Tuesday, September 16, 2014

125 lives and counting

How many lives do you affect for the good daily? With a hello or kind word? By sending a card to someone who's lost a loved one? Holding the door for someone whose arms are full? Volunteering at a local hospital or school of nursing home or church.

The opportunities to increase the sum total of good in the world every day are endless.

Today, I received an email about a possible project of the Diocese of West Missouri. Ideas are being solicited now.

The 125 Lives proposal will come before the Diocesan Convention in November in the form of a resolution. If approved--how could it not be?--the resolution would urge congregations to identify ministries and projects that are helping at least 125 people.

I responded to the email, sending along some of the ways that the people of Christ Episcopal Church are helping others:

FROM the Next-to-New Shop, which I just visited, which is providing clothing to people with modest resources, including job seekers; 

TO the Outreach Team, which provides the food, prepares it, and serves it to homeless teens at Rare Breed (Our team will be there tonight); 

TO the church staff here who daily pass out sack (or, today, box) lunches to hungry people; 

TO the Well of Life Center and our many volunteers there, which is distributing food to the growing numbers of hungry people in the area around church 

(Did you see the story in the Springfield News-Leader on Monday about hunger: Some 250,000 people in the Ozarks rely on food pantries for some of their food, and most of the hungry are working full-time; many of them used to be middle class.); 

TO our Crosslines' volunteers who collect, sort, deliver, and then distribute food to hungry people through the Council of Churches' feeding ministry; 

TO our Bissett Elementary School outreach, which just last week distributed new shoes to the students there, and to the people of the parish who contributed money and time to organizing, fitting, and distributing the shoes to a lot of happy children; 

TO the college work that we (and St. John's Episcopal Church) are doing, with 50 students at the first student gathering here a few weeks ago and some 20 or so attending weekly; 

TO our pastoral care ministers, who help hundreds of people through hospitality at the time of funerals, who cook and deliver meals to parishioners in need, who accompany people on their grief journeys, who deliver flowers to nursing homes and hospitalized people;

TO the St. Gregory Senior Choir, which periodically gives Sunday evening sacred music concerts, which people from the parish and the larger community attend, and which enrich and elevate them; 

TO our Haiti Team--contributors and volunteers, whose giving of time, talent, and treasure daily provides medical and nursing care, high-protein food to malnourished infants, schooling and much more to the people of the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere;

TO the Vinton Fellowship, which monthly serves nearly 50 elders--people not just from Christ Church, but also from other parishes and from the wider community;

TO everyone involved in our worship ministries, whose contributions of music, word, and sacrament nourish with spiritual food 250 to 300 people weekly during the regular church year.

As I reflect on our positive impact on many hundreds of lives daily, weekly, monthly, yearly, I am awed and thankful for this community of faith and these people called Christ Episcopal Church. 

Thanks be to God!

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Spinning Plates and spiritual food

I like to watch movies about food.

The other night, Penny and I watched a Netflix documentary called, “Spinning Plates.” I think nearly everyone will find something to like in the film.

It tells the story of three restaurants and the people behind them. Hard-working, loving, creative people.

Each restaurant is different. Breitbach’s Country Dining, in rural Iowa, has been in the Breitbach family for four generations now.  La Cocina de Gabby is a Mexican restaurant in Tucson. Alinea, in Chicago, was named the Best Restaurant in North America and received three stars in the Michelin Red Guide.

Spinning Plates reminds me how important food is.

A meal unites people. A restaurant staff works hard—16 hours a day or more--and in unison to prepare the food and serve it. Diners come together to enjoy the meal. A meal sustains people. We must eat to live. A meal is often the setting for celebration—a wedding anniversary, a graduation or a baptism.

A meal can also be a way to find support in a hard time, such as after the death of someone close to us. People often gather after a funeral for a reception or a formal meal. We remember the departed, telling stories of him or her; and often that person seems alive and present. We hug and cry and sometimes laugh. We share not only the food, but also our grief, and we gain strength from one another for living with and through loss.

In the Gospels, notice how many times Jesus and his disciples are having a meal—at the wedding feast in Cana in Galilee, at the miraculous feeding of the five thousand, at the Passover on the night before his death; and, then, at the breakfast by the shore when the resurrected Jesus appears to his grief-wearied disciples during a meal of grilled bread and fish.

Meals not only nourish us physically but also spiritually. Watch Spinning Plates and see how food brings life, how a meal transforms people and communities. (“Babetts’s Feast” is another of those films that is about far more than food.)

For Episcopalians, the greatest meal--and one infinitely superior even to a meal at a three-star Michelin restaurant--is the Holy Eucharist. 

In the Eucharist, the Living Christ, our host, welcomes us. We come to the table needing nourishment and companionship, his and one another’s. He feeds our spiritual bodies with the Word of God (the Scripture readings and the sermon) and with the bread and wine, which become the living presence of Jesus through the power of God the Holy Spirit.

As our physical bodies are enlivened through a meal, so our spiritual bodies are enlivened through this spiritual meal of the Holy Eucharist. 

