Tuesday, November 26, 2019

The Reason for the Season (of Advent)

             During this season of Advent, my spiritual reading will be devoted to the work of The Rev. Fleming Rutledge who recently published a book entitled: Advent: The Once and Future Coming of Jesus Christ. The publication is a compilation of Rutledge’s Advent sermons, writings, and teachings. For those who are unfamiliar with Rutledge, she is considered not only one of the best Episcopal preachers but also one of the best preachers in the United States.
            In her book Advent, it is clear that Rutledge is interested in recapturing the original meaning of the Advent season. Rutledge says, “For many years, I thought that, during Advent, one was supposed to pretend that Jesus hadn’t been born, so that we would be more excited when Christmas came…In Advent, we don’t pretend…we take a good hard look at the darkness we are in now…so that we will understand with utmost clarity that our great and only hope is in Jesus’s final victorious coming.”
            If you look at the lectionary readings for the season, you will notice that the first Sunday’s focus is on the second coming of Christ – not Christmas. In addition, the second and third Sundays focus on John the Baptist’s witness to the Jesus Christ who is already born and about to begin his public ministry. Only on the fourth Sunday of Advent do we get a prelude to Christmas when we hear about Mary, Joseph, and/or Elizabeth. 
In addition, there are only 2 hymns in the hymnal that portray Advent as the season when we wait for the birth of Jesus – the rest look toward Jesus’s final victorious coming. Another clue that helps us understand the original intent of Advent is discerned when we look at what the word Advent actually means. The word Advent is taken from the Latin word Adventus which can be translated into “Second Coming.” 
As the consumerism of Christmas has grown over the years, it is nearly impossible to observe the original intent of Advent. In secular culture, the season leading up to Christmas has grown into a three-month event beginning in October when decorations are put up at department stores! Between parties and pageants and plays and shopping lists, who has time to keep awake and watch for the Second Coming of Christ? During this season of darkness, we are flooded with lights and sounds that distract us from the true light – Jesus Christ.
Rutledge names the tension of this time for Christians saying, “Christianity is under attack from every quarter – not least from within its own ranks as we become more and more indistinguishable from everybody else – but the commanding voices of the prophets and apostles are still capable of lifting us out of the culture wars onto a plane that not even the most cynical Jesus-basher can successfully besiege.”  In other words, Advent is a season when Christians have the opportunity to remember how we have been set apart to point to the kingdom that is come.
John the Baptist calls us to repent. Quite simply, we are called to turn away from the promises of our earthly kingdoms and toward the promises of Christ whose kingdom is (being) established on earth as it is in heaven. Or as Rutledge says, “John the Baptist’s lonely, austere style of life bears witness to a reality that is coming, a reality that will expose all worldly realities, all earthly conditions, all human promises as fraudulent and transitory.” And by revealing our earthly kingdoms as counterfeit, Christ gives us the grace to turn toward the kingdom that has no end.    
During this season of Advent, may you grow more alive to the truth that the only One who can save you (and us) from the darkness is the One who is not of the world but the One who is coming into the world.

Advent Devotional Companion to use with an Advent Wreath.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Bishop's Election: What's our next move?

Feast Day for the Consecration of Samuel Seabury
First American Bishop
November 14th

