Tuesday, December 17, 2013

December 17, Tuesday of Week Three of Advent

Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the LORD. Many nations shall join themselves to the LORD on that day, and shall be my people; and I will dwell in your midst. And you shall know that the LORD of hosts has sent me to you. (Zechariah 2: 10-11)

3:26 AM - I should be sleeping. I've been awake since 2:30, give or take. What's best to do with the Christmas Eve afternoon service? Should we invest in property next door to the church? What's the best way to help Howie? Why am I stuck on a weight plateau? Why is it so hard to lose weight anyway?

Does God come to us in the middle of our insomnia? I usually sleep ok. Not tonight. Not tonight with so much that I want to go right, be good, offer the first and best gifts of what God gives me. All of my anxieties about myself and frustrations with how things are or may turn out are invading the middle of my usual time to sleep. 

I am awake. 

I am awake in Advent. Worrying about Christmas Worrying about how to finance my purchases. I am eyes wide open in Advent. Pondering how to make the church I serve "successful." 'Like I can do that? When is good, good enough? Am I supposed to worrying, anticipating, both, neither? 

I'd prefer to be asleep in Advent right now, at least for a couple of hours before when I'm scheduled to wake up and go to yoga class. My purpose then is to burn a few calories, practice breathing; you know, be healthy. My purpose throughout this Advent has been to accomplish all of those things that are associated with practicing a devoted spiritual discipline.  I suck at contemplative prayer; so, I thought I'd give yoga a fourth chance. What should I hold on to and what should I let go of before the odd but wonderful things will happen in Bethlehem. 

It's now 3:47 AM. Maybe I should be singing and dancing like the prophet Zechariah suggests. He's one of those prophets at the back of the Old Testament that people don't know much about. His words don't get heard alot anymore, if they ever did. That's how I feel about this blog. Nobody reads it. Why bother with it? Would I, or the church I serve be more successful if more people showed up and read and saw what I (we) did. As if it's all about me.

I think the behavior that the Prophet Zechariah was trying to share with the Jews returning from Babylon was that Yahweh was creating something new. God was restoring God's Reign amongst the people who had been taken away from their roots, their, homes, and their sleep. God's kingdom of justice and peace wasn't going to happen simply, or casually. Remembrance and repentance are crucial for the people to practice. There were then and are now some sleepless nights when wandering around with God in seasons of Advent. 

Remembrance and repentance are connected to rejoicing. It is because of the connections between then, and what is to come in our now when we most trust in The Messiah's presence. Anxiety about what happened or what's happening won't determine the outcome of either one. Letting go, seeking forgiveness, being faithful and hopeful. These virtues in concert and song with one another perhaps best define how our song and dance of life goes in Advent. God knows and God cares.

It's 4:14 AM - a little less than an hour until the alarm goes off.

I think I'll try to nap in Advent for that little amount of time.  May God dwell in the middle of our midst if you are awake with me.

Blessings Along The Way, Jim+

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

December 11, Wednesday of Week Two of Advent

“Write this to the angel of the church in Ephesus: These are the words of the one who holds the seven stars in his right hand and walks among the seven gold lampstands:  I know your works, your labor, and your endurance. I also know that you don’t put up with those who are evil. You have tested those who say they are apostles but are not, and you have found them to be liars. You have shown endurance and put up with a lot for my name’s sake, and you haven’t gotten tired.  But I have this against you: you have let go of the love you had at first.  (Revelation 2: 1-4)

I've done a few 100 mile rides on my bicycle. I've also gone through some rough stretches in churches that I've belonged to over the years. Both of experiences have been real grinds at time. The work get hard. Muscles get taunt. Patience becomes strained. Grinding out the hard miles, especially going up hill has taken me right to the brink on an occasion or two.  One of my spinning instructors is now teaching me how to train at a heart rate that is hard work but not so hard that I don't get too tired too quickly. I've got a couple of mentors in the Episcopal Church who help me to think about preaching and teaching with endurance and perseverance in mind. My bicycling informs my vocation and vice verse. Both disciplines require a lot of work; testing things out, remaining steadfast in prayer and hope. 

Church of Mary - Ephesus (5th Century CE)
John's words for the Church in Ephesus remind me this afternoon why I put in all of those miles in and out of the saddle and pulpit.


Love of other people. Love of the life God has given me; the life I'm entrusted with here in the middle of a very cold December. That's the same love I seek when I was out bicycling for 50 + miles on a warm day to support ECSF's compassionate Gospel-based work. I wonder now if those of us who are grinding it out in churches and fitness centers around The Church don't need to slow down just a mile per hour or two. Perhaps we (I) should think back upon why we're (I'm) so busily putting together Christmas programs? Why are we (I) scrambling to figure out how to get more people to come to church? Why are we (I)  working so hard to make so many things happen in so little time. Is it because of our (my) own sense of accomplishment? Is it our American culture prodding us (me) to be more productive, more successful?

Maybe it's time to return back to the love that we had when we first encountered Christ. I wonder if it's so important to get up at 5:00 AM to get to the gym or stay at the church till 9:00 PM at night if those behaviors aren't somehow deeply and richly connected to God's love for me and my love for God.

