Monday, November 30, 2009

A Plea for Peace from The Episcopal Church of Sudan

Anglican Communion News Service: Statement from the Episcopal Church of Sudan

The Diocese of South Dakota has a significant relationship with this African Province. A Sudanese congregation worships at Church of the Holy Apostles, Sioux Falls, and Bishop Robertson ordained a Priest and a Deacon that they raised up.

The Diocese also supports Rebuilding South Sudan Through Education, which has a Sudanese-American man build a school, fresh water well and mill in his home town.

Please pray for a just peace for the people of The Sudan.

SD's Senators split as Health Care Bill debate opens

This afternoon the U.S. Senate takes up H.R. 3590, The Patient Protection and Affordability Act.

Senator Tim Johnson (D) is supportive.

Senator John Thune (R) opposes the bill as written.

Burnt out by church?

One possible diagnosis is here. Short and well worth the read. It might help you or might give you insight to help someone else.

"To put it bluntly, it feels better to have some earthly happiness as a pagan and then be damned than it feels to be trying every day as a Christian to do something that is one continuous failure — and then be damned anyway."

h/t Sarah at Stand Firm.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Happy 18th, Tim Fountain

Nah, not me. Our son.

May anything good Christ gave him through mom & dad outweigh our flaws.

May the Lord bless and prosper Tim's life now and forever.

(Yes, he made the cat wear a football helmet. Deal with it.)

A thanks-be-to-God! moment

We've been working to refresh and build up our children's ministry on Sundays. We've had a rotating team (all women - and gifted!) and been working to coordinate the kids' activities with the sermon theme of the week.

I've been joking around about men discovering the gift of teaching, and lo and behold the Advent/Christmas schedule sports two guys to work into the rotation.

Also, one of the church men has become fired up to challenge the other guys to deeper discipleship, and has already "reenlisted" a couple of guys who were drifting toward inactivity.

In other congregations I've served, the involvement of the men has led to renewal in the whole church. Most gratifying are the stories of renewal in families as this picks up momentum.

So, thanks be to God!

Advent: Now and Then


By the waters of Babylon we sat down and wept, when we remembered you, O Zion.

As for our harps, we hung them up on the trees in the midst of that land.

For those who led us away captive asked us for a song,and our oppressors called for mirth:
"Sing us one of the songs of Zion."

How shall we sing the LORD'S song upon an alien soil?

Psalm 137:1-4


O what their joy and their glory must be,
those endless Sabbaths the bless├Ęd ones see;
crown for the valiant, to weary ones rest:
God shall be All, and in all ever blest.

Hang in there, friends.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

"Pastoral Care" - one size don't fit all, but showing up goes a long way

Sioux Falls has two large medical centers, and people are flown in for care from all over South Dakota and surrounding states.

Frequently, Episcopal Clergy in Sioux Falls assist with pastoral visits to church members from the Reservations. The Mission clergy are hours away and have heavy pastoral responsibilities as it is, so it is a humbling honor to share even a bit of their work for the Lord.

It is a learning experience. The models of medical and spiritual care we use as White people don't apply as well with the Lakota/Dakota folks. A few examples:
  1. Decision making. Our White cultural model has the medical staff turn to one key person (spouse, usually) to make a decision - preferably by quick reference to a previously checked box on a form. There is some family consultation, and maybe the clergy person is asked a moral or other question, but our culture and law look for a designated person to "make the call" ASAP. For the Tribal culture, decisions are communal and there is an elaborate network of relatives who should have input, even if that takes some time and phone tag. Grandmothers, "Aunties" and other relatives, established by marriage connections and Tribal ceremony as well as by blood, are essential to this decision making.
  2. Clergy role. White culture places a higher value on the priest as counselor. Choosing the "right words," emotional presence and attentiveness to each individual are priorities. Tribal culture places a higher value on the power of ceremony - the priest as sacramentalist. Willingness to show up, the Church's words of prayer and God's presence via the sacraments are valued.
  3. Family/community. White culture is more compliant with hospital concepts like "immediate family only." We tend to shuttle individuals or couples in and out of the room, with maybe a small group gathered for prayer at key moments. Tribal culture sees "family" more broadly, and keeps larger groups present - sometimes to the discomfort of hospital staff. I recently shared Holy Communion with a group of 25 Reservation Mission people at a patient's bedside (the staff were really wonderful in accommodating this). The patient's adopted brother was a Lay Reader at their Mission, so I had an altar team right there in the room. The circle of extended family spontaneously offered a hymn in Lakota and several people offered up prayers - it was a church service larger and more elaborate than my parish's usual Sunday 8 a.m. gathering!

