Archive for May, 2014

Facing the Only Way

Posted in Homilies with tags , , on May 18, 2014 by timtrue

John 14:1-14

Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.”

I want to begin today with a couple of stories.

The first one comes from the Easter season of 1999, if my memory serves. We were living in Pennsylvania. I was teaching second grade—gaining some life experience, really, while waiting upon God to open the doors into what I truly wanted to do: ordained ministry. Holly was a stay-at-home mom with three pre-school aged kids: Christiana, our oldest, was four; Tori was about to turn three; and Hannah was a newborn. On top of all this we were just getting settled into a new home—at the end of a rural street with all the beauty and field mice you could imagine.

On my birthday that year, during the Easter season, I received a card from my Uncle Don. He’s a psychologist in Portland, Oregon. It was a nice card, for sure. But with it came a hand-written note that shook me up a bit.

“Happy birthday, Tim,” it said, “and happy Easter! You must certainly love this time of the year, with all its significance for you as a Christian. As for me, I see God all around me, in everything—other people, animals, the trees, the flowers. Nature is God for me. Whatever works for a person is fine, as long as they believe in something. Don’t you agree? There are many ways that lead to God.”

Well, that got under my thirty-one year-old Jesus-freak skin!

By this time in modern history email was really catching on, meaning that even my uncle Don was using it. So, without letting the heat of the moment cool—I don’t recommend you do this, by the way—I composed a long and (what I thought) well-reasoned reply.

“Uncle Donald,” I wrote, “I received your card and letter. Thank you, by the way. But I must take issue with your belief about God. There aren’t many roads that lead to God. Not at all! In John 14:6, Jesus declares himself to be the way; and that no one can get to God but through him. Sounds to me like he’s pretty much the only way then! If you believe otherwise—as you clearly do—then it’s as much as to say you think Jesus is a liar. Well, he’s not the deceived one here!”

Oh, I said more, I’m sure. But, curiously, I didn’t hear from my Uncle Don for several years after that.

My second story is more recent. It took place within the past couple of years, while I was in seminary. And it has to do with a certain New Testament professor. Let’s call him Dr. Relativist, or Dr. R for short.

After spending nearly a year under his tutelage, listening to audacious claims about the New Testament, even suggesting a time or two that Jesus might not actually be God incarnate, my friend Joe and I had had enough. So one afternoon the two of us went to Dr. R’s office and confronted him.

“What is faith for you, Dr. R?” we asked.

He replied by saying world religions are like fraternity houses. Yeah! Crazy, eh? But here was his metaphor. A freshman comes to college and decides he’d like to join a fraternity. So he starts looking around, curiously, wondering ultimately what each frat house has to offer him. And, ultimately, he chooses to rush the one that suits him most closely, the one with which he feels the closest alignment.

“So I’m the college freshman,” Dr. R said. “I’ve come to realize that religions—fraternity houses—are important for the world. And I looked around trying to decide which one best suited me. Ultimately, I’ve decided upon Christianity because I’m most comfortable with its traditions and message. But my buddy chose Judaism because it was more comfortable for him. But what does it really matter in the end, for they all accomplish the same thing.”

That was Dr. R’s take, a New Testament professor training people to become priests in the church. Wow!

So, Joe asked Dr. R a question—very much like my challenge to my uncle Don: “What do you make of John 14:6, where Jesus says, ‘I am the way, and the truth, and—’”

But Joe never finished his question. For Dr. R interrupted him and said, “I don’t believe the real Jesus ever said those words.”

Well, what can you do with that? I don’t know. The guy’s a professor of the New Testament; and he doesn’t believe its testimony!

But backing up a little now, what do we do with this larger question? Jesus in fact says he’s the only way—“no one comes to the Father except through me.” But isn’t such a statement the apex of arrogance, as both my uncle and Dr. R seem to think?

How dare Jesus say these exclusive words! Or, to take on Dr. R’s point of view, how dare St. John or the Church or any other group of people put these words in Jesus’s mouth! Don’t we know by now that this attitude has produced untold and incalculable damage to peoples around the world over the past two millennia?

Yes, people have messed things up badly, again and again, claiming the name of Christ. Yes, there have been wars and crimes committed against persons and peoples, demanding that they renounce their religion for the sake of Christ or face dire consequences. Yes, we have used this verse wrongly.

But we can’t get around the fact that it’s here in the canonized writings of the New Testament.

So, what do we do with it?

