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.

Why I Love the Episcopal Church: Something for a Long Elevator Ride

I sometimes use my blog to discuss the things I get frustrated with in the Episcopal Church – yet it is a Church I deeply love.  I think of the discussion generated by my friends and I in the Episcopal blogs as family discussions about where things are – yet when someone outside of that family is dismissive or outright cruel about the Episcopal Church, I get protective.

Some of my friends have been posting “elevator speeches” about the Episcopal Church.  These are short reflections on what it is about the Episcopal Church that drew them in and inspires them.  I would have to push the stop button to get this one in during an elevator ride! Today, I had a great discussion about the history and vision of the Anglican Church and the Episcopal Church with a dozen of those to be received into the Church at our Easter Vigil.

We have 50 candidates for reception, baptism, and confirmation this year.  Of the group today, many are coming out of the tradition I came out of, the Roman Catholic Church. We had a great conversation about what is bringing them into this Church and I shared things I love about being here. When I came to the Episcopal Church, I was looking for a place that blended the Catholic tradition with a respect for the individual’s conscience and a comprehensive view of tradition and scripture.

The Anglican Church, with its three-legged stool of Scripture, Tradition, and Reason gave me a place to call home.  We look to remain open to the historic understanding of the Sacraments while also offering a place for the believer to wrestle with the meaning and import of the Sacraments for their own faith journey. downloadWe offer a middle way not as a way of blunting or diminishing the contributions of the Reformed or Catholic strains but as a place that blends those contributions into a way of being together that is rooted in the long tradition of the Church even as it welcomes the ongoing movement of the Spirit in our conversation and deliberation.

We treat the individual believer with dignity and ask that they not only receive Communion but that they live in Communion.  Of course, we fail at this, time and again, but we hold as essential that we are called to fidelity not only to the long honored traditions of the Church but are to wrestle with it in each successive generation of believers. That wrestling is reflected in our polity and our theology.  We hold as essential the orders of ministry, apostolic succession, and more even as we balance our reliance on those elements with a certain democratic process that includes the voices and contributions of our lay leaders.

My priesthood is carried out in the context of the whole gathered community and the authority I have is not only that of the priesthood of centuries but the priesthood of the Body that gathers around font and Altar. Our ultimate focus is not on right thought or even right action but on right being.  By being – dwelling in the Presence of God – we are led to right thought and right action.  We gather a Body of faithful men and women together who carry on Christ’s ministry with faithfulness and a sense of shared sacrifice and joy.  We are joined together in our collective yearning to be drawn into the mystery of Christ.

We do this not because we think alike or because we are of one mind – but because we are of one Body.  I love that the Episcopal Church, at its best, offers a place for those from a variety of backgrounds and viewpoints to work out their salvation in fear and trembling, together. There are times when I long for the certainties of my former tradition.  Those certainties though were too often a mask for deep and profound dissatisfaction.  I knew so many who were unhappy and even completely disaffected and yet could not bring themselves to set out on a course that was frightening and uncertain.

I am in a place that is less certain but, in so many ways, more honest in its struggles.  A Roman Catholic friend of mine once said that the problem is not that we have dirty laundry but that we air that laundry so publicly.  I am happy to be part of a Church that is not content to operate with the false notion that we all hold either the same Scriptural interpretation or the same understanding of the Tradition of the Church.  It gets messy and it gets real all too fast – yet I am glad to be in a place of authentic struggle and striving.

I have found a home where we are called to serve as witnesses that the Holy Spirit continues to move.  Whether it is in our work for justice, our interpretation of Scripture, our fidelity to our tradition, and so much more, we are given an opportunity to gather as the Body and share in the mystery of a God made flesh who continues his work among us and through us.  Our deliberations and arguments reflect not the pettiness of human conflict (though we can often descend into unfortunate patterns of behavior) but the holy struggling of a people trying to follow God rightly and faithfully in challenging times (as all times must surely have been). We are concerned with the implications of our faith for the world and society around us.

We are not content to believe that our faith has only implications for the life to come and not for the lives of those all around us whom Jesus so adored – the marginalized and the outcast.  We are a Body that knows that the Resurrection has implications for how we live this life and how we treat one another – it is not a concern of the coming world alone but for this one in which Christ carried out his ministry. We meet sealed by the tremendous promise of God in Christ and given hope that a people that pray together can make their way to deeper understanding of God’s call to us.  This is not a vocation unique to the Episcopal Church but it is a call that we heed and follow in unique ways.

We honor and live into our tradition with the holy awareness that the Spirit has moved not only over us but over our forebears as well – our tradition is not the honoring of something past but the recognition that we are knit together with those who have come before in a way that is undeniable and unbreakable.  We are responsible not only to those who will come after us but to those who came before.

There are those who would say that the Episcopal Church is “Catholic-Lite.” Virtually all of those being received into the Episcopal Church at the Cathedral this year had heard this dismissive phrase.  Yet, for me, the Episcopal Church, at its best, is a full and vibrant expression of what it means to live with the fullest implications of the faith.

We are called not only to be people who receive Sacraments but people who walk with their marks born clearly in our lives.  We are called not only to read Scripture but to wrestle and engage its meaning for our lives.  We are called not only to be a people of tradition but to apply that tradition to a changing world. I arrived in the Episcopal Church as someone of uncertain faith and vague belief – it was the breadth of the Episcopal tradition that enabled me to explore and find a home.

I had been a fairly aggressive atheist after years of wrestling with losses from my childhood and I needed a place to be angry, to question, and to hear the constant, loving voice of God calling me home.  All my discomforts and hopes in the Episcopal Church now are rooted in my fervent hope that we can hold onto its essential character so it can continue to be a place for so many others to call home.

I came to the Episcopal Church not because I wanted something easy or something light but because I found something heavy – something dense with promise and potential.  I love the Episcopal Church because it offers a place to be a disciple.  It is a place to be grounded yet given the freedom to hope for more.  It is a place to be whole and a place to gather the broken.  It is a place to be fed and a place to feed.  It is a place to be faithful and to wrestle with doubt.  It is a place for those who long for a home and those who yearn to search and seek.  It is a place that is home and a place that I hope to welcome many more to in the coming years and decades.

