Posts Tagged With: theology

Being a Scholar Priest

“In all that you do, you are to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come.”
Book of Common Prayer, 531

I was at Camp as the priest of the week. Right before bedtime, a Counselor brought a camper—an almost sleepy boy of probably 9—over to me with a question. “What does Hallelujah mean?”

I wasn’t thinking when I answered the call from an unknown number on my day off. “Did the Jews kill Jesus?” wasn’t the opening statement I expected.

I was at a joint service planning meeting and informed that my idea was unnecessary as my colleague did not believe our people were deep theologians.

I worry that our Church has come to believe this lie that our people are not deep theologians. We let ourselves compile lists of the things we never learned in seminary as if the ability to sketch out the major councils and heresies of the early Church had less bearing on our vocation than our ability to navigate Church repair. Convinced, hopefully or fearfully, that Christians do not care about the details, the history, the richness, the nuance of our faith. Some believe it. Believe that priests do not need to know the outline of Church history or the basics of the rubrics. Or that at most these things should be kept to our Continuing Education days. Sequestered off from people that primarily need to be lured away Sunday morning hockey (or football) commitments and into Church.

Sometimes the necessary skill is to know, on the spot, that Hallelujah means ‘Praise God.’ Sometimes it is helpful to be able to reassure a caller that her newly discovered Jewish heritage does not include a blood debt for the death of Jesus.
Or any of the other odd theological tasks ministry has us stumble over.

It is not just the odd, strange, and yet not uncommon encounters of my life that convince me of the importance of study, of deep theology.

My parish recently read Joan Chittister’s In Search of Belief for a parish book study. Towards the end of one class as people were discussing the challenges of the reading, one parishioner commented that I was sitting there smiling.
And I was.

Not because everyone was worried their entire faith system had just been found hollow.
Because we were sitting there, conservative, liberal, literal, literary, cradle Anglicans, recent converts, together.

I am called and charged “to nourish Christ’s people from the riches of his grace, and strengthen them to glorify God in this life and in the life to come.”

And as a parish priest I particularly live this out through leading community. Not just by loving the people I am amongst but by hosting space where liberal and conservative and just-not-sure-yet all witness themselves being loved, heard, and understood in front of other people.
To do this means knowing more of my tradition than my preferred strands of it. It means learning how to hold open the riches of Christ’s grace for those who need other strands. And holding out the hope that in the life to come we will all be closer to God and thus to each other in our understanding of the faith we share.

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We Make Our Song

I sat at the deathbeds of three Churches. That was the ministry I was called to. It was not the ministry I expected. It was not, in the way that death never is, the ministry I wanted.

I could see all the ways the story ended differently. More money, more people, more energy. Some of my fictional endings might have worked. Some of them rested on three years of sleeplessness. The story might have ended differently, but my real ministry was to help it end well.

After three deathbeds I stayed in my Church, in my priestly orders, and was terrified. Becoming a “Church Closer” is not the long term ministry I want, in no small part because I fear it would drive me out of the Church. A Church closing, your Church closing breaks your heart and eventually it would be too much.  Eventually I feared I would break.

When I moved for a new call, a new chapter of ministry in a new Church located in a new Diocese and country, I was asked the question we are always asked, “Who are you? Where are you from? What have you done?”

I am from Montana, from the United States, from the Episcopal Church. My family, my life, my friends. This stories are easy to tell.

I closed three Churches.
This is not the story you want to tell. Not in a Church that has told and believed a story of fear and scarcity. Not in a world where success is valued and death is failure.

An insightful colleague asked what those deathbeds taught me.

A deep understanding of resurrection.

I sat at the deathbeds of three Churches. I lived the story that did happen, not the one we all may have wished and dreamed and hoped for.

Three deathbeds. A Church that is scared the story it tells about it’s demise is more than a rumour.
I refute the idea that the church is dying. I look forward long and active years in priestly ministry.

Why?
A deep understanding of resurrection.

We talk about a theology of abundance as if discussion of what our people and money and energy can do is enough. As if abundance will drive out the fear which even perceived scarcity brings.

Christianity, Jesus, is never about enough. Or more than enough.

Jesus is about driving out fear, not to replace it with the paltry offering of ‘enough,’ but to offer the reverent fear, the awe, of and holiness. Jesus is about the extra mile, finding lost sheep, and celebrating. Jesus is about the impossible.
Jesus is the Christ who is Risen.