The answer, like so many other things, is two-sided.

On the one hand we must acknowledge this statement’s truth. When we try to say that Jesus is not the only way, as my uncle and Dr. R do, what we’re really saying is that all religions are getting at the truth; but none of them actually possesses the truth. Or, another way to look at it: all religions are actually saying the same thing: we can try, but we can’t really know God.

But here’s the problem: Christianity says that you can know God. Jesus says it right here in today’s passage. “If you know me, you will know my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him” (v. 7). In fact, this idea that we cannot know God runs counter to the entire New Testament: a testimony of God the Holy Spirit inhabiting everyone who believes. God is not unknowable, as so many want us to think today. But we can only come to know him through Jesus Christ.

So we acknowledge the truth of this statement. But, on the other hand, we must guard against arrogance.

We are self-serving any time we say we’re right and everyone else is wrong. Jesus never did this, did he? No, he admonished the religious leaders who said they knew the truth, that they had it right when everyone else had it wrong. But what else did he do? He served others. He washed others’ feet. He dined with tax collectors and sinners. There’s no arrogance in that! No selfishness, self-righteousness, or self-service! Neither should we as the Church put ourselves first in some self-righteous way!

Here’s the thing. The Bible teaches us many truths about God. Sometimes these truths are hard, like the truth from today’s passage. But it’s not about how right we believers are and how wrong everyone else is. This attitude misses the point. The issue, rather, is how we can love God better now that we know this truth. How can we be the way, and the truth, and the life to others? It’s not about what we say with our words, how we can prove that Jesus is the only way; it’s about what we do.

Serve others; wash others’ feet; and dine with people unlike you.

Book Idea: Chapter 6

Posted in Work in Progress with tags , on May 15, 2014 by timtrue

Danny, that imagined tough boy who quailed at the sleepover with Dad and Uncle Artie, the one who’d said “seven foot man!” and cried inconsolably until his dad came and got him, well, his spook sightings didn’t end there.  Even though he never tried a sleepover again, Danny’s friendship with Dad and Uncle Artie continued.  He continued to come over to Dad’s, especially on lazy summer days, to play.  But he preferred to stay outside.

Dad had set aside most of the memory of Danny’s anti-sleepover, as he calls it.  You know, he was willing to let bygones be bygones.  Dad’s cool like that.  You mess up, reveal your worst to him.  But no matter.  Your secret’s safe.  He doesn’t tell anyone about it, no matter how unusual, embarrassing, or funny—or all three—it is.

So one afternoon in late summer Danny was over, along with some other neighborhood boys, playing a favorite neighborhood game, Ditch-’em.  It was a variation on Hide-and-seek.  Except once the “It” found someone, that someone would then join the hunter to find the hunted, and so on until everyone was discovered.  Boundaries were the property lines—staying outside of all buildings, of course—a generous few acres of mostly avocado trees.

It was here, then, in this setting, when Dad began to make room in his mind for the possibility of the paranormal.  For it was here that Danny revisited his earlier scare.

“Danny, you can come down,” Dad shouted; “I see you.”

The way he tells it, Dad was “It” and was going through the usual rounds in his usual methodical way: starting at the top of the property and moving his way, one row of avocado trees at a time, towards the bottom.  Dad was savvy at this game and knew the best hiding spots.  He had the home team advantage.  And there, near the top of one of the best of the climbing trees on the whole property, Danny sat still as a bird.  He was looking away, up the hillside north of the property line.  And he made no response to Dad’s call, visibly or audibly.

“Come on down, Danny,” Dad said again, louder this time.  “I see you at the top of the tree.”

Still Danny said nothing.  But quietly and quickly he moved his right hand, first in an open-palmed position toward Dad, as if to say halt; then, more slowly, he raised an index finger above his other cupped fingers, as if to shush Dad or to say wait a minute.

Dad humored him.  Another of Dad’s traits is patience, or stubbornness, depending on how you look at it.  He’ll outlast anyone when he wants to.  Besides, this was where all the action was at the moment.  The other boys—the hunted ones—could wait in their respective hiding spots all afternoon for all Dad cared.

Anyway, after a few minutes of this patient stubbornness Danny began to inch his way down.  Another minute or so Dad said, in a conversational volume, “Bird watching?”

“Ssh!” Danny whispered loudly, if that makes sense.  “I saw him again.  And I don’t want him to hear us.”

“Okay,” Dad whispered back, “I’ll play along.  Who’d you see?”

