January 05, 2020
Of this gospel I have become a servant according to the gift of God’s grace that was given to me by the working of his power. Although I am the very least of all the saints, this grace was given to me to bring to the Gentiles the news of the boundless riches of Christ and to make everyone see what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things...
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and we have come to pay him homage.
Picture this scene: two elderly Catholic bishops, speaking to one another of how they felt, as young men many years before, when they heard the call--God’s call--for them to become priests. “I felt such peace,” said one. “Clarity about my life’s purpose, and peace.” The other smiled sadly, “I, too, was clear,” he said. “But I’m afraid there was no peace.” For he had proposed marriage to a woman with whom he was in love, and heeding the call meant breaking the heart of someone he loved, and breaking his own heart as well. (A scene from the film The Two Popes.)
I would like to speak to you about the mysterious experience of feeling a claim on your life or a summons to a particular path in life or task at hand that, for reasons that defy explanation, you know is of God. Depending on how the experience comes to you or in what part of your life it speaks, you may not associate the sensation of call with God at first, or ever, and yet the experience, both outside of yourself and with deep internal resonance, compels you to acknowledge that there’s more going on than what you can fully comprehend. While it’s certainly possible to ignore or deny the call, still it haunts you, and even if there is great cost in heeding it, there is an overpowering liberation and fulfillment that comes with saying yes.
The first thing to say about such a call is that it isn’t the same experience for everyone, and we aren’t always able to trust our feelings to guide us, at least not at first. Sometimes the call brings peace, joy and excitement, yet at other times it can cause real inner turmoil and even dread. Sometimes the sense of call is compelling and clear, and we know exactly what we’re supposed to do and why. Other times, the call is far less clear, and we have to trust that clarity as we take our first steps in response.
Just yesterday, I met with the vestry of another congregation in this diocese, one that is at an important crossroads in its life. The vestry members know that they have a significant decision to make, one that will surely cause tension in the community. As we talked, all felt the weight of the decision. Some shed tears at the thought of moving forward; others worried that they wouldn’t have the courage to hold steady. And yet not moving forward also had its price.
As we spoke, I was reminded of a story--purely fictional--entitled The Other Wise Man, written in the late 1800s. It tells of another man from the East named Artaban, an interpreter of the stars, who like the three we read of in the Gospel of Matthew, was drawn to travel from his homeland to Judah in search of the one born to the Jews. The Jews were, it should be noted, a discredited race according to their religion, but still the message came to him and others that from the Jews a Messiah was to come.
Artaban called together a small group of spiritual leaders to tell of his plan to join the three who had already begun their journey, inviting others to come, too. All declined for reasons that we would understand: one felt it was a fool’s journey and nothing would come of it; another felt unfit for such a long journey; another had a young wife and family; still another felt bound by the duties of his office. The last to speak was the oldest man who loved Artaban as a son. He said this:
It may be that the light of truth is in this sign that has appeared in the skies, and then it will surely lead to the Prince and the mighty brightness. Or it may be that it is only a shadow of the light, as others have said, and then he who follows it will have only a long pilgrimage and an empty search. But it is better to follow even the shadow of the best than to remain content with the worst. And those who would see wonderful things must often be ready to travel alone. I am too old for this journey, but my heart shall be a companion of the pilgrimage day and night. Go in peace.” (Henry van Dyke, The Other Wise Man (originally published in 1895).)
Artaban, as it turns out, never catches up with the other three wise men, but on this journey he had spiritual adventures of his own, as he stops to care for people along the way. When he finally arrives in Jerusalem as an old man, he encounters Christ on the cross.
Stories like his, like the one in Scripture of the three wise men who follow a star to Bethlehem, are classic expressions of the kind of call that sets us on a journey of unknown destination. In many ways it symbolizes the human journey through life--we all follow stars of one kind or another, we look for guidance from our surroundings, and we take the next step.
Sometimes the call comes as an affirmation of the path we’re already on, coming to us as encouragement to stay the course in the face of hardship and uncertainty. One of the most moving accounts that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave of his sense of call was during the Montgomery Bus Boycotts of the mid 1950s. We look back on the boycott as one of the early victories of the Civil Rights Movement, and indeed, it was. But at the time, it was an exercise of endurance in the midst of increasingly hostile resistance that lasted over a year--far longer than any of the organizers had anticipated or planned for, including King. King was at the center of everything, dealing with police harassment, bomb threats at his home, logistical problems in getting people back and forth to work and growing fatigue among the boycotters. One particularly lonely night, he sat at his kitchen table, buried his face in his hands, and acknowledged to himself that he was afraid. He had nothing left, and he was afraid that the people would falter if they looked to him for strength. “I can’t face it alone,” he prayed. And as he spoke these words, he later recalled, his fears melted away. He heard an inner voice tell him to do what he thought was right. “Trust your instincts,” he heard God say. It was the first transcendent experience of his life, and it helped him to rise from the table and continue on the path that God had set before him. (Taylor Branch, Parting the Waters: American in the King Years, 1954-63. (NY, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1998).)
