To the Edge: An Advent Reflection

I delivered the following reflection at an Advent retreat I facilitated on Saturday, December 7th, 2019 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN.

In western Scotland, there is an archipelago known as the Inner Hebrides—a collection of wild, sparsely populated islands that hug the coastline like an outcropping of jewels, ensconced in the swirling gray-green tides of the north Atlantic ocean. On a map, they appear easily accessible to the mainland, but to visit them is to enter a world apart.

The Inner Hebrides are home to wild birds—puffins, and rock doves, and golden eagles— and hardy, weather-beaten plants—heather, and thistle, and a host of insistent wildflowers. They contain small fishing villages and hillsides covered in roaming sheep, whiskey distilleries and ruined monasteries.  Some of the islands are vast and mountainous, a series of craggy cliffs and broad, low plains; others are barely a speck of gray rock, grazed by the wings of passing seabirds–namelessly residing amid the roiling waves. 

But for all their remoteness, streams of travelers make their way to this cluster of islands, over 100,000 people each year. They come for a variety of reasons: for hiking, or fishing, or whiskey tasting, or perhaps for a bit of windswept solitude; but they come especially to visit one place in particular: the tiny island of Iona, perched at the outermost edge of the Inner Hebrides, accessible only by boat. 

Iona is humble in size—only a mile wide and a few miles long, with a population of just 120 people—but it looms large in the imagination of many, for it was here that St. Columba arrived from Ireland in 563 CE and established a monastery that would become the center of what we now call Celtic Christianity—an ancient form of the faith, nourished in the misty hills and valleys of what is now Ireland and Scotland, and shaped by the cultures of their early people—a form of Christianity that long predates the establishment of a church in this region with any direct tie to the authorities in Rome. 

It was here, on little Iona, at the rocky edge of the known world, that for centuries monks and scholars and warrior-kings traveled for an encounter with the living God, the One who came to be among us as Jesus, the Christ. It was here, at the edge of the sea, where they dwelt and prayed and studied and died, seeking some whisper of God’s voice in the wind and in the silence. 

And so it is that, still, pilgrims go there, to visit the tiny village, and the crumbling ruins, and the reconstructed Abbey, and the ancient stone Celtic crosses with their inscrutable symbols. They travel by train, and then by boat, and then by bus, and then by boat again, to reach this holy place, this thin space, this island of craggy, rock-strewn grace because…because for some reason they must. 

Because for some reason, each of us is drawn in some way to these places that lie at the edge of knowing, these places where the land and the sea merge, these places where what we know is overwhelmed by that which we will never fully understand. We go to these places to be silent, to listen, to watch, and then to return home, perhaps a bit more awake, a bit more alive than we were before. 

Iona has that effect on people. 

Advent also has that effect on people. 

Advent, as you might know, is derived from the Latin word adventus—it means “to come”—and so this liturgical season is the one in which we focus our attention on a very particular coming—that of Christ, whose birth is proclaimed on Christmas and whose return is promised at the end of the age. 

It is a season of hope and expectation, but also of some severity—for we know that in these comings, our lives will never be the same. The world will never be the same. Arrivals of this magnitude require reflection. Preparation.

And for the same reasons that some make the journey across the moors and the shores to seek out a tiny abbey church on a Scottish isle, to seek the presence of God in a wild land, so each of us ventured here, today, to seek out the importance of this season and what it means to “prepare the way” for the coming presence of Christ.

That phrase, “prepare the way,” the theme of our retreat today, is taken from tomorrow’s Gospel lesson from the third chapter of St. Matthew:

“In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,

“The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: 

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, 

make his paths straight.’”

Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.

It is worth noting that John the Baptist, in his mission to proclaim the coming Messiah, does so in the wilderness, not in the city—he is wandering across the uninhabited landscapes of Judea, crying out his message of repentance and preparation.

Matthew tells us that it is the people of Jerusalem and all Judea who come to him, leaving behind the security of their homes to seek something of God in an unguarded landscape, to be baptized by a wild man in a wild river, to embrace a salvation that is spoken of as a cleansing, a burning, a harvesting—an elemental experience, undomesticated and savagely beautiful. 

