Thursday, April 3, 2014

Where _is_ Jesus?

Dear People of Christ Church,

This week in our Tuesday 6:00 group, we had a conversation about Jesus.  We were kind of all over the place. We were responding to this quote from our book, The Restoration

If you were to imagine that Jesus is with you right now, where would he appear? Would he be  beside you, a companion on the way? Is he ahead of you, leading to an unknown destination? Is he behind you, holding you up in ways known and unknown? Or is he in front of you, holding you in his gaze, teaching or commissioning you for some work only you can do?  (p. 85).

Where is Jesus?   
In a literal, spatial way? I didn't quite have an answer.
The answer is...all over. Jesus is in the sacraments, feeding me. Jesus is kind of laughing at me when I spin out wild story lines of anxiety and self-criticism, gently inviting me to be quiet and be loved. Jesus might sit next to me when I meditate, when I'm fidgety and can't focus.  But is Jesus the person, the first century Nazarene Jew really there? I don't know. Where is Jesus?
I don't know...maybe he stepped out to fill the bird feeder or turn over the compost?  

It's much easier to encounter God in the abstract; praying with the Spirit who "intercedes with sighs too deep for words" (Romans 8:26). It's easier to imagine God as Creator, bringing life out of nothing in primordial banging planets, then receding from consciousness.  It's easier to imagine Jesus walking dusty roads long ago, turning upside down the consciousness of those he met. I love the Emmaus Story when Jesus walks with the disciples and they only realize it was him as they are eating-and then he disappears.  

But here's something. This morning, with the Sisters of Saint Anne, we celebrated Eucharist in the chapel surrounded by huge paintings of Jesus from artist Janet McKenzie-her rendition of the Stations of the Cross. We read her book, Holiness and the Feminine Spirit a few years ago in our daytime book group. McKenzie's Jesus doesn't have much in common with the Good Shepherd in our window. Her images are dark skinned, dark haired, dark eyed. They're honest, his face in pain but also love, a body in motion, but also deep exhaustion and a moment of rest. We don't after all, know what he looked like, but chances really are not that good that he was blue eyed and blond. It's not just the "more accurate" picture of the paintings that makes you pay attention-it's texture, nuance, and light. Jesus is somehow there in those paintings. I have traditional icons in my prayer space both at home and in the office, but I don't quite encounter Jesus like I did this morning.   

So there's that. I sometimes wish I had the kind of spirituality where I could just go for long walks and have Jesus by my side in glorious and mutual back and forth conversation.  Usually it's more subtle than that, and for the most part I'm OK with that (you may be relieved to know that the Donatist heresies settled the question as to whether the piety of the priest impacts whether the sacrament works-it doesn't-so you are all OK even if I edge into theological danger zones!)

Either way, the life of Christ in the church is as real as my own kitchen table, the pattern of death and resurrection near to me as my heart. And for that I am grateful, even if I can't put it on a seating chart, locating the transcendent love of God with the right preposition.  Maybe someday. Where is Jesus for you?


Thursday, March 27, 2014

Who is my neighbor

Dear People of Christ Church,

A week later, I'm still mentally reeling a little in the wake of the murder of Waltham High student Tyler Zanco last week. I didn't know him or his family, but something about the murder of a teenager-a child, really-feels like it demands our attention. My son Isaiah turns seven on Saturday-where will he be when he's 17?    

In my sermon on Sunday I was thinking with you about the murder of Jorge Fuentes, a parishioner at St Stephen's in the South End, who came up through the ranks of the B-Ready afterschool program and the B-Safe summer camp program we volunteer with. It was in response to his death that our diocese kicked off the "B Peace" program to work against violence in Boston.  Last year we participated in the Mother's Day Walk for Peace, which we'll join again this year. The Mother's Day Walk, too, was founded in memory of a child who died-Louis Brown, whose mother started the Peace Institute in his memory. Louis Brown Peace Institute has partnered with the Harvard School of Public Health in their Peace Zone Curriculum for middle and high school youth They hold the Walk as an annual fundraiser for their work in in peace education and support for survivors of violence. In our diocese, along with support of the walk, the other aspects of the B Peace program are summer jobs for youth and anti-gun work, which has particular resonance with the news coming out this week about one of the alleged perpetrators of last week's murder.