Robert

A Slave’s Triumphal Reminder: A Sermon for Ash Wednesday

A Sermon Delivered on Ash Wednesday 2014
Saint John’s Cathedral
7:00am, 12:00pm, 7:00pm masses

From the early days of the Roman Republic through the fall of the Roman Empire, whenever a general achieved a great victory on the battlefield, a Triumph, a grand civil and religious parade was held to publicly celebrate and sanctify the military achievement.

On the day of his triumph, the general wore a crown of laurel and the all-purple, gold-embroidered triumphal toga, this was regalia that identified him as near-divine, almost a demi-god. He rode in a four-horse chariot through the streets of Rome in procession with his army, captives and the spoils of his war.

Yet, interestingly enough, amidst this pageantry and procession, as the general was paraded through the streets celebrating his accomplishments, and applauded by adoring throngs, standing behind him was a slave. This slave was tasked with a very simple job. The slave was to constantly remind the general that he was only a mortal. The slave whispered the warning, “Memento mori” – remember that you are mortal, said the slave, over and over, into the general’s ear.

Amidst the clamor, over and over, “remember that you are mortal” he was told. Remember that you will die.

memento mori resize 2Each year, the Church issues this reminder to us in this ritual, remember that you are dust. Remember that you are mortal.

The Christian faith is the constant intermingling of the reality of death with the truth of God’s promise. When we are baptized, we are said to be dead to sin and born into new life. Each week on Sunday, each day in our chapel, and today, we remember Christ’s death and proclaim his Resurrection.

This annual reminder of death is the remembrance that our time is short – no matter our triumphs or our tragedies – we do not have long to gladden the hearts of those we love and to make peace with those we have harmed. It is an annual reminder of the desperate need for honesty in our lives.

Lent is not a call simply to acts of self-abasement – it is a call to honesty. To honestly see our faults. To honestly ask for forgiveness, from God and from those we have hurt. And to honestly believe that our sins are put away – that we are forgiven, that we walk in newness of life.

An incarnated faith requires, from time to time, that we come to terms not only with the miracle and the promise of our faith but with the messiness and the pain.

This dust is a sign that reminds us of brutal realities. Yet, the dust we are marked with today is a shadow of the sign we received at our baptism.

In Christ, dust is never the end of the story. It is a reminder of our story’s greatest power. When we sin and even, even when we go down to the grave we know that we are raised to new life, forgiven, and transformed.

Repentance fixes that Baptism in our hearts and minds. This holy season of Lent is not about becoming perfect, but about turning toward and walking toward the perfection that we were made one with at the baptismal font.

In Lent, we clear away the clutter of temptation, pride, anger, and fear and remember who God has made us to be. We make room for the wholeness of Christ’s Presence to well up in us freshly.

There are forces, people, times, things, desires, fears, and so much more that twist and contort our very selves and our sense of who we are – until we are wandering and wondering who we are and how we got here.

The Devil makes use of our insecurities, as we struggle in the Wilderness, to draw us, bit by bit, fear by fear, rejection by rejection, dashed hope by dashed hope, into loathing – of ourselves and others and, finally, even into unbelief.

Whether it is hubris, greed, or apathy – the world’s values ultimately lead to a painful place in which our only hope is that there are others lower than us – others we can use, hurt, or simply ignore .

Lent is our chance to reclaim Christ’s values as our own – to remember and to reaffirm his hold on our hearts, bodies, and minds – and to remind ourselves of his Presence in those we wrong and who wrong us.

Let’s take this Lent to be honest with ourselves – where are we falling short of the person God baptized us to be? Where are we forgetting, in our lives, that we are simply mortal, and that all we have is a gracious gift from God?

Wear these ashes today as a mark of your mortality. Wear them as a mark of penitence.  Wear them also as a gritty reminder that we are marked as Christ’s own, we are made for holiness, and we are called to a life that makes Christ known.

In forty days, we will come together for the liturgy of the Easter Vigil which reminds us of the grace of creation and baptism.  The Vigil liturgy echoes across not only that night but across the centuries, between our heartbeat and God’s, drawing the Body of Christ to prayer and holy remembrance:

“How holy is this night, when wickedness is put to flight, and sin is washed away. It restores innocence to the fallen, and joy to those who mourn. It casts out pride and hatred, and brings peace and concord. How blessed is this night, when earth and heaven are joined and man is reconciled to God.”

The power and promise of Baptism is the very stuff of creation and redemption. Earth and Heaven – Dust and Divinity – are joined in in the love of a God who hates nothing He has made – a God whose Son spans the chasm between our fears and God’s mercy.

Christ, as Philippians says, emptied himself when he came among us, and took on the form of a slave. And now his voice, that slave’s voice, is calling to us this Lent –

Remember that you are mortal. Remember that time is short. Remember that you are my own. Remember my promise. Remember my voice. Remember me. Remember.

Robert

The Irrelevance of Relevance

I have encountered the word “relevance” with regard to the Church a number of times this past two weeks.  I am reminded of the movie The Princess Bride – “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means” says Mandy Patinkin’s character to another who keeps using the word “inconceivable” in odd ways.

wordRelevant is a word that gets used when people want to say the Church is no longer a present fact or factor in people’s lives – either because of outdated liturgy, doctrine, language, or for manifold other reasons.  For many, the Church is not relevant because of some thing it does that makes it no longer a valued voice in the cultural or consumer marketplace.

For many, it is true, the Church is no longer the dominant voice in their lives and no longer drives their weekly life in the way it once did.  We know that wide swaths of the Christian landscape are changing under our feet and that younger people are moving away from organized religion.  Yet, I would argue, it is not the Church that has become irrelevant but the ways in which the Church is led.

For many, institutions in general are irrelevant.  Moralism is irrelevant.  Cultural facsimiles are irrelevant.  Politicization is irrelevant.  Shame and guilt are irrelevant.

The Church is irrelevant not because we look too different from the culture but because we look too much like the culture.  We are not actually offering anything particularly counter-cultural in many of our parishes so what real reason do folks have to stay other than habit?  Why come to a Church that offers more of what they get in their day-to-day lives?