I can't speak for others....but tonight, I'm going to heed John's words to the Ephesians and think about my first loves and how the most important things I love aren't about me or how hard I work. Such perseverance is great and laudable but without love, deep faithful love in God and God's love for all of us -- what's the point?

Blessings Along The Way, Jim+

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

December 10, Tuesday of Week Two of Advent

When the Pharisees heard that he had silenced the Sadducees, they gathered together, and one of them, a lawyer, asked him a question to test him. 'Teacher, which commandment in the law is the greatest?' He said to him, '"You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind." This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: "You shall love your neighbor as yourself." On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.' (Matthew 22: 34-40)

There's no Good Samaritan parable in Matthew. Jesus and the Pharisees just move along to another rhetorical argument.  What do you think about the Messiah? Whose Son is he?

Matthew's Jesus and Pharisees aren't as interested in identifying how people live into Jesus' two greatest commandments. The question they seem to avoid is: How does the compassionate, vulnerable, uncertain love triangle between God, me, and my neighbors work?  Matthew understands Jesus Christ's Gospel with a primary focus on The Messiah's relationship with Jews and existing Judaic laws. Luke is more interested in connecting the Messiah with existing Jewish traditions even as Christ's Gospel liberates Gentiles and promotes the Early Church's apostolic expansion. If all the Law and the Prophets are hung (literally "crucified" or leading to death") on such love; why do we often place more value and trust in doctrine instead of forgiveness? Why are prophetic expectations more important than striving to make ourselves and those around us more holy and better connected to God?

Weird, isn't it... Christian Communities still wrestle with bedrock questions of faith. How should we best live into Jesus' two greatest commandments? Who is the primary audience for our Christian discipleship? What does it look and feel like when our lives flow outward from a deep and abiding love for God and neighbors alike? The essence of each and every question that we more fully live into provides a chance to ... well take a stand (or sit down) for what we believe is true about love.

There are some any ways to actually fall in love with love (God) while loving the people around us. Some such efforts such as those of Simon Griffiths have worldwide implications. He's working on wiping out poverty, in a bodily sort of way. Mr. Griffiths is someone who "Gives A Crap." He and his business partners have created a company that distributes designer toilet paper and distributes profits to provide toilets to communities in developing countries where the absence of toilets directly leads to the deaths villagers. You should definitely watch his humorous, non-religious, but very loving TedTalk.

Maybe that feels too big? If so what is somewhat smaller but you're willing to hang your life out for it? What self-giving way of being yourself would shut-up the Pharisees in your life while bringing about a transformational and Christ-like way of loving God, your neighbor, and yourself. One of Advent's primary purposes is to prepare ourselves for embracing God's birth into the world. How will we welcome Jesus? Who are the shepherd and magi we should invite to be with us at the manger? Will we welcome someone like a smelly shepherd boy without any money to come alongside of us as we worship God? Will we take our worship outside of our walls to an inn where poor people are sheltering themselves from the cold. What social media tools might we use as Simon Griffiths does that would create a compassionate relationship with people who just don't need toilet paper but may also need to know that God's Commandments are true and embodied by us. Are there rituals we should set aside or pick up that will encourage us to worship and wonder with more people. Setting aside the rhetoric for something "real," helpful, and blessed might just get the Gospel out in ways we can't imagine and would indeed change the world as Jesus the Christ's godliness and humanness does.

Blessings Along The Way, Jim+

Their first year of trading has been successful and the distribution of profits to Water Aid from the business has meant that for each toilet roll sold someone in need in a developing country has been provided with access to a toilet for one week, Griffiths says. - See more at: http://www.australiaunlimited.com/society/wiping-out-poverty#sthash.Qdh9JrZK.dpuf

Their first year of trading has been successful and the distribution of profits to Water Aid from the business has meant that for each toilet roll sold someone in need in a developing country has been provided with access to a toilet for one week, Griffiths says. - See more at: http://www.australiaunlimited.com/society/wiping-out-poverty#sthash.Qdh9JrZK.dpuf
Their first year of trading has been successful and the distribution of profits to Water Aid from the business has meant that for each toilet roll sold someone in need in a developing country has been provided with access to a toilet for one week, Griffiths says. - See more at: http://www.australiaunlimited.com/society/wiping-out-poverty#sthash.Qdh9JrZK.dpuf
Their first year of trading has been successful and the distribution of profits to Water Aid from the business has meant that for each toilet roll sold someone in need in a developing country has been provided with access to a toilet for one week, Griffiths says. - See more at: http://www.australiaunlimited.com/society/wiping-out-poverty#sthash.Qdh9JrZK.dpuf
Their first year of trading has been successful and the distribution of profits to Water Aid from the business has meant that for each toilet roll sold someone in need in a developing country has been provided with access to a toilet for one week, Griffiths says. - See more at: http://www.australiaunlimited.com/society/wiping-out-poverty#sthash.Qdh9JrZK.dpuf