Of course there are the signs of our common humanity:

  1. Loved ones travel many miles and hours to be with the sick and dying. Be it carloads of relatives from the Reservation or a career woman flying in from the coast, they come.
  2. The words that mean the most. "I love you." "I will miss you." "Thank you for..." These and other words from the heart are not bound by culture - they are native to descendants of Crazy Horse and Leif Ericson alike.
  3. The presence of children brings comfort.
  4. Hand holding, hair stroking and other touching. Intuitively, this takes over for our limited words.
  5. Tears.
  6. Sharing memories that stir up laughter and gratitude.

There's signs and then there's signs...

Lessons for Advent look both back and ahead. They look back, with thankful wonder, at the prophecies and signs that preceded Jesus' birth. They look ahead, with anxious hope, to the promise that "He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end."

The readings for Advent I (this Sunday, November 29), especially the Gospel, are of the "look ahead" kind. "There will be signs in the sun, the moon and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves."

More often than I can remember at any other time in my twenty-plus years of ordained ministry, people are asking "Do you think we are in the last days?" Unexpected people are asking this - people I would characterize as thoughtful and even-tempered are asking them just as much as people who seem more subjective and emotive.

It is not surprising, on the one hand, to hear such questions in a time of social instability and global, real-time connection. Our lack of social certainties certainly baits the hook for "end of the world" movies like The Day After Tomorrow and 2012.

In all honesty, I am not the best resource on Biblical apocalyptic scenarios. My position tends to be, "Sure, some day somebody is going to say 'It's the end!' and be right - but look at all the discredit and ridicule brought upon our faith by past claims to know Christ's exact schedule." In South Dakota, it was just such a scenario, blending Christian apocalyptic preaching with Lakota traditions, that established the Ghost Dance and precipitated the Wounded Knee Massacre.

So I am not at all well versed in the various "end times models." I learn their dense vocabulary now and then in order to teach a class, but promptly forget most of it after the class ends.

For a Christian, the key to readiness for the Day of the Lord is day to day discipleship, endeavoring to serve Christ in every moment while praying "Thy kingdom come. Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." Back to this Sunday's Gospel: "Be alert at all times, praying that you may have the strength to escape all these things that will take place, and to stand before the Son of Man." The three judgement day" parables of Matthew 25 are about spiritual preparation, brave use of God-given gifts, and compassionate service toward others - in other words, a lifestyle alert to Christ at all times - well before he comes to judge. If you are "seeing the signs" and only then recognizing Christ, it's probably too late.

This Sunday's New Testament Letter also encourages sincere discipleship now as the way to security "then." Paul describes people receptive to God and invested in one another: "And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you. And may he so strengthen your hearts in holiness that you may be blameless before our God and Father at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints."

Gregory the Great, who launched missionary efforts that were formative of Anglican Christianity, talked about the limits of supernatural signs in a sermon on Mark 16:17-18:

These are the signs that will follow those who are to believe: in my name they will cast out demons, they will speak in new tongues, they will pick up snakes, and if they drink any deadly thing it will not harm them; they will lay their hands on the sick who will recover.

My friends, since you do not perform these signs, does it mean that you do not believe? These signs were necessary at the church's beginning. For the faith of believers to grow it had to be nourished with miracles. When we plant trees, we water them until we see they have taken root in the ground; once established we stop the watering. This is why Paul said that signs are for unbelievers, not believers.

Let us take a closer look at these signs and wonders. Every day the church works in the spirit what the apostles once did in the flesh. When its priests lay their hands on believers through the gift of exorcism, forbidding evil spirits to dwell in their hearts, what else are they doing but casting out demons? And what else are we doing when we leave behind the language of the world for the words of the sacred mysteries, when we express as best we can the praise and power of our Creator, if not speaking in new tongues? When we remove malice from another's heart by our good word are we not, so to speak, picking up serpents? And when we hear the wisdom of the world, but choose not to act on it, surely we have drunk poison and survived. As often as we catch sight of our brother or sister stumbling on life's path, and we gather round them with all our strength, and support them by our presence, what are we doing buy laying our hands upon the sick to heal them? Surely these miracles are all the greater because they are spiritual; they are all the more significant since it is the heart and not the body which is being restored.

My friends, by God's power you can perform these same signs, if you choose to. Such outward signs cannot bring forth life, but life can come from those who do them. Physical miracles sometimes demonstrate holiness but they can never create it, whereas the healing of the soul bestows life even if it is not evident to the senses. While even the wicked can do the former, none but the good can perform the latter. Hence Truth said that many will say to me on that day, Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, cast out demons in your name, do many mighty deeds in your name? Then I will say to them, I do not know you; depart from me you workers of iniquity.

