Friday, December 18, 2009

A Blessedly Stressful Advent

Very quickly, in the midst of the stress and anxiety that can curse this time of holy Advent expectation, let me share a moment in the life of my congregation.

A couple of days ago, I took a moment to stop and notice what was going on at St. Andrew’s in a single late morning and early afternoon. In the entryway, one man was gathering up containers others had brought for the lunch program at the Kansas City Community Kitchen. Down the hall, a group of women were gathering for Bible study. Downstairs, 14 people were loading packets of food into backpacks to help feed poor children from our partner school during Christmas break. Soon after, seven people were sitting around a table revamping the church’s website to make it easier to use for newcomers and members alike. And in the office, staff and volunteers were doing the mostly unseen and unsung work of caring for people in trouble, preparing worship booklets for Christmas Eve, tracking the money, distributing assistance to strangers in need, keeping the building in good shape, and responding to scores of e-mails and phone calls.

In addition to all the activity, and the love it embodies, what struck me was the fact that this was simply a day in the life. Granted, it’s late Advent; and that means everything is cranked up a few notches. But basically, this is just what we do here.

So maybe I need to see all that pre-Christmas stress and anxiety through a different lens. In this moment, and at all moments, we’re getting ready for the Savior to come among us –- next week, as a child in the cold; and finally, as the Lord of all. This kind of work is not exactly contemplative, but it’s certainly necessary preparation for God-With-Us.

So –- a blessedly stressful Advent to you.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Heading Home ... and Beyond

Friday, Nov. 20, 1:27 p.m.

It's been a blessedly easy morning so far. Things got complicated last night when we were told the departure time from Cayes had been moved up a half hour (schedules are rather flexible here). So we dutifully asked Colbert to pick us up at 5:15 a.m. for a 6:30 flight. When we got to the airport, the gate was locked – we had beaten the employees, as well as the airline manager who held our tickets. So we stood around for (hmmm...) a half hour waiting to go inside. As it turned out, our flight left at the originally scheduled time after all, 7 a.m. At least we got to watch the sunrise.

The other small glitch this morning was the absence of running water at Hosanna House. I guess I didn't really need that shower after all.

For me, at least, a trip like this defies quick and clear conclusions. As we've each said more than once, it will take some time to process what we've done and seen and heard. But as far as themes go, it's probably worth paying attention to the Gospel reading for today from the Daily Office lectionary. Here's part of that passage:

“Take care that you do not despise any one of these little ones [children]; for I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father. What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the 99 on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the 99 that never went astray. So it is not the will of your Father in heaven that any of these little ones should be lost.” (Matthew 18:10-14)

Every child counts, even (especially) those most of us never see. God sees each of them, no matter how remote their village, no matter how desperate their circumstances, no matter how easily we might write them off. In God's eyes, no children are so lost that God's people should stop looking for ways to reach them. It may seem like a pipe dream to imagine the children of Maniche graduating from middle school and being prepared for a trade beyond sharecropping. But it's not. Such a transformational future is within the grasp of our two partner congregations. That which God purposes God also blesses. So if we're faithful to our calling, if we resist the temptation to deny the power of new creation God shares with us, then we can be the agents who bring such a miraculous future to life.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

The Last Day

Thursday, Nov. 19, 10:48 p.m.

I think we're all ready for it to be the last day. And yet, as we passed out of Maniche this afternoon for the last time, I think we all were leaving with some sadness because we've become, in some small way, a part of this community. As Chris and Kathy both said, we recognize individual kids by this point – some we'll miss and some we'll be just as happy to leave behind, frankly, as would be the case if any of us spent a week at any school in Kansas City. We've enfleshed the connection we remember every Sunday as we offer prayers for “our partner school in Maniche, Haiti.” Now, that connection has been lived out through time in the classroom, time playing volleyball, time walking home with students, time meeting with parents and teachers. So we'll miss our extended family once we're gone.

Today was relatively easy, as far as work goes – which was a good thing considering how tired all of us have become. We got there in time to watch the flag ceremony in front of the newly painted school, which was very satisfying given the pieces of our souls we left there scraping and painting and running down supplies. Then we worked with the students in each class to make Christmas cards for the people of St. Andrew's. As in past years, we'll offer parishioners the chance to sponsor kids in Maniche by purchasing Christmas cards during the four Sundays of Advent. The difference this year is that the cards will have been made by the child being sponsored, will feature his or her photo, and will include a little biographical information. So look for some seriously cute drawings in the Jewell Room this year.

We also gave each child a dose of de-worming medication. Among the challenges the kids face is intestinal parasites that consume many of the scarce calories the kids consume. These parasites come from infested water, contaminated hands, and through the sole of the feet from the dirt. We left additional pills for two more administrations later in the year.

Late in the morning, we facilitated a meeting between the parents and the teachers. We had notified the parents about the meeting during church on Sunday, and we'd mentioned it on our walkabouts to the kids' homes. But we had no idea how many parents might actually show up. Last time a team attempted a similar meeting here, a grand total of one parent came. Today, we had more than 50. The teachers got to voice their frustrations about kids not doing homework and coming to school out of uniform; the parents got to voice their frustrations with being unable to track homework (because the vast majority are illiterate!) and with their scarce resources for paying for uniforms, school lunches, and tuition (about half the parents pay at least something toward the cost of their kids' education). From the meeting came a pledge to work toward having a teacher stay after school for a study hall. More important, the parents wholeheartedly agree they want the school to offer middle-school classes, too. Even if they can't support the schoolwork like many American parents, they too want their kids to have a better life than they do. We ended by sharing a cake – and hearing a number of comments from the parents about how deeply they appreciate the education that St. Andrew's makes available to their kids. They also really appreciated the fact that the team of missionaries came to work for a week. Nothing says “I love you” quite like showing up to do the work.

Late this afternoon, the MN team and our group headed off to the beach for a final evening of relaxation. The water (and the lobster) was nearly as glorious as the sunset, and we prayed the Phos Hilaron again as the sun passed over the horizon. The only damper on the evening was the flat tire on the way home, but several of us pitched in and, praise God, the spare actually had air.

Tomorrow we head out at 5:15 a.m. for the long trip home. Please keep us in your prayers for safe travels and for something approximating timely departures.....

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Painting the Future

Wednesday, Nov. 18, 4:25 p.m.

We're back after a day of painting at the school in Maniche. Today is a national holiday in Haiti, celebrating (I think) the first raising of the Haitian national flag. The flag's design has a good story, by the way. It's half blue and half red, with the national seal in the center. The color choice came from independence itself. The story goes that, to create the first Haitian flag, the victorious blacks and mulattoes took a French tri-color and ripped the white out of it. Such was the history, as well.

Anyway, because it's a national holiday, school was not in session. However, given the number of kids at the school today, you'd never have known it was a vacation day. Many of the students (and a number of parents and teachers, too) took us up on the offer to come and help paint on their holiday. As a result, we “finished” just before lunch – which means we ran out of paint. But the job is done well enough, and the school certainly looks a thousand times better than it did before the paint. Again, the issue of quality standards arose, this time on the drive home. We asked Colbert if he had gone into the school building to see the paint job. He said, “Yes … but the job is not yet done, of course.” This cast a bit of a pall over our sense of accomplishment. Frankly, we'd felt we had a loaves-and-fishes moment with the paint, stretching the blue as far as we possibly could to reach at least a point of conclusion, if not professional standard. In any event, painting was a much more satisfying thing this time (at least we can learn from our mistakes). We organized the throngs of painters better, with one of us stationed in each of the remaining four classrooms and one of us (Sean) acting as quartermaster. This kept our helpers more on task and prevented paint and supplies from wandering all over the schoolyard.

After lunch, we set up the volleyball net we'd brought. I'm sure the students, teachers, and parents got several chuckles watching us try to assemble the net, following instructions that clearly had been translated into English from another language. Between this and our natural inabilities at engineering, we put on a pretty good show. But the net went up, and the kids loved learning how the game was supposed to work. In Haiti, boys play soccer and girls play volleyball – but the girls in Maniche had never seen a volleyball or a net. So Ann and Kathy showed the girls how to play and set the boundary for the boys. By the time we left, the girls were getting good at keeping the boys out of their game. The soccer balls and volleyballs are a huge hit, and we probably should bring a duffel bag full of them each time a group comes here.