Monday, December 9, 2013

December 9, Monday of Week Two of Advent

To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul;  my God, I put my trust in you let me not be humiliated nor let my enemies triumph over me. Let none who look to you be put to shame; let the treacherous be disappointed in their schemes. Show me your ways, O LORD, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; in you have I trusted all the day long. Remember, O LORD, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. 
Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions; remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O LORD. Gracious and upright is the LORD; therefore he teaches sinners in his way. He guides the humble in doing right and teaches his way to the lowly. All the paths of the LORD are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies. My eyes are ever looking to the LORD, for he shall pluck my feet out of the net. Turn to me and have pity on me, for I am left alone and in misery. The sorrows of my heart have increased; bring me out of my troubles. Look upon my adversity and misery and forgive me all my sin. Look upon my enemies, for they are many, and they bear a violent hatred against me. Protect my life and deliver me; let me not be put to shame, for I have trusted in you. Let integrity and uprightness preserve me, for my hope has been in you. (Psalm 25: 1-9, 13-20)

32 years ago on December 3, 1981, I rose my right hand and accepted a commission as a Second Lieutenant in the United States Air Force. I had "washed out" of pilot training but I was a good enough officer candidate to request a change in training to become a navigator. I caught a break and remained at Officer Training School, completed my candidacy program, and became an Air Force Officer and aviator. It was a big day!  I got my gold bars and I was on my way to flying F-4s and serving on the staff of the Air Combat Commander's Quality Improvement team. 

I had a fairly successful military career. I flew more than 1500 hours in Phantoms in Europe, Asia, and around the United States. I was fortunate to train German and American F-4 students and served as a Flight Commander for three years. I attended Squadron Officer School, and Air Command and Staff College. My Squadron and Wing leadership nominated me to be selected as Tactical Air Command's F-4E Weapon System Officer of the Year. I won that award in 1991. I was promoted to Major in 1995.  It was a purposeful life and I was fortunate in may ways. I flew and worked with brave, talented, and adventurous pilots and navigators. I was extremely impressed by the diligence and dedication of several enlisted women and men. I thankfully never engaged in combat or dropped bombs on other human beings.

I wasn't successful at one thing though. I couldn't remain a closeted gay man and serve in the military. Ultimately,  I was outted by a colleague and compelled to resign my commission. I shamefully left the military in January, 1998, after serving for more than 17 years. It still hurts to re-live that experience. I caught another break though as I was suffering through the Don't Ask Don't Tell policy that was still in effect when I was in the military. The lawyers at Servicemembers Legal Defense Network helped me to negotiate receiving an honorable discharge. I did not retire from active duty but I maintained my Veterans Affairs benefits and returned to civilian life with some psychological and professional wounds as well as with the rights and responsibilities that an honorable discharge empowers veterans to exercise such as being eligible for VA Educational Assistance while attending seminary. 

I therefore pay attention when I observe the United States' Department of Defense and Veterans Affairs Administration actively seek to deny veterans' benefits. I become especially disturbed when I note such injustice when these veterans have served our nation with honor and suffered psychological as well as physical harm because of their military service.  I listened to a news story this morning on NPR describing how the US Armed Forces have discharged more than 100,000 veterans with less than honorable discharges over the past decade. I am willing to bet that most of these vets were enlisted personnel rather than officers. I'd also postulate that many of them were not fully informed of their entitlements prior to being kicked out. They may have been too afraid to ask. They may not have know that there were external agencies that would be available to help them with their discharge process. 

In Reed Holway's case, he became addicted to pain medications a military doctor prescribed to him while recovering from a knee injury he suffered on active duty. He was arrested for a DUI infraction and the US Navy discharged him from active duty. You can read more about  his and other servicemembers' stories. The ones that are truly horrific are the stories of young men who suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder because of the mental and physical wounds they suffered during combat. Many of them tragically sought to reduce their stress through drug and alcohol addictions. Some of them were consequently discharged because of their associated criminal and/or violent behaviors. The consequences of such dishonorable discharges is that these women and men cannot access the VA's Healthcare system and are at much higher risks of becoming suicidal, remaining unemployed for lengthy periods of time, and becoming incapable of using their military service to live as a well-integrated and healthy member of society and their families. These veterans are in our midst everywhere and we either blissfully ignorant of their plight. We (un)intentionally avoid aiding them or assist them to challenge the Pentagon when the government refuses to respond to these brave servicemembers' stories and suffering.

The Psalmist in Psalm 25 pleads to Elohim and Yehovah for guidance, compassion, and forgiveness. "David" who was a leader of military forces as well as a soldier himself was certainly a jealous and treacherous ruler as well as a faithful Jew and penitent King. Perhaps he provides a biblical example for veterans and civilians alike in terms of how to best understand God's invitation for us to offer mercy and support to soldiers and their families. God's Reign in Jewish and Christian terms alike exists as a Kingdom where perhaps no one better understands the horror and consequences of war and violence than those who have witnessed and experienced it. I am reminded that it is a centurion who stands at the foot of Jesus' cross who acknowledges that Jesus The Christ truly was The Son of God. (Mark 15: 38). It is that same instance when the curtain of the temple was torn in two signifying that the boundaries between a transcendent God and humanity were forever redeemed through Jesus the Christ's sacrificial and unconditional love. 