My friends, do not love signs which even the wicked are capable of performing. Instead, love the miracles of love and devotion that I have just described. The more hidden they are, the safer they are; the less glory that comes our way from others because of them, the greater our recompense in the presence of God.

And that idea of recompense - reward - can heal us of the special effects havoc of 2012 or the blood 'n' guts emphasis of some "end times" preaching. Christ's return is good news. "Apocalypse" means uncovering - the good, the true and the beautiful will be revealed and established forever. As the Lord will tell us again this Sunday (assuming he hasn't returned by then), "Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."

Friday, November 27, 2009

Christian nation?

KELO AM's Greg Belfrage devoted part of his Wednesday morning air time to the question, "Is America a Christian nation?"

Most answers to that question seem to cherry pick quotes from the Founders - pious quotes to infer a "Yes" and Deist/unorthodox quotes to infer a "No."

I think that the Constitution was framed by leaders whose world view, values and common language were shaped by the Christian Bible - but who left ultimate questions of human destiny to the intersection of individual conviction and religion/philosophy rather than government.

So, if "Christian nation" means a government set up to propagate the Gospel of Christ - my answer would be "No."

But if you mean a nation built on Christian assumptions about reality - my answer would be "Yes."

Ah, how Anglican. A "Yes and No" answer. But here are some of the assumptions from which America might be described as a Christian nation:

  1. Recognition that humanity is not and cannot be perfect (depravity of man, original sin, fallen nature). Reading The Federalist Papers reveals the reasoning leading up to Constitutional "checks and balances" and other decentralizations of power. The Founders, without using the specifically Christian theological language, assumed a world in which people would inevitably seek to coerce and exploit one another. Majorities would bully minorities. Elitist factions would selfishly manipulate the majority. This is why statists and Utopians (and Utopian statists) tend to be non-, nominal or heterodox Christians. Once one rejects notions of inherent sin, one rejects a political system designed to frustrate the worst excesses of the fallen race.

  2. Affirmation of individual value apart from the collective. True, the Founders (being sinful humans, after all!) missed the mark when it came to the treatment of all kinds of souls who were not white male landowners. But their own values became the source of national critique and reform. Just as Jesus spoke the radical affirmation that, "The Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath" (Mark 2:27), America was founded upon the idea that government exists to protect the rights of the individual, rejecting traditional views of the individual as a resource for the honor of the state, race or tribe or even a national god and religion.

  3. Conviction that human value is God-given, not governmentally defined. The Bible frequently asserts the nobility of the "smallest" human being over/against the high and mighty of the world. Christ himself takes a wretched form while on trial before theocrats and bureaucrats. Some of our legal rights under Articles IV thru VIII of the Constitution rest on this foundation.

Certainly, these assumptions can be (and have been) divorced from Christian theological language - and the Constitution supports this by prohibiting "establishment of religion." Yet denial and ignorance of the Christian antecedents to our freedoms is a sure way to erode the liberty we enjoy. Willful ignorance of Christian foundations - especially the Founders' assumption that our rights derive from a transcendent source - assures the acceptance of secular myths designed to exploit individuals as fodder for "isms" and "ologies."

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

May Christ be your guest. May you rest from anxiety and, by faith, enjoy true Sabbath as God cares for all your needs. May you know that the world is not on your shoulders and that the universe is yours to enjoy through the one who was in the beginning.

"All things are yours... the world or life or death or the present or the future—all are yours, and you are of Christ, and Christ is of God." I Corinthians 3:21-22

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Some good news on the clergy front... always room for more!

Back in May, I blogged about Bishop Tarrant's attentiveness to South Dakota's clergy deployment needs. This is not any easy place to recruit or retain clergy.

Thanks be to God, there have been several calls issued and clergy deployed here in recent months. These include:
  • Rita Powell, Diocesan Youth Ministries Coordinator (just had her first child!)
  • Ryan Hall, Rector at St. Paul's, Brookings (hmmm... first child recently born in that family, too!)
  • Ward Simpson, newly installed Dean at Calvary Cathedral, Sioux Falls
  • Stanley Wooley, recently retired, has moved here to serve the congregation of Trinty, Winner.
If you want to explore ministry opportunities in the Diocese of South Dakota, you can get in touch with the Diocesan offices at , the website is , and the phone is 605-338-9751. Mail goes to
500 S. Main Avenue
Sioux Falls, SD 57104-6814. The Rev. Canon David Hussey is clergy deployment officer. He notes the following current openings:
  • Trinity, Pierre, where Bishop John Tarrant was most recently Rector. Pierre is the State Capitol. It is a small city of about 10,000. The parish has excellent facilities and good ecumenical relationships, including a Wednesday night youth program shared by a surprising array of denominations. Good interfaith support system. Also good collaborative ministry with Reservation congregations. (This position is on the national positions open bulletin).
  • Also on the bulletin is a full time Vicar for the Yankton Reservation Mission, based in Wagner. The needs on specific Reservations are often in flux, so check the bulletin for the most current expectation of the position.
  • Here in Sioux Falls, a bi-vocational Anglo-Catholic Vicar is sought for Church of the Holy Apostles.