In this whole bundle of complication and grief, it's hard to know how to respond. Whatever the circumstances, wherever it happens, it's still tragic. Spiritually, it feels like it comes back to that question the lawyer asks Jesus when he's trying to test him-"Who is my neighbor?" We all know how that ends-we become neighbors when we are in community with each other, when we help, when we provide for each others' needs. Neighborliness isn't about being part of the same group-on an ordinary day, the traveler in the story and the Samaritan wouldn't have had anything to do with each other at all-they both would have wanted it that way! We aren't just neighbors because we are, literally, near ones.    Tyler, Jorge, the families who come for diapers, or food, those who wait for the bus outside-these are all "near ones," but how can we actually become neighbors?

That's the invitation of the Gospel. I don't immediately know the answer to how we live into the call to be neighbors-it's always different. Events like the Mother's Day walk appeal to me as a way to act-like "Ashes to Go," for me they fall into the "make the right mistakes" column-it may not fix everything, but it is something. We still need to do more to support our teenagers and make our neighborhoods safe. We still need to do more to get outside of our four walls and share our faith. But we can do this.


Thursday, March 20, 2014

A sacrifice of thanksgiving

Dear People of Christ Church,   

This week, I'm still mulling over what it means to "do" Lent-what offering could we possibly make, what could possibly be meaningful to God?  One idea from Scripture that has struck me particularly forcefully lately is a line we heard from Psalm 50 from our Tuesday Eucharist:

For every wild animal of the forest is mine... 'If I were hungry, I would not tell you, for the world and all that is in it is mine. Do I eat the flesh of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and pay your vows to the Most High.

And again, the prophet Isaiah on Ash Wednesday-we don't really quite know how to honor God. On that day, we hear that God chooses a fast of justice-making, not just a fast of abstinence. God wants service to the oppressed, not liturgies and ritual. 

Psalm 69 says something like this, too:
I will praise the name of God with a song; I will magnify God with thanksgiving.  This will please the Lord more than an ox or a bull with horns and hoofs.

We don't offer sacrifices of animals anymore, but that doesn't mean this comparison has nothing for us.  As I wrote in this space last week, there is something "to" giving things up, not so much for stopping that particular behavior, but to make us more mindful of what we might experience without it.  On another level, though, somehow it can feel more 'worthy" to do things that are hard.  Making a sacrifice of just "thanksgiving" somehow doesn't seem like it would be enough. (note that I'm not even getting into all the theology about Jesus' sacrifice-for sure it's linked, but let's leave it off the table for now)

But, but, but. What if we took seriously the idea that we can offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving? What if gratitude to God could shape us more and more in God's image? What if offering thanks actually is hard because it's so simple?  Or if we were really thankful for the fact of our own lives,  maybe we'd spend more of them doing the work of God?   Thanksgiving for gift of life is something that everyone-of every circumstance-can offer. Gratitude to God for life isn't about the stuff of our life-not about your house or your car or lack thereof.  It's about understanding that it's not that you would have nothing if not for God, it's that you would be nothing. Let me say that again: it's not about having nothing if not for God, it's about not being in the first place.  And that's quite a paradigm shift.

So give whatever you can-obviously. Give your money, give your time, give your abstinence from whatever it is you're giving up. But remember, too, as winter turns to spring, the pleasure of oxygen drawn deeply into lungs, the strength of tiny crocuses coming up from underground.  Offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving, for your life and for all there is.


Thursday, March 13, 2014

Praying as you can

Dear People of Christ Church,
One week in, I hope you've been able to enter into Lent in a peaceable way. I almost wrote offering hopes for a "good start" to Lent, which sounds like it's a race or something we're trying to accomplish, which it's not, exactly. But we are going somewhere.