Even though you’re meeting your physical needs, you’re still missing something, and you can’t quite articulate it.

A sense of wonder? A connection to something bigger than you yourself? The experience that you are loved unconditionally and forever? A feeling of belonging? Hope that is beyond this world? Purpose outside of the ordinary? Wealth that never loses value, but always gains it? Peace that passes all understanding?

You won’t need a reservation for this holy meal. You’ll always find your place at the Lord’s table. And although there won’t be any spinning plates, the meal served here from that silver paten (and chalice) will be one that will satisfy your deepest hungers.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Journeying with the Jesus of justice

Some church members wonder about my passion for justice, which I understand very simply as doing unto others as I would like them to do unto me.

Why do I care about justice? Because in my spiritual journey, I have discovered that God cares about justice and calls me to do the same. 

God's will, I believe, is for a just and loving world--one in which all God’s children are treated with respect and dignity. God, as I know him and believe in him, creates every human being in his image and likeness, as Genesis puts it. God is in every person, and every person is in God.

In the Lord's Prayer, I pray "thy kingdom come, thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." I not only say this prayer, but, with God's help, I try to enact it. To paraphrase Evelyn Underhill, the great Anglican mystic, If I pray for God's kingdom to come, then I have to work to achieve it. 

Humbly and feebly, I strive for a better, a more just world for everyone, especially for those people the renowned sociologist Robert Bellah once described as the “underclass.” The underclass includes the working poor, the hungry, people without health insurance, vulnerable children and elderly people. The underclass lacks the power that other classes in America possess, including education and training, political networks, money and access to decision-makers, status.

I see and serve the underclass daily as a pastor, as well as through Christ Church's outreach ministries and my active involvement in community groups and on various boards, including the Board of Directors of the Council of Churches of the Ozarks.

At our recent community dinner at church, with 85 people in attendance, I went from table to table, welcoming our guests and learning a little about their lives and challenges. Most of them never imagined that they would be homeless or would rely on food banks or church suppers to survive. One guest, a former teacher with a master’s degree, told me that she never thought she would have a nervous breakdown and then lose her job.

My concern about justice grew slowly, beginning in the Roman Catholic Church. A child of Vatican II, I learned from Popes John XXIII and Paul VI and from my priests and nuns that Christ cared for the underclass, that he urged his followers to work for their wellbeing. I give God thanks that today Pope Francis is urging all Christians to work for a just and peaceful world.

As a young adult at the University of Louisville, I became active in the Ecumenical Center. At the urging of my Roman Catholic chaplain, I began to read Thomas Merton, a priest, monk, social critic and activist. Merton called Christians, not only to daily conversion to Christ, but also to the conversion of the world, that the world might become God’s kingdom of justice, freedom and peace.

After college Penny and I became active in a house church, a weekly informal gathering of Christians in one another’s homes. Our church was dedicated to Christ and to social justice. Activism was new to me. I felt self-conscious and frightened as I participated in public protests—against the death penalty, the building of a nuclear power plant in southern Indiana and the USwars in Central America.

I never imagined that my faith in Christ would lead me to kneel with others in prayer at the federal courthouse in Louisville as a man was sentenced to death, that I would begin corresponding with a death row inmate in Alabama, that I would spend the day with him in a cell, there getting to know him better and praying with him (This inmate, Wallace Thomas, became my friend and was later executed.), that I would become an active memberof the Nuclear Freeze movement, which sought to abolish nuclear weapons.

I began to write about social justice and to publish articles and reviews in national publications, including The Other Side and Sojourners. I wrote occasional opinion columns about peace and justice for The Courier-Journal and Louisville Times. Colleagues at the public relations agency where I worked thought my views controversial. A family member said I should keep my opinions to myself or jeopardize my career. I kept writing.

By the late 1970s, Penny and I were attending Christ Church Cathedral, the Episcopal cathedral in Louisville. I was attracted to the cathedral because of its beautiful music and traditional worship, its focus on fostering the life of prayer, its lively, engaged community and its strong commitment to serving the poor and needy.

The more I learned about the Episcopal Church, including its history of championing justice and peace, the more convinced I was that the Episcopal Church was the church God was calling me to join. The lively preaching of the canon, the assistant minister, with whom I sometimes disagreed, challenged me to see Jesus more fully, as God’s compassion for all human beings--be they homeless, hungry, people of color, gays and lesbians. I am glad I listened to the canon. Listening to him, I was listening to Christ, God’s living word.

I moved from my birth church, the Roman Catholic Church, into my new spiritual home, the Episcopal Church, on Trinity Sunday, June 1, 1980. The Episcopal Church continues to shape my vision of what it means for me to follow Jesus.

My graduate theological education at Louisville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and, later, at The General Theological Seminary in New York City exposed me to the prophetic (speaking the inconvenient truth) tradition of both Judaism and Christianity. I studied the Hebrew Scriptures and language and immersed myself in the world and work of the prophets of Israel, who spoke for God to his people. The prophets urged the Israelites to abandon their idols and to be faithful to God alone, living according to his law and loving and caring for the poor, the oppressed and the vulnerable.

