Archive for December, 2013

The Fullness of Time

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on December 29, 2013 by timtrue

Gal. 3:23-25; 4:4-7

Listen again to these familiar words from Isaiah the prophet, from last week’s readings:

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”[1]

Now listen to these words:

“Now the last age of the Cumaean prophecy begins: the great roll-call of the centuries is born anew: now Virgin Justice returns, and Saturn’s reign: now a new race descends from the heavens above.  Only favour the child who’s born, pure Lucina, under whom the first race of iron shall end, and a golden race rise up throughout the world: now your Apollo reigns. . . .

“O dear child of the gods, take up your high honours (the time is near), great son of Jupiter!  See the world, with its weighty dome, bowing, earth and wide sea and deep heavens: see how everything delights in the future age!”[2]

Except for a few references to the Roman pantheon, these words are strikingly similar to Isaiah’s.  In fact, the words I’ve just read to you were understood popularly by Christians to be a prophecy of Christ for more than fifteen hundred years, up until just over a hundred years ago: a prophecy of Christ composed by a pagan poet named Vergil.  He wrote these words in ca. 40 BCE, roughly a hundred years before St. Paul’s words to the Galatians.  He died before Christ was born.  And so he was thought to be a prophet of the Most High, a sort of mouthpiece for God, despite himself.

Today’s reading from Galatians states: “But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent his Son.”

Well isn’t that interesting!  God, who exists infinitely beyond space and time, entered into our world in a very specific time and place.  And we all know the story of that time and place.  We’ve just celebrated it again, in fact, as we do every year during the Advent and Christmas seasons.

But look with me for a moment at this divinely inspired truth—that God sent his Son at just the right time, when the fullness of time had come—look at this together with Vergil’s words; and something is suggested.

When Jesus was born, the Jews were looking for a Messiah.  No doubt about it!  It’s not just the words above that demonstrate this, but a Messianic hope is discerned all through the prophets.  The Jews of Jesus’s day were walking in the deep darkness of an oppressive empire; and they were looking for, hoping for, a great light from heaven to break through such oppressive darkness.

But what about Vergil?  He was a pagan poet—pagan in the sense that he worshiped the Roman pantheon of gods and emperors.  He worked for the empire, seeking favor from the emperor Augustus himself.  He was a part of the Roman aristocracy!  Yet he writes words about a coming new era, a golden age, when there will be no more need for trade because each land will yield everything worth anything, of its own accord; an age when farming will no longer be needed; an age when there will be no more war, but peace all around, when, in effect, the lion will lie down with the lamb.

So, do you know what these passages suggest to me—these “prophetic” passages from both the Old Testament prophet Isaiah and the pagan prophet Vergil?  It wasn’t just the people of God hoping for a Messiah.  Rather, the suggestion here is that, when the fullness of time had come, when God sent his Son, it was the whole world that was looking for a Messiah.

Now, a qualification: I’m not saying that the whole world recognized Jesus as Messiah when he came.  Indeed, we know from the scriptures that the Jewish leaders did not recognize him.  They hassled him for healing the destitute on the Sabbath.  They rebuked him for casting out demons from people like that man who lived naked among the tombs, out of his right mind.  They denigrated him for sharing meals with tax collectors and prostitutes—with outcasts.

Treatment was similar from the Roman rulers, was it not?  Herod desperately sought to kill him as a baby.  Pilate callously condoned his sentence of crucifixion when he easily could have done something to stop it.  Soldiers mocked him and spat upon him and even gambled over his clothing.

Nevertheless, some did recognize him: his twelve disciples, for instance; that man among the tombs, whom he restored to his right mind; those tax collectors and prostitutes—those outcasts—he shared meals with; Zacchaeus; Mary and Martha; Lazarus; a Roman centurion whose son he healed; the five thousand he fed on the hillside; even the wind and waves upon which he once walked.

The whole world was ready for him, the Messiah.  The whole world was looking for him.  And some in fact recognized him when he came, Jesus, Christ incarnate, fully man and fully God.  Yet—despite the world’s readiness, despite their watchfulness—many did not recognize him.

It’s no different today.  Remember that time and space stuff I mentioned earlier?  Once God entered into our world’s dimensions of time and space there was no going back, meaning Christ is still here, still reigning, still ushering in that golden age; and he will continue to do so as long as the world we know continues.  Whether or not people recognize him as Messiah!

So, to return to this idea, it is no different today: today, still, the whole world is looking for a Messiah; yet, today, still, many people do not recognize the Messiah when they see him; however, today, still, there are some who do recognize him.

We who do recognize Jesus Christ as Messiah are left, therefore, with a task.  Namely, we must be Messiah to our world even if the world doesn’t see us that way.

We must be Christ’s light to a land of darkness, exposing injustice for the oppressive force that it is.  We must provide a healing balm to the destitute around us.  We must strive to see, name, and cast out the demons of those who are suffering from their torments—perhaps even to cast out our own demons, from which we ourselves suffer.  We must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, provide for the poor, and—heaven forbid!—fellowship with outcasts.  And we must do it all whether the world recognizes the Messiah in us or not!

The world is ready.  For its own sake, let’s give it what it truly needs!


[1]           Isaiah 7:14-16.