Monday, November 23, 2009

The Rosebud Episcopal Mission's Christmas Toy Drive

From their Facebook page:

Each year our Mission hosts a large Chtistmas party for the community. We are asking anyne who is able to donate toys for this event. We would love new toys, such as games, puzzles, coloring books and boxes of crayons, and Nerf type sports equipment. Gently-Used toys especially, vinyl Barbie or Bratz-type dolls or My Little Ponies. We would also love to get our hands on clothes and accessories for these. Used stuffed animals are fine...we have some folks who are pros at cleaning them.

If you are shipping vis The US Postal Service: The Rosebud Episcopal Mission, P.O. Box 188, Mission, SD 57555. If you ship via ground carrier, such as UPS or FedEx: The Rosebud Episcopal Mission, Bishop Hare Center, 1 Bishop Hare Road, Mission, SD 57555.

Sunday, November 22, 2009

Letter to local paper shows how "the agenda" undercuts leaders

The Sioux Falls Argus Leader published an interview with Bishop John Tarrant just before his consecration last month. There was much that was commendable: reporter Sheri Levisay asked about the real challenges of a widespread diocese, it's small congregations, and of the church's response to high suicide rates and other afflictions on the Tribal Reservations.

But toward its end, the published version of the interview takes a predictable turn:

[Gay clergy

How does the church deal with internal dissent on this issue, particularly with the African churches?

Tarrant: At the General Convention every three years, sexuality becomes the only issue people are paying attention to, unfortunately. The great question, not only for the Episcopal Church, is: How are we a global presence? We're part of an Anglican Communion. How do we live that part in a very diverse world? How do we honor the diversity, and when we talk about issues like marriage ... there has been image paradigm for marriage for centuries and centuries and centuries in many different cultures. And so when you talk about changing that, that's not a little thing.

Question: What do you think the church needs to do as the culture changes?

Tarrant: The difficulty is, when you look at marriage, for much of history, it had a lot to do with property, and then it came around the protection of children, too. It's not so much about property, and it's not so much, even, about the protection of children anymore. So I think culturally, we need to really look at what is marriage is about. That's what the culture needs to do.]

(Note: Before you start screaming and typing, remember that the media doesn't do a very good job reporting on religion. Visit Get Religion for some great analysis of media misreporting and cluelessness. Understand that reporters - and their editors - decide which snippets of interviews will be published and which will be, um, left out.)

Bishop Tarrant is very conflicted about how the church should respond to homosexuality. During the question and answer gatherings prior to his election, he was unable to state a position when asked about same-sex unions and gay clergy, saying "I don't know where my mind is on this" and "I don't have a sharp answer for this."

But notice how the interviewer (or editors, to be fair) left out whatever Bp. Tarrant had to say about "internal dissent" in the church (which is in the reporter's question). Yes, we get his understanding of the global implications, which is good, but having spoken with the Bishop and heard him speak in other settings, I can tell you that he is very cognizant of the abominable treatment of Episcopalians who hold the traditional Biblical teaching on human sexuality.

The newspaper chooses instead to repeat various phrases asserting that marriage is a "cultural" phenomenon that is always changing, mainly over property entitlements. (The argument confuses the cultural habits of spouse selection and property rights, which do in fact evolve within and across cultures, with the constant Christian teaching that the male-female bond reflects the image of God and is to be honored among all people. At a more common sense level, it is absurd to think that a struggling husband and wife have discussions like, "Whatever shall we do to uphold the social order against those not like us?" Please.)

In other words, the journalists play down John Tarrant's empathy for traditional Christians and play up his familiarity with revisionist arguments - to the point of aligning him as a chaplain to one side.

On November 12, a letter of response appeared in the Argus Leader, taking the published interview at face value:

['Water down the Gospel'

Rev. (sic) John Tarrant, in keeping with the new effort to change the New Testament proclamations regarding marriage, asserts that through much of history it had to do with property and the protection of children.

The implication of his statement implies that we need to redefine marriage, since those functions are not as important anymore. In that marriage was instituted while mankind was tribal and property and the care of children was a mutual affair (sic). It would suggest that marriage between a man and a woman had a broader purpose than property and the care of children (Read Matthew 19:4), and nothing which has transpired since has changed that broader purpose.