So what is it? This time of year, I often remember Dorothy Day's desire in her work in creating the Catholic Worker Houses-she said she wanted to create a society in which it was easy to be good. I think Lent is a time when we try to take on practices that make it easier to be close to God; of course we're not distant from God at other times of year, but in Lent we're invited to a certain sense of quiet intimacy with our Creator that the dynamism of Easter or the long days of summer Pentecost don't exactly share. A colleague's wife, Joy Howard has written about the traditional Lenten practices of giving alms, praying, and fasting. She recasts them as "three C's"--compassion, connection, and clarity.

Compassion: we give to others because we are moved by the Spirit of God and see Christ in them. Compassion is different from pity-compassion moves us to respond to the needs of others, whereas pity keeps them at arm's length, separated from us. Pitying "the poor" makes "them" different, not "our kind." Being compassionate, though, allows God to move through my heart in action, not just words.

Connection: we pray. We pray to be more deeply connected to God, and we pray to be conncted to each other. We had some wonderful conversations in our Lent groups this week (you can still join!) about how we are made in the image of God-and how it can be hard to remember that. In prayer, we remember who we are-beloved children of God. That opens our hearts to each other (see: compassion) and allows us to respond with grace. The 2014 challenge invites us to give 20 minutes a day to prayer, one hour a week to going to church, and four hours a month to service. If you can't pray for 20 minutes, what about ten?

Clarity: we fast. You don't have to give something up for Lent, but if you were to, what could it be? Think beyond the usual stalwarts of chocolate and alcohol. What about excess noise? What about shopping for stuff you might not need? What about gossip or complaining? Is there anything that would help you simplify or look more clearly at your life? My Lenten discipline for the last three years has been fairly minor, in that I give up the radio in the car. I'm an NPR junkie with a 20-30 minute drive to work, so taking that extra sound out of my life has created 40-60 extra minutes of silence in my day.   There's nothing wrong with knowing what's going on in the world-it's really important!-but to spend some extra time witnessing the chaos and noise of my chattering brain is always kind of sobering, an effect that usually lasts for a while even after I happily return to Bob Oakes in the morning.

I'm a big fan of the phrase "Pray as you can, not as you can't"-don't spend too much time regretting what you think isn't possible. But don't take it as an excuse that your life doesn't permit you to do one BIG thing to get you off the hook of doing the little things you can.

Here are a few other resources:
The Daily Office online: also a  podcast.  
Hear Scripture and the ancient prayers of the church. Pray together with others knowing that they hear and say the same words, whether or not you're in the same room. (it's in the Book of Common Prayer, too-you can even do it without a screen!) Also check out our local monastery, SSJE, and their Give us a Word series.

How's your charitable giving? Is your pledge to church really where it could be? Could you add some extra giving to a community charity like the Community Day Center or the Waltham Family School?   


Thursday, February 27, 2014

Making the right mistakes

Dear People of Christ Church,

As you know, next Wednesday is Ash Wednesday, but there is some partying to be done before then. We're doing both jazz Mardi Gras (Friday, 6pm, Steve Taddeo concert) and taking up the traditional English practice of eating pancakes before Lent, using up the indulgent eggs and butter before the Lenten fast. On Sunday, we also celebrate and offer our thanks to Bishop Shaw, who retires this year, along with our partner congregation, St Peter's Ugandan Anglican, who will join us for worship.

Ash Wednesday morning, we begin with ashes at the train station. This year, we're partnering with Chaplains on the Way, which I particularly appreciate since, as a mostly-homeless ministry, the street is their church. I wonder about how many people, who, for whatever reason, don't feel comfortable coming into a church, and how powerful a witness it is to leave our comfort zone of having people come to us. Will someone have a more "deep" experience in coming to church? As a priest I'd probably hope so, but I also shouldn't make assumptions about what happens between an individual and God, no matter where they're standing. I heard a quote about meditation once that said that you could open the window, but you couldn't make the breeze come in. That probably applies here-when fewer and fewer people having traditional church backgrounds, we need to throw open as many windows as we can.

