A Little Goes a Long Way (Second in a series, How Can I Have Faith?)

Jesus said, “All things can be done for the one who believes.” Immediately the father cried out, “I believe; help my unbelief!”
Mark 9: 23-24

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of this mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea, and it would obey you.’”
Luke 17:5-6

I stumbled into the campus chapel on Easter Sunday of my sophomore year in college. It was one of the saddest days of my life to that point, following a series of soul-crushing events. C.S. Lewis describes the initial feeling of grief as akin to fear–the same fluttering in the stomach, the same restlessness. I was that kind of stunned and dazed, unable to focus on anything for more than a few minutes. And while I didn’t want to be alone, I also couldn’t bear to be in conversation with anyone.

I don’t remember anything about the Easter service that morning except one piece of the sermon. The priest said that there is only one way to grasp the meaning of resurrection, and that is through the experience of death on this side of the grave –”little deaths,” he called them, that give way to new life.

That’s what I was experiencing, I realized as he spoke. Something in my life had died, and it wasn’t coming back, no matter how much I wanted it to. I had no idea what resurrection would look like, and I didn’t have the sense it would happen anytime soon. But I left chapel that day with a seed of hope planted in my heart, and with that hope, faith. Faith that life after this death could happen, that it would happen, someday.

Later that day, or perhaps that week, a friend of my mother’s called me. She had heard of what happened to me and was reaching out to express her sorrow. I thanked her, standing in the hallway of my dorm, taking, as we did in those days, on a telephone tethered to a wall. “Mariann,” she said as we were saying goodbye, “God is with you, even if you don’t feel it.” I didn’t feel it; I didn’t feel much of anything.  But what she said stayed with me. I didn’t have to feel it for it to be true. I hoped that, maybe later, the feelings would come.

In his book, Deep and Wide, pastor Andy Stanley describes what he calls “faith catalysts,” five distinct pathways through which we can experience the love of God.  His particular focus is catalysts for those drawn to the Christian faith — ways we can experience God through the presence and love of Jesus and, in response, choose to place our faith in him. Two of the five, he suggests, come to us, as it were, from God’s side. They are the ways that God makes the initiative to reach us.  The other three, he says, depend on our active participation.

One of the ways God comes to us is through other people, the particular people whose examples of faith inspire us, or who seem to come into our lives at just the right moment and say just what we need to hear when we need to hear it. They could be anyone: ­­parent or teacher, friend or stranger, mentor or adversary. The faith experience is what happens when, through the example or presence of another person, we feel the presence of God. It’s not just a human exchange; it’s the spirit of God at work, speaking through another person. That’s how I experienced my mother’s friend calling me in my time of need. Her words didn’t take the pain away, but there was something more in her words–an assurance of God’s presence that stayed with me and gave me hope.  

One of the catalysts that requires our active participation is what Stanley calls “practical teaching,” the presentation of a gospel truth that resonates deeply within us, speaks to us, and is, in that moment, both illuminating and helpful. That’s what I experienced on that Easter Sunday so long ago–an interpretation of the resurrection that spoke to my broken heart with a word of hope. I came away from church that day with a way of understanding my experience through the prism of the gospel. The gift came from the word spoken by the preacher–but if I hadn’t made my way to church that morning, I would have missed it.

I’ll write about the other catalysts in future posts. For today, I turn back to the passages that prefaced my words here. In both accounts–that of a desperate father seeking healing for his son and that of the apostles wanting Jesus to give them more faith than they had–there is a sense of longing, a desire for more, an acknowledgment of inadequacy in matters of faith and belief. And in both instances, there’s reassurance: we needn’t have perfect beliefs, or complete faith. Jesus says to us that a little bit of faith can go along way. As your bishop, I can attest to that truth.

 

Posted in Uncategorized

On Our Watch (sermon for the House of Bishops)

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” Jesus answered, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, ‘You must be born from above.’ The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can these things be?” Jesus answered him, “Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things? “Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.”    

John 3:1-17

Primero, quisiera saludar a mis compañeros que hablan el idioma del cielo. Pero porque todavía estamos en la tierra, voy a predicar en inglés.

Allow me to say hello from here to those I’ve not yet had a chance to greet personally at this meeting, and add my word of welcome those who are new among us. I’d also like to acknowledge with gratitude those who travel the greatest distances, geographically and culturally, to part of this community and all those whose leadership is at the margins of the church. Thank you for all that you do in faithfulness to Christ and in our name. Finally, heartfelt thanks to all who give so freely of your time and gifts to support us as bishops. We couldn’t do this work without you.  

For me, being at the House of Bishops is a bit like putting my canoe into a fast moving stream twice a year with 200 other people, many who are up ahead and have been in the water for a long time, and others who entered the same time as I. As the current takes us along, others join in. We’re each in our own canoe, paddling as best we can; yet we’re in the stream together, navigating its waters. The stream, important as it is, is but one of many that comprise our respective vocations. Good work happens here, not for its own sake, but in service to the places our vocations find greatest expression and for the good of the whole. It’s a gift to be reminded that we are part of a larger body and that we’re not alone.

****

I received the invitation to preach today on the theme “Reconciling Leaders: Bishops in the Jesus Movement,” on January 19th, the day before the presidential inauguration. I wasn’t feeling much like a reconciler that day.

Back in November, I had stated publicly that I would take President-elect Trump’s call to unify the nation to heart, and that, if asked, we at Washington National Cathedral would host an inaugural prayer service, as has been our custom. A few days later, the dean received an invitation from the chair of the inaugural committee for the cathedral choristers to sing at the inauguration itself. The dean called me, and after consulting with the Cathedral leadership, we chose to accept that invitation as well. We did so in the same spirit of hospitality, extended and received, with a desire to witness to that which unifies even a divided country.    

As the inauguration drew nearer, hundreds of people from both within the diocese I serve and most of yours reached out to me and the cathedral leadership. There were a number of social media campaigns organized to pressure us to call off the choir’s singing, especially, as it was in the minds of many, understandably so, a legitimization of all that President Trump stands for that we as a church do not. Many people who had once considered me an ally in the work of justice felt betrayed, and this was particularly true among all the historically excluded groups we’ve been considering in this meeting. They were, in their words, dismayed, angered, disappointed, outraged by my leadership or lack thereof. Several people told me that I was responsible for driving millennials out of the church. One psychologist, observing that I didn’t change course in the face of overwhelming “new data,” opined on Facebook on the pathology of my rigid personality.

Some in the diocese who disagreed with me on the decisions I had made began to get nervous when the tone on social media turned ugly. A few counseled the Cathedral leaders and me to change course, warning that we were doing considerable harm to the Episcopal brand around the diocese and the country. And as our Diocesan Convention was scheduled for later that month, last-minute resolutions all but ensured we would debate the issues of the inauguration and prayer service on the Convention floor, quite possibly overpowering all the other strategic initiatives we had been working on for several years.

I’m not going to dwell much further on the particulars here except to say that I thought a lot in those days about the difference between intent and impact. I grieved the pain our actions caused so many. The episode was, by all accounts, a communications disaster I hope never to repeat. There were any number of ways we could have handled this differently, and better. But there we were.

What I’d like to reflect on with you here is the role of leadership in the center of that kind of storm. It wasn’t the first time it had happened to me, although it was, to date, the most dramatic. I daresay it’s happened to everyone in this room at one time or another, and it will most certainly will again.

Jesus said to Nicodemus that we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen. This is what I know.