The Cathedral Choir of The Cathedral of the Episcopal Diocese of Ohio offers this wonderful chanted performance of Psalm  25. I post it here with the hopes that my guests will listen to the words while pondering how we together may continue upon paths of righteousness, support the needs and hopes of servicewomen and servicemen who have offered their lives in military service. They have often suffered undue harm.  May we continue to seek peace rather than war, hope rather than fear, and enter into more compassionate relationships with one another as we trust in God and God's redemption through the on-going birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus in our lives who will soon be born in Bethlehem's stable once again.

Blessings Along The Way, Jim+

Sunday, December 8, 2013

December 8, Sunday of Week Two of Advent

In those days John the Baptist appeared in the desert of Judea announcing,  “Change your hearts and lives! Here comes the kingdom of heaven! ... Many Pharisees and Sadducees came to be baptized by John. He said to them, “You children of snakes! Who warned you to escape from the angry judgment that is coming soon? Produce fruit that shows you have changed your hearts and lives. And don’t even think about saying to yourselves, Abraham is our father. I tell you that God is able to raise up Abraham’s children from these stones. (Matthew 3: 1-2, 7-9 - Common English Bible Translation)

St. John The Baptist align= Change your hearts and lives. Repent! I note that John the Baptist doesn't direct his prophetic message to the repentant people coming out from Jerusalem, throughout Judea, and all around the Jordan River. He looks up and notices that the Pharisees and Sadducees are in the crowd. These religious leaders had differing views of how Yahweh's (God's) reign was to going to arrive but they seemingly were united in rejecting John's and Jesus' repentant vision of The Kingdom of God (Heaven). John recognizes something that many prophets do but I often forget. How I live my life as a person exercising religious leadership and possessing spiritual authority really matters. John implies that his opponents were resting assured in the ideological belief that the covenant they shared with Yahweh was more than enough to endorse their privileged and selfish lifestyles. John reverberates upon the proclamations of Amos, Hosea, Isaiah, Jeremiah,  Ezekiel, and other ancient Jewish prophets. Change your hearts and lives. Transform your relationships with God and your neighbors or suffer the consequences. 

Watch Dr. Walter Brueggemann Part 1 "Practicing Neighborhood Amid Empire" from The Episcopal Diocese of Texas on Vimeo.
All Christians believers should intentionally consider the ethical and spiritual consequences of their behaviors, relationships, and comments. However, as an Episcopal priest, and as a person possessing some degree of political as well as religious authority, I'm humbled by, and cautious of the beneficial, inconsequential, or harmful impact I have in my work and actions. Who I am has meaning and influence upon the people I serve in the congregation with whom I work as well as the neighbors I interact with around the parish.   

Walter Brueggemann has laid out a poetic and empathetic prophetic understanding of God's character in the world for the ancient prophets and for religious leaders of yesterday and today. He suggests that the established Church and The Church's leaders must be acutely aware of ways in which they and their Christian communities are denying the consequences of humanity's impact upon Creation and one another. This awareness must not lead to anger and violence but rather to vulnerability and shared grief. We can be like John the Baptist I suppose by robustly demanding repentance. I suggest we should follow Jesus and enter into the suffering and fear that resides in each of us as well as our societies. Ultimately John and Jesus along with the Jewish prophets proceeding them wind up offering what we assuredly need: Divine Hope, Neighborly Reconciliation, and the birth of the God's Reign of Compassion and Justice.

Here in Advent, Brueggemann and John the Baptist prompted me  to offer a prophetic sermon earlier today with truthful candor. On the 2nd Sunday of Advent, I invite all of us to picture ourselves as willingly going out to listen to Brueggemann, John The Baptist, and Isaiah alike. I invite preachers and pastoral care providers alike to ponder and pray about the manner of our shared leadership as well as the fear, despair, and denial existing in our churches. What would be the most truthful, empathetic, and hopeful ways for us to participate in Christ's mission for us when and where we reside. How may we guide and facilitate ourselves and the people we serve to live into more vulnerable and healthy relationships? How shall we most passionately and peaceably live in community especially with the people who reside outside of our churches' walls? How shall we awaken to a truly blessed, less consumer-based, and more openhearted understanding of Christ's birth between now and Christmas? 

I believe we must speak the truth even as we offer people two of the most important virtues Christ's approaching incarnation offers us: solidarity and hope. Such honesty will free us to embrace love through a process of shared tears in some cases. Such hope will empower us to embraces one another as mutual citizens of God's reign and compassion. May we in prayer and deed observe Jesus the Christ's powerful presence among us as John The Baptist did with repentant lives and bold righteous actions.