And like those Judeans, so we, too, venture beyond the familiar in Advent. We come here, not into a physical wilderness, but into the expansive, mysterious, silent heart of this season, a season whose core purpose is to instill in us a sense of Christ’s imminence, his urgent imminence—both in the form of a child, born unto us in a manger, and also in the form of a king, descending again one day in glory to judge and redeem creation at the end of all things. 

We enter this season by stepping beyond what is safe and predictable, into a liminal space—a space between knowing and unknowing, a space between the stories told and the stories yet to be told. 

We are drawn, like the Iona pilgrims, to stumble to the outer edge of the human heart, to gaze into the cloud-draped horizon and to be quiet, to listen, to watch for the One who is coming, like a wave, like a storm, like a still small voice speaking out of the whirlwind, surging over the coastline of our longings and carving them into his likeness, reshaping our hearts like stones polished by the sea. THY kingdom come, THY will be done.

Advent, it must be said, is not a season for the indifferent or the timid. If we go out to meet it, to answer its call, it will change us. 

But what does all of this talk of wilderness and pilgrimage and change have to do with our gentle program today, focused on silence and prayer? Quite a bit, actually. 

Because, you see, we spend our lives surrounded by noise; this is especially evident at this time of year, when the onslaught of saccharine commercialism joins forces with the pervasive noise of toxic online discourse, idle gossip, and media chatter to create a din that is, ultimately, numbing to the soul. 

We careen from one task to another, often with very good intentions, and yet we are often left, at the end of the holiday season, with a sense of depletion and disorientation. 

If Christ has indeed come into our midst through all of this, we run the risk of losing track of him, and thus we might end up cozy, perhaps well-fed and entertained, but unchanged. Untransformed. Untouched by the wonder of God, who gazes back at us through the eyes of an infant, who takes on our innocence and our frailty and imbues it with Divine Love, to show us how special, how good this life can be. 

So in order to break free, in order to find him, in order to find ourselves, we must venture elsewhere, as pilgrims tend to do.

We need not travel to an island. Silence and prayer and Scripture are our pathway on this journey. They invite us into the presence of God and shape our lives as God’s people. They require us to notice everything, both inside of ourselves and in the world around us—the good and the bad—so that we can discern God’s abiding presence in all of it. 

Because God is, indeed, present. God has come to us in the birth of Christ—the first Advent. God comes to us sacramentally in the Eucharistic life of the Church—the continuing Advent. And God will come again at the last day to redeem our turbulent history—the final Advent.  

Our prayer and study, then, remind us not simply that “Jesus is the reason for the season” while blithely going about our frantic business as usual. Our prayer and study instead suggest that the season of Christ’s coming actually asks something of us—no, demands something of us—something that has nothing to do with consuming or producing, nothing to do with the further commodification of our love. 

Advent requires, with its voice crying out in the wilderness, that we make space, that we clear out the noise and the haste, that we “prepare the way” in our hearts and in our societies for the cold, vivifying gust of salvation that will soon be borne on the wind, on the waves, on the breath of the One who approaches, toppling old injustices and healing old wounds.

The One whom John the Baptist proclaims. The One who, even now, hovers at the edge of our perception, like an island shrouded in mist, so close we can touch it, though we cannot quite see it, yet. The One who will make us, and our winter hearts, and our flagging, tired dreams, new again. The One who will bring us to life. 

Today you are making a journey of your own—a journey to the edge—into the realm of Advent, where nothing is resolved and yet everything is possible. You do not have to achieve anything today. You are simply invited to make the trip, to pray, to listen to the silence and to yourself, and to one another. 

Simply to do this is an act of courage, an act of pilgrimage. Simply to do this will help prepare the way for Jesus to enter your life more deeply. And when he comes—and he will come, as sure as the ebb and flow of the tide, a sure as the beating of your own heart—you will know that there is, ultimately, no wilderness in which you are alone. There is no distant shore where he cannot reach you. In Advent, he comes to us. In Advent, you will find that he is already here. 

Maker:S,Date:2017-11-9,Ver:6,Lens:Kan03,Act:Lar02,E-YFrom my own pilgrimage to Iona in April, 2018.

