Somewhere, Somehow: The Geography of Nowhere, Mason Jars, and the Church

Nowhere can be a comfortable place.  Just ask the designers of malls, shopping centers, and chain stores.  To take the example of a chain store – they are designed so that anyone who arrives can easily find their way around.  Jeans are always in the same place as are hoodies and shoes.  Each place, while seemingly different, is nearly identical. 

Last night, I went to a late movie, as I often do.  I went to a different theater than the one I normally frequent though as the film I wanted to see was only playing there.  I went to see A Most Wanted Man, Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s last film as a star, which was brilliant.

nowhereThe theater was in a shopping center of a type that is popular around Denver.  It mimics a town square with a bit of green space in the middle surrounded by familiar shops.  Here is H&M, there is Dick’s Sporting Goods, and there is Gap.  It imitates charm without really having any at all.  There are many of these places around Denver – imitation town centers that are at the center of nowhere.  If I had to tell my wife or some other kind soul where I was because my car was broken down, I would have no reference point because the reference points are so common.

As I got in my car after the film, on the radio was Corinne Bailey Rae song, “Put Your Records On.” One lyric stood out from the song.  As I was driving out of the faux town center she sang, “You’re gonna find yourself somewhere, somehow.”

Somewhere.  Somehow.  This is often how people come to the Church – searching for sense of place and reference amidst the unrelenting pressure to consume and produce.  Our very geography is being shaped by the desire of the market to fuel easy addiction to that which we don’t need and create pressure to rapidly consume that which we didn’t know we wanted.

In 1993 James Kunstler wrote the book, The Geography of Nowhere: The Rise and Decline of America’s Man-Made Landscape, in which he posits that suburbia has ceased to be a habitable environment because its geography is driven by consumption rather than community.

Too many of our churches have become part of that geography of nowhere – places that are driven by a consumer mentality rather than places of authentic community and adoration of God.  The geography of nowhere is marked by its blandness and safety.  It is non-threatening and built for the rewarding of consumer desire.  It does not build up rather it contributes to a sense of dehumanizing competitive acquisition.

How many times have we heard of ways that we can market our church or make it more appealing?  How many times have we heard that making church easier to understand or demanding less is the answer?

Ultimately the geography of nowhere is unsustainable because it doesn’t build virtue but undermines it.  It fails because it doesn’t engender affection – for the place or the people around us.  It asks nothing and offers less.

The Church can be that real place amidst a landscape of nowhere.  People come to us weary of the maintenance of the fiction that they belong in a society marked by its utter inability to actually be a home for anyone.  Whether it is pressure to consume, pressure to conform, pressure to be better or beautiful – our culture and landscape are producing malaise and deep angst and anger.

The Church provides a point of beauty and reference for those lost in bland turmoil.

An article is in the New York Times right now about the surge in the popularity of Mason Jars.  It says, “Sales of…Ball brand jars, have doubled since 2001, and that overall sales for the company’s home-preserving products have jumped 25 percent in the past two years.” The article goes on to quote the CEO of Jarden Home Brands, “’The turning point in the recent history of the Mason jar was the start of the recession in 2008. “’People stay home,’” Mr. Scherzinger says of that time. “’They don’t go out as much. They kind of go back to what the core of their roots are.’”

While the sale of Mason jars may seem to have little to do with the Church – it is intimately tied to the longing of people to find the core of their roots.  There is a yearning among people for authentic connection to their own history and to reconnect with that which made them.  The Church offers a place to find a sense of place in the midst of nowhere and a sense of identity in the face of dehumanizing economic and social forces.

We offer connection to the deepest traditions of our civilization.  The richness of architecture, music, and art are offered not as a way of rewarding consumptive desire but as a form of self-offering to the source of our hope and life.  We offer Sacraments that find their root in Christ’s own commands.  We find a story that is the story of the Church for millennia.  We offer a community that gathers around a table and gathered around Christ as he fed five thousand.  We offer hymns of praise that parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents sang.  We offer the adoration of the magi, the praise of angels, and the courage of martyrs.  We offer Scripture, Tradition, and Reason.  We offer a chance to come and be transformed.

Those who call themselves spiritual but not religious mean something very simple – they long for the holy but can’t stand sanctimoniousness.  They long for the real thing.

My prayer for the Church is that we have the courage to offer it – to offer a home for the broken and an oasis for the lost.  My prayer is that we help people find within our walls those who are living something different, something authentic, something that feels real because it is.  My hope is that we can help them find that somewhere, somehow.

Robert

The Future Work of the Episcopal Church: Part I

This is part one of a two part series on the Catholic work of the Episcopal Church.  In this first piece I am simply noting changes that are upon us and in the second will look at specific ways that Episcopal Church might respond to position itself for the future.

One of the discomforts of entering the Episcopal Church is the discovery that it is a house divided about one matter or another.  It is a Church with as wide a range of perspective as can be encompassed in any one body – and perhaps wider.  Before I went to seminary, I had never heard Rite II.  I assumed that the entire Church celebrated the Holy Mysteries facing East in the prose of Cranmer.  My first Eucharist at General Seminary was a confusing thing.  I walked out and called my wife and said, “They are using some sort of rite that you would use at church camp or in a rec room.” It was Rite II.

