Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Christ Church: the wedding photographer's dream

As I write this column in my church office, I'm glancing outside at a bride and her bridesmaids, together with the groom and his groomsmen. They're shivering in the damp, gray cold of this fading year while a photographer takes pictures of them in the beautiful cloisters of Christ Episcopal Church.

And now, the wedding party has jumped back into their stretch limousine and sped away toward downtown. Perhaps the bride and groom are off to be married at a restaurant or other venue or, if they've already had the ceremony, to enjoy a lavish reception.

This young couple will begin the new year as husband and wife. They'll face the future with one another and their love. As they left the church, they were smiling, laughing, and full of excitement. I said a prayer for them, whoever they are, asking God to bless them.

And the next time I see a bride and groom having pictures taken in our cloisters, I'll leave my office and invite them to come to church on Sunday. Christ Episcopal Church is far more than a building and a lovely backdrop for wedding photos; we're also a lively community of faith.

May God bless you and your loved ones in 2010.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Is our good news really good?

Over early morning coffee the other day, a Christian friend and I were talking about evangelism.

The average Episcopalian shutters when the word evangelism comes up, as if he's just eaten a lemon, which is too bad, because it's a good, New Testament word. It sums up what was happening in the church of the apostles after Jesus' resurrection.

In its denotation, evangelism is sharing the good news of God's loving and saving presence among us in Jesus. Those first evangelists knew the risen Christ and his love, which changed their lives. Naturally, they wanted to share that life and love with others. As they did, the church grew and spread throughout the world.

And yet in its connotation, evangelism means a preacher standing on a street corner or in a studio in front of a TV camera, haranguing people about God, who'll hurl them into hell unless they repent.

My friend calls this "turn or burn" evangelism.

There's no good news in this message for me--nothing that would draw me to Christ if I didn't know him. Indeed, I'd flee from that preacher. I'd change the TV channel.

And that's exactly what many people are doing today and what they'll continue to do, unless we Christians understand what evangelism really is and how to practice it as part of our baptismal ministry.

At a conference last year, I heard the speaker talk about how the 23rd Psalm expressed the Good News of God's love in Jesus. He invited us to reflect on how the Lord had been our shepherd, how God had fed us and led us to water, how God had seen us through the valley of the shadow of the death.

When Christians know God's salvation directly in our lives--and I have known it again and again--then we know the Good News, and that's news worth sharing with others, because it's real and relevant to others who are seeking love, joy, hope, peace.

As the church moves from the Christmas celebration of Christ's birth, we Christians enter the season of Epiphany, which is that time of God's shining forth the light of his great love for all people in Jesus Christ.

I'm thinking about how I've met Christ's love in my life, how his light's saved me in my darkness, and I'm praying for opportunities to share this good news with others.

Not on a street corner or in front of a TV camera, but with someone over coffee or lunch or even in a column like this.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The imitation of Christ

The other night, my grand daughter June Elizabeth and her Grammy were going to make Christmas sugar cookies.

Penny pulled out the cutting board from the counter and placed June's little footstool in front of it so she could reach the surface.

"Ken," Penny said. "Come look."

June was standing standing on the footstool, making the sign of the cross, and babbling the words, "Father, Son, and Holy Spirit."

At the cutting board, two-year-old June was imitating me as I stand at the beautiful wooden altar at Christ Church, as I make the sign of the cross, and as I say those holy words that priests have said for ages as we celebrate Christ's offering of himself for the salvation of all.

"Perhaps we'll have another priest in the family," I said to Penny.

Children learn by imitating. June Elizabeth and her sister, Christa Marie, are learning about worship--and faith in Christ--by being part of this church. This is their family of faith.

They see what others do at church and elsewhere, how we're all trying to live the Jesus life, call it, and they imitate us in doing so.

That's how June and Christa are learning; it's how we all learn to follow Christ.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

The Real Deficit

Many church boards, including vestries of Episcopal churches, are approving budgets this month. And they're often doing so in the face of reduced giving because of the Great Recession.

Attend a church board meeting, and you're likely to hear a lot of anxiety being expressed.

Looking at deficits, many boards panic and start reducing or eliminating ministries--those programs that make God's love known to others. Boards start focusing on maintaining the institution at the expense of the church's mission, the only reason the church exists.

And when maintenance becomes the church's reason for being, that church begins to wither and die, like that fig tree in the gospels that does not bear fruit. Who wants to be part of a church that is retrenching--dying?

And God weeps.

Facing deficits, other church boards trust God to provide. These boards are grounded in the story of God's saving love--how God provided for the Jews in the wilderness during those 40 days; how God provided for those early Christians, giving them resources, including courage, to spread the Good News of God's savior Jesus to the whole world; and how God met the needs of that particular congregation throughout its history.

And those church boards act, approving budgets with deficits, sometimes without being sure how they'll fund all their ministries and pursue their vision of mission.

And God smiles.

This past week, my church's vestry met to approve the church's ministry budget for 2010. After much discussion, and a lot of anxiety, the vestry decided to approve a deficit budget.
This was the second time in as many years that we did so. And a few people expressed the fear that we were adopting a dangerous precedent. "When will it stop?" one person asked.

Last year, the vestry also approved a deficit budget, trusting that God would provide. And he did. We conserved money by being careful about our spending, while not neglecting our ministries or reducing staff; we saw a big increase in our non-pledge giving. And we anticipate ending 2009 with a budget surplus.

As I told the vestry this week, I believe that God will do for us in 2010 what he did for us this year: he will provide for us, abundantly. I trust God and his word.

In the gospels, Jesus promises that when we focus not on our fears, but on our faith in God and do the work of mission, expanding the Kingdom of God, God meets our needs.

When we take God at his word and act, as Jesus did, we demonstrate our trust in him and discover that he provides. We needn't worry about anything, because we're his beloved. Worry is for unbelievers, not for us.

Yes, church boards need to be concerned about budgets and deficits; we must be good stewards of God's gifts, making every dollar work fully in mission.

But the most important deficit about which church boards need to be concerned is a deficit in faith. That's the deficit that matters the most, because that's the only deficit that destroys the church.

And then God really weeps.

But with faith in God, who does the impossible, even raise Jesus from the dead, we can do the impossible. We can be the church: a faithful, not fearful, body of follower's doing the Lord's work.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

The privilege of priesthood

I got a call last night that I was needed at the hospital ER. A woman was close to death. She and her family needed a priest. So, without hesitation, I went, praying for as I drove to the hospital. In the patient's room, her family was gathered around her bed, while nurses and other medical personnel tended to her. The woman's sister was stroking her arm and head and whispering comforting words to her, urging her to let go "and go toward the light." Her mother and father were with her, in tears of loving presence. Surely, this woman knew she was surrounded by love. I anointed her for healing. And God answered our prayers in the way that was best for her; he granted her that ultimate healing, which comes in death. The ER doctor, who was kind and gentle, said that she "had passed" and that the time had come to turn off the ventilator and let her go. And so the machine was shut off. Now, this woman is with God--no longer suffering, but alive as never before in our eternal spiritual family, the Communion of Saints. As I said my goodbyes to the family, a nurse came over to me, her arms out to me. And we hugged. She thank you. "Thank you for being here." Nothing like her response has ever happened to me before. It felt good--not just because of the hug, but good because I knew I was where God wanted me and doing what God called me to do, making his love known in a time of profound need. This was a holy moment. I am reminded what a privilege it is to be a priest and to share in times of great joy and great sadness with God's people.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Taking a bite out of hunger

I'm proud of my church. The people of Christ Episcopal Church know Jesus and make his love known through their service.

Last night, the youth group, together with our young adults group sponsored the annual Community Thanksgiving Dinner. The parish hall was packed with people. According to Youth Minister Donya Newport, 120 people were served heaping, steaming plates of turkey, mashed potatoes and gravy, green beans, stuffing, and cranberry sauce. Yum, it was good.

Of the 120, 80 or more were neighbors from around the church, where poverty is abundant. Our guests are among the 49 million Americans who are hungry today, a statistic reported this week by the New York Times.

In the midst of this Great Recession, the number of hungry Americans, including children, is rising. Hunger in America is at its highest in 14 years.

However, Christ Episcopal Church, along with many other churches in Springfield are heeding Jesus' command: we're feeding the hungry.

Last night's Community Thanksgiving Dinner was one way. At Christ Church, we're also filling grocery sacks each week of food for Crosslines, the Council of Churches' ministry to the hungry.

(Crosslines is mounting a special appeal right now. If you contribute money to the council's ministry, your gift will be matched, dollar for dollar, up to $40,000, thanks to a grant from the Community Foundation of the Ozarks. Please join me in making a Thanksgiving gift to Crosslines this year.)

With the vestry's enthusiastic support--and personal commitment of many vestry members to take part--Christ Church will participate in the Kids Against Hunger ministry, starting in January. Church volunteers will gather at the ministry's warehouse one Saturday a month and fill bags with special protein meals and other items, which will then be distributed to the hungry locally and globally.

Moreover, church members volunteer weekly at the Well of Life Ministry, which serves as an emergency food pantry downtown. Other volunteers fill bags with food and distribute them to the hungry through Crosslines. And the staff regularly gives out sack lunches to the hungry who come to the church seeking food. These lunches are prepared by our Outreach Committee.