Blessings Along The Way, Jim+

Saturday, December 7, 2013

December 7, Saturday of Week One of Advent

Therefore the prudent will keep silent in such a time; for it is an evil time. Seek good and not evil, that you may live; and so the LORD, the God of hosts, will be with you, just as you have said. Hate evil and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the LORD, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph. (Amos 5: 13-15)

We inherently want Advent, all of life really, to be pretty and calming. We avoid problems in the world or in the lives that cause us to confront the suffering of others; the woes of our poor and selfish choices. We like "nice." We steer away from confrontational challenges. John The Baptist and the ancient Jewish prophets won't let us get off so easy if we pay attention to what they say.

I believe they would be chastising us as we purchase gift after gift for our family members and friends without responding to the needs of people with little money or hope this time of year. Amos told the people of Israel that their greed, oppression of the poor, and dishonesty were sins against God. John the Baptist demands repentance (change of heart and life) from the people who hear his words out by the Jordan River. The prophets of our own time such as Walter Brueggemann encourage us as people of faith to realize that avoiding of the realities of hungry people, unjust societal and governmental practices, and dangerous environmental practices are similarly unrighteous and evil.

It's difficult to acknowledge such truthful but confrontational demands. It not easy to preach to a congregation caught up in the middle of holiday celebrations and shopping. Thus, this afternoon, I am instead listening to Ralph Vaughan Williams' Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis. The Fantasia has a haunting and melancholy tone for me. I love the beauty of the music while also sensing lamentation within the notes.  Tallis' original words for the hymn were:

Why fum'th in fight the Gentiles spite, in fury raging stout?
Why tak'th in hand the people fond, vain things to bring about?
The Kings arise, the Lords devise, in counsels met thereto,

against the Lord with false accord, against His Christ they go.
Psalm 2:1–2Archbishop Parker's Psalter (1567)[2]
There's a You Tube video (in two parts)  that offers Tallis' and Williams' music to the listener. Their music provides me, and perhaps you a pathway into embracing the suffering we encounter in our own lives as well as the suffering of other people around us. It is through such portals of the heart we may find prophetic courage and Christ-like empathy to reach out beyond our own gift lists to the needs and desires of people who are struggling in one way or another. God's love is present in such connections as it is in the music we may be fortunate to listen to on a cold Advent afternoon.

Blessings Along The Way, Jim+

Friday, December 6, 2013

December 6, Friday of Week One of Advent

 Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 'The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. Again he sent other slaves, saying, "Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet." (Matthew 22: 1-4)

http://www.taftmuseum.org/This is the entry door for the Taft Museum in downtown Cincinnati. I bet there have been a couple of wedding banquets in the house over the last several decades. There's a huge dining room just off of this hallway. There's a large "living room" just behind the spot from where I took this photo. Plenty of gorgeous artwork and space for ritzy celebrations

You really should visit the Taft should you get the opportunity, especially in the weeks leading up to Christmas. There's a wonderful exhibit of 19th Century American and German handmade Christmas ornaments right at the entry into the older section of the house and museum. There are other Christmas decorations in many of the hallways such as the one in my photo.

I got to thinking though. What if you had never been to the museum and were standing outside on the other side of the doorway. What if you weren't able to see the beauty of the afternoon sunlight shining through the glass above the door, onto the carpet. What if you were outside and you had no visual comprehension of what was inside? What if you nothing about the banquet of beauty existing in the house? What if you had heard about the Taft Museum but had not yet seen it? Wouldn't this make your first visit there even more special!

Perhaps this sense of unknowing is more awe-inspiring if we think about it. What beauty would we behold if we truly lived into Advent.  Most of us, like the Taft Museum, have already decorated our homes for the holidays. Trees are up; lights are lit. Our family's traditional ornaments are artfully set out throughout the house. We're ready! Christmas is here.

It isn't though.... for those who are willing to wait on the other side of the hallway and door. God is preparing the banquet and Christ's incarnation is coming quickly, at least it is in traditional ways of understanding Christmastide. Dec. 25th is the beginning, not the ending of Christmas. We've just pushed up the celebration to begin sometime around the first of November. We can thank our culture for getting Santa and holiday cheer out in front of Saint Nicholas and a truer meaning of Divine love.

I mean I get it. I stopped at the Taft's gift shop and bought some stationary as a Christmas gift. I've got my wreath up on my front door and eyed getting some outdoor Christmas lights to place on the bushes outside of my front door. And yet, it's Advent. What if we had to wait for Jesus' return like Christians sitting by fireplaces did 200 years ago. What if we took some time to ponder what it's like to be invitees to God's Son's wedding banquet and actually show up with inquisitive hearts and minds.

Maybe this challenge is a "both/and" sort of situation. Perhaps we can experience Advent at some point in time each and every day leading up to Dec. 25th even as we experience the beauty surrounding us inside and outside of life's doorways and banquet halls. Maybe we should similarly recall that many people can't afford to visit upscale American museums or purchase holiday gifts and greeting cards either. Such realities come to mind when we don't place our secular Christmas expectations in front of John the Baptist's pleas to give your extra coat to someone who needs it.

I'm glad that our tour to the Taft didn't happen today. It's snowing very hard and the roads are slippery. Today, I have time to reflect upon the beauty I witnessed at the museum yesterday. I have time to reflect how hurried I felt leaving the museum in order to tend to other tasks that needed my attention. Today, I have more time to light a candle, sit in silence, and ponder what it will be like when I again encounter Christ's birth in my life in newborn ways, when the banquet will be especially ready.

