Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Truth served at Rotary luncheon

I enjoy my Downtown Rotary Club. I like the fellowship over lunch, working with others for a better world and learning something from the speakers.

Today, a room-full of Rotarians gathered on the Missouri State University campus, despite the swiftly accumulating snow fall, and we heard about a problem that is becoming increasingly visible in our community.

It is the problem of increasing poverty, hunger, even homelessness--including among public school students here. Today, we learned that more than 60 percent of Springfield Public School students are on subsidized or free school lunches.

The presenters, Morey Mechlin of Care to Learn, a community-wide response to poverty, and her son, Christian, who works with needy, at-risk public school students, briefed us on the reality of poverty in our community.

Morey and Christian talked about generational poverty and, now, increasingly, situational poverty.  Many of the situationally poor had once been middle class but have now become poor because of catastrophic illness and lack of health care insurance, divorce and family disintegration, chronic unemployment or underemployment, among other causes.

I know and minister to people who are poor generationally--they are resigned to it as the way of their lives--and who are poor situationally. Morey said we need to care about both groups of people.

After their presentation, I commended the Morey and Christian for their courage in talking about this problem. I know they might be criticized for their advocacy for the poor.

I think about Jesus' story of the Good Samaritan. Far too people simply hurry by the need. I have been that person who hurried by.

It will be hard for us Rotarians to hurry by the need now.

Poverty can eradicated or, at least, greatly reduced. Morey said education and relationships--healthy and nurturing--are a big part of the solution.  

I am proud of my fellow Rotarians for attending the meeting on this snowy Tuesday, for their courage in listening to this sobering presentation and for wanting to do something about it.

I am also proud of the many churches--Baptist, Assembly of God, Presbyterian, Episcopal, Anglican, Roman Catholic, Methodist and non-denominational--for stopping and helping the many people at the roadsides of our community.

This is love. This is true religion. This is what Christianity is all about.

Monday, November 4, 2013

I'm hungry

I'm fasting today in preparation for a routine colonoscopy  tomorrow. For weeks now, I've been dreading the procedure--especially drinking that foul tasting liquid and surviving the 24-hour fast.

I like food. And I need it, because I'm an active person in my ministry and outside of it. I spend an hour in vigorous exercise five or six days a week. So, I need my food and the energy it provides: Bring on that steak burrito. Give me a large sausage and black olive pizza. Bust out another energy bar. I'm hungry.

Today, though, my "food" consists of Werther's Originals--I've eaten so many that I think my skin is turning brown--Jello, as long as it's not red, and steaming cups of chicken broth. Yummy!

Dreading the fast, I decided this morning that I had to think about it differently--to "re-frame" it, as cognitive psychologists might put it.

So, I'm treating my fast as a spiritual discipline. There's a long biblical tradition of doing just such a thing, Jesus himself fasting for 40 days in the wilderness after his baptism and before the beginning of his public ministry.

In yesterday's Gospel from St. Luke, Jesus delivers his Sermon on the Plain, in which he pronounces God's blessings on vulnerable human beings, including the hungry.

Lately, as people at Christ Episcopal Church know, I've become particularly concerned about the growing level of hunger, food insecurity and starvation in Springfield, in the United States, throughout the world.

I read in The New York Times yesterday about refugees in Syria who had survived bombs and bullets in that country's civil war were now perishing for want to bread.

I'm hungry for only today, and by choice, but millions of people are hungry for days, months, even years. They're hungry because they're poor, and their food stamp benefits have been cut; because they're out of work or working at minimum wage jobs; because their countries are full of war and violence.

On this fast day, I'm hoping my hunger will help me to identify more closely with those for whom hunger is a daily reality; hoping my hunger will help me to experience more keenly God's own hunger for a just world; hoping my hunger will inspire me to work even harder for a world in which no one is hungry, but everyone is fed.

This is my prayer.