Matthew’s Gospel tells us that “when Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion for them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.” During the colonial era of the church in the new world, there were no Anglican bishops. If the church needed more priests, they would ship candidates to England to ordain them. 
Once the war was over, it became clear that the Anglican Church in the new world needed to have its own bishops. Under the cover of darkness, a secret meeting of Connecticut clergy met in Woodbury on March 25, 1783 and chose Samuel Seabury to go to England to seek consecration as bishop. Thankfully, the church follows a different process of selecting bishops these days.
Predictably, Seabury had a difficult time convincing bishops in England to consecrate him bishop. In order to be consecrated bishop by an English bishop, one must swear allegiance to the crown. Obviously, Seabury would not do that because of the whole American Revolutionary war thing. 
After a year of failed attempts of trying to persuade English bishops, Seabury traveled to Scotland where the official church was Presbyterian. The Scottish Episcopal Church had broken ties with the monarch a century before. Therefore, there were non-juring (swearing) Anglican bishops who were willing to consecrate Seabury. The apostolic chain of succession connecting bishops all the way back to Peter would continue in the United States.
In Aberdeen, on November 14, 1784, Samuel Seabury was consecrated bishop. A part of the deal was for Seabury to convince the newly forming church in the United States to use the Scottish prayer of consecration (inherited from the Eastern Orthodox liturgy). In addition, the nine small crosses on the Episcopal Shield form a cross which represents St. Andrew – the patron of Scotland. Seabury was then chosen Bishop of Connecticut.
In his book, Welcome to the Episcopal Church, Christopher Webber says, “Americans had had a church without bishops for almost two centuries. Now that they had bishops, they would have to work out what they were for.” Were they Pastors? Administrators? Spiritual Directors? Liturgical Ornaments? Maybe a little bit of everything? These questions continue to be worked out in the life of the church to this day.
In a few weeks, the Bishop’s Search Committee will present a slate of candidates to the Standing Committee who will announce the slate to the diocese. Members of the committee are striving to present a slate of candidates that represents the diversity of the church. One member of the committee told me, “We want to give the diocese real choices.”
I hear the committee saying that they want to give the Diocese of Alabama the opportunity to choose a bishop who will best serve the diocese during this particular season of our life together. As Bishop Sloan suggested in his retirement announcement, God tends to call bishops to serve for a particular season in the life of the church. Bishop Sloan recognizes the rapidly changing culture and feels that a new bishop would be better suited to shepherd the church into the new era. 
While this is certainly a time to celebrate all the gifts that Bishop Sloan has offered the Episcopal Church in Alabama for this particular season, this is also a time to discern what gifts a new bishop might bring to the table for the next season. I am thankful for the Standing Committee and search committee for facilitating this process of discernment. As the diocese continues to discern what gifts a new bishop might need to bring to the table, I hope we are able to discern with the Holy Spirit what candidate is uniquely suited to respond to the opportunities and challenges that face the church today. 
What kind of leadership skills will be required to move us in the direction that the Holy Spirit is calling us toward? Do we need a pastor? An administrator? A visionary? A preacher? A liturgical ornament? Which gifts are most needed for the church in this particular season? What kind of shepherd do we need for this new season in our life together? In the end, it is my hope and prayer that we see how God is using this process to help the diocese become one flock under one shepherd – Jesus Christ our Lord.

1. Brightest and Best: A Companion to the Lesser Feasts and Fasts by Sam Portaro 
2. Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

St. Joseph - Patron of Households

            While we have been in Birmingham for over six-months, we still own a house in Selma. Even though we buried a statue of St. Joseph upside down by our front door and said the St. Joseph prayer, we still have not received an offer on the house!
            Some of you may be familiar with this quasi-pagan tradition of burying a St. Joseph when trying to sell a house. Regardless of the hint of superstition involved, the tradition is a reminder that St. Joseph is the patron saint of households. He is also the patron of laborers or workers as he was a carpenter.
Joseph took care of the household of Jesus. Joseph was the person quietly tending to the practical matters of the faith. He was the one who ensured there was space for Jesus to grow into adulthood. He made sure Mary could raise this child both in her body and in her home.     
When Joseph found out Mary was pregnant, he quietly moved to divorce her. However, the angel told him that this pregnancy was of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, a faithful man, decided to stick with Mary despite the humiliation and shame it might bring. When news got out that King Herod wanted to kill Jesus, he helped his family escape to Egypt. 
Joseph’s place in the gospel is a reminder that tending to our spiritual lives involves a practical side. Tending to our spiritual lives involves making physical space so that we might nurture and grow our faith. How we can make space that is comfortable, safe, clean, and even beautiful. How can we make space that invites the Holy Spirit in? a place of radical hospitality and welcome? 
I love how this church makes space for the faith of Jesus to grow. Our campus is open and big. The large windows invite the natural light and beauty of the world around us to fill our senses. I wonder where there are other spaces in your life where you can nurture your faith. Maybe you have created a place in your home. Maybe there is a quiet place in nature – in your backyard, at a park. 
If you don’t have such a space, consider asking St. Joseph to help you find and make space to experience the divine life of God. And like St. Joseph, you might even find in your calling to make space for others to experience the love of Christ.
As you prepare and find space to grow in the knowledge and love of God, I pray you discover how God is making space in you – in your heart and soul – to carry the love of Christ just as God, through Joseph, made space for Mary to carry and nurture the love of Christ. And may your life be about making space for others to know the goodness and mercy of God in Christ. 