That in the midst of a storm like that there is no choice but to ride it out, and my goal was to hang on to every ounce of grace and generosity of spirit that God could provide. Steven Covey, in his 4 quadrants of activity, talks about urgent/important work. A storm is both urgent and important. It’s not where strategic ministry takes place, but in the moment, it becomes a strategic opportunity. For how we respond in a storm will have more lasting impact than the storm itself.  

My primary task in the storm was to hold steady. Rest assured, I felt a whole range of emotions that were not appropriate for me to express publicly. How could I remain calm enough to pay attention and truly listen to those coming toward me? I had to go deep inside, in prayer and self examination. What did I believe? What was I willing to hold even in the midst of such emotion and pain? Had I completely misread the signs? I’ve publicly changed course before. Contrary to what the psychologist wrote about me, I’m not one to dig in the face of criticism. I’m the one who always assumes that I’ve missed something and am inclined to change direction in the face of disappointment or criticism. Was this one of those times?

I knew that I needed support and counsel from wise leaders. I cannot thank enough Presiding Bishop Curry and others in this room. You gave me insight, courage, and ways to respond that had not occurred to me.   

I also needed to talk candidly with the members of the diocesan leadership team, several of whom worked much closer than I to those who felt betrayed, and were among that group themselves. I needed to reach out to leaders of our African American congregations and Latino congregations, and our LGBT clergy and members. They needed to hear from me that it was okay for them to disagree with their bishop, and that I heard them.

And I needed to maintain as many relationships via social media as I could from my side: I responded to every email. I posted on Facebook, trying my best to be present with an undefended heart, moving towards those who were coming at me.

Parenthetically, I’d like to say something to you about the leadership of the Washington National Cathedral, with whom it is my privilege to work. Believe me, the internal issues of the Cathedral are legion; the sustainability questions enormous; and its place in God’s mission in the 21st century still very much a subject of important discernment. But I cannot speak highly enough of our new dean, Randy Hollerith, of the leadership team around him, and of the rising lay leadership of the Cathedral Chapter. I’m proud to work alongside them. We intend to use this experience to have a sustained conversation about the role of Washington National Cathedral in our time–in public life, in the life of the diocese, the wider Episcopal Church, and the nation.

****

Navigating my way through storms is important, for all the energy and time that they take. How I handle them allows me to do my most important work. But the storms themselves are not my most important work. Remember Covey’s second quadrant? It’s the realm of non-urgent important work, all that doesn’t get my attention unless I make it the priority it deserves.

My most important reconciling work as bishop is to do everything from my position to equip leaders and assist our existing congregations and core ministries in the hard work of adapting to the changing world around them; and, where possible, to establish new communities of faith centered around the good news of Jesus. My most non- urgent/important reconciling work is to turn the trends of decline around, create vibrant centers of Christian community where people can come to know God, experience the healing love of Christ, inspired by the Holy Spirit to live transformed lives and change the world. I say that it’s non-urgent work, but it feels urgent to me. I live in a perpetual state of holy urgency about the spiritual health and ministry capacity of the congregations I serve and those I hope to establish on my watch.

Here’s why: There are 88 congregations in the Diocese of Washington. Many are small, with a worshipping congregation under 200. Looking deeply at the trends and internal realities of each, only 12 of them, at most, are on a path of sustainability and growth; another 12-15, at the other extreme, are in precipitous decline–most of them in our most vulnerable or rapidly transitioning neighborhoods or communities.The rest, despite working as hard as they can, will most likely be, without some intervention or significant change, almost exactly where they are now 10 years from now in terms of size and capacity for ministry–this in a part of the country that is experiencing significant population growth and where other expressions of the Christian faith are thriving. I can’t bring myself to count the number of congregations I cannot, in good conscience, recommend to those who are seeking a vibrant expression of Christian community.   

There’s no doubt in my mind that the Jesus Movement is alive and well in the Diocese of Washington. I cannot say the same about the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement in all of its expressions. And on my watch, I will do everything in my power, redirect every resource I can, examine every assumption about how we do things and why, in order to promote greater spiritual health, joy, and capacity for ministry throughout the diocese. That includes evaluating all that it costs the diocese for me to be part of the House of Bishops. I must evaluate my efforts, and ours, based on the fruits they produce.

So I find myself saying “no” to a lot of interesting things and important work that I could do because I’m the bishop of of the Diocese of Washington, precisely because those things keep me from the real work of being the bishop of the Diocese of Washington. And I do my best not to be thrown off course for too long by the storms, but deal with them as effectively as possible, and then redirect my focus on the slow, steady work of revitalizing the church.

We speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen.
This is what I know.

Many of the issues holding us back in the Diocese of Washington are spiritual. We, like Nicodemus, need to be born again. Many of the congregations in the Diocese of Washington offer a tepid expression of Christian life, with almost nothing to offer the very people congregational leaders say they want to “attract.”

Many of the issues holding us back are structural. This is where I, as bishop, have particular responsibility. Where do we spend time, energy, and resources that are not bearing fruit? I once attended a conference led by a minister of one of the largest churches in the country, and he said something I’ve never forgotten: In his observation, the biggest difference between a small church and a large one is that a small church has a much harder time letting go of the things that aren’t working. That is certainly true of our smaller congregations. It’s also true of our diocese as a whole. So we are practicing evaluation, and learning to let go. I’m also determined to incorporate good ideas from other places, from the expressions of Christianity all around us that are thriving.

Much of what holds us back is cultural, embedded in personal preferences masked as core values.

And many obstacles are the result of institutional weakness, as congregations feel constrained as but one example, to devote their best energies to their buildings rather than the ministry the buildings exist to serve. If we don’t address these weaknesses, it doesn’t matter how earnestly we want to join in God’s mission in the world, how prophetic our calls are for justice. For our capacity to go where Jesus calls and do what Jesus needs us to do is hindered by our weakness, just as any physical weakness hinders our personal capacity to fully engage our lives.

I cannot accept this as God’s preferred future for us. And I know that you don’t either, which is what I love most about spending time with you. When we gather, I want nothing more than to learn from you, to hear about what you are discovering, experimenting with, all the new ways you’re learning of being the church.

I, for one, ache for us to spend more of our precious time together learning from each other, sharing resources, exploring common struggles, and collectively evaluating our fruitfulness by the rising health and growth of the Episcopal witness.

And so I leave you with a word of deep admiration and encouragement for each of you in the many streams of ministry that define your vocation. Whenever we enter this stream, I hope we never lose sight of the importance of supporting each other. It’s equally important that we gently and firmly hold one another accountable for the health and vitality of the dioceses we serve. We need one another to fuel the holy urgency necessary to sustain our commitment to the renewal of our church. Wouldn’t it be amazing, if on our watch, we could turn the trends of decline around?   

 

Posted in sermon

How Can I Have Faith?

Washington National Cathedral Episcopal Confirmation Ceremony

There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” Nicodemus said to him, “How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?” John 3:1-17

A week from Thursday, I’ll be speaking to the inaugural Alpha class at Washington National Cathedral. The evening’s question: How can I have faith?

I wonder if that isn’t what Nicodemus, at heart, was asking Jesus. Jesus tells him that no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above. But how, exactly, does that happen? Inquiring minds want to know.

At a recent celebration of the Bishop Walker School, John S. Wilson, president of Morehouse College, spoke of the two most important dates in our lives: the day we were born and the day we find out why. Without the first, we wouldn’t be here; without the second, we’d miss experiencing our lives’ deeper meaning and purpose. On the second day, we’re given eyes of faith, and with them we are born again.