[2]           Translated by A. S. Kline, 2001:

God’s Christmas Gift to the World

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on December 25, 2013 by timtrue
English: Jesus Christ - detail from Deesis mos...

Photo credit: Wikipedia.

Isaiah 9:2-7

Merry Christmas!

This morning I’d like to offer some thoughts about God’s gift to us, his Son, Jesus Christ, from the reading we heard from Isaiah.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light,” it begins; “those who lived in a land of deep darkness—on them light has shined.”

There is a contrast here between darkness and light.  What does this contrast represent?

Twenty years ago I would have said that the darkness here represents people who know nothing of Christ.  The Jews, to whom this passage was first written, why, they knew nothing of Christ because they had lived before his time.  As for the Gentiles all around them, well, they obviously knew nothing of Christ either: they weren’t God’s chosen people, the people through whom God would redeem the world.

Also, so my reasoning went, there are many people in our world today who do not know Christ.  Just think of all the world religions that claim that he is only a good teacher and not the Savior of the world.  These, I said, are the people in darkness today.  They need a light.  And that light is Christ.

So, twenty years ago, in my youthful zeal to serve God—not to mention in my youthful conviction that I had unlocked secret truths of the scriptures—I was ready to sell all my worldly possessions and move to Botswana, or Myanmar, or China, or Russia; to somewhere, anywhere, that was in need of Christ’s soul-saving light.

Fortunately, Holly wasn’t ready to make such a move with me.  She keeps me grounded.

Now, however true all that stuff may be—that there are many places in the world that could benefit from the soul-saving light of Christ—twenty years later I see that this is not what Isaiah is saying after all.  Not at all!  For the rest of the passage—even all that familiar stuff we hear sung year after year in Handel’s Messiah—is all about politics.

Listen to just a sampling of phrases:

  • “You [i. e., God] have multiplied the nation”—Isaiah was addressing a national issue, not just one about an individual’s salvation from sins.
  • “They rejoice . . . as people exult when dividing plunder”—plunder is the wealth that comes from military victory.
  • “For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken”—yoke, bar, rod, burden, oppressor: these are words conveying slavery.

This whole passage is politically charged.  It is about a specific kind of liberation: not about one individual being freed from his or her own sins, but about one nation being freed from the domination of another, like when God freed the nation of Israel from the oppression of Midian.

Remember that story?  It involved a certain judge named Gideon.  The nation of Midian—a distant relative of Israel in fact—was bullying Israel.  Israel would plant crops.  And just when the crops were ready for harvest, numerous Midianite troops would move onto the Israelite fields, consume the crops for their own purposes, and trample what was left over.  In this way the people of Israel went hungry and cried out to God.  He raised up for them a judge named Gideon who miraculously delivered Israel from the bully Midian’s hand.  Read all about it in Judges 6-8.

Point is, this is the type of deliverance from oppression Isaiah is talking about.  It’s corporate.  It’s relational.  It involves one society against another.  It’s not individual—as I once believed, and as a good part of evangelical America believes today.

So, what are we supposed to do with this information?  Isaiah tells us that Christ came into the world to deliver one nation from the oppressive rule of another.

That mold certainly fit with what was going on in Jesus’s day.  The strong and mighty Romans ruled far and wide.  The ragtag Jewish nation in Palestine felt Rome’s presence continually.  They longed for deliverance, for the day when once again there would be a king like David, a man after God’s own heart, on the throne, ruling with justice, peace, and righteousness.  It was a nice dream for them, sure!

But what about for us?  We live in a day, by and large anyway, when nations cooperate with one another.  America doesn’t overwhelm, suffocate, and suppress other nations.  What does Isaiah’s Christmas message have to do with us?

I remind you, this is a good problem.  It wasn’t so long ago that a political man was trying to establish a world-wide tyranny.  That man’s name was Adolf Hitler, and he liked to refer to himself at the Kaiser.  Kaiser, by the way, is the German derivative of Caesar, itself an idiom for emperor.  Adolf Hitler fashioned himself as emperor of the world.  The world has made a lot of progress since WWII—progress for which I am grateful, and progress to which I give Christ all the credit.

But what we see here, in a word, is injustice.  God’s gift to the world, according to Isaiah, is to bring justice where it is lacking.  And regardless of whatever else we can say about our world today, there’s more than enough injustice.

Injustice happens at global levels, as it did with the Roman Empire, and as it did during WWII.

But it happens at smaller levels too.  This word we’ve heard several times today, nation, gets translated into English in other ways.  It can also mean people—as in, my people and your people—or race, or tribe, or clan, or even family.  Does injustice ever happen at these levels, between peoples, between races, between tribes, between clans, between families?  Let’s take it a step further.  Does injustice happen between individuals?

Of course it does!  And putting a stop to this—to injustice at every level—is God’s Christmas gift to us.  Shouldn’t you give the same gift whenever and wherever you are able?  It doesn’t matter if you live in Botswana, Myanmar, China, Russia, or right here in San Antonio.  Spread the Christmas gift of justice whenever and wherever you find it lacking; and in doing so you will spread God’s Christmas gift to the world.

String (of Bad Luck) Theory

Posted in Family with tags , , , , on December 23, 2013 by timtrue
English: Christmas Lights in Downtown San Anto...

Christmas Lights in Downtown San Antonio (photo credit: Wikipedia).