I offer that not to indicate the rightness or wrongness of anything but merely to point out that it is perfectly possible to come into the Episcopal Church and find a logical, happy home and not realize how wide the spectrum of worship, theology, and practice is across the Church.

So, with all that diversity, I wonder what the uniting work is of the Church?  What is the Catholic – the universal, continuous, and uniting work of the Episcopal Church?

The Catholic work of the Episcopal Church is yet to be done.  I truly believe that our long-term identity is to be found in the very place we once aspired to – if not looking quite the same.  I believe that we are destined to be a national Church.  By this I do not mean a Church of the state nor a Church of any identifiable party or privileged class – but a Church that is as diverse in its expressions as our nation is diverse and yet is teaching and living the wholeness of the Catholic faith.

No Church is as ideally positioned for the future as the Episcopal Church.  Let me reiterate that.  No Church is as ideally positioned for the future as the Episcopal Church.

That may seem a large pill to swallow as we look at declining numbers, closing churches, and seemingly dwindling resources.  However, when one looks at the root causes of those declines one realizes that the Episcopal Church is strongly positioned for the future.

Population Shifts

It is first important to think about the changes that are impacting the Church at large.  One chief reason for our difficulties is the increasing urbanization of the United States.  We are in the midst of a population shift to urban and exurban areas – and out of both rural and suburban locales.  This will mean a decline in the churches that are rural churches.  We will face the closure of a large number of churches in rural areas.

According to a study by demographers at the Department for Homeland Security, “In 1870 one out of four Americans lived in urban areas. By 1920 the urban-to-non-urban ratio was 1-to-1. In 2010 four out of five Americans lived in urban areas. Today about 75 percent of Americans are concentrated on about three percent of the nation’s territory.” There is a projected acceleration of this urbanization through 2030.  In the graph below, one can note that the areas of projected growth are areas where the Episcopal Church is strongly represented.

We, however, like all churches will have to wrestle with the declines in some of the old industrial centers and find new ways to engage and serve those most hurt by the shifting economics of our society.

county concentrations

Now, there are a host of urban parishes closing.  Yet, I would maintain, that the strength of the Episcopal Church in urban areas remains a key factor for our future.  The churches that are closing are the ones that were most hurt by the flight from urban centers.  However, we are now seeing a reversal of that flight and, I expect, will see an attendant strengthening of those churches who have the resources and creativity to continue to operate.  We are well-positioned to attract those who are moving to urban areas for a number of reasons.

Demographic Shifts and Diversity

Not only will the growth continue but the population will become more diverse as well.  While it may not seem that this is a particular strength of the Episcopal Church right now – we do have the potential to take advantage of shifts in diversity based on our history and character.  We are not, despite our waspy nature at times, an ethnic Church.  Within our DNA is an ability to open ourselves to diverse expressions of the faith.  Moreover, many of those who are second or third generation immigrants are not looking for expressions of Church that will only cater to their ethnic identity but for faith homes that will offer them a place to worship and serve alongside those from a variety of other backgrounds as space for diversity is created.

The Episcopal Church will offer a home to those who are seeking a place that is at once familiar, which by nature of our worship and sacraments we can be, but also creates a welcoming environment for different cultures and ethnicities.  In a study by Rice University of Asian-American second and third generations in the US, it was determined that “As children of immigrants find jobs and become independent, most leave ethnic enclaves, losing their close proximity to extended families.” Moreover, “Catholics and, to a greater extent, Asian-Americans who were members of non-Christian religions faced more of a tension between their own agency in deciding which religious tradition to follow and having their religion determined by family tradition…”

As someone who comes out of an immigrant Roman Catholic family, I have some experience with this trend, though I would love to hear the opinions of those coming from racial and ethnic minority backgrounds.

My sense is that as children of immigrants move to urban areas seeking new jobs and educational opportunities, a robust Episcopal Church, can offer a place for these true seekers to explore and find a spiritual home.  We can become a natural home by offering elements of traditional faith that are deeply connected to long tradition while also having the local flexibility to welcome in new and vibrant ways and ensure that those coming to our churches are not simply welcomed but are allowed to change who we are as a community.

This diversity will also mean a recognition of the dramatic shifts taking place in our society around issues of gender and sexuality.

Space for Questions

It may seem obvious, but the Episcopal Church has, as a chief strength, its ability to welcome those who have substantial questions about faith.  This cannot mean that we are devoid of answers or unable to articulate faithful responses to real and deep needs but our character and essence is one that is reasonable in its expression.

Our unity is found in our common worship and in our ability to hold in tension the varied places which people are in when they come to the Church.  One of the passages of Scripture that always appeals to me as an Anglican is the story of Thomas.  Of course, we all know of his so-called doubting – his unwillingness to hope that his deepest longing was true.  Yet, the often overlooked piece of the story of Thomas is that even when he expressed doubt, was held by the community in love, not run off for unbelief.

John 20:25-26 reads, “So the other disciples told him, ‘We have seen the Lord!’ But he said to them, ‘Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.’  A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you!’”

That week for Thomas must have been what so many of those longing to hope are searching for – a community that will walk with them as they encounter the living Christ.