Whether it is in teaching, liturgy, service, or preaching, the challenge is not making the Church easier to understand or making it relevant but living in such a way that the counter-cultural narrative we offer is one that Christ would recognize as his own message.  Is there a way for the Church not to be relevant but to matter in a living, breathing way?  The key to relevance is not to be one more option amidst a panoply of distractions but to be the foundation and summit of people’s lives and hopes.

All the marketing and institutional change in the world is not going to change the simple fact that when many walk into our churches they will be able to tell, rather quickly, whether or not the people and clergy there believe that the Holy One is coming among them and doing something new with their lives.

Are the people there obviously in the Presence of the Living Christ?

Are you greeted in a way that Christ would greet you?  Are you hearing preaching that sounds like Christ’s message of grace and the abundant love of God?  Do you see around you people who look like they just might be sinners or tax collectors – or the types of folks at whom others might throw stones?  Does the liturgy remind you that you are welcomed to take Christ at his word – that this is his Body and this is his Blood?  Are you hearing about and seeing the kinds of sacrificial service that Christ would have asked his friends to offer to the least and the lowest?

This is the only definition of relevance the Church needs to care about – does our common life look like Christ’s?  Is the pattern of our common life one that is relevant not to the world around us but imitates, with all our heart, and soul, and mind, the one who came among us to serve?

Relevance is a tricky thing because it tempts us into thinking that the answer is to make a Church and a message that don’t upset and don’t offend.  Yet, we see in Christ’s own ministry a deep abiding love mingled with the most holy of proclamations that God longs for more for and from us.  Christ is deeply in relationship – relevant in the ways that mark Christian companionship.  Yet relevance is not the call to comfort but the call to make one another better disciples.

The Church, in our encounter with Christ, is a Body of people who help one another see that which we do not readily see with our own eyes.  We are pointed toward the mystery of Incarnation when we would only see a manger.  We are pointed toward the Crucifixion when we would only walk by those suffering on our own streets.  We are pointed toward the Resurrection when we would only see a casket lowered into the ground.  We are pointed toward Body and Blood when we would only see bread and wine.  We are pointed toward Reconciliation when we would only feel anger.  We are given wounds to touch when we only know doubt.

The relevant thing about the Church is its ability to fix our hearts on Christ.  This is a challenge and it is a challenge that, in our weakest moments, it is too easy for us to ignore amidst the press of the comfortable and the familiar.  Whether we are avoiding the discomfort of serving those who look and sound different or we are avoiding the hard truths of a sermon that hits too close to home – each of us will find reasons to squirm out of the weight of Christian discipleship.  It is natural and sometimes even necessary – sometimes we just need rest.  Yet the Church exists to call each of us to confront those blind spots in our lives in which we are falling short of the wholeness of Christ’s own ministry.

People in our society are craving the challenge of a Church that actually lives into the call of following Christ.  The Church will be relevant when we look and sound like the Christ they too rarely encounter.  The Church will absolutely thrive when we are utterly invested in the discipline of Christian living – which is more than relevant.

My hope is that we will not strive for a sort relevance in which we prioritize accommodation and ease but that we will throw ourselves into the difficult, challenging, messy, and unsettling work of transformation.  This is the only kind of Church that is worth cultivating – one in which Christ’s love is so palpable that each and every member is a partner and a friend in a difficult and sometimes painful striving for faithful living.  Our people are up for the challenge and we will find ourselves having very different conversations when our metrics are not only judged by attendance and resources but are rooted in presence and discipleship.

Divine Right or Mandate of Heaven: The Church in the World

A couple of days ago, I gave a short homily at our weekly staff mass talking about what it means for the Church to engage the world around us.

I described a scene from the movie, The Last Emperor, in which Emperor Puyi runs toward the gates of the Forbidden City trying to see out and understand what is happening in the world all around him and instead the doors are slammed shut before he can reach them.  He is held in the building by the force of tradition and the weight of an empire changing all about him.  Society is collapsing and he is reduced from being its head to being at best a bystander and then a pawn and prisoner in its turmoil.

There was elaborate ceremonial, rich symbolism, and a powerful narrative and yet, the emperor had lost a critical thing in imperial dynastic history – the Mandate of Heaven.

The Mandate of Heaven, for an emperor, was his right to rule.  It was his connection between the people he ruled and the Heavens.  The understanding was that so long as he was connected to the dreams and aspirations of the people and ruled justly he continued to have Heaven’s blessing to guide the nation and the people.

A blog on Asian history puts it like this, “Although the Mandate of Heaven sounds superficially similar to the European concept of the ‘Divine Right of Kings,’ in fact it operated quite differently. In the European model, God granted a particular family the right to rule a country for all time, regardless of the rulers’ behavior. The Divine Right was an assertion that God essentially forbade rebellions – it was a sin to oppose the king.  In contrast, the Mandate of Heaven justified rebellion against an unjust, tyrannical, or incompetent ruler.”

I wonder if the Incarnation has given the Church not a Divine Right but a Heavenly Mandate?

gothic4Many of our buildings and ceremonial look like Forbidden Cities in their own right.  Those on the outside look in and think them a place that could never be for them.  Those on the inside too often wonder how they can protect them and keep the wrong people away.  More and more energy is put into maintaining the structures and the hierarchies and the real animating strength of the body is subsumed in the pettiness of squabbling and court intrigue.

We cannot claim to be the Church without a clear understanding that Christ’s connection to his people is our model for connection to the world.  That is our Heavenly Mandate.  We are to be reconciled to one another and God, we are to preach, heal, and baptize, we are to feed, clothe, and comfort, we are to worship, praise, and pray, we are to serve, bless, and forgive.

All of this work requires our determined and passionate engagement with the world around us.  It requires that we make of our churches not places to retreat from the world, content with decorative charity, but are throwing ourselves into engagement with the world all around us – a world that is heaving with spiritual turmoil and questioning our right to say anything of value or meaning.  We should be questioned.  We should be doubted.  We have let charlatans preach health and wealth and hypocrites judge even as they prey on the weakest among their flock.