“Things come in threes,” the old adage goes.

I’ve got a threesome for you.  On Saturday night I took my family to see a Holiday Pops concert in San Antonio.  It was given by the San Antonio Symphony and the San Antonio Mastersingers, a group to which I belonged once upon a time, as a tenor.  They always put on a good show.  So I was fairly excited about this opportunity, my Christmas gift to the family, all seven of us.

The first of this trinity of bad luck happened at dinner.  I’d made a reservation for 6pm at a local favorite restaurant.  I’d made it, in fact, that very morning, at about 10am.  “We’ll have a table for seven ready for you at 6pm,” the guy said on the other end of the phone.  I should have asked him his name.

I’d picked the time of 6pm strategically.  This would afford us some temporal cushions in the slight chance that something were to go wrong–oh, I don’t know, like maybe if there were excessive traffic, if we were to find full parking lots downtown, or even if, say, the restaurant were to lose our reservation.

Which they did!

More on that in a minute.  But at this point I just have to digress a little.  Notice in the final sentence of the above paragraph that I am using the subjunctive mood.  Sadly, this mood doesn’t make it into many English grammar texts anymore.  But it’s a very telling mood–when used correctly and when the author and readers know what to look for.  Hence my digression.  Anyway, all that stuff about “if there were . . .” “if we were . . .” and “if the restaurant were . . .” incorporates this mood, the subjunctive.  What this mood conveys is the hypothetical.  It’s not really supposed to happen.  So, for instance, consider this brief example: If we were to have gone to McDonald’s for dinner, then we all would have thrown up.  The “if we were” part of this sentence tells the hearer that there really is no possibility of it actually happening.  So, really, the sentence should be read like this: If we were to have gone to McDonald’s for dinner (but we never actually would have because we all saw the movie Supersize Me), then we all would have thrown up (but, in reality, since we never would in fact have gone to McDonald’s, throwing up shouldn’t be a worry either).

Got it?

So, this restaurant with which I’d made reservations for 6pm, and which verified that a table for seven would be ready for me at 6pm, well, it defied the subjunctive mood and lost our reservations.  Surely, the guy on the other end of the phone failed English!  Anyway, we had to wait twenty-five minutes to get our “reserved” table.  Then, somewhat regrettably, dinner felt a little rushed.

During dinner my four year-old son didn’t eat a thing.  He’s a little picky by nature, but he should have been feeling peckish.  It was 6:30 after all, and he normally eats closer to 5:30.  And this was Mexican, meaning some of his favorite foods: chips and salsa, tortillas, tacos.  But all through the meal he ate nothing.  He even–and this is highly unusual–lay down.  Yeah!  Right there in the crowded restaurant, sprawled across the booth!  At the time my wife and I agreed that he simply must be tired from the high Christmastime activity levels.  Yeah, we assured ourselves, that’s it.

So much for the first episode of bad luck.

The second was indeed traffic.  Remember that subjunctive mood explanation above?  Again, the world of hypothetical became reality.  We left the restaurant at 7:20 and made it downtown by 7:30.  This really should have given us plenty of time to park, walk to the theater, and find our seats before the 8pm curtain call.

Now I’ve been downtown many times before.  I’m usually quite savvy in the ways of San Antonio.  But, alas, the parking garage I was aiming for was full.  Then, unlikeliness of all unlikelinesses, traffic came to a complete halt.  Yeah!  Dead still in downtown!  Long story short, fifty minutes later we pulled into a parking spot three blocks from the theater–a parking lot I had driven by at 7:25 in fact.

While all this second-of-the-bad-luck threesome was going on, the four year-old boy slept.  Again, this was an unlikely circumstance, for at least two reasons.  One was that downtown was chock-full of Christmas lights, and he absolutely loves Christmas lights.  So that was weird.  But also, his four teenage sisters were singing Christmas carols, gawking, joking, and otherwise trying to console me in my disbelief of the subjunctive defiance I was experiencing, besides my personal abhorrence at being late to anything.  Point is, it was downright noisy in the minivan.  Yet the boy slept on.

Now I should have seen more clearly the third part of our bad-luck sequence approaching.  But I was not altogether in my logical mind, so emotional had I become over said subjunctive defiance.  Yet I did see it coming more clearly than anyone else.  For I was holding the groggy boy in my arms as we traipsed the three blocks to the theater and he burped one of those suggestive burps, you know, when vomit might soon follow.

So, despite the ten bucks we’d just paid for parking, not to mention the small fortune I’d spent on tickets for the concert, I stopped and said, “Maybe we should just forget about the whole thing.  We’re already a half-hour late.  And the boy ain’t feeling so well.”

But no sooner had these words left my mouth than I felt like Bard of Laketown in The Hobbit from all the glaring eyes upon me.  A prophet has no honor in his home town!

So we went to the theater, found our seats at an appropriate time, enjoyed a grand total of one complete piece performed–an awesome arrangement of Carol of the Bells with the largest hand bells I’ll likely ever see–before the boy barfed.  Yep!  All over me (he was on my lap), himself, and–sad to say–a couple people in front of us.

So it was merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!  We high-tailed it out of there and made a bee line for home, where we have been living happily ever after since, without further incident.

Strange how that adage has a ring of truth to it.

