No Regrets: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, March 6, 2022, the First Sunday in Lent. The lectionary text cited is Luke 4:1-13, Jesus’ temptation in the wilderness.

We inhabit an unsettled moment. That statement is true on many different levels, but in this instance I am referring to something deeper and more elemental than the news headlines. I am thinking instead about the changing of the seasons that accompanies our entry into Lent in the northern hemisphere.  Amid the turbulent moods of early spring, when we are caught up in the vacillating space between ice and dewdrops, between dirt and blossom, between the cradle and the Cross, there is a keener sense perhaps, of the fertile mix of decay and growth that characterizes our lives on this earth. On Ash Wednesday, the cold mud of winter was imprinted on our brows, and eventually on Easter Day we will convulse with joy among the fields of lilies, but for now we are held in the tension of the time-being, suspended in the middle of frost and flower, mortality and miracle. 

Lent is the pungent season when life and death speak to one another. Too often we keep these two realities isolated in separate corners of our minds, so it is good for us to listen to their conversation over the next several weeks, to notice how life and death layer upon and fertilize the other, both in the Liturgy and in the world around us. Lent is when this life—the delicate, earthy existence we have been given—is brought into clarity and focus by accepting its brevity and, indeed, sometimes its cruelty and brokenness. But it is also a season for celebrating that life, for rediscovering the urgency of living deeply and well while we have the chance, before it is too late, and we go down to the dust once more. 

There was an article that became popular online several years ago, written by a hospice nurse. In it, she reflected on the conversations she’d had with the countless people she’d cared for in the final weeks and days of their lives, and she shared the top five regrets that people expressed as they prepared to die. They were as follows:

1. I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me.

2. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.

3. I wish I’d had the courage to express my feelings.

4. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.

5. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

And while these five regrets might not be true for every person in every time and place, I think they are striking, because they point to the heart of the things that matter when everything else falls away, when there are no illusions left to hide behind, when the wind blows cold across the bare fields and we remember the trace of that muddy cross on our brow. We might say they are the insights of a Lenten spirit, from the passage between life and death, the unadorned space between the seasons of the soul. 

And they reveal that when we die, the thing we might grieve the most is simply that we never allowed ourselves to truly live. That we didn’t connect with others. That we didn’t connect with our deepest selves. And that, having been tempted by other distractions, we might face the great mystery of eternity without having deeply savored the great mystery of now.

God knows this is our struggle. God has always known this. And that is why, I suspect, we see the same struggle woven through God’s own life among us in Jesus. Consider today’s gospel passage from Luke, when Jesus is compelled by the Holy Spirit to enter the wilderness and submit to the temptations that humanity has always faced—the temptation to control our own destiny rather than trust in God’s providence, to adorn ourselves with the false security of power and prestige and material comfort; to laud safety and strength rather than vulnerability and humility. 

These were the same temptations that Israel faced in the wilderness and again when they reached the Promised Land. They are the same temptations that each of us must contend with in our own particular way. And if and when we succumb to them, the result is the same—disconnection, distrust, inauthenticity, the cultivation of a brittle and strident spirit, and then, at the end, a litany of sorrows that might sound something like:

I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself. I wish I hadn’t worked so hard. I wish I’d expressed my feelings. I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends. I wish that I had let myself be happier.

But Lent is an opportunity to pull back from this trajectory in our own lives. And Jesus, in a Lenten moment of his own in this Gospel, shows us how to do so. He faces the temptations of the devil—those temptations to pattern his life in self-serving ways, to become something that he is not, and he chooses, instead, to be exactly who he is, exactly who his Father wills him to be. Which is to say, he chooses relationship, he chooses simplicity, he chooses depth, he chooses trust, he chooses love. And the words he speaks are a ray of light burning away the frost, a budding promise to us, even now, as we wait for the spring:

One does not live by bread alone.

Worship the Lord your God, and serve only him.

Do not put the Lord your God to the test.