Monday, March 11, 2019

Giving Up Our Pacifiers

            When Mary Katherine was an infant and toddler, she always had to have her pacifier - her “pap, pap” or her “paci.” John is much the same way. When the pap, pap is nowhere to be found, a collective anxiety grows in the household. Pillows are thrown. Sheets are pulled off the bed. Tears are shed by both parent and child. Interesting things are found under the bed or in the sofa cushions.  
Inexplicably, we are still finding Mary Katherine’s pacifiers around the house. I say, inexplicably, because we have moved twice since she was a toddler! So, if you ever see John with a pink or purple pacifier, you now know why. For us, it was easier to potty train Mary Katherine than it was to get her off the pacifier.
Eventually, everyone gets off the pacifier – some later than others. As we mature, however, we pick up other pacifiers along the way. We adults might call these pacifiers a glass of scotch, the newest binge worthy TV show, a pint of chocolate chip cookie dough ice cream, a cigarette, social media, a murder mystery book. Sometimes these pacifiers turn into self-destructive behaviors - eating disorders, alcohol abuse, drug addiction, and sex addiction to name a few. 
Over the years, we accumulate habits and behaviors that make us feel safe and comfortable. We find things that help calm our nerves after a long day. Some fall into routines that help deaden the pain while others fall into routines that help them feel something – even pain.
These pacifiers distract us from having to confront the wilderness of our lives. Without these pacifiers, we are left alone with our thoughts and feelings, and that can be a scary prospect. Anxiety grows. Left alone with our thoughts and feelings, the sound of silence is often deafening. Hello darkness, my old friend is only said endearingly when singing along to Simon and Garfunkel.
During this first Sunday of Lent, we journey with Jesus into the wilderness. This journey with Jesus into the wilderness asks us to give up our pacifiers. In case you were wondering, we convinced Mary Katherine to give her pacifiers to a friend of ours who had a newborn and it actually did the trick!
In the wilderness, Satan tries to distract Jesus from the wilderness by offering him the pacifiers of provision, power, and protection. Satan even uses scripture to sweeten the offer, but Jesus uses scripture that frustrates the way of Satan. Remember that just because someone quotes scripture doesn’t mean they are speaking the truth of God. Taken out of context, scripture is a dangerous weapon especially when used against those who are spiritually weak. 
There might actually seem to be some kind of wisdom in the lies of the devil. Who doesn’t seek to have provision, power, and protection? What kind of harm can one bite really cause? Our problem, however, is do we know when enough is enough? When does enough provision blind of us from poverty and disease? When does enough power blind us to the plight of the weak and vulnerable? When does enough protection blind us to the peril that others find themselves in?
When does enough lead us to stop learning how to receive and start teaching us how to hoard, when does enough lead us to stop learning how to be grateful and start teaching us how to be more possessive?
For those of us who do possess plenty of provision, power, and protection in this earthly world, a journey into the wilderness can do a world of good for our souls. Putting the season of Lent aside for a minute, most, if not all of us have been driven into the wilderness for some reason or another – death, disease, disaster, the consequence of our sins or the sins of another.
One of my first wilderness experiences happened when I left the security of my Over-the-Mountain neighborhood to the rural backwoods of North Carolina on a mission trip. Not only did I see poverty first-hand, but I also confronted the wilderness that I was experiencing back home. That time in the wilderness was one of the most formative times in my life. 
Being that I am not Jesus, I didn’t ace my first wilderness excursion and still haven’t aced one for that matter. However, that wilderness experience was the beginning of a life-long spiritual journey of learning to trust what God gives me to live instead of trusting the pacifiers I think I need to get through life.
As we see in the biblical narrative, the wilderness is where the people of God grow. And as we see in that narrative, the wilderness can be harsh and unforgiving, the wilderness can create internal conflict and division, the wilderness can make us want to dive into the trashcan to find that filthy pacifier we once joyfully discarded. Devilish temptations are especially strong in the wilderness.   
Like a modern-day camping trip, the temptation is to make our wilderness experience as painless as possible. We pack an air-mattress, ear buds, a battery powered fan, our cell phone, and anything else that makes us forget we are alone in the dark surrounded by creepy, crawling things, by things that go bump in the night. But unless you’ve set up basecamp at the entrance of a bear cave with a nursing momma, odds are you will survive in the wilderness even without your pacifier. 
It might leave you famished, but odds are you will come through that experience realizing that there is very little you really need to enjoy life. Odds are you will realize that most of the things that promise a better life are the very things that weigh you down in life. Odds are you will realize your pacifiers can be more destructive than the things that go bump in the night. 
You will come through the wilderness, by the Spirit’s guiding, with a renewed confidence in your ability to recognize and resist false promises. You will come though the wilderness, by the Spirit’s guiding, with a renewed trust in the promise of God’s provision, God’s power, and God’s protection.
I don’t what you have chosen to give up for Lent, or if you have chosen to give up anything for Lent. But if you have or if you choose to, I invite you to notice two things. First, notice that those devilish temptations are finite – temporary. Like a bully in the schoolyard, Satan will eventually stop playing with you if you stop feeding into his game. 
Secondly, God will never leave your side, even if you insist on rolling around in the dirt with the schoolyard bully, God will be there. Where you go, I will go, God says. Satan will give up on you, but God will never give up on you and that is a promise you can take with you to the grave and beyond. Amen.    

