2014 Lenten Meditation #10

Saturday, March 15th, 2014 – The Second Saturday in Lent

How Do You Experience God?

 

Christopher suggested one of those little, soul-searching questions upon which to base a meditation. “How do you experience God?” Carrying such a heavy question during the day and taking it to bed at night causes lively thought and wakefulness. I finally realized how often I experience God in my interactions with other people. I have chosen a familiar subject, the Special Olympics, and a favorite image from that program to demonstrate my answer.

As the parent of a child with disabilities, I have had to alter certain parental expectations and to redefine success to fit our realities. When my daughter was invited to join the Special Olympics program at New Trier during her sophomore year, I discovered a philosophy in action that celebrates those altered expectations and new definitions of success.

My daughter’s Special Education teacher, Lew, was the leader of the Special Olympics program. He was a genius at recruiting adult volunteer coaches, adult volunteers, student helpers, and Northwestern University students, so that each of his Special Olympians had a personal coach, two student helpers, and another adult or a Northwestern undergraduate as a support group. As observers, we parents watched a well-crafted service operation and a developing community, where everyone was teaching, learning, and caring for one another. One night a week for five months, the Olympians practiced to develop skills in their chosen event with the help of their group of supporters. I witnessed the presence of a loving, patient God by observing the dedication of the volunteers and the dignity of the competitors. The student helpers served their special athletes with encouragement, comfort, and care. During that time they also learned to recognize the courage and humanity of the young people they were serving.

On the day of the Track and Field Special Olympics, I relish the boisterous, bittersweet pageantry of the Parade of Athletes and Volunteers. As families, friends, and fans of the program clap and cheer, the Olympians pass the grandstand with or without the assistance of their helpers, until they reach the spot where they watch the Opening Ceremonies. At the end of these festivities, clustered in colorful groups, wearing the colors of their schools or sponsoring organizations, the athletes recite the Special Olympics oath. “Let me win. If I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.”

I watch with happiness and apprehension, whenever the athletes test the skills they have practiced for five months. Although they have all worked hard enough to capture a gold medal, many will go home with a ribbon instead. I attend my daughter’s events and those of the other athletes as they face their challenges. For years, we, the grandstand crowd, waited for Tom, a New Trier Special Olympian, the only competitor possessing the necessary strength, stamina, and coordination to run in a mile-long event. When Tom sprinted across the starting line as a solitary runner, he escaped his daily limitations and raced the four laps around the stadium with a galloping, gold medal joy. We spectators always erupted with noisy exuberance as we shared his liberation.

To answer Christopher’s question, I offer Julie, a New Trier Special Olympics adult volunteer coach, who spent five months preparing Brian for his ten meter assisted walk. Since he usually used a wheelchair or a walker, we wondered how he would meet the challenge. On the afternoon of the competition, Julie and Brian’s helpers steadied him at the starting line. Parents, teachers, students, and friends gathered at the finish line to cheer his effort. As Brian laboriously walked the distance from start to finish without assistance, Julie did a modified duck-walk behind him with her arms surrounding him in a supportive embrace without ever touching him. Julie whispered encouragement and displayed an unforgettable smile of joy at his progress. They crossed the finish line as an awkward, beautiful unit. We celebrated Brian’s accomplishment with hugs and tears. Julie celebrated with that radiant smile. Julie is my favorite metaphor to describe a loving, patient, steadfast God who walks with us during our struggle from our starting points to our finish lines. Julie is one example of how I experience God.

 

Susie Sprowl

 

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2014 Lenten Meditation #9

Friday, March 14th, 2014 – The Second Friday in Lent

Words Matter

 

I love singing along with Josh Turner on Long Black Train:

There’s a long black train comin’ down the line,
Feeding off the souls that are lost and cryin’.
Rails of sin, only evil remains.
Watch out, brother, for that long black train.
Look to the heaven’s, you can look to the sky.
You can find redemption staring back into your eyes.
There is protection and there’s peace the same:
Burnin’ your ticket for that long black train.
‘Cause there’s victory in the Lord, I say.
Victory in the Lord.
Cling to the Father and his Holy name,
And don’t go ridin’ on that long black train.

 

It’s fun singing along. The tune is uplifting (check it out). And, yet, I pause and wonder about how I am influenced by the subversive message in the language. We have long associated black with sin and white with virtue. Consider these many terms: black mark, black sheep, blacklist, blackball. I embrace diversity; I love the opportunity to grow through the varied ways of approaching life, of celebrating life, of being in this world. And, yet, when I sing along with Josh Turner, am I somehow enforcing a deep-seeded notion in my white psyche that black people are less and white people are more?

Back in seminary, I attended Anti-Racism training, a requirement for all people in the Diocese of Chicago going through the ordination process. One particular exercise stands out for me, one I continue to think about. We were broken into two groups: white people and black people. We were asked to discuss how we describe our culture. When we came back together, the black people had much to share about their music, their food, their clothing, their language, and their social interactions. Us white folk were stymied. We didn’t know what to say. We didn’t know how to describe ourselves. In essence, our problem was that we didn’t know how to describe what to us is just so “the norm”. Whoa, scary stuff to face my ignorance.

How am I influenced by the norms of our language? Our lives are all about our relationships with one another. We connect through words. Words matter. How do my words hurt? How do my words help?

 

– Jeanne Stewart

 

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2014 Lenten Meditation #8

Thursday, March 13th – The Second Thursday in Lent

Absence of Fear

 

What would life be like for us is we were less fearful? I’m asking you to really think about that today–to pray about it, to focus on it, to let it sit with you until you get uncomfortable. More importantly, I’d like you to think about that through the distractions of the day.

What is likely to happen is that you will start with good intentions–“Christopher asked me to do this so I’m gonna give it a good faith effort”–and then the next thing will happen. The kids will need attention. Your spouse will not be able to find the car keys. The morning paper will be screaming its headlines at you. Your body will yearn for caffeine.

Distraction is how the Enemy of God works most frequently. Sadly, that’s all the harder he has to work most days. A little misdirection, a gnawing emotion, an important appointment, a resurfacing resentment. Any will do. As long as the Enemy can gain a little purchase on our attention, he’s perfectly happy. He does not want us to be focused on the things that really matter. He doesn’t need to stop all the light from coming in; he just needs it to be partly cloudy. That’s because we’re likely to focus on the clouds and miss the sun in between. I know this is true for you because it’s true for all of us.

Jesus doesn’t adequately explain why there are clouds or who put them there. It’s not because he doesn’t care or doesn’t have an answer. It’s because, in an important way, the answer doesn’t matter. Like He teaches in the parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30), that will be taken care of in its own time, in God’s time.

The real issue is this: the presence of clouds in our lives activates our fear…and fear is THE BIGGEST distraction of all. We can justify almost anything when we are fearful. We rationalize it all and we do it because we’re scared…of not getting what we want or think we deserve, of getting left behind, of not being loved, of not making ‘a difference’. The list feels endless.

Fear is a liar. The list of our fears is not endless. Only God has no beginning and no end. Only God is endless. Our fear can be used by God just like any virtue. Whatever we turn over to God becomes God-like. Whatever we will not turn over turns on us.

So what would be different for us if we were less fearful? Less distracted? What would we, and others, see that is now hidden by distraction? If we learned to trust God more, what would there be more of and less of in our lives?

You and God and the people who cross your path will be blessed to know.

 

Questions for the day:
What would life be like if I was less fearful?
What are my principal distractions?

 

– Christopher Powell

 

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2014 Lenten Meditation #7

Wednesday, March 12th – The Second Wednesday in Lent

Old School

 

Do you like the phrase, Old School? I do. I’m not entirely sure why, but it suggests that there is an older, simpler, more effective way to get things done. Whether true or not, I like the idea it is.

The stories from Scripture are Old School, for sure. What I like about the majority of the stories is that while there are concrete things that happen (the Flood; the Exodus; the building and destruction of the Temple; Jesus raising Lazarus; etc.), often the stories themselves invite more questions than they provide definitive answers. In the cases where they provide definitive answers, the story of our Life With God simply starts a new chapter. Every ending is a new beginning, which sets us up nicely for the Death of Jesus and the New Beginning it occasions.

There is another aspect of Scripture being Old School that I like even more. It’s the fact that the stories are messy, as messy as our own lives. The creative process, even with God, is invariably messy. When the Ultimate Mystery deigns to join itself to our temporal existence, we should expect nothing less.