Other times, however, the call is to change course and go a different way. A classic biblical story of dramatic reversal is the conversion of Saul of Taurus, who afterwards assumed his Roman name, Paul. Saul, you may remember, was a Jewish leader who came to prominence by persecuting followers of Jesus after the resurrection. He was convinced that this Jesus movement was a serious threat to all that he and his people stood for, and he was determined to stop it by whatever means necessary. Until the call came to him on the Road to Damascus in the form of a blinding light and a voice that spoke, “Saul, why do you persecute me?” As a result of that call and all that happened afterwards, Saul’s like took the most dramatic turn possible and he became the one we know as St. Paul, the most influential apostle of the One whose movement he had originally intended to destroy.
The turn-around-and-go-in-a-different-direction type of call isn’t always as dramatic as that, but there’s no mistaking the shift for the one experiencing it. Notice how at the end of the passage describing the journey of the wise men they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod as they had been instructed, but to go home by another road--a subtle turn, to be sure, but unmistakable. Matthew’s gospel places the story of the wise men coming to Bethlehem in between accounts of Joseph’s call--the one who was to raise Jesus as his son.
You may remember that Joseph, when learning that Mary, to whom he was engaged, was pregnant, planned to break off the engagement, but then, in a dream he heard a call to take Mary as his wife and raise the child as his own. After the wise men left Bethlehem, Joseph was warned in a dream that the child was in danger, and so rather than stay in his homeland, he changed his life completely and took his young family away to live as refugees in Egypt.
I, personally, don’t have dreams like the ones described in Scripture, but sometimes a call comes to me in that quiet place inside that is often associated with intuition. It’s like a feeling, but stronger, with both an external and internal quality to it. Sometimes the call is to stay the course when I’m struggling. Other times it is to change direction and go by another road. And because clarity often eludes me at first, I find that I must listen and pay attention, take initial steps according to what bits of light I’m given.
Pope Francis describes the process of discerning call this way:
Prayerful discernment must be born out of a readiness to listen: to the Lord and to others, and to reality itself, which always challenges us in new ways. Only if we are prepared to listen, do we have the freedom to set aside our own partial or insufficient ideas, our usual habits and ways of seeing things. In this way, we become truly open to accepting a call that can shatter our security, but lead us to a better life. (Pope Francis, Rejoice and Be Glad: On the Call to Holiness in Today’s World (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2018), p.83.)
While it’s certainly to ignore or dismiss whatever it is Jesus may be inviting us to, in my experience, something in me dies when I don’t follow the star placed before me. I don’t know what it’s like for you, but I urge you to listen for the call, watch for the star, take whatever tentative steps you can toward a destiny that only God can see.
I have been your bishop since 2011. When I answered the call to this post, I believed that God was asking me to dedicate my life to the spiritual renewal and structural transformation of the Episcopal congregations under my care so that as many of them might not merely survive, but thrive in the new ministry context they find themselves in.
At first I went about that work with all the energy and commitment I had, alongside many others. After six years or so, I realized that while God was good all the time, grace abounds everywhere, and there were signs of vitality in many of our communities, nonetheless we were not making overall progress in terms of renewal and spiritual vitality. Our vision for ministry far exceeded our capacity to carry it out. I had the strong sense that if we continued on the path we were on, when I handed the crozier to the next bishop of this diocese, we would have fewer healthy, sustainable, growing congregations than when I received it.
I felt, as Pope Francis put it, that reality itself was challenging me, and all of us, to consider a different course--same vision, but a different course, and a different approach. So it was that we began a collective process of discernment and strategic planning, the results of which are now before us as a diocese and in 2020, we will enter an implementation phases.
The Rev. Peter Jarret Schell has been your rector since 2012. When you called him, you stated to the world on your website and parish profile that you were a legacy church, an historic African American congregation with a proud history of people who worked hard to serve Christ and their neighbors. You felt called, you wrote, to bring your legacy into the 21st century. The week prior to the service when we celebrated this new ministry relationship, Rev. Peter preached a sermon--one of his first here--in which he reflected on the story of King Solomon. After building a glorious Temple in Jerusalem, Solomon had a mystical experience that reminded him the world is God’s temple. Soloman realized that God didn’t need his Temple, anymore than God needs our shrines and altars and prayers and hymns, unless God chooses to use them to further God’s Mission.