This morning, before painting, we had a great conference with Colbert, Msr. Samuel the headmaster, and Msr. Jude the disciplinarian/assistant. We wanted to find out what options the students have for education beyond 6th grade, which is where our school stops. They said Maniche used to have a government-run middle school and high school, but after it failed to pay its teachers for three consecutive years(!), it was forced to close. There's also a Roman Catholic school for 7th through 9th grades, but it's available only to parishioners. So, the answer is, our students currently have nowhere to go for education beyond 6th grade. This gave us a clear sense of where St. Andrew's mission in Maniche needs to head for the future – offering middle-school classes in the afternoon, once the elementary classes have finished with the rooms. It's exciting to think we can be part of opening up the future for these kids. In Haiti, graduating from 6th grade is an important thing, but it won't open any doors to get you out of a sharecropping life (how most of our families support themselves). But if you graduate from 9th grade, you have the opportunity to get into vocational training, learning to be a carpenter, mechanic, mason, etc. That life is still hard but tremendously better than living off the land (or what seems more like living off the rocks). We have the chance to make this possible for our kids in Maniche. I think I hear a calling....

Tonight, Colbert has invited us to come to his home, the rectory in Cayes, for dinner with his wife and brand-new daughter. We'll also be joined by the group that's been working with MN's educational program here this week, which means Colbert and his wife will have about 20 blans descending on their house for dinner. We'll be cozy but certainly well-fed. Hospitality is huge here, so we will continue to feast on this mission to help Haitians overcome poverty and hunger. Whether it's dinner at Colbert's or lobster on the beach, our experience here has certainly been one of privilege and plenty. I'm not sure what to do with that other than to be grateful in all times and in all places, taking nothing for granted especially in our context of ubiquitous availability. Every stale cheeseburger at the drive-through is a rich gift from God.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Blessings Given and Received

Tuesday, Nov. 17, 10:36 p.m.

We've had another successful and satisfying day at the school. For the most part, today was a continuation of yesterday's work. Sean and I finished interviewing the kids and taking photos for the Advent cards at church; Chris taught more geography, including an adapted version of the material for the third graders; Ann did her art appreciation and collage-making class for the students who didn't get it yesterday; and Kathy completed the hand-washing instruction with the remainder of the classes. We also had guests with us today –- the videographer who's creating a presentation about the school, and the representative from Engineers Without Borders.

The interviews and photos with the kids became more interesting as time went on (and as we realized the project wasn't taking as long as we'd thought and didn't have to be rushed). We started asking about what the kids do when they get home, how long they work on their homework each day, how many kids in the family go to school and why, etc. The answers are anecdotal, of course, but they're revealing. Many kids reported spending an hour or so on homework after school each day (perhaps some exaggeration there, but maybe not). This makes going to school an even more costly proposition for the parents than one might think. Not only do about half the parents pay at least something toward tuition, but they also lose their children's work at home while they're at school or doing homework. We also learned that the decision to send a child to school becomes a matter of maximizing the parents' return on investment. Some students with many siblings reported, for example, that three of six children might attend school. We asked how the parents decided whom to school and whom to keep home, and the reply was that often all the kids began school, but only the more talented ones were kept there once things got tight. It's a perfectly reasonable calculus, but very sad nonetheless.

There were a number of blessings given and received today. By way of example, let me tell you about a young boy and an older woman.

The boy is a student at the school whose home we visited today. We noticed him during school because he was limping badly and really only had use of one arm. Kathy, the physician, wasn't sure what his problem might be because he reported swelling in his foot (ankle, really) and elbow that happened every month or so –- very mysterious, even in terms of tropical medicine. At the boy's home, as with all the homes we visited, we spoke with his parents and invited them to join us to paint the school tomorrow, as well as to come to a meeting with the teachers on Thursday. We then prayed for the family and blessed their home. As we were leaving, Chris noticed the boy standing to the side. I went over to him and asked if he'd like prayer for his foot and elbow. I laid hands on his foot and elbow and prayed silently that I might have some standing in God's eyes to be doing what I was doing. Then I asked God to heal his joints and bring him wholeness, in his foot and elbow, as well as in his life.

Then, as we made our way toward the next house, I approached an older woman with a leaf on her head, held on by a bandana. I greeted her as I passed, but she held onto me saying, “Mal a tete” and holding her head. I stopped, laid hands on her head, and again prayed for relief of her pain and healing of whatever was ailing her. I was deeply humbled by her incredible display of faith. Following in the footsteps of the woman with the hemorrhage in the Gospels, this woman reached out to the nearest manifestation of God's presence she could find. With courage and determination I can only hope to emulate, she looked me –- and God –- in the eye and silently cried out, “I know you can bring me healing.”

I have no idea what the medical outcome will be for this woman, but I do know she is living in God's healing power. We never know how our feeble attempts to serve as divine conduits will play out, but this woman's faith reminded me that what I did or said mattered almost nothing. What mattered was that I showed up. Walking through mud and goat droppings, I happened to be led within a foot, literally, of this woman in pain, and she reached out to receive whatever share of God's healing power might come. I am tempted to belittle myself and assume that I merely spoke comfortable words. But I know God better than that. So tonight, I rest assured that I was blessed to serve as nothing less than a conduit of the Holy Spirit this afternoon. Praise God from whom all blessings flow.

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Cross in Maniche

Nov. 16, 8:35 p.m.

It's been a very good day. We began our work with the students and teachers today, and all the efforts felt very productive.

The day began with breakfast shared with the group from Maison de Naissance that's staying at Hosanna House. MN is putting on a continuing education event related to maternal-child health for local health care professionals. So about 15 of them are staying at Hosanna House, including Stan Shaffer, Cindy Obenhaus, and Tina Seeley (whom St. Andrew's people might know). Then, about 7 a.m., Pere Colbert picked us up for the trip up the mountain to Maniche. Thankfully, the river had receded enough (and Colbert knows the river bed well enough) that our journey through the water wasn't worrisome at all. By the way, we got great news tonight – that a representative of Engineers Without Borders (yes, that's a real organization) will be traveling to Maniche with us tomorrow to evaluate the possibility of putting in a pedestrian bridge from the city side to the school side of the river. It would be an incredible blessing.

That blessing would be immediately important for probably about a third or so of the students at the school, we discovered today. One of our activities was taking photos and briefly interviewing students for the Advent sponsorship program at St. Andrew's. People will be invited to sponsor a particular child, as we've done in years past, but with a twist: The Christmas cards will be decorated by the sponsored student, whose photo also will be in the card; and there will be some brief biographical information about the student. In doing the interviews, Sean Kim and I asked the children where they lived – close to the school or far away, on the school side of the river or across. About a third of the students interviewed so far live over the river – which means they wade through the water on good days and stay home when the water is high. A bridge would be a Godsend, literally.

The other activities today also came off very well. Ann Renne taught art appreciation using Gaugin and Matisse paintings, and she led students in creating collages –- activities they never experience. Chris Nazar taught older students about maps and local geography, showing them a map of their area and asking them to draw maps of the locations of their homes. Then, after school, Chris and Sean walked home with several students to see how their maps revealed the actual geography that the school serves. Kathy Shaffer taught several classes about germs and the importance of hand-washing by spraying a photosensitive substance on a toy and passing it among the students. The material was revealed by black light, showing how the “germs” had been spread from one student to another simply by handling the same thing. And, at the end of the day, Kathy, Ann, and I had a meeting with the teachers to get their input into what needed to be improved in the educational process, particularly in terms of the involvement of parents. Understandably, parents have little opportunity to be involved in homework or school projects. About 70 percent of parents are illiterate, which presents a huge hurdle -- to say nothing of the need to spend one's time coming up with enough to eat that day. It was a good meeting in preparation for a meeting between the parents and teachers to come on Thursday.

After dinner, we shared Compline and conversation (and drinks) with the people here for the MN conference – a great opportunity to hear stories about the history of MN and the school sponsorship network among Kansas City-area Episcopal congregations (HELP). In the midst of this came the observation that the church in Maniche has no cross. Some in our group were scandalized that, at the altar, the focus was an arrangement of artificial flowers. It does seem odd not to find a cross over the altar in an Episcopal church. But really, I haven't seen very many crosses at all in Haiti -– which is very odd, given the ubiquitous religious language on business signs, tap-taps, cars, and anything else that will hold still long enough. (Virtually every vehicle has a name like “Thank You, Jesus” or “Fruit of Perseverance” or “Glory of God,” and many business signs bear names like “Grace of God Hair Styling” or “Maranatha Auto Parts.”) Especially given the purported numbers in the Roman Catholic Church, you'd think there would be crucifixes everywhere -– and there aren't.