Many come to our communities wanting to hope yet not daring to do so.  The Episcopal Church offers home where we can balance hope with sincere doubtful longing.  Moreover, many are now able to access a wide range of information in a pluralistic society.  They are hyper-informed and the Episcopal Church offers a way of being that honors their own search even as we offer a way of being faithful that can sustain them for the journey.

Longing for Authenticity and Tradition

Alongside the faithful questioning that so many have is a concomitant longing for the deepest elements of our tradition.  We are seeing study after study and have many pieces of anecdotal evidence that emerging generations are longing for places of authentic engagement with the Holy.  Our long tradition gives us all the tools for an authentic, deep-rooted faith that is expressed in ways that reach back millennia.

This means more than worship and Sacraments though.  It means churches that live in sacrificial ways that speak to the heart of a lived Gospel.  The Episcopal Church has a stated concern for justice in many places that, if actualized, might actually manifest itself as a drive for justice.  This will have to mean more than vague diocesan resolutions or the like – it will mean congregations that have members and leaders who are visibly and consistently risking status and position for the sake of promoting not only social justice but a justice rooted in the Communion between Christ and his people.  In other words – it must be a clear matter of faith not simply a marker of relevance.

It must be clearly noted that this longing for authenticity and tradition is, first and foremost, a longing for God even if it is not always recognized as such.  It is a longing for a fixed point of reference in a constantly changing world and society.

I will talk more extensively about this in the next post.

The Catholic Work of the Episcopal Church

The next post will focus on why this is Catholic work and what that means for the Episcopal Church and our future.

The Diaconate and Lay Religious Orders: The Shape of Future Ministry

Over the last few years, in working with young adults, seminarians, and those considering ordination, a few things of note have emerged.

First, there are many, many people looking to have their faith be not something apart from the rest of their life or a distraction amidst a panoply of distractions. They are seeking a way for their faith to form their life and for their life to matter in the deepest ways possible. Second, many of these people have been told “you should become a priest” or the like because they enjoy serving others or they have a way with people or because they are kind – all good traits in a priest. Third, the Church does not have the capacity to employ, full-time, the many, many caring and wonderful people who feel a call to ministry.  Fourth, our communities are longing for a relational model of Church that blends depth of tradition with the strength of real relationship and authenticity.

It seems to me that we might be entering a cultural moment in which we should consider the Religious life (monastic vocations) and the diaconate as the ideal means to form leaders equipped to engage the realities of contemporary society.

There are models for bi-vocational ministry being explored around the Church – encouraging priests to serve as priests while employed in other work as well. This is a fine thing yet I am not sure that it is the only answer to the needs of both the Church and the culture around us.

I firmly believe that intentional Religious Communities and a robust Diaconate are key to the rejuvenation of a vibrant Christian presence all across the country. The need is for missionary communities of prayer, service, and sacrificial giving.

In a culture in which fewer and fewer people will simply wander into our churches to check us out, it is vital that we build up and equip a generation of missionaries whose work is to make the Gospel known as a lived experience of joyful offering and not simply something to be read or heard. This may be a way for the world to see and know that Christ is raising up a Church that will find its locus and heart in the communities all around us.

This work begins with daily prayer and the Sacraments – but the churches that serve as the heart of this kind of disciplined approach to engaging the Holy would not be the final destination but the launching point for those trained and equipped to be the presence of Christ for those they meet and serve. I imagine local Churches serving as a sort of mother ship where people are fed and trained for missionary service.

We need two deacons for every priest in every Church – at least. We should be finding those people who have a passion for proclaiming the Gospel and for serving those whom society would ignore and making them deacons whose mission is not full-time employment but is full-time ministry. These deacons would become the leaders and catalysts for evangelical and missionary service in our communities. Moreover, they would be the conscience of our churches as they ever call us to deeper companionship and self-offering.

These deacons would serve at the heart of local communities of those taking religious vows. Whether full-time, professed monastics or part of neo-monastic communities we should also be looking for those in our communities who are yearning for a deeper connection to other faithful people and are longing for their faith to ground their approach to work, relationship, and service. These kinds of communities could then become the heart of congregations longing for connection to the communities around them but fearful or unsure of taking the next step.

There are many for whom the full-time ordination process and seminary are not the appropriate route. There are also those being fast-tracked to the priesthood who have little sense that they want to preach, teach, and administer the Sacraments. They do, however, have a powerful and holy desire to live and serve with faith and passion. We do them a disservice by funneling them into the priesthood because we have falsely equated ministry with priesthood.

We need passionate and powerful advocates for Christ in the communities around us – we need deacons and lay religious equipped for holy living. They can be, in our communities, the kinds of Christians that people never knew existed whose concern is not institutional maintenance or Church membership but is a faith lived so eloquently and authentically that their very being is evangelical.

This kind of work will require that we shift the heart of our congregational leadership from our vestries and priests to our deacons and lay religious leaders. These communities must not be projects of parishes but the heart of them. They will have to have voice and vote and serve as a voice for the community in parish deliberations and as the prayerful heart of any parish’s discernment and growth in discipleship. They could be an inspiration for the congregation’s deepening sense of their own vocation as evangelists and servants.

When we talk about the “discernment process” in our dioceses, I hope that we’ll consider discernment for the Diaconate and for religious orders to be as high in our priority list as we do candidates for the priesthood. Ultimately, it will be these servant-leaders who are creatively making Christ known in the communities around us who will re-center the Church and draw others to come and see.