Nothing but Debt

Posted in Family with tags , on December 23, 2013 by timtrue

Debt (Photo credit: LendingMemo)

Twenty years ago, when Holly and I got married, we had nothing but a little debt.  I graduated college with a 1980 Mazda 626 into and upon which I could fit all my worldly belongings–including a file cabinet, a futon, and a bicycle.  And that was it!  Nothing, more or less.  My debts from education were relatively small, some $7,000 or so.  If I were to have sold the car, bicycle, file cabinet, and futon, and my two or three other possessions worth anything, I might have been left with a net worth of -$5,000.  So, really, yes, I graduated with nothing but debt.  When Holly and I married three months later little changed with respect to my net worth.  Except now it became our net worth.

Five years into it we’d effectively turned a corner.  We had to bid adieu to our beloved Mazda after a glowing red episode with the catalytic converter; and we’d bought our first big purchase, a 1996 Volkswagen Jetta.  We were now living in Pennsylvania.  I was teaching second grade.  We had two kids with a third on the way.  But we’d paid off the education loans.  We owed less on the Jetta than it was worth, meaning our net worth was actually in the black.

I wish I could say it stayed that way.  But, alas, we got in over our heads with the purchase of our first house upon moving back to California.  We bought it on promises made from my new employer that never in fact materialized.  For two years, then, we sank more than a thousand dollars a month into it.  Fortunately we were able to sell the house two years after buying it.  But now our net worth was back in the red–bright red in fact.

What with four kids now and a scare with cancer and insufficient medical insurance and a move to Texas and more job ups and downs, then a fifth kid, we moved to Sewanee so that I could attend seminary.  We’d managed to start a few small retirement funds along the way–peanut savings, I say; and we now owned another house, in New Braunfels, Texas.  It was worth a bit more than we owed.  That was something.  We weren’t upside down in car payments too, and we’d purchased a nice piano, paid in full.  But indebtedness also had increased along the way.  So, anyway, we returned to Texas from Sewanee playing the same game we’d pretty much always played.

Except now we’d cleaned out those peanut funds.  And, most recently, we sold the house in New Braunfels.

So here we are, twenty years later, standing pretty much in the same place we were then, with nothing but debt.  We have no savings.  We have no house (meaning we don’t own a house; don’t worry, we rent).  We have a couple cars, a motorcycle, and a piano, sure; but adding it all together, we remain in the red.  And now more education loans are staring us in the face–this time for our kids.  Sheesh!

But–and here’s the good part–unlike twenty years ago, I have an awesome job, living out what I’ve always known to be my calling, with excellent benefits and a network of incredible people–colleagues, overseers, parishioners, friends.  Holly’s doing some pretty awesome work too.  Add to this that we now have five of the most delightful people in the world under our roof that weren’t around twenty years ago, our kids.

We’ll be back in black some day, as the Australian band AC/DC reminds us.  I’m not worried.  But I wouldn’t trade what I have now, debt and all, for all the riches in the world.

Dramatic Life-moment

Posted in Doing Church with tags , on December 16, 2013 by timtrue
The Communion of the Apostles

The Communion of the Apostles (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today I am following up on my last post, “The Drama of the Call.”  For the nonagenarian friend, the parishioner whose leg was amputated–well, she died on Saturday morning.

Now I’m not a medical professional.  In fact, I’m totally ignorant about most things requiring medical attention.  “Make it up as you go” has always been my medical m. o.  So, for instance, when I stuck my finger in a squirrel-cage fan as a boy and came running home with blood splattered everywhere, a little Neosporin and a butterfly bandage sufficed.  And, amazingly, it healed fairly well, no stitches needed, thank you very much.  And I’ve got the scar to prove it!  Point is, my medical ignorance–and improvisation–has proven blissful again and again; and so I’ve had enough positive reinforcement in my life to continue shunning medical experts and making it up as I go.  I remain medically ignorant.  I question no one’s medical judgment.  Still, was amputating a ninety-three year-old’s leg really necessary for a blood clot?  She didn’t recover from the surgery apparently, for she died three days later.

In that last post I said I would take her communion on Sunday.  Sadly, she died on Saturday.  But happily and providentially I ended up taking her communion on Friday.

It happened like this.  By noon Friday I was at a good breaking point from the week’s activities.  So my mind turned to visitations.  I would go and see her now, I decided, especially since doing so would free up my Sunday afternoon to spend with my own family.  Utilitarian, I know, but it is what it is.  So I called the assisted living home where she should have been.  But the nurse on the line said, no, my friend hadn’t been re-admitted.  I then called the hospital where the surgery had been performed, only to hear that she had been discharged yesterday, i. e., Thursday.  A little annoyed, I grabbed my communion kit and Prayer Book and headed for said retirement home hoping for the best.

My hunch proved correct.  My aged friend was in her room, eyes opening and closing slowly, almost lazily, barely cognizant.  There with her sat her daughter, her eyes puffy.

“So good to see you, Father Tim,” the daughter said, rising from her seat to greet me.

“I’ve brought communion,” I smiled.

“Wonderful!” she smiled back.

Without further conversation, I opened my Prayer Book and led the three of us through a brief service.  I partook of the bread and wine then gave the elements to the daughter saying the familiar phrases, “The body of Christ, the bread of heaven”; and “The blood of Christ, the cup of salvation.”  I then turned to her mother.

