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Prayer

January 6, 2012 • The Epiphany

A few of us talked back and forth about having a Christmas Pageant tonight. And while I find them to be wonderful ways to get kids involved and to learn the fundamentals of the Christmas story, they also make me a little uncomfortable. No, I wasn’t traumatized too badly by my own participation in them as a child, which, as a preacher’s kid, I can assure you was frequent. The reason I’m uncomfortable with them, is that they jumble up two stories, stories that are distinct and separate, and they mix them into one story. The first story is the Christmas story: the story of Jesus birth in a stable, of angels coming and singing the good news to the shepherds that God had finally acted decisively on behalf of the poor, the weak, and the excluded. The Christmas story is told to us by St. Luke, and no one else! Luke’s gospel was written as good news for the poor, the weak, and the excluded, and He shows us a Jesus who heals and empowers the powerless to take God’s message and His love all over the world. The second story is the Epiphany story, the story we celebrate today. The story of people who didn’t know God, but who looked for God, finding an irrefutable sign that God was acting in the world, and that He wanted to draw all the nations in to see what He was doing to fulfill His promises and to bring His message and His love to them. The Epiphany story is told by St. Matthew, and no one else! Matthew’s gospel was written to show that Jesus was the fulfillment of prophecy, and the extension of the God’s promises to Israel to the rest of the whole world. Two stories, told by two different storytellers, to two different audiences, to make two different, but similar points. If that comes as a surprise to you, then you’ll understand why I wonder about Christmas pageants sometimes.

The story of the magi is often confused in people’s mind’s because of this. We sing about three wise men, but the Gospel doesn’t tell us how many seekers there are, or that they were kings, or even what their gender is, it only tells us that magoi—mages or sages—come, and that there are three symbolic gifts. Gifts that symbolize Jesus being God, and King, and human all at once; gifts that symbolize our whole lives, and the resources of the whole world. When we hear about them right after the story of the shepherds, we often suppose that they are there to provide a bit of balance: that first the poor, and then the rich, get to come and adore Jesus; or that first the Jews, and then the Gentiles get to worship Him—but none of that is in the story at all.

I’ve even heard this feast of the Epiphany denounced as “exclusive” and “elitist”, because these rich people come and bring posh and expensive gifts that most people couldn’t afford. How are we to follow that example? How are we supposed to live up to that? Where do you find myrrh at 6:30 on a Friday night? But anytime someone interprets the Gospel as ‘exclusive’ or ‘elitist’, we should know that something’s wrong, because the Gospel is intended to be inclusive, and for everyone, and to interpret it any other way is misleading. This feast, this epiphany, and the revealing and dawning that we celebrate, far from being exclusive, is among one of the most inclusive messages in the Bible. The visit from these sages shows us that Christ really is for all people everywhere, not just us; it shows us that everyone, from every culture and background can find the signs of God’s love in the world around them; it shows us that this Jesus we love and worship isn’t some religious or theological idea that we have to convince other people of, but that He is what every part of creation longs for and seeks, whether they know Him by that Name or not.

This is part of what we believe as Christians, not that we have a monopoly on God, or that ours is the only path to Him, but that Christ can be found on many paths. We believe that Christ is the only way to the Father, but we also believe that Christ is present in all parts of God’s creation, that all truth points to Him, that true love leads to Him, and that signs of this are to be found in every part of creation: the blades of grass, the flakes of snow, the ocean depths, the mountain heights, and even the stars of the sky. We profess this belief every week when we say that “we believe in Jesus Christ…through whom all things were made.” In the Christmas morning gospel, we heard St. John affirm this when he told us that Jesus is the Word of God, and that “without Him, was not anything made that was made.” That is the good news, that’s the inclusive message of the Gospel that we celebrate today, that through Christ, God can be found by any and all who seek after Him.

