The Why and How of God’s love

If you were lucky, you caught the interview of Yo-Yo Ma by Krista Tippett.  You’re still lucky because here is a link.

I listened to this on my way to supply for a neighboring church while their priest was on vacation.

I had to scrap my original sermon and go with this [note, I don’t preach from manuscripts, so this has been paired down for blogging purposes].

“Yo-Yo Ma was born to Chinese parents in Paris.  He moved to the US as a young child.  His mother was Protestant and his dad Buddhist-ish .  Yo-yo says this made him, “basically Episcopalian.”  Given the cultural, language and religious mix of his younger years, he said that when he grew up he wanted to be “One who Understands.”

This struck a chord with me, as aren’t we all desiring to be “one who understands”?

Why are we here. Why do people do what they do, why do we do what we do and why does God do what God does.  Why, why, why to grasp further understanding.

Sadly for Yo-yo Ma and for us, the why is ever elusive. And personally, the moment it stops being fun to ponder, it becomes a waste of time.  Honestly.  I’m not all that interested in the why.

 

I am, however, deeply interested in the how. How are we to be? How are we to live?

 

 

It was wonderful to ponder this on a foggy early Sunday morning drive. Especially in light of the Gospel for that Sunday: the parable of the prodigal son.

Both sons, older and younger, were firmly entrenched in the why. Why are we here if not for our own pleasure? lives the younger son. Why forgive those who have done wrong? Believes the older.

But the father lives in the how. How to live? In compassion and love. How to love? With abandon, knowing that compassion and love are never depleted when they are employed; it is through exercising compassion and love that they abound and grow.

And I think this is true of God’s love.  God’s love is infinite.  There isn’t just so much of it, so you better be on your best behavior so you get some.

Rather, God’s love knows no ceasing.  And I think that one (one!) way IMG_4011 [196089]that we experience the love of God is by exercising the compassion and love we contain within ourselves. Which is hard.

Yes. Loving is hard. It’s hard in marriage, in friendship, in domestic and international political relationships, and even in the church.

And because loving is so difficult between us humans, it can be difficult to trust that God can love so easily. That God is like the father in the parable, who waits day after day to catch a glimpse of us at the horizon. Who runs to meet us. Who gathers us in God’s embrace before we can even open out mouth to ask for God’s love.

Perhaps it is time to let go of the why and time to start experiencing the how.

Because in our efforts to share with others compassion and love, I believe we will more easily experience and trust the love of that God of ours.

 

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Vegas, baby!

I just got back from a weekend in Las Vegas.

I have 2 older sisters, and the middle one, Sara, was having a milestone birthday (no numbers Sara!) and wanted to do something fun. So a sisters+spouses Vegas trip was planned practically a year in advance: tickets were purchased, hotels were booked, and sitters for 5 kids in three states were arranged (thanks sitters!)

As the trip got closer I realized that we planned our trip during Lent.  And it was remarked to me: “Vegas during Lent should be interesting.”

And that really got me thinking.  What would it be like to go to “Sin City” during the season of Lent?

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Look how crazy we were! The wildest we got on the Strip was with Bob and Stuart the Minions.

This was my first time going to Vegas, but if I had to guess, I would say that going during Lent is like going any other time of the liturgical year.

See, Vegas is an illusion. It is no more of a sin city than New York or Chicago or Houston. Certainly no more of a sin city than Cypress and only slightly more expensive.

Vegas is certainly flamboyant. And flashy. But “Sin City”?

There isn’t anything happening in Vegas that doesn’t happen everywhere else. Addiction. Prostitution. Excess upon excess. Despite the slogan, “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas”, it’s all so out in the open there. Honestly, the secrecy and shame that exists beyond the Vegas zip code is more scary. We snub our noses at Vegas when we buy more food than we can eat and live in houses that are bigger than we need. I’m not saying that Vegas- and what happens there- is better than where we call home. I’m just saying it isn’t worse.

So Vegas in Lent? Not all that different than where I live to tell the truth.

Click Here to read about human trafficking in Houston.