It's not an easy question, though-how far can you go from tradition before you've lost the center of what you're committed to in the first place? What are we inviting people toward if we compromise too far? How much do we ask of people who come to have a child baptized? Do they have to come for a few weeks, months, a year? Do they have to officially join the parish by making a financial pledge? What about receiving communion? It's the practice in our diocese in many places, including Christ Church, to offer communion to everyone, whether or not they're baptized. The prayer book and church canons say baptism should come first. Here, again it trying to open the windows.

Adherence to tradition is one of those places where we strive for faithfulness, not necessarily the 100% always-and-everywhere-iron-clad rule. Faithfulness, it seems to me, is deciding which side you're going to err on.   Will we be devoted to orthodoxy or openness? What's at stake on both sides? There are a lot of times when I defer to tradition-the Nicene Creed, for example-but here, I think there is actually something to say for asking what Jesus would do. His first goal, most often, was to get people to the table. Once you're there, you can talk more, debate, pick sides. As the parable in Luke 14 tells it, when the nice, qualified guests wouldn't come for the feast, the host told his servant quite unequivocally: "Go out at once into the streets and lanes of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame." When he does that and there's still space, he goes out to make everybody else come in. Would it have been a better party if the well-educated and polite people had come? It's completely possible. Would they have appreciated the expensive wine more? Maybe. But that's not what God's table is about.

I do appreciate, though, that it's a discussion to be had. It's not an uncontroversial stance, it's not an "of course!" moment. And once-if-this gets settled, there will be something else to struggle with. As we grow into the church we're called to be, we are trying to follow a Jesus who's always just a little ahead, taking us a little further than we thought we could go.

PS: For a more general intro to Lent piece about Ashes to Go, see my editorial in the Waltham News Tribune today! 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Seeing and not seeing

Dear People of Christ Church,

Last Sunday in my sermon, I was thinking with you about how in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus was trying to bring his listeners somewhere.  He wasn't just teaching, he was preaching.  Our selection was not the nice and warm parts we associate with the Sermon on the Mount-instead of blessing, we heard him use shocking language about cutting off hands and plucking out eyes that cause us to sin: more maniacal dictator than savior.   In doing the work of interpretation, we can hear that Jesus is offering a sermon, not an instruction manual for sound living. These wild words speak to imagination, not obedience.  Jesus is telling the people to imagine, really imagine, to know that it's possible to be free from sin.  It's not as simple as plucking out an eye, it's not even as simple as declaring that Jesus is our Lord and Savior. Instead, it's possible by God's grace, in resurrection and love.  As Christians we learn that is a reality beyond sin and brokenness.  Whatever shame or violence or hatred we are stuck in, there is a way out.

Jesus uses shocking language because his listeners, like us, need a little prod to pay attention.  I recently came across a wonderful book review of Alexandra Horowicz's On Looking: Eleven Walks with Expert Eyes. Realizing how city living had dulled her senses, Horowicz took eleven different walks around her neighborhood, trying to share the perspective of her companions-various "experts" from her dog, to her toddler, to a geologist and a font specialist. Her walk with a blind acquaintance is one of the most evocative.

Some of our obliviousness is a survival strategy; if my mind judged the new burger special at Wendy's to be as important as whether or not a car was turning into the street in front of me, I wouldn't live very long. I want to listen to the person in front of me talking about her family, not the sound of traffic outside, and I would be a bad priest if I didn't were putting my attention elsewhere. The problem comes when we get cagey in our selection; where our ignor-ance is willful or inflicts pain, where we don't see because we just don't want to deal.

Horowicz writes,
Right now, you are missing the vast majority of what is happening around you. You are missing the events unfolding in your body, in the distance, and right in front of you.  By marshaling your attention to these words, helpfully framed in a distinct border of white, you are ignoring an unthinkably large amount of information that continues to bombard all of your senses: the hum of the fluorescent lights, the ambient noise in a large room, the places your chair presses against your legs or back, your tongue touching the roof of your mouth, the tension you are holding in your shoulders or jaw, the map of the cool and warm places on your body, the constant hum of traffic or a distant lawn-mower, the blurred view of your own shoulders and torso in your peripheral vision, a chirp of a bug or whine of a kitchen appliance.