Rather than hearing Jesus’ words as a litmus test for Christians (you must be born again), consider them an invitation to receive the eyes of faith, eyes that allow yourself and others to see as God sees, so that you might live as God would have you live.

It’s a big deal–this leap of faith. It’s like the difference between reading a love story and falling in love yourself; between hearing someone describe the experience of rock climbing and your  being on the edge of a cliff, trusting that the rope will hold. In relationship to God, there’s a world of difference between learning things about God and knowing God; between hearing someone else talk about Jesus and having an experience of his presence for yourself. Do you know what that’s like? If so, how do you know? If not, would you like to?

In preparation for Alpha, I’ve been reading Adam Hamilton’s most recent book, Creed: What Christians Believe and Why. In it he describes the Holy Spirit as “God’s way of working in our lives; God’s way of leading us, guiding us, forming and shaping us; God’s power and presence to comfort and encourage us.” But he goes on: “I believe that many Christians live Spirit-deficient lives, a bit like someone who is sleep-deprived, nutrient-deprived, or oxygen-deprived….As a result, our spiritual lives are a bit anemic as we try living the Christian life by our own wisdom and power.”

My sense is that we often live deprived of spiritual experience that enables us to see ourselves as God sees us, feel ourselves loved as Jesus loves us, as we’re encouraged and led by God’s Holy Spirit. These experiences are real; they are what allow us to know God and have faith.  

Maybe the question is better stated, How can I receive faith? Faith has always felt like a gift to me, but one that I must choose to receive. And the gift is one of experience–something happening that changes the way I see and experience the world.

Between now and Easter, I’ll write each week about some of the ways we can open ourselves to receiving faith, to the experience of God revealed to us in Jesus. For now, I simply ask you to consider where you go to experience grace and holiness, however you define them for yourself. Then make a date to go to those places, either within yourself and externally, in this season of Lent. Allow yourself to be changed, to be born again, to see yourself and your place in the world with the eyes of faith.

Posted in reflection

Immigrants and Refugees: A Call for Compassion

March 02, 2017

you have to understand,
that no one puts their children in a boat
unless the water is safer than the land
no one burns their palms
under trains
beneath carriages
no one spends days and nights in the stomach of a truck
feeding on newspaper unless the miles travelled
means something more than journey.
no one crawls under fences
no one wants to be beaten
pitied. . .

no one would leave home
unless home chased you to the shore

Excerpts from  “Home”  by Warsan Shire.

I understand the need for secure borders and citizen safety. But I’ve known too many people whose life stories find expression in Shire’s poem to be among those who insist that they go back to face the very dangers they fled.

I’ve lived too long in countries whose destitution and violence is linked to American foreign policy to imagine that we bear no global responsibility for the current refugee crisis.

I’ve spent too many years working to help bring sanity and compassion into our nation’s immigration system to accept extreme mandates as the best we can do as a nation. My heart breaks for those who have lived as contributing members of our communities and churches for years and want nothing more than legal status in this country, but who are now afraid to leave their homes for fear of deportation.

And I grieve the public misperception that immigrants put the rest of America at risk when crime rates among immigrants  are much lower than among the general population.

Concern for the immigrant is not merely a biblical mandate for members of the Diocese of Washington. It is a matter of pastoral care. Many who fear arrest and deportation are parents, children, leaders in our congregations, and hardworking members of our communities.

In this special immigration issue of our diocesan bulletin, we strive to tell you how our diocese is responding to the challenges immigrants now face, to give you a primer (para español, haz clic aquí) on current immigration policy and rights, and offer opportunities for you to learn more (para español, haz clic aquí), should you feel called to support our immigrant neighbors in ways large and small.

At the very least, may we all pray with compassion, and remember that no matter who we are and where we come from, we have all been strangers in need of welcome and will be again.

 

Posted in reflection | Tagged ,

Anxiety 101

Jesus said, “No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth. ‘Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? And can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life? And why do you worry about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which is alive today and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear?’ For it is the Gentiles who strive for all these things; and indeed your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. ‘So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.”
Matthew 6:24-34

I’d like to begin by teaching you the refrain of a song, one that is a great antidote to anxiety in the face of challenges that seem too big for me to overcome on my own:

You don’t have to move that mountain, just help me Lord to climb it.
You don’t have to move that stumbling block, just show me the way around it.

Sometimes the gospel text for the day opens a door and the preacher has no choice but to walk through it. That’s certainly true for today, because whenever Jesus tells me not to worry,  the first thing I do is…..(exactly).

Right around the time of the 9/11 attacks, I read somewhere that those with acute fear of flying in airplanes experienced a significant decrease in their anxiety levels. Why? Because at last their fears were legitimized. All the ways that well meaning people had told them not worry about flying only made them more anxious. After the attacks, they felt vindicated. They weren’t the irrational ones; there really was something to fear.

Let me make a similar point coming from another direction by reading to you what I consider to be one of the best opening paragraphs in modern fiction. It comes from the novel A Map of the World by Jane Hamilton:

I used to think that if you fell from grace it was more likely than not the result of one stupendous error, or else an unfortunate accident. I hadn’t learned that it can happen so gradually you don’t lose your stomach or hurt yourself in the landing. You don’t necessarily sense the motion. I’ve found that it takes two and generally three things to alter the course of a life. You slip around the truth once, then again, and one more time, and there you are feeling for a moment that it was sudden, your arrival at the bottom of the heap.

Same idea; different angles. There are, in fact, things to worry about, both external and internal, the disasters that might come to us from outside and those we are capable of bringing upon ourselves. And so when Jesus, Bobby McFerrin, or anyone else says to us, don’t worry, be happy, there’s a part of us that rightfully responds, you don’t understand. Or, if you’re like me and prone to feelings of spiritual inadequacy, you might feel even worse in your anxiety because Jesus told you to stop worrying, and in this moment, at least, you can’t.

Here is my hope for today: that together we might look at the sources of our anxieties and worries head on; hold in our collective pondering the wide range of anxious responses  we are susceptible to, and do so with humility, compassion, and the best of our resources; and hear in Jesus’ words to us not a scolding admonition or simplistic platitude, but rather an invitation to re-frame our life experience through real encounters with God’s grace lovingkindness. I’d love for you to hear in his words, if you can, an invitation to bring to him all that we worry about. He can help.

Let’s begin by acknowledging that anxiety and worry are complex emotional and cognitive phenomena: Some of us more prone to worry than others. How many of you know the story of the two sisters Martha and Mary from the Gospels?  Briefly, in the story, Jesus goes to visit his friends, Martha and Mary, presumably bringing with him an entourage of followers. Martha immediately gets busy in the kitchen; Mary plops herself near Jesus’ feet, with all the men, and hangs on his every word. Feeling abandoned and irritated, Martha complains to Jesus and asks him to tell Mary to help her in the kitchen. And Jesus replies: “Martha, Martha, you are anxious and worried about many things. Only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen the better part, and it will not be taken from her.” (Luke 10:38-42)

Who are the Marthas among us? And the Marys? We Marthas of the world are more anxious than the Marys; it’s just the way we are. There may also be a generational pendulum in families, or at least there is in mine–the Martha of one generation giving rise to a Mary in the next who in turn raises Marthas. There’s no judgment here: it’s simply good to know that for some of us worry is a more instinctual or habitual response to the world than for others.