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Making Lent Count

Lent is upon us and you good and faithful ones are posting your Lenten observances all over Facebook.

And I love this.

I love that my friends and families are being so public with their relationship with God and the church! And I love that you allow people to walk that journey with you- and that perhaps you may be inspired by the devotion of someone you know.

But I have to wonder, how much does your Lenten devotion nourish your spiritual life? Are you really wishing for God to work something new in you, or is it the same ol’ same ol’ Lenten practice?

Or to pose it this way: Is what you are giving up or taking on actually doing anything in your life?

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click this picture to check out 40Acts.org.uk and to sign up

At St. Mary’s we are using a program out of England called 40Acts of Generosity to guide us in Lent.  It gives you prompts each day to dive into generosity- in sharing with others at the expense of yourself- as a way of growing closer to God and your community.  And each morning you are given three options to choose from: easy, medium and hard.

 

Exploring Lent through a lens of generosity and inconvenience, I am beginning to wonder if our Lenten disciplines have been set on easy for too long. Maybe it’s time for us to explore a medium or even hard route.

So for those of you giving up chocolate…maybe a way to dig in deeper would be to give chocolate to someone each day? Not just abstain yourself, but give with joy that which causes you to be tempted.

For those of you adding on giving up plastic water bottles for Lent…maybe also spend time each week picking up the littered bottles and trash that is all around us?

Ask yourself this: am I really challenging myself? Does this really stretch me? Does this practice really allow for God to change me?

Maybe giving up chocolate alone does.  But if it doesn’t, I can’t encourage you enough to be open to pushing yourself into a true place of temptation and challenge.

Performing for Jesus

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Addison crying as she walked to her spot on the stage

It’s that time of the year again! School Christmas programs and pageants are all over the place, and the littlest among us are called (or pulled) up on stage to share with us the Joy of the season! And having just sat through my first Christmas program for my daughter Addison, I have been thinking about these displays of pageantry and song quite a bit.  And so I offer these few points of reflection as we as a church get ready for Christmas and Epiphany Pageants:

  1. Why are we doing this?  If it’s just to show mom and dad that their kids have learned some songs or if it is to display, “oh how cute!” these little ones are, then we should stop doing it- there is no liturgical point and the pageants don’t need to take place during church. However, if it is to open the eyes of the little ones and us bigger ones (yep, we are the bigger ones) to a new way of telling a familiar story or if it is used as an opportunity to allow the little ones to step into the role of teacher and leader- then yes please!
  2. What is our end goal?  I ask this question as both a parent and a priest.  What is our end goal of inviting the kids to partake in a few moments of “otherness” during a worship service?  Because kids don’t get that it is a rare moment and a “one time a year” thing in which they get to dress up like a sheep and bleet their little lungs out.  But if one of the end goals is to teach children who are made in God’s Image that they too belong in the church just as they are (or as a sheep) then I think we have to prepare ourselves for the less cute times….like in Lent during the prayer for Humble Access when that little one is still a sheep.  If it’s ok for a kid to be a kid during the pageant then it has to be ok for a kid to be a kid the rest of the liturgical year too. It sends unclear messages to children (and honestly, to their parents too) to only be “a little bit welcome” in church.  So go big and allow kids to be welcome in worship all of the time, not just when it’s cute.
  3. What can we learn? If we think that the only ones who can learn from a pageant is the kids, then we should probably stop doing them.  But if we can open ourselves to see beyond the cuteness and charm to what is being given to us by these young disciples, then we just might be transformed by the powerful message they give.  Not just the Christmas Story.  But the gift that comes from the joy and wonder from the young as they experience in new ways a story that isn’t old and familiar yet.  The gift that comes from wanting to share this new story and to share it abundantly.  The gift that comes from knowing without a doubt that they are loved by God. What a gift they offer us if we are willing to take it.
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Addison Churchwell, age 3 Who said after her school Christmas Program, “That was fun!”

 

Lastly, I offer this.  Let them cry if they want.  Let them leave and come sit on your lap.  Let them be themselves- some will want to sing and perform and others wont.  Let them be them. Mine happens to like to stand on the stage and cry. What a great way to learn that perfection is unobtainable!

