One Week of Gratitude

November 9, 2018 — Leave a comment



“We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love…”

I first started praying the General Thanksgiving found on page 836 in the Book of Common Prayer with regularity when I was in seminary (1999-2002). While I had been an Episcopalian for years by that point, somehow, this particular prayer had escaped my attention. The prayer, however, was a frequent part of daily worship at the Virginia Theological Seminary — probably because its author, the Reverend Dr. Charles Price, had been a longtime VTS faculty member. I can still recall vividly the day this prayer began to make its journey from words in my head to feelings in my heart.

I had probably been at seminary for a couple of months. Tabitha, Matthew (who was 2 years old at the time) and I were settling in to our new routine. We were navigating Northern Virginia traffic, getting used to life in a large raucous apartment complex, being a “one car family,” and awkwardly juggling the ways in which seminary (not unlike the Church) can simply overtake every corner of one’s life. We had been so busy with all the details, we’d hardly taken a breath. On this particular morning, I arrived at Chapel full of anxiety about unread reading, unwritten papers, a late night visit to urgent care because Matthew was sick with an ear infection, and that nagging sense that I was already failing at whatever it meant to “be a seminarian.”

We knelt at the conclusion of Morning Prayer, and the officiant invited us to join in the praying of this prayer of Thanksgiving. I never made it past the first paragraph. Suddenly, through the blur of tears one thing became exceedingly clear: my vision of my world had narrowed to the extent that all I could see were the challenges, the obstacles, the difficulties, and my failures. I had been so busy keeping my head down, I had forgotten to look around and notice the splendor, beauty, and mystery which was everywhere. I left the Chapel that day breathing a bit freer. The sky somehow looked bluer, and the trees seemed ablaze with their fall foliage. I took note of the scores of squirrels frolicking across the campus green, and delighted in the smell of freshly mown grass. For the first time in weeks, I felt my feet connected to the ground, and for the next few hours, I managed to “stay out of my head.” The racing thoughts slowed to an amble. Peace may have not flowed like a river, but I did feel settled for the first time in weeks.

In the past seven days, much has happened in our world and in our country. Even with the midterm elections (mostly) concluded, the anxiety and vitriol attendant to our country’s political life shows little sign of abating, even temporarily. We have not yet finished mourning the violence and loss of life at the Tree of Life Congregation in Pennsylvania, and another mass shooting at the Borderline Bar & Grill in California has assaulted us with the awareness that the threat of unpredictable, deadly violence looms over each and everyone of us day in and day out. The latest deadly wildfire in California reminds us of the inherent fragility of life, and the tenuousness of things we often assume are secure.

If we’re not careful, though, “staying informed” about all these things can result in a loss of the capacity for even a moment of joy. We become impatient or agitated with people (including ourselves) who aren’t taking these dire situations seriously enough. How can we possibly be thankful when so much is out of whack? What good is gratitude when so many people are hurting and mourning? When so few people in power seem to care about anything or anyone but themselves, isn’t a practice of gratitude inherently selfish?

This week, in the middle of the unrelenting news cycle, I’ve taken the first few lines of the General Thanksgiving as a personal challenge. I have intentionally said, “Thank you God!” for every sip of water I’ve taken from my water bottle since last Friday. I started following a couple of nature photographers on Twitter whose work reminds me of the beauty of God’s creation, and I’ve rediscovered the antics of otters, foxes, birds, hippos, and raccoons add levity to the newsfeed which can feel unbearably heavy. I made it a point to get outside and breathe deeply a few times a day, and if there was any sort of wind, I intentionally faced into it, and reflected on how the Wind of the Spirit blows wherever it wills. I prayed for the Holy Spirit’s creative wind to refresh and renew my heart.

I enjoyed times of laughter with friends. I reconnected with my body by renewing my commitment to daily exercise. I marveled at the talent of musicians, while clapping my hands, tapping my toes, and singing along with an audience at a bluegrass music concert. Along the way, I’ve been as angry, as sad, as frustrated, as tired, and as unmotivated as the next person, but the accumulation of these tiny, intentional actions of thanksgiving have established a little beachhead of gratitude in my world-weary soul. And so after a week of my “Gratitude Project,” I can report the following:

This world is beautiful.
The gift of life is wonderful.
And love is a mystery.
Thank you, God!