Blessings Along The Way, Jim+
December 2 - Monday of Week One of Advent
December 2 - Monday of Week One of Advent
December 2 - Monday of Week One of Advent

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

December 4, Wednesday of Week One of Advent

December 3, Tuesday of Week One of Advent
December 3, Tuesday of Week One of Advent

http://www.missionstclare.com/english/December/morning/4m.html The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and everything that is done on it will be disclosed.  2 Peter 3: 9-10 
Frustration is a powerful emotion. I get frustrated when my expectations don't line up with what's actually going on at the moment. I want something to happen right now and it isn't taking place according to my desires. I want someone else to get a task done or get out of my way or whatever. In many cases I don't have any direct control over what's going on. I can't force the driver who is going to slow to push down his pedal. I can accelerate and go around him while I'm .... frustrated. Is that the proper and Divine solution. Maybe, maybe not.

The author of The Second Epistle (Book) of Peter seemingly is frustrated by a couple of big problems that he (they) can't seem to control.  First, there are some terrible false prophets out there preaching a sinful gospel. Second, he (they) seemingly are impatient with the manner in which early Christians are preparing for Christ's eagerly anticipated apocalyptic arrival. These challenges are seemingly quite frustrating. Early Christians expected Christ's imperial reign to happen during their lifetime.

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/judith-orloff-md/how-to-be-patient_b_1748430.htmlExpectations are tricky, especially when our hopes, anxieties, and desired outcomes don't match up with what's actually happening at the moment. The "blockages" causing our frustration may be something we are wrestling with internally or there may be external factors impacting our progress. That's a somewhat negative observation regarding frustration. A more optimistic viewpoint may be for us to focus on the underlying causes and opportunities for personal and spiritual growth that our frustration represents. What is causing the distress, anger, sadness, or bitterness we are experiencing and is there anything about who we are or what we believe prompting us to become frustrated? What might we do to amend our way of being or current approach to the frustrations we face each day.

Advent is a season of patience, repentance, and serenity in the moment. All of these virtues are wonderful if not disciplined anecdotes for frustration. What is within your sphere of influence to change now or in the future? What is outside of your control or something you should be (un)comfortable with for awhile as Christ enters into your life in new and unexpected ways? Dr. Judith Orloff (2012) defines "patience as an active state, a choice to hold tight until intuition says, "make your move." It (patience) means waiting your turn, knowing your turn will come. ... With patience, you're able to delay gratification, but doing so will make sense and feel right.  (para. 6).  May your Advent offer more opportunities for hopeful and patient deliberation and progress. I wish you peace in the midst of this season's frustrations. Providence is a good thing at the mall and elsewhere in daily life. 

O thou lover of (hu)mankind, send down into our hearts that peace which the world cannot give, and give us the peace in this world. O Ruler of Peace, keep us in love and charity, be our God, for we have none other beside thee; grant unto our souls the life of righteousness, that the death of sin may not prevail against us, or against any of thy people. Walter Farquhar Hook

Blessings Along The Way, Jim

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

December 3, Tuesday of Week One of Advent

December 2 - Monday of Week One of Advent
December 2 - Monday of Week One of Advent
December 2 - Monday of Week One of Advent

Heather Poast in a "easy seat."
I started taking yoga classes again about a month ago. I normally go to spinning class at Revolution Fitness on Monday mornings and Heather Poast started teaching that class. I liked Heather's teaching style & was hooked when she played Bruce Hornsby toward the end of the class.

Heather invited spinning class participants to come to her Tuesday morning hot yoga class. I was kinda intimidated because I hadn't practiced yoga in many years and I didn't want to look like a fool. On the other hand, I was looking for a less aerobic workout to add to my weekly exercise discipline. I was also looking for a means to regain some flexibility and re-connect my physicality with my spirituality. So, I started going to yoga on Tuesday mornings.

I absolutely love the class even though it's one of the most strenuous workouts I accomplish. I've got to know Heather just a little bit better and, like with the spinning, I appreciate how she makes me think about what I'm physically doing and what is my intention for each motion, each breath, each calorie that I'm burning.

Heather writes a blog named "Have a Namaste." Her posts let readers quickly know that yoga for her means alot more than just working out. Yoga informs how she lives her life. Yoga shapes how she eats, why she works at the jobs she work at, and why she truly "shines" the way she does. Most Westerners think that yoga is just another way to burn 750-1000 calories in an hour. True yogis and yoginis know that Yoga is a centuries old discipline that practitioners use to mutually and intentionally benefit their bodies, minds, and souls alike.

This should be the best intention of any religious practice, whether it be Hindu yoga or Christian Daily Prayer during Advent. We re-connect to The Divine and ourselves when we establish a disciplined and rhythmic practice of prayer and motion.  Franciscan priest, teacher, and mystic, Fr. Richard Rohr (2012) recently said  that most world religions seek to teach their believers that each person’s  ultimate purpose and reason for existence is to create union with God and all things. This is the simple goal of our existence. Rohr quite boldly says; "If your religion is not helping you to do that, then you’d better get a new religion."