Perhaps the people of Maniche are onto something, whether they realize it on a conscious level or not. I'm not at all sure their church really needs a cross over the altar. Why? Because the people are the cross. The point of the cross is God's deep investment, to the point of death, in the lives of God's people, as well as the passionate extent to which God is willing to go in order to reveal ultimate love. The people of Maniche are the body of Christ in their world, the presence of the crucified and risen Lord we serve. They don't need to be reminded, at least not nearly so much as we do, that suffering and love go hand in hand. Given how clearly they understand that God's loving presence is always with them in the midst of their suffering, with them even to the end of the age, they are the cross in the world, reminding us that Christ still hangs in misery even as he promises new life for all who make the hard choice to follow him.

Several Days in Haiti

Sorry for the delay in getting these trip reports started. We're all fine; Internet access has just been more of an issue than I'd hoped -- surprise, surprise. Here are logs from the first few days here. More later tonight, if I'm lucky.

Nov. 14, 6 a.m.

I didn't get to update the blog last night because I can't pick up the wireless signal at Hosanna House. And their internet service is fairly hit and miss, it seems, so I'm not sure when I'll get to post.

We arrived safely in Port au Prince about noon, and met Colbert at the airport without any trouble. Then we snaked through the streets of Port au Prince to see the Episcopal Cathedral before heading south on the highway to Les Cayes. Driving through the capital was fascinating – primarily the incredible numbers of people out and about, doing little bits of business – selling everything from tires to soap to ancient photocopiers to cooking oil to charcoal to computer components. It is amazing the effort and time it must take to eek out such a small living.

The drive was a bit cramped – six of us in a truck designed for five – but that's nothing by Haitian standards. On the highway, we passed one tap-tap that seemed like it wouldn't be able to climb the hill, or clear the rocks on the road, because its back end rode so low from the crush of bodies inside. But Colbert's truck is air conditioned, a tremendous blessing in the 95 degree heat, and one not enjoyed by the three of Colbert's assistants riding on our luggage in the bed of the truck.

After four hours or so of Haitian landscape and villages, mountains and ocean, we came to Cayes and Hosanna House. Franchette's dinner (stew of beans, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and possibly goat) was hearty and wonderful. Afterward, our group had our first of what I hope will be a nightly time of theological reflection on the day just spent.

From that, what sticks with me is the dilemma about how to imagine what it is that we, and any missionary in this kind of a setting, are here to do. It's tempting, for us and for the people who support this mission back home, to ask the question, “Is it better now?” That's especially poignant for Kathy Shaffer, who's been at this more than 20 years. Even after that kind of time, the answer seems to be, “Well, no, not really.” Work here and money from back home don't make much of a dent in a setting largely driven by forces beyond our control – government ineffectiveness, hurricanes, endemic poverty, etc. Of course, on the micro level, the work has a huge impact. The children of Maniche would not have a school without it; and because they do, they have at least the possibility of high school, further training, and some kind of life other than subsistence agriculture and reselling household goods.

But I also think, in a sense, the outcome isn't the point. We aren't doing or funding this work because it will change deep structural problems on a large scale. We're doing this work to enflesh the reign of God where we're given to do it, as well as to serve as a witness of that kingdom to whatever part of the world might care to look and be transformed. That's no small accomplishment on its own.

Nov. 14, 5:10 p.m.

We arrived back at Hosanna House after a long day at Maniche, doing some painting at the school. It's been instructive, to say the least.

The good news is that we, and probably 40 children, youth, and adults from Maniche, got the majority of the painting done today. Six classrooms look much cleaner than they did. With the addition of the concrete roof to the school last year, walls had to be reinforced, and plaster was ripped out and sort of replaced, etc. The result were walls in need of a lot more than simply painting. Had I realized this, I would have prepared differently, bringing many more metal scrapers. Colbert intended for us to smooth these walls with sandpaper, which resulted in a great deal of sound and fury in the small concrete rooms, but not a tremendous amount of smoothing. Also problematic was what seemed to us a highly variable standard of acceptable preparation, which at one point resulted in several painted walls being scraped to get down deeper through peeling plaster to concrete. This wasted a fair amount of applied paint (a scarce resource for this job) and resulted in a fair amount of frustration for those of us who didn't have a clear sense of just how professional a job was expected. In addition, I made a poor choice in buying lots of inexpensive foam paint “brushes,” not realizing just how rough the surface was likely to be. The brushes are now a thing of the past, so we'll have to buy more (real brushes) in Cayes before we finish painting on Wednesday. Finally, I was frustrated by the completely predictable failures of communication and leadership in getting the painting done. Being neither a painter nor an manager of work crews, I didn't plan the progress of the job well or direct firmly enough to keep the right work (i.e., painting the proper color in the proper place) flowing consistently. Probably par for the course, but frustrating, nonetheless.

On top of all that, it rained. This made the situation messier (and everyone much damper) than would have been convenient. It also swelled the river, which the 4WD pickup must cross to reach the school. This afternoon, it would be fair to say the truck swam the river, which was much higher after the rain than it had been earlier this morning. In retrospect, I should have taken pictures of the crossing, but honestly I was too busy praying to think about a photo. It's a great example of the need for a bridge across the river … a long-term desire among the Haiti Committee at St. Andrew's. It's a fitting symbol, too, as we seek to be a bridge from illiteracy to literacy, from poverty to sufficiency. The crossing is always difficult and often impossible – whether you're talking about getting across the river or crossing the divide between our their present and their future.

And finally, from the sublime to the incredibly mundane: Here's an example of a difference in Haitian and American definitions. There is one toilet at the school in Maniche, as well as three privies. As we looked around the school, someone asked Colbert, “Does the toilet work?” He said, “Oh yes.” Later, when the moment arrived, I discovered that everything in the empty tank was completely out of commission. In this case, “works” means that the toilet flushes if you get a bucket, fill it with water, and pour it into the toilet. Both perspectives are accurate – but each only in its own context....

Nov. 15, 8 p.m.

We've had a wonderful and exhausting day. It began at 7 a.m. with Eucharist at St. Saveur in Les Cayes, which is Pere Colbert's “big” church. It was a moving experience despite the heat (at least for the one in vestments), particularly the singing. Listening to it, and to the singing later at the service in Maniche, brought to mind the descriptions of the throngs standing before the throne of God in Revelation, so full of the presence of God that they can't help but burst into songs of praise at every turn. Worship in Haiti is like that. Perhaps it's an example of the fullness of less, the ultimate expression of the truth we fleetingly see as “less is more.” When you have as little as the people of Haiti have – especially in a fairly remote mountain location like Maniche – then what you have means everything. These folks have the presence of God, intertwined in their “secular” lives like the woven branches that create walls of houses here. In Haiti, there appears to be little separation of “sacred” and “secular”; instead, it's all of a piece. And even though that piece may seem ragged and tattered to us, it's theirs, permeated with the presence of God. And when they stand as part of that great congregation, singing praises to the One at the center of the throne and to the Lamb, they reveal a glimpse of the fullness of God's kingdom that John of Patmos would have envied.

Anyway, we worshiped at Cayes and then traveled up the mountain to Maniche for the second service. In both places, I served as deacon, proclaiming the Gospel and setting the altar; and at Maniche, I preached. It was good to be able to laugh with them at the fact that we at St. Andrew's, who had paid for them to replace the roof of their school, now find ourselves needing to replace our own roof. And it was even better to be able to remind them that our showing up was yet one more way God was saying to them, “I love you.”

We returned to our guesthouse about 1 p.m. for lunch and then to visit Maison de Naissance, the birthing center. Three women had given birth there yesterday, so we were blessed to see the place well in use.

After MN, we spent the late afternoon and evening at the beach at Port Salut, something of a resort town about an hour away from Cayes. The weather was perfect – none of yesterday's rain – and the water was warm. The location is simply beautiful, and the meal was heavenly: fresh lobster grilled on an open fire, fried plantains, and “pikli,” which is cole slaw so hot you have to wash it down with Haitian beer. Darn.

