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.