Robert

Strange Language: Jargon, Tradition, and Essence

As I have been reading responses to a piece I wrote yesterday on Church jargon and pondering the issue – I wonder if a reasonable compromise might be offered for clarity.

I think perhaps there are distinctions to be made.  What language do we have that is rooted in centuries of tradition and regular use?  What language feels like a trend that could be jettisoned in favor of clarity and welcome?  What language has lost connection to its historic understanding and needs fresh definition?

Happily enough, for us, language is only one mediator of meaning in our Tradition.  We also have the power and mystery of movement and quiet in our liturgy.  A well-designed liturgy will speak on its own terms with little interference on our part.  We do not need to rely on its didactic qualities to find meaning because the very thing itself has power that transcends the language we would wrap around it.

Language is of a piece with the whole tapestry of our Church fabric.  It can be consonant with the whole of the tradition expressed in art, music, movement, and voice or it can distract by being too filled with the jargon or slang of the day.  It is easy for us to assume that ancient forms no longer “translate” for a modern audience and thus either substitute or eliminate that which is ancient for that which clangs and rattles in its disconsonance.

On Thursday, a fellow joined us for Morning Prayer who had mistaken the day for Tuesday when we offer a public breakfast for those in need of a warm meal.  Our Curate invited the fellow to remain for Morning Prayer, however, and he did.  He had no small degree of trouble keeping up with pages (in no small part because of a disability) and we helped as we could – passing along books turned to the psalms, canticles, and the like.  He was graceful about the challenges and seemed notably nonplussed.

Yet, when we reached the Lord’s Prayer, a look of real peace came over him as he was able to recite the words from memory.  His whole being shifted a bit as he found himself in sync.

I think this is one of those moments where I recognized the power of well shared language.  Here was a fellow for whom much of our service was new – and yet amidst the newness was that moment of grace that only prayer known at the deepest core can offer.  Had we decided, at some point or another, to substitute the “modern” Lord’s Prayer then this fellow would have missed that moment of grace and we would have missed an opportunity to connect at a level far deeper than jargon or even words.  It was not the words themselves but the rich experience of knowing them at our deepest level together that was so powerful.

The encounter with the metaphysical Church is of a different nature than the encounter with the institutional Church.  It is possible for us to use language about the institution that impedes someone’s ability to engage the deeper reality of the Church.  The answer to the dilemma though is not to attempt to water down the mystery and poetry that is at the heart of the nature of the metaphysical Church but to create such a welcome that those who come can find their deepest being suffused with the shared rhythms of centuries of prayer and adoration.

I think that the middle way in this discussion is to recognize that there are at least three categories of challenging language.

  1. Jargon – Language which is unhelpful in its imprecision, “in-ness,” and lack of root in the deeper life and identity of the community.  Perhaps contemporary examples might be missional, emergent, 815, the process, or countless other words that don’t communicate what we think they do and throw up boundaries or at least create unnecessary confusion when used.  For example, I heard the word “pericope” used in a sermon recently.
  2. Traditional – This is language that grows out of long use but could be unfamiliar to many.  This might be vestry, rector, (sub-dean in my case), narthex, sacristy, or the like.  Many of these are words that actually give flavor and character to our communities but that we need to be careful, when using them, to provide context and definition when possible.  In some contexts, even generally used words like Eucharist, bishop, liturgy, or parish might also fall into this category.  The challenge is that these are things that we once could have assumed that folks would pick up in growing up in church-going households – this is no longer the case so we need to be thoughtful in use and explanation.
  3. Essential – This is language that forms the essence of the Church’s character both universally and locally.  These are the kinds of words and language that must be taught, preserved, and held on to.  This would be historic language from the Eucharistic prayers, the Creeds, the Lord’s Prayer, the Prayer Book, and the like.  It is fundamentally unsettling to the form and life of the community to rewrite or recast these without substantial involvement of the whole of the Church in consultation and conversation.   We should rarely be tampering with it as this is where the deepest, lasting learning happens.  This is the stuff of the metaphysical, poetic encounter with God in the context of the Sacramental and liturgical life of the Church.

There are, I’m sure, different and more complex ways to view this – but this is where my general thinking lies.  It seems that a focus on minimizing jargon, explaining the tradition, and deepening our shared understanding of the essential would lead us to a healthier sense of our own identity and provide not only a welcome but context for newcomers and lifelong learners in our communities.  This approach may help us lead communities that make it possible to enter the mysterious Presence of God and be transformed in all the ways that God invites us to be changed.

Robert

Tribal Jargon: A Case for Strange Language in the Church

Floating around social media the last week or so has been an article on church jargon.  The article opens with a priest in California who talks earnestly about forgoing traditional church language which might be off-putting or simply foreign to many in today’s culture in favor of titles or descriptive phrases that may be clearer to the modern listener or reader.  For example, rather than calling himself a Christian, he tends to self-describe as “a Monday through Saturday follower of Jesus who worships on Sunday.”

The article goes on to talk about the challenge of words like “diocese” or “Episcopal” or even “church.”