Chemical imbalances in the brain also contribute to anxiety and worry. Some of us need the help that medication provides. I resisted this for a long time in my own life. I didn’t think I needed medication; I didn’t want it; the idea of medical dependency scared me. But around 10 years ago, I had a series of experiences, and in that time a good friend, who is both a priest and psychiatrist, gently suggested that I was carrying some burdens unnecessarily.  “Mariann, your life doesn’t need to be this hard,” she said. “You can get help.” And I did. I have since said the same things to others, and maybe it’s something some of you need to hear: Getting help with anxiety can be a very good thing.

There is also a lot of anxiety in the air we breath. One of my teachers called this “free floating anxiety” that attaches itself to everything. While no one is immune from free floating anxiety, it particularly affects people of privilege. I’m not sure why, but the more we have, the more we fear loss.

Before coming to Washington, I lived in one of sweetest and relatively affluent neighborhoods of Minneapolis, where the level of worry about our children was unreasonably and unnecessarily high. I don’t mean to be judgmental. I got caught up in it with regard to our sons. But objectively speaking, our children were more than okay; they were really well off. Still our worries persisted. Some of it was legitimate, most was unnecessary.

So we can hear, in Jesus’ admonitions not to worry, a reminder that there are, in fact, false anxieties, worries that we don’t need to carry. This is “the bread of anxiety” the psalmist writes of that we need not consume. (Psalm 127)  Ann Ulanov, a theologian and Jungian psychologist, describes the same phenomenon as “a false cross” we bear. A false cross, she said, is the cause of real pain. But it’s pain that doesn’t go anywhere. There is no redemptive possibility–it’s just pain. It’s like running on a hamster wheel, exhausting ourselves without forward motion.

We can learn to step off the wheel; we can get down from the crosses we don’t need to be on. And nothing cuts through unnecessary worry faster than concrete engagement with the world. The antidotes for free floating anxiety are large doses of laughter and an intentional focus on the things that matter. Jesus wants that for us: Consider the lilies, he said. Look at the birds. Help someone in need. Engage the real issues of the world Focus on the purpose of your life. Church is the ideal place for all these endeavors. How blessed you are to be part of a faith community determined to focus on the things that matter.  

So thus far we’ve touched upon temperament as it affects anxiety, chemical imbalances in our brain, false anxieties that we can learn to let go of and learn to counter with practices of joy, prayer engagement in the world, and community support for the things that matter most.

Now: let’s turn our attention on those things in your life and mine that are legitimate cause for anxiety, because there are, in fact, things to worry about.  

I had a gathering of friends at my house Saturday night: several were from out of town, only two were Episcopalians. As often happens when people learn that I’m the bishop here, one person asked me what it was like to preach every Sunday at Washington National Cathedral. I told them I don’t preach there often; that I’m in a different church every Sunday. Really, another said. Where will you be this Sunday? I’m going to one of the Episcopal churches on Capitol Hill, I said.

Suddenly the table got quiet. Wow, one person said. What’s life like for the people of that church now? There was real compassion in his voice and others expressed similar wonderment and concern. We weren’t discussing politics, and the conversation didn’t go in that direction. It was simply the assumption on the part of people who don’t know you that belonging to a church on Capitol Hill, and living in this neighborhood, would be a source of stress right now. And from what your rector has told me, they’re right.

So I’d like to hold in compassion with you whatever is going on in your life right now that are causes for genuine worry, and to consider how, as Christians, we are to respond in situations of genuine concern.

This, my friends, is the work of spiritual discernment, which is among the deepest, most important disciplines of a Christian’s life. When we’re faced with challenging circumstances, difficult decisions, uncertain futures, what do we do? How are we to live?

Many years ago a theologian named Urban Holmes defined discernment this way: “the ability to intuit God’s will by a casting a particular question the Christian faces in a given situation before the judgment of the deeper self. The result of discernment will be a willingness to risk decisions and take actions whose surety is enigmatic at best.”

In other words, through this process we call discernment, we develop a greater capacity to act in the face of uncertainty, a greater willingness to risk failure in the service of what matters most. Marian Wright Edelman, of the Children’s Defense Fund, put it this way: “I’d rather fail in the things that matter than succeed in mediocrity.”

This kind of discerning work requires us to ask important questions: How does God best speak to you? Where do you go, and to whom do you turn, when you need that kind of direction? For the most challenging life circumstances call for the best of what a life of faith and a relationship with Christ can give us.   

These are the times to lean into prayer and meditation practices, however you might open yourself to hear the still voice of God speaking to you. We need to remember what it feels like to follow our own inner compass so that we’re not as susceptible, as St. Paul said, to being tossed to and fro by every wind that blows our way. As with all spiritual practices, inner listening is not uniquely Christian. The poet and author David Whyte speaks of awakening the “inner captain,” that internal source of authority and clarity, especially needed when we attempt something difficult.

We can do this inner work in many ways: For some, the work is quiet and still, a daily practice of sitting and paying attention to all that comes into consciousness. For others, such pondering requires movement—a walk or a run, anything that engages both body and mind. I read a history of Franklin Delano Roosevelt a few years back, and I learned that when he had a momentous decision before him, he would get sick and take to his bed.I am one of those who “putters” as I ponder. It doesn’t really matter what I do, but I need to be active, and I need quiet, to allow my brain to sort things out and be open to the voice of God.

The fruit of such clarifying discernment, a deeply personal experience, extends well beyond our personal lives alone–they extend broader than we realize, to each realm in which we live and work. Because one of the best things we can do for everyone around us is to learn to manage and regulate our own anxiety. Anxiety creates distortion, like looking at an object through water or listening to a radio through static. Anxiety hinders communication. When we’re anxious, we’re less creative and imaginative, less capable of speaking for ourselves or seeing more than one option, and more likely to blame others for our unhappiness.

The trick is trying not to get too anxious about the anxiety you feel. You can’t eliminate anxiety, but you can learn to deal with it, and to the extent you do, you bring a certain measure of clarity wherever you go. Here’s the thing: you don’t have to be completely calm in a stressful situation. To be helpful, you just need to be a little calmer than those around you. By being the least anxious in the room, you help clear the air, ground the conversation, and promote clarity.

The most important thing to remember is to be present, as fully present as you can to yourself, to God, to those around you, and even present to your anxiety. Of course this is an impossible stance to sustain over time; even the most mature can only manage it about 50% of the time. So give yourself some room to make mistakes, to pick yourself up, and try again.

Remember that Jesus is with you, and for you, until the end of the age; that there is a whole community of people in this church here to support you, and people like me, admirers from a distance, cheering you on.

Sing with me one more time:

You don’t have to move that mountain; just help me Lord to climb it.
You don’t have to move that stumbling block; just show me the way around it.

 

Posted in sermon

#edowlent

I invite you, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent.
Book of Common Prayer

A notice from The Rev. Scott Gunn, Executive Director of Forward Movement landed in my inbox yesterday. It begins:

We are just a week away from Lent. I can hardly wait. This year more than ever, I will welcome this great season in which we are invited to focus on returning to God, on recommitting ourselves to following Jesus.

Like Scott, I’m grateful as we approach this spiritual season. It’s a gentle challenge for us to go deeper in our relationship with Christ and wider in our love of neighbor.

All around the Diocese of Washington congregations will observe Lent, beginning with Ash Wednesday services and some with Ashes-to-Go. There will be a wide variety of Lenten spiritual offerings in the diocese, including Alpha, a course to explore the basic tenets of Christianity; many Bible studies; book groups; and prayer practices. There are also spiritual practices to be found online, among them The Five Marks of Love from the Society of St. John the Evangelist, the ever popular Lent Madness, and Forward Movement’s offering A Season of Prayer: 40 Days in the Desert. The simplest way to observe Lent, and perhaps the most meaningful, is to dedicate a few minutes each day for silent prayer and inspiration from Scripture.