I remember when MTV used to show music videos. Talk about Old School. I enjoyed the ones that were dedicated to artists talking about how they wrote the hit songs that made them famous. I was fascinated listening to them…and without exception disappointed. I expected some kind of mountain-top experience to be behind these iconic works of popular music when in reality, these songs, like muses, floated down to the artists when they were doing something amazingly mundane. Some artists were under the influence when they created their art. Some were not very good people, by any measure. Some were walking to the grocery store or recovering from some trauma, many of which were self-inflicted. You get the idea.

Creativity is not linear. Love is not linear. Nothing living follows a perfectly straight line. Our attempts to straighten out the crooked lines of our existence are often met with disappointment or worse. Once straightened, they often get crooked again. Quickly. That’s why Jesus says that love covers a multitude of sins. It needs to. Each of us is guilty of at least that many offenses against God and each other, even if only in our thoughts. The process by which we become ourselves most regularly involves folding in the parts of us that are not lovely and aren’t going to be any time soon. When Paul figures all of this out, he writes, “God demonstrates his own love for us this way: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:8)

God figured messiness (and sinfulness) into the whole arrangement of Divine Love for His creatures.

 

Questions for the Day:
How do I expect God to make Himself known to me? What am I waiting to ‘fix’ before I let that happen?

 

– Christopher Powell

 

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2014 Lenten Meditation #6

Tuesday, March 11th – The First Tuesday in Lent

 

The Season of Lent is forty weekdays long running from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, the day before Easter. The number of days mirrors the time Jesus spent in the desert being tempted by the devil, but they also echo other important forty day periods in the Hebrew Scriptures: Moses on Mt. Sinai; Elijah on Mr. Horeb; Jonah preaching to Ninevah; Noah in the Ark; and the years Israel spent wandering in the wilderness before entering the promised land.

With these biblical events in mind, the Church set aside this time for fasting, prayer, and repentance in order to prepare for the miracle of Easter, and when appropriate, baptism at the Easter Vigil.

That’s all straightforward Sunday School teaching, a restatement of the basics of Lent. My question is this: As we prepare for the feast of Easter again this year, what about the initial followers of Jesus who witnessed the physical resurrection first hand? What was their preparation?

It is too easy to say that they had Jesus with them and that was their preparation. They often hadn’t the faintest idea of what He was talking about or pointing to or teaching during His three years of public ministry. They put all this together in hindsight, after He had risen, performed more miracles, and appeared to hundreds, according to Paul. Yes, they had intense conversations with each other hashing it all out in the Upper Room where the Last Supper was shared. They had the benefit of reflecting on all that Jesus had said and done in their midst while He was in their presence, post-resurrection. None of this, however, addresses the question of their preparation before the moment He appeared to them alive again, having died

Friday afternoon.

In a classroom setting, this is where I would ask, “How do you think the disciples were prepared for the miracle of Easter?” I admit there isn’t a ‘right’ answer to this question. I do like to believe, though, that what prepared them for this event was not the prediction of Jesus that it would happen (they didn’t understand that prediction; Peter even told Him it shouldn’t happen). I think the answer is much more basic.

I think it was their sense of expectation, of wonder. No matter how sure they were of where things were headed, they were at least open enough to consider something they hadn’t planned or anticipated could happen because…because that is often God’s way. “Your ways are not My ways, says The Lord.” Somehow, in the midst of lives lived much like our own, they left room for that to be true. When their moment came, they eventually wakened to the notion that God was doing something new, something dreamed of but never before experienced.

The purpose of any discipline we adopt is to create in our hearts the same sense of wonder, of openness, to the presence of God in our lives. The disciplines don’t work on God; they work on us. We have the advantage of knowing what God has done in Jesus. Our spiritual disciplines are designed to help us know more clearly what God is doing in us.

Questions for today: Do I expect to be surprised by God? What am I doing to prepare myself for that surprise?

 

– Christopher Powell

 

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2014 Lenten Meditation #5

Monday, March 10th – The Second Monday in Lent

“No, woman, no cry… Everything’s gonna be alright.” Bob Marley

 

Margaux sat on my office couch quietly weeping as she said: “Nobody can tell me that everything is going to be alright.” She had gone to her parents, professors, and her mentors for reassurance. She had consulted Buddhist websites and explored Nietzsche for a nanosecond. She was referred to me for assessment of suicidal ideation. I quickly referred her to Bob Marley. That wise man had told us, in no uncertain terms, that everything is going to be alright.

We live in a world of predictable unpredictability. We know, in general, how our days will unfold. We have schedules to keep and agreements we hold sacrosanct. Into each day some unexpected thing occurs. Sometimes that unexpected thing is an annoying event. Other times, it is devastating and our lives are changed irrevocably. It is human nature to rigidly hold to Knowing how things Should Be. It is human nature to cling to what was. We do what we can to build predictability into our lives. The alternative is overwhelming to us and we fear losing our status, our place in the world, our anchors, our lives, our minds.

I can tell Margaux that Everything is, indeed, going to be alright. In fact, I can promise it. Everything is going to be alright…she just may need to shift her definition of what “alright” means.

Our faith tradition asks us to risk dying into Life. It asks us to allow the transformation from what was to what is, trusting that all is as it should be. Transition from what Was to what Is can be a desperately uncomfortable time. It is human nature to backpeddle, attempting to stop the change or to negotiate desperately for a specific outcome. When we hold to an understanding of how things should be we close down the spaces in which our God can move and create with and for us. Life is dynamic, changing every moment that we live it, even when we are able to keep to our schedules and loved ones give us what we need and want. God is dynamic, in just this way, creating, giving, presiding in everything about us.

When facing hardship and fearing a specific outcome I shift the words of psalm 23 just a little bit: “Yea though I walk through the Valley of the Shadow of Death, I need not buy and decorate a condominium there.” Our task is to Walk On. This is not the new normal. Things will shift. This too shall pass. Everything’s gonna be alright.

Where is God in this? What is my current definition of alright? Am I willing to be surprised by God?

 

Melissa Perrin, Area psychologist and Episcopalian

 

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2014 Lenten Meditation #4

Saturday, March 8th – The First Saturday in Lent

How do I experience God?

 

So this is what happens when you ask Christopher to write a daily Lenten meditation as he did during Stewardship last fall. You remind him he doesn’t have to do it alone, what about Jeanne and Heath – let’s hear from them too. And then he asks you to do something you’ve never done. At least he wrote the headline.

Wait. Don’t we just exist with God? Of course, but in thinking about it, I discover that I live the experience more fully by being intentional through the daily challenge of understanding my faith and what God is offering. Which is everything.

So I experience God more deeply when I am more intentionally connected.

That happens Tuesday evenings during our remarkable Faith Explorers, when we read, discuss, disagree, search, hope, and always, always leave uplifted by our wildly diverse views on, well, most everything. If you have tried it, you may know this experiential connection with God.

Lent is when we traditionally give something up. I get that. From chocolate to chips, been there, done that. But another way to think about it is to take in, rather than give up.

So a better connection for me is being more intentional in Lenten devotions beyond Sunday services, like say, attending all our spiritually rewarding Wednesday and Friday worship opportunities at Christ Church. And being grateful that they are offered.

The more I take in, the more I experience God. The grace and peace intrinsic to Friday noon service is my immediate experience with God. It’s a way to become more intentional about faith and as we now say, more of myself in Christ.

I particularly experience God in our outreach. You are all so passionate about these deserving services, giving us so many meaningful ways to do more for others.

What could be better way to experience God than as a confirmation mentor? Five great guys, Caribou Coffee, and six bibles open at the big table. That’s a yes.

How about an opportunity to sign up, cook and serve again for our brothers and sisters at A Just Harvest? Thank you, I will. Or just now, walking through the doors you are opening for all of us to Holy Family Ministries. Waukegan2College. Or experiencing God by helping Renk and SE Mexico.

So how am I experiencing God? More deeply and more connected than ever. With God’s help.

 

– Phil Adams

 

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2014 Lenten Meditation #3

Friday, March 7th, 2014 – The First Friday in Lent

A Thought and a Poem

 

Have you been asked what you are giving up for Lent? Have you asked anyone? It’s a fairly common conversation this time of year. It can be asked almost anywhere without being considered inelegant. People get asked at the train station, at work, at kid’s activities. Rarely, though, do we ask the natural follow up question, the one Geraldo or Matt Lauer or Barbara Walters would ask: How do you hope to be different because of this sacrifice, this new practice?

Being asked that question checking out at Costco would certainly temper the advantages of buying in bulk.

