The Rector's Blog
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June 28, 2018, 10:36 AM

Spiritual Practice


This issue of the Epistle covers three weeks, as I will be away to attend General Convention until July 15.  That week, Karen Ricketts will be on vacation, plus we will have our annual Ulster Choral Evensong, so life is likely to be a bit chaotic when I get back.  Maybe chaos is good, yes?

So, what shall we talk about this week?

I’ve been poking around in a book on spiritual practice (Strength for the Journey, by Reneé Miller).  In the introductory section she writes about what spirituality is and is not.  So, she says, spirituality is not practice; that is, it is not what we do (although we may do any number of practices such as prayer or meditation, worship or study, ministry or movement).  She also says spirituality should not be confused with the fruits, such as peace, and inner calmness, an alertness, or a sense of connection with the universe.

Funny, I thought that was what spirituality is!

No, she says, spirituality is about relationship.   The practices and the fruits are the method and the byproduct, but the core of spirituality is to be in relationship with God.

If we look at the three synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke), we will see Jesus telling the disciples, “Come, follow me.  Come and see.”  Miller says, “He didn’t demand moral perfection or theological certainty.  He wanted people to be in relationship with him.  In relationship, they would hear him, watch him in action, be questioned by him, and come to know his love for them.”

Miller writes that we might “be in relationship … mystically, intellecturally, sacramentally, or companionably.”  We shouldn't expect that relationship to be static; we should expect change and growth.

When I was in seminary, we were taught that every time we worship, every time we do liturgy, even if all the words are the same, it will always be different.  That’s because we are not the same today as we were yesterday, and today we may hear something in the liturgy we have never heard in quite the same way before.

We all know that friendships we had as children may have been lost – people grow up, they change, they move, they switch jobs, they develop new interests, they marry and have kids or they become ill and struggle to survive.  But we also gain new friendships and relationships – with neighbors, co-workers, lovers, spouses, and children.  All these relationships undergo change, even massive changes.

Thus we can conclude that, despite appearances, even despite times of dullness and boredom, today is never quite the same as yesterday.  And the same is true of our relationship with God.

It is not a substitute.  Doing practice doesn’t automatically make us better Christians, any more than feeling that inner calm and sense of connection will. 

Spiritual practices, and even the fruits of those practices, help us to maintain our awareness of our always-evolving relationship with the Divine.

Living out that relationship is how we participate in the incarnation.

Mother Teresa once wrote:
  “I always begin my prayer in silence, for it is in the silence of the heart that God speaks. God is the friend of silence – we need to listen to God because it’s not what we say but what he says to us and through us that matters. Prayer feeds the soul – as blood is to the body, prayer is to the soul – and it brings you closer to God. It also gives you a clean and pure heart. A clean heart can see God, can speak to God, and can see the love of God in others.”

If you didn’t begin your day with prayer today, pray now.  Sit in silence for the space of a few minutes, breathe with attention, listen for the small sounds of life around you, give thanks for your presence on this good earth, and for the presence of those whom you love.  Then just let stillness be.   Just for this space of time.  Just for right now.

 

Blessings to all!                            Evelyn+




June 14, 2018, 6:00 AM

Is chaos good?


Is chaos good?

I ask, because after 22 years (less two months) in the Foreign Service, I am truly shocked by the actions of the current Administration that seem to be undercutting the foundations of long-standing world order – tiffs with allies, praise for autocrats, exits from treaties and agreements and standard practices, etc.

I’ll grant you, the idea of picking something apart, particularly something that has not always been easy to fathom, motivate, or change, has its attractions.  There is a certain atavistic appeal to nihilism, and to the question: How bad can it get?  We all know, of course, that it can get very bad, if we wind up in war, or the economy crashes, or the hostility wrecks not just alliances but the social fabric on which we all rely, knowingly or not.

Is there a brink?  Are we careening towards a cliff?  What happens if we get in over our heads?  What happens if relationships that have been tended and maintained over decades suddenly end?  Where will we find ourselves then?

And if we do find ourselves isolated, is is that bad? 

After all, there is a long strand of isolationism in American politics; it’s not like we haven’t set ourselves apart from the rest of the world in the past.  For evidence, just take a look at the history of U.S. involvement in the two great wars of the 20th centruy – it took three years for us to join the fight against Germany in World War I, and nearly as long to join the fight against Germany and the Axis powers in World War II – and in both cases, we might not have done so at all had it not been for military attacks against U.S. interests and the appeals of our allies around the world.

Americans have a history of opposing immigration (which I do find ironic considering we practically eliminated the people who lived here before the first Europeans set foot in the western hemisphere).  During the 1930s and 1940s, there was an active “Bundt” movement in the U.S. that supported Hitler, and the elimination or deportation of Jews and black people and other identifiable minorities.