Every year in Lent, I turn off the radio when I drive — a small and intentional act that creates space in my otherwise crowded life. This year, I’ll also co-host the pilot Alpha class at Washington National Cathedral, with over 100 participants from several congregations. And as soon as I read Scott Gunn’s post today, I knew that I wanted to join in A Season of Prayer. “During this time,” he writes, “we will pray and read scripture about hospitality, about wandering, and about caring for refugees. Let us all fervently pray that every person – all of whom are made in God’s image – finds a place to call home. Let us pray that those of us with homes will open them to a world in need.” Next week, I’ll have more to say about the issues our immigrant and multicultural congregations are facing and the rising anxiety and fear among immigrants in our land.

But finally, let us use the hashtag #edowlent as a way to share our experiences and draw encouragement from one another’s reflection. Throughout the season, we invite you to to post on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter a brief, personal reflection on your lenten experience that day. On the days you have an offering, feel free to share. On the days you need inspiration, come to receive. We are over 40,000 strong in the Diocese of Washington, so as Lent begins, let’s remember to be in one another’s good company and consider God’s invitation to go deeper in faith and wider in love.

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Loving as God Loves

“Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
Matthew 5:38

In the early 1960s, as  the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., rose to prominence at the helm of the Civil Rights Movement, he consistently advocated non-violence in response to the violence done to African Americans. He actually believed in Jesus’ words about turning the other cheek and walking the extra mile, not as passive acquiescence to injustice but as the highest form of resistance, a refusal to cooperate with evil and the retaliatory patterns of hate and brutality it breeds.

One evening, King was to speak at a rally before hundreds of people. As he appeared on stage, a man from the audience jumped up and attacked him. In the split second when King had time only to respond by instinct, he raised his arms and did not resist his attacker.  Those who witnessed King’s response realized that he practiced what he preached. He had translated his convictions into reflex, surely in response to a daily temptation to do otherwise. He had been slandered in the press; his family had been threatened; his house had been bombed; and he regularly received death threats. Through it all, his response was the same: clear, resolute non-violence.

If you’ve been in church these last few weeks, you know that we’ve been slowly making our way through Jesus’ most famous sermon, the Sermon on the Mount. (Matthew 5-7). Though the sermon begins with affirmations of blessing, it quickly moves to the realm of challenge. Some of what Jesus has to say may strike us as deeply offensive. Last Sunday I preached on the potential “trauma triggers” found in this sermon and what they have to teach us.  This coming Sunday, we’ll be confronted with Jesus’ admonition to “be perfect,” as our heavenly father is perfect.

We can debate what Jesus meant by perfection, but surely he wasn’t saying that he expected his followers never to make a mistake or to be totally free from sin. In another gospel, Jesus says “Be holy, as your heavenly father is holy.”  But what does holiness look like?

For Jesus it looks like this: that we do not respond to violence with violence, but instead turn the other cheek,  go the extra mile, give to those who ask from us, and yes, love our enemies.  It’s a tall order.  He’s asking us, in essence, to learn to love as God loves–the God “who makes the sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.

The world isn’t divided into some people for whom loving as God loves comes easily and the rest of us for whom it is impossible. Learning to love like that takes daily practice, and we do well to start small. In the words of C.S. Lewis, “If we really want to learn how to forgive, better to start with something easier than the Gestapo.”  

Holiness isn’t about grand gestures and pious prayers. We’re holy whenever we’re kind to those around us; when we don’t make life more difficult for those who struggle; when we refuse to gossip or hold a grudge. Holiness is about treating all people with the same respect and dignity, regardless of their stature in life, or even how they’ve treated us in the past. It involves guarding our tongue, so we don’t say things that needlessly hurt other people or shows disrespect to God. It means being willing to acknowledge when we’ve failed at love, ask forgiveness and try again. It’s the stuff of daily life, and our behavior today, in the words of Brian McLaren, determines what kind of person will wake up in our bodies tomorrow.  

What kind of people do we want to be? If we’re following Jesus, he’s given us a path. It’s not an easy one, but the good news is we can start small. Our daily practice is to love in ways within our power to accomplish. For that allows Jesus to lead us toward the ways of love well beyond our capacities except through his grace working through our practiced deeds of simple kindness.

 

Posted in Uncategorized

Trauma Triggers in Church

 

Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not murder’; and ‘whoever murders shall be liable to judgment.’ But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, ‘You fool,’ you will be liable to the hell of fire. So when you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift. Come to terms quickly with your accuser while you are on the way to court with him, or your accuser may hand you over to the judge, and the judge to the guard, and you will be thrown into prison. Truly I tell you, you will never get out until you have paid the last penny. . . it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away; it is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to go into hell. “It was also said, ‘Whoever divorces his wife, let him give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I say to you that anyone who divorces his wife, except on the grounds of unchastity, causes her to commit adultery; and whoever marries a divorced woman commits adultery.

“Again, you have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, ‘You shall not swear falsely, but carry out the vows you have made to the Lord.’ But I say to you, Do not swear at all, either by heaven, for it is the throne of God, or by the earth, for it is his footstool, or by Jerusalem, for it is the city of the great King. And do not swear by your head, for you cannot make one hair white or black. Let your word be ‘Yes, Yes’ or ‘No, No’; anything more than this comes from the evil one.”
Matthew 5:21-37

In the name of God, Creator, Christ, and the Holy Spirit.

Good morning! What a gift it is to worship God with you and spend the day at St. Margaret’s. If you’re visiting this morning, on behalf of this wonderful congregation, I welcome you and pray you experience blessing here. And to the members of St. Margaret’s, I bring greetings from your 87 sister congregations in the Diocese of Washington and from your friends across the Episcopal Church. I’m grateful for the opportunity to thank you for all you are and do in service to Christ, both as part of this faith community and in your lives. I’m also grateful for Kym Lucas’ leadership here and beyond.

Shortly after the presidential election, the rector of one of the largest Episcopal congregations in the country, All Saints’ in Pasadena, California, announced that in worship, they would no longer pray for elected officials by name, in order to avoid saying the name Donald Trump.

“We are in a unique situation in my lifetime where we have a president-elect whose name is literally a trauma trigger to some people,” the Rev. Michael Kinman wrote. “This presents a challenge. We are rightly charged with praying for our leaders…but we are also charged with keeping the worshipping community, while certainly not challenge-free, a place of safety from harm.”

I was asked by a local journalist to comment on All Saints’ decision and if we would do something similar in the Diocese of Washington. It was the first I had heard of All Saints’ decision, and in that moment all I could think of was Harry Potter and his determination not to give into fear of the one who could not be named. “Fear of a name increases fear of the thing itself,” Dumbledore had told Harry.

“We will pray for the president by name,” I said.

It wasn’t my intention to make light of trauma triggers, which are experiences that cause someone to recall a previous traumatic memory and respond to the triggering words or events with all emotional pain associated with that past experience. I know how powerful those emotions can be, and I understand the desire to create safe spaces in our congregations. I want that, too. But I also want us to be strong, and to draw upon the power of love, which as Scripture reminds us, casts out fear.

It occurred to me this week, thinking of trauma triggers, that the way we in Episcopal Church organize our Sunday worship services sets us up for a similar quandary with certain biblical passages. For as we did this morning, in our churches everywhere we read 3 Bible passages and a psalm from a predetermined cycle of readings. The reason we do this is to expose a faithfully worshipping congregation to a good portion of the Bible over a three year period. It’s a worthy goal, but on any given Sunday there are potential trauma triggers everywhere. Today is a case in point.