Simple, ancient words, drawn from the Hebrew Scriptures. True words. Words that are almost like a death, in that they remind us of the fleeting nature of most of the things we fixate upon and obsess over, and instead call us back to what is eternal. These are the words that allowed Jesus to stay focused on who he was, and they can do the same for us whatever our journey looks like. They are the words that invite us to a life—and a death—that is the opposite of regret.

How do we get there? How do we live as Jesus chose to live? How do we die as Jesus chose to die?

1. Have the courage to be yourself. Abide deeply in the love that is inside of you, the love that God gave you to share with others.

2. Don’t work so hard, at least not for the things we usually give away our lives for. Work for God’s kingdom, and rest in knowing that you don’t have to do it all by yourself. You were created for wonder and praise more than you were for achievement. 

3. Express your feelings. Jesus certainly did. Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable, to be wrong, to show your weaknesses, because they are part of what will save you. We worship a God who was crucified before he was glorified. 

4. Stay in touch with your friends, and with all of the important people in your life. They are the most likely place where you will experience the love of God firsthand, and are thus the true treasures of this world. 

5. Let yourself be happy. Let yourself love this imperfect world, whether it’s deep winter or glorious spring or the messy middle with all of its unanswered questions. Let yourself be dazzled by the mystery of existence, by the mystery of God’s love, embrace it while you live, and then you will regret nothing, because you will experience everything. 

This is the life Jesus chose in the wilderness. This is the life he invites to choose. And this is the strange, holy, in-between season where we must make our choice. This is Lent. 

And so here we stand, with a trace of mud on our brow, leaning into the light; children of the broken earth, children of God. Tempted, yes. Stumbling, sometimes. Seeking, always. 

But loved, always loved, in death and in life, in winter, and in spring, and in the glorious mystery that is beneath and beyond all seasons.

And with a love that powerful, that eternal, that true, there is nothing to regret. 

Transfixed: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on Sunday, February 27, 2022 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is Luke 9:28-36, an account of the Transfiguration.

Like many of you, I have been transfixed by the images coming out of Ukraine the past several days. I was transfixed by the video clips of parents kissing their children goodbye. I was transfixed by the story of a young couple who got married one day and signed up to defend their city the next. I was transfixed by the images of people sheltering in subway stations last night, the thought of lives upended and ended, and of the incomprehensibility of yet another needless war blighting the face of God’s beloved creation. I have been transfixed by the question: what now? What next?

I use that word, transfix, intentionally. It means “to make motionless with amazement, awe, or terror,” and in the face of the brutalities that too often characterize life in this world, I do sometimes find myself shocked into motionlessness. I find myself without words or insights or any idea how to meaningfully respond. My prayer this week has been little more than silence and variations of, “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.” Even the beautiful language of the Prayer Book has felt dry and heavy on my tongue.

It is easy to feel this way when we are inundated with challenging news. Ukraine is the latest iteration of the world’s grief, but in this interconnected planet, I think we are more keenly aware than ever of the collective heartbreak of the human family. We’ve faced our share of it together in the past few years. And it can feel, some days, like too much to process. Like my heart and my mind can’t hold it all. And so I am simply transfixed. 

But our generation is not alone in this experience. As I reflect on all of this, I feel some connection to Peter and John and James in today’s gospel—up on the mountain to pray, they see something incomprehensible—the figures of Moses and Elijah appearing in glory, speaking with Jesus, who is himself visibly changed in some mysterious way. And while we might tend to think of this as an exciting and beautiful vision, in truth it was terrifying and overwhelming for the disciples. It was too big for them, not something they were prepared to process. 

I have an icon in my office of this scene, and in it, the disciples are not gazing placidly, reverently up at Jesus and Moses and Elijah. They are falling back in shock, tumbling down the mountainside, as if they are in the process of being struck dead.

Luke describes their state of being while all of this was going on by saying “Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep.” They were tired. They were frightened. We might say that they were transfixed. And so I have to wonder whether their prayer as the cloud enveloped them on the mountaintop was also some version of “Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.”