Perhaps our current sitution reflects that history; perhaps it reflects a deeper malaise in the human soul, and is not unique to the U.S. 

Perhaps we can look at the current chaos and see the lancing of a boil – ridding ourselves of what is diseased in the body (the white cell fixing what is wrong) – or perceive a disease that attacks (the cancer cell creating greater wrong).  Sadly, it’s likely to be some of each.

So, where is God in all this?

If my take on the prophets is right, God has been adjuring the people – both the folks in the streets and the folks in halls of power – to take care of the vulnerable for millennia.  And roughly 2,000 years ago, God came to us as one of us to bring the message home – again – and to provide a way forward:  mercy, forgiveness, love, teaching. 

Jesus showed us it is possible for human beings to live the life God has been asking of us.

At times, God’s approach doesn’t seem to be working.  We still ignore the Good News, the guidance, and the commandments to love God and neighbor, seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.

How is it that the message of fear is stronger than the message of love and possibility?

I think it may be because we still don’t quite believe it, despite our best efforts.  We let the world’s woes, and our own woes, outweigh the promises of God.  I know I can do that.  Too many times we have heard the message as “if you believe in God, you will have everything you need in this life,” and too seldom do we hear “when you believe in God, you will have freedom” – especially if we don’t really know what “freedom in Christ” means.

God sits with those who suffer, as a good friend or a parent or a pastor sits with the sick – not simply to bring a cure of the physical ailment, but to uphold the spirit, to face whatever comes together, to asuure us that nothing – nothing – can ever separate us from the love of God.  Not even chaos. 

Blessings to all!                            Evelyn+




May 31, 2018, 9:48 AM

Wade in the Water


Wade in the Water

Tracy K. Smith, 1972

for the Geechee Gullah Ring Shouters

One of the women greeted me.
I love you, she said. She didn’t
Know me, but I believed her,
And a terrible new ache
Rolled over in my chest,
Like in a room where the drapes
Have been swept back. I love you,
I love you, as she continued
Down the hall past other strangers,
Each feeling pierced suddenly
By pillars of heavy light.
I love you, throughout
The performance, in every
Handclap, every stomp.
I love you in the rusted iron
Chains someone was made
To drag until love let them be
Unclasped and left empty
In the center of the ring.
I love you in the water
Where they pretended to wade,
Singing that old blood-deep song
That dragged us to those banks
And cast us in. I love you,
The angles of it scraping at
Each throat, shouldering past
The swirling dust motes
In those beams of light
That whatever we now knew
We could let ourselves feel, knew
To climb. O Woods—O Dogs—
O Tree—O Gun—O Girl, run
O Miraculous Many Gone—
O Lord—O Lord—O Lord—
Is this love the trouble you promised?

 

From Wade in the Water (Graywolf Press, 2018). Copyright © 2018 by Tracy K. Smith.

 

Last week, I was at an event called the Festival of Homiletics, an annual fest / feast of fantastic preaching by well-known and lesser-known luminaries of the wider church:  

  • Walter Brueggemann, who offered us “eight theses, two texts, and five conclusions” as he spoke on economic systems that oppress the poor;
  • Craig Barnes, who spoke of the “anxiety at the core of our age,” and said that Jesus was not [publicly] identified as the Son of God until his baptism, when he became deeply involved in our human condition through his baptism (offered for sin), thereby showing that it is [also] the human state that God loves.
  • Otis Moss III, who stressed that Jesus was concerned with how power is distributed in society and how power affects people – in other words, with politics, and said that to avoid the topic of politics in preaching or teaching is to allow the power differentials of the status quo to remain in place; and 
  • many others – Richard Rohr (the usefulness of personifying evil), ++Michael Curry (the power of love), Diana Butler-Bass (the importance of gratitude as building resilience and encouraging resistance against the things that tear us down or apart) being among the more easily recognized names.

It was a challenging week, but it fed my soul so much!  I probably have more ideas for sermon approaches than at any time since seminary!

On Thursday evening, May 24, Sojourners publisher Jim Wallis, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, Franciscan Fr Richard Rohr, Dr. Barbara Williams-Skinner, and several other “elders” came together with 2500-3000 of Festival attendees and other lay and clergy leaders to lead a candle walk to the White House to showcase “A Confession of Faith in a Time of Crisis” – a statement of principles that reclaims Jesus’ message of love for God and for all people, and rejects politics of division, derision, and dominance that are too common in our day (and have plagued us from the beginning of time, truth be told).  If you’d like to know more: see the Reclaiming Jesus website.