The question, however uncomfortable we might feel asking or answering it, is a good one. What are we really trying to achieve during the season of Lent? I had a parishioner in a former church whose wife loved to tell this Lenten story on him. He had a ‘boys’ weekend scheduled with his oldest chums. It was a five day, annual affair and because of the movable nature of Lent, it was coming right at the beginning of the season. And…he had given up alcohol. When his wife asked him how this was going to work on a long weekend of this kind, he replied that he had ‘banked’ his five Sundays so he was in good shape.

After being impressed that he knew that Sundays aren’t counted in the forty days, I was left wondering what his deeper thoughts about this were. Did he think that God was counting? That God was monitoring his spiritual gymnastics? That God has strong opinions about alcohol or keeping promises or being ‘one of the guys’ when the situation encourages it?

You have perhaps figured out that I don’t find death morbid or a forbidden subject. For me, it merely frames the question, “What is life supposed to be about for a Christian?” However each of us answers, I expect that our answers would include the idea of participating in life. Fully. With passion. With joy and with each other. So that we could feel at life’s end that we had returned the gift God has given us with some reciprocal sense of grace.

 

The poet Mary Oliver covers this in an excerpt from her poem:

“When Death Comes”

When it’s over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.

When it’s over, I don’t want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don’t want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.

I don’t want to end up simply having visited this world.

by Mary Oliver, from New and Selected Poems (Beacon Press).

 

 

– Christopher Powell

 

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2014 Lenten Meditation #2

Thursday, March 6th, 2014 – The First Thursday in Lent

Jesus, John, and the Desert

 

In all the Gospels save for John’s, Jesus is baptized to considerable fanfare on earth and from Heaven. A voice from above cries out through the wilderness that this man, this Jesus of Nazareth, is the beloved Son of God and that God is well pleased with Him. A dove even alights. One can imagine that John the Baptist is both pleased and stunned by the raw truth the voice confers on John’s prior announcements. At this moment, I picture the Baptizer sitting down, but involuntarily; collapsing, really, into a sitting position. This is the moment when he realizes there is no turning back. What John has hoped, what he has heard, what he has believed, now…just is.

The journey of Jesus into Life will go through the valley of Death.

John has come from this place to which the Spirit is leading Jesus. John knows the ways of the desert, the things that go through a person’s mind when forced to live among the infernal intensity of rocks in a sea of absence. He knows that this experience sears into a man the notion that God alone can come to us when no other animate thing feels present. John knows what Jesus will experience and how He will survive. He even knows the why of it, as far as any man can know it. What John wonders at this moment is what kind of man this will make Jesus. John knows what it did to him: the desert’s heat forged a man who was relentless and unyielding, but it also confirmed for him that he was no lover of souls. He was purged of any need to comfort or soothe. His spirit is inflexible now: it will break but never bend.

John knows his thin-end-of-the-wedge place in the kingdom is meant to lacerate the hypocrisy of people, to open up a wound whose healing can only be accomplished by the salve of a Savior’s promise. He also knows that promise had to be made to people whose running from the deserts of life injured them more than being in the desert itself. The wilderness had hardened John; how could that environment make Jesus more supple?

John gets his answer. “Are you the One who is to come or are we to await another?” John asks from prison. Jesus replies by pointing to the wounds He is binding. The desert sun has hardened John’s heart; The Son in the desert has let it melt any hardness in his.

And so it is for each of us: the same ingredients designed to accomplish something in one person can be designed by the Spirit to do the opposite in another. Jesus and John learn this while in the desert, following.

 

Question for today: Do I believe God is using my current circumstance to shape me into the creature that both God and I want to become?

 

– Christopher Powell

 

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2014 Lenten Meditation #1

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014 – Ash Wednesday

 “The end is where we start from.” T.S.Eliot

 

Today is Ash Wednesday. Today, as Eliot points out, we start at the end. Each year on this day, we begin with the admission that we are simply dust and that when we die, we shall return to the ground. Today, we are honest about our fate: we get mixed in. We become indistinguishable from everything else subterranean. We become filler in between the rocks.

We will be gone, sooner than any of us likes.

Ash Wednesday begins Lent each year and begins the walk we make, spiritually, from where we are at this moment in our lives, to the Cross on Good Friday and the empty Tomb on Easter Sunday. It starts for us in church, at the altar, with other followers of Jesus. It starts with ashes, our prayers, the bread and wine made Holy by the Spirit, and our desire to lead a life closer to the one we want to present to God when we are finished with our earthly course.

The significance of ashes is clear: in Genesis, God takes dust, or dirt, and breathes life into that dust to create a human being. We are destined to become dust again at the end of our earthly life. Today, we admit that to ourselves and to each other, publicly. The ashes communicate what we dare not utter, even to our own souls. We acknowledge on Ash Wednesday that if we are to return to life after we die, any kind of life, we must rely on that power…again. The same power who breathed life into us by grace is the only power who can breathe it into us a second time.

This is our hope. Our outrageous hope.

The end, our end, is death. Not just death in the abstract, but the end. Of us. Of everything as we know it. The end includes the death of our loved ones. Of ourselves. Of nameless people on the planet who labor in other parts of the vineyard. We are surrounded by it. It scares us. It should.

I’m going to church today because it is my job. Not my paid job, but my job as a person, a person made in the image of God. I’m going because my earthly life will conclude. I’m going so I can remember that this inevitable end is also my beginning, the beginning of my trust that God will make provision even for someone like me.

I’m going to church today because I need to. I need to remember that my life is temporary. I need to remember the hope that everything I am currently living ends in God, and therefore, always begins again.

 

– Christopher Powell

 

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Stewardship Meditation #28

The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

During church services on Sunday mornings in the month of October, we have had meditations offered by members of our parish community on the four cornerstones:  Worship, Seek, Serve, and Give.  This morning, John David Rainey offered this meditation on Give.

By John David Rainey

Christopher called me a few weeks ago and told me about the four cornerstones, and his intention of having members of the congregation speak about each of them, and he wanted me to speak about the Giving cornerstone.  My first reaction was, “Man, I drew the short straw here.”  And when he asked me if I would speak about giving, he didn’t stop talking for about 5 minutes, seemingly as to not provide an opening for me to say, “no.”

Giving is a very personal, and sometimes emotional topic.  I don’t need to stand up here and tell you about the importance of giving.  We all get that.  Where the topic becomes a little more uncomfortable though, is when we discuss “how much.”  The very nature of giving is characterized by generosity, selflessness, and is done without concern for what we get in return.   When someone suggest that I should give more, it’s as if they’re suggesting that I am not generous or selfless enough…and that’s where it becomes personal.  We all have this remarkable ability to justify our giving, particularly to the church, as the fair or right amount based on how much money we make, or how much time we have devoted to service, or even how much we have given to other charities.  Among those justifications, we rarely consider what we get in return.  That’s ironic to me because in every other aspect of life, when we spend money, that is precisely what we think about:  what we get in return.  To be clear, we don’t give because we expect something in return.  When we give to the church, we are not writing a check and walking away.  It’s also an investment.  As with any investment, we think about what we get in return.  So that’s what I want to focus on today:  what we get in return.

First, I think it’s important to clarify who the “we” is in that statement.  It’s not just you or your family.  “We” has a much broader application.  When my wife and I discuss giving, she reminds me of a particular woman that attended our church back in Houston, Texas.  Our church there was not unlike this one.  It was a traditional church with a fairly affluent congregation.  This woman sat at the end of our same pew every Sunday.  She was a black woman, in what was an almost entirely white congregation.  She was also homeless.  And she arrived every Sunday – sometimes late, but always in time for the sermon – in a tattered dress, with her tattered Bible, and she would pull along a suitcase, which I guess probably contained everything she owned.  But instead of seeking money from someone on a street corner, she was seeking something much more…in church.  I can’t help but think how she must have felt all those years as the offering plate was passed her way.  We may not all have the same means, but we ALL have the same needs.  So when we give, I think it’s important to give for those who cannot.

So what is it that “we get in return?”  I’d ask you to think about that for a second.  I suspect that this morning we would get as many different answers to that question as there are people in this congregation.  For me, I think it’s many things.  But I know this:  one of the things we get in return is a foundation, a foundation for how we live our lives.  In this day and age when it is so easy to compartmentalize church and religion from other aspects of our lives, the church provides a foundation that carries over into our everyday lives.  It helps to shape our children, it helps us deal with personal loss, with addiction and divorce, and it helps us to mend broken relationships.  It is our foundation.