The Church does not have a Divine Right.  We have a Heavenly Mandate to remain connected and deeply involved in the day to day struggles of so many in our communities.  One of the reasons the new Pope is so attractive is that he seems so ready to leave behind the palace to walk with paupers.

Our buildings and the institution of the Church are huge assets – they are a gift.  But their maintenance is not the heart of our message.  They are the places where we offer thanks to God, are drawn to Him in the Sacraments, and find newness of life and wholeness of purpose such that we can go and make Christ known.  We are not to leave them behind or let them decay.

The Church is the incubator of life in Christ though.  It is the waystation for our journey deeper into the world’s need – which is Christ’s own mission – for the world’s greatest need is word of God’s love.  When our mission and ministry become the maintenance of the body within the church rather than the upbuilding of the Body all about the Church – we will have doomed ourselves to irrelevancy.  This is the great urgency of our day.  How do we reconnect the hope of the Church with the need of the world?

The need of the Church is not to look more like the world.  We don’t need blander liturgy, to use corporate language, to look cooler, or the like.  The Church needs to look realer – to look more connected to actual struggles.   We also must look be a bit surreal – so connected to the depths of tradition that we offer a stables place of refuge and strength.  We need to be connected to the suffering of the world and yet offer a glimpse of Christ transforming that suffering and calling our attention to the Kingdom just beyond.  This is the heart of an already-not-yet Church.  We hold the hand of those who suffer and in that great compassion offer a glimpse of wholeness.

If our people don’t see both their priests and fellow lay people at both the Altar and on the Street – we will have little to offer them.  If they don’t see in every Christian and in every Christian leader some measure of how Christ is calling both to the Confessional and to the Homeless shelter then we will lose them.  If they only see us praying at the font and not grieving at the bedside then we will be lost ourselves.  The Church doesn’t have a Divine Right – we have a Heavenly Mandate.

This is the Mandate of Heaven – that we remain connected to our people in the deepest ways possible so that we can offer word of Christ’s love in manifold ways.  There is a link between the glory of Christ and the glory of the Church but it is a link that rests only on the foundation of the Cross.  Therein is the heart of the Mandate.  We, the Church, have right to bear witness only so long as we share in his willingness to suffer alongside his people.

Any future for the Church will require evangelism and mission – they are at the heart of any real engagement with the world.  Our future will also require listening so that we can hear the needs of the hurting and find ways to walk with integrity alongside them.

2007-01-31 20.02.52The doors of the Church are too quickly shut by those who would protect those within from the turmoil all about us – it is human and natural to look for a safe space in the midst of life’s challenges.  But it is not the mandate and model of the Incarnation.  We are in the world not over it even as we offer a glimpse of another way.

It really is time for us to pray for God to remove the barriers in our hearts and souls so that we can go out carrying with us word of Christ’s welcome.  The charge of the Incarnation is our Mandate and we are to seek, with all that we have, a deep and abiding connection to the world around us such that we can together be reconciled and transformed.

Robert

An Assize Sermon Reflection: What Needs to be Re-Imagined?

The Oxford Movement’s beginnings can be traced to John Keble’s Assize Sermon of 1833 on National Apostasy.  The sermon criticized a piece of parliamentary legislation that was to reduce the number of bishoprics in Ireland.  Now this hardly seems the stuff of a sermon that would launch a movement that would transform the shape and substance of Anglicanism, yet its themes struck at the heart of what it meant to be not only Anglican, but to be a Church of the Church Catholic.

Keble was criticizing the encroachment of the state on the affairs of the Church – more specifically, he was criticizing the nation for elevating earthly powers over heavenly ones.  This was the National Apostasy.  He opened the way for the Church of England to consider anew its relationship to the historic Church Catholic and to the wider universal Church.

The concerns hold just as fast today – and the need for repentance is as stark.

The Church is in the grip of secular powers as surely as it was in the 19th century – now though it is less an issue of state control than our own capitulation to the forces of the secular society.

We sue one another.  We use zero-sum language of power.  We downplay the reality of death and deny its power.  We talk little of sin and redemption.  Our priests are too often poorly trained middle managers.  Our bishop elections are popularity contests.  We let political issues define our spiritual purpose.  We react in fear of scarcity rather than hope in the grace of abundance.  We “process” our ordinands.  We prize busyness.  We have task forces.

We need a group looking at the structures of the Institution.  Yet we more desperately need a task force not focused on the shape of the institution but rather more focused on calling us anew to fidelity to its essence.  We need a task force renewing our call to be the Church.

What is the Episcopal Church?  What is the Church?  Who are we spiritually?  What does it mean to pray?  Who do we say Jesus is?  Why Baptism?  What is a missionary?

A new vision for our institution will not truly emerge until we have a compelling and clear understanding of why we are the Church – of what it means to be one, holy, and catholic.  Across the Church, one hears anti-clericalism and anti-institutional sentiment running high.  Yet the challenge is not our priests or even our structures – these are scapegoats for a deeper problem.

In elections, it has been said that people elect the leaders they deserve.  My fear is that we are getting the leadership we deserve.  Rather than prizing clarity of theological vision, deep prayer, and lives of sacrificial encounter, we have elevated sentimentalism and emotional “connection” as our prized traits in leaders.

So we too often get leaders who are emotionally needy and even manipulative.  This has fed sickness within the system and bred a culture of deep wounding and abiding suspicion.  Couple an emotional system with layers of perceived power imbalance and the infantilization of believers (whom we have dis-empowered in manifold ways even as we talk up lay leadership) and we have a recipe for a Church culture that doesn’t reflect the enduring self-offering of the cross but a system that relies on calculation, charm, and power to accomplish its ends.

It has become, in too many places and too many ways, a secular system.

In a system without hard power – the tools of soft power become that much more devastating.  What I mean by that is that the Episcopal Church, as someone once said of the Vatican, has no tanks or soldiers.  We have no real power in the lives of our faithful.