This awareness of our unawareness has particular theological significance.  I wonder about what would have happened between Michael Dunn and Jordan Davis if they could have seen each other more clearly, untethered by racism or anger; protesters and police in the Ukraine; or Pussy Riot and Vladimir Putin in Russia. On a personal and global scale, we need a wider lens.  

This Sunday, we welcome Allison Reynolds- Berry, a community organizer from REACH to tell us about their "Say Hi" campaign (read more below). Small actions like knowing our neighbors and actually seeing each other make for a safer, and stronger, community.   Violence at home is an isolating experience, but when people are connected to each other, it can be easier to leave an abusive situation.   How can we see our neighbors, our near ones, more clearly? How can we see the work of God around us more profoundly? Where are we not looking, and what can we see?  


Thursday, February 13, 2014

God's mission, our church

Dear People of Christ Church,

This week, as I was talking with you in my sermon on Sunday, I'm still thinking about the interplay of church as organization and church as people. The buzzword in church circles is "missional"-the focus is on how we are living the mission of God, not on how we organize ourselves or how we provide a service (we are not like manicurists or exterminators, for example, though we do emphasize service to the world). It's hard not to fall into a consumerist way of relating. Our contemporary culture just uses that language; it's convenient. Who is our market? How can we promote our message to resonate with them? How are we meeting the needs of our funders? What balance of challenge and inspiration, happy music and solemn music, will please our patrons?

We do need to be accountable, and the opinions of those who gather do matter, but we are the church because God has a mission in the world, not because we want to strengthen our organization or please ourselves. The sacraments are food for our souls and we come because we are hungry, but we also believe that feeding that particular hunger makes us attuned to other kinds of hunger in the world. We are healed at the altar and reminded of our deep worthiness as children of God so we can go out in the world and join in God's work of healing others. That's mission-that's church as body, not church as service provider. We want a strong organization to serve the mission, but the organization is not the mission.

Understanding ourselves as a gathered body instead of a corporation frees us in a really particular way. This is what Simon and Andrew learned when they started fishing for people-it's God's mission, not theirs, and they're free to succeed or fail, as long as they're listening.   The question for us is how to listen. Listen to our city, to where we are called to be in ministry. Listen to each other, to how we can help each other hear the call of God in our lives. When you coach your kid's sport's team, that's part of God's call for you. When you stand on the Common for the peace vigil, that's part of God's call for you.  When you watch your grandkids after school, it's God's call.We don't just live out our call as Christians within these four walls.

I wrote two weeks ago about the small group model we are considering for Lent education, beginning on Tuesday, March 11. It's beginning to be a bit more fleshed out, and we've settled on reading the book The Restoration Project by Christopher Martin, whom I met at a conference last year. Martin uses the restoration of Leonardo DaVinci's painting, the Last Supper, as a metaphor for how we can be restored to the image of God, and how our parishes can be home bases for transformation of the self as well as the world. The theological model he uses is based on the steps of humility set out by St Benedict in his Rule of Life. Christopher is a priest and a father of two, so at the same time as the method is steeped in Christian tradition and monasticism, it's also very practical and tied to the life of ordinary people living now.  The hope in beginning these smaller groups is to be able to support one another in all the different ways we live out our callings as Christians, as well as to know each other on a deeper level.

As she has generously done for the last two years, Erin Jensen will coordinate children's education with a mix of Godly Play and other projects. Everyone is welcome to come for dinner at 6pm, and then the first education portion for children and adults will be from 6:40 to 7:30, with our simple meditative Eucharist at 7:30. What's different this year is that there will be a second group that will convene with the same content after the service, so if you can't make it as early as 6 you can still participate, joining at the Eucharist at 7:30 or just the group beginning at 8. If there is interest, there would also be a daytime group, so please let us know if that works better for you. Contact Anna Jones with questions. If the groups are successful, they may continue beyond Lent, but we'll start for five weeks to begin with. Sign up for a copy of the book here

thanks and peace,