“The seven-foot-man!”

Apparently, according to Danny, the seven-foot-man was bearded, very dirty, greasy-haired like he hadn’t bathed in weeks, wore an olive-drab jacket, and was hungry.  He’d been eating a squirrel, Danny said.

“How come I don’t smell him?” Dad asked.

“You don’t believe me, do you!  You want to see?”

“What, the seven-foot-man?  Yeah!”

“No, not him.  He left.  That’s why I came down.  I figured it was safe.  But the squirrel.  You want to see the squirrel he was eating?”

“Uh, sure,” Dad said, “I guess.”

And so Danny led Dad up the hillside a little way until he thought they were at about the correct spot.  After looking around for a bit, here and there, sure enough they found a fresh squirrel carcass.  And, though Dad said nothing about it, he did actually notice a faint smell to fit Danny’s description–aside from the matted carcass and fresh blood of the squirrel.  Something like rancid milk; something that he’d actually smelled before, distantly, under the spiral staircase.

“See?” Danny said, still whispering.  “What’d I say?”

“Okay,” Dad said, not caring to whisper now.  “But how do you know it wasn’t a—”

Dad was going to say dog.  “But how do you know it wasn’t a dog?”  But before he could get the word out two significant things happened in quick succession: a cause and an effect.  The cause was a rotten avocado hitting Dad squarely in the back—pffft-splat!  And the effect was Danny pointing in the direction he’d been looking earlier, screaming seven-foot-man, and sprinting away, back down the hill towards Dad’s property.

Dad followed , sprinting too, temporarily ignoring the pain in his back, now genuinely frightened, at least a little.  He was skeptical about Danny’s story.  But Danny’s behavior was rather convincing.  And that smell!  Still, the avocado had come from the other direction, the very direction, in fact, into which they now ran.

Up till now Dad thought that perhaps Danny had been making it all up, that the crying and sobbing of the anti-sleepover had actually been some kind of act—albeit a darn good one—to cover up something else; that Danny actually wanted to go home because he merely missed his mommy or something, and feigning fright was worth it, was somehow better in his mind than admitting he was a mama’s boy.  That’s what Dad had come to conclude in his mind since the anti-sleepover.  But now!  No, this wasn’t mama-boy material.  This was something more, something to take more seriously.

On the other hand, there’s something about being outside in the daylight.  Back on the night of the anti-sleepover the boys had been down in a creepy, dark basement, near the mouth of a cave-like undercroft.  (Could this possibly be the lair of the seven-foot-man?)  But today they were outside, in the broad daylight, playing in the avocado orchard, a place that felt more like their turf and therefore somehow less threatening, less fearsome.  Danny and Dad slowed to a walk and then stopped to catch their breath.

They were back at the north end of Dad’s property, at the foot of the same climbing tree in which Dad had first spotted Danny.  But now sounds of puerile laughter erupted all around them.  They were the apparent butt of a joke.

“Nailed!” Artie declared, jumping out from a thicket.  “Man, you shoulda seen your face—” which makes no sense, since Artie had pegged Dad in the back, meaning there’s no way he could have seen his face “—grimacing all like a guppy.”

Two neighborhood boys, Mitch and Jeff, followed Artie out of the thicket laughing loudly and obnoxiously as only middle school boys can do.  Instead of calling them all a bunch of a–holes, as would have been perfectly understandable, Dad decided to laugh it off.  Not before noticing the anxiety still on Danny’s face though.

Some five minutes later, now on the south half of the property with the memory of the seven-foot-man growing distant in direct proportion, and still looking for a boy named Curt, Dad hatched a plan to smooth things over with Danny.

“Artie,” he called, “you, Mitch, and Jeff scope out the east half; Danny and I will take the west.”

Sounding good, they split up.  Then, as Danny went on a little ahead, Dad grabbed an avocado and lobbed it to the right where it hit the ground unseen but not unheard.  Predictably, Danny turned his head in the direction of the sound.

“What was that?” he asked, turning his head quickly but trying to appear composed, as Dad tells it.

“Seven-foot-man!” Dad said tenuously, smiling.

Danny glared at Dad briefly.  But apparently Dad’s smile disarmed Danny; for his glare suddenly softened into a smile.