 

One thing we can always learn, is that when it comes to being a kid in church, there is no right or wrong way to be a person made and loved by God.

Three Years

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Taken by Rev. Beth Fain prior to the ordination service (and prior to Addison making a mess all over her special ordination dress)

December 15th will mark the three year anniversary of my ordination to the Priesthood.

Addison was a mere three months old. I was home in Phoenix for the first time since getting married. My whole family was present and we were celebrating everything we could- my ordination, Christmas, births and soon to be births. It was joy filled and fun and marvelous.

I was so wrapped up in what lay ahead- a new call at St. Mary’s awaited my return to Texas. My new Rector Beth was present at my ordination, showing then what I have now learned to be unwavering support and camaraderie. It seemed as if it were the culmination of all that I hoped God’s call would be for me to the priesthood- joy and hope and love all around.

 

But how it all changed.  The day before, December 14th, I sat in my sister’s living room glued to the TV, shocked and horrified at what I was seeing.  Weeping as I held my tiny baby in my arms, imagining the fear and devastation of the parents, family and friends of the 20 children and 6 adults who were murdered in their school, Sandy Hook Elementary. Of the guilty relief of those who survived. Of the misinformation and fear-baiting. Of my fear of what it means to birth a child (now 2) into a world where such things happen.

Today I still cry, am still overwhelmed.

 

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The Rt. Rev. Kirk Smith at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in Litchfield Park, AZ with the newly ordained ME!

And the next day, completely undone, a stole was draped over my shoulders and a chasuble over my head, and I took vows to be a priest in a world where such evil is present and real.

I remember praying with Reverend Beth before the service.  She asked me what I would like prayers for, and I cried as I asked for prayers not for myself or my (hopefully) lifetime of ministry, but for the families of those who lost loved ones to gun violence and for a world in which that happens.

As I reflect on my ministry and ordination, the shootings at Sandy Hook are so deeply woven into my start as a priest. Evil and sin are so closely linked to my understanding of the world in which I minister.

I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised then, that in the three years of my priestly ministry, gun violence has loomed large in my eyes and in the narrative in our country. As a Quaker disguised as an Episcopalian, violence and murder in any circumstance is abhorrent to me. Yet it is inescapable, common, and an every day occurrence. And the weight of the daily news- of the reality that there have been more mass shootings in the United States this year than there have been days, is among many things, a testament to the need for God in a world that has distorted what it means to be brother and sister, a world that has distorted exactly what the love, mercy and redemption of Jesus looks like.

I offer to you prayers that I have been praying as I reflect on my priestly ministry. I am a firm believer that prayer comes in many forms.  I encourage you to attempt with me to have your prayers not just be something said silently or aloud, but that your prayers also take action in the world.

I believe that gun violence doesn’t have to be something that is a common occurrence. I know that it isn’t within God’s will. And I know that me simply not murdering people isn’t enough- real change will take courage and perseverance.  But most of all, it will take prayers turned into action. Won’t you pray with me?

Prayers for the Cessation of Gun Violence

 

Saying Goodbye

GoodbyeSometimes it is really hard to say goodbye- like when people we love die.

Sometimes it is really easy to say goodbye- like when you know you’ll see someone tomorrow.

And then there is saying goodbye in the church. And that feels so different.

When we talk about church as a family or a home, it makes it very hard when people leave- regardless of their reason. And people leave their churches for all sorts of reasons.  They move.  They get married and join their spouse’s church.  Their needs change.  They change.  The list goes on and on.

And while what draws us to church might be very different- the church has only one main goal- to form and send disciples into the world.

Because being a disciple is what we are called by Jesus to be.  And not just a disciple- but a disciple who makes other disciples.

In Matthew 28:19, Jesus tells his disciples to, “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”

In light of this scripture, it is best to remind ourselves, that the church is more than a family or a home.  It is also where we go each Sunday to PRACTICE being disciples.  It is the place to practice being disciples, so that way come Monday morning, we are able to go into all nations- Toyota Nation, Wells Fargo Nation, and even “in your own house” Nation- and make disciples. Church is a safe place to practice, learn, experience, and grow as disciples so that we can go out and witness to Jesus Christ in the world- and make disciples.

