Archive for November, 2015

Rather Grayer than Black and White

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , on November 29, 2015 by timtrue

31012.dng_109_1_edited-2

John 21:25-36

 

Oh, the weather outside is frightful,

But the fire is so delightful;

And since we’ve no place to go,

Let is snow, let it snow, let it snow.

 

But it doesn’t snow in Yuma.  Ever.  Except once, in December, 1932.  So, we change the lyrics:

 

Oh, the weather outside is frightful,

But your lips are so delightful;

And since marriage is such bliss,

Let us kiss, let us kiss, let us kiss.

 

Whatever the case—whether we’re carefree in front of a fire or sharing a blissful moment with a loved one—’tis the season, yeah?

Shiny toys line the aisles of local stores; seasonal specials advertise themselves from flashy, attention-grabbing signs; and catchy tunes piped through unseen speakers get us tapping our feet and daydreaming of sugar plums.

Holiday cheer envelopes us.  We lose ourselves in the carefree, blissful nature of it all.

But then we come to church.  And we hear today’s Gospel.

 

There will be signs in the sun, the moon, and the stars, and on the earth distress among nations confused by the roaring of the sea and the waves.  People will faint from fear and foreboding of what is coming upon the world, for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.

 

And we scratch our heads.

Why, we wonder, is the holiday cheer all around us so carefree and blissful; yet the Church’s message of Advent is so doomy and gloomy?  I mean—I don’t know about you, but—if I had the choice I think I’d rather be out with the carefree and blissful bunch than in here.

Many of you know that as a boy my parents divorced.

I was on the cusp of thirteen years old, just about to finish seventh grade, when I heard my older brother upstairs crying.  He wasn’t one to cry typically, so I ran up to see what was the matter.  And there he stood with my mom, who had just told him—I was about to learn—that she and my dad were separating.  They got along fine, sure; they just didn’t have much in common anymore.

For the next few years, all became doom and gloom for me.  I stopped running with the track team.  I stopped taking piano lessons.  I started listening to Pink Floyd.  A lot of Pink Floyd!  Life seemed desperate.

Then I learned of a group meeting on my high school campus for Bible study.  Maybe I’d find some answers here, I thought.  So I began attending.  And, yes, here were some answers.  In fact—the leaders encouraged me—here were all the answers I needed.  The Bible, they said, the B-I-B-L-E: Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth.

Now all became clear.  It was all black and white, right here before my eyes.  And whatever questions the Bible didn’t address—well, if they weren’t good enough for Jesus then they weren’t good enough for me.

Life might be messy, but here I’d found my holiday cheer.  I could walk down the aisles of life tapping my feet to piped in music and otherwise telling myself that all was carefree bliss.

But as I grew in my faith I began to understand that the Christian life isn’t all carefree bliss.  Marriage isn’t all about sitting on the couch and losing oneself in the kisses of another.  Relationships aren’t all shiny and catchy and sugar plums and holiday cheer.  Sometimes disagreements surface.  Sometimes disagreements and differences become irreconcilable.  Differences between Christians!  Christians, who both love and serve God and desire to glorify Christ in all they do!

Was it all therefore a sham, I wondered, some sophisticated Santa story to dupe the world into believing an unrealistic ideal; when really, deep down, we all knew—all the grownups knew at any rate—that really there is no such ideal?  Not in this life, anyway?  That the world is all just going to burn up someday?  That it’s all just gloom and doom, so what’s the use?

So: Good grief!  What’s the real Advent story?  Is it carefree bliss or doom and gloom?

The Advent story—especially in this first week of Advent, when Christ the King Sunday is still fresh in our memories—looks to Christ’s comings. Yes, comings, I said: in the plural.  Meaning both of them.  During Advent, we look back to his birth; but also ahead to his second coming.  And thus we live in a tense contrast between cheer and gloom.

Cheer: so we shop and laugh and tap our feet to catchy tunes and sip hot chocolate with friends and decorate our homes.