Religion is something we practice and enjoy when we decide we desire to be healthier and in closer relationship with ourselves, God, and one another. It is in Advent, (December) for Christians when we can actively seek our Christ's arrival in any number of ways. Contemplative persons may light candles, breathe and watch. Students may gaze out past frosty windows and ponder what it means for God's life and Word to dwell with us once more. I don't know. For me, at least today, it's getting up early in the morning and driving across Cincinnati to sweat, stretch, and spend time with Heather and a few other people who inhale through their noses and exhale rather profusely out of their mouths while balancing on one foot. I don't get too embarrassed if I look unsteady or even clumsy. Heather doesn't seem to care. She keeps encouraging me. I receive her support as one way of God inviting me to continue showing up in my relationships with Christ, people I relate to, and myself. What will play and prayer look like for you as the days shorten and the opportunities for you to more deeply understand why you are here and what union with God looks like for you, now and in the days yet to unfold.

Blessings Along The Way, Jim+ 


Monday, December 2, 2013

December 2 - Monday of Week One of Advent

May grace and peace be yours in abundance in the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord.  His divine power has given us everything needed for life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. (2nd Peter 2: 1-3)

My cat Bono prefers to drink water from the water faucet. I've learned that it isn't unusual for cats to enjoy drinking running water as opposed to standing water. Running water is fresh, clean, and healthy. 

Bono always greets me at the kitchen faucet early in the morning, often in the afternoon, and almost all of the time in the evening. He occasionally still tries to get to me to turn the bathroom faucet on but that  feels kind of like a boundary violation to me. He's a good learner though. He knows that if he follows me to the kitchen sink that I'll turn on the water for him. He's likely to get his back scratched too.  It's a fun ritual, for both Bono and me.

Prayer during Advent is sort of like this ritual that my pet cat and I share. It requires us to show up and spend time in love with someone or something else, God. Fortunately God offers unconditional love. The divine faucet of love God offers is not dependent upon human emotional boundaries or the local water company's supply of H2O. It just "is." As the author of Peter's Second Epistle writes. God's divine power unceasingly pours out to us everything we need to life through Christ's glory and goodness.

Moreover, such prayer is grounded in one of Christianity's finest virtues: hope. Bono hopes that I'll turn the water on for him. He meows and especially purrs when he gets the water and his back scratched too. Is it any wonder that he shows up each day?  God gives us much more than 30 seconds of water and a couple of strokes with a brush with quite sharp bristles. In prayer, God gives us time and space to say or think about anything that we wish to offer. In turn, God assures us that whether or not we are thirsty for love, God is there to abide with us.

My prayer for you during the seasons of Advent and Christmas-Tide (December) is that you will rush to a silent faucet of fresh, clean, and healthy prayer at least once each day. I pray that you'll hope for God's presence to be nearby and available and that you'll make yourself available to God, ritually & intentionally. Lastly, if you have a pet, or special person you love; make sure they drink plenty of healthy water and give them an especially gracious shoulder rub that you've prepared  for them, and yourself.

Blessings Along The Way, Jim+ 

Monday, August 12, 2013

One guy's view on The Episcopal Church's Transformational Work.

I haven't written on my blog in awhile. Let's just say that I've been busy. One of the things that I've been working on is the Diocese of Southern Ohio's  Special Task Force on Restructuring. Bishop Breidenthal called for the formation of the task force at last year's convention and we've been working very hard for about a half a year now.  This work is not easy and readily defined. Transforming a person's individual life is difficult enough. Just pray with Jesus about that type of change. Changing a church or a diocese full of churches that are laden with numerous expectations, decades of liturgical, administrative, and pastoral practices - outdated or otherwise - is extraordinarily challenging. Such "change" requires wonderfully creative  people who commit to collaborating on a common purpose that is grounded in the truths and responsibilities of The Christian Gospel. The challenges and opportunities associated with with such resurrection are remarkably profound and borderline miraculous.

Needless to say, I get somewhat more than riled up when I read an article like the one that The Acts 8 Moment people posted on their Facebook page earlier today. Now, before I go further, I fully endorse Acts 8 in their mission to change "the conversation in The Episcopal Church from death to resurrection; while equipping The Episcopal Church to proclaim resurrection to the world." However, let's not presume that such resurrection happens through a continued process of harping about high administrative and human resource costs in an era of decreasing investments and revenue generation. Acts 8 uses Thom Schultz's work to suggest that we Episcopalians (and other organized Christian entities) are spending way, way too much money on administrative costs and not nearly enough on mission or direct ministries.

Let's agree that Pastor Schultz's data and hypothesis are legitimate. Let's also concurrently wonder about the implications for our churches as well as for other
denominational and non-denominational Christian faith communities. For example, raising up, caring for, and gathering in a building has been & still remains a paradigm most Christians are accustomed to for their worship and programs. Just ask the folks at Christ Episcopal Church Poughkeepsie about the costs associated with preserving their place of worship even as they transform their Christian mission for the 21st Century. What would they and the people around them have lost if their tower came crashing down one summer morning? Would everyone in that context had been better off if they closed their doors?  I'd further add that many Episcopal Church plants aim toward the construction of, and movement into a magnificent and expensive sacred ecclesiastical space. Episcopal Church of the Nativity in Scottsdale, AZ is a fine example of such a healthy, inspiring, and mission focused parish.

