Thursday, November 15, 2012

Thanksgiving for three hundred

In the Gospels Jesus says, and here I paraphrase,  Come, the banquet is prepared for you.

Last night at Christ Episcopal Church, we hosted our annual Community Thanksgiving Meal: turkey, dressing, mashed and sweet potatoes, green beans, rolls and butter, and pies of all kinds, including pumpkin, apple, and pecan. Yummers!

For days we'd issued invitations, including to hungry patrons at Well of Life, the downtown food pantry that is now a Jubilee Ministry of the Episcopal Church. We got the word out through our newsletter, on the church web site, through announcements at church. We spread the word in the neighborhood.

And yesterday afternoon at 3.15pm, people started arriving for the meal. By 5.45pm the cloisters outside the parish hall were full of guests.

One man came in his wheelchair. Some were homeless. Most were poor. Some hadn't had a good meal in a while. Our guests comprised elderly people, teenagers, young parents with their babies. Some of our guests had come last year, others were new to us this year.

Once the doors of the parish hall opened at about 5.45 pm, so many people crowded in that our youth minister and chief meal organizer, Donya Ross, whispered to me, "Say a prayer that we have enough food."

I did. Miraculously, we had enough food,  just barely. (Note for next year: get more turkeys.)

We served more than three-hundred people, including a comparatively small number of parishioners, most of whom had come primarily to help. Other parishioners prepared pans of food and dropped them off all week long.

Virtually the whole youth group turned out to serve food and drinks and to clean and reset tables. I am proud of our young people, who have huge servant hearts.

It was a Christ Church community effort for the good of the larger community.

I enjoyed going from table to table, sometimes with my grand daughter Christa in my arms, welcoming peopleto the church. I did as much visiting as I could, aided in this ministry of hospitality by the parishioners who sat at the tables with our guests.

Many of the guests came up to me and said, "Thank you, pastor. And thanks to your church."

I heard one of our struggling members from the neighborhood say to a friend of his, "This is my church." He beamed with pride.( I did, too.)

In the Gospels, Jesus also says, "Well done good and faithful servants."

Well done people of Christ Episcopal Church. Once more you have responded to the Savior's call, which, as our mission statement puts it, is "To know Christ and to make Christ known."

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Lean on me

In one of the Psalms, the writer says, "The Lord is my strength and salvation...."

Daily, I rely on the Psalms in my spiritual journey. They are like food and drink for this weary soul.

When I am scared, weak, confused, facing darkness of many kinds, I find the Psalmist usually speaking to my heart.

Actually, God is speaking to me in the Psalms (and in other words of the Holy Scriptures), strengthening me.

Medieval wall on Iona
In fact, just the other day, I read one of the Psalms--I can't remember which--wherein the Psalmist affirms "God strengthens" me.

God does the same for me again and again and again.

That strength is his grace or supernatural help. His grace it unseen, usually, except when I receive it in the consecrated Body and Blood of Jesus in the Holy Communion.

Seen or unseen, God's grace is powerful. It excerts the necessary pull or push in me so that I can do what I must do, bear what I must bear, persevere when it would be so easy for me to give up on God, turning instead to my own feckless power, intelligence, will.

Whatever happens, then, I know God will give me his fortifying help. I know it because I believe it.

I make no apology: I need God to lean on.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

A pilgrimage of trust

Jesus is always urging his followers to trust the providence of his heavenly Father. He knows he can.

On the cross, he lets go of self-possession fully and slips into the eternal life of God. His earthly birth, living, and death are acts of his daily surrender to the goodness of God. Jesus knows that God is with him always, and he can count on God always.

I am learning the same lesson again and again--certainly not in the glorious way of the Savior, but in the way that is my own--struggling against the strong winds and high tides of anxiety and fear and stumbling forward, I hope, ever deeper into God's safe embrace.

Iona from the Sound
On Saturday we left the Holy Isle of Iona in Scotland's Inner Hebrides for a long ferry and car trip--some 12 hours by our journey's end: in the Outer Hebrides on the Isle of Harris (home of one of my favorites, Harris Tweed jackets) and Lewis.

Main Street Iona
As we journeyed, I secretly worried--my response to feeling out of control--about making all the tight and complicated transport connections, which included collecting the car before the car hire office closed.

And what shall we do for food, arriving late on Saturday in Harris, after closing time?
What about Sunday, when shops and petrol stations will be shut? Will we find a Scottish Episcopal Church for Sunday worship?