And gloom: we go to church and hear of apocalyptic portents that will come upon the world and all creation: no one—not a star, planet, person, tree, or insect—will escape.

Advent is a time of tension.

By the way, we see just this contrast in various Christian churches and denominations.

Some churches focus almost exclusively on Christ’s first coming, his birth, his Incarnation.  These churches are generally optimistic in their overall outlook.  They see their calling as making the present world a better place.  And so they go out into the world—whether through outreach or evangelism—with ready answers.  Jesus is all the world really needs, they reason; and so, like Bob the Builder, they ask, “Can we fix it?” and they answer themselves, “Yes, we can!”

Other churches focus excessively on Christ’s second coming, when this age we know will come to an end.  It’s going to end, they say; and there’s not much we can do about it.  What we can do is make sure our individual walks with Christ are up to par.  And so these churches tend to focus more on individual discipleship.  Instead of going out into the world, the church becomes a haven of rest, or shelter, from the world.  These churches are generally pessimistic in their overall outlook.

But—hold the phone!—it’s not so clear as all that.  It’s not so black and white.  It’s not either holiday cheer or doom and gloom.  Advent reminds us of this.  In Advent, we are living in a very real tension between the two.

When we look at the Advent story closely, we see that Jesus’ comings are not so much about either cheer or gloom as they are, collectively, about hope.

As followers of Jesus Christ, hope is our reason to rejoice despite the truth that we live in a world that’s falling apart.

No one said the Christian life would be easy.

That was my mistake.  As a recent convert, I thought everything was crystal clear.  Jesus gave me all the answers I needed, right?  The other questions weren’t worth asking.  I had the Bible.  What else did I need?

And so I set out with my church to change the world.  We had all the answers we needed; so should the world.  We were determined to fix everything.

But as time went on this thinking discouraged the dickens out of me.  I was confronted by some of life’s messy realities.  Answers weren’t easy to come by.  Sometimes, no answers were available at all.

So I flip-flopped: I lost all idealism in the present and placed it only in the future and joined a church which believed and taught the same.  This world would all burn someday and Jesus would return to rapture all his faithful followers away with a trumpet blast.  And the sooner the better, as far as we were concerned!  We were walking with Jesus.  That was all that mattered.

But there is a middle way—a way between the first and second advents of Jesus Christ, a way between idealistic cheer and excessive gloom.  That middle way is hope.

Hope is about addressing fears and ideals in context, without focusing too much on one or the other.  Hope looks both ways—both going out into the world to share the good news and deeds of Jesus Christ; and engaging in personal spiritual disciplines, in growth as disciples.  Unlike idealistic cheer and excessive gloom, hope is authentic.

But it is all rather grayer than black and white.

Life is messy.  Following Christ doesn’t give us all the answers.  But we do have hope.

That’s what Advent shows us.

Belonging to the Truth

Posted in Homilies with tags , , , , , , , , , on November 22, 2015 by timtrue

FatherTim

John 18:33-37

What is truth?

Is truth relative?  Or is it absolute?

If it’s relative, then what’s true for me doesn’t have to be true for you.

Now, there’s wisdom in this sort of thinking—that truth is relative.  It doesn’t take us long to see.  Right now, for instance, on the world stage there are people who believe that western thinking is wrong, and that all westerners deserve to die.

For me, anyone who possesses a personal truth, a doctrine, that prejudges another person or group of people because of race, color, creed, or ideology—well, that’s no “truth” for me.

So, what’s true for you doesn’t have to be true for me.

But we can go too far with this kind of thinking.

Like that time in college when a friend of mine declared, “There’s no such thing as absolute truth!”

And I said, “Are you absolutely sure?”

Absolute truth is a concern of all the great religions of the world.  Is there any sort of truth—or, if you like, are there some ideologies or doctrines—applicable to all humanity?  Is there some kind of moral code by which all people, regardless of era, civilization, or culture, ought to live?

