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Musings of an Anglican/Episcopal Priest

In Season and Out

Paul tells Timothy to “proclaim the message; be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable; convince, rebuke, and encourage, with the utmost patience in teaching” (2 Timothy 4:2). When I think of this verse however, it comes to mind in the words of the Authorized/King James version of my youth: “Preach the word; be instant in season, out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort with all longsuffering and doctrine (2 Timothy 4:2, KJV).

In many ways the time of the virus Covid-19 is, without a doubt, “unfavorable.” But for all that it has sent us into varied levels of seclusion and sequestration, and taking into the account the horrible impact on people’s lives, families, and yes, the economy, it is nevertheless a good season for the proclamation of the Good News.

When the Apostle wrote these words about an unfavorable time, I’m not sure he had in view a time when people wouldn’t need to hear the Gospel. Instead, I think it has to do with the potential consequences for the one proclaiming Christ’s resurrection and defeat of Hell, Death, and the Devil. There have certainly been unfavorable times in the history of the Church. The Soviet era. China today under President XI, whose plan for solidifying authority has seemed to include intensified restrictions and persecution of religious groups, especially Christians. The Second World War (Terrence Malick’s latest film, A Hidden Life explores that one).

Our time and place is not unfavorable in such overt ways to the proclamation of the Gospel. There are challenges–some of the questions raised in Malick’s film attest to that in their applicability to our present moment. And yet, as it relates to the Coronavirus, I wonder if we are indeed in a favorable time.

I don’t mean that the virus was a “good” thing. Far from it. What I mean is that this is a “good” time for the proclamation of the Good News. This is not because of the peculiarity of our current situation in which people are lonely, anxious, grief stricken, confused, and sometimes without a clear sense that anyone cares about their struggles. It’s not because of the peculiarity of this time, because precisely what makes this time a good one for the proclamation is that it is even now stripping away a facade that has allowed us to imagine that these sorts of challenges aren’t barely under the surface in the best of times.

In this context the message that you are beloved of God, that God became one of us so that through him we might be with God, is sorely needed. At a time when people might be questioning their worth, reminding them that they are not worthless but priceless in the sight of God–purchased at the unfathomable price of the Son–can provide necessary perspective and fortitude to make it through.

Making it through such a time with its heavy doses of reality is a challenge. Making it through in a way that might allow for thriving takes all our resources: Spiritual, relational, intellectual, physical. One sort of resource that comes to mind for me quite often in stressful times is literature. Scripture, of course, is its own category here. After years of doing the daily office, some scripture has gotten into my bones–particularly portions of the Psalms, which I will read even when I can’t do the entire office. But in addition to scripture, poetry is often an important emotional bulwark for me.

John Donne (1572 – 1631) one of the great metaphysical poets (and, along with George Herbert, one of my favorite poets overall), has come to mind quite a bit for me over these past few weeks. In particular, lines from Donne’s poem “Hymn to God, My God, In my Sickness” have pushed themselves to the forefront of my consciousness several times.

Per fretum febris. Donne inserts this Latin phrase in his poem, and it was among the first to come floating back to mind as I read about the effects of Covid-19. I recall reading it the first time and stumbling over the exact translation with my rusty Latin. “By the straight of a fever?” It took me a few moments, but I got the gist, if not the underlying reference. Donne was writing about a sickness that entailed a dangerous fever. Literary anthologies usually translate the phrase as “through the straights of fever.”

Donne’s Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness is in a sense Donne’s answer to the question: does God care?

Donne makes evocative use of references to cartography and exploration in his poem and his later reference to Magellan’s straits makes it all the more fitting that he’s calling to mind the death of the explorer Magellan who, while giving his names to straits, himself died before circumnavigating the globe–not reaching his intended destination. I believe Donne wants his readers to understand life–and death–as a journey. Not only in the general, but the particular sense. Sickness and dying are themselves journeys. And I think, unlike some contemporary commenters, Donne would be quick to both affirm the importance of the journey and the destination, as he focuses so closely on his “west,” i.e. both his impending death and his end/telos in union with Christ.

So it is that Magellan who navigated the globe and lent his name to the straits, died before reaching his goal, and now Donne, struck down by fever, navigating his life and what he believes to be his impending death, believes he may die by these straits–but his journey is will not be cut short. He will achieve his promised end. The destination not only matters, but is assured.

I’ve gotten ahead of myself. Per fretum febris. This phrase came to mind as I read descriptions of the symptomatology of the Coronavirus. Out of curiosity I decided to do some reading about the historical context of Donne’s composition. When had he written “Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness?” How close to Donne’s own death had it been? I remembered that Donne had died of what we now assume to have been stomach cancer. I also remember reading about his last sermon, “Death’s Duel” delivered at the beginning of Lent in 1630–but when had he written this moving poem the lines of which were brought to mind by our current societal predicament?