In a mere 15 verses of Jesus’ most famous sermon–known as the Sermon on the Mount–Jesus traumatizes all of us. This is not a passage of Scripture that would encourage anyone to draw closer to Jesus and it requires a lot of unpacking and a bit of historical context to make peace with it, although I doubt peace was what Jesus intended here.

For there are few passages more troubling in Scripture than the ones in which Jesus encourages us to cut off offending members of our bodies to avoid sin. Hyperbole, as you know, is extreme exaggeration to make a point, and if you spend anytime reading the New Testament, you know that Jesus liked hyperbole. He liked getting people’s attention, which is great, but his point doesn’t always translate across time and space, particularly when we read his words with such solemnity in church.

So let me say, in case you feel the pain of those words as I do, that I don’t believe for a minute that Jesus was actually encouraging us to do bodily harm to ourselves for the sake of spiritual purity. Nor do I believe that sinful thoughts are the same as actual deeds. His point, I think, is that sometimes it’s better to avoid situations that cause us to sin, and some thoughts are dangerous; if acted upon, they lead to real pain.

Next in line of trauma for many from these passages are Jesus’ harsh words, to our ears, about divorce. Early in my years as a rector, I watched on a Sunday morning as this particular trauma trigger affected a good portion of the congregation I served. One of our assisting priests was in the pulpit, a happily married man with three young sons whose day job was as chaplain and religious studies teacher at the local Episcopal day school. He was preaching on another text in which Jesus has harsh things to say about divorce. Speaking from his experience as a teacher and also citing certain studies, he said that, in general, divorce has a deeply adverse affect on children and that, in his experience, parents choosing to divorce often want to gloss over its impact on their kids.

If there had been social media in those days, the congregation’s outrage would have gone viral. People were furious and stunned that someone could say something so hurtful from the pulpit. This was long before legal equality, and the gay and lesbian members felt excluded from his heterosexist perspective. Divorced couples, of which there were many, felt harshly judged by a man who had no idea what being unhappily married felt like. Several people told me they weren’t sure they could come back to church. One woman wanted me to publicly rebuke the preacher. Another wanted to write her own rebuttal, which she did in our monthly newsletter.

That was a crucible experience for me and for the congregation, which I’ll be happy to tell you more about someday, or later today, if you like. But again let me say, for the record, that I don’t believe Jesus wants us to hang our heads in shame for the fragility of our marriages. Long-term intimate relationships are surely among the most humbling and audaciously hopeful human undertakings. How could we not fail at them in more ways than we dare acknowledge? Surely Jesus understands that.  

I have my own trauma trigger from his words today.  You see, if I were to leave my gift at the altar and not return until I am reconciled with my brother, I don’t know when I would be back.

I’m not speaking about “my brother” in the universal sense; I mean my flesh-and-blood brother, my half-brother to be precise, who hasn’t spoken to me for years. His name is Jim, and he’s nine years my junior. We lived together for seven years when I was a teenager and he was in elementary school. I felt very close to him then, and at a critical juncture, responsible for him as our family fell apart. In full disclosure, I failed him. I failed him dreadfully at a time when everyone else in his world did too. I knew it as it was happening, and I tried to make it up to him; but the more I tried, the more I failed, because in my immaturity I kept making promises that I was in no position to keep. By the time Paul and I were married, he wanted nothing to do with me, and I can’t say I blame him. We’ve had glimpses of reconciliation over the years, but at one decisive moment, for his own good reasons, he shut the door for good. And every time I hear Jesus say go reconcile with your brother before coming to the altar, I feel the familiar guilt.

I wish I could say that my brother is the only person who comes to mind whenever I read or hear these words, but he’s not. There are others. I’m fifty-seven years old. I’ve made mistakes in my life and hurt people deeply, and people have hurt me. Sometimes I’m able to make things right again and go on; sometimes I’m not. But I’ve learned some things about reconciliation, in success and failure, that I carry in my heart.

I’ve learned, first of all, that reconciliation requires forgiveness. If you can’t forgive another person, or if that person can’t forgive you, or you can’t forgive yourself, reconciliation is impossible. It is possible to forgive someone without reconciling. In other words, it’s possible to release another person from the burden of your hurt and disappointment, move on with your life and let that person move on too, no longer defined by the damage done, but still not be in relationship. I knew an elderly woman who was robbed by a young man she had befriended from her twelve-step group. With bruises on her arm and face, she said to me, “I forgive him for what’s he done. But I don’t want to see him again.” I knew both statements were true: she forgave him fully, and needed no restitution or even apology. But she was in her eighties and had limited energy, and she chose not to invest anymore in that relationship.

Reconciliation is only possible when those involved are ready to forgive one another and move forward together. You can forgive alone, but you can’t reconcile alone. It’s a painful realization, to be sure: if someone doesn’t want to be reconciled with you, there’s nothing you can do. In my experience, trying harder to make things right often makes things worse. You have no choice but to let that person go, at least for now. But when both parties are able to forgive and want to move forward together, reconciliation can happen, and sometimes it does with remarkable ease.   

Reconciliation also rests upon the great paradox of growth that can only be realized through suffering. I’m speaking now of the suffering of the one who was wounded. It isn’t denying or discounting the pain endured. But reconciliation rests on solid ground of maturity and compassion that living through painful circumstances affords. The biblical story of Joseph and his brothers comes to mind here: Joseph, as you recall, was deeply resented by his brothers, who were jealous of this favored status in their father’s heart and irritated by his arrogance. So his brothers threw him in a hole and slave traders carried him away. Joseph suffered greatly as a result, and yet over the years he grew through his suffering. He matured in sensitivity and compassion and he learned to use his gifts for good. Through a series of events set in motion by his brothers’ hurtful deed, he found himself in a position of power, so much so that his brothers, who had long assumed Joseph to be dead, were dependent upon him for their very survival. In the moment when he could have lashed out at them in anger, he said instead, “Out of what you intended for evil, God has brought great good.” In other words, Joseph was fine, no longer needing to carry anger at his brothers. He was grateful for how his life had turned out and the person he had become through suffering. (Genesis 37-45)

Guilt and shame have no place in a reconciled relationship. There’s no longer a need for retribution or restitution. The debt has been paid, and not by the perpetrator, but by the grace of God, serendipity of life, and hard work of the one refusing to be defined by another’s transgression. The balance of power in the relationship is completely reset and reconciliation takes place on that solid ground.

I’ve also learned that reconciliation takes a long time, and the initial work of it is done apart, as the one wounded grows stronger and heals; as the ones who have wounded also heal from the pain of having hurt another so badly. The healing required on the part of the wounding one is harder than we realize. Often the ones resisting reconciliation are those who have caused the most pain. As Karen Armstrong wrote in her memoir The Spiral Staircase, “It is always difficult to forgive the people we have harmed.” (Armstrong 2004, 146)

Yet when the work is done, and people meet as two who have grown stronger in the broken places, reconciliation is a wondrous thing. It signals a fresh start, yet with all the hard-won benefits of having come through the hardest thing and prevailed. It changes you in ways that are hard to describe, and it gives you hope for the world.

