By now, it’s become social-media official: as of August 1, I am leaving Flagstaff for the flatlands of the mid-Midwest, and a new call in Kansas City, Missouri. I will be the Assistant Rector, and Day School Chaplain at St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Kansas City.
Tag Archives: ministry
Because my current ministry lacks a building, the local Episcopal church has generously allowed me to use a desk in a corner of their office bullpen. I keep their deacon/office administrator company while I tend to my various college-ministry-office tasks, and she holds down the fort. It’s a good arrangement.
Last Thursday, the diocese of Arizona had another educational summit for its clergy, this one on preaching. These summits are a chance for all the clergy in the diocese, and sometimes lay leaders in the parish as well, to receive continuing education on various topics: children and youth ministry, spiritual direction, music and liturgy, etc. (And also see our colleagues. An added bonus of no small worth in a diocese as big as ours.)
I spent the past week at Chapel Rock, our diocesan camp, training counselors for the upcoming Children’s Camp. This year, Children’s Camp is Narnia-themed, which means that our Canon for Children’s Ministries went whole-hog and built a WARDROBE over a door. (Pictures in a future post, so campers won’t be spoiled.)
Suffice to say, I spent the day of the wardrobe’s construction running back and forth through it like a maniac. People, it even had MOTHBALLS stuffed in the corners for authenticity of smell. (Behind safely stapled black fabric. Accidentally poisoning children isn’t Christian.)
It was a fantastic week. Bible study every day with counselors, in which we dream-cast a movie of the Prodigal Son (Father: Morgan Freeman, Elder Son: Christian Bale, Younger Son: Charlie Sheen), and composed time-shifted versions of the Resurrection accounts.
Then, home I came, and to Sedona, I preached. They got more or less the following sermon.
When I was a kid in Pennsylvania, we lived behind a Southern Baptist church, with a church sign out front. Each week, my brother and I would wait anxiously to see what message they’d put on that sign. Every week, it featured some pun, or saying. “God answers Knee mail.” or something about Jesus: “Jesus: he’s coming. Justice: its coming too.”. So basically– of puns and vague threats. A certain, specific type of evangelism.
The one I really remember said “Tears bring rainbows.”. And it appeared the week my mother had a mastectomy, and I decided I just hated that sign. Because it came to encapsulate all of the token phrases people repeated, over and over, like magic words: hoping they would have some effect in the world, but repeated so often that they lose their meaning. Those platitudes we say all the time, without thinking, almost, like charms. God will provide. It’s God’s plan. Have faith.
It’s the easiest thing in the world repeat these. And to say them to someone else. To tell someone else to have faith! Trust in Jesus! But what on earth does that actually look like? In 2012, at the end of June, here, today, what, does that actually look like? Because repeated words are well and good, and sometimes very comforting, but oftentimes, we need a little bit more of a concrete reassurance than that.
So how do we have faith? How do we trust in God?
Like most behaviors, trust and faith are learned. When babies are born, they learn that someone, hopefully, will be there when they cry to hold them, and feed them, and change them, and stay up all night with them, becoming horribly sleep deprived…but in this way, hopefully, we begin to learn the concept of trust. It’s also how peek a boo works. I’m gone! But I’m coming back.
And also like most behaviors, faith and trust are tricky beasts to master. All the world does not operate like a game of peek-a-boo, and so many of us also learn that occasionally trust can be misplaced. And that hurts. And we get cautious. We get careful.
Observe the disciples. They have been following Jesus around for a bit now. They’ve left house and family, their livelihoods, and their security behind. They’ve seen him preach, and heal, and cast out demons. They’ve witnessed the massive crowds that are following him.
They’ve seen a lot, they’ve heard a lot. The action in Mark’s gospel up until this point has been nonstop. This is the first break Jesus has had since his ministry started– he’s been followed pretty continually by large crowds, and now he gets in a boat for some peace and quiet, and a nice nap. The introverts among us can identify with this.
And through all of this, the disciples have been witnesses of how Jesus has acted towards them, and towards others.
But their first reaction, when the storm hits, is “Ack! Jesus! Why are you abandoning us to let us drown in a boat!!!!”. You don’t love us, we’re all going to die, ahhhhh!!!”
It’s definitely a human reaction, to be sure. It’s a reaction of sheer panic. To be in a storm in a boat at sea is not a pleasant experience. I can see how they thought they were going to die.