After a little digging I discovered that while some earlier commenters believed the poem to have been written shortly before Donne’s death in 1631, most commenters today believe it was written around 1623 (roughly the same time Donne is supposed to have written “A Hymn to God the Father”). John Donne: The Complete English Poems, in the outline of Donne’s life, says this of the year 1623: “Donne seriously ill.”

The sickness that Donne endured in 1623 is believed to have been either Typhus or relapsing fever–though he believed himself to have the plague (the last round of which hit England in 1666, after being endemic since the late 1300s and striking regularly with periodic peaks). This served as the background for the experience that prompted his famous words in Devotions upon Emergent Occasions: “…never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Donne’s words and our current predicament has led me to think long about what it must have been like for our forebears to live in a world that was perceived to be so much more precarious than our own. I say perceived not because I want to deny the advancements in technology, science, and public health that have been made over these few hundred years, but because of the fact that just because we have not recognized the fragility or precariousness of our situation, it does not mean it was not so. And I believe a recognition of that fact is actually necessary–perhaps paradoxically so–to build the sort of certainty we are comforted by.

The first sort of (albeit limited) certainty comes from taking seriously the threats that are simply of a piece with being part of the natural world. This may be especially true when we are under stress, and even more, when we have put our world under, and the creatures with whom we share it, under stress. As the Pope said recently in his Urbi et orbi address:

We did not stop at your reproach to us, we were not shaken awake by wars or injustice across the world, nor did we listen to the cry of the poor or of our ailing planet. We carried on regardless, thinking we would stay healthy in a world that was sick. Now that we are in a stormy sea, we implore you: “Wake up, Lord!”.

Pope Francis, March 27, 2020

The second sort of certainty testified to by Donne’s poem is likewise in evidence in the Pope’s words, and in his reference to the imploring words of the disciples: “Wake up, Lord!” This cry is one that may seem to come from desperation, but as Pope Francis pointed out, even their cry is a witness to a particular faith. They have faith in Jesus, but they wonder: does he care?

“Let us try to understand. In what does the lack of the disciples’ faith consist, as contrasted with Jesus’ trust? They had not stopped believing in him; in fact, they called on him. But we see how they call on him: “Teacher, do you not care if we perish?” (v. 38). Do you not care: they think that Jesus is not interested in them, does not care about them. One of the things that hurts us and our families most when we hear it said is: “Do you not care about me?” It is a phrase that wounds and unleashes storms in our hearts. It would have shaken Jesus too. Because he, more than anyone, cares about us. Indeed, once they have called on him, he saves his disciples from their discouragement.”

Pope Francis, March 27, 2020

Donne’s Hymn to God, My God, in My Sickness is in a sense Donne’s answer to the question: does God care? This question of whether or not God cares about what happens to humanity is an important one. The Christian response is fundamentally that God does care–we do not believe in a divine and sublimely distracted clockmaker, but in the God who became human in Jesus Christ. Because of this, someone like George MacDonald might warn that doubting God’s goodness (a species of which might be doubting whether or not God cares) could be worse that doubting God’s very existence:

“To deny the existence of God may, paradoxical as the statement will at first seem to some, involve less unbelief than the smallest yielding to doubt of his goodness. I say yielding; for a man may be haunted with doubts, and only grow thereby in faith. Doubts are the messengers of the Living One to rouse the honest. They are the first knock at our door of things that are not yet, but have to be, understood…”

George MacDonald, Sermon on Job, Unspoken Sermons

I take comfort in the fact that, as MacDonald says, there is a difference between having doubts, or asking questions, and in yielding to such doubts. Certainly believing in a capricious or monstrous deity is worse than believing in no deity at all–for while the latter may lead in some cases to an insidious or evil nihilism, the former may lead to a nihilism that boasts divine approval.

All the Saints in Paradise surrounding Christ in Majesty

So it is significant that, when confronted with the possibility of his death, Donne reflects on the way his body has become its own cosmography, a type of map for his physicians to read. He despairs of their finding a means of his cure–rather than the straits of health, he believes that they are simply showing him the reality of his situation, and that the straits of his fever will likely mean his death. Imagining what his end might be, he describes a holy room, where–in a beautiful image–he writes “with thy choir of saints for evermore, I shall be made thy music…”

For Donne, his end is Christ. Jesus is his destination because Jesus is essential to his present. “Shall my west [death] hurt me?” he asks, then answers,

As west and east
In all flat maps (and I am one) are one,
So death doth touch the resurrection.