In the face of what is new, and strange, and frightening, it is natural for us to not know what to do, and therefore to end up doing very little. We cannot comprehend the mind of God. We cannot save the world. We cannot explain the persistence of evil. And so we get stuck. We tell ourselves that we are just bystanders, poor pilgrims caught up in the storm on the mountain, waiting for the clouds to break, waiting for things to go back to normal. Waiting, transfixed, until someone else figures out what to do, what the next step should be.

But I fear we might be waiting a long time if that is all we do. Because here’s the thing, both about this gospel passage in particular and about our lives as followers of Jesus more generally: it’s not about being transfixed. It’s a different “t” word.

The word of the day today, the key word in this story, and the key word for our discipleship in moments such as this is not transfixion but transfiguration. That is what is happening up on the mountaintop. Transfiguration—the transformation of one thing into another, better thing. 

Let me say that again: the transformation of one thing into another, better thing. Now you might think, wait a second—Jesus is already fully God and fully human, long before he went up this mountain—he doesn’t need to be transformed into something better. And you would be correct.

Because in truth, although we usually focus on his changed appearance, Jesus is not the one being transfigured in this encounter. It is the disciples. It is the disciples who are changed—it is the disciples who are given eyes to see and ears to hear. It is the disciples who in this moment perceive the fullness of God’s truth, who feel what it is to bear the glorious weight of God’s love. It is the disciples who are being stretched and shaped and re-formed by this experience into who God intends them to become. And that invitation, that challenge, extends to us as well, we who are the disciples of the present, perilous moment.

Jesus, in revealing his eternal inner radiance, is actually inviting the disciples, and us, to let go of that sleep-heavy paralysis, that transfixed state of limited imagination, and to step out into a transfigured life, a life in which we are awake. A life in which we may not have all the answers, a life in which pain and suffering and war still persist, but also a life in which we are ready to face whatever lies ahead because we have seen, we have held, we have tasted–if only for a moment–the fullness of the glory of God.

And if you wonder, how can I live that way? Where will I find the courage? What if I am not  good enough or strong enough or centered enough? Well, yes, I ask myself those things every day, too.

And then I look again at those parents kissing their children goodbye, willing to die to protect them–parents who just a week ago were not very different from you and me. I think of that couple whose marriage is being consecrated as we speak in the laying down of their lives for their friends. And I think of all the saints and the martyrs, the advocates and the prophets, the justice-seekers and the wound-healers, the citizens of God’s kingdom, the famous and the unsung, the ones who gave their lives over to God’s dream of peace even in world that mocks peace, and I don’t know why it must be this way, or how it all works, but I see that it does, indeed, work—that in the mystery of grace, transfiguration is possible. That we can face the moment when it comes. That we won’t be transfixed forever.

So yes, let us pray for peace. In Ukraine, and around the world. And let us also pray for peace to transfigure our hearts, that we might become makers of peace.

And until then,

Lord have mercy. Christ have mercy. Lord have mercy.

Can’t Go Home Again: A Sermon

I preached this sermon on March 7, 2021 at Trinity Episcopal Church, Fort Wayne, IN. The lectionary text cited is John 2:13-22, an account of Jesus clearing out the Temple in Jerusalem.

Just before I started serving at Trinity, Fort Wayne, nearly two years ago now, I took a drive up north, to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where my grandparents and my father lived before they died, where I spent much of my youth. The old family home, a place that had been an anchor throughout my entire life, was no longer occupied, and my aunt and uncles were planning on selling it, so I wanted to see it at least one more time before that happened. 

And you know that old saying, “you can’t go home again”? Well, sometimes you can, technically, but the problem is that either the home has changed so much—or you have—that you feel disoriented, like a stranger wandering into the story that used to be your own, but that doesn’t quite fit anymore. 

The house was quiet, too quiet, cleared of most of its familiar clutter, though some of the furniture remained—the kitchen table right where it had always been, the same curtains in the window, the old parlor organ in its usual spot, the armchair where my grandmother read her books before bed. The outlines of a thousand memories, still rich and resonant, but hollow, too, a monument to an era of our family history that had passed away.

And as strange as it might sound, I kept thinking about that empty house in Michigan as I was sitting with this week’s gospel passage from John, where Jesus clears out the Temple in that dramatic scene.