Like it or not, and I happen to like it on certain occasions, most Episcopalians are not familiar with, or attached to their altar and musical resources coming into and out of the church in wooden containers. Moreover, there are a host of other vastly more relevant matters that I, my colleagues on the diocese's task force as well as the Episcopal Church's Re-imagining Task Force,  the folks dwelling in The Acts 8 Moment, and those interested in living into Christianity in the present millennium must consider and vigorously and transform. First, could we please take serious time and thought to look at current realities in their entire contexts, especially from a holistic Episcopal Church point of view. The issues here are systemic not arbitrary, and our systems are presently performing as people want them to; otherwise they would be working in ways that would be more efficient, more radically creative, and more open to God's Spirit. We'd nimbly re-imagine and institutionally realign our organized Christian lives if the associated costs weren't so dire. We love creativity except when the gap between what's in place and what we desires seems too great. Indeed, we need to face up to the harsh realities of the cruciform death and loss happening in our own churches that will indeed invite us to accept new life.

For today's purposes, let's merely consider some of the basic yet monetarily grounded challenges that are in place. Let's admit for example that dioceses, the Pension Fund, The Church's Insurance Company, and other Episcopal Church structures presently impose many  "administrative costs" on parishes and churches. I get paid a particular salary and compensation at St. James Westwood because of salary and compensation guidelines that the Diocese of Southern Ohio has established. These guidelines exist in part because we have clergy coming out of seminary graduating with enormous debt. This is also the "job" that I trained for over a matter of many years. Maybe I should have remained in the private sector as a consultant. Maybe not. Regardless some, if not many dioceses do little to cover such expenses yet parishioners' expectations remain precisely the same across the denomination. They seek seminary-trained clergy. Maybe that needs to change. Maybe we can and should become a denomination where pastors serve without an extensive theological education. Ok, but, the denomination's current pension system punishes priests who do not work full-time or accept lower salary positions. Even if those processes were to change we would still have a denominational structure dictating, and righteously so, that churches pay for their staff's insurance and pension costs. 

Conversely, we do little if anything to educate and facilitate the manner in which clergy, congregations, and dioceses evangelize, perform their Gospel missions, and grow in increasingly secularized and suspicious societal settings. We haven't consciously or structurally transformed the church over the past two decades because we have focused on other priorities and avoided the real work of mergers, closures, and structural reforms that needed to happen during that time. Finally, we are presently not a denomination that is accustomed to having professionals with other responsibilities exercise leadership in parochial settings. These are the sorts of sacrifices we need to consciously and spiritually acknowledge that are in place as we either say yes to change or continue toward demise, institutionally and evangelically.

It's rather striking but not surprising we are where we are as Episcopalians. There's an increasing clamor for bi-vocational and part-time clergy. Duh! It's expensive to higher a person(s) who principally accomplishes the parish's administrative, pastoral, missional, and theological tasks. Scott Gunn has written some meaningful blog posts on this topic over at Seven Whole Days. It takes a whole church to accomplish The Church's Work.  However, the fact remains that many parishes are seeking clergy to fill billets who can't afford full-time clergy but inherently hope that the priest who comes and serves will accomplish full-time work.  We therefore need to, as Scott suggests, become more outward serving rather than inwardly concerned. We need to believe in Jesus the Christ's proclamation of the Good News, resiliently and boldly. These are concepts that we affirm but aren't particularly well accepted in many established parishes, especially declining parishes with aging congregations.

Tony Lorenzen offers some great advice for us as we consider and resolve cost and systematic issues in The Episcopal Church. Tony writes:   Our structures, our polity, our best practices, and our religious culture itself are based on the norms, communication technology, and social organization of a world that no longer exists.  ... Unless we become more flexible and more able to bounce back, we will not thrive. Indeed, let's not blindly presume such resiliency will happen just because we desire it to or that there will not be any sort of push back from established social or instituional systems comfortably in place. The creation of an Episcopal Church based upon contemporary norms, technology, and social organizational realities will be birthed through a lengthy process of engaging stakeholders, defining and accepting winners and losers. It may happen in communities that are smaller and consequently more adaptive. It may be that some larger institutional entities will actually have to collapse because of bankruptcy or financial insolvency. I don't know.  I do believe that persons exercising leadership must continually re-focus themselves and the people they endeavor to serve toward the acceptance of a shared purpose that brings us all into alignment with God's will for us. Then and only then might we be able to incarnate Jesus the Christ's compassion and Grace institutionally and meaningfully by proclaiming Anglicanism's mission in the world. Such transformation isn't only about reducing administrative costs. Such resurrection is much much more inspiring and earnest than technically changing budget priorities.

Blessings Along The Way.  Jim+