This unity of apparent opposites gets even more pointed as he invokes the tradition that Christ was crucified on the site of the fall, and imagines what it means to be united with humanity’s natural head (Adam, who fell) and with the head of renewed and redeemed humanity and restored creation, Jesus:

We think that Paradise and Calvary,
Christ's cross, and Adam's tree, stood in one place;
Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me;
As the first Adam's sweat surrounds my face,
May the last Adam's blood my soul embrace.

Ultimately it is Christ’s union with humanity upon which Donne places his trust. The solidarity of God with us, first in the incarnation and lifted up on the cross is an essential aspect of the way Donne works out the specific uncertainty around what he believes to be his impending death. I believe it is also the core of his ability to live with the uncertainty and fickleness of nature that was so much more in evidence in his day than in ours. “Coronatide” as some on the so-called Weird Anglican Twitter have dubbed it, is a time when we get a glimpse of what normal life was like for our forebears. Frailty was more difficult to deny and uncertainty drew close–but closer still was the Good News of God’s love.

This is why Donne could write/pray with such awareness in Holy Sonnet 14 “Batter my heart, three-personed God…” and why he could close this hymn of his sickness with a strong affirmation of ultimate union with Christ–it was a union already real, set to be revealed:

So, in his purple wrapp'd, receive me, Lord;
By these his thorns, give me his other crown;
And as to others' souls I preach'd thy word,
Be this my own text, my sermon to mine own:
"Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down."

While the entire poem is a favorite, perhaps my favorite line in the whole is the final one: “Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.” One could get into a deep theological discussion about the nature of providence and of God’s active vs. God’s permissive will. Here though, I believe the background of this line is a type of the question posed by the Disciples, and highlighted by Pope Francis: “Do you not care?” At some point we all have to come to terms with the fact of our own mortality. Whether that is experienced per fretum febris, in a singular event or as part of some wider calamity. In doing so, we have to ask, if we believe in a loving God, “do you not care that we are perishing?” (Mark 4:38). Donne’s answer, I believe, is summarized in this final line: “Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.”

We do not know why such evils are allowed–and let’s be honest, God’s allowance as all powerful is only finely distinguished from God’s activity, therefore we may feel that the natural trials we face are in some way God throwing us down. But Donne’s answer, if I can call that, reminds me of Jesus’ answer to the disciples when they ask why the man had been born blind. “Who sinned?” they asked, “this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus’ response is revealing: “Neither this man nor his parents sinned; he was born blind so that God’s works might be revealed in him” (John 9:4).

Donne’s answer, and its reflection on our current situation may be summarized this way: we do not know why evils befall us, whether exceptional, as with this virus (at least in our own day) or more common–death itself. But we do know that God loves us (Jesus is exhibit alpha through omega of that). And because of Christ, we know that God is with us even in the most dire and challenging circumstances. And because God–specifically, because Jesus–has been with us, we know that Jesus will not abandon us. We know that we have been made one with him and that his crown of thorns, adorning his brow as he united himself with us in death, becomes a crown of glory as we are united to him in resurrected life. Why does God allow evil to befall us despite the ability to prevent it? Because we do not yield to the doubting of God’s goodness, we must believe something good for us is ultimately purposed, turning even the bad to those good ends.

“Therefore that he may raise, the Lord throws down.” The tragedy, the falls we endure, can in the end, only be redeemed if there is an even greater lifting up awaiting us. And if we are not left alone to endure in the present moment.

We are in a season where the saccharine claims of a false and comfortable piety will be revealed for the weightless fantasies they are. Where the ultimate nihilism of a consumeristic materialism will be unmasked as mute and powerless idols. So this is indeed a season when the proclamation of the Good News is needed. The Good News of God in Christ, of Christ’s love for us, of his death, resurrection, and ascension–and ultimately his coming again. A gospel message that can lead us all to echo the words of Donne, “Look, Lord, and find both Adams met in me…”

Look on your people, Lord, who know you love us because you came to be with us, and find not only our failures and hatreds, but our striving after goodness and our love for each other. Look on us and find your Son, Jesus, working in our hearts.

Lenten Music Mix #1

A friend on social media asked for suggestions for a Lenten playlist. The intent was, I think, for more traditional and spiritual music, but some folks shared popular music that they thought of as appropriately penitential or somehow related to the spirit of the season. With that in mind, I present my own Americana Lenten Playlist, chosen with an eye toward inspiring self-reflection, not necessarily theological accuracy or purity. I will probably do a separate list of overtly spiritual songs from popular artists–there may be some overlap.