Blessings to all!                                     Evelyn+

 




May 16, 2018, 12:00 AM

The End MAY be nigh, but we really don't know...


As many of you may recall, I spent over 20 years in the U.S. Foreign Service.  I believe in the power of diplomacy, in the pursuit of peace, justice, and equity not only for us, but for all nations.

Isaiah 42:1-9:

Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him; he will bring forth justice to the nations. He will not cry aloud or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street; a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench; he will faithfully bring forth justice. He will not grow faint or be discouraged till he has established justice in the earth; and the coastlands wait for his law. Thus says God, the Lord, who created the heavens and stretched them out, who spread out the earth and what comes from it, who gives breath to the people on it and spirit to those who walk in it….

Which is why I cringed when I heard that we were going to move our Embassy to Jerusalem.  The protests that erupted that day were completely predictable; the violent response – leading so far to over 60 deaths – perhaps less predictable, were far more appalling.

Romans 12:19

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.”

I know that a lot of Americans feel that moving the embassy to Jerusalem is the right thing to do.  One can make a reasoned and rational argument either way.  But there are other arguments, less reasonable, less rational, also being made. There is a strain of thought that says the Lord Jwill return if Jerusalem is once again the capital of a restored Israel. 

The Biblical texts used to support this thinking are being taken out of context and misapplied.

God made a promise to Abraham (Genesis 12) that those who blessed Abraham would be blessed, and those that cursed him would be cursed. The errant reasoning is that God made two covenants: one with the descendants of Abraham, and another with everyone else.  But this is a very recent idea, popularized in the late 19th century. It really began to take root, primarily in evangelical thought after the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948.[1]

St. Paul, on the other hand, argued that while the original covenant was with Abraham’s descendants, Gentiles were being “grafted” into the family, and, in following Jesus, were as much inheritors of the promise to Abraham as the Christian Jews. 

Paul’s theology had its own dangers – principal among them being the idea that God rejected the people of Israel if they rejected Jesus as the Messiah. This unfortunately led to a couple millennia of persecution of Jews. But this is no better theology than the idea that the restoration of Israel will lead to the return of the Messiah. 

Neither one of these ideas is Biblical.

Romans 9:6b-8

For not all Israelites truly belong to Israel, and not all of Abraham’s children are his true descendants; but “It is through Isaac that descendants shall be named for you.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as descendants.

Paul makes it clear – it is belief that makes a person a part of God’s people of Israel.

Galatians 3:28

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

And when the end shall come, no one knows.

Matthew 24:36-44

But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.

And if Jesus himself knew not the day, how can we possibly think we can figure it out?  If we can’t know, then the question is not how shall the end come, but what do we do with the time we have? 

Here’s a hint:

Micah 6:8

He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?

                                                 Evelyn+




May 4, 2018, 6:42 AM

Spring!


Can you believe it’s May already?  The dogwoods are in bloom all over town, but the tulips are already finishing up their annual display!  This week we are having daytime temperatures in the 80s, so it seems winter has been dismissed at last.

There’s been a lot of good work in our church garden, with more to come.  The south side of the garden, the front of the rectory, and the west side of the office building have been dug up, tilled, covered in landscape cloth, replanted (in smaller plantings), and mulched.  The hostas and the peony have been divided, the monkey grass has been reduced, and lilies of the valley have been potted, at least temporarily.  Much weeding has been done in the central portion of the space between church and rectory; and on the south side of the church, but further work in these areas must now wait till the Fall, as transplanting now could kill the plants.

Kudos and thanks to all those who have helped – you know who you are! 

 

Last week I went to Waycross for the annual Spring Clergy Retreat – we not only have a chance to relax with our colleagues, but we also have a bit of training. 

This year we held “Fierce Conversations.” Some of you in the business world may have heard of this – essentially it is a technique to encourage honest, in-depth discussions about issues important to those in the conversation.  I think all of us have been in conversations that go on for days, months, even years, but never arrive at any conclusions – the “Fierce” approach aims to put an end to this habit by first “interrogating reality” – that is, being brave enough to identify, as fully as possible, all the permutations of whatever situation is being addressed, and to be as honest as we can be (or are challenged to be) about them. 

Other steps include being fully present, tackling the toughest challenges first, heeding one’s instincts, taking responsibility for one’s own emotional responses, and being patient enough to wait for answers.

The basic premise is that our lives, relationships, and careers, will succeed or fail through one conversation at a time.  This really puts the emphasis on the importance of those conversations!  In fact, one can look at the conversation as the expression and working out of our relationships – even our internal conversations.

So all in all, I would say it was a worthwhile introduction, and who knows, you may find signs of my learning in future conversations!

Blessings to all!

                                                 Evelyn+

 


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