Then, with Danny looking on, Dad picked up a soft, rotting, graying, stinking, overly ripe avocado; and beckoned Danny to follow.  Quietly they sneaked toward the others.  Danny caught on by now and selected a missile of his own, similarly ripe for duty.  Soon enough they had the other three boys in their sights.  And, wouldn’t you know it, serendipitously Curt stealthed up from behind, having surmised from his hiding spot what was about to take place.  He too had a soft avocado in hand.  So,

“On the count of three,” Dad mouthed, “1-2-3 . . .”

The screams of pain must have been quite gratifying for Dad–I can only imagine.  They certainly seem to have been in his retellings.  But my point is that when Artie, Mitch, and Jeff faced their three assailants, they found two of them pointing in a different direction with scared looks on their faces and shouting, “Seven-foot-man!” entirely unsympathetic to their cries of foul.

And so in time it became a part of their boyhood routine.  Any time they’d hear a strange noise or see something out of the ordinary or find something out of place someone would shout out, “Seven-foot-man!”  Once Dad even shouted it after a bird pooped on Curt at school.  That made everyone laugh.  Even Curt.  Even Danny.

Even so, Dad knew he’d deflected.  He’d turned the fright of his friend into something of a playful joke, a game for the neighborhood kids to play, an addition to Ditch-’em, a variation to a variation of Hide-and-seek.  But he suspected now, and deep down he knew it just had to be true, that something—whether material, phantom, shadow, or spirit—something in fact did live under his creaky spiral staircase.

Book Idea: Chapter 5

Posted in Work in Progress with tags , on May 15, 2014 by timtrue

Sewanee turned out to be all that Dad had promised, and more.

We moved there so that he could attend seminary, to become a master of divinity after three years of full-time study.  It was a thousand miles away from south Texas, where I’d spent my entire life, in a Hill Country town called Fredericksburg.  And it was a different world.

Taking coursework online was not an option.  “There are some seminaries that do it,” I overheard Dad tell Mom one night after I’d left the dinner table, “but the bishop doesn’t send anyone to those schools.  Not yet at least.”

Mom hadn’t liked the idea of relocating, I could tell.  But I also knew that Dad had wanted to go to seminary since his college days, since before Mom and Dad had even met.  I know because he reminded her of this often.  And apparently he’d had the foresight to bring this desire up before they ever got married.  So now Mom really couldn’t get out of it.

She’d always wanted stability above all.  But Dad was determined to go, to disrupt the equilibrium they’d established together over the past fifteen years, as she put it.  Divorce was an option, I suppose, and perhaps if she’d been able to foresee the future she would’ve chosen it.  But I guess she figured that keeping a family together was a better option than staying rooted to a place.  That, and she had no way to see what actually was coming.  Thankfully.

Whenever I thought about it, the unraveling of the braid of friendship with Haley and Veronica made me sad.  At first anyway.  Dad seemed more sensitive to this than Mom.  He assured me we’d make an effort to see them whenever we returned to Texas, at least once a year for the next three years.  In the in-between times, he said, he’d let me use e-mail to write them pen-pal messages and call them on the phone.

Dad was certainly in his element.  He really is an academic at heart.  No doubt he’d longed to get back to such a setting since his college days.  To sit in class a few hours a day, to study and research, to work at his own pace without the stress of supervising employees or teaching students, to stay up late at night discussing the intricacies of historical theology—these things pleased Dad profoundly.

On top of this, Sewanee’s School of Theology was a small part, a graduate program, of a larger university.  For him that meant resources.  He is a true lifelong learner, reveling in all that a liberal arts college has to offer—plays, concerts, chapel services, even a carillon which he soon learned to play.  Not to mention, Sewanee is a huge parcel of land, more than ten thousand acres if my memory serves.  The university buildings and campus-owned housing—the entire village, in other words—takes up maybe a thousand of those acres, meaning there’s a vast amount of naturalness left over.  One Saturday in September in fact, the one just at the beginning of Dad’s third year, he and I hiked the so-called Perimeter Trail, a twenty-something mile footpath that takes you around the parcel’s perimeter—and thus the name—in a single day.  The beauty is some of the best anywhere, with a thick forest canopy eighty feet high and breathtaking views all along the way; the whole place sits atop the Cumberland Plateau, some eight hundred feet in elevation above the plain below.  Thick fog is common; Sewanee sits in the clouds.  Anyway, we left at sunrise and finished up at just before five o’clock with an hour lunch stop along the way at Shenanigans, a local favorite restaurant.  Mom met us there with some friends.