The Golden Rule, maybe?  Or love?

If so—if there is such a thing as absolute truth, something applicable to all humanity regardless of time and place—then we’ve found a key to one of life’s great mysteries, a principle by which all people should live.

Nevertheless, whatever the case, persons, people, and whole nations can’t agree.  And the debate continues.

Is truth absolute, or is it relative?

But what if we’re asking the wrong question?

Today’s Gospel teaches us a lot about truth.

Near the end of the passage, Pilate asks Jesus a leading question about his identity: “So you are a king?”

Jesus answers, “You say that I am a king.  For this I was born, and for this I came into the world, to testify to the truth.  Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

If Jesus is a king at all—and we all know he is—then his is a kingdom of truth.  To testify to the truth is why Jesus was born; it’s why he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.  Everyone who listens to his voice belongs to his kingdom.  Everyone who listens to his voice belongs to the truth.  Christ’s kingdom is a kingdom of truth.

But Pilate doesn’t get it.

For what does the very next verse say?

We ended with verse 37.  We ended with Jesus declaring, “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Then—verse 38 says—“Pilate asked him, ‘What is truth?’”

What is truth?

Well, Pilate, you think that Jesus and his kingdom are no threat to you.

You, Pilate, think that you’re the most powerful, in-control person in all of Jerusalem.  After all, the truth is, you are the local representative of Rome, of Caesar himself.  No human being is more politically powerful than you.

And you think, Pilate, that an ideological kingdom, a kingdom of truth, a kingdom not of this world, is no threat at all to you or Caesar.

And so you ask, “What is truth?” and you go out to Jesus’ opponents and tell them, “I find no case against him.”

BUT, Pilate, reality—in other words, the truth—is not what you think.

Despite that you think yourself so powerful, Pilate, you are obviously trapped in fear.  That’s the reality here.  Jesus’ opponents, the “underground” leaders of the community, want him crucified.  If you don’t give them what they want, who knows what kind of uprising will follow?  And then, what will Rome think of you?  You fear the answers to these questions, Pilate, don’t you?

Despite that his is an ideological kingdom, Pilate, this kingdom of truth is in fact a very real threat to you, your power, and the political kingdom of Rome.  For, despite what you think, Jesus’ teachings are very subversive when it comes to allegiance.  For Jesus’ followers, when it comes to either the kingdom of Rome or the kingdom of God, Rome takes second place every time.

So, you, Pilate, are in denial.

Maybe the question we should ask, then, is not whether truth is relative or absolute. Maybe it’s more about reality.  What is the reality into which Jesus calls us to live?  What is the truth that is Christ’s kingdom?  And what traps us in fear of living into that truth?

Journalist Jonathan Darman tells the story of a U. S. senator who wanted to make a public statement, after the fact, that he had acted against his better judgment when he voted to authorize the war in Iraq.  This senator wanted to declare that he’d made a mistake and offer a public apology.  So he wrote three drafts of an op-ed article.  But in every draft, his aides either deleted his confession altogether or tempered it to say, “I was misled.”

For this senator’s aides, maintaining power was more important than being honest.  And thus the senator was trapped.

Is that what our fears are about?  Maintaining position?  Do we fear what we would lose by being honest, authentic, real?

I wonder how many of us live in this fear.  Many of us enjoy our creature comforts.  Many of us have nice homes and comfortable cars; and we take expensive vacations.  Fine and well.

But to what extent do we go in order to enjoy these things?  Are we real with respect to our public personas?  Do our colleagues at work really know us—what we think, what we believe in, what makes us tick?  Or do we put up a front, out of fear of losing our jobs?

We’ve got to pay the mortgage, after all.  And the car payment.  And the credit card debt.

These things can trap us into denying reality—or avoiding it, or fearing it.

And what about the Church?

This question has been on my mind and heart a lot lately, especially after the recent pastoral letter from Bishop Mathes.