“Who Is This King of Glory?”: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on November 24, 2019, Christ the King Sunday, at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary texts cited are Luke 23:33-43 and Colossians 1:11-20

Recently, I enrolled in a weeklong evening workshop to learn how to paint an icon—those beautiful religious images that are especially associated with the Eastern Orthodox Christian tradition. We were tasked with creating an icon of Christ on the cross, and after nearly 20 hours of sketching, painting, applying gold leaf, and layering colors, the last step was to add Jesus’ name, in Greek, and a title above the cross: The King of Glory. This final act of inscribing the name and title, our instructor told us, gave the image its sacred quality. It defined who the icon was, and how it should be viewed by those who gaze upon it.

And it is this title which I carefully added to the icon, “The King of Glory,” that has been on my mind all week.

It is a designation found in only place in the entire Bible, in the 24th Psalm:

Lift up your heads, O gates!

and be lifted up, O ancient doors!

    that the King of glory may come in.

Who is this King of glory?

    The Lord of hosts,

    he is the King of glory.

And the question keeps presenting itself to me, like an insistent whisper: who is this King of Glory? Who is he indeed? Where is he to be found? What sort of king is he?

On this day, Christ the King Sunday, at the conclusion of the church year–at the threshold of Advent–we, too, are asked to open the gates and doors of our hearts and ask ourselves this question: who is this King to whom we have pledged our lives, our resources, and our trust? Who is this King whom we worship and wait for?

There is, perhaps, no more important question we will ever ask ourselves, because the nature of our King—the one in whom we place our identity and our destiny— tells us, fundamentally, who we are and how we are to live. To understand Him is to glimpse our ultimate significance as God’s people.

But truth be told, there is a strangeness in naming Jesus as king and ourselves as his subjects. Not just because you and I happen to live in a country where the concept of monarchy is foreign. But because humanity’s usual ideas about the nature of a king and of royal prestige are wrapped up in power dynamics that Jesus seems to undermine at every turn. 

Far from being a mighty ruler in the gilded halls of influence, our King is the one who walks dusty roads alongside the marginalized, the one who hangs pitifully on a cross, scorned and abandoned, and who, at the end, offers no satisfying retribution against his enemies; only forgiveness and a whisper of paradise. 

This is a far cry from the King whom the Psalmist describes; in the Psalm, the King of Glory is the Lord of Hosts, the Lord of mighty armies, charging into battle to defend his people with impressive strength. He is the one who subdues the nations and ensures his justice by the power of the sword. 

And frankly we know a lot about kings like that—too much, in fact; they haunt our violent history, and their successors are still rattling around among us, weaponizing power and treating the world like a playing field for their own deluded ambitions.

But this is not what we are given in Jesus, and I think it is a mistake when we attempt to fashion him in those terms. As revealed in today’s gospel, it is a Crucified King who reigns over us: a man of sorrows, whose earthly palace is the Place of the Skull; whose coronation is an execution; and whose royal title, “The King of the Jews,” is a cruel bit of imperial irony. There is no pomp and splendor here, no adoring crowd, no royal feast.

Christ is, in fact, revealed to us on the cross as the anti-king, the one who upends our entire notion of dignity and honor and power, who reveals himself to the world not in the heights of glory but in the depths of vulnerability and weakness. And this tender pathos is part of him always; even the risen Christ still bears the wounds of his humiliation.

So when we sing of thrones, we also sing of thorns, because in Jesus the two realities—the glory and the sacrifice—are bound up in one another. For our King, true power is revealed in the moment when power is given away for the good of others. For our King, it is a surrender to God’s will, not triumphalism, that leads to eternal glory. 

And all of this makes *Christ the King Sunday* a rather subversive occasion. 

Because just as the earliest members of the Church proclaimed that it was Jesus, crucified, risen, and ascended, who revealed the true nature of kingly authority, and not the passing tyrants of a declining Roman empire, so we, as Christians, must proclaim the same thing today to all the would-be leaders of our own time: that their power is contingent. That they are answerable to something greater than themselves, greater than all of us. That justice without mercy, and strength without humility, is an abomination.

This is an uncomfortable position, no matter where one falls on the political spectrum, because it requires each of us to relinquish the illusion that any one person or party or movement will save us, or any one earthly ruler, even those whom we admire. It requires us to challenge both those with whom we tend to disagree and those whom we desperately want to follow.

These leaders will not save us. They cannot save us.  Because the ultimate questions of power and destiny have already been resolved by another—by Jesus Christ, the King—the firstborn King of all creation and the Last King, who will return to us in a blaze of mercy. This is our King of Glory, the only authority who has ever mattered, and who reveals himself in a most unexpected way: born in a shed, living in obscurity, dying in shame, rising again in quiet, piercing light. 