Just as dinner was about to arrive, we stood on the beach, looking at a glorious sunset, and we prayed the daily devotion for the evening from the Prayer Book, which includes this perfect narration of our moment: “O gracious light, pure brightness of the everliving Father in Heaven; O Jesus Christ, holy and blessed: Now as we come to the setting of the sun, and our eyes behold the vesper light, we sing your praises, O God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. You are worthy at all times to be praised by happy voices, O Son of God, O giver of life, and to be glorified in all the worlds.”

And so it was as we dined at the banquet table of the Kingdom of Heaven, both this morning and at the setting of the sun. Blessed are those who are called to the Supper of the Lamb.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Nearly There

Our group of missionaries has made it to Miami in fine shape. We'll stay here tonight and fly to Port-au-Prince in the morning. Because of differences in flight schedules, we've been only four rather than five today. Ann Renne has a schedule different from Kathy Shaffer, Chris Nazar, Sean Kim, and me. But we'll meet (God willing) at baggage claim in Port-au-Prince tomorrow. Then Pere Colbert, the priest in Les Cayes, will drive us down the highway from P-a-P to the south, which (again, God willing) should take us about four hours. In addition to saving us a little money by driving rather than flying, the trip with Colbert will give us a great first-hand experience of the Haitian landscape and the villages along the way.

Please keep the prayers coming for safe travels and comparatively few problems along the way.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Prayer to Remember

Tomorrow morning, I'm leaving for Haiti with four other missionaries from St. Andrew's. We're going to work with our partner school in Maniche, where we'll paint, teach, take photos, visit students' homes, and worship with the people there.

I've been spending a fair amount of time and effort recently working out the details of the trip and making sure I have everything in order. On top of what it takes to get out of the office for a week and a half, all this mission-trip work has been occupying a lot of mental space. Too much, as it turns out.

I didn't realize quite how distracted I'd become with the trip's details until a committee meeting today – a committee that, ostensibly, had nothing to do with the mission trip. We sat down to begin our meeting, and the convener – a parishioner who is much too humble to want to be recognized – said, “I'd like to begin today with a prayer for our missionaries about to leave for Haiti.” Then she offered a prayer that made me stop short. She commended us, and our mission, to God's care. She reminded the group that we would be bearing God's love to children living a world away from Kansas City. She asked God to bless us and protect us in our travels. And she gave thanks for our offering of ourselves to bear God's presence to the people of Maniche.

In the midst of my overscheduled last day in the office, in the midst of all the details of getting five of us to Haiti, I had forgotten why we were going. But as this parishioner prayed, I sat there in a committee meeting, crying.

Something tells me this will be a good trip. God willing, we'll have a wireless connection at our guesthouse in Les Cayes, and I should be able to post daily updates to this blog during the trip.

Tune in tomorrow.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Best Birthday Present Ever: Deflated Soccer Balls

I’d like to introduce you to St. Andrew’s youngest missionary (at least in spirit) – Emma Angilan, who just turned 6.

A month or so before her birthday, Emma came up with an idea that never would have crossed my mind at her age: For her birthday party, she wanted her friends to bring presents not for her but for “the kids in Haiti.” (Our congregation has a partnership with a school in Maniche, Haiti, which serves about 150 students.)

The challenge is how to get anything to the kids at our partner school. There is no parcel-delivery service in rural Haiti – not even mail (not even roads, in the sense we’d understand that word). But a group of missionaries from St. Andrew’s will be going to Haiti on Nov. 12; so Emma’s parents, Jason and Courtney, came to me to see what the students might need that we also could carry with us.

Finally, we found the answer: deflated soccer balls and an air pump.

Kids in rural Haiti don’t have toys other than what they make for themselves, usually from trash. And the school in Maniche certainly doesn’t have any athletic equipment. But they do have a yard. And now, thanks to Emma’s bountiful generosity, the kids at this school will have 12 new soccer balls to kick around.

It will likely be several years before Emma goes off on a mission trip. But in a sense, she’s already long gone. At 6 years old, Emma understands at a deep level that God is sending her somewhere – for now, in her heart – to “seek and serve Christ in all people.”

We don’t have to fly to a distant location like Haiti to be missionaries. Any of us – all of us – can be missionaries like Emma, being sent by God into relationships with people we’ve never even met. All it takes is a heart filled with love, a touch of creativity, and a willingness to follow where God leads.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Swimming Out of the Whirlpool

I’m feeling a bit overwhelmed this week. The specific reasons don’t matter much – they won’t be resolved anytime soon; and even if they were, new stresses would take their place.

A lot of this stress comes from my job. But working as an ordained person doesn’t necessarily mean I’m under any more stress than anybody else in this culture. The stresses are different, but their effects are not.

When I feel this way, my reaction is to look for ways to pull back emotionally from the sources of the stress. That’s not a bad idea, particularly if it helps me identify ways I’m using time or energy unproductively.

But I’ve also learned, finally, that feeling overwhelmed is a symptom of spiritual illness: too much reliance on oneself to cope with pressures and meet expectations. At times like this, I find myself asking God questions like, “Is this really how you want our lives to look?” or “Is this really how you intend the Kingdom to feel?” And I’m both blessed and stopped short by the answer: “No.”

I believe God does not intend us to work ourselves to the bone. I believe God does not intend for discipleship to feel like a burden. And when I stray into that territory, it’s a sign that I’ve forgotten where solutions to my problems really lie. I cannot rescue myself from the whirlpool du jour. I can only rise out of what brings me down “through him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) – “not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of Hosts” (Zechariah 4:6).

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Avoiding the Sabbath

It might seem strange to be writing about keeping the Sabbath (or not) on a Thursday. For most of us, Thursday is just another workday, a marker along the journey toward the end of the week. For me, at least most weeks, it’s a day off. Clergy can’t exactly take Sunday as a day of rest, so we’re supposed to find another day during the week to make up for it.

It’s tempting for me now to launch into all the reasons why I and my colleagues often don’t get a day off to make up for Sundays: Everybody else is at work on a weekday, and you fall behind if you don’t join in. Church events can’t be scheduled around clergy days off, so you often have meetings or gatherings to attend anyway (like this afternoon and tonight, for example). Pastoral issues don’t take a day off, so people often have needs (real or perceived) that lead them to expect relatively immediate attention. And then there’s the work itself, which will never be “done” until God sees fit to bring in the Kingdom in all its fullness.

All these things are true. But they aren’t the reason why I avoid taking Sabbath time.

Properly observed, Sabbath is about putting into practice God’s direction in Psalm 46: “Be still, and know that I am God.” Because of the way we’re wired, some of us just have trouble being still; and I’m not sure that’s anything needing forgiveness. It’s the second part of the verse that’s problematic: “Know that I am God.” If we actually took Sabbath time, if we really took a break from our obligations (and the hyper-scheduled “fun” that wears us out), we might hear something from God that challenges our independence and our self-importance. If we actually took Sabbath time, we might realize that God really is God, and we are not.

Hmmm. Probably time to move the laundry. And maybe check e-mail, just for a minute. Something important may have happened, and I wouldn’t want to miss it....

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Dogs, Backpacks, and Mission

It’s always good to understand your own job. On Saturday and Sunday, God gave me a couple of glimpses of divine purpose that helped me see what I do in a little clearer light.

Saturday morning, about 10 St. Andrew’s people came out to staff our booth at the annual Strutt With Your Mutt event in Brookside (our neighborhood). Along with the pet stores, dog trainers, and providers of alternative canine healing, there we were – a church. We weren’t “doing church” (at least not by traditional definitions), but we were offering to bless dogs as their owners came by. Fr. Fred, Mtr. Anne, and I conveyed God’s blessing to 100 or so canines that morning, and I think it’s safe to say that a similar number of owners felt blessed by the experience, too. To many passers-by, we church folk probably looked out of place – especially the three of us wearing clericals and stoles. But the symbolism was perfect: God cares deeply about every part of the good creation, human and nonhuman. I hope that was the message people took away from the crazy clerics getting their stoles dirty in the puddles on the parking lot.