Churchy Thoughts

November 6, 2018 — 1 Comment


“For salvation isn’t, in the end, being rescued from a fiery furnace and delivered up to an ethereal cloud. Salvation is being redirected from a spiral of fantasy and oblivion to a gracious, ordered, liberating, and often sequential process of reconciliation and healing.” — Sam Wells in Incarnational Ministry: Being with the Church

For the past several months, a clergy colleague and I have been reading Incarnational Ministry together. Because we live some distance apart, we conduct our periodic discussions of the book via Skype. We do our best to stick to the chapters we’ve agreed to read, but as is the case with such things, we cannot set our specific contexts aside. So, we often respond to what Sam has written through the lens of “what’s happening in us/our congregations.”

We are in very different locales. We are in different places in our lives and vocations. We are contending with different challenges in our respective parishes. And…we share in a desire to live our vocation as priests as faithfully as we can. These chats have been life-giving for me in ways I had not anticipated.

As I prepared for our chat tomorrow, I reread some of the passages I’ve underlined in the book, and once again, I was called up short by the above quote. Full stop.

Now, I don’t think Wells is arguing for the non-existence of the afterlife. I think, instead, he’s arguing FOR fully embracing this life — with all of its messiness, incompleteness, conflict, hurt, anxiety, sickness, pain, and loss. He is inviting us to consider that salvation, God’s call towards wholeness, is not simply a theological concept, but is also a lived experience. One aspect of this lived experience is acknowledging all the parts of our lives we’d rather avoid, deny, ignore, or hide from others.

To face into those broken bits, and to offer them to God in the company of our fellow Christians is a risk we too often fail to take. An intellectual and theoretical salvation is crisp, clean, and without risk. We can keep it to ourselves without any need share anything with another soul. And yet, if the Church is the Body of Christ, the wounds it bears aren’t merely metaphorical.

I can certainly understand our reticence to engage in this sort of risk-taking. We’ve all been schooled from an early age about the importance of not showing any weakness, and of keeping up the appearance that we have “everything together.” And we’re so busy living our lie of spiritual competence we don’t even consider the fact everyone around us is living their lie as well. To trust one another with our brokenness goes against everything we’ve been taught. Yet to engage in such appearance-keeping is, I think, to actively participate in what Wells calls a “spiral of fantasy and oblivion.”

To be the Church — the people of God — is to first and foremost, simply be people. Learning to trust other Christians to listen to me, to care for me, to pray for me, and to walk with me in the journey towards wholeness is the beginning, I think, of learning to trust God. It’s in undertaking this kind of journey that reconciliation and healing can be known and understood — not as theological concepts but as a lived reality. And that sorta sounds like heaven to me.


My Gratitude Project

November 2, 2018 — 1 Comment


Every month, like clockwork, one of my tasks as the parish priest is to write an article for the parish newsletter. Over the course of fourteen-plus years, I’ve dutifully cranked out an article, in spite of my suspicion that they mostly go unread. Some months, I feel inspired, and enjoy the process. Other months, I grumble, complain, and kvetch as the blank screen stares back at me, taunting me to think of something somewhat religious to say to my religious (non)readership. Occasionally, I am granted a reprieve from the task because there is an article with information so important to the life of the parish it deserves the front page of the newsletter. November’s issue granted me no such reprieve.

And so, I began my ritual of grumbling, complaining and kvetching. Eventually I stopped talking to the computer screen and began typing. The is a portion of what I wrote:

…I don’t know about you, but I need all the help I can get with regards to remembering to be thankful. Over the past few days, we have been painfully reminded, yet again, of the deadly power of hatred and violence. We are also (thanks to the 24/7 news cycle) constantly bombarded, day and night, by the voices of anger, fear, rage, and condemnation emanating from individuals who are our elected leaders. If we’re not careful, we take those emotions into our souls, and then become reflections of the culture instead of witnesses to the Good News.

