Saturday, June 25, 2011

Summer Reading

For the first time in a few years I have the time and the mental/emotional capacity to read whatever I want to read … I’d almost forgotten the joys of pleasure reading.  So, I thought I’d share what I’ve read so far in case you are looking for some suggestions.  Yes, some of them are theology related but they are still books I chose for my own interest, not because it was an assignment or research for a paper.  It makes a difference, really! 

Relic by Douglas Preston and Lincoln Child
This one has been around a while, published in 1995, the first of a line of their Pendergast Mysteries.  A well written mystery and since it is a mystery, I don’t want to give away any of the details but if you like mysteries I do recommend it and I plan on reading the others in the series.  It’s an excellent book for sitting on the back porch with your favorite beverage.  The plot line and characters hold your interest and there are enough surprises along the way to keep it from being predictable. 

Angry Conversations with God by Susan Isaacs
This is a laugh out loud book (I had to stop reading it in a coffee shop because I kept laughing and people would shoot me not-so-nice looks).  Yes, it is theology related but with a twist.  The subtitle for the book is “A Snarky but Authentic Spiritual Memoir”.  Susan, in a time when she was feeling abandoned by God has a friend tell her that our relationship with God is like a marriage.  Susan’s response is that if that is the case, she and God need marriage counseling.  What follows is a witty, touching, and very real dialogue between Susan, God, Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and their counselor.  EXCELLENT! 

Angelology by Danielle Trussoni
I love books that can take an obscure verse from the Bible and create a story around it!  This one uses Genesis 6:4 – the nephilim, the race created when angels and human women bore children.  Again, it’s a mystery and I don’t want to give away the details.  It seemed to have a slow start but really picked up after the first couple of chapters and became a real page turner!  There is enough historical stuff mixed in that you really begin to wonder if this could all be true.  Nicely developed characters and interesting twists … and the ending … OH, the ending!  You really should read this one.  You’ll be glad you did. 

Love Wins by Rob Bell
Everyone needs to read this book – whether you are a Christian or not, whether you listen to the book reviews that said Bell is a heretic or not.  Bell doesn’t give anything new – a fact he admits in the introduction.  I saw C.S. Lewis, Henri Nouwen, and N.T. Wright in this book (thoughts confirmed when I got to the end and looked over his “Further Reading” recommendations).  He doesn’t say there is no Hell; he believes Hell to be very real.  He doesn’t say that everyone, no matter what, will go to Heaven; there will be people who no matter how many chances they are given cannot accept or face the enormity of God’s love.  What he does say is that God’s love is what the Gospel is all about.  Read the book – you won’t regret for a second that you did.  In fact, it may change your life. 

If you do read any of these I’d love to hear your thoughts on them!  Thanks for letting me share the joy I find in reading with you.

God’s peace,

Monday, June 20, 2011

The Language of God

Sermon #2: 

Day of Pentecost
June 12, 2011
St. Thomas Episcopal Church

Numbers 11:24-30
Acts 2:1-21
John 20:19-23
Psalm 104:25-35, 37

I’ve always been fascinated with people who can speak multiple languages.  I cannot.  I’ve tried Spanish, French, and Bosnian and each time it is a great struggle for me.  I never got much beyond counting, basic greetings and courtesy phrases, and a few nouns, food mostly.  But I love to listen to other people speak foreign languages, to listen and watch for any clue as to what is being said by tone, facial expression, and gestures and I get quite excited when I catch the occasional recognizable word. 