Two years later, under the leadership of Rev. Peter and Rev. Gail Fisher Stuart, you undertook a comprehensive strategic planning process, which concluded with a long list of ambitious goals, all of which, I am persuaded, having read them again, are consistent with God’s vision for you in this place. Yet I wonder if this isn’t a time for you, as for me as your bishop, to ask if God is inviting you to find your way home, your way to the vision given you, by another road. Because if you continue on the path you are on, even with the vision and the good work you are about now, the congregation will be much, much weaker in just a few years than it is now.
I don’t pretend to know what that other road is, although I suspect some of you do. I have some sense of it in the context of the wider vision. I ask you to be brave, be discerning, and to continue in the collective discerning about God’s preferred future for Calvary and the Episcopal Church as a whole.
There is no question that the Jesus Movement is alive and well. The question for us is how are we being called as the Episcopal Church to be part of that movement. The call to us may bring peace; it may bring turmoil at first. But if it is of God, we can trust it. And what I promise is that I will be with you, as your bishop, as together we follow our star, listen for the call, and walk on the road set before us.
December 24, 2019
The angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people . . .'
In December, 1943, the German pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissent Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a letter to his parents from the prison cell where he had been detained since April of that year. The circumstances of his arrest were ambiguous at first, and he had held out hope that he would be released in time to celebrate Christmas with his family. But that was not to be, and so he wrote:
You must not think that I will let myself sink into depression during this lonely Christmas. It will take its own special place in a series of very different Christmases I have celebrated. I don’t need to tell you how great my longing for freedom and for all of you is. But you have for so many decades provided us with Christmases so incomparably beautiful, that the grateful memories of them are strong enough to outshine even a dark Christmas.
Hold that image for a moment: a man in prison, longing for freedom, wanting nothing more than to be with his family, nonetheless finding solace and grace in memories of past Christmases.
Bonhoeffer also wanted to assure his parents, sick with worry, that he was all right. He continued:
From a Christian point of view, a Christmas in a prison cell is no special problem. It will probably be celebrated here in this house more sincerely and with more meaning than outside where the holiday is observed in name only. That God turns directly toward the place where people are careful to turn away; that Christ was born in a stable because he found no room in the Inn—prisoners grasp that better than others. For them it is a joyous message. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas (Westminster Knox Press, 2010), p. 15)
Bonhoeffer wasn’t suggesting that it was better to celebrate Christmas in prison; simply that the meaning of Jesus’ birth holds true there, perhaps especially there.
Intuitively we know this to be true, that the ache in our hearts, even in the happiest years, is holy. Ours may be a personal grief, or an existential one that we can’t help but feel whenever we stand in the gap between the ways things are and our God-given hope for a more loving world. As right as we are to celebrate Christmas with as much joy we can muster, it is in longing and grief that God is most pleased to dwell. In the poignancy of memory and the persistence of hope, Christ comes.
Few stories have captured the human imagination as powerfully as those of Jesus’ birth. With a cast of characters that resonate across time and culture, they speak of God choosing to come among us in great humility, on the margins of society. Jesus comes, not lording his divine nature over us, but instead emptying himself of all privilege, taking on our human likeness. This self-emptying is God’s way of reaching us; and likewise, it is our way of welcoming Christ.
Christmas is more than a remembrance of Jesus’ birth. In the words of Joan Chittister, “Christmas is an awareness that grows in us . . . a consciousness of eternal life alive among us. Christmas is about finding life where we do not expect life to be, and a call to begin once more the journey to human joy and holy meaning.” (Joan Chittister, Until Christmas Again, December 23, 2019.)
I invite you this night to tenderly hold the place where Christ is pleased to dwell within you, the close and holy darkness where the light of Christ shines.
Now widen the circle in your mind’s eye to consider those whose lives touch yours. Offer to God this night your love for them and, at times, your struggle to love. Our closest relationships are rarely perfect, but they are where things get real. May we resolve tonight to love as best we can, and when we fail--as we will--to ask forgiveness quickly and make amends. It’s Christmas.