I'm proud of the people of Christ church for the many ways they show compassion to the hungry. They're a living example of the life of service that Jesus lived and goes on living through us.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

A change of attitude toward change

I walked into Starbucks today at 6.15 am as I do nearly every morning after my workout.

And right away, I noticed: Everything had been changed: there were new tables, including one huge one. Bars had put in with bar stools. New lighting installed. The walls are being repainted.
(Fortunately, my friends who work there were still behind the counter.)

What was going on? I wondered. Whatever it was, I thought, I didn't like it. For an instant, I thought I'd go back to Panera tomorrow morning.

Now, I understand what people in the church, particularly the Episcopal Church, are experiencing. The church is being refurnished and redecorated, theologically and in other ways. The Episcopal Church isn't what it used to be. And we feel unsettled.

We want the church to be that unchanging institution in our lives. We crave the familiar words of that worship we grew up with, be it the 1928 Prayer Book, even the 1979 Prayer Book. We might say we liked it when Episcopal priests were men, not also women.

And female bishops? Well, let's not talk about that or about the gay bishop of New Hampshire or the the blessing of same gender unions. What will be next?

I understand. I really do. We humans want everything to stay the same. It's secure that way and safe. And predictable, like sitting in the same pew at the Sunday Eucharist. We can always count on our place being available.

But it's also unrealistic. Everything changes. Nothing stays the same--in families, at work, in government and politics (We now have an African-American president), in our neighborhoods and cities, in the church.

Darwin found that only a species that adapts and evolves survives; otherwise, it dies.

So it is with institutions, including the church. I remember a debate I had with a retired Member of Parliament when I was in England one summer--this debate occurred in his home, not on the floor of Commons--and I said, "Why not let women be priests, even bishops? Your Prime Minister is a woman, after all?"

"Yes, but that's different," he said, unable to tell me exactly how.

The Episcopal Church is changing, because the world we serve is changing. And we either adapt, seeking to minister to others in Christ's name, or we cling to the past and perish in irrelevance and insignificance.

So, I'll go back to Starbucks tomorrow morning. I'll mutter for awhile about the changes in furnishings and decor. But I'll get used to the changes and, if my experience with change is any measure, I'll even come to like them one day.

And, of course, I won't want anything to change.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Prayer brings healing

God always speaks in Holy Scriptures, and sometimes I listen closely enough to hear what he says.

Today, I sat in my office praying Morning Prayer and reading from Matthew's gospel. God spoke to me clearly.

In Matthew 15.29 and following, Jesus is on a mountain in Galilee. Crowds bring him "the maimed, the lame, the blind, the dumb, and many others." They put them at his feet, and he heals them.

As a priest, I care spiritually for people who are struggling with illness, pain, loss, grief, and more. They seek help from God for themselves or for others.

The Good News is that God hears our pleas for help and comes to our aid in Jesus. In him, God ministers to human beings out of the abundance of his compassion. He does so in Galilee. He does so here and now.

When we pray for God to heal others, we're placing them at God's feet, and God heals them, today, just as he does that day on the mountain side through his son Jesus Christ.

And if there aren't instant results to your prayers for healing, don't despair and give up on God.

Prayer takes effort, just as it takes effort, and a lot of it, for those crowds carrying the ill and broken up the mountain and then laying them at Jesus' feet. So persevere.

God heals everyone we place at his feet.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Fort Hood: the continuing tragedy?

We prayed at church yesterday for the victims of the attack at Fort Hood, remembering to God's care those who died there, their grieving families and friends, and the wounded recovering in hospital.

As I reflect on this tragedy, I'm awed by the courage of the police officer who stopped the attacker and by the soldiers who risked their lives shielding victims from bullets, getting people to safety, taking care of the wounded--all the while risking their own lives. We have great people in law enforcement and in our military.

I hope the Fort Hood tragedy is not magnified in the coming days.

The alleged attacker is a Muslim, an Army major, and a psychiatrist who counselled soldiers after their combat service. No one is sure why he went on this rampage, although some in the media, especially radio and TV demagogues, are speculating that this man was motivated by religion, that this attack was his own personal jihad.

Nonsense. The attacker committed these terrible acts because he was mentally ill, not because he was a Muslim.

Americans who are outraged by this attack, instead of clinging to the illusion that it's the result of religion, should realize that it's the result of a society that worships guns, glorfies violence, and makes it easier and easier for everyone, including deranged people, to buy guns. Should gun attacks really surprise us anymore?

Today, I emailed a Muslim colleague who participates in the Springfield Interfaith Alliance, which includes other Muslims, together with Jews and Christians. I told her of my prayers for her faith community here and nationwide. I promised my support, told her that I was uriging my church to remain focused on our work for interfaith understanding and partnership for furthering God's work.

I hope this tragedy will stop in Fort Hood and not radiate into the rest of American, in waves of further prejudice, hatred, and violence against Muslims. That would be a greater tragedy still and one that we could have prevented.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

A happy Anglican writes

I read in today's New York Times that the Bishop of Rome, also called Pope Benedict, is inviting disaffected Anglican and Episcopal clergy, churches, and even dioceses to come home to Rome.

The new Vatican policy allows Anglicans to continue worshiping in their own parish churches, using The Book of Common Prayer--no longer as Anglican Christians, but as Roman Catholic ones.

Why would some Anglicans convert from Canterbury, the geographic home of the Anglican Communion, to Rome?

According to news reports, Anglicans who oppose the ordination of women and a gay-friendly Episcopal Church and Church of England would be more at home in the Roman Catholic Church, because, officially, the church opposes the ordination of women and the affirmation of gay and lesbian Christians. (I know Roman priests, however, whose views on these and other matters differ from those of Benedict.)

For those who feel that God the Holy Spirit is calling them out of the Anglican Communion and into the Roman one, then may God be with them and bless them in their continuing spiritual journeys. Our unity as one body in Christ may come only in the world to come.

A former Roman Catholic, I have found my spiritual home in the Episcopal Church and Anglican Communion. Of course, I give God thanks for the spiritual formation I received in my birth church. There, I first heard the gospel of God's love in Jesus and grew in that life-long love.

Now, as an Episcopalian, I am part of a community of faithful Christians who read the Bible and interpret it with the aid of reason and tradition. I worship according to a beautiful, living liturgy that connects me with God through word and sacrament.

I belong to a church that struggles, often awkwardly and publicly, to relate the faith to a changing world with deep spiritual hungers. I am a member of a church that welcomes the gifts of all people for ministry and whose governance is shared by clergy and laity.

Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple once described Anglicanism as "catholicism with freedom."

The English Reformation blessed Anglicans with the gift of freedom from the concentration of power in person and one office. I am glad to be free, bound only to Christ, my Lord and Savior.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Up on a roof

One of my favorite James Taylor songs is "Up on the Roof." He sings about how the roof is his place to get away from everyone and everything, including his troubles.

I was full of troubles as I read Morning Prayer today. I found Psalm 18.1-20 helpful, reminding me that God was my "strength...my stronghold, my crag, and my haven...." God "rescued me because he delighted in me."

I was still brooding, though, even after my prayers. I had many cares--my gutters, among them. They were overflowing with leaves, sticks, gumballs. There were little trees growing out of them. When downpours came, the gutters looked like mini Niagara Falls. And inside the house, ominous brown spots were spreading on the bedroom ceiling, signaling a leaky roof.

Hearing nothing from the roofer or the gutter man I had called, I decided to go up on the roof. But I didn't have a ladder. So, I found a tree near the house and climbed it. I felt like a 10 year-old again.

On the roof, as I moved slowly above the gutters, I had to focus my mind on not falling, while scooping out the black oozy detritus from the gutters and throwing it to the ground. There was no room in my mind for any other thoughts.

An hour later, I climbed back down the tree. I had cleared my guttters of all that gunk, and my mind of all that funk. Distraction is good for the mind and soul.

Find your roof today.

Monday, October 5, 2009

Priests have doubts, too

I met doubt on Friday at the movie theatre.

It was my day off, and as I sometimes do, I went to the movies, seeing The Invention of Lying, a movie written and directed by Ricky Gervais, famous for the original British version of The Office.

In the movie, Gervais plays Mark, a screenwriter who lives in a world where everyone tells the truth, however hurtful and, at times, crude it might be.

Mark's mother is dying and is terrified of death. Mark, to console her, tells her not to be afraid of death, but to believe that she's going to a place we might recognize as heaven. The afterlife, Mark tells her, is perfect. Everyone is happy all the time. You're with all the people you've ever loved and lost. And it's eternal.

When the word gets out about this wonderful place beyond time and about"the big man in the sky," who supposedly represents God, Mark becomes a spiritual master to the multitudes. He ends up issuing the 10 spiritual teachings of the Big Man, delivering them not on the mount, but on the steps of his apartment building. Instead of stone tablets, the teachings are written on the backs of two pizza boxes.

The Invention of Lying is a humorous attack on religion, a kind of comic version of God Isn't Great or The God Delusion, popular atheistic works that caricature God and religious people. At times, I admit, I laughed.

But I also felt uneasy, doubtful. What if the whole notion of God, of heaven, of the Communion of Saints, and of all other truths of the faith is purely a human invention meant to lessen our pain or to scare us into being good?