Christopher has been sending out his daily stewardship meditation emails, and this week the topic has been giving – and I’ve paid particular attention this week so as not to contradict anything that he has said.  There are two things he said this week that resonated with me, and made me reflect on an experience I had earlier this year.   Earlier this week he said that, “In His kingdom, we don’t give with money, we give with our hearts.”  The second one was a passage from the Bible.  It’s something Jesus said that was also made well known in Leo Tolstoy’s short story, The Shoemaker:  “In as much as you have done it to the least of these my brothers, you have also done it to me.”

Earlier this year, I was flying back from San Antonio.  I was sitting in first class, and after I boarded there were seven or eight people in military fatigues with duffle bags that boarded.  San Antonio has a military base.  Many of you have probably experienced something similar.  You know that usually when you see this, those soldiers are either going home, or they are going off to serve their country.  In this circumstance, it was easy to see from their long faces, and the trepidation in their eyes, that they weren’t going home.  Across the aisle from me sat an 11-year- old boy.  I watched him watch each of these soldiers as they walked down the aisle.  I could tell that he recognized what was going on and was wrestling with the gravity of what they were about to do.  After everyone had boarded, he got up from his seat – in a way not to draw attention to himself, and no one said anything to him – and he walked to the back of the plane.  He went up to each of those soldiers individually and asked them if they would like his seat in first class.  They each politely declined, and the boy returned to his seat. I could tell that he had tears in his eyes.  He quickly sat down and looked out the window so that no one would be able to see his tears.  That didn’t matter, because everyone else that witnessed his actions also had tears in their eyes; I did, the other passengers, even the flight attendant.

I was proud that the actions of this 11-year-old boy made everyone else around him have a better appreciation for the significance of what those soldiers were doing.  I was even prouder, though, because that 11-year-old boy was my son.  You don’t get that from watching TV or going to the donut store on Sunday mornings.  You get that here…at Christ Church.  In the words of the hymn we sang this morning:  How Firm a Foundation.

I’d ask you to consider two things when you think about what you give this year.  First, think about digging a little deeper, and giving for those who cannot.  And second, think about what it is that you get in return.

Thank you.

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Stewardship Meditation #27

The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

Tomorrow is Cornerstone Sunday: the day we ask the faithful at Christ Church to make a pledge to the work of the Kingdom that is ongoing in our parish.

I’m aware that some of you hear the word “money” when I say, “pledge.”  I get that.  Frankly, the larger church has earned that by its behavior.

Let me be clear about what I hope for on Cornerstone Sunday.  I want, and Christ Church needs, your pledge.  We need your pledge to invest in our community, in what we are doing, in what we hope will happen.  The pledge I am speaking of here has nothing to do with money.

‘For where you treasure is, there your heart will be also.’  I’m not asking for your money.  I’m asking for something more.  I’m asking you to ‘treasure’ your life, our life, at Christ Church.  I’m asking you to consider how important it is that our parish continue to offer you the chance to deepen your life in God.  I want, because God wants, your heart, your presence, and the offering of yourself, whatever that may be.  I want you to be connected to Jesus by your participation in Christ Church.  I want you to feel better when you have offered yourself at Christ Church than you would if you had just skipped that step.

People contribute to things they think are making a difference for the Kingdom, for the world.  People contribute to things they think are on the ‘right track.’   As our history points out, we have, as a community, been swayed at various times to make decisive decisions for the Kingdom.  I admire that.

Now is such a time.

What do you want to become in God?  How can I, and the others who make up our church community, help?  What do we need to do?  What do you need to do?

As my friend Jim Nutter pointed out, my start at seminary, when he and Bishop Lee first met me, was inauspicious in the extreme.  About the only thing I did right was this:  I showed up and I was all in.  The rest I figured out along the way.  Of course, I’m still figuring.  Just like you are.

We need you at Christ Church.  We need you to help us discover the Kingdom in our midst.  We need you to help us worship, seek, serve, and give.  We need you to participate in our life so that we have your offering to add to ours.  We need every resource we can gather.  This is hard work.  With your offering and God’s presence, grace upon grace, we will succeed.

Questions for the day:

What if God turned the tables and said that He didn’t want, wouldn’t accept, your offering?  What would that be like for you?
When you lie awake at night, do you feel as though you have given your ‘best’ to God?

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Stewardship Meditation #26

The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

All giving starts with God and flows through us from the Kingdom into the world and back to the Kingdom.  This giving of God to us and back is all part of the Divine Mystery in us, working for our benefit while we offer ourselves to each other.

I realize when folks are cooking chili at home for A Just Harvest Community Kitchen or practicing the handbells or placing cookies on trays for a funeral reception that it doesn’t feel mysterious or mystical.  The development of habits, practices, and customs rarely feels mystical during each repetition.  There are mountaintop experiences for sure, but the majority of our time spent giving ourselves to any endeavor, even giving ourselves to God, feels pretty ordinary.  Like what’s the big deal?

Jesus made clear that He had no place to lay his head during his public ministry.  As far as we know, he didn’t cook for himself during that period, either.  But somebody did.  Somebody was busy during the day with the repetitive work of preparing a simple meal from the harvest of the land.  And Jesus ate it, just as we do.  He had to.  He was human.  He got hungry three times a day like everyone else does.

If you knew you were preparing a meal that Jesus would eat, would the giving of yourself to make that meal feel different?

Jesus also made clear that most of the time we don’t even know whom we are serving.  ‘When?  When did we do these things for you, personally, Lord?’ we ask.  ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers and sisters, you did it to Me.’  Each act of giving we perform, whatever shape it takes, is an offering to God, done for God and to God.

Kind of raises the stakes, doesn’t it?

God doesn’t do things this way to pressure us.  Daily life is not fundamentally a performance review.  Each day is an opportunity.  A new one.  Because every day is new.  We can start our lives, or our days, over at any point.  That’s fine with God.

The reason that God operates this way is so that we will have the chance for communion every day.  Communion with God.  It’s ‘not for nothing’ that our communion service on Sundays is a simple meal of bread and wine, transformed by grace to be the body and blood of Jesus.  That’s the business God is in:  to take ordinary things, ordinary acts, ordinary people and transform them by grace into the creatures He intended.

Everything we do in an ordinary day offers us the chance of communion with God.  Now that raises the stakes.

Questions for the day:

If I believed I was doing everything for God each day, would I do anything differently?  What would I add or subtract from my day to experience this?

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Stewardship Meditation #25

 The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

We have had a remarkable twenty-four hours at Christ Church.

Yesterday, we honored the dedicated volunteers who chair the various departments of Rummage.  We had a simple, delicious meal in the rectory and thanked them for their leadership and their countless hours of service to an enterprise which touches so many on multiple levels. It would be a long and passionate discussion if we tried to discover which group of people benefits the most from the work of Rummage.

Our Stewardship Dinner on Tuesday night was a wonderful event for parish.  Thoughtful and thorough preparations, seamlessly executed by a team of people led with grace by Sarah McCool; lively conversation; especially fine music performed by Andy Gullahorn, a songwriter of remarkable insight and Christian wisdom; and a keynote address by Jim Nutter, an old friend and experienced priest and Christian, which was at once tender, direct, and humorous.

People received a copy of Bob Bradner’s second piece of work on the history of Christ Church, handsomely laid out by Molly Ethridge.  This volume focuses on the buildings at 470 Maple Street and is a companion to his earlier book on the history of the Church on the Hill.  Bob has done us the kindness of chronicling life here from our earliest days to the present; his singular devotion to telling our story is a significant gift to us and to those who have worked so hard to bring us to this day.

Then there was Noah.  Noah Hillerbrand leaves for the Diocese of Renk in the Republic of South Sudan tomorrow.  We have encouraged him with help of all kinds, spiritual and material, as he answers the call he heard from God to go and live with Bishop Joseph Garang Atem for a time, serving the people in that community.  In an unscripted moment at the end of our dinner, Noah’s presence reminded us of what we have been focusing on during this season leading up to Cornerstone Sunday this week: Use what you got.  Be all in.  Use the Cornerstones to receive the peace of God.  Lean on each other.  Say ‘yes’ to God.

What struck me about Noah standing before us Tuesday night was that it was his turn.  He is not the reminder that we are stewards of the mystery inside us; he was a reminder.  The room was full of living reminders, full of people allowing the Spirit of God to lead them into a deeper fellowship with God and other people.  Bob’s latest history volume reminds us that we have done that for each other for many decades, to encourage, to build up a community of people trying to follow Jesus.  The fruits of that Spirit were evident.