We stay at church to practice being disciples- so that come Monday morning we can go into our nations…and make disciples.

But sometimes we forget this command from Jesus.  We can think that the church exists to meet only our needs, when actually we exist in the church for the purpose of making disciples.  All of the other great things the church offers- fellowship, friendship, and family- is icing on the cake. Delicious and life giving, but still icing.

And so, when people leave- or if there comes a day when you leave- know that as a disciple AND as someone who is part of a family, saying goodbye is important and necessary.

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  1. Say goodbye. Tell people if you are leaving. Allow for people to say goodbye to you.  Say goodbye to people who are leaving. In this digital age, it is easy to stay connected- so make the effort to say those sometimes difficult words to say.
  2. Talk to your priests. Feeling that perhaps it is time for you to leave? Feeling sad that someone has left? Feeling anxious about what people leaving may or may not mean?  Please, talk to your priests. We can offer prayer, support, context and perspective that would be difficult to find elsewhere.
  3. Grieve.  It is a loss when people leave.  It is a loss to leave a church.  Allow yourself to grieve this loss. Also know that as new people arrive in churches, they too may be in grief from leaving a church.  Be gentle with each other.
  4. Remember that the Body of Christ is bigger than the walls of a building.  We do not stop being brothers and sisters just because we worship in different places. Leave on good terms if you can.
  5. film animated GIF Know that people come and go from churches all of the time. Some you will notice are gone.  Many you didn’t notice when they were there, and so you never noticed when they didn’t come back. The coming and goings of people to churches is seasonal and cyclical- and each of us will have seasons and circumstances in our lives that will initiate the coming or going from one church to another.
  6. Pray and be prayed for.  Let your church pray you into a new community that will help you continue to grow as a disciple. Pray for people as they journey- knowing that finding a new church is a journey that requires faith and courage.
  7. Lastly, know that you are loved. In your coming and going, as a disciple and as a beloved child of God.  You are loved.

Alcohol ain’t no joke. Seriously.

417396_4128471885552_116275812_nThis picture has been in my Facebook news feed for the past few weeks.  I’ve seen it posted in clergy groups, by parishioners to their priest’s Facebook pages, by clergy themselves, and even a few Bishops have shared this picture.

Take a close look at it.

Because I did.

And it makes me angry.

Now, don’t mistake me for a stick in the mud- I get full well that this is a joke.  Ha. Ha.

But I am really tired about the way that alcohol is used as a “joke” among Episcopalians.  And it needs to stop.  Because alcohol is no joke in the Episcopal tradition- and clergy especially should be mindful of what these jokes are saying about us and what they are saying to those we lead.

Because we are a tradition where alcohol is used and abused by many- and yet is also treated cavalierly by clergy and lay alike, creating an environment where people are enabled in their addiction and unhealthy dependence is even, in some circles, encouraged.

I am not saying that drinking alcohol is bad.  Far from it.  What I am saying is that joking about alcohol- and in the instance of the picture above, that clergy are drinking while not only WORKING but PROCLAIMING THE GOOD NEWS OF JESUS- is in poor taste.  And gives the wrong impression. And just ick.  And that we as a denomination need to be more mindful about our relationship with alcohol- how we talk about it, how we consume it, and how we think about it.  We need to be mindful about the messages that we are putting out into the Kingdom- and the message that alcohol is a joking matter has no place in the Kingdom. And joking about something so serious only helps to keep those who need help in the shadows of their addiction- and we should be people of Light!  We should be a people who encourage people to live into who Christ calls them to be, not enabling addiction or unhealthy relationships with alcohol OR cultivating environments in which darkness, secrets, and shame run rampant.

*In my quest to see if the artist of the above cartoon is an Episcopalian (his personal blog is down and Google failed me) I did see that he has criteria to use his work.  I offer this link to his site to be in bounds for using this drawing.