In the introduction to another book, Twelve Steps to a More Compassionate Life, Karen Armstrong writes that one of the chief tasks of our time is to build a global community in which all people can live in mutual respect. Religion, she writes, which should be making a major contribution to this great task, is typically seen and experienced as part of the problem. It shouldn’t be so. “All faiths insist that compassion is a true test of spirituality. Each has formulated its own version of what is sometimes called the Golden Rule, ‘Always treat others as you would wish yourself to be treated.’” And yet, she writes, the world is dangerously polarized and we face an overwhelming array of global challenges that if our ethical and religious traditions fail to address, they will fail the test of our time. (Armstrong 2011, 5)

She wrote those words in 2011, and I daresay on many fronts we are failing that test. I don’t know where we are headed as a nation now, or, for that matter, as a species. It feels like a crucible moment on many fronts.

Trauma triggers are those things that remind us of all that is still wounded and unreconciled. Some of the wounds go way back, historically and personally. Others are recent offenses, born of insensitivity, ignorance, and pain bumping up against pain. All are being traumatized right now by a bully in the White House, who nonetheless has the support of many who believe, despite his behavior, that he can be a force for good. I have a hard time believing that myself, but I’m paying attention and trying to keep my head in the game, which is hard to do when there is so much to be offended by. Sometimes I wonder if that’s by design, part of a larger strategy, or have we all become so callous that we don’t realize how offensive our words and actions are to others.

What I know for myself is that I want to be on the side of forgiveness and reconciliation whenever I can. That requires me to take responsibility for my part in the pain and hurt others experience, including my personal behavior and because of my privilege and position. I need to own these things and make restitution whenever I can.

But to be on the side of forgiveness and reconciliation requires me to grow through suffering. I don’t want to be defined by trauma. I want to recognize within myself how trauma is triggered, work through that trigger on my own, and thereby have a bit more capacity to choose my response to the triggering circumstances rather simply react to it. I want to draw from strength in other parts of my narrative, as well as the love, mercy, and grace of God, so I am less vulnerable to those things that conspire to keep me small.

If you, like me, are hoping for reconciliation with one who doesn’t want to reconcile with you, I know that the path is a lonely one; but it is a path, nonetheless–of prayer, acceptance of what you’ve done, and of the other person’s right to choose not to forgive or be in relationship.

If you, like me, are in need of healing from wounds sustained by others who hurt you deeply, I know the path is a lonely one; but it is a path nonetheless–of prayer, openness to healing that comes from unexpected places, and a willingness to grow through suffering.

Perhaps we’re on both paths at once. On either path, or both, this I know: we are not alone. God’s grace is there to guide and heal us, so that, one day, here–or on the other side of death–when the gate of reconciliation opens to us, we might be loving and brave, and walk through it to meet the one waiting on the other side.

Works Cited
Armstrong, Karen. The Spiral Staircase: My Climb Out of Darkness. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2004.
—. Twelve Steps to a Compassionate Life. Toronto: Alfred A. Knopf, 2011.

 

Posted in sermon | Tagged

We Speak of What We Know

So faith comes from what is heard, and what is heard comes through the word of Christ.
Romans 10:17

Friends of the Diocese of Texas, I’m honored to be among you. Heartfelt thanks to your good bishops, whom I hold in highest esteem, for the invitation.

There are warm ties between the dioceses of Washington and Texas. A good number of our finest leaders, lay and ordained, hail from the Lonestar State; several are Seminary of the Southwest graduates. And some of our finest leaders have moved from Washington to Texas, including two former members of my staff, not that I have feelings about that. (Andy, when you were the guest preacher at our Diocesan Convention last month, several people suggested that I ask you not to invite more of our leaders to come to Texas.)

Seriously, we in the Diocese of Washington are among the many in the Episcopal Church who look to you, Diocese of Texas, for inspiration and guidance. I know why people are excited to come here. You are further along a path we feel called to walk, and you’ve worked out some issues that many of us are still struggling with. You’ve had the benefit of both long, faithful leadership and the energy of fresh expressions. Bishop Doyle has called you to be a learning organization, and you are. In your learning, you are also teaching and I thank you.

Part of my task today is to hold up a mirror to you, in admiration and love. You are being called out now in new and sacrificial ways, but that’s because of who you are. God is asking great things of you, but those things pale in comparison to what God wants for you. You are God’s beloved, in whom God is well pleased. Jesus is not only calling you out to join in his love for others; he also loves you. Jesus is there for you, and longs for you to experience, ever more deeply, his mercy, love, forgiveness, and grace in the places of your lives and communities where you need him most.  

****

Bishop Doyle began his sermon to our Diocesan Convention by saying that he could only share with us what he had himself received.

There is, in my mind, no better definition of evangelism. We can only speak of what we know, as Jesus says in the Gospel of John, and testify to what we have seen. It is a stance of humble conviction, and I pray, one of openness to what others know and have seen, as we all see through the glass dimly.

Shortly after I was elected bishop, a retired priest wrote me a letter in which he stressed the importance of clarity in a leader. “When you are clear about something,” he wrote, “be clear. Don’t pretend otherwise.” His advice was very helpful, both as an exhortation to own whatever clarity comes to me, but also as permission not to feign clarity I didn’t have. Where I wasn’t clear, I could ask questions, seek the wisdom of others, and remind those who looked to me for leadership that all leaders are also followers, and that our faith is not only a gift, it’s a mystery.

So, Diocese of Texas, while there is no need to pretend to know more than you do and to feign a clarity you do not have, still I am here to ask, what you do know of Jesus? What have you seen to which you can testify? And what is it about this church–the Episcopal Church–that you believe is worth sharing?

I took my first conscious step toward following Jesus as a teenager. I was living with my father at the time, who had abandoned all religious practice. A friend from high school invited me to attend Easter services, and I went. Hers was a church with an altar call, and at the end of the service, the pastor stood in the center aisle and asked those who wanted to invite Jesus into their hearts to come forward. I didn’t know what inviting Jesus into my heart meant, but I knew that my heart was a lonely place. So I went forward. And the pastor prayed for me. I don’t remember feeling anything except fear and gratitude for the pastor’s gentle voice as he prayed, but something in me shifted that day. It was a beginning. From that day forward, I wanted more of whatever having Jesus in my heart meant. And I will be forever grateful to the people who first introduced me to Jesus. What greater gift is there?

Nonetheless, the first gift of faith was also my first crisis of faith. It wasn’t long before I felt I had failed my altar call. In that tradition, you only came forward once to be saved, but every week as the invitation was issued, I kept on wanting to go back, hoping that whatever was supposed to happen would happen to me. It wasn’t that I never felt the love of Jesus, but it was never enough to change me in the way I thought I was supposed to change. I wasn’t sure that I felt what I was supposed to feel.

Years later it occurred to me that one reason I love Episcopal Church is because I get to come to the altar every week. Every week I can invite Jesus into my heart and acknowledge my need for mercy and forgiveness. I’m so grateful that my incomplete, broken self is welcome each week to receive the sacramental presence of Jesus. And you know, my heart is still a lonely place sometimes. But instead of feeling inadequate about that, I now bring that emptiness, that space inside to invite Jesus in, as my offering.

Back in high school, I lived for a time with the minister of my church and his family. That gave me a window into the personal lives of those who had larger-than-life personas in church. I was relieved to see they were human, with a whole houseful of foibles and sins. I didn’t resent them for presenting themselves in public as a bit purer than they were in private, but I was sad it wasn’t something we could talk about, or that the minister ever acknowledged that side of his life when he preached.