Questions for the day:

Who are the ‘living reminders’ of God in your life?  What do they do to help you experience God in your life?

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Stewardship Meditation #24

The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

This meditation on giving, God giving to us and one man giving himself to coach six-year-old baseball players, is written by Boty McDonald, a close friend and fellow follower of Jesus. This was a letter to the parents of the children he coached.  Boty is a prosecuting attorney in Mississippi and works part-time with his brother Bryan moving Episcopal priests to Winnetka in Penske trucks.

  • A Letter by Boty McDonald

    I moved to New York in August of 1987 to attend Albany law school.  By mid-September, the local weather reports began ‘Fall Foliage’ updates. Hmm. “What in the world?”  I tried not to show my ignorance — already, I worked daily at smoothing over my southern accent — so, I didn’t ask any questions. I came to learn that the foliage worked its way down from Maine, in chronological order, sorta. And ‘peak foliage’ was the climax, apparently a big deal. Wasn’t it just leaves dying?…

    I indulged, with a smile, all the weeks of foliage talk. My wife and I would come home and muse about how folks seemed to get so wrapped up in it.  From all the chatter we learned that peak time in the area was always Columbus Day weekend.  We decided to drive around ‘a look’, like Mississippi rednecks.  So, on a crisp and glorious sun-splashed Sunday morning, we got in the car. Cranked up. Headed out to see what this foliage-fuss was all about.

    We were 10 miles into Vermont.  Mountains ahead.  We turned a corner to get the full view.
    Oh…my…God. I don’t mean the “OMG” that has now become an emoticon.  Nope.
    I mean ‘God’ as in ‘Lord.’  As in the ‘God’ I worship.  I have chill bumps now writing about it.  It is one of the moments in my life, along with the moment of birth of each of my children, when I saw God, saw creation, was in the presence of my Lord. Amazing. I have tears.

    Today is beautiful, another day the Lord has made. It cast me back to that October day in 1987 when I looked at God’s handiwork, at the Kingdom, here on earth. In front of me.

    This season with your boys, with you, has been glorious. Glorious.  Yes, it had its share of ups and downs, frustrations: “What?” and “Can I?” and “No!” and all kinds of emotional gnats and nags.  Your boys are such a source of light and love.  They gave me tremendous joy this fall season. I cannot count, cannot explain.

    As I looked in their eyes last night after our last game, one of the boys said to me “Did we win?” Well, “Oh…my…God.”  Yep.   Different form, same Kingdom.  Right in front of me.

    Hug those boys today. Don’t explain when they ask.

    Boty

  • What I love about this letter is that it illustrates giving on so many levels:  Boty gave his time; the boys gave themselves to the experience; God gave them all the chance to have this experience together; and Boty gave the parents this letter.  None of those things ‘had’ to happen.  It was all a gift.  It was also an ‘everyday’ occurrence.   Our life with God happens that way each day.  It is all a gift, and it happens in the midst of what we consider ‘ordinary.’

    Questions for the day:

    What are the Oh…my…God moments in your life?  How do you show gratitude for them?

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    Stewardship Meditation #23

    The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

    When we mention giving in church, we usually relegate that to something that inevitably ends with talk about time, talent, and treasure.  All we possess in this life falls into one of those categories.  Fair enough.  There is also this: whom do you consider deeply, wildly, and gleefully generous who also describes their giving based on the truth of those three categories?  I thought so.

    We can do better.

    If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always gotten.  I’ve seen that saying in physical therapy facilities and locker rooms.   I’ve heard people repeat it coming out of motivational talks or sales gatherings or twelve step meetings or sessions with a therapist.  I’ve even repeated it to myself when I think about ‘going the extra mile.’  I think of that phrase differently now.  I think of it applying to God when God decided to come into the world in the flesh, in the person of Jesus.  In Jesus, God did something new.

    God knew what to expect, how people would behave when blessed with exodus or faced with exile.  God knew how people would react to wise men and crones, to miracles and misery.  He watched the dull expressions of half interest in His people when the prophets, major and minor, convicted them repeatedly of their obvious sins and spoke with passion about the need to just stop it all.  To turn back.  To, as the Southern folk signs say, ‘Get right with God.’  After watching for all those years, God did something different:  ignoring the humiliation of it all, God came Himself.

    It was an odd arrival.  His own prophet, Isaiah, said about His appearing that, “He had no form or majesty that we should look at Him, nothing in His appearance that we should desire Him.”  The authors of God Calling point out that for those who refused to see Him, there was nothing He could do.  For those who looked for Him and found Him, there was nothing more to be desired.  What separates these two groups?  The nature of our giving.

    Jesus was a ‘man of suffering, acquainted with infirmity.’  This came about as He gave Himself away.  God’s love for the world results in giving us Jesus.  Jesus’ love for people results in His emptying Himself:  before, during, and after the Cross.  To see that love, to experience that grace, to be swept up in that forever truth, our giving must begin to match His.  It is by that imitation that we are able to begin to walk by faith, not by sight.  When our giving looks more like His, we graduate from church categories of giving and replace them with visions of the Kingdom.

    Questions for the day:

    What does it mean for me to give myself to God completely?  Who is the person who comes to mind when I think of giving away self to God?  How do they do it?

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    Stewardship Meditation #22

    The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

    Worship more than you don’t.
    Seek a deeper understanding of your faith.
    Serve others in Christ’s Name.
    Give as generously as God gives to you.

    What inspires me about these Cornerstones is that they form the basis of any sustainable Life in God. They are not prescriptive; they do not contain steps which a person must follow.  Each Cornerstone respects our God-given freedom such that anybody who exercises any one of them is governed only by his or her own creativity.  They are like the items in the periodic table:  they are the basic elements of a Life in Christ.

    This week we focus on the fourth and final Cornerstone which involves giving in the same manner that God gives to us.

    I suspect I know what some folks at Christ Church are thinking at this point.  “Christopher maintains that Stewardship is about our whole life.  Has everything he has written prior to this week been a prelude to the customary hard-sell about giving more money to the church?”

    I sincerely hope not.  For many reasons.  Among them is that God will not settle only for our money any more than anyone you love would settle for that.  Any relationship based primarily on the exchange of money is a transaction.  Our life with God is a relationship.  Transactions have their place, just not in a place of primacy with God.

    The Cornerstones are a tool to help us build our relationship with God.  If I want to become a person who has a deep, abiding, living connection with God, then I must mirror the characteristics of the One who, “So loved the world that He gave…”

    Loving and giving are inseparable; loving and money are easily separable.  That God gives as a result of loving is as natural as breathing in and out.  It is impossible to have one without the other and still have life.  The nature of true giving is that we take the focus off ourselves in that act and focus on the needs of someone else.  Just like God.

    I want to be a part of a community of Jesus’ followers that is ‘all in’, that communicates by its generous giving the nature of the God in whose name they come.

    In the Kingdom, giving is measured with your heart, not your wallet.  That is true in any intimate relationship.  Money is concerned with logistics.  Loving and giving generously are concerned with imitating Jesus.  Loving and giving generously are the acts that give life meaning.  No one says in his last moments that he should have spent more.  I do not want to spend those last moments wishing I had expended more.

    Questions for the day:  

    How have I experienced the generosity of God?  How have I communicated that generosity to others?

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    Stewardship Meditation #21

    The Divine Mystery exists in each of us. We are Stewards of that Mystery.

    During church services on Sunday mornings in the month of October, we will have meditations offered by members of our parish community on the four cornerstones: Worship, Seek, Serve, and Give.  This morning, Kevin Walsh and his sons offered this meditation on Serve.

  • By The Walsh Family

    Good morning, I am Tanner Walsh and my dad, brothers and I would like to share our experience with A Just Harvest in Rogers Park.  A Just Harvest is the largest and only self-standing community soup kitchen in the Chicago metro area.  365 days a year, they serve dinner to anyone in need, many are families and seniors, people confronted with choosing between paying their rent and putting food on the table or paying for medication and getting enough to eat.  In 2012, the kitchen served 54,000 meals and the ongoing generosity of Christ Church plays an essential role.  Twice a month, on the second Tuesday & the fourth Saturday, we are responsible for providing all the food — 5 trays of spaghetti or chili, salad, 150 pieces of fruit, and 6 gallons of milk.  We deliver the food and serve to approximately 150 people at a time.  My mom Tika, has been one of the coordinators for 10 years, and over the course of these 10 years, we have come to love serving at A Just Harvest.