But what in the world had given them the idea that Jesus was going to just let them all drown? The same guy who had healed the sick, conquered demons, and saved Peter’s mother in law from death was now just going to sleep through their collective doom?
In this moment, fear trumped the faith that they had learned. Fear overrode what they knew to be true about Jesus. They knew who Jesus was– they knew that Jesus was not going to abandon them, and hadn’t abandoned them. They knew that Jesus didn’t do that, wasn’t going to do that. But fear is a primal force at times, and can speak pretty loudly, while faith is quieter.
It’s a challenge to keep listening to the quiet voice of faith, even in the midst of fear. It’s a lot easier sometimes to fall back into our patterns of cautious behavior. Easier to go back to believing that trust hurts, faith gets broken, and God acts like everyone else who’s ever hurt us.
And so, when storms strike, we fall back. When disaster strikes, we revert. We accuse God of hurting us. What caused the earthquake, the hurricane, the wildfire? God must have been punishing someone’s wickedness. What caused the cancer? God must have been trying to teach a me a lesson. Why are we sitting in a boat in the middle of a storm? Jesus is trying to kill us.
It’s easy to listen to fear, and to forget that none of that fits what we know about God. Certainly, none of that fits what we know about Jesus. The loving God who promises to be with us always, who stayed with the Israelites, even when they complained for 40 solid years, the healing Christ who made whole torn up and sick people. God doesn’t send disasters and sickness and death as punishment, or to teach us lessons. God doesn’t abandon what he has created. God doesn’t manipulate people like that. God suffers when we do–and has suffered with us, in the person of Jesus.
God doesn’t leave us. And will never leave us. Jesus is right in the boat with us, even when we are scared, and even when we panic, and cover our eyes with our hands. Jesus is still right there in the boat with us.
That’s what we know. That’s what we have faith in– a living, loving God-in-Christ. Even when we’re scared, and most especially then. Thomas Merton expressed it in this prayer:
Lord,I have no idea where I am going,
I do not see the road ahead of me,
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself,
And that fact that I think
I am following Your will
Does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe
That the desire to please You
Does in fact please You.
And I hope I have that desire
In all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything
Apart from that desire to please You.
And I know that if I do this
You will lead me by the right road,
Though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust You always
Though I may seem to be lost
And in the shadow of death.
I will not fear,
For You are ever with me,
And You will never leave me
To make my journey alone.
Last week, before I left on retreat (Beautiful Authority Conference, which was amazing) I received in the mail a book from the President of the House of Deputies.
Before I totally depress us all with another installment in the Sweet-Jesus-what-is-happening-in-the-church? Series, want to hear what happened on Sunday? Because it was not at all depressing.
Sunday, as I’m sure you are aware, was Trinity Sunday. Feast day not only of orthodox Nicene faith, but of curates, seminarians and seminarian wannabes. The day when rectors and bishops beat the bushes to find the lowest preacher on the totem pole and force them to explain, in 10 minutes or less, the inscrutable mystery of the One, Holy and undivided Trinity.*
Bottom line is that I’ve preached on Trinity Sunday since I was 20 years old. I’ve developed a weird affection for it.
This Sunday happened to be my first in a steady supply gig at St. Andrew’s, Sedona. Their rector is on sabbatical, so they have me for the next three months, interrupted only by the one Sunday I’ll be at General Convention. I really like this congregation. They’re very friendly, and (being in Sedona) slightly quirky.
Best of all, their friendliness is the engaged, welcoming kind, which is invaluable. They walk me to coffee hour after each service (not just me, mind you– each visitor gets this treatment). They broke into applause after my sermon at the 10am service. (See? Quirky. There can be no other explanation for why sane people would applaud an explanation of the Trinity.)
However, the best part’, the part that cemented my love for this feast, forever and ever, Amen,
was a little girl who walked up to me after the service, and handed me this:
She drew it during the sermon.
I can retire now.
Anyway, here’s what I said.
Trinity Sunday! Year B
My father manages a flexible packaging plant outside Philadelphia. He has for 17 years now. And he likes that job fine. They make that shiny film that makes it so you can see stop signs at night. Very specific job.
But this is not really what he likes to do. What he likes to do is on the weekends, when he coaches a basketball rec league for kids. And every year, he does the same thing– he constructs a team of the kids that no one else picks out of the draft, kids who have never played before, or who just have no talent, or who, like me, are massively uncoordinated, and he takes the parent who wants to help, but has no idea how to dribble, and he teaches them basketball. Every year.