“I have some bread and wine for you,” I said.

Her eyes, now closed, stayed closed.

“Tim,” the daughter offered, “I’ve seen another priest dip his finger in the wine and touch her tongue with it.”

Brilliant idea, I thought, for there’s no need to take the elements in both kinds, as our theology states; meaning only bread or only wine is sufficiently sacramental.  And I acted upon it.

As my fingertip touched her tongue, I realized how dried up it was.  It felt something like the corner of a small stack of paper, fifty sheets or so thick.  She’d been breathing through her mouth for days, since the sedation for the surgery probably.  At any rate, she visibly responded to the drop of wine on her tongue.  It must have brought physical relief along with spiritual.

As I departed, the daughter walked me to the door of the room.  “We’re not sure how much longer she’s got,” she related tearfully.

“I understand.  Call us when you need anything.”

Her mother died something like twelve hours later.

Today funeral plans are being made.  “Can Father Tim do the funeral,” the four siblings asked?  “It means a lot to us that he was there in her last hours of life.”

And so, yes, I will be officiating at a funeral on Friday.  And though I barely knew her, it’s going to be difficult not to cry.

She was ninety-three.  It seems normal to expect that she would have passed on any given day.  But following such a severe surgery, an amputation!  Somehow this makes her passing seem not normal–makes it frustrating.  And in my frustration I want to shed tears with and for the family.  It’s part of the liminality, I suppose.

But the Episcopal funeral service is about resurrection–both Christ’s resurrection and the resurrection of all believers in the last day.  So I am reminded that beyond this dramatic life-moment my nonagenarian friend is being restored to new life, to full life, to life without blood clots, to life with complete limbs, to life without doctors, where the m. o. is “make it up as you go.”

The Drama of the Call

Posted in Doing Church with tags , , , , on December 11, 2013 by timtrue

Human lives are chock-full of drama.

From the very beginnings of life—both in the love act itself, from which conception occurs, and in the birth process—all the way to death and burial: drama is an omnipresent reality.

Recently I baptized a baby girl.

Put yourself in her shoes for a moment.  There she was, safe in her mother’s arms.  But why in the world was she in the middle of a crowded group of people with bright lights blaring all around?  And what were they all saying, chanting in unison, like a mantra?

Then, already on edge a bit from the unusualness of the situation, some big, burly, bearded guy dressed in a white robe with a scarf-like thingy draping over his neck (how odd is that!) takes her from her mother’s arms into his own: from soft, warm, familiar-smelling love into hard, knotty, hairy, wizened, unfamiliarness.  Maybe it’s love too, she thinks, for she trusts her mommy absolutely, and Mommy would never let anything out of line happen; but this is probably what Mommy means by the overused term “tough love.”

And if that isn’t enough, the big bearded unfamiliar man dips her, like she once saw her daddy dip Mommy on the dance floor, and pours water over her head.  Three times!

Then the people watching say amen and clap.  The whole thing’s just a bit weird, she thinks.


Today a significantly tattooed man came into my office and told me his story:

I’ve been in jail for eight-and-a-half years and I’m still on parole and I can’t pay all my rent so my wife and me and my three kids were kicked out of our apartment and won’t be allowed back in till I pay the rent in full but that makes it look like I’m trying to run but I’m not trying to run except my parole officer don’t see it that way but I won’t get paid till Friday because that’s payday and did I mention that I do have a job but I’m just waiting on my paycheck and my wife works too but she just had an operation and needs to take a few days off to recover and so can I just have a hundred bucks?

And I wanted to say, hey, take a breath, buddy.

Instead I asked his name, to which he replied Manuel Gonzales.  Then I told him I didn’t have any money I could offer, but would he like a gift card to a local grocery store?  That would at least get him and his family meals through Friday, when he would allegedly be paid.  To which he replied that, yes, that would be helpful.  So I asked him for a form of identification, standard procedure, you know, to make a copy of it so I can keep track of what I give and to whom.  He agreed.  But the name on the ID card most certainly wasn’t Manuel Gonzales.


Also today I experienced my most difficult visitation yet.

It began yesterday, actually.  With Prayer Book in hand, I routinely journeyed to the assisted care facility I had predetermined.  So far so good.  But when I entered her room, the ninety-something year-old parishioner I sought was nowhere to be found.  The bed was made, in fact, and the room quite tidy.  Not allowing myself to think the worst, I asked a nurse where said parishioner was.  “Oh,” the nurse replied, “she just went to the hospital.  Blood clot in her leg.”

It was the end of the work day, so I went home resolving to track down my nonagenarian friend today.  Which I did.  And I went to see her this morning.

When I arrived in her hospital room, in the MICU, she lay beneath a bundle of blankets unconscious from sedation.  Her son and daughter were with her, very glad to see me, but also with eyes puffy from apparent tears.  I inquired about my friend’s condition.  And that’s when the shock hit me, for the daughter answered that her mom’s leg had been amputated this morning, severed just above the knee.

I uttered a tearful prayer–barely able–and said my goodbye; but I will return to see her on Sunday after church, and I’ll bring Eucharistic elements with me.


It’s omnipresent for us humans.  And I count it one of the greatest privileges to be involved, sometimes even immersed, in it.

