just keep pullin' on that cord. It'll come back to ya." 
* * * 
Two boys were walking home from Sunday school after hearing a strong preaching on the devil. One said to the other, "What do you think about all this Satan stuff?"

The other boy replied, "Well, you know how Santa Claus turned out. It's probably just your dad."

Sunday, January 15, 2012

The way of followership

My sermon today touches on all of the lessons appointed for the day: 1 Samuel 3:1-10(11-20)Psalm 139:1-5, 12-171 Corinthians 6:12-20  and John 1:43-51.

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Today we come to a very open-ended story:

Jesus goes to the Sea of Galilee. When Phillip, Peter, Andrew, and Nathanael see him, they drop everything and follow Jesus. 

Just like that. 
What did they see that so compelled them? And what was inside themselves that made them follow? 
Many of have speculated over centuries about why the first disciples followed. Had they known Jesus since childhood? Were they waiting for a signal from him for when this great project would begin? Or did they just happen into this like Nathanael?
None of the gospels tell us. 

Maybe we are to find these answers in how we ourselves choose to follow.
We get a common thread lacing through all of the biblical stories we hear today. 

The thread is followership. 
The young Samuel hears the voice of God in the night and he follows the voice wherever it leads. 

The psalm declares God is always with us and knows us better than we know ourselves.
The apostle Paul dishes up hard medicine for followers about their harmful behaviors. 
And the Gospel John gives this story of how the first followers of Jesus begin their followership with no real idea of what would happen or where they were going, but they went anyway. 

The topic of followership is not one we hear much about in our world today. We would rather talk about leadership.This great university across the street devotes enormous resources and intellectual power to the training of leaders, and don’t get me wrong – this world needs great leaders. 
Yet, our society doesn’t place much value on followership. I checked Amazon.com yesterday, and it is currently selling 71,136 books on leadership. 

There are only 187 titles with the word “followership.” 
We would rather look up to great leaders and dissect what it takes to be a great leader. 

We are in the throes of a presidential election that, at some level, is a debate about the nature and quality of leadership. 
We rightly celebrate the leadership of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. this weekend.
But what of being a follower? 

There is no holiday for followers. 

Dr. King would be the first to tell you that without followers who stood their ground…
without followers who withstood the taunts; without followers who withstood the fire hoses and the jail cells, and the beatings and death itself; without followers, Dr. King’s leadership would have been absolutely worthless. 
Dr. King would be the first to tell you that followers make the difference. Followers always make the difference. 

You and I make the difference. 
In a very real sense, our parish is embarking on a new season of followership, or to use the church term: discipleship.

This winter, we are engaged in a season of discernment and listening so that we can become clearer about the path that God would have us follow as a faith community. 
We may not be faced with fire hoses and jail cells, but we are no less faced with challenges in our personal lives, and in the life of our congregation that require courage and strength, and especially require deep listening for the presence of God in our midst and within ourselves.

I hope you will pick up one of these. It summarizes a year of work by our Vestry and a task force that has examined the context and challenges facing us as a parish. 
And I hope you will sign up for a listening group. There is information about them in this.
Everyone can participate because everyone has something to contribute from your life experience and your experience of being in this church. 

This season of listening to God’s call in our parish can be extraordinary of we are open to it.
Yet some may find the concept of discernment uncomfortable, or risky, or even fraught with peril – and in it is. 

After all, haven’t we met or heard about mentally unstable people who claim they are speaking for God? Shouldn’t we question whether we are hearing “God” or just our own voices? 

That is why we do this together. 
All of the biblical lessons today underline this theme as well: that God is with us, but God is not easy to hear or see, and you should never blindly follow. 

We are human, we are not God. We make mistakes. Everyone in these stories questions.
The lessons today also provide a map for authentic listening and discernment. Let tell you what I hear in these lessons that can help us: 
Discernment begins with open-mindedness. Nathanael was open to Phillip bringing him to meet this unknown Jewish rabbi, Jesus, and Nathanael was open to what he experienced.

Nathanael had many pre-conceived ideas about who the messiah would be, but he was open to a new epiphany that would turn his previous notions upside down. 

Listening takes perseverance. 

Listening may take more than one try, as it did for Samuel in the Old Testament today.
Samuel and Nathanael both make mistakes, but they keep at it – they keep coming back – and that is another reason why discernment should be done in community. 