There is a Greek Orthodox Church in Toronto that I’ve been to a few times – it’s a beautiful place.  The interior is completely covered with icons telling Bible stories and depicting various Church Fathers and Saints.  Looking up into the dome you see the most wonderful icon of Jesus on his throne, larger than life yet at the same time not anywhere near big enough.  The priest, Father Stavros, is fluent in English, Greek, and Iconography.  He gave me and some of my classmates a “tour” one day of the icons, interpreting their language to us, teaching us how to understand the message of faith and belief that they convey without any words – every detail has meaning, the posture and hand position of the person represented, the items they are holding, the placement of objects and people in the scenes, the intentional distortion of certain human features.  One of my classmates and I attended a service there during Lent.  It was of course, in Greek.  But the flow of the service was familiar enough to what we know as Anglicans that for the most part we knew what was going on even if we couldn’t understand all of the words.  As we were listening to the clergy, the cantor, and the congregation speaking, singing and responding to each other, I could have sworn that all of the sudden I heard one sentence spoken by the priest in English and as he uttered it I remember wondering, wow, have I been listening so intently that I can now understand Greek?  A few minutes later, I thought I heard English again, just a single sentence and then back to Greek.  And then a third time.  I thought: “this must be what Pentecost was like!”  When the service was over and we were walking home, I asked my friend, somewhat hesitantly “did you hear any part of the service in English?”  He admitted he did too and we concluded that for whatever reason, the priest had spoken a few sentences in English and that we hadn’t really understood the Greek, but it didn’t stop us from feeling like we’d been given a glimpse of what the disciples must have felt that day in Jerusalem as they received through the Holy Spirit what they needed to speak the Language of God to all people. 

But, what is the language of God?  Dr. Francis Collins, head of the human genome project said he felt he could glimpse the Language of God in the coding of human DNA; some people believe that we can hear God’s voice in all of his creation; Some believe that can happen only in a church; St. Benedict would say that God can be heard in even the most mundane of tasks.  God’s word is creational, He spoke creation into being; He spoke and Sarah conceived Isaac; He spoke and rescued the Israelites from slavery in Egypt; He gave his word to Moses and the prophets of Israel; He sent his Word, His son Jesus into the human race to teach us his language so that we can not only speak it to the world around us but so that we can hear it all around us.  

We celebrate the Day of Pentecost every year to remind us that it is through the gift of the Holy Spirit that we are both enabled to hear the language of God and to speak it.  The Spirit entered the room where the disciples waited as a wind that filled not only the room, it filled each of the disciples as well.  In his gospel, John describes Jesus breathing on the disciples as the Spirit filled them.  The Greek word John uses is the same word that is used in the Greek translation of Genesis 2 when God forms the first man from the dust of the earth and breathes life into him.  The language of God, through the breath of the Spirit, re-created, transformed the disciples to the enfleshed Word of God.  God’s language creates and transforms all who hear it.  His Word requires some sort of response from everyone.  God’s language is word and action as the same time. 

For most of us, it is in Church that we first learn to hear the language of God, through Bible study and through participation in worship.  Just as every detail of the iconography of the Greek Orthodox church has meaning, so does every detail of the Eucharist service that we participate in.  When we open ourselves to recognizing God’s language in more than just words, we hear him not only in the reading and proclamation of His Holy Word but also in the passing of the peace, in the actions of the Eucharist, and in the faces of everyone we encounter both in this place and outside those doors. 

Jesus didn’t just fill the room with the Spirit, he filled the disciples.  He didn’t tell them they could only experience the Spirit in the upper room.  He told them “as the Father sent me, so I send you.”  The Spirit filled the disciples; it fills US, so that it is as much a part of us as our very breath, so that we carry it with us, so that with every breath we can be aware that we share the Spirit of God not only in our words but in who we are.  We don’t have to think about breathing, for most of us it just happens.  When we intentionally think of our breathing, we also become aware bit by bit of what is going on with the rest of our being as well.  That is why meditation and centering prayer begin with breathing. 

So what would happen if we intentionally tried to think to ourselves “how am I experiencing the Spirit of God in this time and this place?  Am I intentionally listening for the Language of God in myself and others?”