In the end, our only duty is to seek him in the shadow of his cross and in the radiance of his love, and to live as he would have us live.  Our true identity is found only here—in Christ’s kingdom, where we are not merely passive subjects, but active citizens, patterning our lives after his own, proclaiming his mission of justice and reconciliation, and trusting that his eternal glory will belong to us as well.

This requires much of us—everything, in fact, that we have to offer. And as the cross reveals, it is not a life that guarantees comfort. But there is nothing more true, nothing more real, nothing more for which we were made. And so, as St. Paul prays in his letter to the Colossians, “may you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience.”

Who is this King of Glory?

For us it is Jesus, broken and yet eternal; wounded and yet wondrous; rejected and yet reigning supreme. It has always been Jesus, the Christ, Our King. And it always will be. 

Only Questions: A Good Friday Sermon

This sermon was preached on Good Friday, April 19, 2019, at Christ Episcopal Church in Alameda, CA. 

Shortly before condemning Jesus to death, Pilate asks him–and thus unknowingly asks God–a bitter, heartbreaking , fundamental question, one that humanity has likely been asking from the very beginning: “what is truth?”

He receives no answer.

There is no answer to give that could be encapsulated into words. Truth, the very embodiment of Truth, is a bruised and battered face staring back into his own face, and it is beyond articulation.

Like Pilate and everyone else who participates in the crucifixion of God Incarnate, we are deep in a mystery now, a place where words are largely inadequate, where answers are few, where only questions prevail. We must tread carefully, for this is terrifying holy ground we stand upon today, Good Friday, and we should not profane it with endless speculation.

We are at the foot of the Cross, gazing up at Jesus, who in turn gazes back at us, blood and tears streaming down his face—and in this place, tidy, insightful observations about the nature of God and clever turns of phrase about sin and forgiveness and sacrifice all dry up like chaff and blow away in the wind.

The Cross rejects every attempt to understand it fully. It is not a place for self-assured theologizing or domesticated spiritualizing. It is a raw, awful, unspeakable place in which we find ourselves.

Last night, on Maundy Thursday, Jesus told us to love one another, and we did so. We washed one another’s feet and broke bread together with the best of intentions. We perceived that this was the proper way to live, to care, to be present in God’s kingdom. And on Easter we will no doubt come back together as a people renewed and forgiven for all the times we have failed to love, returning to our senses after this day of desperation and horror, and we will recommit ourselves to the fullness of life that God offers freely in the light of resurrection.

But today we are no-place. Today we have murdered the very best of our intentions to love. We have traveled to the Place of the Skull, the place where confidence is shattered like bone. Today we stand at the farthest point from comfort, the place where Jesus, God-With-Us, He who was the smiling babe in the manger, the youth in the temple, the wise teacher on the mountain, the Holy One, cries out to the Father for some sign of presence and receives…nothing. No answer. No words.

And in that silence we know what it is to forsake and to be forsaken.

Yes, we are deep in a mystery, one so strange and terrible that any attempt to sort it out, to prod at its depths, to explain it, results in cheap, brittle platitudes.

Think about of all the things that you should never, ever say when someone has experienced a great loss in their life: things like

“It’s all part of God’s plan.”

“Everythinghappens for a reason.”

“When one door closes, another one opens.”

These are things we say to each other that are usually more about soothing our own sense of confusion and fear rather than simply being present, deeply present, to the pain of another.

And yet these trite, hollow, inadvertently callous attempts at comfort are exactly what we so often apply to our encounter with Jesus on the Cross. We want to justify this awful thing, to make sense of it, to assure ourselves that God knew what God was doing the whole time. We approach Golgotha and see the crucified Christ writhing in agony and fear, and we say, to Him, as we do to others: “everything happens for a reason! Your suffering is part of God’s plan!”

And these words are like yet more nails, hammered and stammered into the endless void of His suffering.

The Church has done this since the beginning, in various ways. It’s only human, perhaps. We don’t like sitting with questions, and we rely too much on explanations.

Some of us want to reason the Cross away as God’s clever, elegant, brutal plan to atone for our sins, to make proper restitution for our brokenness, as if the cosmos were constructed like an accounting system or a court of law.