Monday, October 14, 2013

I hope I'm wrong

It seems as if for the last several Sundays, the gospel readings have grabbed me,
shaken me, and compelled me to speak about those "inconvenient truths."

Yesterday, for instance, the gospel, Luke 17.11-19, told the story of Jesus'
healing of the ten lepers, only one of whom returned to thank him.

At first, I thought, "Oh, preach a safe sermon on 'thanksgiving,'
something no one will criticize you for (but, truthfully, somebody
would have probably taken offence, even at that subject)."

I almost preached on thanksgiving. I wanted to preach that sermon.
People would have benefited from being reminded of the importance of thanksgiving.
I would have.

But the Living Jesus, whom I meet in the Holy Scriptures, wouldn't
let me preach that safe sermon. No. He wanted me to say something
unsafe, provocative, controversial--again!

So I did, focusing on the lepers' plea: "Jesus, master, have mercy
upon us."

I preached about the lack of empathy today (drawing from a recent
column by psychologist Daniel Goleman) and the corresponding
lack of mercy and love, which is mercy in action.

(The essay below from the Alban Institute says more about the Christian responsibility
for a just world).

And I cited some specifics about a truly alarming deficit--that
in empathy, in mercy, and in loving attention.

I mentioned how today the hungry cry for mercy;
how the poor, children, the working poor,
the elderly, the sick cry for mercy; how so many are crying for mercy.

From us. From the followers of Jesus--Jesus, who is God's empathy,
mercy and loving attention to needy, suffering human beings.

Now, I hope I'm wrong. But I imagined that people
who listened to my sermon yesterday
were saying silently, and perhaps even aloud to friends later:

"Enough. We've heard it all before. Change
the subject. Stop bothering us with these inconvenient truths."

And I imagined my saying to them:

"I will. When the Living Jesus lets me.
When we finally have a society that exhibits empathy,
mercy, and loving attention to others' needs, which is God's will
for the world. Until then, I must speak."

The truth as God's Living Word, Jesus, gives it to me.

Caring about the Conditions of the World

by David Edman Gray
Moses's father-in-law said to him, "What you are doing is not good. You will surely wear yourself out, both you and these people with you. For the task is too heavy for you; you cannot do it alone. Now listen to me. I will give you counsel, and God be with you . . . You should also look for able men among all the people, men who fear God, are trustworthy, and hate dishonest gain . . . So it will be easier for you, and they will bear the burden with you. If you do this, and God so commands you, then you will be able to endure, and all these people will go to their home in peace. 
Exodus 18:17-23

Pastors are called to care not only about the members of their congregations, but also about the state of our nation and world. Many churches affirm this principle and are involved in some sort of mission or outreach. I believe congregations should also consider how to improve the conditions in society that affect people's work-life balance for the benefit of people everywhere. As we have seen, work-life imbalance is a significant challenge for millions of Americans both inside and outside the church. The structures of our society affect how well individuals balance work and life.
We make a living by what we earn; we make a life by what we give. 
Winston Churchill

