The Airport Rule

Sermon for Sunday, July 8, 2018 || Proper 9B || Mark 6:1-13

When I was growing up, my parents instituted a family ordinance called “the airport rule.” The airport rule stated that whenever we were in a crowded place like an airport, we always had to be holding hands with another member of the family. Observing this safety measure meant we were less likely to get lost or (God forbid) snatched. All my parents had to do was call out, “Airport rule!” and Melinda and I immediately buddied up with them.

When I became a parent myself, I finally understood the genius of the airport rule. It wasn’t just about safety, though that was a big part of it. The airport rule also made our travel more efficient because, once buddied up, we had to walk at the parent’s pace instead of the child’s. And there was one more sneaky element of the airport rule that I would never have dreamt of when I was a kid. I’m certain my parents called out for the airport rule just because they liked holding our hands. There’s simply nothing like reaching down and finding those warm, little fingers to squeeze. Every time I hold my son’s or daughter’s hands, I can’t help but send up a prayer of thanks that God entrusted these two precious lives to Leah and me.*

Continue reading “The Airport Rule”

Wonder, Joy, and Fear

Sermon for Sunday, March 2, 2014Ÿ || Last Epiphany A ||Ÿ Matthew 17:1-9

In the end this is going to be a sermon about prayer, but first I’d like to start with a quotation from my favorite book:

“They all gazed at him. His hair was white as snow in the sunshine; and gleaming white was his robe; the eyes under his deep brows were bright, piercing as the rays of the sun; power was in his hand. Between wonder, joy, and fear they stood and found no words to say.”

Does anyone know what book that quotation comes from? Let me add the next few lines:

whitewizard“At last Aragorn stirred. ‘Gandalf!’ he said. ‘Beyond all hope you return to us in our need! What veil was over my sight?”

Yes, my favorite book is and probably always will be The Lord of the Rings. Isn’t it cool that J.R.R. Tolkien seems to be alluding to today’s story of the Transfiguration (not to mention the Resurrection) in this passage from The Two Towers?

The coolness of this allusion aside, I think Tolkien is on to something with his description of Aragorn’s reaction to the bright and gleaming figure before him: “Between wonder, joy, and fear they stood and found no words to say.”

If Peter were a little more laconic, Matthew might have written the same thing about the disciples’ reaction to Jesus’ Transfiguration. Words fail James and John, but Peter blurts out the first thing that comes to his mind – something about honoring the moment with shrines for their brilliant Lord and his impossible companions. But before Peter can finish speaking his mind, the weather shifts. Sudden clouds engulf them, and they hear a voice. “This is my Son, the Beloved…”

And like Aragorn, Legolas, and Gimli encountering the white wizard in the wilderness, the disciples Peter, James, and John stand on the mountaintop, stand between wonder, joy, and fear – and find no words to say.

And this is where we bring prayer into our discussion. How often have you tried to pray and ended up not really having anything to say? You put your hands together, closed your eyes, took a deep breath. You said, “Dear God, it’s me…” And then your mind unraveled. Random thoughts spilled in and maybe you voiced one or two, but then you felt silly because they didn’t really feel special enough for prayer. So you gave up, put the attempt out of your mind, and went about your day.

The trouble is that when you quit you were just on the cusp of a breakthrough. You were just on the cusp of the least awkward silence imaginable. You were just on the cusp of beginning to listen.

While the Transfiguration is not outwardly a story about prayer, we see this same progression. Peter sees Jesus dazzlingly bright there on the mountaintop, and he addresses him: “Lord.” And then Peter’s mind unravels. Random thoughts spill in. He voices the first one: “It is good for us to be here.” Talking gives him some semblance of control, so he plows ahead: “If you wish, I will make three dwellings here, one for you, one for Moses, and one for…”

But the word “Elijah” dies on his lips. The cloud consumes him. Silence consumes him. And between wonder, joy, and fear, Peter stands and finds no more words to say. In the midst of the cloud, he hears a voice. He hears a voice, but not with his ears. The silence remains even as the depths of his being resonate with the truth of God’s words. He feels their truth as a glow in his chest, like a reflection of Jesus’ transfigured radiance. The words shimmer – an afterimage before Peter’s eyes: “This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased.”