Or, equally tempting for some of us and yet equally limiting: we confine the Cross to the realm of  human political drama, as if Jesus was nothing more than an enlightened social justice prophet murdered by “conservative” religious authorities and imperial forces—those bad, unenlightened others that of course look nothing like us. As if the Cross was merely an unfortunate byproduct of a backwards political system rather than what it actually is: the fundamental, unanswerable question at the core of all the pain which we experience and inflict upon each other.

Every time we try to reconstruct the Cross in a way that suits us, in a way that provides easy answers, in a way that excuses us from the narrative, we are simply building another instrument of torture to re-crucify that which we cannot understand.

No more of this, I ask you. No more. Lay down your easy theories of atonement that taste of sour wine; stop casting lots for your competing theologies of the Cross. For one day, let us stop trying to figure it out. Look into the face of Christ crucified and let Him be all that He is, uncertain and frightening and heart-rending, the face of Truth.

And let that wordless recognition of Truth, terrible as it may be, let it be enough today, because it is all we are given. Just as with Pilate, Jesus has no further answers for us.

It is called Good Friday because it is God’s Friday—the day in which God presents us with a mystery, a deep mystery, a Man who is on a cross for reasons so strange and intimate that they are as distant as an all-consuming black hole, and yet as close as our own breath.

And yes, we know in our hearts that there is more to the story, and that perhaps soon, very soon, we will fumble our way toward the answer of the empty tomb and the radiant joy of something entirely new. But not now. Not yet.

What is truth, we ask? Look at the Cross. It is staring us in the face, wordless and unutterable. Approach it cautiously, without certainty. Touch it if you dare; look into the void and see God staring back at you. Today, this is all we have.

 

Sermon: A Tale of Two Liturgies

I preached this sermon today, November 27th, at All Saints Chapel, Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, CA. It was given as my senior-year sermon for the Master of Divinity program. Lectionary texts are Revelation 14:14-20 and Luke 21:5-9.

“When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately.” (Luke 21:9)

This morning, in the midst of these apocalyptic readings from Revelation and the Gospel of Luke, I felt called to share a word…about liturgy. If my time at CDSP has taught me anything, it’s that there is nothing—absolutely nothing—more essential for us to talk about than liturgy.

But I’m not being glib or preciously High-Church when I say this, nor am I just giving a shout-out to Dr. Meyers. Liturgies—understood broadly as those ongoing structures of relational action in which we participate—are what define us. The daily liturgies of our lives shape our reality and determine the parameters of our hope.

And so, in light of today’s Gospel passage, I would ask that we sit here a moment with Jesus, gazing up at the finely ornamented temple of 21st century life in this country, and I would ask us to consider the “wars and insurrections” of our time, and how they form a twisted, macabre liturgy of their own. A liturgy of Death.

In this liturgy, the hymns are composed with the staccato of gunshots, and incense rises up in clouds of tear gas. In this liturgy, the Gloria is sung to acclaim the power of whiteness and the prayers of the people read like a shopping list. In this liturgy the prophets preach the commodification of well-being and the anesthetic of endless, consumable content. This Death liturgy is the shiny, shambling procession toward the void of human possibility: the howling emptiness we sometimes call sin, and we perceive its highly effective “missional outreach” whenever we read the daily news headlines.

But this liturgy is not the exclusive possession of our age. Our compulsion for death, both physical and spiritual, has always been with us. The blood in the ground cries out to bear witness through the generations. And this is why Jesus tells us, “these things must happen.” Because we are enthralled by sin. Wars and insurrections and toppling temples must happen, not because God needs them or delights in them, but because they are the perverse oblation of the liturgy of Death, the destructive “work of the people” that inevitably occurs in the absence of God’s grace.

It is this liturgy of destruction that is attested, also, in the book of Revelation, where the harvest of the earth is crushed by God’s winepress. But lest we misread the text, we must remember: the blood that flows from the winepress is not that of the wicked in the hands of a vengeful deity, but the blood of the martyrs. We kill the martyrs. Like Christ before them, they are trampled by Death’s liturgical procession and their lives are poured out over the earth.

We see this already, every day. In the liturgy of Death, the innocent are slain on the altars of nationalism, economic exploitation, homophobia, misogyny…and the list goes on. And in our complicity, in the things we have done and left undone, we bow at the altar of death and drink the blood of our victims. It is a bitter cup, and in those last days it will taste like wrath to those who drink it. This is the liturgy to which we are bound.