Christ calls us to care about the world. Christian missionaries have long traveled the world to spread the Gospel, and Christian service programs have, for many years, reached out globally to help those in need. Chances are that your congregation is involved in some mission outreach. By influencing public policy and changing the structures of society at large, congregations can help many more people than they could just by ministering to people in their local area. That is why the churches throughout the years have been involved with public policies on any number of issues, from slavery and civil rights to defending life, foreign aid, and economic growth and justice.
We read in Mark 12:28-31 about a time when Jesus was asked about the greatest commandment of God:
One of the scribes came near and heard them disputing with one another, and seeing that he answered them well, he asked him, "Which commandment is the first of all?" Jesus answered, "The first is, 'Hear, O Israel: the Lord our God, the Lord is one: and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind, and with all your strength.' The second is this, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment greater than these."
All who seek to love God must also seek to love their neighbors. In 1 John 4, we read that if we cannot love our brothers and sisters, we cannot say we love God. Love of God and love of neighbor are inextricably bound together.
What does it mean to love our neighbors? In Luke 10, a lawyer asked Jesus what he must do to inherit eternal life. Jesus answered with words similar to those in the passage above: "You shall love your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength and your neighbor as yourself." The lawyer then asked Jesus, "Who is my neighbor?" Jesus responded by telling the well-known Parable of the Good Samaritan. The Samaritan comes upon a man who has been mugged, beaten, and left for dead. Other people have walked past, ignoring the man and his need, but the Samaritan stops and, out of compassion, helps the man, a complete stranger, to safety. Given the state of Jewish-Samaritan relations and the dangerous conditions along the road to Jericho, it was a risk for the Samaritan to stop.
This story is familiar to many of us, and it underscores that we all are called to care about the world-even people who are strangers to us, those whom we do not know. We demonstrate our commitment to God as we help others around us. If we are to love people, including those we do not know-and even our enemies-we must work to improve the structures of society that affect all of us.
Many congregations are involved in mission because they believe that they can make a difference in the world for others. If congregational leaders believe that work-life balance is an important subject, we should care about the structures of society, including public policy, that affect the work-life balance of not only their congregants but of everyone.

For Reflection

1. In what ways do you show you care for people whom you do not know personally?
2. Reread the Good Samaritan story. How does it affect your view of caring for people outside your church or who are different from you?
3. In what ways is the church called to care about the structures of society?
4. Is work-life balance an issue you believe the church should be involved in addressing? If so, how should it be involved?
Adapted from  Practicing Balance: How Congregations Can Support Harmony in Work and Lifecopyright © 2012 by the Alban Institute. All rights reserved.
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Thursday, October 10, 2013

Happiness now

Perhaps it is the sky this morning. I look up from my weighty world to heaven and see through tired eyes the bright  rose, blue and cloudy white sky and am moved to sighs of ease and  appreciation. Moments like these, these pauses of joy and delight in my creation, are ones of choice--first, to look up and, then, to see God in glory. Happiness is choice. It cannot wait on the future, when weights lift, by my hand or by God's. No! I shall be happy now, regardless. This realization is God at work after all, in grace. Always now, not tomorrow.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Wounded People

The church is full of wounded people--emotionally, psychologically and spiritually broken, bruised, bleeding.

I'm one of them. My wounds are minor when compared with others' wounds. But they're real to me. They still hurt. They made me the person I am. They might even be making me into the person I'm becoming.

Like so many others, most of my wounds come from childhood: my father's alcoholism; his assaults on my mother; their divorce and then growing up in a household with only one parent, my mother who worked full-time at minimum wage jobs to support my sister and me; living in or near poverty; bullying by peers; and physical (although never sexual), emotional and spiritual abuse in elementary and secondary Roman Catholic schools.

In high school, I watched my principal turn into a street fighter, battering a classmate of mine in front of the whole class, his punches falling upon the defenseless boy who was held from behind in a bear hug by another priest.

That day, I resolved I would withdraw further from others. I would become invisible. Keep quiet, I told myself. Hide. Run, if you're discovered. Survive.

My theme song then was one by Simon and Garfunkel, the words of which I still remember:  "I am a rock. I am an island. And an island never cries."

After high-school, I went to work-- not to college--a priest my senior year having told me that that I was fit only for a job or for Vietnam.  I painted houses for awhile. And then I got a job, working as a messenger in a bank.

Someone there said to me, "You never smile." Another person said, "You're an old soul." I know what that means now.

I was a wounded soul. On my island, it was dark. I was lonely and anxious.

Going to university, when it finally happened, was my way of saying goodbye to the island, although at the time, I didn't know I was doing so.

I went to the University of Louisville part-time at first, the bank paying for my course work. I'd major in finance, I thought. With a bachelor's degree, I'd be only the second in my family with one. I'd get a good job and never be poor again. I'd show everyone--those priests and nuns who'd told me I was stupid and would have no future. They'd see that I could do something with my life. Become someone of significance.