The only claim on their loyalty that we have is tradition and faith.  As we undo those elements – and we have spent several decades undoing them and undermining their importance – we are left too often with manipulation rather than real empowerment as our chief means of holding on to fiefdoms.  And those fiefdoms grow smaller and smaller.

The challenge for the Church is not re-imagining structures.  The challenge is re-imagining ourselves – to re-imagine what it looks like to be faithful followers of Christ. To re-imagine what it looks like to live lives in which others see in us the very essence of what the Church is – His Body.

We need to get back to fundamentals of Church – to claiming that which makes us unique and to naming that which is less than worthy of us as the people of God.  This will only begin when we change the criteria by which we live and by which we choose our leaders.

The training we need to choose our spiritual leaders is different than that which we need for choosing our secular leaders.

If we are not forming our people in the basics disciplines and doctrines of the faith, they will only have familiarity with secular tools and measures by which to choose their leaders – and we will be rewarded with leaders who understand and maneuver fluidly in the world of secular power plays but have little experience with the self-giving power of the cross.

We need to form people of prayer so we get leaders who pray.  We need to form people of the Sacraments so that we get leaders who lead as walking Sacraments.  We need to form people to be evangelists so we get leaders who share their faith with joy.  We need to form people with sound doctrine so that we get leaders who maintain the faith of the fathers and mothers of the faith.  We need to form people who wash feet so that we get leaders who are servants too.

We need to form a people who are different, who are changed, and who are transformed.  We need to form people who are the Church.

Why Church?  What makes us different from the United Way or Oxfam?

Why Church?  What makes us different from the Elks Club or Rotary?

Why Church?  What makes us different from the Republican Party or the Democratic Party?

Why Church?  What can people find here that they can’t in the New York Times or Huffington Post?

Why Church?  Why Prayer?  Why Sacraments?

Do people outside see in the Church something different?  Something Holy?  Do they see in us and our Church a group of people that seem to be about the work of truly living inspired and inspiring lives that reflect holy purpose?  Do they see in us a more holy way?

The structures will grow out of a restored, renewed, and reclaimed fidelity to what it means to be Church – to be the holy people of God.

Robert

Of Experts and Authority: Trust, Love, and Obedience in our Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship

A clergy colleague of another tradition shared an excellent article on Facebook yesterday that was about the declining trust in those with expertise in various fields and the rise of the notion that everyone being entitled to their own opinion means that evidence and facts can be ignored in favored of personal gut-impulses.  The squares with an overall decline in our willingness to trust or, in the case of those in Holy Orders, to obey those who have authority.

The challenge is that someone can labor a lifetime in a field, say medicine, and then have someone who has formed their opinion via 12 minutes of internet browsing decide that they know better.  Not only do they know better, they are going to start a Facebook page and comment on every comment thread they can find and then make a YouTube video – and suddenly they are an expert.  And that seems, nowadays, to settle it.

This is the cost of a democratized celebrity culture in which everyone gets to claim some sort of prize – and no one is subject to anyone else.

The challenge for the Church is that this thinking has seeped into our bones too – and it is causing chaos.

I have, of late, been reading J. Robert Wright’s book, Prayer Book Spirituality.  It is a look through the Prayer Book using Anglican writers from across our history to provide context and spiritual depth to any given portion of the Prayer Book.  It is a joy to read and illuminating to see the converging lines of Anglican thought that truly weave together the best of Reformed and Catholic thinking into a spiritual system of belief and practice that not only coheres but is robust, moving, and Christ-centered.

Historically, the Prayer Book has, as often as not, been a source of disunion and not simply union.  Look at the unrest that comes after its adoption in England – or the comments made at the adoption of the new Prayer Book in 1979.  Yet, the Prayer Book serves as the heart of our common identity and a source of authority and direction that we mutually agree upon as Episcopalians.

It, combined with our Constitution and Canons, form the framework for our common life together as a democratic Church with an historically valid Episcopate.

Yet, whether it is in the debate over Communion Regardless of Baptism or in the creative approaches taken to liturgy – we are seeing those charged with maintaining and strengthening our shared system of obedience decide that they are experts too.  Their class in liturgics, and their gut-feeling, has given them the expertise to design “experimental” liturgies for pastoral reasons or to avoid our common discipline.

The problem is that it is not the liturgies being experimented upon – the real subjects of these experiments are the faithful in our congregations.  Their spiritual lives, growth, and discipleship become something to be tooled around with for the sake of innovation – because the priest knows better – they can just feel it.

You can hear the contempt present when a priest dismisses historical theology, liturgy, or spirituality as the product of a bunch of “dead white men” (I have more than once heard that exact phrasing) who will have no hold over our more enlightened selves.

This is a theology of rupture – the rupturing of relationship between ourselves and the faithful of past ages with whom we continue to be in Communion.  It is a theology of rupture between ourselves and one another – those with whom we are in Communion and to whom we are mutually accountable.  It is a theology of rupture between us and our bishops and those in authority over us.  It is rupture within our own soul as we follow the dictates of our instinct rather than submitting ourselves to the wisdom and movement of the Spirit that has given us the tradition we share.

The problem with this rupturing is that it is antithetical to the nature of the Church.  The Church which is His Body is not a collection of fragmented, isolated individuals.  It is a community of diverse and powerful gifts called together in unity and mutual accountability.  The diversity of gifts present does not mean that a brilliant Christian dentist can perform an appendectomy because her spiritual gifts are equal to the surgeon’s.

In the same way a priest who is a great preacher may not be a great liturgist.  So we have the Prayer Book.  A priest may not be great at answering questions like, “What is a Sacrament?” So we have the Catechism (in the Prayer Book).  A priest may find themselves at a loss for words at the graveside – so we have the Prayer Book.

The perhaps more critical role of the Prayer Book is not simply to aid the priest who might be deficient in any given area – it is to rein in those who might think themselves gifted in any given area.  Our greatest occasions for sin are not when we are making up for weakness but when we are relying on our supposed strength.

We are vain creatures, yet it is Christ’s humility not our pride that must be the center of our common life.

The liturgy is not a time for us to show our respective creative sides – it is the opposite.  It is that point at which we show ourselves as part of a loving whole that has given its need for unchecked individuality over to an ancient, holy grace that holds us together as one in the wholeness of Christ.