Dad bought an awesome bicycle just before we moved there, a Cannondale with twenty-nine inch wheels and only one arm on the forks, called a “Leftie” by those who care.  “It’s transportation,” he argued.  “I’m thinking we can get by with just one car for our three-year sabbatical.”

In this he was right—that we could get by with one car, I mean; not about it being a sabbatical.  He proved a man of his word too: he rode his bike to class pretty much every day, rain, snow, or shine—until he bought the motorcycle anyway, which I’ll discuss in due time.  We lived a little more than a mile away, so it took him only five minutes or so.  He often rode home and back for lunch too, for exercise, he said.

My school, Sewanee Elementary School, or SES as we all soon always called it, was only a stone’s throw from the seminary.  So, “Guess what, Amelia,” Dad announced one day as he entered the front door a week or so after the first school year had begun; “you’re my riding buddy.”

Yeah, he’d bought me an awesome bike too, a Trek with twenty-four inch wheels, green and black with anodized rims and disc brakes, sized perfectly for me.  I ended up riding with him most mornings in the fall and spring—unless it was raining.  But once the morning low dipped below forty I depended on Mom for rides—until year three at least, about which you’ll hear more later.

When the weather warmed enough in the spring, by that time Mom and Dad were comfortable enough with the place—they felt it safe enough—that I could pretty much ride my bike anywhere I wanted.  Awesome freedom for an eight year-old!  By then, too, I’d made a new bestie, Elena.

She lived a few blocks away.  I rode over to her house a lot during our first full summer; from there we’d ride together to Lake Cheston where we knew the combination to the lock on the university canoe.  We lazed away many a summer afternoon on this small body of water, whether lying on our backs on the floor of the canoe staring up at the blue sky or swimming in the murky warmth, lost in the pleasantness of the moment, lost to the reality that another school year would soon be upon us, lost even—more and more anyway—to the memory of former besties.

So, I don’t know.  What with the paradise of the new environs, the bonding Dad and I experienced most days riding our bikes to school, his omnipresent joy with the place, and the truly fairytale-like life we were now living, again, I had to side with Dad on this one.  We were right to relocate.  Even if it would only last for three years.  Even if I would soon forever lose my mom.

Book Idea: Chapter 4

Posted in Work in Progress with tags on May 15, 2014 by timtrue

I don’t know why I always seemed to take Dad’s side.  I mean, when I sit back and really think about it, Mom always seemed more grounded, to make more sense.

She craved stability.  It’s what her child needed in order to grow into a healthy, well-adjusted adult, she’d say.  “Routine and predictability produce loyalty and integrity,” was just one of her stability-supporting mantras.  It’s a very sensible approach to life in general, granted.

Dad, on the other hand, was a bit of a wild man.  He’d grown up in southern California on a small avocado orchard, skiing, surfing, motorcycling, hiking, and skinny dipping in his spare time.  And if these weren’t enough in their own right, he possessed a certain inherent riskiness, like when a poker player places a great deal of confidence in keeping a straight face—and it pays off more often than not!  Or like when a surfer takes out a board that he knows is slightly too small for the size of the day’s swell because it’s the only one at the ready—but he’d rather be in the water, where the real action is, than posing on the beach.

Now, if you were in a position of discipleship—as all children, students, and employees are wont to be—whom would you want leading you?  Someone determined, resolute, and stable, like my mom?  Or someone risky, even comfortable with a regular high level of chaos, like Dad?  For whatever reason, I prefer the latter.

Even so, all things considered Dad had a way about him that inevitably disarmed me.  Maybe that’s why I’ve always had the utmost sympathy for his causes, convictions, passions, whatever—even when I don’t get them very well.

But that’s just it: whenever I don’t get them, I want to!  But whenever I understood Mom’s schemata, on the other hand, which was most of the time, I actually didn’t want to!

What generosity I felt for Dad, then, well, invert it and that’s how I felt towards Mom.  She was more grounded.  But for me she was too even-keeled, too pragmatic, too practical.  I certainly regret this about myself—that I was never able to be more charitable to Mom.  But I’m wired that way, and you can’t change your wiring, can you?  You can’t change the past either, sadly.

The end result was that Mom often complained of being “the bad guy.”  But, I wish I could tell her now, it never was a competition, as if life was always Dad versus Mom.  Instead, we were always a team—a team, perhaps, that needed some conflict management at times; but a team nonetheless.

Anyway, “It’s called Sewanee,” Dad began.

“Swanny,” I asked, “like that old song?”