After trying finance and loathing it, I left the bank and enrolled at U of L full-time. I switched my major from finance to history, philosophy and literature. I wanted to understand people. To understand myself.

I loved my courses and worked hard to learn as much as I could and to get As in everything. It helped that I was studying what I enjoyed. I'd become a teacher and try to influence my students for the good. At least, I'd do them no harm.

My wounds were still there, though. Still bleeding, as it were. Still aching. I felt lonely, depressed and anxious, although at the time I didn't have the words to name my inner torment and turmoil.

One day--thanks to God's grace--I decided I needed help. I was tired of the darkness. I was ready for the light.

I went to the university's counseling center and started working regularly with a therapist. He coaxed me out of my isolation and into involvement in life beyond the classroom and library and campus job. He was one of several healers God placed on my journey toward wholeness.

He was able to listen deeply and to probe gently with his questions.  In him I found someone I could trust. I started lifting the bandages on my wounds, exposing them to light and air, cleansing them, applying medicine to them.

Because of my counselor,  I visited the university's Ecumenical Center and eventually became an active member of that diverse community of faith. I met Penny, a fellow undergraduate, and we fell in love. I experienced God's love for me. Penny is also one of those healers God has sent into my life.

I also made friends there with two wonderful, Godly priests: Father Bob Burchell, an Episcopal priest who is now with the saints in heaven; and Father Bob Ray, a Roman Catholic priest and one of the presenters at my ordination many years later. The "Bobs," as we students called them and the two other ministers who had the same first names, were agents of the Holy Spirit.They were essential in the healing of many of my emotional and spiritual wounds.

The "Bobs's" example led me ultimately out of the secular work of banking and later university and agency public relations and into the healing profession of ordained ministry in the Episcopal Church.

I am a priest today because of them, and because of two earlier examples of loving priests from my high-school days: my high-school golf coach, Father Bob Korst; and my history teacher my senior year, Father Peter Donnelly. They saved my life as a student at DeSales High School, showing me that I could excel academically and achieve something in life.

And it was Father Rocco, a sometimes volatile personality in the classroom (but not an abuser), who introduced me to the power of stories, initiated me into the life of writing and inspired me to pursue writing as a profession.

Over the past nearly 40 years, I have continued to seek the healing of my wounds. I have regularly received spiritual direction from monks, priests, nuns--both in the Roman Catholic and in the Episcopal faith traditions.

(I long ago made peace with my birth church, as it were, appreciating the ways the church formed me spiritually and made me the God-seeker I am. No institution is perfect. All fall short of the glory of God, to paraphrase the Apostle Paul.)

Over four decades, I've spent innumerable hours in individual and group psychotherapy and have fervently studied that discipline inside and outside the classroom. The healing of the psyche (the soul) is a passion of mine.

I continue to see a therapist, who is helping me to deal with my wounds and to become a healthier and happier person. I need this outside help for a lot of reasons, including professionally: as a priest, I'm regularly ministering with and to wounded people.

I'm a Wounded Healer, to quote the title of the late priest/spiritual guide Henri Nouwen.

God has called me to work with the wounded, because I know what that experience is like; I know that healing is possible; and I want to be God's healing hands placed upon those wounds.

Still, I never knew the work would be so painful at times, especially because the wounded can and do sometimes wound others, including the healers themselves. I'm learning ways to protect myself from further wounding.

If you're a wounded person, even a wounding one, I invite you to move from the darkness and into the light. God will heal your wounds, if you ask him and let him. You can be a whole person, which is God's will for all of us.

Jesus is our exemplar as THE wounded healer--always healing and never wounding. He heals through the hands of his body on earth, the church, and through worship, prayer, holy study, spiritual direction, and, yes, psychotherapy.