Why 12? It just seemed better than 10:

  1. God’s Gonna Cut you Down, by Johnny Cash:
  1. No Hard Feelings, The Avett Brothers
  1. The Man Comes Around, By Johnny Cash (really more fitting for early Advent, but nevertheless):
  1. Firewater, Old Crow Medicine Show
  1. Hey Stranger, Mandolin Orange
  1. Tell the Truth, The Avett Brothers
  1. Watertown, Nathan Hamilton and No Deal
  1. I Hung My Head, Johnny Cash
  1. Hurt, Johnny Cash
  1. Ill with Want, The Avett Brothers
  1. Psalms of War, Ben Arthur
  1. Masters of War, Bob Dylan

Thoughts for a Holy Lent #1

John Donne, Holy Sonnet IV

The Lord Watch Between You and Me. (Because someone has to keep us honest).

Last week I had the opportunity to go on our Diocesan clergy silent retreat. This is only my second time participating in this particular retreat and I’ve enjoyed both gatherings very much.

One of the key points made early in the series of five reflections (delivered this year by our Bishop, John Bauerschmidt) was the way in which memory breaks in during times of silence and we may find ourselves enjoying pleasant memories, or confronting awkward or even negative ones. Silence allows things to bubble to the surface that often don’t have the opportunity. Part of this means that we might be surprised by the memories that come to the fore.

One of the memories that came to mind for me was only partial, and it wasn’t particularly positive or negative–though it was humorous. It came to mind during Morning Prayer on Wednesday, when the first lesson was from Genesis (I’ll share the reference later). the reading brought to mind the vague memory of an event I attended at some point–maybe a youth retreat, or some other function. I don’t recall much, but I do recall the ending of our time together. One of the leaders spent a fair amount of time–and maybe there was a prayer or a song related to the same theme–talking about how the Lord would protect us when we were absent from one another, and quoting the passage from Genesis, that is rendered in the King James version, “The Lord watch between me and thee, when we are absent one from another” (Genesis 31:49).By the time I heard this I’d been doing morning prayer long enough that the reference tickled my awareness and I looked it up. In context I couldn’t imagine why this phrase would ever acquire the use and meaning it had.  “How in the world could someone use this in a positive way at the end of an event.” What is recounted is Jacob’s surreptitious departure, at God’s command, from the territory of his father-in-law Laban, and their subsequent meeting after Laban follows.The meeting is not a positive one, but while bitter, it does not fall into violence.  Nevertheless, one of the few things that Laban and Jacob agree on, is that they do not trust each other, and therefore they asking God to keep watch because the people aren’t trustworthy to each other after a bitter argument.  As Robert Alter pointed out in his commentary, this exchange even stands in the background of the establishment of an international border.  That is, a boundary between people groups: 

Laban said, “This heap is a witness between you and me today.” Therefore he called it Galeed, and the pillar Mizpah, for he said, “The Lord watch between you and me, when we are absent one from the other.  If you ill-treat my daughters, or if you take wives in addition to my daughters, though no one else is with us, remember that God is witness between you and me.”

Then Laban said to Jacob, “See this heap and see the pillar, which I have set between you and me.  This heap is a witness, and the pillar is a witness, that I will not pass beyond this heap to you, and you will not pass beyond this heap and this pillar to me, for harm.  May the God of Abraham and the God of Nahor”—the God of their father—“judge between us.” So Jacob swore by the Fear of his father Isaac,  and Jacob offered a sacrifice on the height and called his kinsfolk to eat bread; and they ate bread and tarried all night in the hill country (Genesis 31:48-54).

Of course, I thought this was hilarious at the time, but I’d forgotten it.  The combination of reading the passage at Morning Prayer (Gen. 31:25-50) and thinking about past experiences brought it back to mind. Because I happen to be reading Robert Alter’s newly published translation of the Hebrew Bible now, I looked over the passage in his translation which makes the conflict even more clear in some ways.  For example, Alter translates part of the exchange as “May the Lord look out between you and me when we are out of each other’s sight. Should you abuse my daughters, and should you take wives besides my daughters though no one else is present, see, God is witness between you and me” (Genesis 31:49-50, Alter’s translation). Alter’s version highlights the loss of trust between the two men, and how God is being called on to keep each of them on the straight and narrow, and to bear witness should either of them violate their agreement.

This background makes the presence of paired pendants with this phrase on it, marketed to friends, family members, and sweethearts all the more ironic.  It’s about separation, and God’s attention, of that there’s no doubt.  But it’s a divine attention prayed for–and threatened–because there’s no trust between the two people in question.  And I have to wonder–is this the sentiment you really want to invoke when you’re going to be separated from a loved one for some period of time?

Bonus content:
Here’s a sample of Alter’s book and the notes on part of this section. I can’t recommend it highly enough:

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The Chinese Dragon and the Cross

For a number of years the Chinese government has been increasing its persecution of Christians by tightening enforcement of building regulations, requiring the removal of crosses, the use of political imagery, and pursuing the arrest and detention of Christian leaders from the underground house church movement.