    So how do we serve others in Christ’s name?  And how does Christ Church help us do that?
    Christ Church provides awareness of this ministry and structures the participation.  It is easy to participate at any level or frequency — you can cook, buy food, and /or serve.  Once you are at the kitchen, everyone is put to work, serving guests, cleaning tables or putting one piece of fruit on a plate.  Everything you do there is helpful and contributes to the cause.  Christ Church also provides the expectation.  Serve is one of our cornerstones and we are committed to serve others in Christ’s name.  To steal from one of Christopher’s stewardship meditations, “We’re not here serving today because we’re do-gooders; we’re here today because this is what Christians do.”  Finally, Christ Church provides the inspiration.  We are surrounded by thoughtful people who care for and who set a high standard for translating concern for others into action.  One of the things that has consistently inspired Tika is to see so many members of Christ Church want to help others.  Inspiration also comes from the gratitude in the faces of the guests.  For me, my faith has deepened and my eyes and heart have been opened wider by my experience at A Just Harvest.  A vivid memory is of a little boy eating with his mother.  He had a tuft of brown hair and big brown eyes.  He reminded me of one of my sons.  It’s hard not to continue with this ministry when this is the face of need.

  • Visit to the Local Mission page of our website to learn more about opportunities to serve at A Just Harvest.

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    Stewardship Meditation #20

    The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

    When I was in seminary, a group of us went with regularity to a feeding ministry downtown in Milwaukee.  It was in the basement of an Episcopal church and fed over one hundred people, six days a week.  I remember enjoying that work a great deal for many reasons, not the least of which was that when I couldn’t read one more book or write one more paper, I could always hand a meal to someone who was hungry.  It was tangible and offered an immediate and direct opportunity for service.  I felt that a good portion of my preparation was not as concrete — reading books about ministry was different than actually doing it.

    Three things about that experience have stuck with me.  The first is simple: someone else had made the effort to set up that ministry.  The organizers made it very easy for a person to simply show up and be useful.  I always appreciated that.  The second was what the director used to say every day we gathered just before we prayed and served food.  He’d look at us and say, rather sternly, “We’re not here serving today because we’re do-gooders; we’re here today because this is what Christians do.”  He was right, of course, and that statement is one I think of often as I try to live out the promises of my Baptism.

    The third thing I remember is that I thought more highly of that type of service than my other seminary preparation.  I didn’t love to study at that stage of my life.  I was not far enough along yet to realize that preparing to serve is serving.  I was in my twenties and wanted to get out and quickly find work worth doing — and then get on with it.  I had not yet begun to understand the value of pace and patience, of thorough consideration of what I was about to do and why.  I had Urgency for the sake of Gospel down cold; I couldn’t see that urgency without planning often leads to a disappointing outcome.

    I also missed something much more fundamental.  Performing acts of service to God and my neighbor is not something I do strictly on my own.  When Jesus tells us the Kingdom is within us, part of what he means is that as His baptized followers, God is performing the work of the Kingdom through us.  The work belongs to God, not us.  We are the instruments of God’s work.

    Because God works through us, there is a peace that comes from knowing that we are not doing things for God, we are doing them with God.

    Questions for the day:

    How do I let God lead me?  How do I make room to listen for God’s direction?

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    Stewardship Meditation #19

    The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

    My older son, Nick, wears a uniform.  He is a Lieutenant Junior Grade and a graduate of the Coast Guard Academy.   He has been stationed in Kodiak, Alaska for the last eighteen months.  He serves on a 278 foot cutter, whose mission is search and rescue and law enforcement.  He looks the part: a four-year football player, he is tall and muscular with a square jaw.  He is clear about his mission as an officer and an American.  When I called to console him on the death of a fellow officer last fall off the coast of California during a failed drug interdiction, his response was simply, “Comes with the job.”

    My younger son, Martin, also wears a uniform.  A senior Marketing major at Ole Miss, his dream is to be a rock star.  His uniform is purchased from the Goodwill.  He has tattoos.  He is an artist.  I once said to a friend that he looks like he is two bad decisions away from being homeless. My friend reminded me that we are all two bad decisions away from being homeless.  His musical genre is Alternative Music. When he was in high school, I mentioned to him that it wouldn’t kill him to wash his hair.  He said that Kurt Cobain never washed his.  “Kurt Cobain is dead!” I said.  “Yea, but dirty hair didn’t kill him.”

    Nick’s service is more conventional: in return for an engineering degree and a steady paycheck, he has agreed to give five years of his life in service to our country.  Martin…well, he apparently got the same message but applies it differently.

    The summer after Martin graduated high school, he was dating a young woman already in college.  One night, while they were out, she had too much to drink, so much so that she couldn’t drive, but thought she could.  Martin insisted on driving her home.  She spent the rest of the night with her mother in the hospital suffering the effects of alcohol poisoning.  Martin found this out when her mother called the next morning and spoke to him for forty-five minutes.  She had called to thank him for saving her life.  Martin reported this and concluded by saying, “That’s what friends do for each other.”

    Martin would be horrified if he knew I was writing this.  He knows (and I know) that he is not, fundamentally, a hero.  That night, though, he was a servant.  Service takes on many different appearances.   Service to God and each other can be public, private, or even anonymous.  It is often messy.  It calls to us at the oddest times.  True service, whatever its form, reminds us of the One who came to serve and not to be served.

    Questions of the day:

    How willing am I to serve when asked?  Whom do I serve?

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    Stewardship Meditation #18

    The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

    “It is so hard to believe because it is so hard to obey.”
    – Søren Kierkegaard –

    If, in our very best moments, we believe that there is even a trace of the Divine inside us, why do we run so resolutely from that truth we feel, that truth we know?  What, on earth, are we afraid of?

    Perhaps the church has contributed to this fear.  Perhaps the vision of obedience to the Divine Will we have constructed inside the church looks so boring, so focused on not making a mistake, so concentrated on keeping rules we think God wants kept, that we have soured the taste for God in ourselves and those around us.  Perhaps we have imperceptibly substituted, fear by reasonable fear, our idea of God for the Real Thing.  The antidote to this kind of thinking is not simply boldness.  Even despots can be bold.  The antidote is service; service to God in whose service is perfect freedom.

    We all long for freedom.  Not freedom to; freedom to do whatever strikes us as enjoyable at the moment is just slavery to ourselves.  We long for freedom from; from guilt, from anger, from self doubt, from every kind of insecurity, from the lies we tell ourselves.  We long for that freedom and often find ourselves humming a variation of that old Mickey Gilley song, “Looking for freedom in all the wrong places.”

    It is by giving ourselves back to God in the same Spirit that God has given to us that we discover freedom.  When we discover that our connection to other people is what allows us to be connected to ourselves, then we start to become free. It is when we give our fears to God and our hearts to each other that we begin to see God more clearly, when we start to live in grace, when we begin to see that obedience is hard, but it’s opposite is harder.

    When Jesus tells us to lose our lives in order to gain them, our natural response is to draw back.  It feels reckless.  Irresponsible.  Lacking prudence, wisdom.  We draw back, though, not because we think He is wrong, but because we know He is right.

    We were made for service to God and each other.  True, independence can be a blessing from God in its many forms.   You and I, however, were never made to be so independent that we become independent from God and each other.  Service takes many forms.  Maybe we need to reframe some of what we are doing in terms of service.  Maybe we need to add something to our daily fare.  That is a conversation for you and God and God’s Church.  What is certain is this: to obey God is to serve God…and to serve God is to be free.

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    Stewardship Meditation #17

    The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

    My premise for these meditations is simple: that God is inside all of us and we have to decide what to do about that.  God gives us gifts; we have choices.  The basic elements of a faithful response include our choice to worship, seek, serve, and give: the four cornerstones.  We get to decide how and when and if we will do any or all of those. Whatever our response, there is no punishment.  There are only consequences.

    Since God is everywhere, as close as our next breath, all of life can be instructive as we approach the kingdom.  Any part of our life can be used by God for purposes beyond what we can see at the moment.  What we bring to a situation, whether sacred or secular, can become the raw material used by God later in our lives.

    Between college and seminary, I worked for a small company in western North Dakota that manufactured truck equipment.  I got the job through a close friend whose relative owned the business.  This was a fledgling enterprise in newly discovered oil country.  All the guys I worked with had come off the farm to work for someone who wasn’t family.  They could all fix or make anything.  I was an English major; about the only thing I could make at that point was bail.  For a misdemeanor.