Because although we often focus on the intensely prophetic nature of his actions—turning over the tables, critiquing the economics of the sacrificial system—I think there is a also a deep poignancy to be found here. This is a personal moment as much as it is a public one, because we must remember that, for Jesus, this is not just a religious power center, a building filled with strangers whom he wants to knock down a peg or two. It is, as he plainly says, his Father’s house. He has, after much time away, come back home.

Remember the story early in Luke’s gospel, when Mary and Joseph lose track of Jesus in Jerusalem when he is a young boy? And they search for him for three days…and then they finally find him…where? In the Temple, yes, still himself but also unfamiliar—a bearer of wisdom, engaging in dialogue with the teachers assembled there. And what does twelve year-old Jesus say to Mary and Joseph?

“Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?”

It is a homecoming scene. A memory deeper than memory, a familial instinct has drawn him there, to the dwelling place of his Father, to the place where his own story, just beginning to take shape, finds its larger context. 

And so now, as he arrives again in today’s reading as an adult–a bit older, a bit more knowing–what is Jesus thinking, as he enters the Temple for this very different homecoming? Does he remember how he once sat, just over there, as a young prodigy, amazing the onlookers with his insight? Does he remember, perhaps, that certain slant of light across the stones on that long ago day, or the sound of his mother’s voice calling out to him in relief from across the courtyard, when life was newer, when there was still so much to be discovered? Does he now feel that disconcerting pang of regret when you return to a place after you’ve grown a bit too much to be comfortable there, that swirl of familiarity and estrangement when a Father’s house no longer feels like home? 

You can’t go home again, no. Not even Jesus. Not in the exact same way as before. Too much has changed. But also, there is too much that must still be done. No time to wallow in what is lost. Life persists. And so our histories must be reckoned with, not recaptured. 

In his own way, that is exactly what Jesus is doing, as he braids the whip, as he releases the doves into the sky: he is clearing out the past, because he knows that this story—his family’s story, his nation’s story, creation’s ancient and unfolding story—must now go in a new direction. So out go the sacrificial animals, and the money-changers—out go the old systems, the old patterns, the old and familiar ways of interacting with God, of satisfying our never-ending longing for heaven. 

For a new thing is about to be done: a definitive sacrifice is about to be made, in the confines of a drastically different Temple—the Temple of God’s own body, on the altar of Calvary. Jesus, in clearing out the Jerusalem Temple, is clearing the path towards the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city; he is taking upon himself all the memories, all the hopes, all the sorrows that have been held and offered here through the millennia, in the halls and holy places of his Father’s house, and he is carrying them with him, into the next chapter, into his own life and death–and beyond.

What has been is not always what can continue to be. This is as true for us now as it was then. This is true for you and for me in our own lives, and it is true for us as a community, as a society, as a planet. 

We cannot go back to what was, even if we have loved it more than anything, because things have changed, and we have changed, and the world needs something different from us now. 

And if Jesus fashioning a whip of cords and turning over tables seems drastic, that’s because surrendering to change always is—it requires a certain lack of sentimentality on our parts, a certain fury and fire in the heart, a startled emergence from slumber, to get up, to live, to look forward, to do what must be done now, to say goodbye to what no longer serves us and what no longer serves emerging God’s purpose. 

So the question for us today, here, at the edge of whatever awaits us next, is this: What is it that we need to clear out of our lives? What is it that we need to let go of, in order to make space for what will be? What is holding us back from the next chapter in our story, in Trinity’s story, in America’s story, in the human story–what is holding us back from the chapter of the story where we go out once more and meet the world in its pain and its promise and rediscover the beauty and the healing and the freedom that Jesus can offer? What must be put to rest in order to do that? What are we waiting for?

Nostalgia will not save us. It will not save us in the church, it will not save us in this country; it will not save your life or mine. Try as we might (and God knows I often try) we cannot live on memories or longings for what used to be, for the ways things were, even the way things were a year ago. The pre-pandemic world is gone. The “before” time—the time when we did not know all that we know now—that time is gone. We have seen too much now. We can’t go home again. 