Not all of this oppression is unique to Christianity. Readers may remember the suppression of the Falun Gong movement, for example. In China, as elsewhere, Communism is no friend to religious belief and practice.

But I do think the antagonism between Christianity and Communism is particular and intrinsic to the foundational assumptions of both as ideologies. China has vacillated between limited toleration, hoping to capitalize on the social benefits that may come with Christian belief among the citizenry, and persecution when Christianity seemed to be getting too strong.

These issues have recently been brought to the forefront of my mind by the protests in Hong Kong. Hong Kong is one area of China, because of the one nation two systems approach, that has maintained more freedom of religion. Additionally, the Hong Kong legal system has been strongly shaped by the Common Law tradition, which has been heavily influenced by Christian presuppositions (though, of course it is in the nature of the Common Law to be influenced by the presuppositions of those who adhere to it).

All of this being said, there is a specific danger as President Xi of China consolidates power and sets himself up more firmly as a modern day totalitarian leader. That danger is that religions, including Christianity, will find themselves co-opted into the service of Chinese nationalism.

Precisely because this situation is not new or unique, Christians need to be watchful and pray for our brothers and sisters in China. We need to pray for their clarity and their discernment, as well as their fortitude and courage. The tweet below demonstrates one example of the problematic nature of this sort of coopting:

Folks might rightly point out that you could see similar things at American Megachurches on Memorial Day. But while theologically that too is a marker of something disturbing, it is not a coercive or commanded obedience and nationalism. Even more concerning are efforts by the Chinese government post Tiananmen to influence the media of the Chinese diaspora, as well as their faiths, so as to be more amenable to the plans of the Chinese government.

So, if all of this is the case (and I hasten to add I am no expert, simply thinking about the issues as I understand and have read about them), then what is the hope in terms of Christian witness in China? To answer this question, I think about the words of the late Lamin Sanneh, a scholar of world Christian mission, who wrote of Christianity in China, that:

“Mao might be far from Christendom, but not far enough to avoid rousing the Christian ghost from the mountain recluses and political backwaters to which rhetoric banished it. The political mission of China seemed too evocative of the Christian mission it combated for it to succeed without the Christian alibi. And that alibi came to haunt the gatekeepers of the revolution”

Lamin Sanneh, Disciples of All Nations, 269

Trinity Sunday Sermon, given at Christ Church Cathedral on June 16, 2019

The Twilight of the Greatest Generation & the loss of Memory

As we grow further removed in history from World War II and D Day, especially as that generation dies and fewer people have even heard first-hand accounts from family members and others they know, people will need more reminders of the significance. The map below is one reminder. 50% of deaths from allied civilians. A trial everywhere, but in some cases completely staggering–a 25% death toll in Belarus for example.

And while a lot of folks may not realize it, for the reasons given above–the postwar pursuit of economic integration, free trade, and the emergence of the European Union (with the UK as an important ballast to prevent domination by Germany or France)–were integral to the peace that emerged and the fact that there hasn’t been another conflagration in Europe.

Cordell Hull

Tennessean Cordell Hull (there’s a building named after him on the square in Gallatin, and he was a graduate of the Normal School at Bowling Green KY, which I’m guessing was a predecessor to Western Kentucky University) was a major architect of this and champion of the insight that economic integration fosters peace. Not without flaws–he opposed admitting Jewish refugees fleeing from the Nazis and thus did not rise above the lesser instincts of his day on that front–he nonetheless advocated for a perspective on international trade and peace that has proven insightful, durable, and mostly accurate.

The breakdown of the postwar consensus, the likely departure of the UK from the EU, and greater moves toward nationalism and economic protectionism, especially when the advocates display very little awareness of the broader implications of those changes, when the broader implications–political and social–of the postwar policies were arguably the major point, with base level economics being secondary. This latter issue was also in play with the short-sighted rejection of the Trans-pacific Partnership trade agreement by both candidate Hillary Clinton and now-President Trump. Trump’s issues with China can be read in part as a result of the fact that the multilateral economic agreement meant to bind Pacific rim powers more closely to the United States and hem in Chinese influence, was rejected in favor of his arrogant attempts at bilateral agreements.

Hull was honored with the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945 for his instrumental work in founding the United Nations. Funny that the apocalyptic preachers of my youth who so often used the UN as a Boogieman, never mentioned that a Southerner–a Tennessean!–was integral to its founding. If they had, regional loyalties are such that it might have limited the effectiveness of their message.