    I eventually learned to paint trucks.  That took awhile, though.  Before that, I had only the willingness to work hard and do whatever would keep me employed and the doors of the business open.  Those were the very things that landed me on a very hot summer day inside a large dumpster with a wire brush preparing the metal for welding repairs.  As I got out, the owner called me over.  He said, “I was the low bid to maintain the city’s dumpsters because we’re a new business and frankly, any business at all will help keep me in business.  My welders wouldn’t do that part of the job but the job couldn’t be done without it.  I’ll make sure you learn a different skill here soon.  Thanks.”

    I did learn another skill.  More valuable was that I learned how to serve by serving.  All the cornerstones are that way.  We learn their importance–and how to do them–by doing them.  With God’s invisible and perpetual help.

    Questions of the day:

    How can what I am doing today be used by God?  How can it be used in the future by God?

     

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    Stewardship Meditation #16

    The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

    The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve others.

    These are the familiar words of Jesus as he is teaching near the end of the Gospel of Matthew.  We may have read them as part of our devotions or listened to them in Sunday School or heard them recited from time to time in church.

    What does Jesus mean when he says this?

    Jesus is making clear a part of the message he has come to deliver.  We are to become instruments in this world of the divine will, of grace, of all that is good and true and honorable and holy.  We are to serve our Master, just as he says and does only what he hears his Master telling him to say and do.

    In a royal realm, what matters most is to serve the will of the sovereign.  The presumption is that the sovereign, either queen or king, is to be obeyed because a person in that position knows best.  There are obvious problems when using that analogy strictly in an earthly sense, but Jesus wants us thinking about bringing the life where eternal principles reign into the temporal one where they are harder to find.  When the disciples ask Jesus how to pray he instructs them to say, “Thy will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  Jesus is letting us know, directly, that God’s will shall be followed wherever it is permitted to reign.  It may not always be followed in this life, but there is a place and a time where it shall be followed by all who are present with God.  Our job is to try to increase the frequency here.

    At the heart of God is a will to serve.  That shows up first inside the Trinity as each member of the Trinity serves the other.  In Creation, that will to serve shows up in the form of the Spirit and the Son on behalf of the Father.  The purpose of their presence is to help us become the kind of people who wish to exercise the divine will and in so doing, become ourselves, our true selves, the people that God has intended us to be all along.

    We cannot become ourselves without God’s help.  We cannot become more like God unless we imitate God.  God serves us; it follows that when Jesus teaches us about serving each other, he is instructing us that we are actually doing it to and for God.

    The next opportunity for service might be easier for us to undertake if we think we are doing it to God, disguised as our neighbor.

    Questions of the day:  

    How willing am I to volunteer myself to God’s service, as I understand it?  What effect does it have on me to say “yes” to this invitation?  What is the effect when I say “no?”

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    Stewardship Meditation #15

    The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

    In this week’s meditations leading up to Cornerstone Sunday on October 27th, we focus on the third Cornerstone, “Serve others in Christ’s Name.”

    “Because I am baptized.”

    Have you ever answered a question that way?  Any question?

    I’m not sure I have.  I sometimes explain I am doing something for various reasons relating to my faith, but I can’t say that I’ve ever answered a question with as direct a reply as the quote above.  I’m not sure why I haven’t.

    I was baptized because my parents wanted me to be in close contact with God.  Once I could really answer for myself, I was confirmed because I wanted the same thing.  I never thought of baptism as being a particularly radical act–I was, after all, about four months old when it happened to me.  Over the years, I have thought a good deal more about what took place at that moment.

    Being initiated by baptism into Christ, into the Christ-life, is at its root a mystery.  I cannot adequately explain it to you in this forum, or any other, frankly.  That doesn’t leave me completely off the hook, though.  I can’t explain why my two football teams lost in two different cities on two different days this weekend with no time left, either.  Or why I love my family the way I do.  Or why an orange sunset makes me wish I could paint or why certain movie scenes make me cry projectile tears (even in front of other guys).  The most important things in life cannot be taught…and they cannot fully be explained.  They can only be experienced.

    In my baptism was a beginning and an end. It was the beginning of my discovery of who God is and how Jesus shows us that in human form.  It was an end in that I can go no higher in this or any other life than to be grafted into the Being who has no beginning or end.

    The stunning part of all of this is not what my parents did or what I have discovered about the meaning of baptism along the way; the truly stunning aspect of baptism is that I have been mystically joined to a Living God whose nature it is to serve us.

    That just doesn’t make any sense.  God’s being is higher than human being.  How can God want to serve beings lower than Himself?  What does God get out of that arrangement?

    Communion is what God gets out of it. Being at one with us.  No matter what we do.  Or say.  Or don’t do or don’t say.

    Why do I try to serve others?  Because I am baptized.

    Questions of the day:

    Do I believe that God wants to serve me? If I can’t really believe that, what would God look like if I did believe that?

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    Stewardship Meditation #14

    The Divine Mystery exists in each of us. We are Stewards of that Mystery.

    During church services on Sunday mornings in the month of October, we will have meditations offered by members of our parish community on the four cornerstones: Worship, Seek, Serve, and Give. This morning, Shay Craig offered this meditation on Seek.

  • By Shay Craig

    A young man decided to get to know his grandfather, a Rabbi, better.  His grandfather loved camping so they went out into the wilderness together.  They hiked, made a fire, cooked dinner, and finally went to bed after talking all night.  In the middle of the night, the Rabbi wakes the grandson and says, “Look up and tell me what you see.”  The grandson looks up and says, “I see light that has travelled millions of light years to reach us.” The Rabbi says, “No.”  The man tries again, “I see the beautiful panoply of color and darkness.”  The Rabbi sighs. “No.”  The man tries one more time. “I see evidence of the presence of God. Is that what you see?”  The Rabbi says, “No. I see that someone has stolen our tent.”

    I love that joke because it reminds us that there are always many ways to look at things.  We can see them scientifically or historically.  We can see things through a literary or economic lens.  Or we can look for the way things point to the hand of God. We can see or we can SEEK.

    As part of my job at Garret Seminary, I am an event planner.   We organized a big conference earlier this month called Navigating the Affordable Health Care Act. It was aimed at people in ministry and healthcare and it offered tools for understanding the new legislation. It was the biggest conference I have ever hosted. We were in five locations with webcasts and satellite sites and panel Q&A’s.

    It was a huge, gigantic flop. Every logistical detail failed.  Completely.

    Then last weekend, I went down to see my daughter Emma at college.  When we were in the car together, I poured out this whole story to her. She waited and then, in the way that only children raised in the Christ Church Choir can do, she began to sing. She sang, “Seek Ye first the Kingdom of God….”

    Her singing reminded me that I can measure the success of that experience with a financial yardstick, an attendance yardstick, a stress yardstick.  By all those measures, this conference was a gigantic failure.

    Or…I can look for the presence of God. I can SEEK God in that experience.

    The people who came to the conference told us afterward that the most valuable thing for them was meeting one another.  In spite of it all, I could feel the Kingdom being built.

    God is present in every second of our lives.  If we do not see God, perhaps it is because we are looking.  In order to be aware of God’s work, we must do more than SEE, we must SEEK.

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    Stewardship Meditation #13

    The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

    I have spent the past week with other clergy who are some of the best at what they do in the Episcopal Church.  This is a conference where the participants were chosen by their peers to help each other develop leadership skills.  My colleagues came from all over the country.  The offerings these clergy made to us, as a group, were astounding.  I came away feeling as though the Episcopal Church is far better off than the press or local media portray.  And, I recognized, as individuals we often feel inadequate.

    I heard, during the week, of creativity, boldness, and suffering for the sake of the gospel. Many of the offerings made me teary-eyed. Rarely have I heard, inside or outside the church, this kind of devotion.  I was humbled.  Much of the astounding work which we know is taking place is happening behind the scenes.  As always.  Kingdom work is often invisible to the world.

    When we seek the Lord, when we seek a deeper understanding of our faith, we begin a journey which will end someplace which we can’t see from here.  The categories change.  The goals change.  The people whom we seek and with whom we resonate change.  There are surprises.  Even more, from time to time, we are stunned. From time to time, we are even shocked.  We cannot believe that the force behind our thoughts or our intuition is God.  We question ourselves.

    Maybe our lack of certainty is precisely where we are supposed to be.  Maybe we are supposed to pay attention to our feelings and fleeting thoughts more than we imagined.  Maybe God works sideways, or in the margins, or in our peripheral vision more than we imagined.  Maybe our mistake is thinking that God is facing us head on, like a matador, while we are forgetting that the matador is busy duping us into believing that something awaits us on the other side of the cloth when nothing actually does.