I thought about that question most of the weekend. It's a serious question, if one raised by a silly movie.

I took my doubt to God early on Sunday morning. (On Sundays, I get up at 4.45 am or earlier and get ready for church, spending about an hour in prayer, Bible study, meditation, writing. ) In my journal, I wrote about my doubts. I offered them to God, and the thought occurred to me:

Although Mark makes up the Big Man and the afterlife--they arise from his imagination--does God not speak to us through our thoughts and imagination? What if Mark, who thought he was lying, was really telling his dying mother the truth about what awaited her when she passed from this life?

I ended my time with God, praying a phrase from the gospels: Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief.

I've had periods of doubt during my spiritual journey: when I was challenged by my seminary classes, when I was watching my father die of cancer and undergoing horrible suffering, when a family member was struggling with post traumatic stress syndrome.

In times of doubt, however, I have still had faith. Faith enough to tell God my doubts. Faith enough to pray about my doubts.

And God answered me, I believe, not always in words, but always in grace--that strong current of loving assurance that rose from the depths and saved me from drowning in doubt and despair.
I will go on having my doubts, sometimes elicited by serious events, sometimes silly ones like watching The Invention of Lying. But without doubt, there is no need for faith in God.

I'm learning not to deny doubt and to run from it, but to embrace it and to offer it to God for His use and my good.

Lord, I believe. Help me with my unbelief.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The question of happiness

A church member responded to my invitation: What one question would you ask of God? He wants to know: God, how do I attain happiness?

I remember something my professor of French at the University of Louisville said on the subject. Happiness was something I was after. He said if one sets out to attain happiness, then one will fail to find it. That wise counsel, however, did not dissuade me from seeking.

Eventually, I discovered what my professor had found a long time earlier: happiness is a consequence, not the goal.

What is the goal?

As a Christian, I make my goal Christ. I learn from my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in His Word to me--which I hear in Holy Scriptures, sometimes in poetry and other literature, in prayer, in silence, in the words of others--and to which I respond in obedience.

My goal in life is faithfulness to Christ, with God's help. Nothing else.

When I follow Christ as fully as I can here, then I'm happy. Not that I'm always happy. There are days when I feel down, frustrated, troubled--all those human things.

But I keep trying to be faithful to Christ, and quietly and often surprisingly, He shows me glimpses of happiness. I not only see them, but also feel them. This is heaven.

In the gospels, a rich young man asks Jesus how he can attain everlasting life, which is far better than earlthly happiness. Jesus says, Go and sell all you have and come follow me. And, as the story goes, the young man leaves downcast. He's rich and wants to stay that way.

For this rich young man, something is more important to him than God, who is revealed in Jesus; it's his wealth; he's rich materially, but poor spiritually. And not until he puts God first will he know eternal life. I like to think he does just that.

Real happiness-call it eternal life-comes only through God and my relationship with Him. When I learn from Jesus Christ, living for Him and loving others in His name, I'm most fully alive. And as happy as I can be in this world.

And I know it's Christ who makes me that way.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Christian discipleship and giving

One of the most difficult things a priest preaches is the spiritual and material importance of giving--spiritual because giving, like prayer, worship, study, and service, moves us in God's direction; and material, because it takes the resources of money and people for the church to do its healing work.

Preaching on giving is challenging and painful at times because it confronts us on what we most value or where our ultimate trust lies. We often become angry and defensive when someone challenges our idols. Jesus encountered plenty of this, and it led to his death. Perhaps this is why preachers are thankful that stewardship sermons tend to be once a year. Any more would raise the threat level to red.

In this acquisitive, consumer culture, the attitude is: I made this money. It's mine. Don't tell me what to do with it. And we celebrate it. Many Americans today cherish freedom with no responsiblity for anything or anyone else.

I see this "me and mine" attitude not only in the church--although not at my own church, happily--but also in society, specifically in the anti-taxation movement in America.

We no longer believe that all we have comes from God, ultimately, and to God we are accountable for all He's given us: our time, out talent, and, yes, our treasure.

Many church people want worship, Christian education for our children, pastoral care in times of need. Citizens (do we understand what that concept means? ) want good streets, safe neighborhoods, excellent schools that will launch our children into Ivy League schools. But we don't want to pay for any of it. We want someone else to pay the bills.

What we miss because of our selfishness is connection. When we return to God a portion of His gifts to us in the form of our tithes and offerings, we are more related to Him, who is our Ultimate Concern, and to Christ's Body, which is God the Holy Spirit alive and at work in the world. And when we pay our taxes, we are more related to society in the promotion of its well-being; this is a part of our civic responsiblity.

To hear my sermon from yesterday, go to this link, which my colleague Dr. Allin Sorenson created: http://homepage.mac.com/asorenso/.Public/92709c.mp3

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Q & A

Many people think that Christians have all the answers, but I'm hearing from Christians who have more questions than answers. They had been contacting me even before my last column here, inviting questions.

But now, I'm really hearing from them. From you.

One person asks of God, "Do you really exist? And if so, in what form?"

I spent years looking for God, but most intensely during my junior and senior years at the University of Louisville. I thought I'd find God by taking philosophy and religion courses and by talking with religous people, including the chaplains at the university's Ecumenical Center.

I didn't find God in my classes, or in my reading for class and outside of class, although I found some great minds and great souls, including Augustine, Soren Kierkegaard, Pascal, Thomas Merton, among others, including the Roman Catholic and Episcopal chaplains.

I learned about their searching for God. And finding Him:

Paschal uses just one word to describe meeting God: "Fire." Augustine, that towering mind of fifth century north Africa, heard God say of the Bible before him, "Take up and read," and Augustine met God there in the Word; Merton found God in the beauty of church architecture in France and Italy and later in the quiet of his monastery of Our Lady of Gethsemani in my home state of Kentucky.

If they found God, I reasoned, then perhaps I could as well. And so I continued my search.

And I found Him. God revealed Himself to me when I prayed to Him in earnest and in surrender. God came to me in a tidal wave of love. His love washed over me. Drowned me. Carried me away in wonder, thanksgiving, and joy.

That prayer of mine was a prayer of faith, trust that God was. And is. And always will be.

As Paul says somewhere in First Corinthians, we won't find God with our minds and by our clever reasoning, which is what I suppose I was doing: looking for those convincing arguments to prove to me and my mind that God was real.

We find God only by faith.

That's when God says, Here I am. I've been here all along. Waiting for you.

So, everyone, keep asking questions. It's a sign you're seeking God. And if you're seeking, you'll find Him.

Monday, September 21, 2009

What's your question?

Tom convinced me: it's time to do it.

Last week, I spent three days at our annual clergy conference at Conception Abbey in northern Missouri. It's a beautiful, holy, and peaceful spot.

Diocesan clergy heard from the Rev. Tom Ehrich, an Episcopal priest who used to be a reporter for The Wall Street Journal. Now, among other ministries, Tom is a syndicated columnist and church and business consultant.

He told us how he asked 1000 people a question:

What one question would you like to ask God?

He heard from virtually everyone he contacted and responded, answering each question as best as he could.

For some time now, I've thought about doing something similar here. Tom convinced me it was time to act.

So, here's my invitation: If you could ask God one question, what would it be?

Email me your question at gdisgood@sbcglobal.net or post it here at the end of this column.

Of course, I can't promise you that God will answer your question directly, but He might respond indirectly through me.

I pledge that I'll think about your question. I'll pray about it; I'll ask God to answer your question through me. And then I (God?) will respond to you.

Oh, yes, here's my question to God:

How's everything going to turn out for us?

I'll start thinking, praying, and listening to God right now.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Do you hear me?

I like mornings at the table with Penny. We eat our breakfast, read the papers, talk.

Actually, Penny will tell you: I'm usually the one doing the talking.

But not today.

Today, I just listened as she talked about friendship and the possible loss of a friend who might move away in response to a fresh call from God.

I listened and heard not just the verbal content--words--but also the emotional content--feelings: grief, sadness, even fear--fear that she'd never find as dear a friend as the one she might lose.

To listen, not just to Penny, but also to others, I have to shut up, of course, and that's hard for me to do as a voluble person. I also have to resist rushing in and and trying to fix the situation, in this case Penny's sad feelings about her friend.

I remember a sermon that my colleague Father Jonathan Frazier preached at Christ Episcopal Church. He mentioned our Stephen Ministry, which is a lay pastoral care ministry. It involves a high degree of training of lay ministers and careful supervision.

Jonathan said that in Stephen Ministry, people learn that "listening is doing something." Hearing that, I felt freed from my natural tendency to be a fixer (I still need help with my being a talker) and at liberty then to be a listener.

Listening is not only something I seek to do with people, but also something I attempt to do with God, using my quiet time every morning for that purpose. If I'm so busy telling God things, then God has no opportunity to tell me things, be it words of guidance, comfort, forgiveness, peace.

So, today, I'm learning to listen--to my wife, to my friends and colleagues, to my parishioners, to my God.

God wants to know; others want to know: Ken, do you hear me? I do. If I'm listening.

Monday, September 7, 2009

Mercy triumphs

In yesterday's reading from the Epistle of James, I heard a sentence for the first time. Oh, I've probably heard it before, but I was ready, really open, to hearing it as if for the first time. Say that I heard this phrase with my heart.