And yes, we can and we should honor the past for all that it has done for us, for its beautiful gifts, for its lessons, and we can preserve the wisdom of our ancestors and the life-giving pieces of the traditions we have been given, and then….we have to let the rest go.

The old mindsets. The old assumptions. The old prejudices. The old fears. The old lies. They don’t serve anymore. We have to be strong enough, together, to figure out how to be the Christians that the world needs now. That’s what we’re here for. That’s what Jesus has driven us out into this present moment to do.

So let’s do it. With some trepdiation, perhaps, maybe even a tear or two, but also with hope, and determination, and curiosity, and above all, a trust in the Lord, our Lord, who knows what he is doing, even when that thing seems dramatic and strange and hard to us.

You know, when I left my family’s house for the last time, I cried as I pulled out of the driveway. And I knew as I drove out of town that the love that I experienced there, in that place, would be lodged deep in my soul for the rest of my life.

But it was time to go, whether I was ready or not. It was time.

And so I did. And I kept going, down through the forests, through the sleepy old towns, down past the shimmering city lights, and across the wide open fields, back down here. Back to you. To this place and time, the one that I had to live into now. 

And I thought: it’s true, you can’t go home again. 

But you can make a new home, wherever it is you have to go. Wherever it is that Jesus leads. You can make a new life there, with gratitude for what came before, and with hope for what is coming next.

Not in your Father’s house, perhaps, but on holy ground, nonetheless. The ground upon which we are standing.

My family’s old home in Iron River, Michigan

Lamentations of the People

I wrote these liturgical “Prayers of the People” a few weeks before the national protests in response to George Floyd’s killing, but they have taken on a new resonance for me now, and so I share them with you here.

Lamentations of the People

In grief and in undaunted hope, let us cry out to God, the undivided Trinity, saying:
Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One, Have mercy upon us.

God, your Church is splintered and sorrowful. We are undone by the virulence of the age into which you have called us. We hunger for the bread only you can give; we long for the solace of an absent embrace. Gather us close, hide us under the shadow of your wings, and strengthen us to be your ministers amidst the uncertainties that lie ahead.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, our nation is diseased. A pandemic has brought us to our knees, but we have been kneeling before false gods for too long: economic and environmental injustice, systemic racism, the death-dealing myth of white imperialism, the vainglory of unexamined consumption. We need you, the Divine Physician, to heal the heart-wounds we cannot see, so that we might heal the broken bodies and broken systems we can see.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, the world is so vast, and so small. We are overwhelmed by its complexities, yet we are reminded how tightly our lives are knit together. The old lies of extraction and exploitation have laid waste to our planet and have oppressed our siblings in every land. Lead us out into the wilderness beyond self-satisfaction, beyond denial, beyond plunder, and teach us new ways to live simply, humbly, close to the earth.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, our communities are being crushed by the yoke of sin: political enmity, economic inequality, gun violence, racism, xenophobia, disparities in health and education, pollution, loneliness, and despair. Our brothers and sisters are sleeping in the streets, weeping in the streets, bleeding in the streets, like strangers in their own land. And so many of us choose to look away. Give us, instead, your easy yoke, your light burden: to open the doors, to step out, to speak out, to trust one another, to be taken where we do not wish to go, to the foot of the Cross, to the tomb, where you will meet us, where real life begins.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, our loved ones are sick and dying, from viruses and from violence. The silence of silenced bodies overwhelms our ears. The IV-drip of memories stings and burns as it works its way through our veins. We are weak and helpless, but don’t allow us to be hopeless. Make your presence known to us, especially when we cannot be present to one another. Heal our ailments and mend our hearts.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God, you have taken so many away. Their names tumble from our lips, a remembrance, an insistence, a plea. We say their names so that they won’t be forgotten. We say their names so that we won’t be the type of people willing to forget. As we grieve and grasp at the mystery of death, take their names and bind them to yourself; open your everlasting gates and welcome them home.

Holy God, Holy and Mighty, Holy Immortal One,
Have mercy upon us.

