Wednesday, May 24, 2017

The Transmutation of the Dying

During the course of my ministry as an Episcopal priest, I’ve spent a lot time with the dying. I consider it a deep privilege to be with people as they walk through the final days of their life. Their stories are often the legacy of their soul. The dying fill every word of every story with a heavy weight that leave a lasting imprint on my mind, body, soul, and spirit; the transmutation of the dying.

Such are the final of words of Jesus that we have been reading in the Gospel of John chapter 13-17. The Gospel of John is set apart from Matthew, Mark, and Luke as a very different look at who Jesus might have been and what he taught. The Gospel of John was written thirty to forty years after the other gospels. Its focus was not on telling Jesus’ life story. There isn’t a birth narrative in the Gospel of John. There aren’t any parables in this gospel. Instead, the Gospel of John was written to reveal the wisdom of Jesus’ teachings, which are often hidden in the poetic nature of John’s writing. In one line in the gospel, it even suggests that Jesus’ teachings were done in “secret.” (7:10) In the Gospel of John we hear Jesus’ seven mystical “I am” statements and we are told about his magical seven signs. A great deal of the wisdom literature discovered in the Nag Hammadi text, found in an Egyptian cave in 1945, were based on the Gospel of John. And the mysteries of Celtic Spirituality have drawn deeply from the Gospel of John as its primary source of understanding Jesus’ wisdom and his relationship to God.

In John 14:15-21, Jesus gives his followers a very straight-forward statement about how they are live once he is gone from the earth. “If you love me,” Jesus says, “you will keep my commandments.” The temptation here is to start listing all the commandments of Jesus that we can find in each of the four gospels. The problem with this is that each gospel was written for a different community. And most likely these small house churches only had access to the gospel written especially for them, and not the other three.

That’s why, in this little study, I want to keep our focus on the Gospel of John, on Jesus’ wisdom teachings.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus gives us three simple commandments, or expectations, for his followers:

1) Love one another as Jesus has loved us. (John 15:12)
2) Abide in Jesus’s love, which is the same as abiding in the Spirit of God’s love. (John 14:17)
3) And wash one another’s feet. (John 13:14)

First, Jesus tells us that our society will know that we are the followers of Jesus when we love one another. (John 13:34-35) Jesus’ teaching sounds so easy, just love everybody. But the reality is, we have a hard-enough time loving ourselves, and our family, much less those in our church community. It’s hard to love people we don’t know; much less love the ones with which we share deep relationships. The love Jesus is talking about is an intimate love—the kind of love that reaches us in the most vulnerable hidden places deep within our souls. And this kind of love, Jesus’ love, is transformative—it changes the very essence of the core of our being.

I remember so well when our son told us we were going to be grandparents. We were so excited and could hardly wait for the day Cole would be born. All my friends told me that having a grandchild would change my life like nothing else. I believed them, but I just didn’t have any context for what they were saying. And then Cole arrived; the holy grandchild. The next day we went to meet our grandson.

Within minutes of our arrival our daughter-in-law slipped Cole into my arms. When I peered into his eyes I knew I was looking in the eyes of God; and my heart was forever changed. In that mystical moment, I knew my life would never be the same. For the first time, I was beginning to understand what it was like to be loved by God, to feel what Jesus felt like when he told us that “God is love.” (I John 4:16) The experience of holding my grandson for the very first time opened a whole new understanding to me about what it means to love one another as Jesus has loved us. Jesus’ love is intimate and his love is transformative. Now when I am challenged to love those around me who are difficult to love, I am moved to see the God that I see in my grandson’s eyes, in the eyes of the person I struggle to love.

Second, Jesus teaches us to abide in his love. Jesus tells us that we can abide in the same love that he and God share. To abide means to remain permanently, to stay in the space of their love forever.

When I go hiking, I love to pick up stones. I’ve found myself attracted to the rough, jagged, and sharp edged stones. In pondering why I’m attracted to such stones, I’ve come realize that these oddly shaped stones represent how I see my soul. To abide means to place the rough stone of our soul into the river of God and leave it there until it becomes smooth, a process that will take more than a lifetime.

In our Baptismal Covenant (found in the Book of Common Prayer, 304) we are asked five questions about our commitment to the teachings of Jesus. In each case, we respond, “I will, with God’s help.” What we are saying is that we are work in progress. We will do everything we can to stay permanently in the river of God, allow the rushing waters of God to transform us; smoothing out our rough edges. It’s not always easy to abide in the river of God. Sometimes the waters are rough. Sometimes the waters are freezing cold. Sometimes the waters are muddy.

