Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Musical Interlude with Ben Harper: "Don't Give Up On Me Now"

Time it opens all wounds
And trust gonna put me in the tomb
The world isn't mine
The world isn't mine to save
I can't afford to lose
What you easily throw away

And I don't even know myself
What it would take to know myself
I need to change I don't know how
Don't give up on me now

It's not what we do
It's what we do with what we feel
Takes all you have to stare him down
And whisper "Devil, no deal"
I don't want to fight
Don't want to fight my father's war
You can wait your whole life
Not knowing what you're waiting for

And I don't even know myself
What it would take to know myself
I need to change I don't know how
Don't give up on me now

Lyrics source and credits

Monday, February 27, 2012

George Herbert: Of a Pastor

"A pastor is the Deputy of Christ for the reducing of Man to the Obedience of God. This definition is evident, and contains the direct steps of Pastoral Duty and Authority. For first, Man fell from God by disobedience. Secondly, Christ is the glorious instrument of God for the revoking of Man. Thirdly, Christ being not to continue on earth, but after he had fulfilled the work of Reconciliation, to be received up into heaven, he constituted Deputies in his place, and these are Priests. And therefore Saint Paul in the beginning of his Epistles, professeth this: and in the first to the Colossians plainly avoucheth, that he fills up that which is behind of the afflictions of Christ in his flesh, for his Body's sake, which is the Church. Wherein is contained the complete definition of a Minister. Out of this Charter of the Priesthood may be plainly gathered both the Dignity thereof, and the Duty: The Dignity, in that a Priest may do that which Christ did, and by his authority, and as his Vicegerent. The Duty, in that a Priest is to do that which Christ did, and after his manner, both for Doctrine and Life."

Friday, February 24, 2012

Reservations about "Ashes to Go"

Last year I posted some thoughts in response to Episcopalians taking the Ash Wednesday imposition of ashes to the streets of San Francisco. I noted that there is something moving and even courageous about Episcopalians leaving the relative safety of church buildings to go out into the streets. But I also shared some of the things I found troubling:

Taking the imposition of ashes out of a liturgical context that includes scripture readings, the invitation to a holy Lent, and the litany of penitence, there is no insistence on the reality of sin or any call to repentance. ... To be sure, this confronts people with their mortality. But it leaves out Ash Wednesday's pointed emphasis on sin and repentance, as well as the liturgy's emphasis on God's desire that sinners "may turn from their wickedness and live" (The Book of Common Prayer, p. 269). ... Ironically, without the Ash Wednesday liturgy, the imposition of ashes becomes a kind of implicit affirmation of persons as they are.

Since that time, the idea of "Ashes to Go" seems to have become more popular. I've recently seen a lot of talk about it on Facebook, and I'm aware of several churches around the country that did it this past Ash Wednesday (including an Episcopal Church here in Jackson, MS). But I still have reservations about it.

In a blog posting entitled "Ashes-to-Go: A Salvation that Remains," Fr. Robert Hendrickson shares his own reservations about this practice in ways that resonate for me. He writes:

My concern about Ashes-to-Go is that it sits apart from the fullness of the Christian message of new life and reconciliation with God and one another. Those receiving ashes hear and receive only one part of the message – they are marked with the sign of sin and death without its being situated within the context of the pledge of our redemption. The sign seems ill administered without the Sacrament.

It becomes a reminder of only one part of the Christian story. Moreover, it is a quick reminder of a much deeper process and imparts upon the reception a singular and momentary quality that invites one to a speedy Lent rather than a fuller examination of conscience and amendment of life.

The Prayer Book continues, “And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.” Ash Wednesday is the beginning of the work of Lent and is meant to initiate a deep engagement with the self, the other, and God. We hear in the liturgy that, “it is only by your gracious gift that we are given everlasting life.” Ashes-to-Go does not offer the chance to situate our repentance within the grace of Christ’s great gift.

It is as if we were to only say “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me” from Psalm 51 without hearing “Give me the joy of your saving help again and sustain me with your bountiful Spirit.” Within the fullness of the liturgy we are able to say, with confidence, “Deliver me from death, O God, and my tongue shall sing of your righteousness, O God of my salvation.” For we hear of the rest of the story – that God’s saving action will never let dust, ashes, sin, or death be our end. Ashes-to-Go ends the story entirely too quickly for we do not hear and know the assurance that “He pardons and absolves all those who truly repent, and with sincere hearts believe his holy Gospel.”