Then, on Sunday morning, during our Adult Forum, we had a presentation about the BackSnack program featuring three people from our partner school, Benjamin Banneker Elementary in east Kansas City. St. Andrew’s is one of many churches and organizations here that fill backpacks with food for kids to take home from school on Friday afternoons so they have something nutritious to eat until Monday’s breakfast and lunch back at school. Then, after the 10:15 service, parishioners stuffed backpacks to be delivered this week. The message, I hope, was a different shade of what we also communicated on Saturday: God’s deep care for us and for all creation. As God’s people, we’re called to incarnate that care and bring it to the places that need to feel it most – in this case, an economically disadvantaged school in east KC. Every backpack a Banneker kid receives is divine love enfleshed.

And that’s what mission is all about. We’re called to take God’s love into the world. It’s not that God’s love isn’t already there – of course it is. It’s just that God needs us to put some flesh and bones on it.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Anniversary Roses

I’ve been thinking a lot about marriage recently.

First, we had a wedding at St. Andrew’s that was called off just weeks before the big day. The couple discerned that what had seemed like a right and good and joyful thing wasn’t right for them, at least not now. I can’t imagine how hard the decision must have been for them, but I have great respect for their maturity in putting the brakes on a process that, too often, seems to have the momentum of a train that can’t be stopped.

Then came yesterday, the 19th wedding anniversary for Ann and me. As we sat with the kids at the table last night (the two of us will celebrate another evening), they asked about the dozen roses in the vase in front of us. All the roses are red but one, which is white; and they asked why. I said it stood for the new life that’s created when two people come together and let God make them one at the deepest level of their being. For Ann and me, the details of our life together certainly haven’t turned out as we might have expected 19 years ago – a little bit of tragedy and a lot more unexpected blessing. But through it all, the new creation of the marriage grows and thrives.

And then I look at the calendar and remember that my parents’ anniversary will be this Sunday – 57 years of marriage. I can’t even begin to imagine how that feels. But I do know their white rose has incredibly deep roots.

“The bond and covenant of marriage” may not sound terribly attractive to many in our culture, given the premium we put on the Gospel of Me. Living for ourselves sounds like freedom, and we’re all about that. But, ironically, to give up this kind of freedom returns to us a much greater gift: being rooted in the soil of God’s love, with souls entwined, becoming so much more than we can be on our own.

It’s amazing the rose God can make of us when we give ourselves away.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Mission Trips Into the Reign of God

I took a little trip to Haiti this afternoon.

Really, I only had coffee with Drs. Stan and Kathy Shaffer at the Roasterie, doing some planning for the mission trip I’m leading in November. But in a week of … well, a typical week at church, it was a wonderful foretaste of what our week in mid-November might feel like.

I don’t yet know precisely what we’ll be doing in Haiti, but I do know we’ll spend our time working with our partner school in Maniche – among other things, teaching about good hand-washing technique, visiting kids’ homes to teach the families, and doing some painting at the school.

Whatever we do, I also know this: We’ll be making a concrete difference in the lives of children of God whose place in life we can’t even begin to imagine. For the children of Maniche, simply progressing through school might make the difference between a life of hope or a life of subsistence. For the children of Maniche, the school lunch we provide might make the difference between adequate nutrition or wasting away. For the children of Maniche, learning to wash their hands after using the latrine and before eating might make the difference between living to adulthood or dying young.

So, for an hour or so this afternoon, sipping my coffee, I got to travel into the future – the immediate future of a November mission trip, and the longer-term future of the reign of God. Someday, no child will starve while others feast. For now, those of us who go to Haiti will do what we can do to help that day come a few moments sooner.

Want to go? Let me know:

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Burden or Blessing?

A recent event and two recent conversations make me think God’s trying to tell me something.

The event came last week, when my wife’s step-grandmother died. It was a blessing, healing her of cancer that had progressed beyond the point of treatment. We traveled to Ft. Smith, Ark., to gather with that side of Ann’s family and celebrate her step-grandmother’s life. Near the end of the visit, we received a great gift – her car. It’s not exactly new, a 2002 Honda Civic; but it’s in great shape with very low mileage. Gifts like this have fallen into our laps a few times before, and they always make me stop short. They are moments when gratitude washes over you, when you get a window into just how richly you’re blessed and how often you miss it. We’re trying to discern now what to do with three cars; but with two kids nearing driving age, we may well keep them all and make one a gift for their use.

Then this week, I had a conversation with a parishioner about prayer. She is very wise in many ways, but one thing she said particularly stuck with me. She was talking about a truly difficult time, when she wasn’t sure how to pray or what to pray for. What carried her through was the intentional practice of thanksgiving. When she couldn’t pray anything else, she could take note of all that God had given her – children, work, relationships, plenty to eat, a lovely home, and so on. It was a bridge toward a place of deeper healing because it kept her orientation Godward in a time when the temptation was great to turn away.

And yesterday I had a conversation with another parishioner, this time about illness and recovery. He had endured heart surgery to correct problems that would have killed him, and he’s still dealing with the rigors of recovery and rehab. But what he was taking away from the experience was deep gratitude – not just for the gift of renewed health (which is significant enough) but for the gift of relationships with those who had supported him through the process, everyone from his spouse and children, to friends who showed up, to physicians and caregivers who were God’s agents of physical healing. For him, heart disease was an opportunity to see the blessing of relationship and say thank you.

I struggle with lots of things, but one of the more consistent wrestling matches God and I have is about orienting me toward gratitude. And when I’m feeling especially hard-pressed (or, perhaps, self-pitying), God seems to come through with examples of the contrast reality that the life of the kingdom is all about. The lines between our perception of burden and God’s reality of blessing can be terribly thin. But the choice is ours as to how we’ll chalk things up. Do we choose to see burden or blessing? The answer will tell us whether our primary residence is the kingdom of anxiety or the kingdom of heaven.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Kittens and Children of God

As of a few weeks ago, we have a kitten in our house – Maisy. Of course, she’s the cutest thing in the world (at least when she isn’t attacking my ears in the middle of the night).

This morning, I’ve been watching Maisy hunting a fly in our dining room. She understands that her chances are better if she can attack from atop the dining room table (which I’m not wild about, but I realize trying to keep her off the table is a battle I won’t win). So she backs up away from the table to get up a good head of steam, charges, and launches herself at the tabletop. Sadly, her size and her judgment don’t yet allow her to perform such feats. Instead, she rams herself into the tabletop and crashes to the floor.

Part of me feels awful watching this. I want to show her how she can use the chair next to the table as a step up; I want to save her from crashing and tumbling to the floor. But then, as she picks herself up and tries again, I see that she has to crash and fall in order to learn just how tall the table really is. Failure is a learning opportunity – and an essential one, too.

As God’s children, we’re in the same situation. We have to fail in order to learn. We have to crash and fall to the floor in order to figure out how to succeed in the environment around us. We have to learn for ourselves how high we can jump.

This is no great insight. But it might be helpful to keep in mind the next time something happens to us – as individuals, as a church, as a nation, etc. – and we find ourselves asking, “God, why did you let this happen to me?” Although I’m sure it pains God as much as it pains any of us to watch our own children fail, the Heavenly Parent has to let us crash and fall so we can build our strengths and learn our limitations. I don’t much enjoy it when I’m the one tumbling to the ground. But I also give thanks that God loves me enough to let me figure it out for myself.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Being a Visitor

I’ve been on vacation for the past two weeks, and I still have one more week of vacation to go (praise God). But I had an experience today that I wanted to share while it’s still fresh.

This morning, I put myself in a position I never get to experience: being an anonymous, first-time visitor at a church where I don’t feel comfortable. Part of it was simply professional curiosity – wanting to see how other folks do church. But mostly, I wanted to see what it was like to be one of those people to whom we’re supposed to be especially attentive on Sunday mornings: the people God brings through our doors for the first time.

I chose to go to a local megachurch, one of the congregations with a reputation for excellence both in worship and in ministry to newcomers. I arrived about 10 minutes before the service, and I was greeted with a “hello” and a handshake from the greeter stationed at the door. I came into the lobby (what we would call a narthex in my tradition) and marveled at the coffee bar, the large gift shop, the welcome counters staffed by volunteers, and the impressive children’s ministry desk (which had a helpful sign directing visiting families where they should go to get their kids off to children’s programming for the first time). The space was huge and open – although, to a person who works in a very traditional liturgical setting, it seemed much more like a convention center or an airport than a church.