As one essay about Hull and his work prior to WWII put it, “Mark Twain said, ‘you can’t depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.’ Secretary Hull and the commercial policy planners foresaw an integrated world economy where peace would be built on trade liberalization. But most Americans could not yet picture that world” (Available here–requires registration). Now, the problem seems to be we’ve seen only that world for long enough, that we’ve forgotten how bleak the alternative of nationalistic factionalism is.

Sermon given at the Ordination of Charles W. Hall to the Sacred Order of Deacons

Sermon Notes for Diaconal Ordination
June 1, 2019
Scripture: Luke 12:35-38

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

“…Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks” (Luke 12:36).

Today we celebrate the ordination of a new deacon in Christ’s Holy Church.  Another leader called, equipped, and now ordained from the midst of God’s people.  Charles, the ordination which you receive today is a gift. Today, when Bishop John lays hands on you and consecrates you a deacon, he will do so for the Church.  Through that apostolic authority, the Church, by the power of the Holy Spirit, will make you a deacon. You will become part of the order of deacons, and you will bear the responsibilities of the order.  And everyone here will be reminded of the gift, and obligations they bear to God and God’s Church.

Our Gospel text gives us a good summary of part of that obligation: “Be like those who are waiting for their master… so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks.”

This teaching is given to all Christians, but it is a particular call for those who are ordained to the task of helping all Christians honor it.

Our orders do not belong to us, even though to properly exercise them, we must embrace them, and let them shape us. In a way, ordination is the simplest thing in the world–if we didn’t have it, we would have to invent it, so central does it seem to the exercise of the church’s ministry–someone, after all, needs to lead services, to teach, to preach.  In another sense it is strange. How, to paraphrase Stanley Hauerwas, can an individual be ordained to do what only the whole church can do?  Hauerwas was speaking specifically of officiating at the Holy Eucharist, but the same question can be asked of each of the orders that make up the three-fold ministry.  These orders are a gift from God for the benefit of the Church. Instituted by Christ and the Apostles, and later guided by the Holy Spirit in development, they are the means whereby the people of God have ordered our common life and ensured the apostolic witness, teaching, and ongoing faithfulness.  They are particular embodiments of the way the church has pursued faithfulness to Jesus.

This important aspect of each of the threefold orders is highlighted in the preface to the Ordination Rites, which at the end says “It is also recognized and affirmed that the threefold ministry is not the exclusive property of this portion of Christ’s catholic Church, but is a gift from God for the nurture of his people and the proclamation of his Gospel everywhere” (BCP 510).

This means that while we are ordained in the Episcopal Church, our orders are not strictly of the Episcopal Church.  but belong to the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.  While other traditions may disagree, we have never seen ourselves as doing anything other than continuing the means whereby the church set out, by the Spirit’s guidance, to organize itself.

Which brings us back to the strangeness.  How can one person be ordained to do what only the whole church can do?  They can, because it is impossible for the church to *do* anything except through the actions and example of particular Christians.  Paul attests to the diversity of gifts given God’s people by the Spirit. Ordination is a recognition and expansion of that fundamental insight.  The Church recognizes that we need individuals to serve in specific ways so that the Church as a whole can fulfil its mission.. They are the possession neither of us as individuals, nor of our communion within the Church Catholic. Yet we must own them in the sense of fulfilling their purpose and honoring their example–whether as lay or ordained Christians.  A Bishop is ordained to exercise oversight within the body of Christ, to offer teaching, exhortation, and occasionally correction, because this is a service and obligation the church owes to itself corporately and to its members individually.  A presbyter is ordained and celebrates the Eucharist by virtue of being in fellowship with the Bishop, and preaches, teaches, and upholds tradition because it is a responsibility that the Church owes to itself, and in order to fulfill it, someone must do it. tRe Spirit Calls.

Christians are called to love our neighbors sacrificially, and to work for the good of our communities.  We are all called to serve, in imitation of Christ. And yet, we need examples of this love and service. and people who are especially equipped to encourage us in the fulfillment of these tasks.  So we have the order of Deacons. In each case, the order exemplifies a call, an obligation born by the whole church, that must then be exercised by specific people within the church in order for it to be fulfilled, and to which people are called, having their ministries recognized and affirmed by the people of God.

A former professor of mine once said that he sometimes thought that those called to ordained ministry were called because God knew we needed a little extra help.  Personal experience says that may be. But those called to greater intentionality, are called to serve the church that needs a witness and an encouragement. So your ordination is a gift to you, and to the whole church.  Your ministry is your offering. Your call is to greater personal faithfulness, for the greater faithfulness of God’s people.