Mainline churches will continue to lose membership as they continue to water down the Gospel to gain the approval of popular culture.

The founders of the faith and those that followed went against popular culture and even changed the mindset of the most powerful entity of the ancient world, the Roman Empire, and what had been the enemy of Christianity became its champion.

Daniel Johnson, Watertown]

By seeking the strokes of culture elites, the Church undercuts its own leaders, even moderates like Bp. Tarrant. They must expend excruciating amounts of time and energy answering for a small faction's interests and perceived entitlements. They must ignore or at least render secondary pressing issues among the people they are called to shepherd. They lose relationships - with clergy, lay people and ecumenical neighbors - and gain for the church nothing more than a passing wave from those who despise it.

The main thing to notice in the interview with Bishop Tarrant is that the published version makes the church a chaplaincy to the culture elite. That's what the culture elite wants at best; at worst, it sees the church as a doddering old relative that will soon be gone.

When we bow to the elitists' agenda, we silence our true voice. We completely miss the point of this week's Gospel. Standing on trial before the cultural power brokers, Jesus says, " kingdom is not from here... For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice."

Saturday, November 21, 2009

ALERT: Custer killed! Wild Bill Hickok shot in Deadwood! And...

And in that same pile of breaking news, I found that back in March, The Standing Committee of the Diocese of South Dakota voted "no" on consent for the consecration of K.T. Forrester as Bishop of Northern Michigan. (Scroll down to p. 16 at the link).

Thank you to all who took part in a nation wide discussion of a controversial issue, and especially to those who signed the South Dakota letter urging denial of consent.

Do you follow THE King, or just some wannabee?

It's Christ the King Sunday!

Leadership on Heaven's Terms

"Our Lord said to his disciples, See, I am sending you out like lambs among wolves. Many, when they are put in a position of authority, are eager to tear their subordinates to pieces, showing only the alarming side of power, and hurting those they are called to serve. So eager are they to be in control that there is no love in their hearts, and they forget that they are called to nurture others. They turn from humility to pride and dominance, and if they sometimes stoop to flatter those around them they are full of rage inside. Our Lord says of them in another place that they come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ravenous wolves.

Against all this, remember that we are sent like lambs among wolves. Those who undertake the pastoral office should not be the cause of suffering but rather endure it. By their gentleness they can then allay the anger of the violent. Being wounded ourselves by ill-treatment, we can heal the wounds of other sinners. If our zeal for justice ever requires us to show anger, let it spring from love rather than brutality. Then discipline is honored, and we have in our hearts a parent's love for those we are chastising."

St. Gregory the Great (John Leinenweber trans.)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Lord's Prayer and Last Things

The first half of the Church worship year looks back in thankful celebration for God's action in human history, in particular the life and earthly ministry of Jesus Christ. The second half emphasizes the Church's continuation of Jesus' work, by the power of the Holy Spirit.

This coming Sunday, the last of the Church year, is called Christ the King. As I will preach, it is emphatically forward looking. It looks out beyond the confines of time with hope for an eternity of unmeasurable abundance and joy, of life so perfected in love that there is no room for anything less.

It is a good time to remind ourselves of the forward looking first half of our hastily mumbled Lord's Prayer.

Our Father, who art in heaven,
We are exercising a citizenship that makes us aliens in our world. In the Kingdom of Heaven, everything recognizes and responds to the love of God. But we live in a creation where large parts ignore, reject or actively rebel against this love. When we speak allegiance to the Father in heaven, we assert our primary loyalty and subversively seek to expand the authority of that kingdom.

Hallowed be thy Name.
As we will hear in Sunday's lessons, God is "Alpha and Omega," the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. God is the whole enchilada, kittenkaboodle, or any other perfection and completion beyond our earthly measures. In Sunday's Gospel, Pontius Pilate cannot make sense of Jesus - the worldly power and authority that Pilate understands are inadequate to understanding the one who stands before him. God "was and is and is to come," not limited by any of our concepts of time. All we can do is wonder and worship.

Thy kingdom come.
We ask for it every time we say this little prayer. We don't passively wait for some magical numerology of dates, or the Mayan calendar to end or the enlightened space aliens to come or any of the other scenarios of a "rational, scientific, post-Christian" world. We ask Christ to return as King and make all things new. It is a blunt petition that ends with a period. Nothing more, nothing less will do.

Thy will be done,
On earth as it is in heaven.

We are willing to let go of our self-will and vaunted autonomy to enjoy citizenship in that perfect kingdom, which cannot be created by human striving but only by unadulterated response to the will of God. We want the whole world - the whole cosmos - to be restored to this perfection.

Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses,
As we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation,
But deliver us from evil.

Sunday's lessons tell us that Christ has made the Church a "priesthood" until he returns to make all things new. The Church is the "steward of the mysteries of Christ" until the kingdom comes. Priests live on voluntary offerings - the Church depends on the "daily bread" that God provides. Priests are to pronounce God's mercy to people - the Church must be made up of people who are thankful for God's mercy and spread it in daily life. Priests intercede for the people - the Church must be in constant prayer for the kingdom to expand and liberate more and more from the power of sin and death.

As we will hear in Sunday's lesson from the first chapter of The Revelation to John:

“To him who loves us and freed us from our sins by his blood, and made us to be a kingdom, priests serving his God and Father, to him be glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.”

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Rosebud Mission has a Facebook group...

If you use Facebook, this will be a good place to learn more about the Reservation ministry in South Dakota. The Spruhan family have put in years of faithful service on the Rosebud, and Fr. Webster Two Hawk is the senior priest in the Diocese, ordained a Deacon in 1957 and a Priest in 1958.

In the Facebook search, type in "The Rosebud Episcopal Mission."

Monday, November 16, 2009

Are boomers and young adults all that different, spiritually?

I am fortunate to have a college campus minister in my congregation. She keeps me up on fresh research and perspective. Last week, she shared insights from Lost in Transition, Christian Smith's look at the spirituality of young adults.

One of the author's statements in an interview reveals little difference between young adults and my own baby boom generation:

"Most emerging adults view religion as training in becoming a good person. And they think they are basically good people. To not be a good person, you have to be a horrible person. Therefore, everything's fine."

Compare that with today's Morning Prayer lesson:

And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Also another book was opened, the book of life. And the dead were judged according to their works, as recorded in the books. And the sea gave up the dead that were in it, Death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and all were judged according to what they had done. Then Death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. This is the second death, the lake of fire; and anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.
Revelation 20:12-15

Do we believe that the "first death," the "natural death" we must all face is a consequence of humanity's sin and estrangement from God?

Do we believe that Jesus Christ is "taking names" of those who will follow him through this first death into eternal life?

Do we believe that there is a "second death" that is eternal torment hopelessly separated from God's new creation?

Or are we all sold on (and preaching) a therapeutic religion, in which the first death is to be ignored (science or positive thinking will eventually overcome it), and in which eternal joy is an entitlement for all but the "Hitlers" of the world, so there's no "Book of Life" to worry about?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Happy news to share on the family front...

Our older son just got a phone call of acceptance from the South Dakota School of Mines & Technology. His field of interest is Metallurgy, and "Mines" is an excellent school with high quality faculty, low teacher-student ratio, and excellent career placement. They just received a multimillion dollar research grant from the Dept. of the Navy, and have some exciting resources like a lab built into the historic Homestake Mine.

Tim also has applications in with MIT, Penn State and Ohio State. What an exciting time in his life and ours.

Evidently switched at birth and not hobbled by my genetic material, he was elected to Homecoming Court (almost elected King), and just got back from a successful hunt with two good sized wild turkeys. This will be our first Thanksgiving with the game bird on the table (so we are busily gathering cooking advice - these things ain't like the Butterballs from the grocery store).

Anyway, thanks be to God for so many blessings!

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Gregory the Great's exhortation to pray for your preachers

Beloved brothers, our Lord and Savior sometimes gives us instruction by words and sometimes by actions. His very deeds are our commands; and whenever he acts silently he is teaching us what we should do. For example, he sends his disciples out to preach two by two, because the precept of charity is twofold - love of God and of one's neighbor.

The Lord sends his disciples out to preach in twos in order to teach us silently that whoever fails in charity toward his neighbor should by no means take upon himself the office of preaching. Rightly is it said that he sent them ahead of him into every city and place where he himself was to go. For the Lord follows after the preachers, because preaching goes ahead to prepare the way, and then when the words of exhortation have gone ahead and established truth in our minds, the Lord comes to live within us. To those who preach Isaiah says: Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight the paths of our God. And the psalmist tells them: Make a way for him who rises above the sunset. The Lord rises above the sunset because from that very place where he slept in death, he rose again and manifested a greater glory. He rises above the sunset because in his resurrection he trampled underfoot the death which he endured. Therefore, we make a way for him who rises above the sunset when we preach his glory to you, so that when he himself follows after us, he may illumine you with his love.

Let us listen now to his words as he sends his preachers forth: The harvest is great but the laborers are few. Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest. That the harvest is good but the laborers are few cannot be said without a heavy heart, for although there are many to hear the good news there are only a few to preach it. Indeed, see how full the world is of priests, but yet in God's harvest a true laborer is rarely to be found; although we have accepted the priestly office we do not fulfill its demands.