And then, I think mostly for Peter’s benefit (as well as ours), God adds the all-important instruction: “Listen to him.” With this command, God gives Peter and us the permission to lapse into silence when we pray. God invites us to be the respondent in the conversation, not the speaker. God asks only that we listen with the ears of our hearts.

So I invite you to close your eyes now and let us practice for a few minutes this silent prayer, this listening that is so hard for most of us. We’ll end the sermon with a long moment of silence, so please know it is intentional. Close your eyes now and we’ll begin.

You do not need grand words lofty enough for the Almighty. You do not need to pen personal litanies worthy of Shakespeare or John Donne. You do not even need the right words. When you come to God in prayer, you need no words at all. You need only the willingness to be patient, to be still. Let the random thoughts dance through your mind before prodding them toward God as tangential offerings. As you sink into stillness, notice not the absence of noise, but the presence of silence – because true silence is a presence, like the cloud that engulfed the disciples on the mountaintop. Notice that the depth of the silence makes unnecessary any words that might now float through your mind. Brush them aside.

As you listen to the silence, as you tune yourself to God’s movement in your prayer, feel yourself suddenly living between wonder, joy and fear. Wonder rises up as a symptom of consciously inviting yourself into God’s presence. Like the disciples viewing their dazzling Lord, you see with new eyes and hear with new ears. Luminous mystery abounds and the only thing you can do is drink in a deep breath of the Spirit. You wonder where God is calling you, and you lose yourself in the wonder of the silent, indefinite moment. And you listen.

Along with wonder comes joy – not happiness, exactly, because happiness is too fleeting an emotion to describe the solid companionship you feel right now. You feel the presence of Christ. You are not alone. You have never been alone. He touches you on the shoulder as he did the disciples after they fell to the ground upon hearing God’s voice. You realize that joy is a natural byproduct of being aware that you are in God’s presence. And you listen.

Along with wonder and joy comes fear. You have laid yourself bare before God. So used to praying the same words in the same ways, you no longer have their protection. You are vulnerable. You realize that if you listen, you might actually hear something. You’re not sure if you’re ready for God to be that present in your life. But then Jesus’ words from our story today rise up from your gut: “Do not be afraid.” You continue to feel the joy of his touch, and you know in a place deeper than normal knowing that he will never abandon you. The wonder returns – more radiant, more real. The silence remains. The wonder remains. The joy remains. But the fear is gone. And you listen.

I invite you to remember this meditation when you bring yourself to God in prayer. As for now, let us remain silent for a moment. Between wonder, joy, and fear you stand and you find no words to pray. So instead allow the silence to descend like a cloud. And listen.

The Last Prayer in the Bible

(Sermon for Sunday, May 16, 2010 || Easter 7, Year C, RCL || Revelation 22:20)

Words can help and words can harm. Words can enlighten and words can confuse. Words can dull the mind and words can infuse the soul with joy. Recently, I spoke some words to someone that wounded that person, and I continue to work to repair that relationship. Recently, I also spoke words to someone else that brought her a bit of peace, a quarter cup of hope for the recipe of her daily walk with Christ.

Words by themselves are innocuous little things, like bullets rattling around safely in the box. Then we employ these innocuous little words to order our thoughts. We combine them into phrases, sentences, speeches, lullabies, poems, diatribes. We use them to teach and to welcome and to express deep emotions that rarely fit neatly into our vocabulary. We also use them to manipulate and to control and to stoke our own fragile egos. Knowing that words surround and define us, the fact that we spend so little time choosing our words is startling. The fact that we spend so little time examining the repercussions of what we say is quite disturbing.

This is true at home, where a conversation can end in a tearful embrace or a slammed door. This is true at school, where teachers use words to encourage, and bullies use words to demean. And this is especially true at church, where we say collections of words used nowhere else in our lives. These words inspire humility and invite transformation, and yet we rarely take the time to notice the power of the words we speak here in this building.

This morning, we heard the final prayer in the Bible, the literal last words in the last book of the library that chronicles God’s interactions with all those grimy, messed up, beautiful people. “Come, Lord Jesus,” prays John of Patmos at the end of the Book of Revelation. Come, Lord Jesus. No prayer in the Bible is more fervent or more concise or more powerful. These three little words pass us by in the midst of another reading on another Sunday morning. But these three little words illustrate the fact that we rarely notice the power of the words we speak in church. We’ll get back to this final prayer in a few minutes. First, let’s explore this power that we tend to overlook.