    I, like you, often feel inadequate to the task before me.  When I feel that way, I pray.  I pray for strength and clarity.  I pray for the Divine Presence.  I pray that I will perform in a way that honors God.  I pray for help. When I do, this is the voice I hear:

    “The goal in seeking Me is not simply to find Me. It is to ask for My help as you look for Me.”

    Questions of the day:   

    When I feel inadequate, do I ask God to help me?  How do I let my desire to perform for God interfere with my Life in God?

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    Stewardship Meditation #12

    The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

    “Cleanliness is next to Godliness.”

    I don’t track the genesis of urban myths.  I do know that as a concept they didn’t start in late 20th century America.  Sayings, like the one above, have been around as long as there have been people in the world.

    As well-known as this saying is, it does not show up anywhere in the Bible.  On the contrary, Scripture does indicate, in many instances, that Godliness is much more important than cleanliness, modern advertising (think the Swiffer) notwithstanding.

    “Revenge is mine, says the Lord.”  This is another example of a phrase that is so common that we assume it is a quote from somewhere in Scripture.

    It isn’t.

    If you look up the many instances where the idea of revenge is utilized by God as punishment for bad earthly behavior, the frequency is stunningly sparse.  There are enough individual statements in the Bible so that any person can prove almost anything.  The idea, though, that God is looking to “smite” evildoers after the Flood story is hard to support from the record.

    Revenge as smiting our opponents is an idea that belongs to this world, not the next.  It is not a kingdom concept.  In John 18:36, Jesus says that if his kingdom were of this world, his servants would fight. They don’t, while he is being arrested, and the implication is that these earthly principles are not the paramount principles for his followers to espouse.

    Seeking the Lord, seeking a deeper understanding of our faith, is centered on re-understanding what we currently know  and replacing what we know in terms of Kingdom ideas, Kingdom principles.

    Here is one expression of what I mean.  My father and I have had much to work through in our relationship.  In the last few years, we have done just that.  We are in the best place we have ever been.  When I was younger, I was very clear about all the ways that he had underperformed as my dad.  In my worst moments, I laid in bed at night and took solace in the idea that God would have his revenge on my mistreatment.  And God did.

    How? He gave me children of my own.

    It’s as if God was saying, If you want revenge, here’s what I have in mind: you get to perform the same task as your father.  Let’s investigate your thirst for revenge once you have taken on the same task your father did.  

    Once I better understood God’s idea of revenge, I began to understand why mercy is such a prominent theme of Scripture.

    Questions of the day: 

    When have I received mercy and experienced it as coming from God?  Where have I refused to exercise mercy?

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    Stewardship Meditation #11

    The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

    My hope when you read these meditations is that you will be inspired to think of Stewardship differently.  I want you to think of the topic holistically, comprehensively. I want you to think of this word more broadly than a tired church word designed to have you give more of your money to the parish.  I want you to ponder these thoughts so that you can feel―and be―closer to God.

    When I am honest, there is another reason I am writing these things to you daily.  I want you to know me better.  I want to fulfill my role as a teacher in the faith.  I also want you to know that I am just as focused on my own learning.  I am just like you:  I yearn for meaning and connection and rich conversation and peace and joy.  I have to work at it just as hard as you do.  And, like you, I am just a beginner.  Much of the time, I cringe at the thought of something I have said or done in the past.  Could that have really been me saying that? Doing that?

    I am equally stunned by the small victories of my life: when I have gotten it right, when I have been truly helpful, when I have felt (and others have felt) that I have been a vessel of the holiness of God.  When I have been at my best and said or done the truth as I have understood it.  When I have been simultaneously honest and respectful.

    I know that in my struggle to work these things out―how I can feel such a failure at one moment and then know success so soon after―I am just like most of you.

    Often, I simply want to seek God more deeply, more purely.  I want to desire to be with God beyond anything I have known to date.  When I read the words of a twenty-two year old poet expressing the same desire, I remember that desiring to be with God is to already be closer than I can imagine.

    Extinguish my eyes, I’ll go on seeing you.
    Seal my ears, I’ll go on hearing you.
    And without feet I can make my way to you,
    without a mouth I can swear your name.

    Break off my arms, I’ll take hold of you
    With my heart as with a hand.
    Stop my heart, my brain will start to beat.
    And if you consume my brain with fire,
    I’ll feel you burn in every drop of my blood.

    –Maria Rilke

    Questions of the day:

    Do I tell God, as I pray, what I truly want?  What makes me embarrassed or afraid to do that?

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    Stewardship Meditation #10

    The Divine Mystery exists in each of us. We are Stewards of that Mystery.

    But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him.  Luke 15:20b

    Do you ever imagine God doing this for you?  This is the middle part of the story of the Prodigal Son. It is the story of a loving father waiting for his son to return to the blessings of home which the father has prepared for a lifetime.  The father is patient: he knows that he cannot teach the son these lessons; like all of the most important things in life, they can only be learned.  The remarkable part of the story is the father patiently waiting on the porch night after night, hoping against hope that the son will remember these blessings before he destroys himself.

    We know the story.  The son asks for things that he has no right to ask: an inheritance that is not due him until the father dies.  The son has not said it directly, but the implication is that he wishes the father were dead so that he could inherit his portion of what the father has earned during his life of hard labor.  The son feels entitled.  We know that the son’s request is ridiculous, rude, and disrespectful in the extreme. The only thing more ridiculous than the son’s request is how the father responds.

    I know what my response would be to my sons asking for their share of their inheritance before I was dead.  My response wouldn’t be acceptable in church circles.  I would be hurt and disappointed beyond what I can communicate.  Likely, I would react instead of responding.

    But this is a story, a story of a father’s abiding love for both of his children.  It is about responding, not reacting. It is the story of a father who keeps the biggest possible picture in mind.  It is a story of God’s love for us, a story that communicates how ridiculous and irresponsible that love is.  It is a story that communicates God’s love for us ahead of our worthiness.  It is a story about God seeking us before we seek God.

    I wake up most every day ready to embrace the day the Lord has made.  And at the same time, I have trouble some days believing that God could love me this much.  I get scared.  I get full of myself.  I’m sure I have to prove something important to somebody.  I forget.

    What I need to remember on those days is that God is waiting on the porch to embrace me, to kiss me, and to tell me that my coming back to Him is all He ever really desired in the first place.

    Questions for the day:

    What will have to happen for me to feel that God loves me this much? What do I need to stop doing in order to experience that love?

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    Stewardship Meditation #9

    The Divine Mystery exists in each of us.  We are Stewards of that Mystery.

    One might infer, from the title above, that the most important part of our life with God is our choosing Him; that it is all a matter of us getting our heads on right and pulling ourselves up by the bootstraps and being sensible about things; that all of it, in the end, is up to us.  God does His part and makes an offering to us and we, independent of anything or anyone, make our choice.  The rest, so says this line of thought, is eternity — either smelling brimstone or incense.

    That kind of thinking is tempting.  And it is wrong.

    We often say to ourselves or to someone near that God is unfair.  When we say that, we mean it in a way that disparages God.  We usually say that when we think God does not understand the earthly implications of failing to intervene in a situation.  God is unfair, though, long before there are moments when we want Him to perform acts according to what we think best.

    God chooses us first, before we have even noticed. Our choice follows God’s.   What is fundamentally unfair is that when we seek a deeper understanding of our faith, it is God who is making that possible.  It is the Spirit of God which creates that desire in the first place.  God so loved the world that he gave….  It is God’s nature to give us the desire to search for Him and it is God who sees to it that we finally discover the Divine Presence at all.  What is unfair about God is that God alone knows every recess of our souls and doesn’t flinch.  God weights the balance in our favor from the start by loving us first, by seeking us out, by making it possible to find Him wherever we are in life.  Whatever supposed unfairness is attributed to God on the terrible consequences scale must be balanced by the fact that God has initiated a relationship with us in the first place.  And God alone knows exactly who it is He is doing this for: very fallible people who are at their best in relatively short spurts.

    I cannot explain the reason for terrible events striking some while others seem to prosper.  No one can adequately do that.  Equally, I cannot explain why God would remain faithful to us when there is so much evidence that we are not worthy of that kind of devotion.  The Unfairness of God has determined that if there is even a breath left in us, there is hope that we will respond to His overtures and reach back toward the hand that is already reaching toward ours.

    Questions for the day:

    When I seek God’s help and presence, do I ask God for help to do that?  How will a deeper understanding of my faith help me love God?

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