This applies to so many aspects of our life, not just liturgy.  Whether it is in preaching, catechizing, fellowship, or more – we have patterns and practices that we are called into.  We have a doctrine, discipline, and worship that we are pledged to uphold.  This is not for the sake of those very things but so that we can have a unified prayer, a whole vision, and that we all may be one in the way we have inherited across the generations.

The Prayer Book is our community’s shared response to the work and presence of the Holy One through the ages – responding to that holy mystery is the awe-filled joy of a whole Body.  When we use it with faithful authority, we are truly speaking on behalf of our gathered community.  We are then relying not on our charisma or gut-feelings but on trust and love – which are at the heart of Christian accountability.

The Prayer Book is the great tool for giving the wisdom of the ages, of our tradition, to us and forming us in its pattern of generous, faithful order.  It is the witness of the faith and scholarship of countless experts and authorities and has taken shape in the faithful prayer of believers across centuries.  It provides continuity, identity, and strength to our faith family – guards against its fracturing and rupture by the pressures of any one time or place.

A horizontal ecclesiology does not mean that each and every gift is equally appropriate in each and every moment – there are experts in our midst and in our past on any given topic.  Our voice is but one in a continuum and there are sources of authority to whom we are called to obedience even when (and especially when) it is inconvenient.

Ultimately this obedience and acquiescence to the will of others is not about anything other than trust and love.  The way we engage the sources of authority in our tradition and one another will say something about how we engage the Presence of Christ in our lives.  Are we willing to set aside our need to be an expert – our self-generated sources of authority – and allow ourselves be drawn in and changed by the challenging and unnerving faith that mutual responsibility in Christ requires?

Robert

Who Gets to be a Missionary? On Mission, Evangelism, and Guilt Complexes

Not long ago I wrote a piece on reconciliation and mission and today ran across some items that are making me return to the topic a bit.  A friend and gentleman started a conversation on Facebook with the following:

“It doesn’t seem to me that white Christians get to determine when it is appropriate to begin using the word ‘missionary’ again. We can’t pretend that the wounds inflicted by white Christian missionaries around the globe have healed, we can’t pretend that we don’t continue to benefit from the systems of domination that many of those missionaries helped to build, and we shouldn’t act as though the statute of limitations on taking offense to this word has run out.”

I have deep respect for this gentleman’s body of work so I want to be clear that this is a difference of opinion not necessarily a matter of black and white or right and wrong.

This was offered on the same day that a friend, Tim Schenck, published a piece lamenting our unwillingness to embrace a clear witness to Jesus Christ.  His piece was a reaction to architectural changes made to a cathedral that were intended to be intentionally “spiritual not religious.”

Tim’s critique was a powerful though gentle one that had, at its heart, a concern for our willingness to be clear about our identity as a people evangelizing and witnessing to the Resurrection power of Christ.

Both the architectural changes and the post on mission have, at their heart, a deep concern for those victimized by the manipulations and machinations of organized religion.  Yet, I would say, that the response to the very real hurts that have been part of our history is not to shrink from our fundamental obligations to witness to Christ’s love but to live more deeply and fully into our obligations as missionaries and evangelists.

We are not called to shrink from places of abuse but to engage them more fully, more deeply, with greater honesty, and with a commitment to reconciliation.

We are watching, all about us, a reframing of what it means to be Catholic by Pope Francis.  He understands that the “brand” of the Church has been deeply damaged and is doing all in his power to undo that damage and reimagine what a fully lived Catholic life looks like.  He is doing it in the simplest way possible – by living with grace and humility.

There is no doubt that historical wrongs have been committed in the name of Christ and even by missionaries.  Yet our challenge is not to rename but to reclaim the vocation and the essence of mission.

Men commit violence every day – yet we cannot avoid the term man.  We look to reframe notions of masculinity and work to change patriarchal systems.  It is not the term that is the problem – it is the nature and essence of the term that must be constantly judged in the light of the fullness of the Gospel promise and Incarnational reality.

Missionaries are called to the boundaries between people and nations – to places of insecurity and marginalization to be a living embodiment of Christ’s own mission of reconciliation and proclamation.  Titus Presler, a missiologist now serving as Dean of Edwardes College in Pakistan writes, “The notion that it is only in the 21st century or only in the, say, last 60 years that mission-minded people in the churches have realized the common humanity of all human persons is not only false, but it is profoundly unjust – a calumny perhaps – to generations of missionaries…who ministered out of a deep recognition of the common humanity of all persons.”

The missionary endeavor is to bring awareness of “those people there” to “people here” and to make the universal presence of Christ known in the encounter of difference.  If missionaries were not deeply and powerfully aware of the fundamental humanity and dignity of all people, they simply would not do the work they do.  They know that all persons deserve to see and know the dignity and promise of Christ’s life-changing Good News.

Identifying with Christ means that we must, necessarily, operate out of a sense of vulnerability and perpetual humility.  We, as missionaries, do not simply do good for others – we embody the self-offering and self-giving that Christ calls us to by example.

Lamin Sanneh, a professor of mission, talks often of the Western guilt complex about mission.  In the Christian Century, Yale professor Lamin Sanneh wrote, “It seems that for my Western Christian friends, if missionaries did not justify by their field labors the guilt the West carries about the mischief of the white race in the rest of the world, then other missionaries would have to be invented to justify that guilt.”  The vague uneasiness of the contemporary Christian has, in some ways, been shifted onto the mission enterprise and become an excuse to devalue or redefine mission. Sanneh argued, “Much of the standard Western scholarship on Christian missions proceeds by looking at the motives of individual missionaries and concludes by faulting the entire missionary enterprise as being part of the machinery of Western cultural imperialism.”

A Church that seeks to make amends for historical wrongs must engage with those it believes it has wronged and who believe they have been wronged by it.  And not only must it engage – it must engage from a place of honest witness to its hope and with deep awareness of its past failings.