How many of you noticed the mints in the pews when you came in?  What did you think when you saw them?  Did you think perhaps the VBS kids left a mess?  Did you wonder who left them?  Did you think of Bill Traylor?  Did you think of them as a gift?  Or did you just move them out of the way?  I always considered these mints to be part of the Language of God that our friend Bill was so fluent in, little symbols of the way he cared for each human he encountered as if they were Christ himself.  And, yes, they are red, and yes, when you put one in your mouth, you feel a fire in your breath.  What better illustration for Pentecost and the fire and breath of the Holy Spirit?

God speaks through wind and fire and in stillness and quiet.  He speaks within these walls and in the world outside.  He speaks in joyous times and painful times.  God speaks and the world IS, we ARE.  Our task, yours and mine, is to intentionally listen so that we are transformed by His language so that our very lives interpret who He is to the world. 


Troubled Hearts

My first sermon for this summer:  

May 22, 2011
St. Thomas Episcopal Church, San Antonio
Fifth Sunday of Easter

Acts 7:55-60
Psalm 31:1-5, 15-16
1 Peter 2:2-10
John 14:1-14

“Do not let your hearts be troubled.”  These are words that ring true to all of us.  It is something everyone knows about.  We live in a world of troubled hearts – economic troubles, natural disasters, political corruption, family issues, job issues, relationship problems … the list could go on and on.  The world has a troubled heart and there are many, many solutions given to settle our hearts.  If we own the right house, or the right clothes, drive the right car, get that better job, buy the right beauty products, drink the right coffee, if we can destroy those groups who make us feel threatened or if we could change, by force if necessary, those who don’t meet our standards.  If we satisfy our every longing or do away with those things that cause trouble in the world then our hearts would not be troubled.  The solution to the trouble in the world is somewhere in the world, isn’t it?

Those who believed in Harold Camping’s prophecy that the world was going to end yesterday, I’m sure had troubled hearts in the weeks and days leading up to 6pm on May 21, 2011.  Their hearts were troubled by the thoughts of doubt that they were one of the chosen or by thoughts of loved ones who don’t believe in God, and I’m sure they were quite troubled by those of us who didn’t put any credit in what their teacher had convinced them of.  Their solution to ending their troubled hearts was to convince themselves and others that the troubled world was coming to an end; God had had enough as was ending it.  I’m sure that today, when it is obvious his predictions didn’t come true, their hearts are even more troubled.  They are troubled by the thought that if their teacher was wrong about what he claimed was a biblically based prophecy then how could they trust the Bible and if they can’t trust the Bible how can they trust God?  I’m sure Mr. Camping is cleaver enough to find the words to convince them he was not really wrong and so their hearts will remain troubled by his false teaching.  And nothing of this world will settle their heartache, nor ours. 

But why is Jesus telling his disciples to not let their hearts be troubled?  Let’s put the passage in context.  It is what we call the Last Supper.  The disciples, at the time, though didn’t know it was their Last supper with their beloved teacher, they thought they were having a festival meal together as a community.  But, they were troubled.  Things were not going well for Jesus and his band of followers.  A lot of the Jews who professed belief in him as the Messiah kept quiet for fear of being thrown out of the temple.  Jesus knew that the religious authorities were seeking to kill him.  So, here they find themselves, retreating to a private place during the busy and crowded Passover festival in Jerusalem to share a meal together.  But, as it turns out, this is to be no ordinary family gathering.  Jesus, their leader and teacher, washes the disciples’ feet, and after humbling himself to them, he reveals to them that one of them will be the one to hand him over to the authorities; and then he tells Peter, his right hand man, the one he said would be the rock of the church, that he will deny him not just once but three times.  The disciples have to be a bit perplexed at this moment.  And at the climax of Jesus’ discourse, he tells them “do not let your hearts be troubled”.  Can’t you just imagine them thinking “how on earth are we supposed to not be troubled after what you’ve just told us!?”  Their response reflects their apprehension. 

And then he gives them what should be a very simple set of instructions: Believe in God, believe also in me.  He knows it will be excruciatingly difficult for them to hold onto this belief over the next few days.  To reassure them, he tells them that they know the way to the presence of God.  He is the way.  They know the Father, whom they have not seen because they have lived in the presence of Jesus the Son who is one with the Father.  