I had two countervailing thoughts as I read the article.  The first thought was that those quoted in the article are absolutely right – we do have a gap between the language we use and the language that is immediately accessible or understandable in the wider population.  The second thought was that I am not sure that this is a bad thing.

The Episcopal Church will never be all things to all people – nor should it try to be.  It has an appeal that is grounded in the beauty of language, fidelity to an ordered manner of prayer, and an expansive understanding of theological complexities.  Our of this grows a commitment to justice, reconciliation, and mission that is an expression of our commitment to live lives of faith that are not lived instead of or in spite of our life of prayer and worship but because of it.

The Episcopal Church is situated as a tribe within a broader Americanized Christian culture.  In a cultural and religious landscape that stresses personal faith journeys in some corners or theological (or Biblical) rectitude in others we stand in a unique place as we attempt to hold in balance the best of multiple strains of religiosity while also attempting to provide theological, spiritual, and lived balances between the less savory impulses of those strains.

This kind of balance does not make for an easy sound-bite friendly Church – nor should it.  We are a Church of poetic engagement with God and one another.  That poetic engagement means that we and others will wrestle with some aspect or another of our community’s common vocabulary and parlance.  This is part of tribal identity.

Without presuming to borrow the experience of others, I looked up what First Nations tribal peoples are talking about as they ponder what it means to be tribe in the face of seemingly overwhelming cultural pressures.

The Native Learning Center hosted a conference in April titled “Training for Building Sustainable Communities in Indian Country.” I was struck by the titles of many of the workshops and breakout sessions:

  • Cultural Revitalization: Keeping Our Culture Alive for Generations
  • Designing for Future Generations
  • Including Tribal Traditions and Knowledge in Language Building Curriculum
  • The Influence of Language on Tribal Culture and Identity
  • Learning from our Elders
  • Preserving Language: Turning Teachers into Speakers
  • Using Storytelling to Preserve Community

This kind of work was done amidst lots of other practical work such as developing sustainable business practices, promoting tribal NGOs, and using market credits for development.  Crucial to their conception of sustainability, however, was a concern for the centrality of language and story as critical to the building up and longevity of the community.

Now, the concern for language preservation in a First Nations community is a different one than our own concern – they are dealing with the need to preserve languages being lost due to cultural pressures and historical coercion.

Yet, by shifting our understanding of our Church from one at the very center of American life to thinking of ourselves as a tribe, at the periphery, we might actually have a more accurate picture of where we truly stand today.  Moreover, we might find ourselves concerned less with being palatable to the widest audience and more drawn into the work of making a deep and lasting impact as a tribe of disciples.

Faith communities are under constant pressure to adapt their message, presentation, and communication “strategies” to meet the needs of the wider culture.  The cost, however, in too many instances is a watering-down of the difficulty of the Gospel in favor of a therapeutic faith that comforts rather than convicts.

I do not mean “convicts” in the legalistic sense of condemnation – there is plenty of that in the wider Christian landscape.  I mean convicts in the sense of conviction – in the sense of a countercultural demand on our whole being to allow Christ to shift our commitments, priorities, and very identity such that we are a people who look less like the culture around us and more like the community that gathered around Christ, that gathers around the Altar, that is given life at the Font.

The story of a Christian tribe fully living its faith is not one that will ever be easily packaged or even readily intelligible.  It is a mysterious thing to be caught up in the Divine will for new life.  We are not simply consumers of a package of beliefs or practices – we are a Royal Priesthood – a holy people of God charged with curating the mysteries of faith.  We are sharing the stories of elders, building webs of continuity and conviction, and telling the stories that shape who and what we are.

The vitality of a tribal Christianity will be found in its ability to constantly find within itself new riches to explore and new challenges.  When I visit a place like New Orleans – I am confronted by the strangeness of its local culture – by the uniqueness of the place, language, and culture.  It is a place that holds onto the heart and imagination not by trying to be all things to all people.  It is why Austin and Portland attract huge numbers of young adults each year – they are curious places that delight in their difference from the culture around them.  They are strange places that draw us in with interwoven stories, landscapes, and characters.

We are a Church that delights in imagination and exploration.  Our history and the oddities and quirks of our story are part of what makes us a unique and captivating home for so many.  I would argue that many of the challenges we face now are not because we are distinctly Anglican but because we have forgotten what it means to embrace that distinction in too many ways.

In a culture looking for the authentic and the real part of that real authenticity, for us, is going to be the complexity and even occasional incomprehensibility of our language, customs, and traditions.  Our challenge is not so much in undoing that which makes us different or eliminating that which marks us as a tribe – but in being such joyful stewards of that identity that others are drawn to learn more and to be part of something that is recognizably counter-cultural.

Our traditions and our “jargon” can be tools that lend us a deeper sense of community, continuity, and courage in the midst of constant pressure to make bland that which is sharp and to make simple the endlessly complex walk of Christian discipleship.

Robert

Faithful Women and the Presence of Christ

On Monday evenings at the Cathedral, we house 24 homeless women for the evening.  They find here a place of safety, peace, and welcome in the midst of lives of insecurity and fear.  At 5:30 on Monday evening (and on each evening of the week) we offer our daily mass.

theotokos-8Today, I was experiencing the full weight of jet lag after a mission trip to China.  I was exhausted, cranky, and not feeling particularly holy or pious.  I said the preparatory prayers by rote.  I slipped on the chasuble as if it were rather heavier than its fabric would belie.  I made my way out to the Altar as if I were about to undertake a long and arduous hike.