Matthew’s story is about people who had no exposure to God, or to the relationship that God had with Israel, no knowledge of the promises that God made to them that one day He would come among them to save and help them. They knew nothing of any of these things. What they did know was that there was beauty in the world, that there was order to nature. They knew that good was preferable to evil, that love and peace were preferable to hatred and violence. They knew that something had set these wheels in motion, and that there was a reason that the world was this way. They knew the same things that most people from most belief systems around the world know, and they tried to make sense of it. Matthew’s story is about people who set out on a journey to try to find these answers, people who sought diligently for the missing pieces of the puzzle that the world had laid out for them. Somehow or another, they found each other along the way, and they decided to search together. They taught each other what they knew as they journeyed on together, and shared their experiences. Eventually, they saw something which filled them with joy and wonder: a sign that gave them direction and purpose, a new light that had dawned on the world that illuminated their path. So they ran to it, and prepared the best things they could offer. They followed the signs that they were given and were led to Bethlehem, and there they found a miracle that was beyond their expectation or comprehension: That God, who created the heavens and the earth and all the stars in their vast array, had come among them as a humble child, in real flesh and blood, to pour out His love on anyone who wants it. And they saw him with their own eyes, and they worshiped Him. And it changed everything, it changed their whole lives. The last thing we hear about them is that they ‘went home by another road.’

It’s the same for us, really. All of us have sensed in our lives that there is something behind the good and the beauty and the love we see in the world. All of us have tried to put the pieces together and figure it out. All of us are on a journey, in search of the answers to those questions. Somehow or another, along the way, we have found each other, and we have decided to continue our journey together. As we go on, we share our experiences and teach each other what we know. And the heart, the high point, of our journey comes in the signs we get that fill us with joy and wonder, the signs that give us direction and purpose, the lights that shine on us to illuminate our path. The signs that point to a miracle beyond our expectation or comprehension: that God Himself, who created the heavens and the earth has come among us in real flesh and blood, to share our lives, and to pour out his grace and love upon us. But we don’t meet Him in Bethlehem, sitting on His mother’s knee; we meet Him here in Eau Claire, here at our little cathedral, sitting there on the table He asked us to prepare for Him. And if we let it, that miracle changes everything, it changes our whole lives. It opens up a whole new path for us to follow and a whole new home for us to return to. The question is yours to answer: will you go home by the same old road to the same old patterns and routines? Or will you return by a different road?

Finding Freedom in a Concentration Camp

~Fr. Michael

In 1939, just as World War II was beginning to rage throughout Europe, the young German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, was in New York, exploring whether he should stay there.  He had offers to be a pastor to the German emigrants fleeing Europe.  He had made himself deeply unpopular with the German regime, making radio broadcasts critical of Hitler and running a secret society for clergy in Germany who could not accept the way that the Nazi state was controlling the Church.

After what he describes as draining struggle, he decided to go back to Germany.  He left knowing that he was returning to a situation of extreme danger.  Six years later, he was dead, executed for treason in a concentration camp.  We know all this because he wrote letters to family and friends from the camp, which have become one of the greatest set of theological reflections of the twentieth century.  He had left behind the chance of freedom as most of us would understand it and re-immersed himself into a complex and risky world, getting involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler, living as a double agent, daily facing the prospect of arrest, torture and death.

But freedom was one of the things he most often wrote about.  In a poem he wrote in July 1944, he sketched out what he thought was involved in real freedom – discipline, action, suffering and death.  Not quite what we usually mean when we talk about freedom. These reflections take us into the heart of what it is for someone to be lastingly free.

The freedom he is interested in is the freedom to do what you know you have to do.  The society we live in gives us all sorts of messages about what we should be doing, and our own longings and preferences push us in various directions.  If you have the discipline to test your passions and preferences, and come to an understanding of yourself, it can give you the courage to act.  When you act, you take risks.  You become less free, in our normal understanding of the word, because you are bound by the consequences of you action.  But what is really happening is that you are handing over your freedom to God and saying, ‘I’ve done what I had to; now it’s over to you.’  Freedom, he says, is ‘perfected in glory’ when it’s handed over to God.  And this finds its climax in the moment of death, when we step forward to discover what has been hidden all along – the eternal freedom of God, underlying everything we have thought and done.