Except…

We are here, now, because we have encountered and been reborn into a different liturgy. The liturgy of God’s love. The liturgy of Life with a capital L. This is what Christ offers us in his resurrected body: the promise of Life, and the absolute rebuke of humanity’s penchant for death and destruction. His empty tomb destroys the lie that Death’s liturgy leads to our final resting place, or that God’s ultimate posture is one of destruction. God is revealed in the resurrection of Jesus as God has always been—permanently creative, eternally life-giving, infinitely merciful.

And God’s liturgy is so beautiful, so poetic, because it takes the very instruments of Death’s liturgy and transforms them into signs of hope. The cross, an instrument of torture, becomes the banner of victory. The innocent blood poured out becomes the cup of life, the cup of forgiveness. And thus the winepress of the wrath of God is revealed for what it truly is: the beating, bleeding heart of Christ, spilling out, flooding the earth, inundating the liturgy of death, drowning it with life.

This is our choice then: which liturgy will we inhabit today? Will we orient our hearts toward the altar of Death, or that of Life?

We are here, at CDSP and in the Church, because no matter how loudly Death processes in the streets, we choose the liturgy of Life, over and over again. We have been given the gift of spending time here in this community, exploring the contours of God’s love, finding words to describe it and to share with those whom we will serve elsewhere. We are here to embody that Life-giving liturgy with one another, and to let it shape us. We are here, too, because we have seen the liturgy of Death, each in our own personal way. We have peered into the void, and we have heard God’s NO:

NO to death’s proclamation of expendability,

NO to its mockery of the life which God has declared good,

NO to its glittering idols of self-interest.

We have heard the NO to Death and we are saying Amen, Amen, Amen, come, Lord Jesus, come and give us Life once more.

When we choose to be swept up in the liturgy of Life, when we perceive its unconquerable movement, we come to understand Jesus’ words a bit better: these wars and insurrections must take place, this temple will fall, this river of blood must flow, but you, child of God, you do not have to be terrified, because you know that the Lord is not guiding us toward destruction, but is reshaping us, guiding us back into our proper relationship with Life. Death itself is the only thing that will be destroyed.

This is the Good News that our liturgy tells us. May we be ever mindful of its power, and ever grateful for its promise.

Half-Finished Life

On the coast of Scotland in the town of Oban, there is a church—a cathedral, in fact. It’s the most unusually constructed building I’ve ever seen. It started as a simple little brick structure, and then some years later the leaders had a grand vision of expanding it into a massive stone edifice. They had more vision than they had money, though, and when funds ran out, they’d only partially begun the addition.

Today, when you walk in, you can clearly see where the old building and the new were awkwardly joined—there are huge steel girders holding up the new section, and while these beams were probably meant to be temporary, they’re now just part of the interior. So far the whole thing has held together. You can see what it looks like in the photo attached to this post.

I feel a bit like that church building, and maybe you have have, too, at various points in your life. I want to be polished and put together, I don’t want the ugly interior structures showing. I want to be all incense and candles and beautiful music. Instead most days I feel like a half-finished project cobbled together from bits of false starts and broken dreams.

But you know what? God is still present.

God is still present in that half-finished cathedral, and in my half-finished life, and in yours. God doesn’t care about smooth walls and cohesive aesthetics. God isn’t worried if all you can put together is a misshapen hovel, as long as it’s built with love.

This might be self-evident to you, but goodness is it hard for me to accept. I have sought love and validation in every place where it cannot be found. I have spent years trying to be a Grand Cathedral sort of person–perfect, alluringly ornamented, trying to stand out, trying to earn the approval of teachers and lovers and friends. Not because they demanded it, but because I was convinced of the ancient lie: you will be complete when…When you know more. When you create more. When you look better. When you are more sophisticated. When you are admired.

God doesn’t care about any of it. Christ didn’t live, die and rise again so that I could achieve social respectability or admiring glances. So why, oh why, do I keep wanting it? I am weak, Lord. Help me be happy in the permanent construction zone that is life.