Now, my father was a professional basketball player. He played in college, was drafted by the Celtics, played in Europe for a few years, then got hurt and retired. He’s actually good at basketball. And my mother, my brother and I tease him, that there are simpler ways to coach than to put on your own underdog Disney movie each year, with kids who get so excited when they get the ball that they just start running up the court holding it, and then get called for travelling. And for whom winning one game is a massive and unexpected triumph.
But Dad, i think, gets sort of offended by the teasing. He doesn’t see the point. To him, the point is simple. Kids should learn the game. So everyone should play. And everyone should get better. Everything else: winning, losing, egos, all come second.
And while most often, that ends up looking, to the casual observer, like complete chaos on the court, like little kids freezing the minute they get the ball, or panicking and outright tackling the other kid who has the ball, or something else that should really end up on a blooper reel, by the end of the year–the kids have grown. They’ve learned. They’ve gotten better, and they’ve gained confidence. They may never be perfect, but that was never the point.
Perfection, though, is a human obsession. We really like to be perfect. We like to do things right, to have things proper, in their places. Otherwise, what’s the point of doing them at all? Perfectionism! Very human obsession.
Watch Isaiah, in that first reading. He is having a vision of the glory of God, called before the throne of the Most High, angels flying all around– not just the normal angels, but the weirder, seraphim with the many wings, and the funky looking things, and all that. And there are beasts and fire, and all sorts of stuff. Overwhelming!
And in the middle of it, this overwhelming scene, Isaiah freaks out. He remembers that he’s a bit of a screwup, and panics. He gets the ball, and freezes like a six-year old. “Have mercy on me, for I am a man of unclean lips, and i come from a people of unclean lips.”. In other words, I don’t always speak rightly. I don’t always manage to tell the truth, either about myself, about others, or about God. And neither do my people.
I’m not perfect. Says Isaiah.
And God calls him anyway.
Because that is both exactly the point, and entirely beside the point, all at the same time.
God is, in fact, well aware that Isaiah is a screw up. God is, in fact, well aware that the people of Israel haven’t been getting it right, and aren’t going to get it perfect now, and most likely, aren’t going to get it perfect the next time either. God’s been with them for a while now, through the exodus, the ten commandments, the golden calf mess– none of this is really news to God. God is well aware of the tendency of humanity to consistently take a good idea and charge in the wrong direction with it.
But the reason God tries, time and again, to get it right with us isn’t because we are so very perfect and good– it’s because that’s just how God operates. That’s who God is.
God must be in relationship. God must love. God, by his very nature, so overflows with love that it must go somewhere, out into the universe, and so God creates a cosmos with which to be in relationship. God creates out of love, because love is inherently creative.
The nature of God is love, and so the nature of God is relationship, is community.
God sends Isaiah and the prophets, and keeps trying with humanity, and eventually shows up in Christ, not because we’re going to get it perfect anytime soon. But because it is in the nature of God to seek relationship with us. To love us. To try to teach us how to get better, and to walk with us.
You don’t teach something you don’t love. You don’t teach someone you don’t love either. And you also don’t teach someone who has everything figured out already. They don’t need you. But creation, wrapped up as it is in the embrace of God, is still being created. The kinks are still being worked out. We’re still being shaped and guided and taught by a loving God. We still have a ways to go before this project is anywhere near finished.
Today is Trinity Sunday– a day when we attempt to explain one more time what on earth we’re talking about when we talk about God as a Trinity– the three in one. One of the oldest images of this was called perichoresis. Not only will that word win you Scrabble,but it describes an image of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit all dancing, around and around in a circle, twirling forever in a dance of creative love.
We too, are caught up in that endless dance. We, too, are caught up in that whirl of life giving love. Not because we have it figured out, and never is that more clear than Trinity Sunday, and not because we are perfect. We are called to be none of those things. What we are called to be is faithful. To keep learning. And to keep dancing.
*And then they sit off, afar, giggling madly and drinking adult beverages. Or at least that’s what I plan to do someday.
I have now returned from Hawaii, and I understand now why everyone’s nuts about tropical islands. (I had never been to one before. I had been to San Matteo in Belize, but that’s an island largely constructed like Mt. Trashmore in Virginia Beach, plus gated resorts, and desperate poverty mixed in. The ambiance is odd, is what I’m saying.)