This year, in particular, I feel as if November, with its theme of Thanksgiving, has arrived right on time. I know many people who undertake a “discipline of gratitude” every November, and attempt to take the time every day to jot down one to three things for which they are specifically thankful. The practice is a way of re-focusing attention from all that is wrong in the world, to all sorts of blessings we receive every day — things like seeing sunshine, petting a dog or cat, having food to eat, the ability to read, a good cup of tea (or in my case, coffee!), family members, and close friends, just to name a few.

And if all the bad news has dragged you down to the place where you feel disingenuous for giving thanks about anything, then may I suggest another practice? Try praying the General Thanksgiving from page 836 in the Book of Common Prayer every day this month. And by praying, I’m asking you to read it slowly and out loud. I believe this prayer has the capacity to reorient our perspective, and calm our troubled hearts…

If you are reading this blog post, and you do not have access to a Book of Common Prayer, you will find the words to the prayer I mention below. I have no grand illusions about how many folks will join me in this little 30 day (now 29 day!) experiment, but I thought I’d extend the offer here as well. I’m planning to pray the prayer morning and evening for this entire month, and I’ll share what I’m learning from this journey every Friday on this site. Please join me if you feel so inspired…and let me know in the comments. 

A General Thanksgiving (BCP, p. 836)

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have
done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole
creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life,
and for the mystery of love.

We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for
the loving care which surrounds us on every side.

We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best
efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments which satisfy
and delight us.

We thank you also for those disappointments and failures
that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the
truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast
obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying,
through which he overcame death; and for his rising to life
again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom.

Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know him and
make him known; and through him, at all times and in all
places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

October Church

October 31, 2018 — Leave a comment



Sitting at the local coffee shop recently, someone asked me about what happened around church in the “off season.” Further conversation revealed this person seemed to think Christmas and Easter were the busy times, and not much else of note took place around church between those two holidays. I responded that for a parish our size, the month of October is often the busiest month of the year in terms of “to-do’s” and a general sense of urgency. My conversation partner’s forehead wrinkled in thought, and she asked, “Why? What’s so busy about October?” I then described the plethora of committee meetings, parish events, and of course the annual round of stewardship work  — in particular the soliciting of pledges to fund the mission and ministry of the parish for the upcoming year.

My friend then said, “That’s why I go to St. Whoever’s. They’ve got people who handle all of that icky stuff so I can just go and enjoy the liturgy. I never have to worry about getting dragged into the politics of church. I don’t have to plan an annual gift, I just drop a few bucks in the offering plate when I attend a liturgy. In fact, I can be gone for months and no one will ever miss me. It’s nice not to have any pressure around going to church.”

After she procured her latte and went on her way, I kept thinking about our exchange. I began to wish I had simply responded to her original question about “what was happening” around church by saying, “Oh, the usual. How’s school going for your son?” Then we could have engaged in the sort of small talk that’s most comfortable for burb-types. From there we could have had quite a conversation about the Milwaukee Brewers’ great end of season run, and maybe even speculated about the possibilities for the Green Bay Packers this season. Whatever.

Today, as I write this little reflection, I can hear the hubbub emanating from the parish hall as folks prepare for the annual fundraising event which enables Trinity Church to give away thousands of dollars to all sorts of agencies and ministries throughout Milwaukee County and beyond. This event will be the culmination of months of planning, plenty of prayer, and no small amount effort on the part of the committee charged with orchestrating it. If all goes well, lots of people will attend, and lots of money will be raised. I am grateful for the group of people for whom this event is worth investing untold hours of time and huge amounts of energy. I am grateful for their care and concern for the needs in the community beyond our walls, and for their care and concern that people within our parish know about those needs. They are doing the part of church that often goes unnoticed — the behind-the-scenes-gruntwork necessary to make any parish event, large or small, happen.