Yet, after I entered the Chapel and kissed the Altar, I looked up and saw the smiling faces of eight women.  Each of them is a volunteer in the women’s shelter.  Their faces were literally alight with the joy of being together in service among those whom others try their hardest to ignore.  I felt, in that moment, that Christ was making himself present.

Before the manual acts.  Before the Words of Institution.  Before the Epiclesis.  Before the Fraction.  Before Receiving, Blessing, and Dismissal.  Before all of this, Christ was coming among us.

These faithful women reminded me of the women of the Gospels.  The women who anoint, the women who truly see Jesus, the women who dare to proclaim Resurrection, the women who dare to ask questions, the women who serve with joy, the women who hold Jesus at the Creche and at the Cross.

These women who come to mass and serve our un-housed sisters are God-Bearers.  Each is Theotokos, carrying Christ to those who most need to know him.  Today, it was not only the women who take shelter in our parish hall to whom they brought Christ’s Presence – it was to me they brought him as well.

I needed them to lend me their joy, their hope, and their faithfulness.

We were welcomed to a holy, divine exchange in that mass.  Their service, witness, and joy was an offering and sacrifice that commingled with the Sacrifice offered in my hands as Christ gave us his own Self – his True Self – for us to know in that precious time together.

I could feel the shadow of the Altar extend from the chapel to the nearby parish hall.  I could feel its calming shade defying the heat and hurry of the world.

As mass ended and I told them to “Go in Peace, to love and serve the Lord,” I said it with a bit of a grin because these women were literally about to go out of the Chapel doors and do precisely that – and you could see it in their smiles.  You could see it in their gentle firmness.  You could see it in their warm companionship.

You could see it, know it, and feel it in the way Christ looked back from each of their eyes.

Robert

The Depressing Regularity of Black Masses

An excerpt from a sermon preached at Saint John’s Cathedral on Easter VI 2014

Those following the religious news will have undoubtedly heard of the Black Mass that was to be offered at Harvard University. The reaction to the proposed ceremony was immediate and fierce. The very concept of a Black Mass is a mockery of the Sacrament of the Eucharist. It demonstrated that mocking the religious was within the limits of academic propriety even as a similar mocking of another tradition would be unthinkable in most academic climates.

I was struck that the resulting outcry resulted in the event’s cancellation. Indeed, there was an outpouring of reverence for the Sacrament that was heartening and powerful to behold.

Yet, I find myself wondering if we are being too quick to celebrate. Are we being too quick to overlook blasphemies that occur with depressing regularity all around us every day? The opposition to the Black Mass was predicated on the fact that its very existence is a distortion of the holiness of the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood.

Yet, all around us, every day, there are countless Black Masses being celebrated. There are abuses of Christ’s Body that we tolerate because of their utter commonality and convenience.

Can we pretend that the breaking of bodies by torture is not blasphemy?

Can we pretend that state-sanctioned execution is not blasphemy?

Can we pretend that children’s hunger and starvation is not blasphemy?

Can we pretend that leaving veterans homeless on our streets is not blasphemy?

Can we pretend that breaking the backs of those we call illegal who work our fields is not blasphemy?

Can we pretend that the exploitation of the underaged on our streets is not blasphemy?

Can we pretend that killing innocent children in drone strikes is not blasphemy?

Can we pretend that despoiling the Creation for our children is not blasphemy?

These and countless other blasphemies are happening in all of our communities.

We watch, all too often without comment or conviction, as those who are Christ’s own body are broken and beaten, starved and shamed, abandoned and abused. Make no mistake, these are Black Masses that are celebrated too often. They are perversions of Christ’s longings for his people. They are the sacrifice of the broken and the wounded for the sake of the comfort and amusement of the crowd.

My prayer is that the outpouring of love for the Sacrament that was shown in Boston in the face of a blasphemous mockery can be kindled into an outpouring of love for all those for whom Christ offered himself, those he loves, those he longs for us to welcome, comfort, and heal. We must be as quick to condemn the many acts of blasphemy that happen all around us. Their banal wickedness is the deadly, genuine work of evil rather than the academic mimicry of it.

Robert

Cassock Albs are Destroying the Church

Pre-script: I think what I don’t make clear is that this is a piece I wrote lamenting my own lapse into bad patterns as I can now just rush into the sacristy two minutes before mass starts and am not forced to take more time to prepare. It really is about finding discipline in practice and not about the alb – I’m missing that extra layer of time and preparation that traditional vesting requires. It should also be noted that I was simply amused by the hyperbole of the title. The Church has resisted all manner of things through time, exists in the heart of God, and will hardly be brought down by poor choices in attire.  R

OK, so the title might be an exaggeration. There are hundreds of things more important than albs vexing the Church but there is little more pressing than our approach and discipline around worship.

This morning, in jest, I posted a vesting prayer for donning a cassock alb to Facebook.  It read, “Place upon me, O Lord, the polyester potato sack of ease that I may speedily and conveniently enter Your Presence.”

The post garnered some amusing responses.  Having not worn them before and now having worn them for a year – I think they represent some unfortunate trends in the Church.  Sometimes an alb isn’t just an alb.