All the while I am worrying, I am also praying. I am putting everything into God's hands. I cannot help my worrying, for I am human, but I can help myself to God through prayer.

As we travel, God is taking care of Penny and me beyond all our expectations. We make all our connections with time to spare. We meet wonderful travel companions along the way. We have time to buy some groceries in Uig before we take the ferry for Tarbert on Harris. We find our Saturday evening meal on board the ferry, thanks to the purser who says we might want to eat on board, because nothing will open in Tarbert. He is right, of course.

We have enough petrol to get to our seaside cottage in Grossebay and are safe on the perilous drive through thick darkness and sheeting rain and gale force winds. We get into the cottage and settle in for the night. Ours is an ancient and sturdy house, a former shepherd's cottage, or bothy, and a metaphor I think for my relationship with God amid the storms of life.

In the morning, which breaks in gloom and rain, we improvise a service of the Holy Eucharist on the kitchen table, Penny's Gordon clan scarf being our fair linen; oat cakes bought in Oban our Communion bread; a cup of champagne from the bottle left by the cottage owner for us, his guests for the week, our Communion wine. Little tea candles provide the light, and a Celtic cross from Iona makes a perfect altar cross.

And thus Christ provides all we need for this holy meal, our Eucharist, our thanksgiving to the God who is always with us, protecting and providing for us and his whole creation.

Monday, August 27, 2012

A different pace

Penny and I have arrived on the Holy Isle of Iona in the western islands of Scotland. We got here late yesterday evening under grey clouds, hinting of rain. The rain came in the early morning, along with gale force winds that tossed the anchored boats on high white waves. From the Hotel Argyll where we are staying the week, I watched the ferry struggle against the fierce wind and waves to deliver its cargo of day tourists and a truck of provisions from the larger and nearby island of Mull. Poet Mary Oliver says poets are people who pay attention. I am slowing down here after two busy weeks of reading, listening, learning at Oxford and am, with the change of pace, paying greater attention to what is happening around me and giving God thanks, howling winds and all.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Same-gender covenant reflects the compassion of Jesus Christ

A TV reporter recently interviewed me about the General Convention's approval of a liturgy for the blessing of a life-long, same-gender covenant. It is a covenant, a sacred agreement and relationship, and not Christian marriage.

A clergy colleague characterized my position as "fence-sitting." I suppose it was.

But when it comes to compassion, I am not sitting on any fence. I want to be on the side of the compassionate Christ.

A couple of Sundays ago, I preached about the compassion of Jesus and  how his compassion, in my view, related directly to the issue of life-long, same-gender covenants.

I said in my sermon that I saw the Episcopal Church responding to reality--that some people are oriented toward people of the same gender--and that this covenant, while not the marriage rite that many people in the church seek, is a compassionate response of the church to the needs of others.

I also said I thought that if Christians err, and that includes the church as an institution, we should always err on the side of compassion. I see Jesus doing that all the time in the gospels, always putting the needs of people before the insitution and the law.

I am proud to be a member of a church that seeks to show Christ's compassion to all people. Regardless. Any other church would be too small for me and a lot of other people.

You can find my sermon, both in manuscript and audio forms, at the church web site,

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

God's grandeur

With praise for English priest/poet Gerard Manley Hopkins, "The world is charged with the grandeur of God. It flames out...." or bursts forth in sweet dark fruit: June blackberries.

Before church today, Penny and I visited a nearby blackberry patch, its whereabouts our secret, and picked a big bowl of fruit. Let me clarify. She picked the berries; I mostly ate them.

Ahh, God is good. Imagine Hopkins's poem, "The Grandeur of God," if only the poet had enjoyed a handful of ripe blueberries.

Or perhaps he did early one Sunday morning and, moved by their sweetness and simple beauty, penned his delicious poem.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Grady Sanford's life: revved up and roaring ahead, even now

Yesterday, I said goodbye to my friend Grady Sanford.

Christ Episcopal Church, Springfield, his former church, was crowded with family, friends, colleagues--people from many different communities whose lives had intersected with and been enriched by his life.

In the Prayer Book Burial Office, we celebrated Grady's life in this world and his life in the world to come.

As a Christian, I believe he lives eternally in the Communion of Saints, for as the apostle Paul writes in Romans, nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, not even death.