He heals those wounds of ours that are invisible to the eye, but that are ruinous to our spirits, robbing us of the fullness of life.

The journey toward healing and wholeness is worth taking. I know. Isn't it time for you to start?

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Christ transforms culture

Richard Niebuhr's book, Christ and Culture, made a huge impact on me in seminary. (Occasionally, I'll review other books that have had such an effect on me, in hopes of inspiring you to read them and to be changed by them.)

Christ and Culture, published in 1951, has exerted a powerful influence on many spiritual and even secular leaders over the years. And it goes on influencing people.

Richard Niebuhr, born in Missouri in 1894 and died in 1962, was the son of a Protestant pastor. He was the younger brother of Reinhold Niebuhr, another famous theologian. Richard earned his PhD at Yale and later taught at its Divinity School. He published many books.

In Christ and Culture, Niebuhr looked at Christ's relationship to culture, culture being the sum total of human expression, including religion, art, literature, music, languages, political systems, and much more.

After surveying the ways that Christ and culture relate--Christ in and with culture, Christ over and against culture, for instance--Niebuhr concludes his analysis with a plea for Christ "transforming culture."

Niebuhr's assumption is that culture is not fully what God intends it to be. It must change. Culture, including American culture, does not fully embody and express God's relentless and passionate concern for the poor and marginalized, for a just world, for forgiveness, reconciliation and peace among his children.

The role of Christians, therefore, as expressed in our Baptismal Covenant in The Book of Common Prayer, is to repent of sin, to resist evil, to strive for justice and peace, to respect the dignity of every human being. In Baptism, we pledge to carry on Christ's work, furthering God's kingdom of justice, freedom and peace.

Every time we pray the Lord's Prayer, we pray "...thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven...." Heaven--where everything conforms to God's loving plan, and not to the world's unloving plan-- is not just out there, beyond space and time; but heaven is, potentially, right here in the physical world and in everything that constitutes this world, including human beings, our relationships, government, institutions. Everything.

The New Testament writings proclaim that Jesus Christ is Lord. He is Lord of all--not just a part of our lives, that one hour of  Sunday worship, the quick prayer in a moment of desperation, the "dues" we pay to the church, that carpenter-Gothic building at Kimbrough and Walnut Streets in Springfield, Mo., called Christ Episcopal Church.

No. Christ is Lord of all creation, ruling all things through active, loving concern. He rules most visibly (his hope is) through his disciples, everyone who acknowledges him as Savior and who follows him as Lord.  To follow Jesus Christ means to conform one's life to his teaching and actions of love, mercy and justice. .

And we need plenty of help from God to do so, especially today.

Alas, too many Christians  regard themselves as  merely consumers of religious services. How can it be otherwise? We live in a consumer culture. I understand  consumers of religion, because I used to be one. Perhaps I still am in some ways.

We consumers of religion might not articulate our relationship to Christ's church in just such a phrase, but, in the words of the Prayer Book, our many "things done and left undone" would demonstrate just such a relationship.

Consumers seek out the church primarily when we need something, such as a beautiful  Christmas or Easter service, a place for a wedding, a baptism, a funeral, a priest to say a prayer at the bedside, preaching that confirms existing beliefs and choices, or some other specific service.

Please understand:  It is good when people seek out the church, as I did a long time ago, even if it's just for a one-time service, because there is, at least, a chance that the church might become more than a spiritual mall.

Through the Spirit, church can become a community with Christ and others, where we consumers of religious services can begin to grow into the "full stature of Christ," as the writer of Hebrews puts it. This process  is life-long  and is completed  in the life to come.

At the same time, increasing numbers of us consumers are weary of conforming, in St. Paul's words, to the world. Some of us are conforming ourselves to Christ by the renewal of our minds, which is usually painful, a kind of death-and-resurrection experience.

When we make that transition from conforming to the culture to conforming to Christ, we discover that our true and eternal identity is not that of consumers of religious services, but that of members of Christ's body, the church, and servants of Christ. 