Today is known as Christ the King Sunday, the last Sunday of the liturgical year; next week Advent begins, the Christian New Year.  So, is Christ our King?  Do we in fact give all allegiance to Jesus Christ, trusting completely in his divine sovereignty, as we declare on this day?

The Church has grown accustomed to certain creature comforts.

But studies have demonstrated that the mainline Christian churches, including the Episcopal Church, have experienced steady decline in membership over the last four decades.  America is becoming increasingly post-Christian.  St. Paul’s is losing its place of influence in and around Yuma.

So, I’ve got to ask, are we trapped in fear of this reality?

Some of the Episcopal Church’s parishes are living in denial, following models of congregational development that once seemed effective but no longer address the realities of today’s world.  Leaders of such parishes say things like, “We’re just trying to be faithful to what Jesus calls us to do.”

Other parishes acknowledge the reality; but they try to avoid it.  They are trapped by fear of the unknown, or they suffer from that age-old disease called analysis-paralysis.

Still others temper their message and mission, like that senator’s aides, in a desperate effort to maintain position.

But the Church professes Christ as King.  Shouldn’t the Church live out its profession?

After Pilate asks Jesus the first time, “Are you the king of the Jews?” Jesus turns the tables and asks him a very revealing question:

“Do you ask this on your own, or did others tell you about me?”

Jesus asks Pilate this revealing question and thus invites him to be honest, to be real, to be authentic.  It’s as if Jesus says, “Listen to me, Pilate.  Be true.  Be real.”  “Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.”

Do you see?  Even to Pilate, Jesus offers to be the good shepherd; Jesus offers Pilate the opportunity to belong to the truth.

But Pilate refuses.  Pilate dismisses Jesus’ offer, asking with disdain, “What is truth?”

It’s the same with us.  Jesus invites us to be authentic.  Jesus is offering to us—as individuals and as the Church—to be our good shepherd, the opportunity to belong to the truth.

So now it’s our turn.

Will we be like Pilate, refusing the truth, dismissing Jesus’ offer?

Or are we ready to receive it?

Fellowship Follow-up

Posted in Reflection with tags , , , , , , , , on November 20, 2015 by timtrue

Sewanee fall

Back on August 8th I announced via this blog that I would be enjoying a fellowship-in-residence for almost two weeks in Sewanee, Tennessee, care of the University of the South’s School of Theology, my alma mater.

It wasn’t to be what one might consider a typical fellowship awarded from a seminary, to research and otherwise work on some translation of a desert father or some such.  Don’t get me wrong.  This type of fellowship has its place.

Mine was an unusual proposal: to study Sewanee ghostlore and work on a piece of fiction set in and around Sewanee.

You see, Sewanee ghostlore was something that always intrigued me during my three years as a resident there.  But I never had the time to get into it.  I was studying to become a master of divinity, after all, which meant (with five kids in tow) I also had to be a master of time management.

But this fellowship should give me some time, I reasoned.  Twelve days, to be exact, to focus on the shadowy side of Sewanee.

The timing helped too: Halloween was smack dab in the middle of the fellowship.

So I wrote my proposal (some time ago) and followed up and begged and followed up some more and pleaded and followed up some more and wheedled and whined and followed up some more and, lo and behold, they awarded it to me.

So I went.

And it was everything I’d hoped for.

Even more.

It gave me nearly two weeks to wander the campus, interview long-time residents, attend special lectures, hike the perimeter trail, enjoy meals with friends and family (two of my kids attend college there), watch some scary movies, and write, write, write.

I came home with 20,000 words of a first draft and an outline–should tap out at about 60,000 words–and hopefully enough momentum to continue the discipline in order to have a first draft by spring.

We’ll see.

Stay tuned.

In the meantime, a story from my time on “the mountain.”

It was October 30, nearly midnight.  I was attending a telling of Sewanee ghost stories in an old building on campus, the library archives building.

One of the librarians who was well-versed in Sewanee ghostlore started out.