They represent an ease that makes me uncomfortable.  When we approach worship our chief task is to spiritually prepare ourselves to be in the Presence of Christ.  This is a responsibility that is all to easy to take lightly.  The repetitive nature of our pattern of worship poses challenges to our need to come to the Sacraments with reverence – treating each encounter with Christ as a precious thing.  The quickness and ease of the cassock-alb reinforces a desire to just “get on with it” and to get ready with haste.

It also represents our desire to make the encounter with God an easier thing – we remove the more disciplined and difficult preparations to streamline the encounter and even domesticate it a bit.  The cassock-alb represents a certain dumbing down – a lowest common denominator approach to preparation in which we substitute comfort and haste for careful adherence to older patterns of care and preparation.

It is an innovation for the sake of comfort that too much resembles other short-cuts we might take in our spiritual and devotional life.

The cassock-alb exists for one reason – haste.  It takes longer to vest properly.  It is inconvenient and the added layers are hot and uncomfortable.  Yet, there is little in the Christian faith that is truly comfortable and there is virtue in taking our time to make ourselves ready to offer our selves, and souls, and bodies in worship and adoration.

downloadThe cassock-alb is the strip mall of vestments.  Convenient, unattractive, and accessible – its impact is less one of commission than it is one of negligence.  It, like a strip mall, reflects our lack of discipline and attentiveness rather than causing it.  It is not a real thing – in the way that fast food is not real food.  It is there as a sloppy habit that takes the place of investing the time and energy into a more focused and present experience.

When preparing for the source and summit of Christian life – the encounter with Christ in the Eucharist – it is a good and holy thing to take some extra time.   It’s good to fumble with amice strings.  It’s good to add layer to layer in preparation.  It’s good to get the knots right on the cincture.  It’s good to ponder the correct arm for the maniple.

It’s a good and holy thing for our approach to mass to be paced, deliberate, and even a little confusing.  Maybe the cassock-alb itself isn’t causing the collapse of the Church but sloppiness, haste, and a lack of thoughtful encounter with the Living Christ will hardly serve to build up the Body or draw those around us to a transformed and challenging new life.

Robert

At Its Depths: The Eucharist and the People of God

One of the challenges of talking about Church, or Sacraments, or even faith more broadly is that there is a depth at the heart of them that is True without being seen.  There is a depth that is a fathomless reality that we attempt to plumb and discern with words that are insufficient to the task.

The challenge of the Church now seems not so much one of growth but one of depth.  We have the readily apparent markers of finances and attendance by which we measure Church health.  I am not one of these who considers these irrelevant or shallow markers – they are important and critical benchmarks of our communities’ overall connection to our people and to the ecosystems of evangelism, service, and faith within which we are situated.

In many communities, there is an understandable urgency around these markers of vitality.  Yet I am wondering how we might look to the deeper essence of the Church to find our locus of identity.

Churches are buildings, communities, and systems built around the Eucharist.  We are a people whose first and primary task together is sharing in the Presence of Christ – doing this in Remembrance.  On the surface we have programs, attendance, committees, and more that are readily apparent on the surface but beneath all of this is the drawing near to the Altar in faith, hope, and love.

In many places, we are placing a high emphasis on the externals of Church while downplaying the very real call to be first in Communion with one another.  I had a conversation with a priest who was giving me the many reasons that they did not have a weekday mass.  The primary reason, of course, was that people did not come.  My very simple question was, “Do you invite them?”

We invite people to all manner of things in our churches (sometimes) and yet we are often neglecting inviting them to the things that will make them deeper Christians – that will make our churches deeper churches.

All of the stuff we build around churches is really for one great purpose – the transformation of men and women of the world into men and women of the Eucharist.  Not just men and women of the Eucharist but men and women formed in its patterns of adoration, self-offering, sharing, mutual feeding, healing, and sacrifice – men and women given grace for holy living.  This is not to remove them from the world but to reveal the essence of their potential in the same way that common elements like bread and wine become Bread and Wine.

Of course, there are those ecclesial communities and denominations that do not celebrate the Lord’s Supper with much regularity or even at all.  It seems difficult to me for a church to be the Church with an emphasis either only on the emotional or the rational without resting in the mystical.  It is only the Church that offers the utterly and truly transcendent reality of new life – of taking in the Holy and becoming moreso.

There are other ecstatic experiences to be had.  There are intellectual puzzles to be wrestled with all around us.  There are diversions and distractions aplenty.  Yet, ultimately, they are rooted in overdosing on the popular experiences of the day – in the immersion in superficiality until the self is diluted and defined by the market.

The call of the Church is to consume, to receive, to accept, and to adore the Holy to become Holy. It is by diving deeper into the mysteries of the Eucharist that we dive more deeply into our very selves. It is by adoring Christ that we are broken of our addiction to being adored.  It is be seeing him broken that we are healed.  It is by holding him in our palm that we know we are held in his.

The Church offers a Sacramental way of being that is the return to the source of life.  We are grounded by its Essence – the Presence of Christ – in such a way that we too become a rock.  We too become a pillar.  We too become a source of strength that holds it in place so that others may find shelter within her walls and courage at her Altars.