I’m praying for the event’s success. I’m also praying for the people of St. Whoever’s and my coffee shop friend.  I understand the day-to-day work of the local church isn’t particularly glamorous. Sometimes it doesn’t even seem very spiritual. Occasionally, we may question whether or not some of that work even needs to be done. And yet, I keep holding on to a good word from St. Paul that I learned a long, long time ago in Vacation Bible School, “Let us not be weary in well doing; for in due season we shall reap, if we faint not.” (Galatians 6:9, KJV)




Preacher’s Note: This past Sunday, I preached a disjointed, and somewhat emotional sermon (even more emotional than usual). This is not the sermon I had intended to preach, and was preached extemporaneously and “raw.” To ignore the violence wrought upon Jews in Pennsylvania as they had worshipped just a few hours earlier, seemed unconscionable to me. Several people have asked for the text of the sermon, and since one did not exist, I transcribed the audio (thanks Dragon software!). I have edited what I preached to make it read a bit better, but I have not attempted to smooth out the very rough transitions. My guess is the power of the sermon had more to do with the grief and anger I was feeling than with any profundity in the words I said, but in any event, here are the words. May God continue to have mercy on a nation reaping the fruit of its addiction to violence. 

Gospel Reading: Mark 10:46-52

On the best of occasions a sermon represents a confluence of at least three different streams: what’s going on in the Scriptures appointed for the day (because hopefully the preacher has looked at those scriptures ahead of Sunday!); what’s going on in the world around us, and what’s going on in our local community. And hopefully, the preacher can weave from those three streams a unified, somewhat coherent homily, that makes it from beginning to end in the prescribed 12 minutes. That’s not going to be what happens this morning.

I have found this sermon difficult, even though I have been rejoicing all week for having “happy readings” from the Hebrew Scriptures, including a hopeful reading from the Psalms. I’ve been happy about this because so many Episcopalians think the Hebrew Scriptures are too dour to bother with. Today, though, I was going to preach on these hopeful and happy texts — where God’s people are gathered from Exile; where those who’ve gone out weeping now come home rejoicing! They have the songs of Zion on their lips. They are filled with joy because of the redeeming power of their God!

Today’s texts, my friends, seem to stand in stark contrast to the events in Pittsburgh yesterday. Once again a house of worship has been violated by hate and violence. And we are all too familiar with that. It feels like a never-ending litany from the AME church in Charleston, to the Baptist Church in Texas, and some of us may be old enough to remember the children who lost their lives in a church bombing in the early 1960s. Here in our own community, at the Sikh temple, we saw it happen.

I like what the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh said in his letter to his people yesterday. He said he was offended that the news media continued to call events like these tragedies. They are not tragedies. A tragedy is something that moves to an irrevocable end. These are not tragedies; these are moments of hate. They are inspired by hate. They are carried out in hate, and there is no justification for them.

Lost in the violence of yesterday, was the violence of earlier this week, when two people were shot and killed in Kentucky because they made the mistake of shopping while black. The person who did it made racist comments, and according to the news had tried earlier to gain entrance into a black Baptist church. Hate.

Before that, our news feeds were filled with reports of thwarted violence as would-be explosive devices were sent in the mail to people across the country. And I don’t care where you are on the political perspective, this is not the time for politicizing any of these actions. We are a nation reaping the fruit of hatred, sectarianism prejudice, and violence. And we cannot just pin it on “a few crazy individuals.”

We share as the people of God in a mission, and that mission is a mission of peace, a mission of grace, a mission of mercy, and a mission of truth-telling. We are called, people of God, not simply to shake our heads, and bow them in some sort of sad, pitiful display. As our opening hymn challenges us, at times like these, we must ask God to grant us wisdom and grant us courage. Let’s face the hour, and not run from it. And not hide from it either.

Seemingly unrelated to this week’s events is our Gospel reading:

Jesus is on the move to Jerusalem, for what will be his final trip. A trip that will end in his death. He and his disciples go through the town of Jericho, and a blind beggar gets wind of it. The beggar begins to shout, “Jesus, son of David! Have mercy on me!” The crowd tries to hush him up, and the more they try to hush him up, the more he cries, “Jesus, Son of David! Have mercy on me!”

And the Gospel writer says Jesus stood still. There’s only one other time in the Gospel of Mark where Jesus stands still, and that’s when the woman who had hemorrhaged for 12 years touched his garment and received healing. Jesus stands still, and says, “Bring him to me.” I love this next part — the crowd goes from hushing the blind man, and instead becomes his cheerleader! “Take heart! Get up! He is calling for you!”

“What do you want?” Jesus asks. “That I will see again,” the man replies. And Jesus says, “Your faith has made you well.” Then Mark uses his favorite word — IMMEDIATELY the man sees!