God of our Sorrows and our Joy, we lament today so that we might rejoice tomorrow in your promise of justice, of healing, and of never-ending life; for you are the One in whom all things are made new, and it is to you whom we turn in trust, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, One God, now and for ever.

Amen.

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.

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.

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.

The Joy of Normality

Temperamental spring is flirting with the landscape in Mirfield. In the past two weeks we’ve had snow blanketing the hillsides, unannounced rainstorms that drenched me on the way to morning prayer, and profusions of purple crocuses and yellow daffodils carpeting the parish churchyards. A bit like life itself, the weather in England is unpredictable, occasionally frustrating, and always beautiful.

Having been here almost two months (!) I’ve settled into a rhythm of prayer, study, meals, and periodic frivolity that feels more like a new home than like a “trip”. Given how disoriented and adrift I felt in the first couple of weeks, this change in itself feels like a miraculous revelation. It makes me realize how infrequently I am grateful for normality in my daily life back in California: always hungry for what is next, not for what simply is.

There was a piece I read long ago by the Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh that referred to this type of everyday gratitude as “the joy of no toothache.” In other words, it’s usually when we are in some type of acute pain that we finally recognize the joy that was already present in the pain-free status quo. Now that the discomforts of adjusting to life in Mirfield have mostly subsided, I am determined to relish the quiet happiness of simply being here.

But how to hold onto that sense of gratitude? For me, in this place, it has come about through a burgeoning sense of prayerful discipline. I am realizing more and more how the constancy of the Daily Offices (morning prayer, Eucharist, evening prayer, etc.) keeps me attentive to God and to the preciousness of the day at hand. Compared to my life back in the US, when I often let prayer become sidelined by academic anxieties, personal angst, and (let’s be honest) a lot of social media-driven idleness, now the rigor and structure of prayer is the framework upon which I build each day. I don’t always *want* to go and pray the Offices, but I must, and in maintaining that commitment, I find small but perceptible shifts in my heart, an accumulation of movements that are reorienting me towards the Divine presence in moments I might otherwise have missed it.

Robert Browning writes of this type of attentiveness in “Pippa’s Song”:

The year’s at the spring,

And day’s at the morn;

Morning’s at seven;

The hill-side’s dew-pearl’d;

The lark’s on the wing;

The snail’s on the thorn;

God’s in His heaven—

All’s right with the world!

 

The saints often express similar feelings about the miracle of the commonplace (think of St. Francis’ Canticle of the Sun). It is a mistake, I think, to sentimentalize or trivialize these types of observations. Deep satisfaction and delight in the everyday is not the same as naivety, nor is it complacency. To marvel at the poignancy of God’s abiding in the present does not preclude us from clear-eyed hope, from the work of reconciliation, or from the pursuit of justice; instead, it grounds us in pursuing those aims out of love, rather than fear and stridency.

Of all the things I am discovering at Mirfield—the joys of community, the need to take a more holistic view of priestly formation—one of the simplest and best is this experience of inhabiting the day prayerfully, non-anxiously, without a lot of worry about the future. This hasn’t come easily, but it is a change I have experienced quite dramatically in the past few weeks. I told someone recently that there is a bright line around my time here; beyond June 1st I am unsure of what life will hold, and I am suddenly, truly all right with that. If “faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1) then I am experiencing faith anew here.

So, if I could offer any bit of advice for the perpetually stressed, among whom I have counted myself for many years, I would say this: forget dramatic transformations, and give yourself over to a gentle discipline of prayer. Focus less on an idealized, perfect end result, which is forever beyond our grasp anyway, and find something simple and immediate that will ground you in this day which God has made for us. It might be the Daily Offices, if you are Episcopalian/Anglican, or it might be something else. If you are already engaging in a practice along these lines, I’d love to hear about it in the comments!

Please know that in my daily prayers I am constantly lifting up your names. It is a great consolation to think of all the love that has permeated my life thus far, and I can only hope to give some of it back to God, through my relationships with you and through the worship that I offer up each day.

Peace, dear friends. You are in my heart always.