At the end of Bonhoeffer’s journey, as he writes about his inevitable execution, is a vision of the joy that can only come when you discover that you are at last in tune with reality, God’s reality.  Everything else, the stories you tell yourself, the pictures of yourself that you enjoy thinking about, the efforts to make yourself acceptable – all this falls short of reality.  ‘The truth will make you free’, says Jesus; and that is what sustains Bonhoeffer in prison, where he learns the true nature of freedom.  It reflects Jesus own promise in the Beatitudes, ‘Blessed are the poor, those who are hungry for justice, those who make peace’; these are the people who have got in touch with what eternally matters, with God’s reality.  These are the free people, because they have been liberated from all the fictions, great and small, that keep us locked into our anxieties and ambitions.  These are people who are not afraid to die because they have discovered what supremely matters and are willing to hand over everything to God.

Some religious people talk about letting of our minds settle so that it can truly reflect God, like a still pool.  As Bonhoeffer’s life and death make clear, this is not some sort of refusal of the world; it is rather the only way we can ever act in the world so as to change it, because we open the way to God’s action, through us, but not just through us.  Looking quietly at all the clutter that prevents us from seeing ourselves honestly, looking quietly at the ways in which the world we live in muffles the truth and so frustrates the search for justice and love – this isn’t a luxury.  This is how the truth makes us free.  Not free to whatever we want, but free to be real, to be truthful, to abide in the truth, as John's Gospel puts it.  After all, what other sort of freedom is finally worth having?  It may cost us everything we thought we needed to hang on to; but – as the history of Christ’s journey to the cross and the resurrection makes clear – the end of the story is a fulfillment, a homecoming, for which we can never find adequate words.  It’s the freedom to be what we most deeply are.

 

 

What is a Sabbatical?

~Fr. Michael

This year, after planning and preparing since my arrival at the Cathedral, the vestry has agreed to allow me to take three months of sabbatical time in 2018, my seventh year with the congregation.  While this is a regular practice in every major denomination, and is encouraged practice throughout the Episcopal Church, it is not something any Dean of Christ Church Cathedral has yet done.  As with any new exercise, some information is useful.

This sabbatical will be a period of time when the congregation and I set aside our normal pastoral relationship for the purpose of education, rest, and renewal toward sustained service of the ministry.  It is not an extended vacation, nor is it a time to look for a new position, but a temporary release from the physical, emotional, spiritual, and intellectual demands of the call for the well-being of the leader.

 The word sabbatical comes from the biblical word Sabbath, which has a long and rich history of interpretation and use within the church and within our culture.  Keeping the Sabbath is both an act of creation (see Genesis 1 and 2) and a commandment (see Exodus 20).  This suggests that God has woven it into the very fabric of our being, and knowing what’s best for us, gives us a large framework for making sure we rest and take care of ourselves.  Jesus himself taught extensively about Sabbath and rest, saying “The Sabbath was made for people, not people for the Sabbath.”  And the church has long taken His model of retreat and withdrawal to a quiet place to pray and be renewed.  Throughout His ministry, the steady demand led Jesus to step away on a regular basis.

Richard Bullock and Richard Bruesehoff in Clergy Renewal: The Alban Guide to Sabbatical Planning suggest the following motivations for considering a ministry sabbatical:

Continual spiritual growth facilitated by periods of rest and renewal is vital toward being an effective minister.

  • Pastoral responsibilities are not contained within normal office hours and regularly involve long hours on weekends and evenings.
  • Rapid change in parish ministry in recent years increases the likelihood of burnout without periods of rest and renewal.  
  • Burnout makes ministry and the minister, dull, hollow, and uninteresting.  
  • Provides the opportunity for congregations to examine their dependency on the ministry leader and consider expanding the roles of lay leaders.

All of this comes down to the fact that there are natural rhythms in our lives and in the Church.  These rhythms are God-created, and so even in a fallen world, they can be health-giving and spirit-nurturing.  Failure to appreciate and connect to those rhythms is destructive; acknowledging and coming into synchronicity with those rhythms strengthens our resilience and creativity.  One such rhythm is time away.  The motivation is not remedial or even preventative, but simply to be in tune with the health-giving and spirit-nurturing will of God.  Our hope is that everyone will be enriched.