Jesus heals a number of blind people across the various Gospel accounts, and I’m one of those folks who believe those stories literally. You don’t have to, but I do. Jesus speaks the word of healing, and the people are healed. But beyond an individual miracle for a blind beggar named Bartimeaus, there’s a larger story going on. You see, when Jesus heals the blind, he is witnessing to the coming kingdom of God where people see clearly. The blind man sees, but the religious leadership fails to see who is in their midst. The blind man receives his sight, but people with closed minds remain blind to the power of God in their presence.

I believe this morning, in light of what is happening around us, the word of the crowd to Bartimeaus is a word to us: “Take heart! Have courage! Get up! Jesus is calling!”

Jesus is not calling for a church to remain behind the walls; to remain timid; to remain afraid; to remain locked down in our own worry about how some people would react if we actually took a stand. God is calling. Get up!

How will we get up? How will we follow the call of Jesus to be witnesses to God’s love, God’s grace, and God’s peace? How will we do that?

For some of us it might be activism;
For some of us might be having conversations with neighbors and friends;
For some of us it might be contributing to a cause that seeks to bring us together instead of tearing us apart;
For some of us it may be praying, and I do not believe praying to be an empty activity!

I believe that prayer does have an effect! Prayer has an effect on us, and as prayer has an effect on us, we can have an effect on others. For God’s sake, people of God, don’t remain on the sideline. Get up. Have courage. Jesus is calling.

As many of you know, today is the day that the Stewardship Committee has named Commitment Sunday. (Like I said, this sermon wouldn’t be together!)

Those of you who have brought pledges are going to be invited in a moment to bring them forward. Honestly, I believe in light of all that we’re living through, this is a profound moment. This is not about keeping the clubhouse going! This is not about paying bills! This is about this place along with other houses of worship — other churches, other synagogues, other temples and mosques — being points of light in a world of darkness. Being places that say by our very presence, “We stand against hate! We stand against violence! We stand against destruction!”

We are about being witnesses in God’s world to God’s truth. I hope that, as you bring your pledges forward, it won’t be just about fulfilling another obligation. I hope it will be with prayer and commitment that we will not rest until God’s kingdom comes. That we will not rest until peace triumphs over hate. We have been called. We have been empowered through the waters of baptism, and the Spirit which will never leave us. God is calling. Let’s get up.



PS: If you are interested in listening to the audio version of this sermon, you will find it by copying and pasting this link in your browser:

Political Preacher

October 24, 2018 — Leave a comment


This morning, as I was looking back at unpublished blog posts, I happened upon the following paragraphs. Written back in 2016 — doesn’t that seem like a long time ago??? — I still stand by my argument. 

A few days ago, a Facebook friend of mine posted a status update recounting an interaction with a parishioner in which my friend had been told, “a minister should not be so political.” Anyone who has had the opportunity to lead and serve in any aspect of congregational life has likely heard some version of the adage, “religion and politics don’t mix.” Apparently, the agreed upon tradeoff is, “You can tell us all you want about religion as long as you don’t suggest religion has anything to do with the rest of our lives.” I suspect this compartmentalization of the religious life stems from the Cartesian notion of religious life as an intensely individualized, and exceedingly private matter.

The only difficulty with this line of thinking is its complete departure from the way I read the stories of Jesus and the Church in the New Testament. We are not baptized into “a customized faith journey.” Rather we are sacramentally drowned and raised to a life that is inherently communal and connected. Our religious life can no more be abstracted from our political life than our bodies can be abstracted from our minds.

That said, there is an important distinction to be drawn between the words political and partisan. The Gospel is about a new politics — called “The Kingdom of God.” The Church (as in the Body of Christ, not a particular denomination) is political to the extent that it gathers a people under the banner of the Cross to promote justice, peace, and the dignity of every person as reflections of living our lives under the rubric of the Two Great Commandments (Love God. Love neighbor). By ordering our common life in such a fashion Christians are at odds with any and all partisan politics which run counter to the Gospel.

Part of the challenge in parish life is giving people theological tools to reflect upon partisan politics deliberately and prayerfully whilst being ever-mindful that people of good faith often come to very different conclusions. In our country’s current partisan chaos, I believe offering a witness of respect, forbearance, prayerful thought, and careful speech is about the most important thing anything anyone in parochial leadership can be doing. Godspeed.