"Mercy triumphs over judgment," James writes to Christians.

Today, what we need is a Christianity not of judgment--so many churches preach God's judgment on this or that sin, on this or that group, on this or that theology--but a Christianity of mercy.

Jesus, in the words of Eugene Peterson, is God with us in the here and now and is the embodiment of the mercy of God. Those who are vulnerable, weak, poor, on the edges of society and not at the center receive mercy from the Lord, never judgment.

The only people Jesus judges, and rightly, are the know-it-alls, the got-it-all-figured outs, the I'm-better-than-you-ares: the Pharisees of then; the Pharisees of now.

One place for this new Christianity of mercy to be expressed is in our own churches and toward our own members, some of whom are different from us for a lot of reasons.

Take those in our churches, for instance, who are suffering from Asperger's Syndrome.

Yesterday afternoon, Penny and I saw Adam, an excellent new film showing at the Moxie. It's about a young electronics engineer, Adam, played by Hugh Dancy, who has been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.

As one character in the film explains it, Asperger's is on the "autism spectrum." There's nothing dangerous or scary about it or the people diagnosed with it.

"Aspys," as Adam describes fellow sufferers, are often highly intelligent, but they have difficulty communicating with others and understanding what people are communicating to them. They're prone to talk endlessly on topics of interest to them. As a consequence, they're awkward in social settings, including the workplace, school, in their communities of faith.

When I meet a person who's very different from me, I can judge that person, even think that person a "freak," a word that Adam applies to himself as the way "neurologically typicals" see him.

Or I can practice the Christianity of mercy. I can get to know that person, come to understand who he or she is, and accept that person as a fellow child of God, deserving all my love, but none of my judgment.

Judgmentalism, now that's a truly scary syndrome, and there's nothing Christian about it.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

Why catastrophize?

Listening to the debate on health care reform, I hear many doomsday predictions: "death panels," Medicare cuts for seniors, government-funded abortions, illegal immigrants overwhelming hospitals for free care, socialism.

The health care debate illustrates how powerful the fear of catastrophe is. Fear is our default setting, if you will; and today, pressure groups, politicians, the media are using it to control us.

By nature, we're fearful creatures.


Of course, that persistent ache or pain means terminal cancer. Of course, our trouble remembering names signifies Alzheimer's. Of course, that family member in crisis again won't survive, this time.

Our tendency to assume the worse outcome, or to catastrosphize, is ancient, primal. Our innate physiological alarm to flee from danger, or to take up a stone or club to protect ourselves and our loved ones from those hungry wolves outside our caves.

But today, we don't have to fear the wolves. Catastrophe doesn't have to be our default setting, unless we like Talk Radio and like being scared. Like that rush of adrenaline, as a psychologist friend described it to me yesterday.

In the gospel of John, Jesus says to His disciples: Do not be afraid. I have conquered the world.

I find myself thinking catastrophically, I remember I'm a Christian--one who believes in the resurrection and in God's power to raise Jesus from death to life. I live in the hope of the resurrection.

Yes, bad things happen and will go on happening to us and those we love. And there are times when we need that physiological flight/fight response to help us survive legitimate, real danger. After all, creation is still groaning, awaiting the fullness of new life in God.

It will be awhile before the wolf and the lamb lie down and feed together.


But for those whose faith is in God, catastrophe is not always a certainty. Not every dark cloud has an even darker lining. Not every medical test means terminal disease. Not every bad thing that happens leads to worse things.

I remember sitting in an ER room at the bedside of a family member whom I feared might die. And a wise and faithful friend--who knew something of near-death experiences--said to me, "Ken, don't think, 'What if',' but think, 'What is.'"

Her counsel redirected my attention, and imagination, from a catastrophic future, which was my response to the unknown, to the present moment. I got control of myself, or rather God got control of me.

Instead of fearing, I could do something else, something constructive and positive. In the moment, I could pray. I could wipe my loved one's forehead with a wet wash cloth. I could read the Scriptures. I could trust God.

I thank God every day that my loved one survived. I know the crisis could have turned out differently, even catastrophically. The worst could have happened. For in the end, we'll all suffer and die.

Nevertheless, because we walk in a dark world in the light of the resurrection, we Christians look to the future not in dread, but in hope. Not as the day of doom, but of gladness. The day when we shall meet our Lord face to face and are reunited with Him and with all those we love.


And on that day, there will be nothing left to fear, no catastrophe waiting to happen. But only joy, endless joy.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Back to the garden

Penny and I went to see the film, Fresh, Friday night at the Gillloz Theatre.

The screening was hosted by the Well-Fed Neighbor Alliance, whose original goal was to plant 1,000 vegetable gardens in Springfield. One of the speakers said more than 3,000 gardens have been planted locally.

According to Fresh, American agriculture is increasingly controlled by big business, which is producing huge quantities of food in ways that wrecking the environment and endangering consumers.

Industrially produced food from corporate farms and feed lots is loaded with antibiotics and pesticides, which are harmful to our bodies. Moreover, this food is of minimal value nutritionally.

Maybe "an apple a day" is no longer good advice--unless it's a locally grown apple.

Fresh also explores solutions to our food crisis. Solutions include planting backyard and community gardens and raising our own fruits and vegetables; and shopping at farmers' markets and grocery stores that carry food produced or grown locally on small family farms and ranches.

Buying our food from small farmers and ranchers, who are our neighbors, means that we get delicious, nutritious food. It's free of pesticides and antibiotics. And it was produced in ways that preserved the earth.

Buying locally also keeps money here and promotes a healthy job-producing economy.

Surely, "fresh and healthy" was what God had in mind when He commanded those first humans to "tend and till" the garden. In eating the produce from our own gardens and in buying food from local farmers and ranchers, we take take another step in our return to Eden, life as God created it to be.

Thursday, August 27, 2009

A lament for Teddy

Like so many others in America, I grieve the death of Senator Edward "Ted" Kennedy of Massachusetts.

Despite his many flaws, Ted Kennedy was a man with an enormous heart, especially when it came to the powerless, "the widows and orphans," as James describes them in his epistle for this Sunday.

This last of the Kennedy brothers cared about the weak and vulnerable, and after losing his way, he eventually found his way, discovering that his calling was to do something tangible, usually legislatively, to ease the distress under which the powerless lived.

I'd like to see more politicians with hearts--indeed giant Ted-Kennedy-size hearts--not for interest groups and campaign contributors, but for people who have no voice, no power and who need someone with a voice and power to advocate and act on behalf of them.

The U.S. Senate has a lot less heart today. I pray it's only temporary.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Sharing in God's creative activity

Penny and I had tea Sunday afternoon with a friend and church member. We've joined Charlotte for occasional afternoon teas on Sundays for some 10 years now. Tea with her is always a renewing opportunity to relax with good conversation and to enjoy her lemon bundt cake and other treats.

After many years of friendship, I thought I knew Charlotte well. Until Sunday, when I discovered something new about her, although not surprising: Charlotte writes a poem every morning. She has for many years.

"Do you share them?"Penny and I asked.

"No,"she said. "They're just for me." Her poems reflect her private thoughts and feelings.

One of the many things that impresses me about Charlotte is that she's engaged in daily creativity.

My daily creative act is writing--these blog posts and other columns, sermons, short stories, and longer pieces of fiction.

You might create with words, too, or with paint and canvas, with flowers and plants, with food, with needle and thread, with musical instruments, with fabrics, with clay or stone.

However we create, we participate with God in His continuing creation. That work began at the very beginning. In Genesis 2, God tells the first humans to till and tend the garden. Working with God, they're to take part in bringing beauty and fruitfulness to God's creation.

When we exercise our creativity, even for a few minutes a day, in whatever way brings us delight, you and I are are one with God in the act of making something new. And creation is a better place for it.

Be creative, then, and be with God.

Friday, August 21, 2009

Reaching out to life

Every day, Penny and I look at our favorite baby picture of June Elizabeth, first-born grand daughter. Mama Clare is holding her. June is smiling big and throwing her arms out to a new world waiting to be discovered.

My friend Peter--who's somewhere in his 70s--is just like June Elizabeth. His arms outstretched to the world in joyful wonder and appreciation.

The other day at the Men's Fellowship breakfast, I sat next to Peter. He was full of energy and good cheer, telling me he'd just finished an early, vigorous walk.

Although no longer practicing medicine full time, he's still consulting and still learning about his profession. When I told him about a person I knew who went blind after surgery because of a medication he'd received, Peter spoke into his tape recorder: "Look into drug given to patients who are having heart surgery. Drug could cause blindness."

Peter's studying law on his own, simply because he's interested; he devours books, either listening to them on CD as he drives around town, or sitting down and reading them at home. Right now, he's reading Les Miserables. "I hadn't read it before," he said, with the excitement of discovery in his voice. He likes to travel abroad. He volunteers in the community. He's an avid gardener.

I don't want my epitaph to read: "Kenneth L. Chumbley. He stopped living long before he died."

I want to throw out my arms to life, living every day as a gift from God--full of discoveries to be made, challenges to meet, adventures to have, joys to celebrate.

As the car window decal proclaims, "Life is good." It is, because God is good and everything God makes is good. Today is good.