These months at Mirfield, and the events of my life therein, have definitely stripped me down to the steel girders. But I’ve learned about the dignity of silence. I’ve witnessed the beauty of consistency, in both prayer and work. Yes, I’ve felt the sting of loneliness and rejection, which is a small death, but also the warmth of kindness, which is a bit of resurrection.

These are good things. Necessary things. I wish them for you, too, to the extent that they draw you closer to the God Who loves you regardless of how well put-together you are.

There is so much more to say, but not now. For now I’m looking at those unsightly cathedral girders and reminding myself that what is humble is often what is strongest.

Home in just over six weeks. Pray for me, as I am for you.

Both Shepherd and Sheep: A Sermon

There is so much I could say and need to say about the experiences of the past few weeks, but I just don’t have the words at the moment. In the mean time, here is a sermon I offered yesterday, April 23rd, at my placement churches: St. Mary’s Mirfield and St. John’s Upper Hopton. The text is John 10:11-18, wherein Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd. 

As many of you know, I have been given the privilege of living and studying in the UK for the past few months as part of an exchange program between my seminary in California and the College of the Resurrection here in Mirfield. Getting to know the people and the landscapes of West Yorkshire has been a joy, but when we were given a break after Easter, I was eager to go a bit further afield.  And so I boarded a train to Scotland, determined to see as much as I could in a week.  And sightsee I did—I saw medieval cityscapes, glorious cathedrals and museums, Highland lochs, the holy island of Iona in the Inner Hebrides….and sheep.  Lots and lots of sheep.

Scottish sheep really have it made, as far as I’m concerned.  They are free to roam across those dramatic Highland landscapes, munching on wild grasses and heather, disturbed only occasionally by the odd passing tourist gawking out of a train window.  And while I was gawking at them, I noticed something interesting, which perhaps you have seen, too: the sheep are all marked.  They have splashes of color painted onto their fleece, some green, some blue, some red. I looked this up later, and I learned that these colors all have a practical purpose—they are called “Smit Marks”, and they are used by the sheep farmers to keep track of which sheep belong to them.  Since the countryside is open, and the sheep can roam wherever they like, these markings are a quick means of identification when it’s time for them to be gathered back in for shearing, etc.

The Scottish sheep, with their vibrant Smit Marks, were lingering in my mind’s eye as I pondered this week’s Gospel passage from John, in which Jesus describes himself as the Good Shepherd caring for his flock. It’s such an evocative image, isn’t it? One that is deeply ingrained in our idea of relationship with God—through the recitation of the beloved 23rd Psalm, in church art and in hymnody. It is an image of protection and guidance and self-giving love: the Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. The Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep. For us.

And we are marked, too, are we not?  Not with a streak of color on our backs, of course, but we have our own Smit Marks, indicating to whom we belong—they were placed on us in the water of baptism and the oil of anointing.  As it says in my favorite line in the service for Holy Baptism that we use in the Episcopal Church, we are “sealed by the Holy Spirit…and marked as Christ’s own forever.” No matter where we wander, no matter how far we stray into shadowy valleys or foreboding wilderness, we bear the mark that tells us who we are, and by Whom we are guided—Christ, the Good Shepherd, who stands on the brow of the hill at dusk and calls us home. It can be hard to see and the path is often rocky, but His lantern is lit for us to follow—it burns in the sanctuary of every church where his Eucharistic presence is encountered, and it illuminates every place where we, the people of God, pray and minister in His name.

It’s remarkable what you can discern from looking at a field of sheep!

There’s a catch, of course. If we were to simply bask in the image of Christ as the loving Shepherd and ourselves as his beloved flock, we’d only be getting part of the picture. Because Jesus is more than a model of a capable guardian and overseer; in fact our faith depends on the fact that he is much more than this.  As Saint Augustine asked, “What sayest Thou, O Lord, Thou good Shepherd? For You are the good Shepherd, who art also the good Lamb; at once Pastor and Pasturage, at once Lamb and Lion.” In the mystery of his death and resurrection, which we continue to marvel at this Easter season, we cannot forget that Jesus the Shepherd is also, paradoxically, the paschal lamb who was slain, who was given, if you’ll allow me to stretch the metaphor, his own Smit Mark by the Father to fulfill the plan of human salvation, and who was called home through the valley of the shadow of death in his glorious rising to new life.