Quality Preaching

October 22, 2018 — 2 Comments

Last night, before turning in for the evening, I scrolled through my Facebook feed. This is nearly always a mistake so close to bedtime, and yet, for whatever reason, I haven’t quite mastered the self discipline necessary to avoid the temptation. And sure enough, I discovered a post which caused a significant enough spike in my adrenalin level to keep me stewing well past my bedtime. The person who posted was lamenting the lack of engaging Episcopal sermons. A quick Google search had failed to serve up a sermon which adequately met the unspecified criteria my Facebook acquaintance had in mind as necessary in order for a sermon to be deemed “good.” The post ended with a rhetorical flourish, “But really. . . It shouldn’t be that difficult to find quality preaching. . . should it?”

Upon awaking this morning, I still had that question lodged in my head, and I did what I knew to be futile. I responded to the question. Here’s what I wrote:


So far this year, I have preached 36 out of 42 Sundays. Some sermons were “not-too-bad.” Some were serviceable. Some touched people’s lives. Some of them comforted folks in pain. Some of them challenged folks in their privilege. All of them represented my best efforts in any given week to be faithful to a biblical text, attentive to the world around us, sensitive to the issues resident within the parish, and adherent to my best (for now) understanding of Creedal Christianity. Oh, and I have 12 minutes each week to accomplish this, which means in parish ministry, preaching is an ongoing conversation between the text, the Tradition, the cultural context, parish concerns, and the preacher whilst doing our best to discern the voice of the Spirit within our midst.

The week-to-week quality of this homiletical conversation varies, I’m sure, but my hope is, over time, even the most sporadic attenders at the parish I serve hears “a good word from the Good Book under the Lordship of the Eternal Word.”

This was a long-winded way of saying, I’d hate to be judged about the quality of my preaching based on one 12 minute audio posted on our parish website, and disconnected from its liturgical moorings, but I’m aware this happens all the time. It’s daunting and nerve-wracking, and anxiety-producing. ..which is why I rarely sleep well on Saturday nights. And while I suspect there is a wide variance in what folks want when they talk about quality preaching, my guess is no preacher in our Church sets out to be poor at the work. Here endeth my apology.


I don’t expect my reply to generate any substantive discussion, and to be honest, my response probably sounds grouchier than I had intended it to be, but writing it reminded me of how difficult the preaching task is, and how tempting it can be to succumb to a learned hopelessness about the discipline altogether. After all, in a culture shaped by sound bites which are, these days, becoming more and more like “sound nibbles” part of the challenge of preaching is the realization that folks in the worshipping assembly are often working as hard to pay attention to the preacher as the preacher is working to make sure what they’re listening to is worth the attention being paid.

A little later in the morning, I saw the announcement regarding the death of one of my pastoral heroes — Eugene Peterson. I first became acquainted with Peterson’s writing over thirty years ago when I read his essay, “The Unbusy Pastor.” In this essay, Peterson talks about the three things a pastor can do if, “I’m not busy making my mark in the world, or doing what everyone expects me to do.” Those three things are: being a pastor who prays, being a pastor who preaches, and being a pastor who listens. Again and again, those three practices have challenged me as I continue to grow into the pastoral vocation. As Peterson implies, these three practices are intertwined — each informs the other — and yet, his quest to be a particular sort of preacher was a lifetime in the making.

He writes, “I have no interest in ‘delivering sermons,’ challenging people to face the needs of the day or giving bright, inspirational messages. With the help provided by scholars and editors, I can prepare a fairly respectable sermon of either sort in a few hours each week, a sermon that will pass muster with most congregations. They might not think it the greatest sermon, but they would accept it. But what I want to do can’t be done that way. I need a solid drenching in Scripture; I require an immersion in biblical studies. I need reflective hours over the pages of Scripture as well as personal struggles with the meaning of Scripture. That takes far more time than it takes to prepare a sermon.”

Amen. And thirty-plus years on, I might add — a sermon arising from such an intense engagement with the Scriptures might not rise to the top of  a Google search.