In her book Teaching a Stone to Talk, Annie Dillard diagnoses this blissful ignorance that affects lay people and clergy alike. She asks, “Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does not one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should be wearing crash helmets.”

In her colorful prose, Dillard reminds us all that worshiping the Creator-Of-All-That-Is has never been an altogether safe or predictable proposition.  In our worship, we consciously commune with the foundation of our very existence, the God who transcends all thought and who, at the same time, moves within and around each of us, breathing life into our bodies and purpose into our souls. The church is not a museum for us to tour with amused and sleepy detachment; there is no frozen exhibit of doves in midair, no taxidermied Holy Spirit. Our God is no divine watchmaker who wound the universe and then left well enough alone. We worship the God who was and who is and who will be. God continues to speak creation into existence every moment of every day. But one of the things God never created is the box in which we often try to stick God, so that we can go about our daily lives secure in the knowledge that God is collecting dust on a shelf in the cupboard.

This box doesn’t exist. Any attempt to domesticate God is a severe delusion of grandeur, one that I know I’m guilty of. We worship a God who moves through our lives like the wind, uncontrollable and yet ever visible in the dancing of leaves and the billow of sails. This is the God whose name we toss about in frustrated oaths when we’re stuck in traffic. This is the God we rail at when the pain of loss wallops us in the gut. And this is the God to whom we address our praise and our prayers.

We ask God for forgiveness in the words of the confession. We invoke God’s name when we offer each other Peace. We recite the poetry of God’s grace in the words of the Eucharistic prayer. We pray for the coming of God’s kingdom in the words that Jesus taught us. After communion, we tell God of our plans to go out and serve God in the world, and we ask for strength and courage.

But how often do we stop and realize that God actually hears these words of ours. How often do we take stock of our conviction that God listens to our pitiful, halting, inadequate, wonderful prayers. Our words are powerful and transformative because we speak them to the God who empowers and transforms us. When we speak words like “Come, Lord Jesus,” are we really prepared for the transformation into which these words draw us?

This is why we need those crash helmets, of which Annie Dillard spoke. God calls us to participate in our own transformation. When we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we signal our readiness to become a part of our own remaking. We discover the arduous path of discipleship, a path which Jesus never promised would be safe or easy. Rather, he promised that he would always be with us on the path, no matter the danger or difficulty. When we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we notice that Christ is already here with us.

This is a comforting and a disturbing thought. Christ is already here with us guiding us and holding us up. But Christ is also here pushing us to step into new encounters that will transform us and, at the same time, transform the world. I know I can’t speak for all of us so I’ll speak for myself. Sometimes, I’m afraid to say, “Come, Lord Jesus,” because I know I might hear Jesus echo my prayer and send me where I don’t want to go. “Come, Lord Jesus,” I’ll say, and then Jesus will say: Come, Adam. Come to me here. Come to me at the prison, at the slum. Come to me when I rattle a Dunkin Donuts cup at you on Tremont Street. Come to me when I hold up a cardboard sign at the intersection. Come to me when I’m alone at the table in the soup kitchen.

Our transformations take place in those moments when we cry out “Come, Lord Jesus,” and Jesus hears us and echoes our cry with one of his own. The more conviction we have in saying those three little words, the easier will be our reception of Jesus’ call in our lives. The more often we pray, “Come Lord, Jesus,” the less often will we be tempted to sequester Jesus in the upper room or to stash him in the manger where he can’t do too much to stir our lives. In The Lord of the Rings, old Bilbo Baggins used to say to his nephew: “ ‘It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door. You step into the Road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to.’ ” Likewise, when we pray, “Come, Lord Jesus,” we step into the Road of our own discipleship, and Jesus sweeps us off to those places where our own transformation intersects God’s transforming of the world.

Words by themselves are innocuous little things until you combine them into phrases and invest those phrases with meaning and conviction. The last prayer in the Bible is just three little words: “Come, Lord Jesus.” With these words, we accept Christ’s invitation to participate in our own remaking. We open ourselves up to hearing Christ’s call to go to those places and to those people who are in need of change themselves. And when we arrive, we’ll find that the Lord Jesus has come there first, and that he will continue to strengthen us in our ministry with his grace.