Taking Adventine Inventory

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , on December 8, 2013 by timtrue

English: A painting created by Leonardo Da Vin...

Matthew 3:1-12


It’s the most wonderful time of the year!

Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly.

You brood of vipers.  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?

’Tis the season to be jolly, fa-la-la-la-la, la-la-la-la.

Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Frosty the snowman was a jolly, happy soul.

His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.

Jingle bells?


You see the conflict, don’t you?  We come to church on Sundays during this season of Advent and we hear tough passages, stern passages, hard passages of scripture.  Last week it was about the coming Day of the Lord.  “Then two will be in the field,” it says; “one will be taken and one will be left.”  Then there’s this week: “You brood of vipers”!  We hear these passages and, if you’re like me anyway, we think, “Huh.  I guess Advent’s kind of a solemn time, maybe even introspective.”

But after church we go shopping.  The weather outside is frightful, so we bundle up in the comfort of our warm homes, donning now our gayest winter apparel, and we brave the elements—in the comfort of our heated vehicles, maybe even equipped with heated seats.  And we go to the malls where, well, frankly, we end up feeling pretty good about ourselves.

While we shop in the bleak midwinter, whether we realize it or not, we are continuously reminded just how clever we are.  Baby, it’s cold outside; but no matter!  We heat our shops—“the fire is so delightful”—, we de-ice our sidewalks, we fill our dark spaces with artificial light.  And we marvel at the cleverness of the seasonal decorations and even at ourselves reflected in so many windows and double-glass doors as we sip our steaming peppermint lattes.  It’s kind of like a big party.  And there’s that ubiquitous music, telling us over and over that Christmas is coming, the goose is getting fat, so please put a penny in the old man’s hat.  And we think, “I guess this really is the most wonderful time of the year.”

Next Sunday, however, we’re back in church and we hear: “See, the Judge is standing at the doors!”

I don’t know about you, but I kind of prefer the malls.

Nevertheless, as today’s collect reminds us, God has sent prophets as messengers to preach repentance and to prepare the way for our salvation.

Are the prophets of the malls doing these things?  They remind me just how clever I am.  They sing to me of red-nosed reindeer and jingling bells and imaginary snowmen-priests in meadows.  I smile and feel good about myself and laugh and enjoy a festive atmosphere with hundreds of other clever, smiling people.  The messages of these prophets are delightful!

But they’re not preaching much repentance or preparing a way for my salvation—unless it’s salvation for the afternoon from visiting family.

On the other hand, the Church’s prophets—prophets like John the Baptist—are.  Today’s Gospel preaches repentance.  Today’s Gospel prepares the way for our salvation.

Keep in mind that the commercialization of the holiday season is a relatively recent invention in the larger scheme of history.  It’s very prominent today, as I’ve illustrated.  It was quite prominent when I was a boy too, as I remember from personal experience.  It was around too, I’m sure, during my parents’ childhoods, though maybe to a lesser extent.  It’s even there a little bit in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, first published in 1843.

Yet long before this the Church established Advent as a time of introspection, where we Christians ought to think long and hard about Christ’s return; or, to say it in the words of John the Baptist, to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

That’s the main idea of today’s passage, by the way.  John the Baptist uses pictures from agriculture.  “The ax is lying at the root,” he says.  The bad trees, those that do not bear good fruit, these ought to be pruned away so that room will be made for good trees.

He says too, “The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”  Chaff is the unwanted stuff, like the skin of an onion or on a clove of garlic.  You peel this stuff off and throw it away, or burn it, in order to get to the good stuff.

That’s like us.  We need to get rid of the unproductive, dried up, tangled, superfluous stuff of our lives and bear good fruit, the fruit of the Spirit—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

This idea of bearing fruit worthy of repentance aligns with today’s New Year custom of making resolutions.  We spend time reflecting over the past year—how we’ve lived our lives, the mistakes we’ve made, the successes we’ve experienced—and we resolve to do some things differently in the year ahead, to abandon some old not-so-good ways and to better ourselves.

What else is this custom but to do exactly what John the Baptist is saying?  Repent—meaning abandon or turn aside from your old ways—and bear fruit worthy of your new ways.

So then, this is all I’m asking of you today: take spiritual inventory.  Do it now, during Advent.  Don’t wait until that lethargic week after Christmas, when most people are too tired to ponder anything requiring much effort.  That sort of introspection just leads to anemic New Year’s resolutions.  Rather, as the Church has wisely allocated, take spiritual inventory throughout this four-week season of Advent.

And don’t just take personal inventory.  That’s where it begins, sure.  What do you need to let go of that gets in the way of your walk with Christ?  How can you serve Christ better in the year ahead?  What do you need to do to bear richer, fuller, plumper spiritual fruit?

These are all good and necessary questions.  So ask them!  But don’t stop with these.  Take spiritual inventory of your relationships.  Who is important to you?  Your husband? wife? son? daughter? parent? partner? coworker? sibling? friend?  And what about things?  I once heard a young person describe her i-Touch in terms of relationship.  Are you so dialed in to a screen that it hinders your maturity in Christ?

But go even one step further and take spiritual inventory of this church body.  Do you know our mission statement?  St. Luke’s is called to do one thing in three ways: according to our mission statement, we are called to illuminate San Antonio with the light of Christ; and the three ways we do this are through: transformative education; compassionate care; and inspiring worship (including music).