And I'm joining June Elizabeth and Peter, throwing out my arms to life, whatever it brings, and enjoying every second of it. And making every second count.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Living transitions

A friend of ours is sad today; she's saying goodbye to her daughter who's going off to boarding school in another country.

Other parents are sad as they move sons and daughters into college dormitories on distant campuses, or wave goodbye to their children as they go to school for the first time, or see a child move in with the other parent after a divorce.

I was sad when Clare and her girls moved from an apartment nearby to a rental house on the other side of town, where they'd have much more room. I feared Penny and I would see much less of them.

There are many transitions we humans confront daily.

Each transition represents change and is a kind of little death. Life as we knew it is no more. We move, by choice or not, from the known to the unknown. And that movement is both scary and sad.

But there's something positive about transition, too, and paradoxical. For to change is to grow. To lose is to gain. To die is to live.

In letting go of the little one who's starting school, or that young adult who's becoming a college freshman, we're participating in that person's growth and in our own. (And that one who's stepping onto the school bus or sitting in his or her first lecture course in college is also letting go.)

Our son or daughter is moving into the future that God intends--becoming independent, making his or her own choices, finding his or her own happiness along the way.

And we who let go grow in the process. We gain something we'd otherwise miss. We learn about ourselves--if only how to turn loose of those we love, to grieve, and to find new life for ourselves.

In transitions, there's a foreshadowning of that greatest one--death--when we'll move from this physical life into eternal life with God through the power of the resurrection.

Poet T.S. Elliot writes that in every ending, there's a beginning.

May God bless our endings with beginnings.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

Town hall meetings

The health care reform town hall meetings have become shouting matches, which is disappointing.

Reform opponents are exciting fear in Americans and turning them out to scream at elected officials, spreading outlandish and false charges about what's proposed in various House and Senate reform bills.

The media seize on the sight of the hapless representative or senator--Senator Arlen Spector of Pennsylvania the other day comes to mind--as he or she stands mute at the town hall meeting, listening to the invective.

The minute the lies are uttered, they become material for the next cable news broadcast or radio talk-show harangue. Orwell, in 1984, showed that if you tell a lie enough, people begin to believe it's the truth.

With the current town hall meetings, I see politics at its worst. I see dirty tricks at work. These meetings are about political theatre, not about rational discussion, even debate, of a significant issue.

The meetings are spreading misinformation, including outright lies--Sarah Palin herself, in commenting on her use of the phrase "death panels," admitted that she "made things up"--as part of the effort to sabotage reform. I'm puzzled by Ms. Palin's admission, because she's made such a major issue of her Christianity. And I thought lying was a sin, the breaking of the ninth commandment.

As long as people lie and the media knowingly disseminate their lies, there will be no useful public discourse on health care reform or anything else, and this country will be no closer to solving our major problems, which threaten us.

Town hall meetings that are no more than stages for spreading falsehoods do nothing to advance the discussion and move us toward solutions, but do a lot to injure democracy.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Paying tribute to Archbishop Tutu, Medal of Freedom recipient

The retired Anglican Archbishop of South Africa, The Most Rev. Desmond Tutu, receives the Presidential Medal of Freedom today from President Obama at the White House.

Archbishop Tutu is one of 16 recipients--all deserving of this nation's highest civilian award for service. Others include retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor and Massachusetts Senator Ted Kennedy.

My wife Penny and I were blessed to spend a semester with Bishop Tutu at The General Theological Seminary in 1984. We were students in his lecture course on the Modern Church. We enjoyed his inspirational lectures, which drew heavily from his experiences fighting apartheid in his native country and for human rights for "colored" peoples there.

I was moved by his accounts of the struggle for justice and appreciated where his impulse for justice originated: from a deep faith in the God of justice, freedom, reconciliation, and peace.

I used to see Bishop Tutu at General's Chapel of the Good Shepherd early in the morning. He was always on his knees in prayer. When there was a Eucharist in the chapel, he was present, sometimes celebrating and preaching.

For him, daily prayer, along with the Holy Eucharist shaped his spirituality, the image of the Compassionate Christ in him, and fired his passion for justice for all God's people, especially those to whom it had been denied for too long.

For Bishop Tutu, the central motif that powered his struggle for justice in South Africa--and likely still does in other contexts today--was and is God's liberation of the Hebrew people from slavery in Egypt and leading of them to freedom in Canaan; and with that freedom, God's choice or election of them for service to Him, carrying on God's struggle for bringing fullness of life to all people, because all people are precious to Him.

Bishop Tutu taught me less by his words and more by the holiness of his life. His is a life dedicated to Christ, to daily transformation in Him through prayer, worship, and study; and to serving others in Christ's Name, especially the powerless and needy.

So, congratulations to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, saint of the modern church and example of Christ-like living and ministry. And thank you, Bishop Tutu, for showing me the kind of person and servant Christ calls me to be.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Thoughts on my birthday

I celebrated my 56th birthday yesterday. It was a joyful day, one of my best birthdays yet, in part because of how I thought about it.

In the past, I've often felt depressed on my birthday, because I'd think about people close to me who'd forgotten the day. I'd brood myself into darkness, feeling sorry for myself and saying, "Poor, poor me."

But this birthday was different. I thought not about the people who'd forgotten my birthday, but about the many people who'd remembered it with cards, phone calls, and other greetings.

And I was thankful they did and thankful for their love and friendship.

With many things in life, I choose happiness or sadness by the way I think about them. And yesterday, I chose to think about my birthday in a different way, emphasizing the positive over the negative.

And this year, my birthday was bright, not dark.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

Mind the Gap?

If you've been to London and ridden the tube, you've heard the frequent announcement, "Mind the gap."

It's a warning to be careful and avoid stepping into the space between the platform and the tube car. You hear the same warning when you ride the trains in Britain.

I'm thinking about gaps this evening after reading Evening Prayer and the gospel lesson for the Daily Office. It's from Mark 9. Verse 37 and following speak to me--or rather God the Holy Spirit speaks to me.

Jesus is teaching his disciples, when He reaches out and welcomes a child. Children in his day, first century Palestine, were nobodies. They had no rights--no value, really.

And yet, here Jesus--God with us--is, receiving the child and putting his arm around the child. He says that if you receive a child, you receive me and receive the One who sent me.

What I hear God the Holy Spirit saying to me is that when I receive anyone who is weak and worthless in the eyes of this world, then I receive Jesus and the One who sent Him, the Heavenly Father Himself.

When I receive the other, I welcome him or her. I put my arm around the other in an act of friendship, solidarity, service. I love the other and receive Jesus and the One who sent Him.

And God receives me, puts His arm around me. We're one.

When I fail to love, I let the gap between me and God remain. But when I mind the gap and remember to love the other, then I close the gap between me and God. I'm united to God.

So mind that gap.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

The faces of hunger

I spent an hour Wednesday afternoon looking at the faces of hunger, and it's sad, very sad.

Springfield, Missouri's hungry are children and infants; the elderly, people on oxygen, the blind. They're single people and families, black and white--and all poor.

I joined three members of Christ Episcopal Church, who were working a two-hour shift at Crosslines, a ministry of the Council of Churches of the Ozarks.

Christ Church supports council ministries from our parish budget, with special gifts and offerings, including canned goods on Sundays at the Holy Eucharist, and with hundreds of hours of service each year. (I serve on the Board of Directors of the Council of Churches.)

On Wednesday we put together food items, ensuring that each individual or family, had a balanced diet for three days. We packed brown paper grocery bags with hot dogs, hamburger, and chicken for protein--until it ran out--vegetables, including fresh ones from home gardens; canned goods, even a few candy bars. We teased that we'd keep some of them for ourselves, but we gave them away.

The food sacked, I handed out the bags at the window, where people waited for their orders. Every person said thank you.

Qualified people may receive food from Crosslines three times each year. The limit is because the ministry has to stretch its food supplies more and more these days, given that hunger is rising in the Ozarks and nationwide.

According to a 2008 hunger study, 742, 486 Missourians live in poverty. The poverty rate in Missouri is 13 percent. We rank 21st among the states for poverty. Some 310, 000 Missouri households are "food insecure" or 12.9 percent of all households. And another 118,000 households are "very low food secure." (For more, go to: http://www.masw.org/programs/hunger.php )

These statistics are from 2007, the latest I could find, and were compiled well before the current Great Recession, which began in December 2008.

Looking at the hungry people at Crosslines on Wednesday, I was saddened, saying to myself, "This shouldn't be--not in a country as rich as ours, not in a city as generous as this one."

But I was also heartened that Pam, Kathy, Carol, and many other local Christians are at Crosslines five days a week, reaching out to others with Christ's love and doing what our Lord Himself did--feeding the hungry.

Thanks be to God.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Go slow

I need to start paying attention to those traffic signs that say, "Slow." I need to slow down my driving and my living.

It's time for me to join the Slow Movement.

There's the Slow Food Movement--people who are buying fresh produce grown near them, cooking meals at home--sometimes with their friends sharing the preparation; and then savoring every bite of the meal.

There might even be a Slow Reading Movement emerging. On National Public Radio one morning, I heard Irish poet and novelist Nick Laird say that he'd been reading Dr. Samuel Johnson lately. Johnson's 18th century prose--elegant and complex--made Laird stop and savor every word of it.