Food (namely herbs and stewed rabbit) for the journey

The following post appeared Wednesday, December 9th on Episcopalcafe.com, a website to which I am a monthly contributor. Check it out here or read it below.

* * *

The hobbits Frodo Baggins and Samwise Gamgee arrive in a heather-strewn woodland between the River Anduin and the mountains that border the dreaded land of Mordor. After some walking around and griping about the knavish Gollum, who is their deranged hostage and guide, they sit down for a meal, as hobbits often do. They eat herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) make stewed rabbit in The Two Towers (2002)

…I have no idea what happens next.

I’m twelve years old, and I have made it nearly two-thirds of the way through The Lord of the Rings. But I can no longer bear it, and I shelve the book. It’s just so boring. All they do is walk! They start in one place, walk for a bit, meet someone and chat, and then walk some more! I just want them to get somewhere! I want to yell, “Get to your destination, Frodo – don’t stop to eat herbs and stewed rabbit, which the author has described in painstaking detail! Just get to the mountain and be done with the ring! Enough of this walking…”

A year later, I’m thirteen (a much wiser and more mature age), and once again I pick up The Lord of the Rings. Maybe this year, I’ll finish it. I begin at the beginning, and they walk and meet folks and chat and run away from enemies and Frodo and Samwise reach the heather-strewn woodland and eat herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

…I have no idea what happens next.

My wisdom and maturity are no match for the walking. Again, I stop reading. The quest is just too long and arduous and their destination is still on the other side of the mountains and several hundred pages away.

A year later, I’m fourteen, and I pick up The Lord of the Rings again. On page 641, Frodo and Samwise sit down for a dinner of herbs and stewed rabbit and then…

…I keep reading. They find themselves in the middle of an ambush, Sam sees an oliphaunt, the hobbits are captured by people who are supposed to be on their side, and the story goes on and on. A few days later, I finish it. And I’ve read it at least eight more times since.

Finally, at fourteen, I could appreciate the journey, and let the destination take care of itself. Tolkien understood that a destination is more than a physical place. A destination is the culmination of all the shaping events of the journey that brings you to that ultimate location.

Every year, after the tryptophan has worn off, we begin just such a journey in our walks with God. While secular Christmas disgorges itself out of shipping containers every year the day after Thanksgiving, we have the opportunity to let Christmas happen only after the four weeks of Advent have run their course. Christmas is the destination. And Advent is about not arriving at your destination before you are shaped by the journey.

Have you ever had the soup du jour at a restaurant? It’s not some fancy French dish. It’s just the soup made for that particular day. Likewise, my journey happens every day. Every encounter, every decision, every road taken or not shapes me. The season of Advent gives me a dedicated four weeks to notice the shaping influence each day has on my journey with God.

On the first Sunday of Advent, we heard the psalmist pray, “ Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths…All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness” (25:3, 9). This Advent, I’m adopting this prayer because I’ve always had trouble not skipping to the end of the story. Every year of my childhood, I wanted to open the windows of my Advent calendar all at once. I just couldn’t wait to open tomorrow’s window tomorrow. Now, at twenty-six (a much wiser and more mature age) I pray for God to give me the patience to notice each day’s impact on my life. When I ask God to “teach me your paths,” I’m not hoping for some inside knowledge about the destination. I’m simply asking for guidance along the road.

Some time ago, I heard this illustration (the origin of which no longer resides in my brain). Have you ever noticed that headlights only show you thirty or forty yards ahead of your car on a dark night? But they still get you to your destination. Likewise, God teaches me God’s path even as I am struggling to stay on it. As I walk towards Christmas on this particular Advent journey, Christ walks a few steps ahead of me, illumining the road to his own nativity, to his own unique and wonderful expression of love and faithfulness.

Despite my opening description, my love for Tolkien’s works of fiction is deep and abiding. They taught me the lesson of Advent: don’t arrive at your destination before being shaped by the journey. I pray that, during this season of Advent, God teaches us God’s paths, which are love and faithfulness. And I pray that we may meet someday on the road, about which Tolkien’s Bilbo Baggins rhymes:

The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.