“Not ‘Swanny,’ but Se-wa-nee,” he enunciated, “three syllables.  And it’s perched on a foggy mountaintop, a true modern-day fairytale land.  Here, let me show you.”

And he took a folded glossy piece of paper from his back pocket, unfolded it, and set it before us on the coffee table, smoothing it until I was genuinely curious.

“Where’d you get that?” I asked.

“Diocesan library,” he smiled.

He pulled his hands away at last and what I saw impressed me.  A castle-like building built of stone and stained glass, a giant, rose-like window above two oaken doors, thick and solid.  What roof I could see was slate.  All at once I sensed history, mystery, and sacredness.  It almost overwhelmed me.

“They call it All Saints’ Chapel,” Dad explained, “and it’s the centerpiece of the whole town.”

“Damn!” I whispered.

The word exited my mouth almost without my awareness.  It certainly came as an automatic response.  But I was only seven years old, and seven year-olds weren’t supposed to say things like this.

Somewhere along the line, as I became increasingly aware of my gaffe and the awkwardness of the silence became stifling, I gave Dad a stealthy sideways glance only to catch him smiling a little.

But that’s just my point.  I slip up in front of Dad and he smiles.  Mom, on the other hand, would have verbally whipped me over such a slip, no doubt.  And then she’d turn on Dad, for it would somehow be his fault that they had raised such a trash-talking daughter.  Truth be told, I’d actually picked up the habit—for that’s what it was by now—from Haley, not Dad.

Anyway, Dad won the day.  Soon—after a good, long cry on my part—despite my sadness at leaving my two besties behind, probably forever, I was ready to face the adventure ahead.

Book Idea: Chapter 3

Posted in Work in Progress with tags , , , on May 13, 2014 by timtrue

By then I was old enough to have made a couple of really close friends, Haley and Veronica.  It might not seem to adults that kids can make super-close friends.  But these were my besties.  Sure, I couldn’t drive yet, and they lived too far away to walk, and so I was at my parents’ whims as to whenever we could get together outside of school.  But there was a bond of friendship here deeper than most I’ve experienced since.

One day after school, waiting for our parents to finish up and playing on the swings as was typical, I began to suspect that this special braid of a friendship was about to unravel.  It was a Friday, I remember; Haley, Veronica, and I had plans for a sleepover.

“I saw your dad talking to Principal Sheldon today,” Haley said.

“Oh yeah?” I asked, planting my feet in the gravel and stopping my pendulum motion.  Something unusual was in her voice, a tone of urgency.  “What about?”

“I saw them too,” Veronica added, “and I think Principal Sheldon was actually crying.  I didn’t think he ever cried.”

“Yeah, weird,” I answered.

Dad had taught Latin to middle school and high school students for the past three years—and maybe more, but I don’t remember much about school that far back—at St. Augustine’s, where Haley, Veronica, and I attended school.  We were in second grade.

Haley’s dad taught Latin too; and Veronica’s mom was a science teacher.  Which explains why we typically hung out on the playground after school, while our teacher-parents finished up with their daily obligations.

It was a K-12 school, meaning Dad was on the other side of campus most of the week.  But he and I carpooled together every day; and he made an effort to eat lunch with me once a week or so—usually with Haley and Veronica inseparably tagging along.

I appreciate these things a lot now, miss them achingly at times even, occasionally wondering why they had to end at all, why Dad had to be so eager—or restless—to pursue his paranormal musings.

“And I’m not sure,” Haley continued, “but I think Mr. Sheldon might have said a bad word: ‘bastard.’  That’s what I think he said, anyway.  And I think he said this to your dad, Amelia, like he was calling him a name.  But your dad just laughed.”

I don’t really remember any more of this conversation, or even what took place that night.  We probably had our sleepover.  And, if so, I’m sure we had a great time.  But for some reason I remember this conversation—the urgency in Haley’s voice, the unusualness in Mr. Sheldon’s crying, Haley saying bastard so matter-of-factly, like a grownup—and the abrupt change to come over my feelings, like it was yesterday.

It was like I’d just drunk a tall glass of rancid milk.

I also remember how vividly these feelings surfaced again a few weeks later when Mom told me that we’d be moving at the end of the school year.

“But why?” I asked, fighting desperately to hold back the tears that were so quickly rising.

“So that Daddy can complete his education,” Mom said, trying to sound reassuring, I’m sure, but actually sounding patronizing.

“But why do we have to move away for this to happen?” I asked.