We need each other to do this. 
We can only know if our discernment is legitimate if we test it with other people. We need to always be open to the possibility that we’ve heard things wrong, that we didn’t get it right, that we heard only our prejudices speaking. 
From that springs humility, a word rarely heard in our culture. Our epiphanies will come not out of our arrogance or the certainty of being right, but from a sense of confidence that the Spirit dwells in us as individuals and as a community. 

Look for the surprising. 

The Spirit may be speaking to us from unexpected corners, and that often takes a whole community to see and hear. 
Psalm 139 proclaims that the One who knows us more deeply than we know ourselves will find a way to speak to us in a way that that is unique to each of us. 

You may hear God in a physics equation or in the soaring notes of a Mozart concerto. 

That also means the Spirit can reach the person sitting next to you in ways unique to him or her. When you honor the next person, especially when it is hardest, you honor the Spirit, and that is the definition of humility living in community. 

Next comes healing. 
We need to ask whether our followership brings about healing to the whole community, or brings about harm. Healing starts with healing for each of us. 

It is exactly what the apostle Paul is driving at in his letter today. He asks us to take a hard look at what corrodes our relationship with God and corrodes our relationship with each other. 
For us, what gets in the way? Possessions? Addictions? Callousness? In what ways do we abuse our bodies, this great gift from God? 
Heal yourself and we will go a long way to healing our community. 
Then we must ask: Who around us needs healing? Who is poor and neglected, lonely and forgotten? Do we hear their voices? When we do, we are close to hearing God. 
Next comes resolve, and with it, courage. 

We need to put one foot in front of the other, one day at a time, just like Samuel and just like Nathanael. We are called to do something and do it well, and not be hamstrung by endless analysis. 
Our actions will bring new insights, new epiphanies, new inspiration, new discernment.
Our path of discernment will have many turns and surprises, and there will be rocks along the way. True followership – true discipleship – is not easy. 

We will be transformed as individuals and as a community – and we will change the world by our followership. 
Dr. King’s followers changed everything in our world, nothing was ever the same again because they listened with openness, they spoke with humility, and they acted with resolve.
They knew how to follow with courage. 
And you know what else? Those are same qualities great leaders have as well: listening, openness, humility, resolve and courage. 

May it always be so with us here at St. Paul’s.
Art by He Qi

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Heather Warren and her hip groovy cool class

Our very own Pastor Heather Warren is featured in UVA Today. She doubles as a professor at the University of Virginia. Here is the top of the story:

J-term Course Digs into Religious Inheritance of the 1960s and '70s

January 12, 2012 — "Cool." "Groovy." "Hip." "Heavy." "Square." Such words are among the better-known legacies of the 1960s and '70s that today we take for granted (along with things like civil rights and women's equality).

But the era also created a number of other, less obvious, legacies, as students learned in a University of Virginia January Term course on "Religion in the 60's and 70's," taught by religious studies professor Heather Warren of the College of Arts & Sciences.

For instance, the "centering prayer groups" at many American churches, as well as the  "mindfulness" classes offered at the U.Va. Medical Center, come right out of Asian practices of meditation, primarily Buddhist and Hindu, first popularized in America in the 1960s, Warren explained in an interview. The turn toward Asian religion often came in reaction to Protestant traditions feeling too dogmatic, she said.

To read the rest of the story, clicking HERE.

Friday, January 13, 2012

The feast of Hilary (and a few other thoughts)

Today is the feast day of Hilary of Poitiers (300-368), a bishop in that time of foment and conflict and the emergence of orthodoxy (though that took another 200 years or more to fully solidify). Hilary was known as "the hammer of the Arians" for his confronting the followers of Bishop Arias of Alexandria (250-336) who saw in the Trinity a hierarchy of divine persons. Hilary was of the camp that saw co-equals in the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

It is, of course, a good deal more complicated than this. It helps to know something of Greek philosophy to get all this. It also helps to understand politics. The 4th century was a brutal age, and the players fought hard and took no prisoners. The 4th century makes our presidential primary season look rather tame. And all of this could have come out differently, and we should be reminded that the strands of thought in the Church were many from the very beginning.

Christianity has always been diverse despite the efforts of some to claim that their understanding is the only path. As my seminary history professor Rebecca Lyman reminded me this morning, "history is a crooked tale."

Oh, and one more thing: Today is the 11th anniversary of my ordination to the God's Holy priesthood. The path these 11 years has been rich, enlightening, full of wonder and grace, but not always easy. I've gone places I never imagined I would go, and done things I never thought I could do. The path is crooked at times, and doubtless will always be so.  Thank you for your prayers, support, friendship and good wishes.