Thursday, March 7, 2019

A Spiritual Scar

A part of me wonders if we shouldn’t have a therapist on-call on Ash Wednesday especially after we say the Litany of Penitence. The litany asks us to confront our darkest fears, deepest regrets, and most distressing sins. We are asked to confront those places we hide from even ourselves. The logical question asks, “Why should we even go to those painful and shameful places?” Why add insult to injury? Can’t we just skip over to Easter?! Let me frame the question as if I were a surgeon. 
There is something unhealthy growing inside of you. You might be okay for a little while but eventually your body won’t be able to fight off the disease. You need an intervention. If we do the surgery now and remove the disease, there is hope for healing and wholeness. And if it is any consolation, the scar left from the surgery will be a reminder that you overcame your illness. 
Think of Ash Wednesday, and Lent for that matter, as a kind of spiritual surgery. It might feel scary. It might feel painful, but this spiritual surgery is meant to heal you and make you whole. It is meant to help you let the light of Christ shine onto the deepest, darkest depths of your soul to bring about healing and wholeness.
Think of the ashen cross that I will paint on your forehead as a kind of spiritual scar. This spiritual scar is not only a reminder of your sin and mortality but the ashen cross is also a reminder of Christ’s desire to heal you and make you whole. Included in these ashes is oil for healing. So, as you are outwardly anointed with this oil, know that you are inwardly anointed by the Holy Spirit. 
            When you receive these ashes, I invite you to close your eyes and imagine the light of Christ inwardly anointing all those dark places in your soul with the healing power of God’s love. Imagine the Holy Spirit cleansing the basement of your soul with the brightness of the True Light.  
Once the basement of your soul is cleansed by the light of Christ, you are free to begin storing up for yourselves treasure in heaven – storing up things that aren’t things – things that St. Paul calls the fruits of the spirit - love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
Today’s lessons make it clear that God doesn’t need our ritual and liturgy if our ritual and liturgy do not lead us to store up treasures in heaven. In Isaiah, we hear that our ritual and liturgy is done in vain if we do not seek out the lonely, last, and lost, if we do not seek out those who Jesus claims are first in the kingdom of heaven. 
If our religion doesn’t compel us to heal the sick, feed the poor, and lift-up the downtrodden, then we must be willing to ask, “is my religion about a self-improvement project or is it about becoming that wounded healer we know in Christ?” There are plenty of offers for self-improvement out in the world (books, programs, classes). While that is all well and good, the aim of the gospel of Jesus Christ is about bringing healing and wholeness to a sinful and broken world.
            The spiritual surgery of Ash Wednesday is about turning us into wounded healers. We, who know the healing power of Christ’s love, are then compelled to share that healing power with the world. This spiritual healing helps us reprioritize our lives. Instead of living toward the attainment of earthly treasurers, our eyes our opened to the value of heavenly treasurers – treasurers that, as Isaiah says, repair and restore the communities of our world.   
While God doesn’t need our religious practices, we need them. We human beings seem to have a hard time remembering that we are loved and valued. We seem to have a hard time remembering that we belong to God and each other. We need this spiritual scar to remind us that we belong to a God whose property is always to have mercy. And as a people who belong to a merciful God, we, too, belong to each other according to the same promise of mercy.
As you leave here tonight and as you journey through the season of Lent, I invite you not only to notice the ashen cross on your forehead but on the forehead of all whom you encounter – especially on your homeless brother and sister, your lonely brother and sister, and even the brother and sister you tend not to like very much. 
Begin to notice that everyone – especially those who differ most from you – is wrestling with the demons in the basement of their soul, everyone is seeking healing and wholeness, everyone is worthy to know the healing power of Christ’s love. And may God grant you every grace to be a wounded healer in a world desperate to be made whole. Amen.  