I went into the worship space and received an order of service from an usher. I found a place to sit and looked over the day’s announcements. In this congregation’s tradition, the time to greet people sitting near you comes at the beginning of worship, and I shared a handshake with everyone immediately around me.

But – those five “good mornings” and the handshake from the greeter at the door were the only times anyone spoke to me. I even hung around the lobby for about 10 minutes after worship had ended, browsing the gift shop, checking out the literature on a rack, walking through the conversation spaces. Not a soul introduced him- or herself to me.

I say this not as a criticism of this church. It has thousands of members; it’s obviously doing many, many things very well. Instead, my point is that even in a church that prides itself on ministry to newcomers, it’s easy for a given individual on a given Sunday to feel completely alone in the crowd.

For those of us in congregations that are trying to play catch-up with churches like this one (at least in terms of welcome and incorporation of newcomers), this is a cautionary tale. If an evangelistically focused megachurch can fail to reach out to a stranger, how much more often do we fail to make a Sunday-morning visitor feel at home?

A church may offer an impressive building, incredibly tight worship, professional-quality music, huge video screens, and a solid sermon. But it also has to offer real, live voices and hands to the stranger who takes the huge risk to come in. May every single parishioner remember this next Sunday, when we’re tempted to think we’ve done enough simply by getting ourselves to church. Getting ourselves to church is indeed a good thing – but our own needs are only the beginning of why God has gotten us out of bed that morning.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Church in a Bar

We had St. Andrew’s second Holy Happy Hour last night at Charlie Hooper’s – another great turnout (40 or so), with wonderful conversations all around the room.

As I’ve said before, part of the point of Holy Happy Hour is evangelistic. If we, as an incarnation of “church,” get out into the world having a good time, then the world might see that “church” is more than the self-righteous, judgmental, boring people we’re often presumed to be. Last night, there were signs posted on the wall marking the gathering as “St. Andrew’s Church.” For some, maybe that’s scandalous – “Church people shouldn’t be doing things like that.” But for the other folks there at Charlie Hooper’s, seeing church people gathering for happy hour might make them rethink their presumptions about what those Christians are like. Actually, I rather like the notion that “St. Andrew’s Church” isn’t just the beautiful building up the street but is the body of Christ in the world. After all, Jesus certainly spent his fair share of time in places like Charlie Hooper’s.

Of course, there’s also an internal “good” to these gatherings. As someone pointed out last night, “It doesn’t bother me that we’re getting together for happy hour. Hey, if we get together to do this tonight, we’ll be more likely to get together tomorrow for worship, or education, or outreach work, or whatever.”

She was right. Building community is huge for the congregation’s health. And a little fun never hurts, either – even among church people.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Hard Work and Self-Care

I received word yesterday that a friend and seminary classmate, Bill Stroop, died on Sunday. Bill was somewhat older than me, in his late 50s. But only in his late 50s.

Bill was a scientist as well as an Episcopal priest. His first career was as a researcher and professor of microbiology, immunology, pathology, and ophthalmology. (Among all the other wonderful things implied by this rich integration of theology and science, it also meant that Bill kept otherwise illegal pathogens in the freezer of his seminary dorm room.) In teaching, preaching, and conversation, he could offer insights that none of the rest of us could bring. But he also had a gift for making those connections between God and science in a way that the rest of us could understand.

What I also remember about Bill in seminary is that he worked more than anyone I’d ever met. And from what I hear, this continued in his work as a priest. In fact, I imagine it only intensified, given the demands of ordained life and – even worse – the demands that ordained people often place on themselves. If you’re already wired to be an overachiever, then life in the Church will only encourage you to overachieve even more. There’s nothing quite like the combination of human need, divine calling, and people’s expectations to make you think you have to do it all.

Interestingly, on the day Bill suffered his fatal heart attack, I was traveling to rural southern Missouri to see my spiritual director. I say this mostly in the spirit of confession: It was the first time I'd seen her in several months. I find it a real challenge to carve out the time to do it; and once I do schedule the time, some emergency often seems to prevent me from keeping the date.

It is very difficult, for some of us at least, to make time for things like spiritual direction – or exercise, or healthy eating, or time with the family, or sleep, or…. But Bill’s passing makes me realize there is a price to be paid for always trying to do more. And, as my spiritual director might say (though much more eloquently than this), God probably has things pretty well in hand as it is, without me deciding I’m responsible for how everything works out.

I will miss my friend Bill. And I pray that now, as he enters into the fullness of life in the Kingdom of Heaven, he can enjoy some much-needed rest.

Sunday, May 31, 2009

May You Hear the Calling

(This post is for my daughter, Kathryn, who was confirmed today.)

Today, we had our annual visitation at St. Andrew’s from Bishop Howe, and a visit from the bishop means celebrating the rite of Confirmation. We are blessed at St. Andrew’s in that Bishop Howe always visits on Pentecost, which to me is the most appropriate of all days for Confirmation – the day we celebrate the coming of the Holy Spirit on Jesus’ followers, including us, empowering us for the incredible work Christ invites us to do in his name.

Confirmation has been called a sacrament in search of a theology, now that full membership in Christ’s Body comes with Baptism rather than Confirmation. But today, I saw again what its theology really is: empowerment by the Holy Spirit for ministry. The Spirit was certainly present in the room when those 18 young people, including my daughter, Kathryn, renewed the commitment to God made for them at Baptism.

But as I drove across the Flint Hills of Kansas this afternoon, after dropping off Kathryn for a week at Camp Wood, I heard the Spirit calling even more clearly – on my car stereo. I was listening to the most recent CD from Mark Cohn, Join the Parade; and I came across this song. I offer it for my daughter, and for all of today’s confirmands, that you might be open to experiencing something like this:

The Calling

Johnny took the 4:05 and he rode it
Rode it down the line
But he did not know that the ghost of Charlie Christian
Was riding too
That’s when he got the feeling
Felt his soul and spirit rise
Closed his eyes and saw a vision
And he was sanctified

He said “I have heard a calling
I can hear a calling
Like a priest or a missionary
I am only following a calling”

Somebody brushed him on the shoulder
And he felt a chill run right down his spine
‘Cause he did not know that the ghost of Charlie Christian
Was riding too
Riding too
But that’s when he got the feeling
And the music was coming up from the back
Heard the sound of fingers on steel
And a wheel upon a track

He said “I have heard a calling
I can hear a calling
I have heard it in the night
And I’ve stood under the light
Of the calling

Yeah I can hear a calling
I can hear a calling sometimes
I have heard it in the night
And I’ve stood under the light
Of the calling.”

To Kathryn, and all the confirmands: May you be blessed to feel a brush upon the shoulder and hear the Spirit whisper your calling – and may you have the courage to step out into its light.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Witnesses to the Ends of the Parking Lot

Sunday afternoon, I made an interesting discovery about the ground just past the parking lot behind HJ’s (St. Andrew’s youth center across the street from the church). It’s very rocky – no doubt a residual effect of putting in the parking lot years ago.

I learned this the hard way: by trying to plant a series of “realtor signs” at the edge of the parking lot, running along the Trolley Track Trail, a jogging and biking path. Our Evangelism Commission came up with the great idea of posting “Burma Shave signs” visible from the trail, as a relatively inexpensive way of inviting people to check out St. Andrew’s. Like the old highway billboards advertising Burma Shave, this series of signs presents a short poem ending in the name of the “product” (in this case, the church). For example:

Searching to find…
… what life’s about?
We are, too …
… come and find out.
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (

Going the other direction, the signs read:

Think going to church…
… isn’t for the smart?
God wants your head…
… not just your heart.
St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church (

Will this have any discernable effect on our attendance or membership? I have no idea. But it’s a good object lesson in how to do that frightening “E” word – evangelism. As Jesus was about to ascend to the Father, which we remembered in our worship on Sunday, he told his friends he expected them to be his “witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth” (Acts 1:8). That’s a tall order – and rather intimidating for many of us. Sadly, maybe, I don’t see myself traveling to the ends of the earth to win souls for Christ.

But maybe that’s not the point. Maybe what Jesus had in mind was simply that we would be his witnesses wherever we find ourselves. I think sharing the Good News of hope and new life really doesn’t have to be much more complicated or frightening than simply finding a way to bring God into your story when life presents the opportunity. We don’t have to go door to door or stand out on the street corners. When we talk with people in the course of day-to-day life, we just have to drop into the conversation the divine fingerprints we’ve seen on our lives, in whatever situations have been true for us.