Art display featuring work by artists with disabilities

Charlottesville High School's Center for the Performing Arts will soon feature an art show with works by local artists who struggle with disabilities. Channel 29 did a story on it, and it features our own Margaret Lee, a member of St. Paul's with many gifts including her singing in the choir and her harp playing at many of our special services. You can see the Channel 29 feature here, and I hope you will go see her work if you are in the area:

Thursday, January 12, 2012

How old is the earth? The splendor of God's creation

Laser astronomical instrument
at Mauna Loa Observatory
Photo by NASA
There was a report Wednesday about a poll that says American Protestant pastors overwhelmingly reject the theory of evolution but are evenly split on the age of the Earth. Almost half think the earth is only 6,000 years old.

Scientists will tell you that it is 4.5 billion years old, give or take a few 100 million years.

More than three-fourths of the pastors believe that the Genesis story of Adam and Eve is literally true. You can read the report by clicking HERE.

This poll is probably no surprise, but I find it sad.

I was thinking about this during Morning Prayer this morning because the Old Testament reading, Genesis 4:17-26 is about the children of Adam and Eve, and their wayward son, Cain. In the story, Cain takes a wife and builds city. It seems to me that the idea that the Adam and Eve story is literal fact breaks down pretty quickly with Genesis 4:17. Just where did Cain find a wife if he was the only living offspring of Adam and Eve?

The attitude of these American Protestant pastors is off base not just as a rejection of honest scientific inquiry but as misguided theology. Let me point out that I count myself as a Protestant (The Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion are products of the Protestant Reformation) and I am definitely a pastor.

We can debate (endlessly) how we interpret the Bible. But to not grasp the wonder of evolution and the length of time this earth has been evolving is to miss out on the wonder of God's amazing creation. As I watched the sun coming up this morning, as I do most mornings, I gave thanks for a new day. There will never be another sunrise like the one this morning, and God has provided 4.5 billion years worth of sunrises on this planet. Why would anyone think humans can place limits on God and God's time?

Scientists in recent years have identified thousands of planets around other suns that were heretofore unknown to us, and doubtless there will turn out to be billions more planets. Some planets that have been discovered are in the "comfort zone" that can sustain life. In all likelihood, there are other planets besides ours with life, and some of that life may be intelligent. Who else is out there giving thanks for a sunrise?

God is infinite, and God continues to create. The question for us is to open to this amazing universe God has created in all of its splendid variety and enormous depth of time. God gave us the amazing gift of intelligence to plumb the wonders of the universe. Shouldn't we show thanks to God by using that gift? And why would anyone want to use the allegory of Adam and Eve to limit their understanding of God and God's creation? The position of these American Protestant pastors is not only bad science, it is bad theology.

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

The Holy Spirit in our questions: A special workshop at St. Paul's

We are embarking as a parish into a season of listening for how the Holy Spirit is calling us into a new commitment to mission. How are we called to grow? What ministries are vital? What needs to fall away?

We are providing many avenues for participation in this listening process, and I want to invite you to one of them: a workshop that I will be leading on Saturday Jan. 21 from 9 am to noon.

The method we will use was developed by the “Emergent Church” movement and is based on the idea that sometimes we can hear God in our questions rather than in the certainty of our own answers.

We will spend our morning in prayer, conversation and questions about our future. Come ready for the possibility of surprise.

The method has been successful used by the Diocese of Virginia for small groups and planning retreats. I won't spoil it by saying more about the method, but I've been a participant twice in the method and found it fruitful on many levels.

You can also find out about other kinds of listening groups by going to our website HERE.

And please let me invite you to the read the report about our parish and the context where we live. This report was prepared over the last year; it is quite readable and rich with information. You can read it by clicking HERE.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The dogs who have shared our lives

Our friend Karen in Tennessee has given us many gifts of poetry over the years. Her beloved dog Blue died the other day. Blue was 15 years old. Sometimes I believe our dogs are angels sent from Heaven to make us laugh and dry our tears. Here is a poem for Karen today:

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The Dogs Who Have Shared Our Lives
By Linda Barnes

The dogs who’ve shared our lives.
In subtle ways they let us know
their spirit still survives.
Old habits still make us think
we hear a barking at the door.
Or step back when we drop
a tasty morsel on the floor.
Our feet still go around the place
the food dish used to be,
And, sometime, coming home at night,
we miss them terribly.
And although time may bring new friends
and a new food dish to fill,
That one place in our hearts
belongs to them…
and always will.