So, my goodbye to Grady is only goodbye for now.

Grady died too young. He was just 61 years of age when pancreatic cancer took him.

But he lived his too-few years--abundantly lived them--by his motto: "Seek the joy of being alive."

He retired some ten years ago, and he and his wife Carol moved from Springfield to California, where she entered seminary and began preparing for the priesthood.

Grady shared in and supported Carol's journey through seminary, to ordination, and finally to Kansas City, MO, where the two of them made a good life together.

He served in several ministries at Grace and Holy Trinity Cathedral, volunteered at an animal shelter, drove a bus (an early ambition fulfilled), worked at the boys' camp of his youth in Minnesota, and did much more.

And Grady rode his Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Perhaps he had read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, for he certainly lived the spirit of Robert Pirsig's  classic on motorcyles, philosophy, and life.

Although I read the book in 1976, I still remember Pirsig's writing that he prefers riding his motorcycle to riding in an automobile. On his motorcycle, he feels the wind and rain on his face, but not when he's sealed off from the elements--and from life--by car windows.

How many of us put something between us and living? Not Grady.

When he lived and studied at the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, he used to ride his motorcycle around the Berkley Hills. He rode the way he lived his life--revved up and roaring ahead.

When my wife Penny and I first learned of Grady's illness, we prayed fervently for a miracle. His many friends surely did likewise.

Did God ignore our prayers? No. Despite Grady's decline and death, I still believe God answered our prayers, working a small--or great--miracle in his life.

Grady left hospital and went home, where he got to spend time with Carol, other family members, and friends;  he got to reminisce and to laugh; he got to sit outside and feel the sun on his face; he got to say goodbye.

Would that Grady's time with us had been several decades longer, but thanks be to God, we had the time we did with him.

I'll always remember Grady for the gentle, humble, compassionate, and funny person he was.

I'll remember him for his faith in Christ and witness to him.

I'll remember him for the way he lived--daily seeking the joy of being alive, experiencing it, and sharing that joy with others.

May we all live in that same spirit--revved up and roaring ahead--all our days here.

Goodbye for now, dear Grady.

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Bravo for "Blue Like Jazz"

 Sitting through the first half of the film, "Blue Like Jazz," which is playing at the Moxie in Springfield, I thought, "Oh, no, another attack on Christianity and Christians?"

The movie tells the story of Don, a 19 year-old, and his journey from his evangelical Christian roots in Texas to the anti-God and anti-religious world of Reed College in Portland, Oregon.

The film's satirical swipes at Christianity brought lots of laughter from the audience, including from me, but then, about midway, a shift in tone occurred, when Don finally meets an actual committed Christian at Reed, and not a closeted one.

Penny, the "out" Christian, goes to church--apparently to an Episcopal Church--takes her faith in Christ seriously, and strives to live the life of love that Jesus lives and teaches as the way to life in abundance. Penny spends her Christmas break working with refugees in Kashmir.

She shows Don that it is possible to be a Christian authentically and with integrity, despite Don't own personal experience: Don has just learned that his mother is pregnant by his home church's married youth pastor, who had been his friend. Now, he sees for himself the hypocrisy of the supposedly religious and has all the more reason to join in the rejection of Christianity, so popular among the other college students.

Toward the end of the film, Don has an epiphany, aided by the loving witness of Penny. It takes place in a mock confessional, part of a week on campus of mock-everything-that-is-holy. He realizes that his mother is human, that she needs his love. Love is what true religion is about. Not condemning others who fail to love, but taking responsibility and loving others, as he had been taught for all those years in church.

"Blue Like Jazz" critiques both the wrongs of Christianity and the wrongs of secularism. It takes a lot of punches, too. In the latter case, secularists ridicule what they don't understand and reject what challenges their secure world view--that science, for instance, is the sole source of meaning and value. There's a terrific scene in the film where an atheist and a theist debate, Does God exist? Yes, he does, I could almost hear Don say.

More significantly, those who reject and condemn faith might do so because of deep hurt and disappointment. This is the case for the Pope, Don's friend at Reed, who has been chosen by the students to speak for God for the year. Ironically, the Pope is an atheist and is vehement in his attacks on God, Christianity, the church, and especially on the Roman Catholic Church, because as a child, he was raped by a priest in the sacristy. (The Pope and Don put a giant condom on a church steeple and post a sign that says, "Don't reproduce.")