I worry that we are sharing only the mark of our separation from God rather than our conviction that God dwells ever with us and that this very dust that we are may be hallowed, sanctified, blessed, and even assumed. This reconciliation of ourselves to God brings with it the welcome to live in the fullness of the Christian life. We are given the hope that “being reconciled with one another,” we may “come to the banquet of that most heavenly Food” and receive all of the benefits of Christ’s Passion and Resurrection. Ash Wednesday is not about our sins alone but about our life in and with the Triune God who calls us into true life – a life free of the mark of death.

This simply cannot be communicated in a drive-by encounter. The sign of death is decisively stripped away in the Sacrament – it is that encounter with the Christ made known in the Body at the Altar and in the Church that is the point of Lent as we are brought into Communion and community.

My worry about Ashes-to-Go is that it reinforces the privatized spirituality that plagues much of the Church. “I” do not get ashes. “We” get ashes so that we may know ourselves, as a Body, to be marked for a moment but saved, together, forever. ...

On the plus side, I think it is absolutely vital for the Church to find ways to engage the changing world. This may be one such way – yet I cannot quite get comfortable with it. I am increasingly leery of the Church’s desire to find ways to make the work of the Christian life easier or faster – especially as it pertains to this most sombre and needful of seasons.

Read it all.

When we impose ashes with the words prescribed by the Prayer Book ("Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return"), the message we give each person who receives them is: "Remember that you are going to die." Isolated from the context of the Ash Wednesday liturgy - which includes the call to repentance, a stress on God's desire that sinners "may turn from their wickedness and live," the reminder that "it is only by [God's] gracious gift that we are given everlasting life," and the Holy Eucharist's affirmation that "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again" - the message "Remember that you are going to die" is very bad news!

Perhaps there are ways to take the imposition of ashes to the streets that include the fullness of the Gospel message. If so, it may be worth exploring. That's another point on which I agree with Fr. Robert: we need to find creative, faithful ways to do church in an increasingly post-Christian context.

But if we're talking about isolating the imposition of ashes from the liturgy and from communal support and accountability ("drive-by ashing"), then we may fail to communicate the Gospel in its fullness. Indeed, we may fail to communicate the Gospel at all. However, when it comes to faithfully living our Baptismal Covenant promise to proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ, we cannot afford to "half ash" it!

Be sure to not miss the reflections on all of this at Catholicity and Covenant's posting entitled "Left as consumers?"

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Ash Wednesday Sermon 2012

[Listen to the sermon here.]

“Rend your hearts and not your clothing. Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing” (Joel 2:13).

Those ancient words from the prophet Joel go to the heart of the reason why we gather on Ash Wednesday. And that reason can be summed up in one word: repentance.

Repentance. That’s a word that may make some of us nervous. Perhaps it conjures up images of televangelists or street preachers hammering home fiery messages of condemnation while wielding big black Bibles. Talk of repentance may evoke feelings of guilt or shame. And we may wonder why anything like repentance is necessary in the first place. After all, doesn’t Jesus love us just the way we are?

And yet, it is Jesus himself who stresses the need for repentance. In his first appearance in the first of the Gospels, his first proclamation includes the exhortation: “Repent.” And the call to repentance remains central to his message thereafter.

Ash Wednesday confronts us with the stark truth we may try to whitewash or deny: that we are sinners who need to repent of our sins. Beneath the surface of the image of having it all together we project out into the world, we are desperate cases. We have a problem that no amount of education, therapy, or will power can eradicate, a predisposition to seek our own wills rather than the will of God, even when doing so causes pain and grief to ourselves and others. It’s a sickness unto death that goes to the very core of our being, distorting and at times severing relationships with God, with other people, even with all of creation. Again and again, we fail to do the good we know we should by falling back into the very patterns of thinking and behaving we know we should reject. And we are powerless to cure ourselves.

The call to repent is a call to healing. And the first step on the journey of healing is to take a hard look at the sin sickness that infects our hearts. The “Litany of Penitence” we will shortly pray serves as a mirror in which we can really see this truth about ourselves. It’s not a pretty picture. It shows us just how much cleansing and healing needs to happen.

That’s not about piling on guilt and shame. That’s about right diagnosis. For without the right diagnosis – without a true account of our condition in the presence of the One before whom all hearts are open, all desires known, and from whom no secrets are hid – we can’t take even the first step back home to God.

It’s only after seeing our true condition for what it really is – and just how deeply each one of us needs the healing of God’s grace – that repentance comes in. For repentance is about acknowledging the reality of the sickness that infects our hearts. It’s about admitting that we need change and transformation. Repentance is about turning away from paths that lead to death back to the way of life. It’s about forsaking self-destructive habits and behaviors. It’s about letting go of the futility and despair of trying to fill the emptiness of our lives with money, pleasure, power, or “getting it right.” And it’s an admission that we are not self-sufficient, that we can’t do any of this by our own strength, that we cannot cure ourselves.