For St. Andrew’s, a series of Burma Shave signs along a neighborhood jogging trail is a great example of taking an evangelistic step that’s authentic to us. We’re not accosting people or pushing flyers into their hands. We’re inviting them to see that we’re struggling with life and faith just as they probably are. It may not be the greatest evangelism program of all time. But hey – we’re serving as Christ’s witnesses to the ends of the parking lot, at least.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Holy Happy Hour and Real Presence

Last night, we had our inaugural "Holy Happy Hour" at Charlie Hooper's in Brookside. About 40 of us came and enjoyed a wonderful time – great fellowship and conversation. We're planning to make this a monthly event on the third Thursday of the month. So mark your calendar for June 18, 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. at Hooper's.

There's a good story about where this idea comes from. Janet Sheffey and I had been talking for a few months about organizing something like this – a way to get “church” out of the building and into the community. Then, one evening, we were part of a committee meeting at Panera Bread. After probably a little too much caffeine, the six or seven of us there were having an energetic conversation with a lot of laughter. Then a young man came up, having noticed my clerical collar, and asked, “What church are you from, anyway?” It was a great opportunity to tell him about St. Andrew’s and invite him to worship with us. After that, Janet and I shared our idea with the group about bringing church into the community, and Holy Happy Hour was born.

In addition to moving church out of the building, the other purpose of Holy Happy Hour is simply to give us a chance to share holy fellowship together. Just last night, I heard conversations about finding God in the workplace, about raising teens, about making the choice to retire, about the joys and challenges of being a parent with young kids, and several other topics I can’t recall now. The point is there are opportunities for theological reflection all around us, and some of the godliest conversations begin in the mundane stuff of day-to-day life ... even in a bar (maybe especially in a bar).

At Holy Happy Hour, we got the chance to share those conversations with people who are, or are becoming, like family members. As Janet Sheffey said that evening, “We worship together as a family, so why shouldn't we have a beer together as a family?”

Indeed. I like to think that might cause our Lord to grin. In fact, I think Holy Happy Hour is an opportunity for Christ to come into our midst. It might be a less-than-liturgical setting, but the parallels between this gathering and Eucharist are worth a moment of meditation. In both, the family gathers around a table for a celebration, enjoying holy gifts of food and drink, finding connection with each other and with God. It may not be “real presence” in a theological sense. We may have been sharing nachos and beer rather than bread and wine. But I can tell you with certainty that Christ was there last night, eating chips and lifting a glass among us.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A Sacrifice of Thanksgiving

We had a great, unexpected discussion at Episcopal 101 on Sunday night about the kinds of sacrifice we make in celebrating Eucharist. I said the word eucharist means “thanksgiving” – that giving thanks is what the liturgy is all about, and that living in thanksgiving is what God really wants from us. This is phrased in an interesting way in Scripture and in one of the offertory sentences used in Eucharist: “Offer to God a sacrifice of thanksgiving, and make good your vows to the Most High” (Psalms 50:14).

In the psalm, the writer is thinking about what kind of worship God desires. Like the prophets, the writer of the psalm says we have to be careful to ensure that worship isn’t simply about going through the motions of divine appeasement or, worse, deluding ourselves into believing that our lives are sufficiently holy because we’ve shown up and “done church.” It’s not the sacrifice of bulls and goats (or hymns and sermons) that pleases God necessarily. What pleases God is the orientation of the one offering the sacrifice, making it a “sacrifice of thanksgiving” for the life of relationship, with God and neighbor, with which we’re blessed.

And, taking it one step further, I think the choice of the word “sacrifice” is important, too. At least for me, honoring God for our blessings begins as an act of discipline, an intentional practice intended to build a habit. Many of us, deep down, believe that we are what we are and have what we have fundamentally because of our own talents, hard work, intelligence, perseverance, etc. Especially in our culture, which values so highly the effort and character of the individual, it’s tempting to believe that we are our own sources of blessing. Realizing otherwise might hurt just a little – and at least for some of us, it probably should.

The idea of thanksgiving being a sacrifice struck at least one class member as rather odd. She said that, for her, being thankful didn’t feel like a sacrifice at all. Given the blessings of life and the wonder of God’s creation, being thankful seemed to her the most natural of responses.

I think she is blessed in a way maybe she didn’t even realize – blessed with eyes to see and a heart to know what is very difficult for many of us to get: that the lives we live are neither our entitlements nor the results of our own efforts, but gifts from God instead.

Friday, May 8, 2009

Audacious Promises

Working with the readings for the noon Eucharist today (Acts 13:26-33; John 14:1-6), I’ve been thinking about the promise of resurrection. This is the Easter season, of course; so you’d expect that the readings for today would have to do with new life, new creation, bringing life out of death, that sort of thing. That they do seems almost a little “ho-hum” – this is the end of the fourth week of Easter, after all, so the newness of Christ’s victory over death has worn off a little by now. That’s especially true in this culture. We thrive on “new” and get bored pretty quickly with even the most amazing realities.

But what strikes me about these readings is the audacity of their promise of resurrection, especially given the contexts in which they come. In the reading from Acts, Paul comes before the synagogue in Antioch of Pisidia, completely the outsider. He stands up and proceeds to inform the faithful Jews there that their centuries-old covenant with God has been replaced with a new covenant of forgiveness and resurrection – and that it’s been made possible by the fact that their religious leaders in Jerusalem made a mistake of unimaginable scale by condemning the messiah to death. No wonder Paul and Barnabas are run out of town on a rail. But the promise remains – God will raise us from the dead.

Then there’s the reading from John’s Gospel – one many people know well because of the hope and comfort it offers, particularly when read at funerals. “Do not let your hearts be troubled,” Jesus tells the disciples. “In my Father’s house, there are many dwelling places…. I go [back to heaven] to prepare a place for you, [and] I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am, there you may be also.” This is quite a promise on its own, but it’s downright astounding given the context. Jesus is at the Last Supper, preparing the disciples for the fact that he’s about to be arrested, tried, tortured, and crucified. He hardly seems in a position to be promising the disciples survival over the next day or so, much less eternal life. The disciples are understandably clueless – “Lord, we don’t know where you’re going. How can we know the way?” And then comes the most audacious claim of all from the leader of a movement that’s on the brink of being snuffed out: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.”

For us, resurrection is old news, and eternal life may sound like religious happy talk. But it’s actually the most radical claim ever made – that the limits imposed by tradition (even religious tradition) and by the powers of the world are not limits to God. God chooses to do new things in the most unlikely and unbelievable circumstances, precisely to proclaim sovereignty over those circumstances and remind the world who’s in charge. Resurrection may not make the front page for us, but it’s the biggest news there’s ever been – not to mention the best.

Monday, May 4, 2009

Jesus’ Prayer: “That they may all be one….”

On Saturday, I had a meeting (not exactly my favorite way to spend a Saturday, but a good meeting) with Fr. Colbert Estil, the priest who oversees the church and school that St. Andrew’s supports in Maniche, Haiti ( It was a rare visit to the States for Père Colbert and a wonderful opportunity to hear from him how the classes and the hot-lunch program are going. Also at this meeting were representatives from three other local parishes that work with Père Colbert to support churches and schools in southwest Haiti – Church of the Redeemer in North Kansas City, St. Paul’s in Kansas City, and Christ Church in Overland Park, which also hosted this meeting.

Now, if you know the insider politics of the Episcopal Church, particularly in the Kansas City area, then you know that “one of these things is not like the others.” A few years ago, Christ Church in Overland Park broke away from the Episcopal Church and declared itself to be an “Anglican” parish now under the oversight of a bishop in Uganda. That process of divorce was long and very hard, particularly for the members of that parish family who felt their church had left them. Anyway, suffice it to say that local Episcopal congregations haven’t had much interaction with Christ Church since it left the Episcopal Church. In fact, I had never even set foot in the building until this Saturday.