Think through this mission statement during Advent.  What are we doing well?  Where should we improve?  Then, please, share your thoughts.  Before the annual meeting!

So, take spiritual inventory this Advent.  Take it with respect to your individual self, take it with respect to your relationships, and take it with respect to this corporate body, St. Luke’s Episcopal Church.  This is the time of the year for it—the most wonderful time of the year, during which we forsake our sins and greet Christ’s coming with joy.

Toasting Credulity

Posted in Reflection with tags , , , on December 7, 2013 by timtrue

I’m half tempted to begin an anonymous blog.

Not that I don’t like this blog.  It was designed with a very specific purpose in mind: to chronicle my journey as a priest in the Episcopal Church.  And to that end it is serving me well.

But there are those times I catch myself wanting to write something, sometimes actually writing something, but refraining in the end from publishing the product.  There have even been a few occasions when I did in fact publish something only to delete it after a second thought.  Once I even let something fester publicly until I’d had a good night’s sleep and a friend expressed concern over it the next day.  According to my stats page eleven people saw that one, none of whom said anything–except the one friend.

I don’t really want to hide anything from anyone.  I’m an open book, as my friends and family members will tell you.  But that’s the problem.  I’m too trusting.  I end up writing something, telling everyone who reads it something personal, something vulnerable, something perhaps risky, maybe to my reputation or something.  Then it’s one of two things: either I’ve unintentionally implicated myself and thereby shocked myself off a pedestal someone wrongly placed me on, or I’ve accidentally embarrassed a loved one into a grudge.  Neither turns out well, generally, despite how nice the former one sounds in princple.

What’s wrong if I out myself as a priest who has an especial affection for craft beers, or who regularly daydreams of opening a motorcycle customization shop, or who believes in ghosts and aliens–or at least in the possibility of them?  What’s the matter with admitting that I have as many struggles with the Christian faith as the next person, if not more?  How can revealing my weaknesses in a public forum be held against me?

But, truth be told, people take issue.

Family members and close friends might call me out for mentioning them in any way that paints them unfavorably–even if that unfavorable paint is fourteen layers deep.  Never mind that my goal is to point at the peculiarities of human nature, peculiarities that make us laugh together, with which many people can identify, and which help us grow upon reasonable reflection.  The fourteen-layer deep implication, I want to say, is noticed by no one except the guilty party.  But, I also want to say, it’s not about you.  Get over yourself.  Sheesh!

Or parishioners form judgments.  “What a shame it is that our priest drinks beer,” someone criticizes; while someone else asks incredulously, “How can he let his children watch shows about soulless bodies?”  Tragic, I know.

Or, and this one really irks me, someone twists something I say out of context.  “To put it bluntly, Tim,” I once heard, “that sermon lacked balls.”  And I thought, thanks for the feedback.  But did you read last week’s sermon?  It was so overwhelmingly weighted with tough love that I thought it best to balance it out this week with grace.  I have something like fifty posts now.  Why don’t you read all of them, twice, before offering such hasty criticism?

So I toy with blogging anonymously.

Then I could say what I really think, like. . . .

Oh, but if I go there now I’ll end up rankling someone, surely.  Don’t want people thinking I’ve got no filters.  I’m a priest after all.  They therefore need to trust me.

But don’t you see the irony?  As an anonymous blogger I can be entirely honest.  I can say it like it is, revealing thoughts both sacrosanct and sacrilegious.  And no one will take offense or think any less of me for it.  Yet I’m not actually being entirely honest, am I, for I’m withholding my identity.

On the other hand, with this real, non-anonymous blog, wherein I’m up front with who I am, my name, my vocation, my struggles, my successes, and so on, I need to be wary, to engage many filters, in order to keep credibility.

Changing parties’ names doesn’t help either, by the way.  For guilty parties recognize themselves in blog posts.  And once a person recognizes him or herself in your blog, even if no one else has the remotest chance of recognizing them, even if they’re buried fourteen layers deep, it’s too late.  Credulity’s toast.  With them anyway.

Fiction’s out too.  It just oozes incredulity from the outset.  By definition, after all, fiction is a falsehood.  Or at least it is to some of my readers.  Never mind that fictional stories often convey more truth than reality.  Like the movie I saw recently called About Time.  Try to explain to someone how good it is to find joy in daily life and they might get it in a surface way.  But take them to see this movie and they’ll get it profoundly.  But for me, a blogger whose identity is known to his readers, fiction pushes readers over credulity’s edge.

So I’ll probably publish this post tomorrow, after I’ve had some time to think on it, to determine whether or not it’s guarded enough, whether or not I’ve incorporated enough filters.  Wouldn’t want to risk losing too much credulity, after all.

Maybe I’ll start a new, anonymous blog tomorrow too–after I’ve had time to sleep on the idea.  But, of course, if I do, I’ll never be able to tell you.

Finding Comfort in Apocalypse

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , on December 1, 2013 by timtrue

Matthew 24:36-44

“When hinges creak in doorless chambers, and strange and frightening sounds echo through the halls; whenever candle lights flicker where the air is deathly still—that is the time when ghosts are present, practicing their terror with ghoulish delight!”

So begins one of my favorite attractions at Disneyland: The Haunted Mansion.