But it is at those times that we know we must abide; we must keep our stone in God’s river, so that the transformation can happen. It’s the good times that we remember; but it’s the bad times that have made us what we are.

Finally, in Jesus’ wisdom teachings he asks us to follow his example by washing other people’s feet; in other words, to minister to others hidden needs. Recently, the Episcopal Church has passed a new regulation that will require all our volunteers to participate in a training course. The Church’s meaning has good intent. The only problem is that St Peter’s has so many volunteers, we not sure how to even count them all. This past week we started gathering lists and in our earliest guess, we might have more than 250 people volunteering for one or more ministries. St Peter’s people know how to “wash other people’s feet,” by being servants.

More often than not, I hear people tell me that when they serve in one of these ministries that it does more for them than the people they are serving. In washing another person’s feet, we humble ourselves in the most vulnerable way to the most vulnerable people in need. The act of serving others changes the core of our being. It’s a reciprocal act. An act that creates within us what Thomas Merton calls a “Resurrection Consciousness.” In other words, the world is turned upside down as we begin to see everything through the eyes of Jesus.

In Jesus’ final words he told us to love one another, abide in God’s love, and to wash feet. His final commandments change the way we live, move, and have our being in the world; they transmute us. Living as Jesus has taught us can be our legacy that we leave to our family and friends. Jesus’ way of living can indeed change us and our community.

Monday, May 08, 2017

Singing to the Weary Soul

In June, Cathy and I will be going to Ireland again for another pilgrimage. I will be walking with two groups. The first pilgrimage will be with Vox Peregrini 2017, a group of twelve professional singers who will be walking and singing their way along the 100 miles of the Wicklow Way. The second group includes people from our Wisdom School, St Peter’s, and a few other close friends. This group will walk three days of the Wicklow Way and then spend five days on a retreat led by Cathy and I that we call Sacred Cauldron.

We have walked the Wicklow Way and led these types of pilgrimages before. Our experience has taught us that a community forms rapidly among those who are walking the Wicklow Mountains. Walking fifteen miles a day for eight days through, sometimes rough terrain, leaves the pilgrims exposed and vulnerable. Exhausted and sometimes in pain, the best and the worst of us comes to the surface for everyone else to see.

Like all communities, the spectrum of each member’s involvement in the community is often dependent upon their maturity. Those who are more mature and experienced have a tendency to carry a heavier load of leadership. A few walk in the front, a few at the back, most in the middle. And while each person has to carry their own pack, everyone eventually will carry some spiritual and emotional weight for the entire group.

Walking together is Ireland is like walking in a mist of Celtic Spirituality that naturally fosters a form of community development. Celtic Spirituality is monastic by its very nature. It is built upon the idea that small groups can learn best how to pray, work and live together. These small groups share the central ideals; that God is present in all of creation; that Christ is the model of personal development; and that individuals are collectively responsible for the well-being of the community. Celtic Spirituality is a perfect blend of Franciscan, Benedictine, and Ignatian Spirituality.

Franciscan in its nature-centered theology. Benedictine in its hospitality-centered theology. And Ignatian in its imaginative-centered theology. By combining these three spiritualties, there seems to be a possibility for almost anyone to find their way in the Celtic community.

Of course, this method of community building comes from the teachings of the apostles found in Acts 2:42-47. In this text, we find five components upon which we can weave the web of the spiritual community. Together, the community will 1) study the scriptures, 2) fellowship, 3) worship and pray, 4) serve others, and 5) share their time, talent, and treasure with the group. Without all five of these connecting points holding the community together, it will eventually collapse in on itself.

Let’s take a closer look at these five connecting points of community development.

First, we must study the scriptures and other wisdom texts together. What that means from Anglican tradition is that the God is still speaking and reveling Godself to the community. We can learn to hear the Voice of God and discern what God is saying to the community when we study together. Without studying together, we can get lost.