Tuesday, March 5, 2019

A Shrove Tuesday Story

I joined Ancestry.com shortly after Jamie and I found out we were going to have a baby. We thought it might help inspire us to name our new child. While we picked family names from recent history, I still journeyed down the rabbit hole of Ancestry.com.

Chancel Gates at St. Margaret's c. 2014
Growing up, I remember my grandfather telling me that we had an ancestor who was a priest in the Church of England. However, he didn't comment on the particulars of his life. Much to my surprise there was a lot to uncover on the internet about our ancestor. I soon found out why my grandfather didn't have much to say about Arthur Alvey.

Even though Alvey served as Rector of St. Margaret's Church in Knotting, England for nearly 40 years, one history book says, "Alvey's career was hardly distinguished." The history goes on to share that Alvey and the Wardens of the parish allowed cockfighting to take place in the Chancel on Shrove Tuesday in three successive years - 1634, 1635, and 1636.

In 1637, Archbishop William Laud ordered that Chancel gates be built and locked except during worship. Alvey's history is vague after 1637. Some say he lost his living as a priest while others say he retired shortly thereafter.

The current Vicar of the parish told me in an email, "never was this parish in better financial position than when your ancestor was Rector." I would assume cockfighting was a lucrative fundraiser! I suppose if there was a night to do cockfighting at church then Shrove Tuesday would be the night to do it.

Tonight, churches around the world will gather for a Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) celebration. Many will serve pancakes and bacon as a way to help parishioners indulge before the Lenten fast. I'd imagine that most of those Shrove Tuesday pancake suppers will also take donations to support the youth group or another parish or outreach ministry.

While I am sure Church of the Ascension in Vestavia Hills won't raise as much money as my ancestor (considering inflation), I am glad that our Shrove Tuesday celebration will be more family friendly! You are welcome and invited to join us this evening from 5:30 - 7:00 at Church of the Ascension (1912 Canyon Road, Vestavia Hills - behind Publix on HWY 31).