This is the One whom we encounter in sacrament and prayer and service. The Shepherd who is the Lamb. The Lamb who is the Shepherd. Whose death was, in the light of the Resurrection, not a demonstration of God’s failure to care, but proof that God will do anything to gather us close into a merciful embrace.

If we follow this train of thought, though, there is one missing piece. Because if Christ is both the Good Shepherd AND the Lamb of God, then we, as people who share in his life, also share in this dual identity. We cannot merely see ourselves as sheep to be protected. As much as I envied those Scottish sheep in their pastoral idyll, I knew I had to continue on my journey, that I could not linger in the field. There was much to see, and much yet to be done. So it is for all of us. If we believe, as St. Paul claims, that it is not we who live but Christ who lives in us, then the Good Shepherd is the One who lives within us. The One Who must guide, and seek out, and yes, even lay down their life at the feet of those whom they serve. He is the one who animates our very beings. In the same moment that we are the beloved flock, you and I are also the brave, good shepherds of God’s mission. We were marked as such on the day of our baptism, when we were knit into Christ’s body, and it is an indelible mark. It cannot be undone. It is our vocation, each and every one of us.

So as we approach the table to take part in the banquet feast of the Lamb who was slain for us, let us remember the deep bond that has drawn us here, the bond of a Good Shepherd calling his flock back to him for rest and renewal. But let us remember, too, that by taking Him into ourselves, we have been transfigured by His abiding presence into shepherds. And so we, too, must seek the flock. We too must measure the worth of our lives by the amount of love we are willing to risk pouring out. We, too, must walk the landscape, lighting the way to guide others into safety.

The world is vast, more vast even than those Highland valleys, and there are many who are seeking home. Let us take up our staffs, light our lanterns, and call out. And may the Good Shepherd within each of us provide the words to pierce the silent gloom, to bring near those who wander towards the light.

Pausing in the Ruins

Holy Week began tonight with the first evensong of Palm Sunday, and Mirfield is a buzz of activity as visitors arrive to participate in the Community’s extensive schedule of observances. Over the next seven days we will have upwards of 50(!) worship services, plus communal meals and public lectures. It is, according to everyone who has experienced it before, a singularly transformative experience.

I will admit, though, that the excitement of Easter’s impending arrival (and the two-week break that follows!) also feels bittersweet, like a valedictory. This time of Lent, now entering its final stretch, has been rich with challenge and insight, and I’ve taken much time and space throughout these 40 days for an unflinching look at my life. Some of it has been consoling, and some of it has been jarring. This penitential season has a way of stripping you down to the skin, revealing your fears and flaws, leaving you shivering and raw and somehow even more alive as a result.

That’s how it felt last week when I took a trip by myself to the seaside to visit the ruins of Whitby Abbey.  The site stands on a headland overlooking the North Sea, and on the day of my visit the weather was so inclement that there wasn’t a single other person around. The wind blew so forcefully that it almost knocked me over as I traversed the wide grassy field, and when I sought shelter beneath the crumbling Gothic arches, the rain whipped through the intricately carved stone window openings that once held stained glass, stinging my eyes with tears. It was miserable and beautiful all at the same time and I thought: this is Lent, in all its luminous, wondrous fury. We spend a season alone, praying and crying amid the majestic ruins of our regret, as the cold wind of God blasts through, shocking us back into reverence and life.

Now, though, back in the community at Mirfield, it’s time to come in from the cold and embark on a different type of journey: into Jerusalem with Christ for a final week of tribulation and revelation. On Palm Sunday we join the throng and enter the holy city, waving our palms as an assemblage of lost souls who still seek salvation on our own terms: power, success, admiration. And as we move through the days and the liturgies, there is still so much yet to be faced and relinquished—our false hopes, our jealousies and our idleness, our tendency to betray the love that is offered to us, bargained away for a few coins and an empty kiss.

But just like my rain-soaked excursion to Whitby, it’s a journey we can’t help but make, because it is often from the depths of pain and isolation that we begin to recognize the miracle of new life that comes on Easter day. I have been wrestling with so much these past few months, and I feel ready to step into the redemptive light of whatever lies ahead. For just a few days more, though, I will sit and be attentive to the yearning and the questioning that have been my gentle companions for this season.

Wherever you are this Holy Week, and whatever you might be going through, I pray that you will find courage in facing what you must face, and solace in knowing that everything good awaits us on the other side of the Cross.

Peace, my friends.