Think over, my beloved brothers, think over his words: Pray the Lord of the harvest to send laborers into his harvest. Pray for us so that we may be able to labor worthily on your behalf, that our tongue may not grow weary of exhortation, that after we have taken up the office of preaching our silence may not bring us condemnation from the just judge.

From here. I ran into it this week in John Leinenweber's 1990 collection of readings from Gregory, Be Friends of God.

Religion’s biggest critic…

…has been sounding off on Sundays lately. How rude.

He criticized our clergy and lay pillars of the church:

Teaching in the temple, Jesus said, "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes, and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces, and to have the best seats in the synagogues and places of honor at banquets! They devour widows' houses and for the sake of appearance say long prayers. They will receive the greater condemnation." He sat down opposite the treasury, and watched the crowd putting money into the treasury. Many rich people put in large sums. A poor widow came and put in two small copper coins, which are worth a penny. Then he called his disciples and said to them, "Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all those who are contributing to the treasury. For all of them have contributed out of their abundance; but she out of her poverty has put in everything she had, all she had to live on." Mark 12:38-44

He knocked our splendid buildings, attractive leaders, social justice causes and lucrative end-of-the-world market share:

As Jesus came out of the temple, one of his disciples said to him, "Look, Teacher, what large stones and what large buildings!" Then Jesus asked him, "Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down." When he was sitting on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, Peter, James, John, and Andrew asked him privately, "Tell us, when will this be, and what will be the sign that all these things are about to be accomplished?" Then Jesus began to say to them, "Beware that no one leads you astray. Many will come in my name and say, `I am he!’ and they will lead many astray. When you hear of wars and rumors of wars, do not be alarmed; this must take place, but the end is still to come. For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be earthquakes in various places; there will be famines. This is but the beginning of the birth pangs." Mark 13:1-8

As someone paid from widow’s offerings to put on a long robe to sit in an honored place illuminated by stained glass to wield my personality to please people to influence their thoughts and enlist them in causes, I consider my cage duly rattled.

Jesus is religion’s great critic. He shows us again and again that we turn those good things which should point toward God into idols – false substitutes for God; pathetic little “gods” in and of themselves.

Maybe I am having a midlife crisis. Maybe I’m just nuts (a neurotic Episcopal priest? Now really…). Maybe Satan is trying to induce despair. Or maybe there is a loving God, opening the eyes of my faith to see all the unloving falsehood I’ve built up to imprison my soul.

Am I going “secular”? Not in the least. Causes are not God. Nor are the pathetic and inconsequential cultural gods of “My private spirituality” and “I see God everywhere in everything!”

When Jesus summarizes “the law,” he is telling us the essence of religion as a visible, communal expression of shared spiritual life. And what he endorses is not secular do-gooding on the one hand or ritual piety on the other:

Jesus said, "The first commandment is this: Hear, O Israel:
The Lord your God is the only Lord. Love the Lord your
God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your
mind, and with all your strength. The second is this: Love
your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment
greater than these."
Mark 12:29-31

Something’s gotta give. I’m failing the basics if strong, thoughtful and heartfelt love is the measure. I've really become one of those sad people dressed up in religion to hide a sick soul.

And my present “religion” is no cover at all. Anglicanism, admits its own Archbishop of Canterbury, is on a trajectory toward "chaos." The Episcopal Church devours widow’s houses to pay for lawsuits to confiscate church buildings paid for from other widow’s estates. Bishops smile and offer the people a choice between heresy (lack of love for God) and schism (lack of love for neighbor). Sick as I am, I can read the words of Jesus and see that I’ve draped myself in a sick, unloving religious system.

My one shred of hope is that the great critic of religion is also the doctor who comes to help the sick:

…Jesus said to them, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners." Mark 2:17

With all of the sin-sick people down through the milennia, I call out, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Pregnant Pause

Many of us are still getting used to the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), especially some of the Old Testament selections that set up as didactic lesson plans instead of sermon inspiration, and some instances of tone deafness toward the melodies of the liturgical church year.

But I've liked the Old Testament readings for the last couple of Sundays, which stir up my anticipation for Advent, that great beginning of the liturgical church year and celebration of, well, anticipation. Advent looks back to the long wait for the Savior's birth, and ahead to his coming again. The recent readings about Ruth and Hannah catch themes of seeking, waiting, struggling and finally rejoicing.

Ruth's story is of an outsider who becomes one of God's chosen people, and more than that, the unexpected contributor to a royal bloodline and, from Christian understanding, the fulfillment of God's promises to send the Savior into the world (Matthew 1:5).