Wednesday, February 27, 2019

The Election of Matthias and What It Means for the Church Today

         On Monday, February 25th, the church celebrated Matthias who was chosen to replace Judas among the twelve apostles. Scripture tells us that the election boiled down to casting lots – sheer luck (or Divine Providence depending on your theology). However you want to spin it, Matthias holds a place of honor among the twelve.
            Other than the election, we know nothing else of Matthias. He seems to disappear into history. I’ve heard that this is actually a good thing given Matthias was selected to replace Judas who was the treasurer. And odds are, if history records anything about a treasurer, it is usually bad news – embezzlement or the mishandling of funds.
            It seems to me that the election of Matthias is less about the individual and more about the governance of the church. The election takes place immediately after the Ascension of Jesus Christ. The election of Matthias is the first decision of the Church under the direction of St. Peter. It seems this decision is more about preserving the traditions of the community (we've always had 12 apostles) and less about the proclamation of the gospel.
            Ten days following the Ascension, Pentecost happens. On Pentecost, the neat and tidy organization of the Church is confused by the rush of a violent wind and tongues of fire standing on each of the apostles’ heads. As one commentator notes, “Affection, not administration, would ultimately shape the church and make it a living witness to the word of God in Jesus Christ.” In other words, administration is always secondary to work of the Holy Spirit.
            As I consider the juxtaposition between church governance and the power of the Holy Spirit, I am reminded of what a friend once said, “plan tight; hang loose.” While traditions, vision statements, canon laws, vestries, and policies are important in the governance of the church, they do not control how God acts in the world. We should fully expect God to have other plans (man plans; God laughs). If we do believe that church governance controls how God acts in the world, we are in serious trouble especially in times of conflict.
            The good news is that the Holy Spirit is in the business of reminding the Church of the main thing by, from time to time, shattering the church’s sacred traditions. The main thing is that the Holy Spirit calls all the people of the world into relationship with one another through the goodness and mercy of Jesus Christ. Our common life is bound together not because of rules and regulations, not because of cultural norms and traditions, but because of the goodness and mercy poured out in Christ Jesus for the sake of the whole world.
            The architect of the first Anglican Prayer Book knew as much. Archbishop Thomas Cranmer, wrote in the preface, “There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so surely established, which (in continuance of time) hath not been corrupted.” While these words were written some five-hundred years ago, they seem especially important as we consider where the Holy Spirit is moving the Church today. 
            In an era when the Church is becoming less and less established in the fabric of society, we are quick to try and figure how to maintain the church as it “has always been.” We make assumptions that culture will come around, and we can go back to doing church like before.  While our intentions might be good and pure, they seem to ignore what the Holy Spirit is up to in the world today. And according to the scriptures, that is the gravest sin of all. 
            Under the direction of Bishop Sloan, I am excited to be a part of a small group on Diocesan Council (note the irony here) who is tasked to discern what the core values of Diocese of Alabama have been while attending to where the Holy Spirit is moving among us today.  As Bishop Sloan has said many times, our work is to hold fast to what is good and sing to the Lord a new song. 
It is my understanding that our task is not to recommend changes in what we do because what we do is all about sharing the good news of Jesus and his kingdom ways. Rather, our task is to explore how the Holy Spirit might be calling us to do what we do in ways that reach a population that is growing more and more unchurched. How can we share the gospel of Jesus Christ in a way that is both consistent with who we are and with where the Holy Spirit is guiding us?
As we discussed at the council retreat, there are a lot of unknowns in this conversation. The conversation will bring up the dreaded "c" word - change. We wonder, where will this bridge take us? But as Anglicans, we needn't worry! It is the Anglican way to build the bridge as we go. There is no doubt that some of this work will call us to let go of some of our sacred traditions. However, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the good news of Jesus and his kingdom are not bound by our traditions. God’s will, will be done – with or without us. But wouldn’t we rather go with God?
            In the end, the structures and organization of the Church is not something we use to direct where God is moving in the world. Rather, God can choose or choose not to move through our structure and organization to make the good news of Jesus and his kingdom known. When our structures and organization fail, as they have and will, the Holy Spirit will shatter our illusions of control and remind us what this whole Jesus Movement is about. And that is a community that is ordered not by rules and regulations but by a mutual affection for the other, an affection rooted in the goodness and mercy of Christ Jesus.