Calling oneself a missionary is not a term to be carried with pride – it is a mark of self-offering.  It is the willingness to hold oneself accountable for the proclamation of the fullness of the Gospel in the totality of one’s life and to be responsible not only for one’s own motives but to know the loaded history which one carries into the mission field – be that field across the globe or across the street.

The missionary role is one of knowing Christ and making Christ known and our collective guilt complex is hindering sharing the Good News in ways that will promote the dignity of every human person and help us all to see Christ in one another.

If we understand Christ to be the ultimate gift, then we must bring Christ to the world – and that is the work of a missionary people.  We are called not only to proclamation but to live lives that are grounded in right action and right thought with hearts fixed in the self-offering of the cross.

Our right action and right thinking are the ways in which we sanctify ourselves to make our gift of our service more acceptable to God. This sanctification requires that we, like any offering, are separated from that which would dilute the offering; we are to separate ourselves from “this world.”

This separation from the world has an intensely eschatological element to it. N.T. Wright states, “Here is the inference, for Paul, between what scholars call ‘eschatology’ and ‘ethics’: because you are in fact a member of the age to come, if you are in Christ, new modes and standards of behavior are not only possible but commanded.” This is at the heart of a missionary life – a life given to the lived witness to the Indwelling of Christ.

Indeed, the end of time is now already in operation and any believer’s actions must be framed with this in mind. Leander Keck asserts, “This non conformity to ‘this age’ is not an end in itself nor simply a manifestation of ‘alienation’ rooted elsewhere, but the requisite prelude to the real end, doing God’s will, which is not self-evident so long as ‘this age’ has not yet run its course.”

Yet, mission is inherently a calling to immerse ourselves in this age and bring to work for the fullness of the next. By engaging in this radical act of engagement and self-offering that we call mission, we are divorcing ourselves not from the world, but from the bindings of the world. It is the transcendence of the flesh through the sharing of the Spirit. This corporate act of secession forces us to, as Karl Barth said, “not fashion ourselves according to the present form of this world, but according to its transformation.”

Missionary abuses of the past are issues not with mission but with the collaboration of mission, sometimes, with the powers and systems that thrived in the subjugation of others.  We were, sometimes, working in the present form of the world, not according to its transformation.

Yet, missionaries were often the only voices standing up for the dignity of those who were oppressed.  Like the whole Church, missionaries are a mixed lot with complex motives.  Sometimes they did enormous good and sometimes they sinned grievously – we all have and will.  Yet it is time for us to seek to live lives that allow those historical yet present wounds to be a source not of division but of reconciliation.

The answer is not to run from abuse or to think we too are not culpable if we avoid the term.  We are deeply culpable in abuse – we are a people who shout “Crucify Him!” together too often.  Yet we are also a people forgiven, restored, and renewed – a people with Good News to share.  Making an idol of our guilt – a fixation of our energy – is not a healthy way forward.  Our vision must be fixed on the transformation of the world that the Spirit us about.

This is the calling of missionary life – and it is a call we can all hear and welcome as believers.  Our challenge is not to soften or cloud our identity as missionaries but to grow into a mature understanding of just what being a missionary is so that others can see in us the promise and potential of that calling.

Robert

Authenticity, Honesty, and Witnessing with Younger Adults

Precript: This piece is only intended to look at some shifts in generational motivation and connection.  The follow up piece to this will look at some particular ways a parish can communicate a deep and abiding faith in Christ and its commitment to work, pray, and give for the spread of the Kingdom.  This piece uses marketing and communications analysis to consider parish communication with younger adults.  It is not intended to be a grand unified theory of ministry and discipleship – simply a look at two concepts critical to reaching Gen X and Gen Y in marketing.

I recently did a workshop on young adult ministry at the Colorado Episcopal Diocesan Convention. I talked extensively about authenticity as a core value for young adults.  It was the portion of the conversation that generated the most feedback as parish leaders looked to find ways to articulate what it meant to be authentic in their context.  Below are a few steps for developing an authentic articulation of parish identity.

There are really two cohorts of younger adults that will respond to different aspects of a message of authenticity.  The first is Gen X members who are more likely to respond to a message that focuses on a more classic definition of authenticity: origin, history, and heritage.  The second emerging cohort is Gen Y.  The emerging consensus in marketing seems to be that Gen Y is more likely to respond to a message that focuses on honesty as a core value.  This means honest to self (the parish’s DNA), to youth (transparency and welcome), and to society (social responsibility and engagement).

The classic definition is key and lays the foundation for the evolving understanding of authenticity.  Without a story to tell and a clear sense of history and purpose, it is difficult to accurately and compellingly communicate in such a way that honesty is clearly evident.

Origin: Where did your parish come from?  This is not the dry recitation of history.  It is delving beyond the who and when to the why of a parish’s identity.  What need did the founders see?  What was their vision for engaging your community?  What is the common thread that ties you as you now exist to the founding vision?  Where you come from is essential to understanding where you are going.

History:  How has the parish lived into the founding vision?  This is not simply the linear communication of key moments and milestones.  It is the articulation of how your values and virtues have been lived out over time.  No parish is simply the sum of its stories.  Every parish is more – it is the shared dreams of those who have come before for those who will come after them.  How has your parish history led you to where you are today?  What in your parish history is unique and vibrant?

Heritage:  Heritage is the DNA of an organization.  It is the articulation of your parish’s unique way of being.  What marks those who come through your parish?  What makes you who you are as a body of faithful people?  What do you see in your life today that would be recognizable to those who came before?  Heritage is the emotional tug of holidays and the deep-seated call home on special occasions.  It is hard to define but clear when it is present and vibrant.  Heritage is the essence of loyalty.

Those form the classic understanding of authenticity.  Together, they create the emotional and spiritual longing that a community has to be together and to share who they are with others.

The emerging Gen Y is, perhaps, less invested in these core elements of authenticity than they are in something even more fundamental and hard to define – honesty.  The two go hand in hand but honesty is more definitive and hard-won.  It is easier to tell a story than it is to live into that story by word and example such that it is not simply an articulation of who you were but of who you are.  It is hard to have honesty without authenticity but it is possible to have an authentic identity that few actually live into.