We need help. We need someone we can completely trust to direct our lives along the paths of wholeness and righteousness. We need someone who sees inside our hearts, someone who knows the truth about who we really are and yet doesn’t turn away, someone who loves us so much that He’s willing to give his life that we may live, someone who has the power to touch, cleanse, and heal us.

We need a Divine Physician.

We need a Savior.

We need Jesus.

My friends, the season of Lent is about going back home to a gracious and merciful God. But in order to get there, we first have to come to terms with the path that takes us back to the Father’s house. That path is the way of repentance – the way of honestly admitting our sin sickness and turning our lives over completely to the One who alone has the power to heal us. That One is Jesus Christ.

To paraphrase St. Bernard of Clairvaux, Jesus is the physician who comes to the sick. He is the redeemer to those who have been sold, a path to wanderers, and life to the dead. Jesus is the One who casts all of our sins into the depths of the sea and who heals our diseases. And when our strength fails and we cannot carry on, Jesus is the One who carries us on his shoulders back to the source of our original worth.

During this season of Lent, may each of us encounter Jesus anew. May his healing love, mercy, and grace empower us to do the work of repentance. And as we make the journey back home, may our Lord set free us from the bondage of our sins, creating clean hearts and renewing right spirits within us, that we may come to know the joys of new and abundant life.

Reading the Bible with the Bishop During Lent

My bishop, the Rt. Rev. Duncan M. Gray III, has invited our diocese to join him in reading through the four Gospels during Lent. According to Bishop Gray: "This Bible reading initiative, begun at Fort Washington, Pennsylvania and endorsed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, our Presiding Bishop and other archbishops and bishops from around the Anglican Communion, is an effort to invite serious and rigorous reading of scripture." The reading is designed to be more reflective than a traditional Bible study, much like the process lectio divina or holy reading. Perhaps once a week or so, those who are joining the bishop in this endeavor will receive via e-mail a reflection from him on what we've been reading. He modeled what that will look like at our recent annual Diocesan Council meeting, and it was very insightful and contemplative.

As part of my Lenten discipline, I have accepted Bishop Gray's invitation (the reading schedule is available here). We started today with the first chapter of Mark. I am using the Orthodox Study Bible (which includes the New King James Version, as well as notes, commentary from the Church Fathers, and beautiful icons).

Reading through Mark 1 this morning, I was struck by some of the Orthodox Study Bible notes. For instance, here is Mark 1:35-38:

Now in the morning, having risen a long while before daylight, He went out and departed to a solitary place; and there He prayed. And Simon and those who were with Him searched for Him. When they found Him, they said to Him, "Everyone is looking for You." But He said to them, "Let us go into the next towns, that I may preach there also, because for this purpose I have come forth."

Here's the study Bible's notes on these verses:

Mark is the only Gospel which gives us a full 24-hour day in Jesus' life, a day built around prayer and ministry. Jesus is the model for both, and He does not separate them. Jesus' priority is prayer to His Father: prayer before service. He goes to a solitary place (v. 35) to be free from distraction, despite the multitudes' need of Him. His ministry come out of His relationship with His Father, not foremost out of people's need. Here He moves along to the next towns (v. 38). He knows His task, and performs it although the crowds clamor around Him.

Holding up the vital importance of "prayer before service" and grounding ministry in relationship with God rather than in people's needs are two things I do well to consciously address during this season of Lent.

I'm also struck by the Orthodox Study Bible's notes on verses 40-45 (the cleansing of a leper). There we read:

As the dialogue between the leper and Jesus demonstrates, Jesus heals from compassion - not from duty or a need to prove Himself, or in order to gather a following. Jesus' authority is comprehensive: (1) in teaching, (2) over demons (vv. 21-28), and (3) over sickness - powerful testimony to His divinity.

This expands and deepens the focus on grounding ministry in prayer and relationship with God by rooting it firmly in selfless compassion rather than (conscious or unconscious) attempts to meet self-centered needs. And this model for ministry is itself grounded in the example and authority of One who is not merely human, but also fully divine.

None of this, of course, is totally new to me. But it's precisely because it is so basic and, in the busyness of everyday life and ministry, so easy to neglect, that it needs to be highlighted again and again. I'm grateful that, taking on the bishop's invitation by using the Orthodox Study Bible, that reminder has come to my attention on the very first day of Lent.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Ash Wednesday and Lent in Two Minutes

I don't care for the music, but otherwise the following video is helpful. Here's the description:

A brief kinetic type video explaining the what and why of Ash Wednesday and Lent, from the history of wearing ashes dating back to the Old Testament, to the practices of Catholics and [other] Christians during Lent. (from the editors at

Lent blessings to you all!