I studied the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor and later martyr in Nazi Germany, and of Karl Barth, a Swiss theologian who famously said that the preacher should prepare his sermons with the Bible in one hand and The New York Times in the other. I discovered the Social Gospel Movement, which called for the transformation of society. I studied Liberation Theology, learning to read the Bible with the help of modern social, economic and political analysis. Evangelical Christians and Quakers of 18th and 19th century America who sought to abolish slavery inspired me, as did Anglicans and Episcopalians who served the poor in the slums of London and American cities in the 19th century.

Also during my seminary days, I saw poverty first hand when I served an African-American church in Louisville and, later, a church on New York's West Side, which ministered to the homeless and hungry. I also saw the power of the pulpit to awaken Christians to Christ who lived in the needy. To paraphrase Jesus in Matthew 25, as I show compassion to the needy, I show compassion to Jesus himself.

I met and was challenged by modern-day prophets, including Philip Berrigan, a Roman Catholic priest, who opposed the Vietnam War. Humbly, Father Berrigan said that he hadn’t yet become a Christian but that he was “becoming a Christian.” I know that I will never become fully Christian in this world. But I trust that Christ is pleased by my desire to see him more clearly, to love him more dearly and to follow him more nearly, as the blessed Richard of Chichester prayed. 

At General, I studied with Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa. Archbishop Tutu received the Nobel Peace Prize while there because of his anti-apartheid work in his homeland. The Bible came to life through his lectures on the church in the modern world and in his preaching in the Chapel of the Good Shepherd. Small in size, he is nevertheless a spiritual giant who is ablaze with God’s passion for a new world of justice, freedom, peace and reconciliation. Archbishop Tutu has left a lasting imprint upon me--my faith, my concerns, my writing, my teaching and, especially, my preaching

My formation in Christ makes me the person I am, the Christian I hope to be, living into the fullness of my Baptismal Covenant, and the priest I believe God called and ordained me to be.

As a priest in southern Kentucky, then in New York state and now at Christ Church for nearly 19 years, I have sought to live my faith in Jesus Christ as my Savior and my Lord, my faith in Christ and my commitment to him constantly evolving as I have dealt with the needs of the people in my parishes and my communities. When AIDS appeared in the early 1980s, I helped found the first regional support ministry in southern Kentucky for people living with the disease. With hunger growing in the Southern Tier of New York, church members and I opened a food pantry in our church. When white power groups started recruiting in the area, I spoke out against the evil of racism. With my encouragement, the church opened our classrooms to Laotian and other Asian refugees so they could learn English.

In reflecting here on some of my journey with Jesus, I hope you have a better understanding of who I am, why I am passionate about the well-being of all of God’s children, why I see advocacy for and service to the poor and needy as an integral part of my faith and my calling from God.This history of mine shapes my faith and spirituality, my values and core beliefs and my actions for a better and more just world.

When we share our stories with one another in the spirit of love, we build relationships of respect, trust and lively concern for one another and for others. In conversation, then, let us all grow more fully into the image and likeness of Jesus, the compassion of God.And let us find our unity in him and in service to all his children.


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Thursday, April 24, 2014

Easter is all around

As I walked early this morning, I heard and saw spring all around. It shouted, Alleluia. Cardinals, robins, blackbirds were trilling; trees exploded in colors, their sap arising after a long winter's sleep, pushing shoots of green from their branches. The wind carried the sweet smell of lilacs. The rain-softened earth offered up tulips and daffodils. Creation surged with life.

God is behind it all--bringing forth life in response to the promptings of his love.

In the readings from the Prayer Book Daily Office for Easter Week (The Book of Common Prayer, page 959), Exodus tells the story of the Passover and of God delivering his chosen people, Israel, from the darkness and death of slavery in Egypt. The readings go on to recount how God leads an often fearful and wavering Israel into new, abundant life in the Promised Land, that land "flowing with milk and honey." Canaan is a kind of everlasting springtime.

The New Testament writings from Corinthians contain St. Paul's profound meditation on the meaning of Christ's resurrection for believers, while the Gospel readings tell in their particular ways that amazing story of Jesus' resurrection and of his miraculous appearances in his risen body. Once again, God is bringing freedom and new life out of the slavery of sin and of death. It is springtime.

God, who is love and life, is at work in creation, in the church, and in the lives of all people who put
their faith in the Risen Lord Jesus Christ.

Believing in him is committing ourselves to follow him, and when we do, we see him in all his power. He is continuing his work, freeing us from every tomb and from all our chains--be they addictions, selfishness, fear of the future, loneliness, depression. And for those of us who follow Jesus in faith from the tombs of this world, we find our Promised Land. That land is not a place, but a state of being called resurrection and our daily awareness that God is always greater than our problems, our pain, our suffering, even our deaths. Only God is almighty. Do we believe? How does our believing change our way of being and of living?

Easter is all around--in the glorious spring of bird songs and blossoms and beauty. And it is in us and in all who put their faith in Christ on earth, who proclaim by our words and our actions, Alleluia! Christ is risen. May your 50 days of Easter be filled with joy in the God of all life.

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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