Laird said this slow, careful approach to reading literature contrasted with the modern tendency to gobble up every word of text as fast as we can.

And there ought to be a Slow Spirituality Movement--spirituality being our daily ways of relating to God's Holy Spirit in us.

I often find myself rushing through my daily prayers and Scripture reading, my centering prayer time each day, my journal writing, even rushing through my leading of worship at church. (I sometimes peek at my watch during the Holy Eucharist.)

Too often, I rush my relationship with God--but God never rushes His relationship with me. God always takes time with me and for me.

Like an attentive, loving parent, God's always right there--listening to me, comforting me, directing me, strengthening me, perhaps even saying, "Ken, what's the rush? We have all the time in the world. In this life and in the life to come."

As 21st Century people, we're all in too much of a hurry (it's true for our children, too.), And we have the hypertension, the heart disease, addictions, depression, and anxiety disorder to prove it.

We need to take time and enjoy whatever we're doing as fully as possible. Slowing down helps us experience that more abundant life that Jesus offers us.

So, the next time you're rushing through dinner, speeding through that yellow light, glancing at your watch during the Holy Eucharist, skipping your daily prayers and Scripture reading because you don't have time, look.

See it? That sign--from God--that says, "Slow." Pay attention to it.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

What's the heart of the matter?

After I read the Scriptures, I like to sit for just a few minutes and reflect, and sometimes, I'll write a response in my journal. I did so today, taking as my prompt the Daily Office Gospel, Mark 7.1-23.

Jesus is disputing with a group of Pharisees, who reproach him and his disciples for eating without washing their hands.

The Pharisees are serious about their Jewish faith. They want to do the right thing, at least the majority of them do, I believe.

They're just wrong about the right thing.

The right thing, Jesus says, the heart of the matter, is not the external, but the internal. It's not dirty hands, but a dirty hearts.

Jesus knows these Pharisees, that their hearts are filthy.

To paraphrase Him: "Moses says you must set aside some resources for God. But you invoke Moses and set aside all your resources, including those that Moses says should be used for the care of your aged parents, for your own selfish purposes."

Jesus sees through the Pharisees's empty words and practices to their hearts and challenges them, teaching them that what counts with His Heavenly Father.

What's important is a person's heart, which reflects the quality of his or her relationship with God.

Jesus wants these Pharisees to examine their hearts:

Are you loyal to God above all? Have you given your lives to God completely, including the uses of your resources? Do you seek God and God alone, live for God and God alone?

They aren't and don't. Jesus may not have reached all of them, but perhaps He reached some of them with the truth.

Today, as I entered into a conversation with Jesus, I examined my own heart and found it unclean. The Gospel led me to repentence and deeper conversion of life.

And the gospel prompted me to think about how this text might speak to the church today and specifically about our clash over human sexuality, homosexuality in particular.

Aren't many of us focused on the wrong thing? Concerned, sometimes obsessively, about externals, not internals, about outward things, not inward things, about washed or unwashed hands, not washed or unwashed hearts.

We've made this debate about sex, when it should appropriately be about relationships--about
the people involved in heterosexual or homosexual relationships: the character of the people involved, the quality of their relationships, and their commitment to Christ.

Whether we're gay or straight, are we truly committed to Christ and to following Him as our Savior and Lord, especially in all our relationships? Gay or straight, does our love for others, including that physical expression of love, reflect the love of Jesus Christ?

The Gospels and the New Testament, together with the Prayer Book sacramental rite of Holy Matrimony uphold Jesus as the standard and measure of love.

Jesus showed His love for humanity by serving us, by suffering and dying and rising from the grave for our salvation, by teaching us and empowering by the Holy Spirit to love, even giving up our lives for others, friends and enemies alike.

His heart was pure. His love was pure.

Whatever our sexuality, our love for others should reflect this pure, Christly love. The heart of the matter is not clean hands, but a clean heart. A heart that is wholly God's and loves out of it.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Angry with God

She said, "I'm so angry with God."

I listened and encouraged her to tell God how she felt. Not to hold back anything.

When bad things happen, people often get angry with God. I've been angry with God myself on many occasions, and I've told God, "I'm angry with you." I've also said, "It's just not fair."

Perhaps you've been in a similar place, or one day will be.

It's impossible to live in this world and not experience trauma and tragedy: a child develops a life-threatening or life-limiting illness. Someone close to us dies suddenly. Family conflict worsens; it doesn't ease.

And we think, "It's so unfair. We've done our part: believed in God, gone to church, said our prayers, given tithes on our earnings, lived good lives.

But God's let us down, failing to keep His part of the bargain, which is to protect us and our loved ones from pain and suffering.

So, we do what's natural, human, and blame God, saying God didn't keep His part of the bargain. And we rail at Him. We might even stop believing in God, thinking Him indifferent, cruel or non-existent.

But the truth is that God has never promised us suffering-free lives. We'll all know heartbreak. Perhaps even many, many times.

That's why the cross is important to me. Why I cling to the cross, which, to paraphrase the apostle Paul, human beings use for death, but God uses for life.

The passion and death of Jesus, the Son of God and Savior of the world, show us a God who opens His arms wide to human suffering, even death on the cross, taking it all to Himself and transforming it.

Jesus suffers, dies, and is buried.

But on the third day, God raises Him from the grave, demonstrating that His love is stronger than anything bad that could ever happen to us in this world, even death. Nothing can separate us from Him and His love for us in Jesus Christ.

There will be a suffering and death for all of us. For all of those we love.

But God promises us that He'll hold us up in the midst of our traumas and tragedies. God will journey with us until we reach that place, that new world, where, Isaiah prophesies, "suffering and sorrow will be no more."

In the Easter acclamation, we declare our faith, "Alleluia, Christ is risen. The Lord is risen indeed. Alleluia."

Jesus Christ, the Son of the Most High God, is risen--over the worst things that can ever happen to us here. That's the hope of the Christian faith. That's the Gospel.

Yes, I'll still get angry with God. I'll still say it's not fair when something bad happens to me or a family member or a parishioner.

And I'll let God know how I feel, because I'm in relationship with Him, a deep and close one. I know He can handle my feelings, even my anger and disappointment.

And I know, by faith, that I can handle anything that comes my way in this life, with His help.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Steps in prayer

The other day I was leaving the fitness center after a swim and saw a church member. We waved to one another. I walked over, shook his hand, and we chatted.

Prayer is like that.

If you read books on prayer--and I've read bookshelves full of them--you'll find plenty of definitions of prayer, most of them providing helpful insights into this ancient spiritual practice and enhancing one's experience of it.

Early one morning last week, while it was still dark, I was unable to sleep and got up. As I usually do, the first thing I did when I awoke was to pray.

If was as if God spoke to me, revealing a definition of prayer that was both simple and profound.

God defined prayer for me, saying, "Prayer is taking a step closer to me."

But back to the fitness center.

When I saw my friend in the lobby, I took a step toward him. Another step. Another. And then another until we shook hands and talked with one another. My steps had taken me closer to him.

Similarly, the spiritual distance between us and God--distance that exists because of us, not because of God--is reduced and then eliminated as we take one step after another, closer and closer to God through the daily discipline of prayer.

It doesn't matter the kind of prayer we pray--thanksgiving, petition, intercession, confession, oblation, adoration--but only that we pray. And pray daily. As many times as we can every day.

God, I'll keep taking those steps toward you every day, until we're face to face, hand in hand, as my friend and I were in the fitness center lobby.

Friday, July 24, 2009

A response to rising atheism

In New York City, according to the New York Times today, an atheist group is sponsoring an advertising campaign. They're putting their messages on buses, subways, even overhead, with airplanes trailing banners that say something like, "You don't have to believe in God to be a good, moral person."

And the campaign is having some success--encouraging atheists, the article notes, to "come out of the closet" and boast their atheist identity. Further, the campaign is converting others, turning them to belief in non-belief.

The Times asserts that atheism is on the rise.

I don't have anything against atheists personally. I know atheists. And doubtless many of them are good, moral people--their motivation not theistic, but something else, perhaps humanistic.

What I do have against some atheists, however, particularly Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion, and Christopher Hitchens, author of God is Not Great, is that they use the "straw man" argument so often in their attacks on religion.

The straw man is that logical fallacy where one distorts one's opponent's argument and then knock it down effortlessly. In doing so, one looks like a genius.

One of the favorite straw man arguments that atheists make involves citing some terrible thing that religious people did: the Crusades, the Inquisition, Israeli brutality against Palestinians, September 11.

Citing these examples, one then concludes that religion is malign, religious people deluded at best and dangerous or deadly at worst, and one rejects religion.

Arguing this way, atheists easily dismiss religion and religious people and the many contributions they have made to humankind because of their faith commitment.

These contributions include: orphanages, hospitals, and schools; the abolition of slavery, civil rights for oppressed people, and in my Episcopal Church today, a genuine commitment to achieve the Millennium Development Goals, eliminating poverty, disease, and other global curses on humankind.

I'm sympathetic to, even appreciative of atheists.

When I get to know atheists, I usually find some deep hurt, disappointment or disillusionment because we religious people often fail to live what we believe; we Christians, for instance, follow the God of love and yet we do some unloving things to others.