There are still quite a few possibilities for things that I might do this year, and so much of the time has not been firmly scheduled yet.  I have been elected by the Diocese to serve the General Convention which meets this year in Austin, Texas, which is a two-week commitment; I am also scheduled to participate in a new training directive offered by the national church with regard to stewardship; this will take place in April, along with the North American Cathedral Dean’s Conference.  The only things firmly scheduled at this point are my induction into the Society of Ordained Scientists, and my enrollment in a January Term language immersion course.

 

The Society of Ordained Scientists

~Fr. Michael

This past month, I was admitted into a group which is at the vanguard of one of the most important conversations in the world:  the Society of Ordained Scientists.  The group was founded in the early 1970s in the UK by Professor Arthur Peacocke, a luminary in the nascent field.  This group is an international assembly of clergy with advanced degrees in the sciences, and with a robust history of publications addressing the issues raised by the imposition of the false dichotomy between Science and Theology by our modern culture.  I was beyond honored to join the ranks of John Polkinghorne (my external dissertation examiner), David Wilkinson (the President of my college and my Advisor), John Templeton, Robert Russell, and Alister McGrath, and countless others besides, as a newbie and a hanger-on.  If those names are meaningless to you, I suggest at least a simple Google search if not a more in-depth exploration of the fantastic literature and program that they have produced. 

I call the conversation between Science and Theology ‘most important’ because it is clear that the common view in the world around us, fueled by ignorance and lack of education, is that these two world-views are disparate and opposed to one another.  There have been quite a few popular writings in recent years which suggest that religion is passé and irrelevant in the face of science.  The work of Richard Dawkins suggests that religion is just a behavioral vestige of superstitious tribalism, practiced only by those who lack the mental capacity to form rational ideas.  The same author advocates eugenics, and termination of down syndrome babies and others with congenital birth defects as ‘scientifically ethical’; he proposes that strategic ‘wars of elimination’ should be waged to eliminate the populace which hold ‘superstitious beliefs’ in order to ‘liberate free thinkers’.  That line of conversation is dominating the public field—Dawkins’ spurious books have outsold the aforementioned authors by three times—and is rabidly opposed to the system of ethics proposed by the Gospel.  You can begin to see, I hope, why I regard this as among the most important conversations in the world—this is not just an idle conversation, but rather policies, and ultimately, lives, hang in the balance.   The ideas of Gospel ethics deserve not just my time and attention, but yours as well.

The three-day biannual retreat that I attended at the start of January is the continued effort to establish a new province of this society in North America, primarily an effort to make the Society and its meetings more accessible to supportive clergy and congregations.  It was a genuinely spiritual retreat, with reflections and conversation facilitated by the Bishop of Rhode Island, himself a physicist and teacher.  We gathered in regular prayer and conversation about all available issues, from genetics to cosmology, and encouraged one another in our common ministry.  I have to say, it was one of the most refreshing retreats I have ever attended, I was challenged by the level of thought that was presented, just as I was encouraged by the level of witness.

Perhaps most important of all, I was connected anew to a network of fantastically talented colleagues, each of which is working, in his or her own neighborhood, to use the light of science to shed light on the work of the Church, and also, using the vast storehouse of ecclesiastical resources to inform our scientific endeavors.  

There was a moment at the close of the middle day of the retreat, when I publicly made apology for ‘geeking out’ and talking about the relationship of the relationship of an extremely esoteric field of mathematics (the Lie geometries of the Platonic Solids, if you’re interested) to theology.  Bishop Knisely cut me off, mid-apology, to say, “What on earth are you apologizing for, Michael?  We’re your people!”  I must say, it felt good.

 

A hundred deep breaths.....

~Fr. Michael

Christmas is nearly here, and Advent is upon us.  Every year we are challenged by the church’s call to keep a time of penitent, joyful expectation, especially as the world around us has no place for waiting or expectation.  Perhaps it feels a little difficult to try to be joyful when so many expectations are bearing down on you.  Sometimes it’s difficult to look forward to such a hectic and draining season, much less try to enjoy waiting for it. 