On one of my pilgrimages across Ireland, we spent a lot of time in the rain. One of the worst rain and windstorms we encountered was crossing White Hill in the Wicklow Mountains. Everything we carried was drenched, including my map.
The following day was another hilly climb from Roundwood to Glendalough. We endured another day of steady Irish downpour. With a trashed map, the inevitable happened. We got lost and I was feeling very anxious.
We came across a couple sitting by the side of the road. They were having a cup of tea.
“Are you walking the Way?” I asked.
“Aye,” the man said.
“We are walking the Way as well, but I think we’re lost,” I told him.
“Where are you coming from?” he asked.
“Indeed, you’re going in the wrong direction,” he said, “Where’s your map laddie?”
I pulled out what was left of my map. It was a useless wad of soaked paper, an indistinguishable mess.
“That’s not a map laddie,” as he reached in his bag. “This is a map.” He produced a detailed topographical map sealed in zip lock bag. As a kind pilgrim, he proceeded to tell us that not only had we walked in the wrong direction, but that we had walked about two miles past the turnoff point to Glendalough. On his map, he showed us where we should have turned and what markers would guide us. We thanked him and started to walk back the way we had just come.
“Laddies, we’ll walk with you a bit,” he said.” just to make sure you don’t get lost again.” The couple walked the next two miles with us explaining, in detail, how to make our way to Glendalough. Studying the together is like walking together with a good map. At St Peter’s we have seven study groups going on right now. We study together to keep us from getting lost on our way.

Second, spending time in fellowship together is critical to the community’s spiritual growth. If we don’t eat together we won’t get to know each other. On our walking pilgrimages, we eat most of our meals together. This gives us time to talk about lives, our pains and our joys. In the same way, spiritual communities must make time to fellowship together. John Wiles, who founded Vox Peregrini, wrote a song about how the potluck dinner can be as powerful a sacrament as the Eucharistic meal. In many ways, I believe he is right.

Third, when we worship together, when we break the Holy Bread together, our souls will be woven together. We have different tastes in music. We all like one preacher better than another. We like a particular style of liturgy better than another. But the one singular thing that holds us together is the very Presence of Christ in the Eucharist, the Great Thanksgiving Feast. That is why, here at St Peter’s, we say that the Lord’s Table is open to everyone; no matter where you are on your spiritual pilgrimage, you are welcome to receive the Holy Meal, the Body and Blood of Christ.

Fourth, as a community, we must serve together—serve those in need, both in and outside our community. Not a week goes by when I don’t hear multiple stories about the ministry that is happening at St Peter’s—stories that bring tears of joy to our lives. Ministries abound in this community, for those in the community and those outside our doors. St Peter’s, I believe, is a model parish for other communities on how to serve.

And finally, in the Acts of the Apostles, we hear how everyone in the community contributed their time, talent, and treasure for the sake of others. We are called to faithful stewards of what has been bestowed upon us. There are countless ways in which all us can participate in this community. By volunteering our time, offering our skills, and yes being faithful in giving regularly to the complete ministry of the church. Giving of our time, talent, and treasure is a spiritual practice, a discipline. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, there is “cost” that accompanies “discipleship.” No one can tell us what that cost is, but we will know when God places that call on our heart to share of our time, talent, and treasure.

St Peter’s is a spiritual community that is on its own particular spiritual pilgrimage—one that will continue to develop our strength and resilience. The kind of journey that we are on, however, will require everyone to carry some of the load. It will take all of us working together: in our studies, our fellowship, our worship, our service, and our giving. When we work together to strengthen our community, we will see “wonders and signs” done in our midst.

When the Vox Peregrini 2015 finished its 100-mile walk, they were scheduled to perform two concerts. The first was at Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin. That concert went fine but the group seemed a bit off. I had listened to them sing for eight days and every time I was moved at the core in my being. Maybe that day they were just too exhausted to sing or I was too tired to listen. The next day they performed at St Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin. That day the music was pristine, rich, and filled with emotion. I asked a few of the singers what made the difference between the two concerts. One person said it was because they had another day of rest.
Another person said they sounded different because John, the director, had told them to sing like they were standing in the forest, to match their voices to the sound of the wind blowing through the trees. One person said it was because he had stopped looking at the audience and instead looked at his fellow pilgrims; seeing them not dressed in their performance clothes but instead as they looked while hiking through the forest, weary and worn but at peace. He said when he saw them this way he was seeing their souls. He could sing to their souls.

Wonders and signs don’t happen in our community by accident. They happen when we are willing to walk together as a community, everyone carrying their own pack and supporting one another along the pilgrimage. And when we look at one another in our weary pain we be able to sing to the soul we see.