I understand the Pope--of the film, that is. (The other one is a complete mystery to me.) In the Roman Catholic Church of my childhood and adolescence, I experienced deep and lasting physical and emotional abuse, although, thank God, never sexual abuse. As a consequence, I have great sympathy, even empathy, for people who have been hurt deeply by religious people--people who were supposed to show others the love of God in Jesus, but who hurt them instead. I understand why they reject the abusive institution. (Jesus knows something about being abused--crucified, actually--by religious people.) One reason I am a priest is to try to show others that God is love. To give God and his followers a good name.

At the end of the film, Don has come to reconsider his rejection of Christianity. Now, he's the new Pope, succeeding his friend. He speaks for God now. Don sits in his mock confessional, listening to the old Pope tell of the abuse he suffered in that sacristy, and Don says, "I'm sorry." And he goes on saying, "I'm sorry" for God to everyone who visits him in the confessional and has a story of hurt to tell.

Yes, Christians have done stupid and cruel things, and will likely go on doing them, because we're tragically flawed--imperfect. Don realizes this truth. He sees his own sin, I think.

Sinners though we are, God goes on loving all of us and hoping that one day we'll understand who God is--love; God tried to get that message across in his son. God goes on hoping that one day, even today, we'll start to live the way he wants us to live, which is the way of radical unconditional love.

God doesn't want to be blue forever, because of what we people who believe in him do to one another and to others. God thinks the best of us, that one day, we his children, will make God proud.

While the secularists at the movie version of Reed College and elsewhere sneer at all things and all people religious, this is one Christian who will go on trying to do his best for Christ, with the Spirit helping me; and saying, with Don, "I'm sorry" for my and others sins of omission and commission.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Hope for the hurting

I have read a lot about PTSD or post traumatic stress disorder--it's a particular interest of mine--and in the course of nearly every week, I meet someone who has experienced some profound physical, emotional or spiritual trauma--and, most often, all three.  Sometimes, the people I meet are combat veterans of recent wars; others have survived rape and incest and other violent attacks.

I am moved by their stories and suffer with them. I want to take away their pain, but know that they have to work through the pain themselves and reconcile themselves to it somehow. It's a long and difficult process, and some people survive it, but others don't.

Yesterday, I read an encouraging article in the New York Times Sunday Magazine about people who are dealing with PTSD. The US Army has devoted some $25 million to caring for people with PTSD in the field and at home.

With the help of psychiatrists, psychologists, and researchers, among others, the Army has created a program for teaching soldiers how to develop "mental strength" or "resiliency" in surviving and even growing from the horrors of war. The program seems to be working.

One of the important discoveries is that PTSD can become Post Traumatic Stress Growth. This change happens when the traumatized person approaches the event--be it a roadside bombing and the loss of a limb or the death of a friend in combat-- as something from which he or she can learn and can grow, something that will help him or her become a stronger and better human being.

Yes, it sounds simple. But, no, it isn't. It's hard, painful, agonizing work.

The lessons that soldiers are learning today are similar to those that people in civilian life have been learning for a long time as they have confronted the traumas of sexual assaults, other violent acts, the tragic and sudden loss of loved ones, and much more.

Millennia ago, a man called Joseph learned the same lessons. Genesis tells the story of how Joseph was the favored son of his father, how his position in the family prompted his jealous brothers to plan to kill him, but then to sell him into slavery. Both bad and good things happen to Joseph in slavery and in Egypt.

Over many years, Joseph becomes second only to Pharaoh himself in power in Egypt. Joseph meets his brothers again. They have come to Egypt looking for food to feed their starving families, and Joseph, whom they don't recognize, treats them well and gives them food. When he reveals himself to his brothers, and they are astonished by his gracious treatment of them, Joseph says to them of the hurt they had done to him, "You meant it for evil, but God meant it for good."

Joseph is a resilient person. With God's help, he responds to the trauma of being betrayed by his brothers, becoming a generous and forgiving person, a savior of starving multitudes in his homeland.

As Joseph and as many people since then have discovered, tragic and traumatic things don't have to wreck us, but can raise us up to become more than the worst thing or things that have every happened to us.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Celebrating 25 years of priesthood

The people of Christ Episcopal Church, Springfield, MO, joined me yesterday, the Second Sunday of Lent,  to celebrate the 25th anniversary of ordination to the priesthood.