But seriously! Tropical islands! Quite amazing!
But all was not going to the beach, drinking boba tea, and quoting ‘Arrested Development’.
Each year, Prov conference is a powerful experience for me. Each year, when we do our closing group discussion, at least a couple students say something along the lines of “This is the first time I’ve been in church with people my own age.” “This is the first time I can talk to people my own age about my faith.” “Campus ministry is the first time I’ve felt welcomed and accepted by the church.” Every. Year.
This year, however, it took on a different cast. Because this year, we also had to talk about what we were facing as the province west of the Rockies.
So there was the possibility that this would be the last Prov conference, as it is incarnated currently. We’ve promised ourselves that this won’t be the case, but we’ve already lost all of our provincial funding, due to budget cuts there. (And remember folks, this is the local level that’s supposed to be picking up the slack of the church wide budget cuts.) And for ministry budgets already strained to the breaking point, more-expensive conferences are going to be difficult to swallow.
But we will make it happen. Because that’s what we do.
So after a fairly heartening weekend of earnest, dedicated college students, worshipping, learning, and planning together, I was less than thrilled to receive this memo from the heads of PB&F regarding the draft budget.
On the one hand, hooray, this is much of what Susan Snook+ has been saying for the past few weeks, and now someone with budgetary power has admitted it.
On the other hand….
Look, Executive Council, I understand that this was a new process, but can we all now get around the fact that this process failed? This is not a process that we can trust. Because the end result of said process is a budget that contains such grievous errors that it doesn’t balance in several places and accidentally defunded almost the entirety of Christian formation across the Episcopal Church.
Aside from my basic questions (did no one have a calculator!?) which, I realize, are not the helpful at this point, what strikes me is the assertion in the memo that the de-funding was a mistake, but no one remembers quite how much they wanted to put there, and besides, to re-fund Formation would take equal cuts elsewhere.
So while this appears to be an accident, it still amounts to de-funding Christian Formation. Unless PB&F can magically produce the money.
Some of the questions that constantly get asked of me, and others in ministry with young adults, are “What do young adults want from the church? How can we do more/better young adult ministry? How do we get young adults in church?” It happened in Hawaii as well. The dean of the cathedral in Honolulu asked that we hold the Dean’s Forum on this very topic.
There are many ways to answer this question. Many different visions.
I can tell you where to start though.
YOU SHOULD FUND. IT.
It is a powerful kind of disheartening when you attempt to do ministry, and over and over again, you are told it is the most important ministry in the church, and yet….the budget gets slashed again and again.
And here, it’s worse. The budget (evidently) didn’t get slashed because they agonized over it, faced a revenue shortfall, and triaged what mission items were most important. They slashed our budget because no one was paying close enough attention. It wasn’t a low priority; it wasn’t even on the radar. They passed a budget that, for whatever reason, hadn’t been checked.
So, here we go, Church. Here’s what I need, as a certified Young Person. (I’m 28 years old–I count, despite being a priest.)
Here is what I need from you, My Church. Here’s the answer to that question you keep asking me.
You need to say that you are sorry, that you realize this budget thing didn’t go well this year. You need to say you’re sorry that you overlooked the crucial part of administration that is budgeting. Part of the leadership you were elected to is owning up when things fall apart, and they just did. You need to admit it.
And then, you need to Fix It.
Write a letter to PB&F (which looks like it’s happening), outline a better budget that takes into account the actual mission priorities this Church has espoused, and FIX. IT.
And, look, I’ll help you. I will sit in meetings, I will voice my opinion, I will help write budgets, I will help pass them. I will even explain the point of Twitter for the ten thousandth time. I will pull my own weight and then some. I will help you come up with a better way to make budgets, since this one fell flat. I fell in love with this church when I was a kid, and I’m not going anywhere. We’ll work together; it will be great.
But you need to fix this.
Because the secret to getting young people in the church (or anyone into church) is that you actually have to care about them. Not in a lip-service way, or in a non-committal way, but in a dedicated, flesh in the game, asking what they think and feel, sort of way. You actually have to honestly care about them. (Jesus said something along these lines, I do believe. Smart guy, that Jesus.)
So help me believe that the Church actually cares enough about young people to give us money, and not just lots of anxiety. Help me convince my students that the Church wants them for their voices and opinions, and not just their life expectancy and wallets.
Please, Fix It.