But what we’re waiting on comes from a God who knows our nature, our selves; and knows of our knack for getting bogged down by expectations; and knows of our impatience and our desire for instant gratification.  From that depth of wisdom, God has built creation in such a way that it benefits from stopping and resting; pausing to reflect and refresh.  Sabbath is built into creation from the very beginning, and God’s people are instructed to keep it as a commandment.  Advent, if observed as a season set aside by God, has the same power to sanctify our waiting as the Sabbath does to sanctify our rest.  And more, both are meant for our refreshment and benefit by someone who we suppose knows something about our well-being.

So, how does one learn to appreciate waiting?  An easy answer is to learn how to stop and say a short prayer.  Prayer opens up the possibility that we can live in and appreciate the moment that we are in, and be better attuned to ourselves, our neighbors, and God.  And while you feel you have a grip on the whole how the whole prayer-at-church thing works, many people find taking moments of mindfulness and enjoyment to be difficult.  So, how do you start to pray?  It doesn’t need to be formal.  You don’t need to wait for it to be right.  And while adjusting your environment to be more suitable to prayer can sometimes help, it isn’t really necessary.  You can do it anywhere, any time. 

It’s as simple as taking a deep breath…

Have you noticed sometimes when you are feeling stressed that stopping and taking a deep breath can have a remarkable effect?  Perhaps it doesn’t cure your stress completely, but it helps to stretch muscles, helps to focus your mind, and it just plain feels good.  And while a deep breath might not qualify in some people’s books as a prayer in and of itself, I would argue that it’s pretty close.  It doesn’t take much more than a nudge to turn a deep breath into a full-fledged prayer.  In fact, the only thing it takes is an intention.  Instead of passively living through something your body goes through several times a day, draw your attention to growing more peaceful, or being more aware of your body or environment, or use your imagination (or will) to generate a charitable thought about another person.  Your breath has just become a prayer, and a moment of conscious waiting has probably done you a world of good.

If you practice this, you can get pretty good at it.  You might even find that doing it a few times in a row can be helpful.  *Please be careful to note:  don’t do anything like this against your physical comfort or health — if you have questions or problems, you should consult your physician*  But, if it helps, of if you enjoy it, you can stretch out the time, and enjoy it more, and enter into a time of mindfulness a little more deeply.  If you’re anything like me, though, you’ll find that your attention wanders off after a while and you can’t keep your mind from tugging at you to get up and do the next thing.  There are a few things that you can do easily to help with this.  Some people find that having a tactile reminder like a rosary or a prayer rope helps to pull them back to the mindful moment, for others sometimes a visual reminder, like a candle or an icon, can help.  While I do like both those methods, sometimes when I’m not around any of those things, simply counting can help maintain some focus.

For myself, I try to set a pace of a hundred a day.  After a while, I lose count, but after even a few days of trying it, you know about how long a hundred breaths takes.  It can be a remarkable experience.  It only takes about 15 minutes or so, but it feels like a much longer time while you’re doing it.  It’s fascinating to see where your mind and heart can take you when you stop to have a moment like that.  I’ve experienced a whole range of prayerful experiences.  Most often, I find a Bible verse pops into my head and repeats itself gently; sometimes I find a deeper awareness of my physical self, sometimes I find that just the act of air passing in and out of my lungs can be a start of a deep prayer.  After a long time of practicing this, I am aware that my body has become accustomed to it, and misses it when I don’t take the time to do it.  But since I’m more used to it, I find that I can do it, even just for a short time, almost anywhere:  A car trip, in a waiting room, when your lunch partner has stepped away, on a walk, and even while exercising (although the breathing patterns change a bit).

As Christmas looms and Advent beckons, try taking a moment to appreciate the now, and the not yet, by just taking a deep breath, or two, or a hundred.

 

Service Schedule

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Rite II Eucharist – 9:00 am, Cathedral

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