Friday, February 17, 2012

E. B. Pusey: "We Have Need of Patience"

"We have need of patience with ourselves and with others; with those below, and with those above us, and with our own equals; with those who love us and those who love us not; for the greatest things and for the least; against sudden inroads of trouble, and under daily burdens; disappointments as to the weather, or the breaking of the heart; in the weariness of the body, or the wearing of the soul; in our own failure of duty, or others' failure toward us; in everyday wants, or in the aching of sickness or the decay of old age; in disappointment, bereavement, losses, injuries, reproaches; in heaviness of heart; or its sickness amid delayed hopes. In all these things, from childhood's little troubles to the martyr's sufferings, patience is the grace of God, whereby we endure evil for the love of God."

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

At the Heart of a Classically Anglican Christian Faith

A posting by Fr. Jonathan at The Conciliar Anglican entitled "A Checklist for Finding a Classically Anglican Parish" recently caught my eye. In it, Fr. Jonathan suggests several important questions for an inquirer to ask the rector of a parish as part of the process of discerning whether or not the parish in question is, in fact, "classically Anglican."

Here's the first question Fr. Jonathan suggests asking:

Do you believe that Jesus Christ physically rose from the dead and that it’s only through faith in Him that our sins are forgiven and we come to be saved?

Fr. Jonathan's explanation for putting this question front and center hits the nail on the head:

It is appalling that we live in an age when we cannot take the answer to this question for granted, but there we are. If the answer to this is anything other than an unqualified “yes,” turn around and walk right back out the door. This is a good question to ask because it saves you time on having to ask a whole bunch of other questions about the creeds, the scriptures, etc. If the answer to this question is yes, you can be pretty well assured that the answers to all those other questions will be the right ones.

God was uniquely present in Jesus. And the bodily resurrection of Jesus from the dead is the central miracle of the Christian faith, the chief premise of Christian teaching, and the foundation event for the entire Christian religion. Everything hinges on the resurrection.

So Fr. Jonathan is right: the uniqueness of Jesus and the reality of his bodily resurrection lie at the heart of a classically Anglican understanding of the Christian faith. And so failure to affirm the uniqueness of Jesus as the Savior and his bodily resurrection from the dead signifies a departure from "classical Anglicanism." Even more, it signals a departure from the Christian faith itself.

From time to time, I hear persons in the Church (lay and ordained) suggest or outright state that such things don't really matter. They say that it's doing the Church's mission a la Matthew 25:31-46 and faithfully living the last two questions of promise in the Baptismal Covenant that are really important. As long as we can agree on that, we can disagree on things like the Person and Work of Jesus and still call ourselves "Christian."

What a sad state of affairs!

Speaking of our Lord's resurrection, check out N. T. Wright's paper recently delivered to the Conference of Italian Bishops entitled "Christ is Risen from the Dead, the First Fruits of Those who have Died."

Friday, February 10, 2012

Jesus Brings Back the Beauty of God to the World

Reading through the Gospel according to Mark in the Sunday and Daily Eucharistic Lectionaries, I'm struck by Mark's vision of a world enslaved to the powers of darkness, disease, demons, and death. Jesus shows up in this world proclaiming the good news that God's kingdom has come near. But Jesus doesn't just deliver a sermon. He demonstrates by word and deed the truth of that message by directly confronting and defeating the powers that enslave people.

It happened again in the Gospel reading assigned for today's Eucharist:

Then Jesus returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, ‘Ephphatha’, that is, ‘Be opened.’ And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly. Then Jesus ordered them to tell no one; but the more he ordered them, the more zealously they proclaimed it. They were astounded beyond measure, saying, ‘He has done everything well; he even makes the deaf to hear and the mute to speak.’ (Mark 7:31-37)

In this instance, I'm struck by the intimacy of Jesus' encounter with the deaf-mute and by how, respecting this man's dignity, he leads him away from the crowd into a private place for healing. Jesus will not put on a show for the crowd's pleasure, and certainly not at this poor man's expense!

In The Gospel of Mark, William Barclay makes an observation about the end of this passage that's worth quoting:

When [the healing of the deaf-mute] was completed the people declared that he had done all things well. That is none other than the verdict of God upon his own creation (Genesis 1:31). When Jesus came, bringing healing to men's bodies and salvation to their souls, he had begun the work of creation all over again. In the beginning everything had been good; man's sin had spoiled it all; and now Jesus was bringing back the beauty of God to the world which man's sin had rendered ugly.