Engaged in daily conversion, as Trappist monk Thomas Merton put it, we're conforming to Christ--and being transformed by him--through our regular reading and study of the Bible; by taking an active part in Christian education weekly; by praying daily, worshiping weekly, giving generously and even sacrificially, joining other Christians in ministry.

In the words of New Testament scholar Luke Timothy Johnson, we're learning and living Jesus Christ today.

The Episcopal Church and Christ Episcopal Church rightly and proudly proclaim that we welcome all people. And we do (and we can do a much better job of it).

We welcome religious consumers, in hopes that they'll meet the living God at a wedding or funeral or baptism or in a prayer at the bedside and start that life-long journey of growing in Christ.

And become part of what Richard Niebuhr aptly described--and called Christians to embrace--Christ transforming culture.

Monday, July 22, 2013

When the preacher speaks, maybe it's God calling

Most people come to church for comfort, not discomfort.

I like to preach messages of comfort, not ones of discomfort, because I would rather people like me than dislike me for what I have to say. 

But sometimes God has other plans for me and my sermon on Sunday.

Yesterday, I preached on Amos 8.1-12. Amos was a Hebrew prophet who spoke to the powerful in the northern kingdom of Israel. Amos was unpopular because he spoke God's truth. Many prophets were stoned to death for telling the truth, which people didn't want to hear.

Since Amos's time, eight centuries before the birth of Jesus, prophets have fared little better. Jesus, God himself with us, was crucified for telling the truth.

In the text yesterday, Amos speaks for God, rebuking the powerful in Israel for abandoning him and committing injustice and oppressing the poor and the needy. 

Here is some of what Amos says: "Hear this, you that trample on the needy, and bring to ruin the poor of the land....(who) practice deceit with false balances, buying the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals, and selling the sweepings of the wheat....I will never forget any of their deeds...."

In my sermon yesterday, I spoke about Amos and his context, and then I applied the text, which is what seminaries teach students to do when they preach. Few people are bothered by sermons about "then," but lots of people are bothered by sermons about "now."

I spoke about what many people considered a recent injustice--the U.S. House of Representatives' eliminating food stamps from the farm bill. I mentioned the Tennessee congressman who had quoted St. Paul, that if you don't work, you don't eat. I said the congressman had misinterpreted the apostle.

I cited the evidence that most people who received food stamps were not "parasites," as another congressman once said, but the elderly, the disabled, the chronically unemployed, children. 

I said that nearly 60 percent of public school students in Springfield were receiving free or discounted school lunches because they were suffering from "food insecurity."

In the prophetic tradition, I issued a call to action, making a few suggestions about how we, the followers of God's mercy and compassion, Jesus Christ, might act for justice. 

You can hear the sermon for yourself at www.christepiscopalchurch.com. 

Several people disagreed with what I had said from the pulpit, even viscerally,  telling me so directly or indirectly. They said I had politicized the pulpit, that I had divided people. I am sure that many others also disagreed with me. Many people did agree with what I had to say; they told me so.

Whether you agreed or disagreed with the sermon yesterday, thank you for listening.

To everyone who gathers at Christ Church faithfully from week to week to receive God's Word made flesh in the sermon and in the sacrament,  I say:

Thank God that we preachers in the Episcopal Church are free to speak from the heart--from our own hearts and from God's heart about those great ultimate themes of love, mercy, compassion, freedom, justice, forgiveness, reconciliation, peace, love. 

Thank God, in our church, we are are free to agree or disagree.

And, if you find yourself disagreeing with a sermon (yes, I have disagreed with sermons),  you might just listen for that Voice beneath the other voices of anger, frustration, guilt, perhaps.

When I have done so, I have found that beneath the voices of my discomfort God was often speaking to me. He was telling me something that I didn't  want to hear, but that he wanted me to hear--and embrace in faith--for deeper life in Christ.