Still, I'm grateful to atheists; they serve an important function for people who believe in God--if we take their critiques of us seriously and then live more fully and faithfully according to the best of our traditions.

Monday, July 20, 2009

The God of surpluses

You've probably heard or read the word "surplus" very little lately in the media, even in the church. We're fixated on budged deficits. At the federal, state, local levels. In our personal, fiscal lives. In our churches or other houses of worship.

There's just not enough money or food or time or whatever it is to go around. So, hold back. Cut back. Conserve your precious, limited resources. Stock your cellar with canned goods and bottled water. In fact, go to your cellar now, because the sky really is falling.

It's time for everyone to fixate somewhere else for awhile, even always. And that's on God.

God reminded me of my need to refocus--off fear--this morning during Morning Prayer and in my reading and study both of the gospel lesson for today, Mark 4.1-20, and in my reading ahead for my sermon this Sunday, John's account in 6. 1-21 of Jesus' feeding of the crowd.

Feeding--or, more broadly, God's meeting our needs as people, as citizens, as the followers of Jesus Christ--comes through faith in God who loves us and by acting in faith.

Faith--I'm continuing to learn, as I did in my prayer with Scripture this morning-- releases God's power to act upon us, within us, through us in the world.

To borrow from the Mark reading this morning, God takes that tiny seed, His word of assurance to us that He loves and cares for us, that word which is received by us in faith, and God makes the word root and grow and bear abundance. That abundance more than meets our needs, whatever they are, however great they are, with a surplus left over.

I rejoice that my God is a God not of deficit thinking and acting, but a God of surplus thinking and acting.

And in His word to me today, I hear Him say, Ken, stop living in fear. Live in faith. Focus on me, not on fear; on my surplus, not on your deficit.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

General Convention 2009 and what's really important

The Episcopal Church is in the news once again because General Convention is under way, and deputies to convention, together with bishops of the church are discussing and debating certain realities and how the church should respond to them.

One reality--"life on the ground," as some people at convention describe it--is human sexuality. Some of us human beings are heterosexual; others are homosexual; and still others are bisexual and transgendered. Some people, reportedly, have no sexual interest or desire at all.

Scientific studies show that a particular sexuality or a range of sexualities is a given in our creation, like skin color. Ultimately, sexuality is a mystery. I can't begin to understand why I'm heterosexual, while friends, church members, others are something else.

Whatever their sexuality, I try to accept people for who they are. Sexuality is not the defining factor or issue for me.

What defines human beings, for me, is not their sexuality, but their character. The kind of people they are and how they live their values and beliefs daily.

What defines Christians, despite a lot of the media coverage of General Convention and the rhetoric and actions of certain groups within the church, is not fundamentally our sexuality, but our relationship with our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

And what defines us is our commitment to Christ, which we show daily by living our baptismal promises, including loving our neighbors, seeking and serving the needy; working for justice, reconciliation, and peace; respecting the dignity of every human being.

At General Convention, we Episcopalians are dealing with many different realities--with what we're meeting on the ground, as it were--sexuality being one reality. Facing and responding to the world as it is, not the world as it used to be or would like it to be, is one of the things I most appreciate about my church.

We face reality, rather than flee it. And we're doing so now, at convention thorugh leglislation, just as secular leglislatures meet, discuss issues and differences, and make decisions, which often involve compromises. In the case of convention, these decisions often become laws or canons.

This is the legislative process that we, the Episcopal Church, developed when we approved our first Constitution and Canons in the 18th century. It's not perfect. What system is?

Ultimately, however, what should guide us as individual Christians and collectively as the church is not canon law; Jesus lived and died and rose again to show that love--self-giving, self-emptying love--should rule us, not law. Love, he teaches, fulfills the law and the prophets.

And love shows itself is working for the very best for others, even suffering and dying for them, whoever they are and whatever their sexuality.

We Christians should stand out before others, especially the skeptics and cynics, by how selflessly and sacrifically we love, especially those with whom we disagree or even dislike, not by whether we win or lose votes and gain the passage or rejection of certain resolutions.

Look at how they love one another should be what people say of us.

God will judge me not on the basis of my sexuality, but on the degree to which I've loved according to the example of Jesus Christ and in His Spirit.

And I believe that's how God will judge the Episcopal Church and every church, too.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Hot


Grand daughter June Elizabeth sees the stove at home and says, "Hot. Hot." She takes a bite of dinner and pronounces it, "Hot. Hot."

I wish the world's leaders would listen to June Elizabeth and do something about the heat. Now.

The majority of the world's leading scientists, along with some world leaders, our president among them, acknowledge that the earth is warming up at an alarming rate, putting my grand daughters--all of us in peril.

And yet, according to The New York Times report today on the G-8 Summit in Italy, world leaders are unable to agree on how to cool off the planet and prevent the ruinious consequences of climate change.

It's hot, and it's getting hotter.

In the past when Penny and I visited Scotland in the summer, we enjoyed cloudy days, a little drizzle or rain, and cool temperatures. But this year, we felt as if we were back home in Missouri in July, sweating through heat, humidity, searing sunshine.

The only relief we found was during our hikes in the mountains. (But for how long will I be able to say that?)

As I stood on the mountain tops of western Scotland and the islands, looking out onto the blue sea and the green slopes below me, I thought about the beauty of God's creation and about the peril that creation faces because of our patterns of wasteful consumption and our over-reliance upon fossil fuels.

(And, yes, Penny and I left a large carbon footprint ourselves in traveling by airplane to Scotland and hiring a car for our first week there and buying grapes from Chile at one of the shops. But we're going to buy carbon credits to compensate for our consumption of fossil fuels.)

June Elizabeth is right. "Hot. Hot." It's time for our world leaders and for everyone else, especially those who still insist that the planet is not endangered, to realize just how hot it is and to turn down the temperature on the stove.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Real celebrity

Penny and I were enjoying breakfast at our hotel on Iona, when one of the guests asked, "Did you hear that Michael Jackson's dead?"

We hadn't.

For days thereafter, the entertainer's death was about the only news the British media reported from America.

I'm saddened by Jackson's tragic death. And tragic life.

He was talented, to be sure, but also tormented by demons. The media reported that he was addicted to drugs, including painkillers, following a stage accident several years ago.

I think he was addicted to something else: celebrity.

From a very early age, Jackson was in the spotlight, performing in front of thousands of fans, applauded for his considerable talent.

Who wouldn't get a rush from such attention? Who wouldn't want more of it? Jackson did. At the time of his death, he was preparing for a come-back concert in London.

Something in him needed the audience's praise, even adoration.

We Americans live in a celebrity-suffused culture. We read about celebrities in supermarket tabloids. We watch America's Got Talent and American Idol and dream of our "15 minutes of fame," as Andy Warhol put it.

But seeking celebrity in the way that so many stars do, including Jackson, is like any other addiction, and addiction is a disease process that results in death, unless it's stopped.

The person addicted to celebrity needs increasing amounts of this drug to sustain his or her high. And he or she devotes more and more time and energy to getting that drug, even at great personal cost.

Why?

The addicted person believes that celebrity is the only thing that will elevate him or her above the ordinary, bringing value and happiness.

Without fame, there is only nothingness, the celebrity-seeker reasons.

And yet celebrity only disappoints. It's an idol in that sense. It delivers only emptiness, hollowness of soul. And in extreme cases, death.

Watch the film, The Wrestler, and see how the pursuit of celebrity slowly erodes a man's relationships, isolates him, and ultimately kills him.

People can and do recover from addictions, including to celebrity, when they acknowledge their addiction, surrender their lives to their Higher Power or God, and commit themselves to recovery.

The Good News is that we don't have to become celebrities in the People magazine sense to have value and to be loved. We're already celebrities. Real ones in God's eyes.

At our creation, Genesis says, God declares us good, very good. Our goodness is in our creation.

And God shows us that He loves us and that we're inherently lovable in Jesus Christ--through His ministry, on the cross, and in His resurrection from the grave.

God pours His love into our hearts in the Holy Spirit.

Nothing, the apostle Paul says, will ever separate us from God's love for us in Jesus Christ. Not sin. Not death. Nothing at all.

To know real celebrity, and the happiness and contenment that come with it, we have only to acknowledge that we're God's beloved children. And live as His children in relationship with Him.

I pray for Michael Jackson, that now, in the presence of God in Heaven, he knows that he is good, is loved,and is at peace.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Conversion


Here on Iona, I've discovered both the Iona Community, an ecumenical Christian community, and its founder, the Rev. George MacLeod, now gone on to join the Communion of Saints in Heaven.

I've read about MacLeod's conversion in a biographical note by Ron Ferguson in his collection, Daily Readings with George MacLeod. While returning by train to the Front in France, MacLeod, an Oxford-educated British officer, had a profound experience of God's loving presence.

He realized that he was heading to "to hell in a hurry," according to Ferguson, and knelt and yielded his life to Christ, which changed his course.

Instead of becoming a barrister or solicitor--he had read law at Oxford--MacLeod trained for the ministry in the Church of Scotland after the war and was ordained. During the Depression, he left a large, important congregation in Glasgow and eventually settled on Iona, off the west coast of Scotland; Iona had been the home of St. Columba, the Christian missionary to Scotland and England during the 6th century.