We’ve entered a room through a doorway akin to a mouth, gaping, where we now are packed in tightly with loved ones and strangers—I don’t know, maybe something like fifty of us.  The closed doorway has recently shut all manner of sunlight out; our eyes are still adjusting to the dimness.

Our host’s voice comes to us from somewhere overhead, inviting us to look upward.  There we see eight family portraits lining the upper walls of this octagonal room.  Then, as the voice continues, the room’s floor starts descending; and the portraits extend, revealing that not all things are as they seem.  A nice-looking girl with a parasol, for instance, is now seen to be balancing precariously on a tightrope above a pit filled with hungry alligators!

Finally, as the family scenes reach their full length and after a loud scream, the voice of our ghost-host concludes.  We will take a tour of this haunted mansion via a three-passenger conveyor car.  But watch out, we are warned!  A ghost or a zombie may ride along with us at any moment.

All this, of course, is simply an introduction to the tour itself.  But we don’t necessarily see it that way—as an introduction—especially if it’s our first time.  Rather, it’s a part of the overall experience.  We find it somewhat frightening, sure; but we also take a certain comfort in that, deep down, at the bottom of it all, we know it isn’t actually real.

Today’s Gospel passage is our introduction to the Church year.  And like the introduction to Disneyland’s The Haunted Mansion, some things about the passage may actually frighten us—especially if this is your first cognizant experience of it.

Listen to these words again, and let them sink in a bit:

  • For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man.
  • They knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man.
  • Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.
  • Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.

This is frightening.  There’s a sense of apocalypse here, isn’t there?  Apocalypse: the end of the world as we know it.  That fires the imagination, doesn’t it?  What if, we ask?  What would things be like if there actually were an apocalypse in our lifetime?

But unlike Disneyland’s attraction, where we draw a certain comfort from knowing that deep down it isn’t actually real, in this case of the Gospel we know it is real.  Christ will come again!  And that will mean the end of the world as we know it.  And that’s frightening!

So let’s pause for a moment and consider this idea of apocalypse.  We humans seem to have a certain fascination with it.  For, at the same time, the idea of apocalypse both fires the imagination and frightens us.

Take popular media.  Ever heard of the TV show The Walking Dead?  It’s all about zombies roaming the earth after an apocalyptic event and the humans who struggle to survive.  Or how about the film Warm Bodies?  It’s a comedy about a zombie boy and a human girl who fall in love in a post-apocalyptic world—based loosely on Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.

Now my gut instinct is to laugh at this idea.  A zombie apocalypse?  Pshaw!  Nevertheless, I did a little research, just to see how far back we can actually trace this idea of zombies and their connection to apocalypse.

To qualify, I used the Christian idea that the human person is the union of body and spirit.  When this union is severed, there are unusual results.  A spirit without a body is a ghost.  On the other hand, an animate human body without a spirit—that’s how I define zombie.

And wouldn’t you know?  According to this definition, zombies are there in that oldest of ancient texts, The Epic of Gilgamesh, when the god Anu vows to open the gates of the netherworld and unleash zombies to satisfy his daughter Ishtar’s anger.  They’re also there in the Bible.  Yeah!  In Zechariah 14:12 and Isaiah 26:19-20, the people of Jerusalem are told to hide themselves from a plague of walking corpses.

The point I’m trying to make here is that this idea of apocalypse is nothing new.  It was around in ancient times.  It is around today.  And—guess what?—it was around in Jesus’s day.  Yes, the idea of apocalypse captivated the minds of the ancient Mediterranean peoples too—whether in a Jewish sect like the Qumran community or the Roman aristocracy.

Will there actually be zombies in the Day of the Lord?  We don’t know, truth be told.  But our imagination, our fascination with the idea, and out fright have made room for it.

So, on the one hand, Jesus’s words in today’s Gospel passage are somewhat frightening, for they suggest apocalypse.  But, on the other hand, they are comforting.

They are comforting, not because they are like the Disneyland ride: unreal; but because there is, at the bottom of it all, a greater reality than what we know.  That greater reality is the kingdom of heaven, where we will end up in our liturgical readings fifty-one weeks from today.

The kingdom of heaven is governed by a loving and other-serving King.  Exactly what it will look like and exactly how things will come about—these details are unknown, sure!  And in these uncertain details we might become anxious, perhaps even frightened.  But the big picture is that God is good and loving; we therefore have nothing to fear.  This is real comfort.

But they are comforting words too because they are not just about the end of the world, but about today.  We don’t need to be sweating about the details of what is to come, whether there will be zombies or a rapture or whatever.  Today’s Gospel passage tells us how to live—today!  Whether or not we will experience Jesus’s second coming in our lifetime!

“But understand this,” it says: “if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into.”

How do you protect yourself from a thief?  It takes some thought and preparation: a security system, maybe some insurance, locks on doors and windows.  But then what?  You go on living your daily life.  Perhaps a thief will come someday and rob you of your goods.  Or maybe not.  You don’t know!  And you definitely shouldn’t spend your daily life fretting over it.

That’s life in Christ.  Think about that life; and prepare for it.  Trust Jesus as your savior and Lord.  Be baptized.  Reconcile yourself to your brothers and sisters.  Partake at the Lord’s Table with the saints.  But then what?  Carry on with daily life—as people did in the days of Noah.