Hannah struggles with infertility, derision and misery until God, in answer to her besieging prayer, gives her power to conceive. Her firstborn is the prophet Samuel. Samuel anoints the great King David, pointing ahead to John the Baptist announcing the coming (advent) of the Messiah (anointed one, Christos) and baptizing him to launch his earthly ministry.

I like that the RCL, in place of the usual Psalm, uses Hannah's own song of praise as a response to the lesson. Hannah's song is the obvious inspiration from which young Mary, pregnant with the Son of God, drew her words of praise that we call The Magnificat.

Pregnancy is the fundamental human experience of anticipation. It is prolonged, uncomfortable and disorienting, but at the same time it imparts hope, joy and brings people together in preparation and celebration. Great pain precedes great joy - as Jesus himself would say:

When a woman is in labour, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. (John 16:21-22)

So I like these final lessons of this RCL year - the first intuition that "something's different" before Advent tells us that "the whole creation has been groaning in labour pains until now" (Romans 8:22). May our groaning give way to joy, as we celebrate the life of Christ at work in us now and preparing us for the new life to come.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Celebrating an Anglican who resisted our "all-consuming interest in self-esteem...self-assertiveness...self-enhancement and self-realization"

No, he wasn't here on the Northern Plains. Charles Simeon, commemorated on the Episcopal Church and other Anglican calendars this week, ministered in the University town of Cambridge, England in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

But a Baptist in Minneapolis (!?!?), John Piper, picked Simeon as his witness for a 1989 exhortation to a gathering of pastors. You can read or listen to this amazing message, "Brothers, We Must Not Mind a Little Suffering," at Piper's Desiring God site.

Simeon stayed in place for decades in the face of sustained hostility and resistance. Piper points out that Simeon grappled with his own personal flaws while ministering to nominal, state-church Christians and University egos who mocked him publicly, locked him out of his own church building, and inflicted various social and academic sanctions on those who agreed with him.

In relating Simeon's life story and key quotes from his sermons and correspondence, Piper makes painfully convicting points for those of us in parish ministry today, through

...the life of a man who was a sinner like you and me, who was a pastor, and who, year after year, in his trials, "grew downward" in humility and upward in his adoration of Christ, and who did not yield to bitterness or to the temptation to leave his charge - for 54 years.

What I have found - and this is what I want to be true for you as well - is that in my pastoral disappointments and discouragements there is a great power for perseverance in keeping before me the life of a man who surmounted great obstacles in obedience to God's call by the power of God's grace. I need very much this inspiration from another age, because I know that I am, in great measure, a child of my times. And one of the pervasive marks of our times is emotional fragility. I feel it as though it hung in the air we breathe. We are easily hurt. We pout and mope easily. We break easily. Our marriages break easily. Our faith breaks easily. Our happiness breaks easily. And our commitment to the church breaks easily. We are easily disheartened, and it seems we have little capacity for surviving and thriving in the face of criticism and opposition.

A typical emotional response to trouble in the church is to think, "If that's the way they feel about me, then they can find themselves another pastor." We see very few models today whose lives spell out in flesh and blood the rugged words, "Count it all joy, my brothers, when you fall into various trials" (James 1:3). When historians list the character traits of the last third of twentieth century America, commitment, constancy, tenacity, endurance, patience, resolve and perseverance will not be on the list. The list will begin with an all-consuming interest in self-esteem. It will be followed by the subheadings of self-assertiveness, and self-enhancement, and self-realization. And if you think that you are not at all a child of your times just test yourself to see how you respond in the ministry when people reject your ideas.

We need help here. When you are surrounded by a society of emotionally fragile quitters, and when you see a good bit of this ethos in yourself, you need to spend time with people - whether dead or alive - whose lives prove there is another way to live. Scripture says, "Be imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises" (Hebrews 6:12). So I want to hold up for you the faith and the patience of Charles Simeon for your inspiration and imitation.

I do "see a good bit of this self-seeking, fragile quitter ethos" in myself, and so Charles Simeon is an inspiration.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Just in case you're flying over...

Anglican blogs around the U.S. and abroad have been lit up by Pope Benedict's recent "Apostolic Constitution."

To give some idea of the disconnect between coastal/urban and "flyover" Episcopalians, let me just say that not a single parishioner has asked about this. Not a single coffee hour question.

John Tarrant was consecrated as Episcopal Bishop of South Dakota on October 31st (coincidentally my 5th anniversary here at Good Shepherd). Bishop Paul Swain of the Roman Catholic Diocese of Sioux Falls attended. Neither Bishop mentioned Apostolic Constitution or the migration of folks between their churches.