“It’s just the way the Church does it, dear.  A three-year program.  Then we’ll come back.”

And all at once I was thoroughly annoyed.  “Three whole years!” I shouted.  “Then I’ll be in sixth grade.  That’s middle school!  That’s my childhood!  What about Haley and Veronica?”

“Listen, I knew this would upset you.  I told your dad it would.  But the decision’s been made.  Let’s try to make the most of it, yeah?”

“I need to talk to Dad,” I demanded and stormed out of the room.

Gate Contemplation

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on May 11, 2014 by timtrue

John 10:1-10

I am the gate.

These are Jesus’s words here. We usually like to focus on what follows, when Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd.” But here Jesus specifically says gate. Jesus is the gate.

In this word, gate, there is a certain sense of exclusivity, isn’t there? Consider: a sheepfold in the ancient world was an area closed off by a tall rock wall; completely enclosed except for one opening, the gate. The sheep were led into the sheepfold by way of this gate every night as a place of protection from predators and thieves. They were led out to pasture in the morning, when the sun was up, when the shepherd could easily see predators and thieves by day. But by night, when it was too dark to see, the sheepfold provided boundaries, allowing the shepherd to hear a thief or predator trying to climb over the wall and thereby to defend the sheep. The gate, then, is the way in and out of this protective boundary.

But exclusivity rankles our modern sensibilities, doesn’t it? After all, the church is not some protective boundary from the world, not some place to which we’re supposed to retreat every Sunday for protection from the bad ones of the world, the thieves and predators. Rather, the church is supposed to go out into the world, from Jerusalem to Judea and all Samaria to the ends of the earth. It is the means through which God is realizing the Kingdom. We’re trying to include unbelievers, not exclude them!

Besides, isn’t exclusive thinking at the root of social evils like racism, caste systems, and war?

Exclusivity rankles us, yes. The other side of this coin, inclusivity, feels much better. At least to us. Today. In the twenty-first century. In the Episcopal Church.

And it feels better for good reasons, reasons based on God’s love. God has called us to an outward love, a love that focuses on the other, a love we demonstrate towards our neighbor, someone who is different than I am. It’s easy to love myself. It’s hard to love my neighbor.

But what about inclusivity? Can we take it too far?

At the last general convention of the Episcopal Church, the diocese of Eastern Oregon called for us to consider what they call an Open Table. What they mean by this is a Communion Table open to everyone, regardless of belief, religion, or practice. So, for instance, a practicing Muslim ought to be able to come to the Communion Table if he likes, they say.

This is an inclusive idea, one aligned with radical hospitality.

Yet the naysayers—of which I am one, by the way—say that according to history, tradition, theology, and even Jesus’s words, the sacrament of Communion is only for baptized Christians. Some naysayers I know, including a former seminary professor of mine, go so far as to say that an Open Table is promiscuous!

In any event, we naysayers aren’t inclusive here, but exclusive.

But do you know there was a time in the Church’s history when a practice called “fencing the Table” was the norm? In 1873, in fact, a group split off from the Protestant Episcopal Church of the USA for this very reason, because we did not allow baptized Christians to take Communion unless they were Episcopalians. Methodists were fenced from the Table! Baptists were fenced! This group today is called the Reformed Episcopal Church, by the way. Back then we were too exclusive for them. The irony is that today we’re too inclusive for them to consider a merger.

So, do you ever wonder—like me—if maybe we’re focusing on the wrong thing? Ever wonder if we’re focusing so much on inclusivity and exclusivity that we begin to lose sight of the actual gate?

By day we’re out to pasture. It’s warm and sunny; there’s delicious grass to munch on. But we feel a little vulnerable. We wonder if we’re in the right neighborhood, if our kids are hanging out with the right friends, or how to outsmart the sheep next to us. Our thoughts move in the direction of exclusivity.

But by night we’re safe inside, in our enclosure, protected. And we begin to think about those poor, lost sheep outside of the fold. How can we help them? Who will go to them and show them the way to the gate? Our thoughts move in the direction of inclusivity.

The church’s history is a giant pendulum-swing.

But Jesus’s point is that he is the gate. Through it—no, through him—we find safe pasture. Through him we find shelter and protection. Through him, as today’s passage says so clearly, we may have life and have it abundantly.

This is our end, then: abundant life. In our day-after-day routines—waking up, making coffee, eating breakfast, commuting, accomplishing whatever tasks at work or school, praying, reading, studying, watching TV, walking the dog, watering the lawn, deciding whether to be inclusive or exclusive in any given situation—we may know rich abundance, profound joy, in all of this, if we just keep our focus on the gate.