Years later, as a newly ordained assistant priest, I worked under a rector with a similar inability to acknowledge the gap between the words he proclaimed and the life he lived. We all have that gap, friends. It’s real. In my first job as a priest, I witnessed up close what happens when a leader doesn’t acknowledge, or as they say in the UK, mind the gap by tending to the issues in his/her life. I learned there is a direct correlation between the spiritual health of a leader and that of the congregation he or she serves. It isn’t that leaders are meant to be perfect, of course. But left untended or ignored, all that we refuse to acknowledge within ourselves can seep out into the communities we serve, not to mention our families, and at times it can blow up in our face, wreaking havoc everywhere. I have seen this and know it to be true.

Leaders, it’s essential that we tend to our own lives, that we hold in humility before Christ all we wish was not true about us but is. When we make mistakes, it’s imperative that we own them, apologize, and make restitution. As we do–as we allow ourselves to be human and accept the responsibility for our lives–others will be given permission in our presence to do the same. And what a gift that is.

One more spiritual passage from my early days as a Christian that has bearing on my life and leadership now: In the church that first introduced to me Jesus, there was complete clarity about the path to salvation, and we were on it. It was a narrow path. Many other so-called Christians weren’t on it. Anyone not saved in the ways they understood salvation were not on it. Certainly those who professed other faiths or no faith at all were doomed to eternal suffering if they persisted in resisting accepting Jesus as we had.  

Even at 17, I simply could not  wrap my brain around that way of thinking. When I told the minister I was living with that I was returning to live with my mother, the Episcopalian, he warned me of the dangers of backsliding. I didn’t think it was my place to contradict him, but I also knew I stood in a different place. And in every encounter I’ve had in my life with people of different Christian expressions, other faiths, and no faith at all, I find myself in that same open posture. Jesus is my way, my truth, and my life, of that I am certain. And I give thanks every day for the Episcopal Church’s understanding of the Via Media, the Middle Way, open to truths across a broad spectrum. I give thanks for our hospitality at the altar, and how we receive persons from other branches of the Christianity into our communion with such respect. I love the openness and curiosity with which we engage interfaith conversation and collaboration. In my father’s house, Jesus said, there are many rooms. There is more than one path to that house.

***

Last fall at a discipleship conference, one of the presenters, The Rev. Chris Yaw of ChurchNext fame, asked a question I wish we asked one another more often, and so I’m asking you: How is Jesus saving your life right now? For seasoned Christians like most in this room, it’s such a good question–not “Are you saved”, or “When were you saved?”, but “How is Jesus saving your life now?”  

I’ll answer by telling you the two biblical stories that are pillars of salvation for me, both both miracle stories. The first is a story of Jesus walking on the water and his invitation for Peter to join him. Apart from the frozen lakes of Minnesota, I’ve never actually walked on water, but I feel as though I do almost every day of my life. Almost every day I feel called out beyond my capacity to do things I cannot accomplish on my own. Once in great frustration about this, when I was living in Honduras and trying quite unsuccessfully to teach the Bible to a class of sixth graders who knew how to push every one of my buttons, I cried out to God, “Is it always going to be this hard?” And the answer came back immediately: “Yes.” That got my attention. And so did what came next: “But I will be with you.”

He’s more than with me: he’s calling me, every day, even today as I stand before you, to walk on water. And I’m okay with that, as long as I keep my eyes on him. Even so, I sink sometimes, but then Jesus takes my hand, helps me up, and leads me on. Andy Stanley from Northpoint Community Church in Georgia routinely asks leaders if our visions for ministry are big enough for us to know our dependence on God. “Are they God-sized visions?” he asks, “Are they God-inspired visions, that remind us daily of our need for God to accomplish them?”   

Walking on water is my first spiritual pillar, and the second is like unto it: the miracle of the loaves and fish. I live nearly every day with the sense that what I have to offer isn’t enough to meet the needs before me. I’m not being overly modest–I know that I have gifts to offer. But relative to what’s needed, what I have is like five loaves of bread and a few fish before a hungry multitude. But every day, I do my best to offer what I have to Christ. That’s all I can I do; that’s all I have. There isn’t a miracle of abundance every day, but there are some days and no one is more amazed than I. And then, to gather up the fragments afterwards, all the discarded pieces that are also of great value, not to be lost? I can go a long way on such glimpses of salvation, and I do.

As you can hear, I’ve spent most of my life wishing I had more of the internal confidence I see and admire in others, but these days I’m more at peace with the existential emptiness that never fully goes away and thus reminds me of my daily dependence on Christ. It keeps me open to the truths that other people have, even those with whom I have little in common or profoundly disagree. I’m drawn to the wisdom and knowledge that others have and am grateful to pass it along. In fact, I used to say to the congregation that listened to me preach for 18 years, “If I have an original idea, I’ll let you know.” I’m especially interested in the kind of synthesis that happens when disparate parts make up a gloriously unforeseen whole, and humbled when we recognize at last how our blinders keep us from seeing what others see.

This gives me a different confidence, the confidence that St. Paul described when he wrote:

For we do not proclaim ourselves; we proclaim Jesus Christ as Lord and ourselves as your slaves for Jesus’ sake. For it is the God who said, ‘Let light shine out of darkness’, who has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2 Corinthians 4:5-7)

Diocese of Texas, be of good courage as you walk on water and make your offering. Be of courage, for Christ is with you. He is behind you and before you, there to comfort and restore you. Christ is with you in quiet, and in danger, in hearts that love you, in mouths of friends and stranger.  

What God asks from you pales in comparison to what God longs for you. You are God’s beloved. You are the ones Jesus calls his friends. Speak of what you know. Testify to what you have seen.

Posted in sermon

To Share Good News

“We speak of what we know, and testify to what we have seen.”
John 3:11

I am on my way to preach in the Diocese of Texas, just as Bishop Andy Doyle preached for our Diocesan Convention on January 28.

Bishop Doyle began his sermon to us: “Good people of the Diocese of Washington, I can only give you what I have received, and that is good news.” That good news, he said, has come to us in good times and bad; it has prevailed in times when we as a church could speak our truth with one voice and when we have been divided and railed against one another; it has prevailed when we’ve been on the mountaintop of spiritual experience but even more important when we’ve been in the valleys.

The good news Bishop Doyle has received and shared with us is this: Fruit is meant to multiply. Vines grow. Servants serve. Christians encourage one another in love. Christians are called–we are chosen for a time such as this, to give away what we have received and to watch it grow.

As I prepare to preach in the Diocese of Texas I, too, can only offer what I have received. That’s true for every preacher–we can only speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen and heard. It’s true for every Christian as we live our lives according to what bits of grace and goodness we have received and seek to share with others.

Sometimes we share from our abundance; just as often we share from our emptiness. Sometimes we share in confidence; other times in great vulnerability. Sometimes we share by disclosing the contents of our lives; other times by keeping silence and listening to what others have to say, creating sacred spaces of trust and respect.

This weekend, for multiple reasons, I don’t feel called to share “my vision” for the Episcopal Church or the issues we face as a nation, but rather to speak of the pillars upon which my life as a Christian depend. I will speak of some of the ways that Jesus has saved me in the past and is saving me now; of the times I have been allowed to walk on water because Jesus called me out of my boat; of how the miracle of the loaves and fish–inadequate offerings transformed by grace–is the spiritual foundation of my life; of what I have learned, and am learning, in my lifelong quest to remain open to multiple voices across wide spectrums of experience.

There is no question in my mind that we have been called for a time such as this, for this is the only time we have. And a lot depends upon how we live and respond to that call. But I also know that we can only speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen. We can only share what we ourselves have received. Thus it is also a time to draw deeply from the spiritual wells that sustain us, and daily receive the love, forgiveness, and mercies of Christ upon which our lives depend, so that what we share is indeed good news.

 

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