My actual ordination date was the Feast of St. David, patron saint of Wales, March 1. On that date in 1997, Bishop David Reed of Kentucky ordained me to the priesthood at Christ Episcopal Church, Bowling Green, KY.

On my anniversary, I renewed my ordination vows at the Holy Eucharist at 9 am, which was followed by a beautiful reception in the parish hall.

I am grateful to the several parishioners who made it possible. They organized and publicized it. They set up the tables and spread the table cloths. They contributed the food and gorgeous spring flowers. They served the food and drinks and welcomed people.

As I said in my remarks in the parish hall, there have been many highs and lows over more than two decades of priesthood, but, on the whole, the former outweigh the latter.

Just the day before, I said,  I started the morning watching four short films at the Moxie with a group of preschoolers from church. Afterwards, we worked on crafts in the lobby. It was fun. I love the energy of the children and helping to foster the Christian faith in them.

Then, later Saturday morning, I visited with high school students from throughout the diocese who were spending the weekend at Christ Church. They were taking part in Happening, a spiritual renewal experience.

I listened to a young woman's testimony about the importance of Christ in her life. (Later on at the closing Eucharist on Sunday afternoon, I was again moved, hearing participants share their experiences of Christ over the weekend.) It is a delight to see faith coming alive in the young.

These experiences are among the joys of being a priest, and I hold onto them. They are highs that help me endure the lows.

In his famous poem, Robert Frost writes of the "road not taken." A long time ago, I could have taken a different road--a military officer, a banker, a lawyer and politician, a journalist, a partner in the public relations firm (and I did take several of those roads for a time).

But priesthood was the road I chose ultimately, or rather, that chose me. God chose it for me and called me to walk it. I have done so now for more than two decades.

I trust that this is the road God created me to walk, and that when I reach the end of it--a long, long time from now, I pray--I will look back and say, "Thank God, I took this road. And thank God, I remained on it, for this road has led me into a life of purpose, value, and joy."

Tuesday, February 7, 2012


Penny and I sat in the dark cinema the other night, hoping people would settle down. They talked and laughed through the music, through the commercials and previews and, forebodingly, into the first seconds of the feature, "The Artist." We hoped the audience would settle down for the film, a silent one--and they did.

What is it about silence? Perhaps it is like a vacuum, and you know the saying: nature abhors a vacuum. And perhaps humans abhor silence. So, we pop in the ear buds and listen to music or the news as we exercise; we turn on the car radio and sing along; we wriggle in worship when there is one of those rare pauses.

We fill the silence, which is too bad. I like to be quiet. Perhaps it is because my Christian spirituality has been formed by the monastic tradition, which embraces silence and delights in it, because when there is silence, instead of my rushing in to fill it with words and sounds, or asking someone else to do the same, God will fill the silence for me with his presence.

His presence is sometimes a word-filled one--his words, not mine--or it may be a wordless presence, a feeling of deep peace or contentment or reasurrance. God knows what I need in the moment.

Early the other morning, as I was walking, I stopped thinking, stopped planning, even stopped praying. And I stilled my soul within me, as the psalmist puts it, and I let the silence of that new morning fill me up. As I drew the chilly air into my lungs, I imagined that I was breathing in the silence. And I did. With it came a deep and healing peace. And I was ready again for a world of words and sounds. And looking forward to the silence once more.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

By headlights you shall find him

It's Ephiphany, that season of God's lighting up the world in Jesus.

Remember the gospel story of how the star leads the three wise men to the baby Jesus?

They see him and worship him, who is born to be the king of love and to reign in love, which initiates a new world of justice, freedom, and peace.

The wise man rise from their worship and go home praising God and telling others what they have seen, God in flesh. 
Ah, the wonder and awe of that moment.

Yesterday, a good friend from England wrote me, telling me that he had returned to church after a long absence. He was, is, drawn to church because of the music.

His return happened this way. His son had lost his mobile phone along the foothpath by the village church, and so he phoned up the vicar and asked him to look for the phone.

The vicar obliged and, by the light of his car's headlights, searched for the lost mobile. He rang my friend's house, telling his wife that he was unable to locate the phone.

The vicar said the family could recompense him by coming to church, which my friend and his wife did, attenting a Christmas choral service.

And so my friend is back in church and writing me with the news for which I rejoice.

The vicar's headlights have led him back into the light of Christ.

Thanks be to God.