But I’m very glad I did because it was a baby step toward realizing Jesus' desire that all his disciples would be one (John 17:20-23). In those two and a half hours on Saturday, no one mentioned Episcopal Church politics. When I came through the door, no one asked me where I stood on issues of human sexuality. (They might have been dismayed to know that I had just come from another meeting, this one as part of the committee in the Diocese of West Missouri planning the process for listening to the experience of gay and lesbian people of faith.) Instead, I was welcomed just like everyone else there, included in good conversation about our schools in Haiti, and served brownies, warm out of the oven. We listened to Père Colbert and shared information about resources we all might tap to improve our efforts to feed and teach the children in these Haitian villages. For two and a half hours, at least, no one worried about homosexuality.

Now, I don’t mean to imply that the place of gay and lesbian people in the Church is not an important issue. It, too, is a facet of the diamond of God’s justice. And I have no delusions that simply by focusing on mission can we instantly put to rest our differences on sexuality. But I do believe that Jesus would like us to give that a try. To me, serving “the least” as agents of God’s reign is our best hope, in the long term, for overcoming the differences that divide believers. There’s nothing quite like serving Christ in the person of a hungry child to make you see where the Church’s focus should be.

Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Blessings of Clarity

Yesterday was Wednesday, so I got to do something I particularly enjoy – preparing backpacks of food for the BackSnack ministry. Every Wednesday, seven or eight parishioners gather in the undercroft at St. Andrew’s to fill backpacks with nonperishable food provided by Harvesters, a local hunger-relief agency. Parishioners then deliver these backpacks to the students at Blenheim Elementary School in Kansas City. Although the school is only about three miles away from the church, it’s light years distant in terms of socioeconomic status – basically all the 200 kids there receive free or reduced-cost school lunches. So, each Friday, every student receives a backpack of food to take home for the weekend, to provide extra nutrition for the days when they don’t have the assurance of getting lunch at school.

This coming Sunday, May 3, we’ll highlight the BackSnack ministry in our monthly children’s homily. Among the readings that morning will be these verses from the First Letter of John: “We know love by this, that [Jesus] laid down his life for us – and we ought to lay down our lives for one another. How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses help?” (3:16-17)

Sometimes Christianity baffles us with mystery and paradox; sometimes the Scriptures challenge us with circular reasoning or make claims that tax our capacity for belief. But other times, we get the clarity of Christ’s command to love, particularly in John’s gospel and letters. “Little children, let us love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action” (1 John 3:18). It’s this kind of clarity that gets me through the confusions and frustrations of parish ministry. Sometimes, discipleship really isn’t a lot more complicated than feeding hungry children who live nearby your wealthy church.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Healing, Cure, and Calling

I have to admit that I don’t read nearly as much as I should. But I did read something in a recent Christian Century that caught my attention – partly because of my own home situation and partly because of a conversation with a parishioner about something her daughter had said. In all three cases, the subject is healing – and specifically, where God is in it.

First, here’s my situation. Since 2001, my wife has been struggling with lupus. Hers is a particularly nasty case that attacks her cardiopulmonary system. It nearly killed her when she was first diagnosed; and now it’s causing pulmonary artery hypertension, a chronic, progressive condition from which one typically doesn’t recover. As you might guess, we’ve done a lot of praying in the last eight years, asking God for healing. Do we expect God to reach into our present situation, snap the divine fingers, and bring an end to her disease? Certainly I wouldn’t say God can’t do that. But I’ve also sat with too many people who’ve watched loved ones die to think that if they had only prayed harder, they would have gotten the outcome they wanted.

Second, here’s the conversation that a parishioner reported having with her daughter. The little girl, who’s four, has a chronically ill family member. She said to her mother that she thought God and Jesus were praying for her family member to get better – but that, by implication, she wasn’t expecting God actually to bring about a cure, and certainly not in some impressively miraculous way. Does that reveal inadequate four-year-old faith, or perhaps inadequate witness by her parents (and her priest)? Or is it a fairly astute, four-year-old way of coming to terms with the mystery that God heals us in the end, despite the fact that impressive miracles usually don’t come when we want them?

Third, here’s the article I mentioned – “Accidental lessons” by William H. Willimon (pp. 30-33 of the April 21, 2009, Christian Century; unfortunately, this article isn’t available on the magazine’s website). Willimon is one of the best writers and preachers anywhere, as well as a bishop in the United Methodist Church. I won’t give away his story except to say that he’s recently gone through his own time of healing after enduring a rather nasty accident. In his article, Willimon reflects on prayers for healing, God’s agency in healing, and our expectations about what healing means in our cure-obsessed culture. Ironically, Willimon argues, our expectations about God’s power to cure us are too small. Rather than simply wanting to cure us and put us back where we were, God desires healing for us … which most often doesn’t look like the cure we want. And, on top of that, it usually comes with something else we didn’t expect – some new shade of vocation to help heal a hurting world.

When the bishops and the four-year-olds agree, I tend to think they’re on to something. May God grant me the grace to be open to true healing, and may God grant me responsiveness to the holy calls that come along with it.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

"Do this for the remembrance of me"

Last night, at the Fools for Christ’s Sake dinner, I found myself in a role I’ve never played before: bartender. I’ve done several kinds of work in my life (busboy, dishwasher, sandwich chef, reporter, editor, writer, etc.), but bartending was a first for me. Steve Corey, Jeff Unger, and I worked the bar more or less in the middle of the undercroft, which gave me a great view of the room as I doled out glasses of rum punch and wine.

There were several surprised looks from parishioners as they came up to get their drinks: “What are you doing here – a priest as a bartender?” (I had taken off my collar but was still wearing the black shirt because it worked well with the server outfit.) I made some smart comment about how I had some professional experience in serving red wine, which brought a laugh or two.

But there was more to what I was saying than what I first thought. Looking out at the “congregation” there assembled for dinner, I imagined the view I get from behind the altar on Sunday mornings – not so different from the view last night. There we were, the people of God assembled for a meal that reminded us why we were there – to do our part in making Christ present in the world. There were no words of consecration, but there was certainly holiness embodied last night as we actively remembered Jesus and his command to care for the least among us. Standing there behind the bar, I might as well have been behind an altar – for Jesus was there, too.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Beans, Rice, and the Reign of God

Tonight is our Fools for Christ’s Sake Dinner at St. Andrew’s ( – a gourmet Haitian feast along with entertainment from parishioners. The event benefits the school we support in Maniche, Haiti, specifically the lunch program we began there earlier this year.

The school at Maniche and its hot-lunch program are worth a little theological reflection, particularly in this Easter season. Think back about the news reports from Haiti over the past year. What most of us probably remember are the four hurricanes that struck Haiti this fall, one after another in just a few weeks. More than 500 were killed; thousands saw their homes destroyed. And, as if Haitians didn’t have enough of a challenge finding adequate nutrition in the best of circumstances, the hurricanes wiped out many crops and livestock. And now, months later, the effects continue because, of course, seed for the future was destroyed, too.

In the midst of this darkness, light still breaks in. Led by Dr. Kathy Shaffer, St. Andrew’s began a hot-lunch program this fall for the 200 or so students at the school in Maniche. Initially, meals were served three days a week; this semester, it’s increased to five days a week. A bowl of beans and rice may not seem like much, but it’s huge for these students, both in terms of surviving today and in terms of learning for tomorrow.

Of course, Haiti is just one example of poverty and injustice in the world. Every day, we see and hear about darkness apparently gaining the upper hand. But especially in this season of resurrection, it’s good to see the kingdom of God springing up in the midst of devastation. Christ is alive, after all – not just 2,000 years ago on the first Easter morning, but right now. There in Maniche, in a small hot-lunch program, you can see Christ’s reign breaking into the darkness. And we get to be part of it.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Getting started

This is the first of what I hope will be regular entries in this blog. I’ve hesitated in starting a blog because of the pressures I put on myself about writing. It’s the same kind of pressure that, ironically, has always kept me from being a good correspondent with family and friends. Somewhere down deep is this little voice saying, “If you’re going to write a ______ [letter, blog, whatever], it has to be good and complete” – as if my college composition instructor, Dr. Hennigan, might turn it back to me covered with red ink. So I don’t write letters much, and I’ve avoided blogging until now, because I’ve feared that what I had to say wouldn’t be “publication-worthy.”

Oh well. As God so often says to me (and all of us, if we have ears to hear), “Get over yourself, and do what I tell you.” So this little journal will, I hope, be at least an exercise in that kind of faithfulness, the kind I think God has in mind for most of us – discipleship in small bytes.