Jesus brings back the beauty of God to the world rendered ugly by human sin. Jesus brings back the health and wholeness of God to the world rendered sick and broken by human sin. Jesus brings back the love of God to the world filled with malice and hatred by human sin. Jesus brings back the justice of God to the world that favors the rich and powerful at the expense of the poor, the weak, and the vulnerable.

There are many different angles of approach and emphasis, but it's all Good News. And it takes concrete embodiment in the Person and Work of Jesus.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Responding to Grim News about the Episcopal Church

More bad news for the Episcopal Church, this time from Kirk Hadaway and Matthew Price's January 27 briefing to the Executive Council. Here is one particularly revealing part of the report (h/t to Kendall Harmon):

To get a broad-based sense of congregational vitality, we have used a number of measurements including church school enrollment, marriages, funerals, child baptisms, adult baptisms, and confirmations. These speak to a parish's integration in the community and the possibility for future growth:

Change in church school enrollment: -33%
Change in number of marriages performed: -41%
Change in number of burials/funerals: -21%
Change in the number of child baptisms: -36%
Change in the number of adult baptisms: -40%
Change in the number of confirmations: -32%

While these numbers may not capture the totality of what is happening in the Church, we do not have a measure that is moving in a positive direction.

I wonder if any of this will come up at this summer's General Convention. As I recall, there was similar sobering content in the report from the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church submitted to General Convention in 2009. But unless I missed it, I don't recall any serious public comment about it.

Responding to these depressing statistics, Fr. Tony Clavier offers insightful thoughts:

No doubt our loss of parishioners – I dislike the word “member” – has been compounded by the desertion of so many since 2003 and the ensuing law suits. However what seems clear is that the greater problem is our inability to retain younger people or to seem to offer a faith which inspires people who believe in growing numbers that what we offer in our parishes has not a thing to do with what they believe to be the reality of daily living. We have become victims of the culture wars which divide Americans and we don’t seem to speak to those who want something more than a ritual affirmation of their political views. ...

In the 19th Century, at least in Britain and the US, we lost working women and men because we wrapped ourselves in the culture of affluence, ‘conservatives at prayer’. We were the church of the wealthy and the upper classes, the people who built or adorned most of our church buildings and paid the rector. Nowadays we appeal to upper middle class intellectuals and where these people are in short supply, in cities and towns where the businesses run by such people have evaporated and where their proprietors have gone elsewhere – to the sun – a dwindling, graying minority struggle to keep the roof on crumbling piles and meet the significantly growing cost of paying a priest.

Around our buildings, or on the edges of communities now distanced from our buildings are a new constituency, made up not of unchurched families, but of no-churched families, a generation or more from the their ancestors who filled our buildings and regarded them as significant centers of their lives and devotion. The burning question is just how we frame our ministry, lay and ordained, to contact this pool of people to whom the Faith is as mysterious as the goings on in a masonic lodge. We continue to try to attract by our causes people who look with growing distrust to politicians and political parties. What we don’t seem to offer is a faith which changes lives and gives them the strength to navigate the bewildering complexities of modern life. Christian faith has much to say about relationships, how to raise children, how to cope with tragedy, how to minister to the poor and those made victims of unemployment and financial disaster. That Gospel begins with introducing people to God, the relevance of Jesus and the life of the Spirit.

Christian Faith presents the Way through the complicated reality of daily living and yes daily dying. Our Prayer Book wondrously supplies that Way within the community of those called out by God to herald the Kingdom and winsomely demonstrate God’s compassion and purpose. Yet we seem to be offering the stone of adequate governance rather than the Bread of Life.

In the midst of church decline, the following practices strike me as at the core of a much-needed approach to evangelism and formation that can offer the Bread of Life:

  • Returning to our roots and rediscovering how the ancient wisdom of the Christian faith applies to our world today.
  • Emphasizing all of the Baptismal Covenant (and not just the last two questions of promise).
  • Reaffirming a non-negotiable commitment to (in the words of Derek Olsen) "the spiritual system of our Book of Common Prayer," "the common prayers agreed upon there," and "the structure of the church that we have received."
  • Engaging the world by feeding the hungry, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and those in prison.
  • And of absolutely central importance: teaching and preaching the Person and Work of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior without shame or apology.

Doing all of this things may not fit the "progressive" agenda. They won't necessarily insure that our pews and coffers overflow. But these practices represent authentic Anglican Christianity that is faithful to the Gospel. And I believe that such authenticity and faithfulness will speak to the hearts of those who hunger for the abundant life that only Jesus Christ can give.

ADDENDUM - Check out what Tune: Kings Lynn offers in info and analysis on all of this in a posting entitled "Statistical Day of Reckoning."