Be dressed for action, and have your lamps lit Jesus tells us. In this service, you will be dressed in the garments of a deacon, and you will fulfill the liturgical functions of a deacon for the first time. It is an honor.  The work in the service is symbolic of the work to which you are called in the world and in the church. As a Deacon you will be tasked with searching out and interpreting the needs of the world and of the people of God, to those who are in leadership in the community.  You will also have particular opportunities to interpret the Gospel to people in the world. Proclaiming the Gospel, preparing the Altar–these are important acts, and they are also illustrative of the way your ministry should be carried out beyond the liturgy. More fundamentally, they are examples of Christian service that when reflective all of our lives, can draw us to greater faithfulness as baptized people.

Be like those who are waiting for their master to return from the wedding banquet, so that they may open the door for him as soon as he comes and knocks. All Christians are called to be spiritually awake, to live in anticipation of Christ’s return, and to be observant of opportunities to follow Jesus.  And yet, we know as human beings, we have a need for reminders and encouragement in order to do what we need or ought to do. So it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to the Church, that there would be Christians called to do just that.  One of my favorite analogies for the priesthood comes from a little book by George Sumner, now Bishop of Dallas, where he refers to the priest as a giant finger pointing the people to Jesus. I’d like to expand that analogy. Once again, it is one that properly fits the witness of every Christian- in general-we should all be pointing others toward Jesus.  In a narrower sense, it fits the call of those who are ordained. We are called to point others to Jesus, and to point our fellow Christians toward one another and their neighbors.

It could be tempting to be trapped by the imagery of the household, to think that the knocking of Jesus is just about him coming to where we are passively waiting, and opening the door to let him in.  But we can expand the imagery of hearing Christ knocking–perhaps it’s hearing Christ knocking in our hearts. Perhaps it’s hearing or seeing Christ present in other people who are in need, or who are highlighting some needed action by the Church.  Perhaps the knocking is actually our being willing to discern the eagerness with which Jesus hopes to encounter those who have never heard the Gospel, or to understand their need to hear it. In each case, it is our task to seek out the places where Christ is knocking, where the Holy Spirit is at work anticipating our engagement with what God is doing.

Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes
We must be alert in our lives of faith, and in the exercise of our ministries.  But I want to share a thought for you in particular Charles. Because you will be moving toward ordination as a priest.  Because your vocational path lies in military chaplaincy in the US Navy, I think it’s fair to say that you could face the temptation, as you look ahead at schedules and requirements, and tasks, to allow this season of your direct diaconal ministry to pass by in a blur. I want to encourage you not to let that happen.  Take time to explore this new ministry.  Listen to what the Holy Spirit and the People of God are telling you.  There’s much more to alertness than simply being awake.  Being alert means being aware.

Take the time to be aware.  To be aware of the people you are called to serve, to be aware of what God is doing in their lives and yours, to be aware of the work of God in your community, and how you can share that with your parish, and with the neighbors, Christian and non-Christian you encounter.
If you can do that.  If we can all-take the time to hear and see what God is doing, where Jesus is knocking, we will be faithfully fulfilling not only our vocations as ordained people, but as the baptized–and if he comes in the middle of the night, or near dawn, in the Sunday liturgy, or the Wednesday bible study, the committee meeting, or the neighborhood gathering, in the hospital room, the family supper, or in the prison, or anywhere else Jesus might show up–and finds us so engaged in the ministry with which he has entrusted us, then we will all, indeed, be blessed.  Amen.

Framework for a Pet’s Funeral

Periodically during my ministry, or indeed in the life of our family, the need for some form of recognition for the death of a beloved pet has been apparent. I developed what I call a Pet Funeral Framework in response to this–it’s a simple selection of readings and prayers that can be tailored in length to the occasion (and to the age and attention span of one’s children).

I offer it below for your use, if needed.

For a Church Full of Thomases

Sermon Notes for the Second Sunday of Easter
Variations of this sermon preached at 8 AM and 10:30 AM at Church of the Resurrection, Franklin TN
April 28, 2019
Scripture: Acts 5:27-32 · Psalm 118:14-29 · Revelation 1:4-8 · John 20:19-31

About the artist: I Can’t find a Joshua Hamis–I don’t think it’s Harris–online, otherwise I would link to their page.

One of my favorite church related cartoons pops up regularly at this time of year, around Thomas Sunday. It shows three men standing together, with one gesturing emphatically, a bubble above his head with the words “All I’m saying is we don’t call Peter “Denying Peter” or Mark “Ran Away Naked Mark.” Why should I get saddled with this title?” One of the other men in the drawing responds “I see your point, Thomas, but really, it’s time to move on.

The cartoon is a humorous take on a serious observation: for some reason, even as the other disciples exhibited varied flaws and sins, it is Thomas who is remembered as the doubter. Even though, in the Gospel of Matthew, we’re told that when the resurrected Jesus appeared to the disciples, they fell down and worshipped him, “but some doubted.” Not one. Some. Plural (cf. Matthew 28:17).