But how? That’s the question, isn’t it? I don’t think there’s a person in here who doesn’t want to experience profound joy in his or her day-to-day routine. And if Jesus is the gate, then keeping our focus fixed upon him is the key to the gate, so to speak.

Well, then, how do we do it? I offer a few suggestions from the text.

First, don’t try to enter by another way. This seems to be one of Jesus’s main points, doesn’t it? There is a sheepfold with only one gate, the port of entry. Anyone who tries to get in by another way—climbing over the wall, dismantling the wall, or whatever—is not the gatekeeper or the shepherd or the sheep, but a thief or bandit. These are not friendly words.

A popular notion today is that there is more than one way to eternal life. Some will say it’s reincarnation, others enlightenment, others still that a life of good works will get you there. Now I don’t know about any of that. But I do know that Jesus Christ says he’s the way. And he left us two great sacraments: baptism and the Lord’s Supper. He has also left us the church and its proven traditions like prayer, scripture reading, and fellowship. Why try entering by another way?

Next, don’t try to enter on your own. Always in this passage we see sheep in the plural. The sheep enter and exit through the gate together. There is also the suggestion that lost sheep join the regulars, thereby becoming part of the flock. But my point here is community. We should engage in the sacrament of baptism together. That’s some of the reasoning behind godparents. It’s the same with the Eucharist and the traditions I already mentioned: do them in community.

A final suggestion: learn to recognize Jesus’s voice. He is the gate. But, as the text goes on to say, he is also the good shepherd. He knows the sheep; and the sheep know his voice.

So what do I mean here, that we need to learn to recognize Jesus’s voice? Just this: it’s a matter of worldview. It’s not just listening for Jesus in spiritual matters—in the church, in sacraments, and in traditions. But it’s listening for Jesus in all of life. You watch a movie or a TV program, or you read a book. Where was Jesus in it? What is Jesus saying to you in your Facebook habits? When you enjoy a family meal together, how is Jesus speaking to you through it? You see? It’s all of life. Jesus is the gate, and also the good shepherd, in a comprehensive way, in all of life. We need to listen for his voice in everything.

Jesus is the gate so that we might live a life of profound joy, a life of abundance.

Book Idea: Chapter 2

Posted in Work in Progress with tags on May 5, 2014 by timtrue

That was Dad’s profound boyhood experience.  Or part of it anyway.  Other significant elements from his boyhood will surface in time.  But as far as setting the stage for the discernment interview, this will be enough.

So, “Tell us why you’d like to be an Episcopal priest,” they asked.

It was the why that troubled him, he says.  “Why couldn’t they have asked something simpler, like, ‘Outline your faith journey,’ or, ‘Can you explain the priestly vocation?’  But they had to ask why.”

See, one of Dad’s faults—if it is a fault—is that he’s too honest.

His answer to the question, his honest and true answer, the answer he wanted to give, the answer he almost gave, in fact, stems from his profound boyhood experience.  For of course this experience had led him into a lifelong quest of the paranormal.  And along the way he’d become convinced that ghosts are merely souls separated from physical bodies.

“That’s why there are ghosts in the first place,” he says.  “Think about it.  What characterizes all the stories you’ve ever heard about ghosts?  It’s trauma, isn’t it?  Something traumatic happened at the time of death—a murder, or a car accident, or fighting in a battle, or whatever.  The soul gets separated from the body—that’s what death is, after all—suddenly, unexpectedly.  It’s caught off guard, taken by surprise.

“And something in the surprise keeps them here; something about it makes it so they can’t pass into the realm of the afterlife.  And they end up forever restless.

“They want to go to a place of rest.  But they can’t.  So they’re miserable, wretched, uncomfortable, even haunted by the memory of life and by still inhabiting this material world, this place where they don’t belong.

“They’re the ones who are really haunted, after all, not us.

“So what I want to do is help them find a way into the afterlife place, that place of peace; to help them to heaven, if you like.”

But he couldn’t tell the discernment committee that, could he?  He didn’t think so.  “They’d have just looked at me like I was crazy,” he says, “more in need of mental help than someone cut out to lead others spiritually.”

In the end, then, he told his interviewers that he desired to minister to needy souls.  Not the whole story, sure; but the truth nonetheless, or enough of it to satisfy his conscience.