MacLeod and his followers rebuilt the abbey church on Iona, and he founded the Iona Community, which still works for the spread of the Good News of the God of Love through words and deeds, the deeds being work for justice, peace, reconciliation, and more.

MacLeod, who won the Military Cross for bravery during WW I, became a pacifist after the war and maintained his pacifism throughout his life, including during WW II.

George MacLeod's life could have turned out differently. But he gave up his life and plans to God, and God's will was fulfilled in him. He lived the life that God created him to live. He was converted to Christ.

And through his preaching, teaching, writing, and the work of the Iona Community, he devoted himself to doing God's work--the conversion of others through Christ and the transformation of the world through the Gospel.

I am drawn to George MacLeod and people like him, seeing in their stories the power of conversion.

I sometimes wonder where would my life would be were I not converted to Christ. Had I not one cold January night, as a senior in university, prayed and surrendered my life to Christ, feeling the outpouring of God's palpable love upon me.

I don't know for sure what I'd done or where I'd be, but I'd have likely gone to law school, gone into politics, become a person more interested in power than in service to others and for a better world.

But thanks be to God, I was converted. God finally overtook me by His love, and since that first experience of His love, I've wanted to know His love more and more. I've wanted to be one with Him in love.

This moving toward God in desire for Him is what Thomas Merton--whose conversion has also been a source of inspiration to me--calls continuing conversion to Christ, which is the Christian's everyday calling.

Have you knelt in prayer, surrendered your life to Christ, and begun to live the life not that you intend, but the life that God intends for you to live? May your prayer be this line from the 1982 Hymnal, "Take my life and let it be consecrated, Lord, to Thee."

And live your life as God intends.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Those high places


My dear mother-in-law Norma phoned me a few days ago with a query. She said she had been reading First or Second Samuel--I forget which--when she ran across a reference to "high places" and wondered where the high places of today would be.

Norma, we're visiting one today. It's called Iona, a small island off the coast of western Scotland, where St. Columba, in 563 A.D. along with 12 followers of his, created a monastic community. From here, Columba and his monks ventured forth to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ to England and Scotland.

Columba's monastery is gone now, along with his bones, which were collected as relics and eventually resettled in Downpatrick in his homeland of Ireland; that's where you'll find them today. But near his monastery on Iona, Benedictine monks built a new monastery and abbey church, tall and grand, made of native stone in the Gothic fashion, which became a house of prayer for the praise of God.

Norsemen plundered and ruined the monastery and murdered the monks, and over time, the buildings became little more than ruins, until the late 1930s when an Oxford-educated Church of Scotland minister named George MacLeod founded a new Christian community at Iona, the eponymous Iona Community, which still exists as a vital force for renewing the Church.

The Benedictine abbey church is fully restored--thanks to MacLeod and a group of volunteers--and the Iona Community continues God's work according to MacLeod's vision of deep prayer, cooperation among Christians, inner communion, and social and political action and pacifism (MacLeod won the British Military Cross for extreme bravery during his service in WW I and thereafter became a committed pacifist, even during WWII.)

Last night, Penny and I joined fellow pilgrims and members of the Iona Community for prayer in the abbey church. The church was full of people of all ages, including many, many young people from all Christian denominations. Young people regularly come to Iona for periods of learning about Christ and Christian community.

The service we attended was a healing service; dozens of people went forward and knelt in circles and received the laying on of hands and prayers for healing of body, mind, spirit. Penny and I went forward and prayed for healing for family members. From experience, I know God really does hear our prayers for healing and answers them in ways that are surprising.

Iona is one of those high places, or "thin spaces" in the language of Celtic Christianity, where heaven and earth merge, where God is present in a remarkable and translucent way.

I know God's presence in the gathering of that multitude of Christian pilgrims from so many denominations, in the prayer-saturated walls of the ancient abbey church, in the stunning beauty of this place, with the crystal blue/green sea that surrounds it, the rocky outcroppings trimmed in green moss, the simple, slow, peaceful pace of the island and its people.

I need high places,these thin spaces--be they here on Iona or in my study as I read the Daily Office and meditate in the mornings or in a church. In such a place, I know I am not alone, not without resources for the challenges of life; God is with me. Always,

The high places make it possible for me to live through the low places.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

A psalm a day for spiritual health

Yesterday, I met with our Men's Fellowship at 6.30 am at a local restaurant. We gather on the third Wednesday every month at the same time and place.

We order breakfast, and then I read a short passage from the Holy Scriptures, usually the gospel appointed for the Prayer Book Daily Office, and comment on it, and we pray.

Yesterday, however, I did something different.

Rather that reading from Luke's gospel, I read a portion of Psalm 119. I had read it earlier when I prayed Morning Prayer and found that it spoke to me, especially these verses:

"You are my refuge and shield; my hope is in your word.... Hold me up, and I shall be safe...."

I love the psalms because they spring from the Psalmist's heart. They express where he is on his spiritual journey, along with his faith in the power of God to save, even when besieged by troubles.

The psalms speak to me, help me, and often heal me in my journey with God.

When I'm scared or anxious, the Psalmist understands my feelings and assures me of his confidence in God. When I am beleaguered, the psalmist reminds me that God is my defender. When I'm confused, he tells me I can count on God to direct me.

When I feel God has abandoned me--this is feeling, not fact--the Psalmist cries to God for me, as in Psalm 22 in the words that Jesus Himself prays from the cross: "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me."

In faith, the Psalmist offers up his experiences in prayer to God, and is strengthened and nourished as a consequence, as I am in reading and praying the psalms every day.

Someone wrote that the psalms were Jesus' Prayer Book, and with good reason: the psalms communicated the deepest needs of Jesus' heart and aided His prayer to His Father in Heaven.

When we pray the psalms daily--be they from the Prayer Book Daily Office or ones of our own choosing--we pray with the Psalmist (or more accurately, with the many people of faith whose prayers were collected over time into our Psalter).

And we're praying with Jesus Himself, which is always good for the soul.

Yesterday, in speaking to the Men's Fellowship about the Psalmist's belief in God as his "refuge and shield," I could tell these men knew the battles of daily living and were encouraged by God's word to us.

With a hearty breakfast and God's word, we were ready for the day, whatever might come, for we knew that God was our strong defender. And always will be.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

I remember

I often meet with a group of clergy friends at a local coffeehouse on Wednesday mornings.

Ostensibly, we're there to review the Scripture lessons for the upcoming Sunday and talk about what we hear God the Holy Spirit calling us to preach in a few days.

We spend an hour or so together, talking about books, politics, our lives and ministries and sometimes, our sermons.

Today, one of my friends told of teaching an adult class at his church. The question for discussion was: Who first told you about Jesus?

Most of the class members, he said, were reluctant to speak up. At first, he thought they'd never considered the question, or couldn't remember.

But then after class, many of the class members spoke to him privately, telling him about that person who'd first told them about Jesus--a parent, grandparent, Sunday School teacher.

Perhaps for the first time in 60, 70 or 80 years, these class members were remembering that person and the life-giving difference he or she had made by sharing with them the Good News of God's love in Jesus Christ.

In that moment, Jesus Christ became real and over time, many decades, the reality of God's love for them in Jesus has grown, greatly aided by their membership in their church and in that class.

Who first told you about Jesus?

Whom have you told about God's love in Jesus?

Monday, June 15, 2009

Passion for what we do

My first job after high school was at First National Bank in Louisville.

I started in the mail room and worked my way up and into the computer room as an operator on an IBM mainframe, then into the transit department (the place where checks you write are processed so that your account can be debited), and finally into the branch system, first as a teller and then, after earning my undergraduate degree in history, as a management trainee.

In five years of full and part time work, I learned a lot about banking and business, and I'm grateful for that experience and knowledge. The lessons I learned at the bank helped me in other work I've done, including as a manager at a large public relations agency.

But banking and PR were not my calling, and by calling, I mean something that fires one up with passion (I've known plenty of people for whom business is their calling, which is great. But that wasn't the case for me.).

For me, I needed work in which I felt I could make a difference for the good in people's lives, given my particular gifts, sensibilities, and faith in Christ. I wanted to be one through whom God the Holy Spirit could work for transformation.

I don't mean to sound grandiose, but unless we're working in something that offers us and others that possibility for transformation, then perhaps we should seek other work.

And, God knows, that work might be in banking or PR or at a school or hospital or factory or in the home--but wherever it is, that's where one believes that one is making a contribution to a better world.

This afternoon, I had coffee with a church member who's a wellness coach. This is something that she trained a long time to do. She earned a master's degree in wellness and went through a lengthy certification program to become a licensed coach.

As she spoke with me about her work, she gestured; her voice rose; her eyes brightened; she smiled. She had the enthusiasm of an evangelist who shares with others the Good News of the life-changing love of Jesus Christ.

Chris has found her passion--her Christian vocation--and helping people achieve a greater state of wellness or wholeness, what the Hebrew Bible calls "shalom," is what God intends her to do with her life.

That's what I was missing when I was a banker and PR person, but what I now find in my vocation as a priest: work about which I feel enthusiastic and energetic, work to which I'm devoting my life and which is, at the same time, giving me life, even on those inevitably frustrating days.

Here's to work that fires people up and that transforms lives and the world, even if it's only in some small, even hidden way.