This is the trap of many churches – we have a great story – but we don’t live into it in such a way that our essential qualities are readily apparent and evident.  Gen Y, hyper-marketed to and attuned to falsity, can sense intuitively when they are being sold a false bill of goods.

So how do we make sure that our congregations are places of powerful honesty?  We have to live it out.

Honest to our self:  Who is your parish?  What is it facing now that it is challenging with radical honesty?  Whatever your parish’s core identity is, there is nothing so precious, in terms of communication and evangelism, than living into it with integrity.  If you are an evangelical parish then live into it.  If you are an Anglo-Catholic parish, then live into it.  If you are a parish focused on social justice, then live into it.  Lean into your strengths and allow them not simply to be a story that you tell but a way of being that defines those who are part of your parish.

Honest to youth:  How can we be more honest with our youth?  We must begin by being a place of transparency.  Is your Christian life hard?  Admit it.  Are you struggling with faith?  Admit it.  Are you wrestling with temptation and sin?  Admit it.  We spend too much time as Church coming together to pretend everything is fine.  Gen Y culture is surprisingly adept at dealing with complexity and flux.  We don’t need to be perfect Christians, just honest ones.  The more we can create a climate of trust and healthy vulnerability, the more we will be ready to engage youth and young adults.  They don’t want us to be a projection of the ideal Church – they simply want us to be honestly open.

Honest to society:  How do we preach the Gospel and confront the injustices of society?  The Church is called not to be relevant but to be an authentic presence that offers a counter-narrative to the falsity of marketed identity.  We have to be a voice that young people can turn to as they sort through who they are and what values they will live by.  Your church is ideally positioned to address a host of issues locally with integrity and boldness.  This means confronting the ills of homelessness, environmental abuse, broken families, a failing education system, and more.  We need to be the kinds of churches that hold up a mirror for society and do what the Church has always done – lift up the holy and heal the broken.

The combination of a comprehensive and authentic narrative paired with the honesty of well-lived lives will go far in communicating with and drawing in young adults.  Yet we must be ready to name those places in our common life in which we fall short of both our founders’ vision and our call to mission and evangelism.  I can think of no place better to begin than for a parish to sit with the Baptismal Covenant and honestly ask itself, corporately and individually, how it is living into the heart of our shared identity.

Drawing Gen X and Gen Y is not easy because being authentically and powerfully honest is difficult.  Yet every congregation can find itself powerfully equipped for this ministry by doing the hard work of self-examination and joyful inquiry.  Nothing is more liberating than finding those places where God is calling us to rejoice in our strengths and to leave behind those things that are inhibiting us from being places of honesty and authenticity.

Robert

Beyond Words: The Power of Silence, Even at the Grave.

A funeral mass I celebrated today made me realize something – there are a lot of words in the funeral liturgy.  Don’t get me wrong, many of them are beautiful, comforting, and theologically rich.  Yet there are just a lot of them.

As I talked with the grieving family afterward, they told me that the moments when they were most impacted by the liturgy were those of silence – the silent moments of quiet breath after “Let us pray” and before the words began.  The silence as the coffin was censed and smoke rose with loving goodbyes.  The silence after the Kontakion was finished.  The silence as the coffin was loaded into the hearse.  Silence spoke.

Of course, liturgies are filled with beautiful sounds – soaring arias and hymns of praise.  Yet it is often the moment after the sound breaks when the Holy seems to say, “I am here.”

As we gathered around the graveside, in the peace of a cemetery at the foot of soaring mountains, I was acutely aware of the sounds all about us in the midst of our quiet prayer.  Birds chirped, geese honked, there were gentle whispers.  Tears fell and some were held back.  All around us though the sounds of nature – of life going on – were as loud as a whisper in the dark.  Even at the grave, the whole of creation all around us was making its song heard.

There were more words.  Then there was the sound of dirt hitting wood.  The sound of flowers sliding down the side of the coffin as they were offered with trembling hands.  The sound of the heavy cords as they were slid from underneath the coffin.  The sound of the vault closing shut – within it a life was retreating into dirt even as a soul reached for light.

The words are not the thing itself, it seemed like, today.  The words created the space for the Holy to speak with that still small voice which is Hope.

Our true hope is to live as though we have already died. To live truly unafraid of what may come and truly at peace. The things that death will open to us are always about us and always true. Death, come when it will, is like baptism, the passage from this state into another, in which we shall actually perceive what we now only know by faith, and in which all that we now see will be at an end but all that is promised will be seen.

When death comes, we will be faced with the twin realities that are embedded in the life of the Cross. There will be mourning, pain, and grief. Yet paired with that will come the glory of resurrection life and new truth.

black vestmentHow we live our life determines how our death shall find us. If we are able at the end to say there is no sin we have not repented of, there is no one with whom we have not made peace, there is no one we have not told how much we love them, there is no dream unpursued, no call unheard, no chance untaken. If we have lived the fullness that God expects of us then we will have lived a holy life, we will have flourished as holy creations.

We find moments of transcendence and hope. In laughter, love, and hope. Even in heartache, pain, and grief we are given glimpses of a richly woven world that defies explanation and definition. It is beyond real and makes a mockery of the simply physical reality. It makes a mockery of the notion that what we can see or observe is all that there is.

Those who have known love, experienced true grief, laughed loudly, cried themselves hoarse know that there is more in life, more to life, more of life than the simply physical…than the real. Christianity gives us the vocabulary to understand this truth. We know the presence of the Holy Spirit in the love of those all around us, the creative love of the Father in the beauty of creation, and the love of the Son in our redemption.

By them and through them we begin to perceive, even dimly, the outlines of the truth of new life. The glory of true life takes form in the irreality of this one – amidst the chaos and distraction of power games and personality cults. We are dead to sin, to the world, in baptism, and are enfolded into the truth of God’s love -a love which will carry us through the end of the real, of this life, and this world and into resurrected Truth.

This is the stuff of life between words – in the day’s quiet places and the soul’s still spaces we find ourselves being called anew to Baptismal hope.  In between our busyness, our talking, and our frantic to-and-fro, God is calling us to be still – to be silent – and to know true peace.

Robert

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