Sometimes Thomas is the subject of condescending chuckles, or portrayed as the embodiment of our own contemporary tilt toward skepticism: Thomas, the first Missourian, saying like the motto of the Show me state, “Show me!” Show me, and then I’ll believe. Not before.

This tendency becomes more and more strange as we examine what has been going on. Notice where the disciples are. They’re back in the upper room where they’d shared the last supper. The doors are locked out of fear. They’ve heard about the resurrection, but have they really believed? I don’t see much evidence yet. Then Jesus appears, and gives them the gift of the Holy Spirit, and Thomas–poor Thomas–wasn’t around. I think a more accurate nickname for him might be Bad-timing Thomas.

Nevertheless, he’s remembered as the doubter. And yet, while it may seem rather unfair, I wonder if that’s in part because we have the wrong idea about doubt. And here I want to talk about doubt as something different from skepticism or an absence of belief. I want to suggest that doubt requires faith. You cannot doubt what you don’t have to begin with. Thomas had faith in Jesus. Remember, he was so committed that when Jesus said he was going to go back to Judea and to Jerusalem, it was Thomas who said to the other disciples “let us also go, that we may die with him.” I don’t think Thomas was being ironic. I think he really believed enough in Jesus that he was ready to die for him. He just didn’t understand–as none of them did–that Jesus was to die for them. For us.

The context, therefore of Thomas’ reluctance. The context for his unwillingness to believe the account given him by the other disciples, was not the context of rejection or even simple skepticism. It was a reluctance to believe the impossible. A reluctance they’d all exhibited at one point or another. People don’t simply rise from the dead. Even in a premodern, pre-enlightenment time, people knew this. Thomas was simple the latest, and so the title gets hung about his neck.

But it’s not as bad as it seems. Doubt, it turns out, is not something to be rejected or feared. It’s part of the natural process of strengthening our faith. A faith that never encounters doubt is an unexamined faith, just as a world that never leaves us lamenting or, like the Psalmist, challenging God because of what occurs, is a world we haven’t paid much attention to.

We live in a world in which people have a tendency to delight in empty skepticism. To reject belief or doctrine based on a shallow understanding or clear misunderstanding. This isn’t doubt. That’s surface level thinking. Doubt in contrast, can be seen as being like bubbles in the water as we dive deeper into our faith.

The Scottish Pastor turned English Professor and author, and inspiration to C.S. Lewis, George McDonald, describes doubt this way in a sermon on Job:

What MacDonald understood, and what we must understand, is that doubt is only a portion of Thomas’ story. It is a necessary part of the story, but ultimately of less importance than where it leads. You see, Thomas the Doubter becomes Thomas the confessor–the one who most clearly proclaims Christ’s identity: “My Lord and my God!” And he never would have arrived at this place of greater understanding and deeper faith, if it were not for the reality of his faith and his doubt, his doubt in the midst of faith and faith in the midst of doubt.

What are we to take away from this today? What is Thomas’ example to us? I think it’s at least two fold. First, I think we need to understand that doubt arises from the context of faith, and, in order to be true doubt and healthy doubt it needs faith to push against. In other words, doubts are part of a spiritual dialogue that we all engage in. Outside the context of faith, they make no sense to begin with. Secondly, it is not only his own faith that Thomas wrestles with, it is the faith and testimony of the other disciples. Notice that neither they nor Jesus cast Thomas out for his doubt. The other disciples witness patiently and wait on the Lord to act. Jesus actually responds to Thomas’ request and invites him to experience the proof he desired.

And just like the situation in Matthew’s Gospel that I mentioned earlier, where they worshipped him, “but some doubted,” Jesus understands that doubts are things to be worked with and worked through. The occasion of doubt Matthew shares immediately precedes Jesus’ giving of the Great Commission to the disciples, to go into the world making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. In our gospel today, Jesus points Thomas and the other disciples–and by extension us–beyond Thomas’ doubts and toward the future: blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe–even in the midst of their doubts. Jesus doesn’t let the disciples’ doubts–or our doubts–let them or us off the hook. We’re called to go deeper into faith, to support one another in that process, and in doing so, to confess, with Thomas, “My Lord and my God!”


“Almighty God, your Son Jesus Christ heard the cry of the one who said, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.” Make us a church of Thomases. A people honest and forthright in doubt, rooted in faith. We pray that through our doubts, borne and confronted in the midst of faith, we would grow ever deeper in our knowledge and love of you. Grant that we would move, by your Spirit, from doubt to confession, proclaiming, like Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” For we know that you have faith is us, saving us through your Son, our Saviour, Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, world without end. Amen.


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