And he tells them that if they can’t, if WE can’t quite grasp the concept of Jesus abiding in the Father and the Father in him, then the works of Jesus we have witnessed should convince us.  And when we believe in him we will do those things that Jesus does. 

Our first work is to believe in Jesus and then to let ourselves be transformed by that belief into being the incarnated presence of Jesus in this world just as Jesus is the incarnate presence of God.  We are to believe and trust in God as Jesus believes and trusts in the Father; to allow him to work in us to align our desires so closely with the Father’s that whatever we ask, we will be given. 

Just as Jesus revealed to the world who the Father is, so we are to reveal God to the world by how we live - living in this time and this place, being attentive every moment to God’s presence in everything and everyone around us; Abiding in God and allowing him to abide in us so that we can be his presence in the world.  And that means we live in this world, conscious of every moment and every day.  We don’t live in fear of what might happen in the future, we don’t ignore those in need around us because we are too busy thinking about the life after this one.  We do the things that Jesus did, we care for our neighbors and love our enemies. 

Our culture tells us it is okay to be wrapped up in our own needs, that if we don’t take care of ourselves, who will?  Our culture tells us that it is the things of this world that will settle our troubled hearts.  Jesus tells us it is only in a relationship with God that we can find comfort for our hearts.  It isn’t that we won’t have troubles in this world, it’s a troubled world we live in.  But through our belief and in our relationship with God, our hearts can be at ease abiding in God’s presence and knowing he abides in us.

I have no doubt that the followers of the latest rapture prediction believe in God and love him and want to serve him.  Jesus even tells us to watch and be ready for his coming again.  The fact that Jesus will come again and we will live out eternity in God’s Kingdom is the hope of our belief!  As St. Augustine tells us, we should plan our life as though he isn’t coming back for centuries but live our life each day as if he is coming back today.  Jesus tells us that we are not only to do his works but that we will do works greater than his in this world.  Jesus was the incarnate presence of God in the world because he is God, one person of the Triune God that is the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  We are to live in his abiding presence while he prepares a place for us in the time to come.  It is not for us to prepare that place; it is for us to be Christ to the world in this time and place. 

Summer with the Saints

Howdy!  This summer I have the privilege and joy of serving as an intern at my home parish - St. Thomas Episcopal Church in San Antonio.  My duties include hospital and home visits, assiting with Sunday and other services, helping with VBS, teaching a class called "I Don't Remember That from Sunday School", preaching, and anything else Fr. Chuck thinks will be useful for me to learn how to do.  Although I was a bit concerned before I started that everyone involved - the congregation, the staff, and especially me - would be able to see me in a whole new role, everyone has proved that concern unnecessary.  The greatest compliment I've received so far happened immediately after the services on my first Sunday.  A parishioner told me "you looked so normal up there". 

At the beginning of the Summer I had to meet with the Diocesan Standing Committee (a normal part of the process - I wasn't in trouble)  and one of the questions they asked was how has my confidence in being called into ministry changed since I started seminary.  My answer was simple: for the first time in my life, what I'm doing fits.  I don't have to alter anything, it just fits comfortably as I try each new thing "on for size".  I'm blessed and humbled and honored to be doing what I'm doing. 

In addition to what I'm learning through my internship, I'm continuing my studies of Benedictine spirituality that I began through Lent.  I want to write more about this and will do so, but it has needed to "percolate" and begin to settle inside me before I can articulate how exactly it is forming me.  One thing I know it is doing is to provide the rhythm in my life that is enabling me to sit in the balance of "I am but dust" and God's freely given, over abundance of love and grace. 

The summer of 2011 - a summer in the communion of saints that is the people of St. Thomas and with St. Benedict.  It's turning out to be a pretty amazing time ... I'll keep you posted. 

God's peace be with you,