In a culture that offers alternative ways of thinking, feeling, and believing we must become that much more courageous about offering that one thing that makes us truly and radically different , a genuine invitation to be whole and holy, to be set aside for God’s use – to be people of the Eucharist.

Robert

The Seven Last Words: A Sermon for Easter Sunday

A Sermon Preached at Saint John’s Cathedral, Denver on Easter Sunday 2014

In Eastern Christian traditions, it is customary, after Easter to greet people by saying, “Christos Anesti” to which the other person responds “Aleithos Anesti” – this greeting means “Christ is Risen” and the reply means, “He has risen indeed.” We opened mass this morning with the same salutation in English – The Lord is Risen – The Lord is Risen indeed.

In the west the custom is one that is restrained to these Easter liturgies.  We enter this space and greet one another in the name of the Risen Lord.

In the East though, the greeting is one that is made on the streets, in coffee shops, at the barber, or in countless other places.  Christians greet one another with Easter joy and that joy is made manifest, in that simple greeting, in their everyday relationships – all those they encounter are greeted with Resurrection joy and hope on the lips.

We have spent much of the last week meditating on the lessons of Christ’s betrayal, suffering, and death.  We heard the story of Judas (who was the first person to leave Mass early).  We heard of soldiers and crowns of thorns.  We heard of a crowd’s cruel mockery and a Savior’s last breath.  We waited and watched.  We prayed and repented.

I have always had a bit of a bias – I have always been just a little more fond of Lent than I have been of Easter.  The more penitential and garment-rending the better.  The more dismal the hymns and self-abnegating the practices were the more I felt like it was really Church.

I think what I liked, if I can put it that way, about Lent was that it demanded something of us as Christians.  We were called to examine our hearts and make some sort of sacrifice for our faith.

Yet, as this Easter has come around I am being drawn into its mysteries.  I believe that there is something deeply demanding about Easter – it demands that we hope.

In this culture, in these economic times, in this age of international uncertainty, and in the face of increasing secularism – Easter asks something of us that no Lenten discipline can ever match – that we hope.

Imagine those apostles.  That company that came in on Palm Sunday seeing their Messiah riding on in Majesty.  Then, fast forward, the cross has been carried and the tomb shut.  They must have been devastated, fighting with one another over what to do next, recriminations must have flown over who had stood by Jesus the longest, who was the greatest now that their Hosannas died on parched tongues.

Into this scene comes the risen Christ.  Into this scene comes hope.

In many churches, one Holy Week observance is to remember the seven last words of Christ – those phrases he says across the Gospels that are so often seared in our consciences.

“Father, forgive them.”

“You will be with me in paradise.”

“Behold your mother.”

“My God, why have you forsaken me?”

“I thirst.”

“Into your hands, O Lord, I commend my spirit.”

“It is finished.”

These words, at the center of the story of Christ’s Passion, are also at the heart of our Resurrection life.

The story of this past week is that we who might think ourselves distant from God are closer than we can ask or imagine – his love breaks the bonds of sin and death as we are forgiven, as forgiven as those Christ begs his Father to forgive – and we know the promise of paradise as surely as the thief crucified alongside Jesus.

We are drawn together, by Christ’s blood, into a new family who are heirs of his promise.  God, no matter our desperation, anger, doubt, or anxiety has never forsaken us.  He weeps with us, rejoices with us, and thirsts with us.  At the heart of God’s mercy is our hope that we too can commend our spirit to him – that we too are God’s well-beloved sons and daughters.

We come here hoping it is true.  We reach past loss or doubt fear and wonder if we can dare to believe.

harrowingHere, in the Gospel, Jesus returns before despair can define these men and women.  Before they can become simply people of terrible loss they become something entirely new, people of hope.

This past week has reminded us that the Christian life is not one free of suffering, fear, and even pain.  Even Jesus, in the garden says “take this cup from me” and on the cross “why have you forsaken me?” And yet Christ’s “It is finished” is both an end and a new beginning.

For even as his life was ending, God was setting into motion the final freedom from death – hope was born in a tomb as it had once been born in a manger.

Our challenge now is to live with Resurrection hope in such a way that we can help others know the promises of Christ.  How can we live in such a way that those whom we meet can see hope enter their lives through ours?

Can we look into the eyes of one who has wronged us and say, “Father, forgive them.”

Can we see the woman huddled under a tree on a winter night, dressed in dirty hand-offs, and hear Jesus say, “Behold your mother.”

Can we hear the cry of those who thirst and those who think themselves forsaken and walk with them toward paradise’s promises?

In Christ’s last hours we saw the essence of Christian life stripped to its core and the shape of Resurrection life was revealed.

I have often dismissed the all-too-cheery phrase “Easter People” to describe Christians of a certain grinning, happy go lucky stripe.  Yet if the phrase means a people who dare to hope, a people who have touched the wounds, a people who yearn to see Christ in one another, a people who forge ahead in the face of the many temptations to abandon hope – then we should be proud to be an Easter People.

The Resurrection is calling us, daring us, drawing us into that most challenging and demanding of disciplines – that of Easter hope.

May all those who meet you this Easter season know Easter hope through you – may your friends, co-workers, partners, children, parents – may all those you encounter hear and see and know  in you that Christ is Risen indeed.

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