We learned about the Perambulating Professor, an apparition who will join folks walking after dusk on Tennessee Ave., sometimes with his dog.

We heard accounts of the McCrady woman.  McCrady is a dorm.  Apparently several people–students and staff alike–have encountered her, always in a purple dress with long brown hair, wandering the halls.

And we discovered that there is an unpredictable poltergeist in another dorm, Tuckaway, who slams doors and opens windows and has even locked a student in his room for several hours–despite substantial efforts to unlock and even unhinge the door!

Then she told us about the very building in which we were seated, about twenty-five of us.  Sometimes the stairs would creak as if someone were walking up them even though no one was around.

By now it was well after midnight and, okay, I’ll admit it, we were a little spooked.

The librarian asked us if we knew of any stories.

A few personal experiences were shared, thus intensifying the spookiness some, sure.

People seemed restless.

And quiet.

But I didn’t want the night to end.

Not yet, anyway.

I mean, I had to walk back across campus, after all.  DARK parts of campus.  Let’s keep it going, I thought, just a little while longer.

So, being a priest and a graduate of the university’s seminary I asked,

“Does anyone know anything about the chaplain blessing a building?”

And, “Oh my gosh!” a girl two seats to my right exclaimed.

“It was during orientation this year.”

And this girl, who’d not said a word all night, began to relate her experience with big, big eyes and lots of body language.

“One day when I came into my room, I saw something dark.  At first I thought it was a person, so I said, ‘Hey, what are you doing in my room?’  But it just vanished.  So I thought it was just my imagination.  But then my roommate experienced it too!”

And she went on, telling her story, animating it with big freshman eyes–full of adventure and wonder–arms and hands waving and flailing, to get her point across; and–just when she was in the height of the suspensefullest part–she took a breath–to reload–and just as she took a breath–we all heard it–a low, loud growling sound came from underfoot!

She never finished her story.

Instead, like a clap of thunder, the whole room collectively screamed and slammed their hands down on the big table we were all sitting around, to push themselves up, grabbed their backpacks and purses and began sprinting pell-mell for the doors!

It was mayhem!

And I threw my head backwards and laughed out loud until I saw stars.  This was definitely worth the price of admission!

And just then–just as the mayhem was mounting to its fullest measure–the librarian stood up and waved her arms and shouted, “Stop!  It’s just the plumbing!  It makes that noise all the time!”

Just the plumbing?

Huh.

Well, yes, the mayhem ceased.

But within five minutes we’d all dismissed ourselves and were on our respective ways–students to their dorms and me to my room in the Inn, across dark parts of campus.

I must say, though, that I was laughing too hard all the way to my room to be spooked.

Anyway, the fellowship was wonderful!  I’ll keep you posted as the book progresses.

Recharging

Posted in Musings with tags , , , on November 20, 2015 by timtrue

Funny thing about being a priest, I find that I have less opportunity to recharge spiritually now than before I was ordained.

I don’t know, maybe it’s something to do with the work environment.  Before I was a priest, I used to walk into a worship space and fairly easily lose some sense of space and time, fairly easily enter into some sense of divine presence.  Now, as a priest, I’m so focused on producing a worshipful space for others that I myself have difficulty finding it.

Anyway, today I simply want to give one answer (there are others) to the question, What do I do to recharge spiritually?

DSCF2886DSCF2893DSCF2904DSCF2894DSCF2883DSCF2884DSCF2899DSCF2903DSCF2887DSCF2888DSCF2889DSCF2891DSCF2890DSCF2900DSCF2892DSCF2897DSCF2896DSCF2895DSCF2905DSCF2898DSCF2906DSCF2901

These photos are from some hikes I’ve taken recently.  Arizona has some awesome wilderness.  And the wilderness, well, you know, there’s a precedent from people like Moses, John the Baptist, the desert fathers, even Jesus himself.

Not ready to fast forty days yet though.

Not really wanting to meet Satan out here either.