There was considerable talk in recent weeks about how painful family holiday gatherings can be, for they compel us, God forbid, to spend time with relatives whose opinions and politics differ from ours. But, friends, that’s hardly news. Eighty years ago, the poet W. H. Auden described Christmas as the time “when we attempt--quite unsuccessfully--to love all our relatives and, in general, grossly overestimate our powers.” (“For the Time Being” in W. H. Auden Collected Poems, Edward Mendelson, ed. (Vintage International ,1991), p. 399.)
Being stretched in love is a good thing, humbling though it may be. It’s how we learn to love as God loves, to show up as God shows up, to accept the messy imperfection that goes along with all that is good. Even in the happiest families, there is an emptiness, a gap between what we wish were true and who we are. Jesus is pleased to dwell in joys and contradiction of our imperfect lives.
Similarly, regarding our neighbors and fellow citizens: daily we’re reminded how divided we are from one another, polarized even, and in many ways that’s true. But equally true is our fatigue with that narrative and our desire to bridge the divide. Two years ago the renowned sociologist Brené Brown spoke from this pulpit of the importance of our relationships with strangers. One of the gifts of attending a church, she said, was the opportunity to sing with strangers.
A native of Houston, Brown described what happened during the catastrophic flooding of Hurricane Harvey, when over 30,000 people were displaced and as many as 17,000 needed to be evacuated from their homes. Neighbors helped their neighbors all over Houston, strangers helped strangers, without ever asking who they voted for in the 2016 election.
Jesus is pleased to dwell in the crucible of human need. He aches for us to move beyond the borders we erect and be present to one another, as He is present to us all, to love one another as God unconditionally loves us.
Now, asking our guests’ indulgence, I would like to speak briefly to those here who are committed followers of Jesus.
You don’t need me to tell you how fraught it us for us to speak and act publicly in His name. When we do, our words and deeds are invariably interpreted through the prism of other agendas, which is so unsettling that we’re tempted to speak only to those who share our perspectives or, worse, to say nothing at all.
No matter how lovely and sincere our worship, it is in the public arena where the integrity of our gospel witness is at stake. Yes, the risks are high, but it has always been so. Bonhoeffer, remember, was imprisioned for his refusal to support the Nazi party and condone the German Church for choosing silence and aquienecnese. Bonhoeffer knew what we forget at our peril: the Church is not a club with membership privileges; it is a movement of sacrificial love for the sake of the world. “God so loved the world that he gave his son. The angels spoke to the shepherds of good news of great joy for all people.”
Jesus wasn’t born only to be adored; only to be received, though this is where we begin. Jesus came into the world so that we might follow him in the way of love, showing up, as he always does, where love is most needed; offering compassion, as he does, where compassion is lacking, standing for justice, as he does, where there is none.
This would be an impossible task if it were up to us alone, but it’s not. The same Christ that comes to us in our innermost souls, pleased to dwell in our imperfect relationships, is most at home in this world where love is most needed.
It’s not up to us to save the world, anymore than we can save ourselves--that’s why Jesus came. Our task is to stand in that place of longing, need, injustice, and hope, look for the signs of God at work and amplify them by our presence and willingness to be instruments of grace.
We needn’t run from the things that scare us--in ourselves, our relationships, our communities, or our world. Christ is already there, already here, assuring us of God’s love, meeting us where we are, and inviting us to take our part in the breaking of good news of great joy for all people.
December 19, 2019
I am bringing you good news of great joy for all people...
My husband and I have a small collection of nativity scenes from around the world. What I love about them is how freely artisans depict the manger scene as if it took place in their country, with Mary and Joseph, the angels, shepherds and wise men looking just like them. Similarly, whenever we reenact the Christmas story in church--a tradition that goes back to the Middle Ages--we place ourselves into the story. All the biblical characters look like us.
The spiritual message is clear even for the youngest child: we place ourselves in Jesus’ story because he first places himself in ours. In Jesus, God enters the story of humankind, bringing good news of great joy for all people. In Jesus, God enters your story and mine. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.
We all approach Christmas with different feelings. The world doesn’t stop for Christmas, as much as we wish it would. Yet we all make whatever room we can. “The world Christ comes to save,” preached Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was martyred for his resistance to Nazism, “is our fallen and lost world. No other.”
Everywhere I go, I see people like you making an extra effort so that others might experience something of God’s love--through beautiful worship, festive celebrations, thoughtful gift-giving, and sacrificial generosity. I see you taking your place in Jesus’ story, showing up, as Jesus does, where love is needed. Thank you. You are my inspiration as I strive to do the same.
This Christmas may you experience the gift of God coming to you, in your story, wherever you need love most.
December 12, 2019
Do not be afraid: for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy . . .
Advent is a good time to ponder the distinction between happiness and joy. They share common ground, and much in life can bring us both happiness and joy, yet they are not the same. For while happiness eludes us in times of struggle and suffering, we can experience, even when our hearts are breaking, moments of joy.
Happiness, in the words of our nation's founding fathers, can be pursued. The pursuit of happiness is the fulfillment of desire. Happiness is also deeply subjective, for each person has a different definition of happiness and therefore a unique path of pursuit. There is a limitation to happiness, dependent as it is upon external circumstances and subjective experience.
One of the most liberating insights of my life, that I must relearn over and over again, is that it is impossible to make other people happy. We can strive to bring happiness to others, based on what we know about them, but we can’t control their response. It's also sobering to realize how our definitions of happiness are influenced--some would say controlled--by what we see around us. We can never be happy in a perpetual state of want.
Joy, on the other hand, goes deeper within us than happiness can reach, into the realm of meaning. Joy doesn’t depend on external circumstances or good fortune, nor is it something that we can pursue. Joy comes to us, often in unlikely times and places. "Happiness," writes the spiritual author Frederick Buechner, "turns up more or less where you'd expect it to--a good marriage, a rewarding job, a pleasant vacation. Joy, on the other hand, is as notoriously unpredictable as the One who bequeaths it.” One would expect joy at a wedding; but it can be equally palpable at a funeral. One would hope for joy on the perfect Christmas morning. Yet it can also come to us in the loneliness of imperfection, when nothing turned out the way we hoped it would, after an argument, and in a hospital bed, even in a jail cell. Joy is a gift that God gives, and with it a deep sense of being at home in an all too imperfect world.
The Scriptures often speak of being filled with joy, or of joy breaking forth, descending upon those who live in darkness or fear. Not only does joy come to the unexpecting, but also to the undeserving. What’s striking about these passages is that they often speak of a joy that is beyond anyone’s capacity to pursue or accomplish. More often than not, they point to a promise of joy yet to be fulfilled. Somehow, the seeds of joy can take root in us long before there is anything to be happy about. The promise of joy is often joy enough.
I wish happiness for all of you and your loved ones. But this may or may not be a happy Christmas, depending on circumstances beyond our control. Whether it will be a joyful Christmas depends not on our pursuit, but rather upon our openness to receive. For what God gives can come in the loneliest hour and the darkest night. "Weeping may spend the night," the psalmist wrote, "but joy comes in the morning." Joy comes in happiness or sorrow, calm or chaos--it doesn’t matter. For it is God's doing, God coming to us as we are, in the world as it is, with an assurance of deep meaning and the promise of joy.
December 05, 2019
Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
This month in daily prayer I am using the devotional guide: Living Well Through Advent: Practicing Peace with All your Heart, Soul, Mind and Strength. The call to practice suggests that we aren’t always good at peace-making or even for those who are, with practice comes greater mastery. Like playing scales on a musical instrument, there are building blocks for peacemaking, and levels of peacefulness we can only attain through our practice.
Several of the entries in Living Well Through Advent suggest specific ways to practice peace: deepening our understanding of peace, moving beyond the mere absence of conflict, taking risks outside our comfort zones, and cultivating a spirit of gratitude. I have good soul work to do in all these areas, and more.
Yet I also know that the peace of God that surpasses human understanding isn’t something I accomplish through practice. It comes as grace, and my practice is to ask and then to wait for whatever comes. I need that grace, especially when I cannot change the circumstances of my life, or do not see the way forward. I wait for what God alone can do.
In the reflection for December 1, entitled “Peace Like a River,” the Rev. Laurie Brock reminds us that rivers can be both calm and turbulent: “Rivers move and twist at their rate, carving out paths for millions of years in their changes and shifts. Their waters are red, muddy and clear, sometimes all in the same river.” I often feel like that river--muddy and clear at the same time, grateful for the gifts of peace when they come and and accepting the mud as the raw materials of life.
With acceptance, however, comes a different sort of peace. Joan Chittister writes, “There is a light in us that only darkness itself can illuminate. It is the flowing calm that comes over us when we finally surrender to the truth of creation; that there is a God and we are not it. . .Then the clarity of it all is startling. Life is not about us; we are about the project of finding Life. At that moment spiritual vision illuminates all the rest of life. It is that light that shines in darkness.” (Joan Chittister, Between the Dark and the Daylight: Embracing the Contradictions of Life (Image: 2015), 19-20.)
Sometimes I feel anything but peaceful in my time of prayer, and the turbulence inside is my offering. It helps to name it, and then let it be, while I pray for the peace surpassing human understanding.