I believe, my lived theology tells me, that abundance is not about the reality of enough when we think we have too little. Abundance is Resurrection.easter flower

Because enough runs out. Sometimes we have too little. Sometimes we sit at deathbeds.

And then we remind ourselves that even at the grave we make our song:
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

A theology of abundance is weak.

Resurrection is strong. Resurrection is impossible. Resurrection is abundant.
Resurrection is Divine.

The Lord is Risen Indeed!
Alleluia, Alleluia, Alleluia.

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(Happy Birthday)x

I’m not  a big birthday person.  It’s not an age thing–one of the perks of being an Episcopal Priest is that I get to be considered “young” until I”m 45 (currently, I’m waiting for them to raise it).  That gives me another 16 years of young.

For years I would be reminded that it was my birthday when my first family member called to wish me a Happy Birthday.  It was always a pleasant surprise that occasionally lead to a friend chastising me over not telling them my birthday was coming up.  So when I finally joined Facebook I listed my birthday.

Now my first reminder that my birthday is coming up is when my Church sings me “Happy Birthday” (visit us for your birthday and we’ll sing for you!).  Then my friends in significantly different time zones start leaving Happy Birthday messages.  Then the day itself arrives and the birthday wishes pour in.

I know that many of these are people just taking a second or two of their day and typing a few words because they got a little notice.

But these people are a couple of seconds to do something because they believe it might brighten my day for a couple of seconds.  And it does.

There are grander gestures and gentler gestures.  Today, on my birthday, I’m cherishing both reminders that I am loved.

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Understanding Incarnation

I was as unprepared as any of us ever are; I was as prepared as all of us are. A seminarian doing CPE, serving the sick, the dying, the struggling.

In CPE, sometimes you stumble across people who needs you and sometimes someone (usually a nurse) will page you for a patient. I don’t remember how I wound up sitting up with one woman. But I remember her.

I remember her story and her tears. I remember the depth of her insanely tragic grief. Of the loss so huge it consumed both of us.
And so I sat there with this woman, held her hand, prayed with her, and prayed silently for the words I needed, she needed. I sat, I listened, I prayed.

I don’t know if my faith, my presence helped her, but I know that her grief, her impossible, tragic grief leached into my life. When I hear similar stories, I remember her, I remember that grief, and I still mourn. I mourn, for her and for all  loss like hers. For all grief too big for words.

And I remember.  I remember the nurse’s note that she left the Hospital happy. I remember the words that did come, informed by study but inspired by the Holy Spirit, when I was asked how God fit into all of this.

“I find it comforting that the God who sits in Heaven walked on this earth as Jesus and had dusty feet, stubbed toes, and knew suffering.   And that the Jesus who walked on this earth sits in Heaven.”

It was the first time that I had been asked to express complex theology on the spot, for someone who needed An Answer, not a conversation or a “let’s have coffee later and talk.”  It was one of the first times I saw, raw and up close, that theology matters.  Understanding Jesus’ relationship to us, suffering, and God made a difference.

That answer, my answer, might not be The Answer, your answer.  It isn’t perfectly parsed out with every term defined for theologians; it doesn’t address the how of the mystery.  But for me, and I pray for the woman I was talking to, it brought theology into the grief, made God explicitly present in that room with us.

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Theology Reading List

The catch-all line in any job description is always “and other jobs as requested.”  When you are an Episcopal Priest sometimes that line means cleaning bathrooms, negotiating with copiers, or shoveling walkways, and sometimes it means teaching theology.

For the past three months, I’ve had the joyous privilege of teaching theology to future deacons.  (We’ll just side-step the whole Episcopal ordination process bit.)  Altogether I had a lot of fun and they seemed to also.

Of course, there is always more to discuss than we had time to, so one of the things I left them with was a reading list.

The process for compiling this was pretty simple.  I looked at my bookshelves and my RSS reader and asked, “What should people at least experience?”  A few caveats: it is by no means exclusive, or complete.

Further Reading List

In fact, we discussed names that could be added to it: Jim Wallis, Phyllis Tickle.  And for those who had not had their religious funny bones appropriately tickled: Lamb by Christopher Moore and Good Omens by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett.

So, what authors or books did I miss?

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Thanksgiving, a good beginning

It’s that time of the year again.  Cartoon turkeys are adorning ads and cranberries are in the stores (and soon to be in my fridge).  If you are like me, your Twitter and Facebook feeds are filling up with your family, friends, and variously distant acquaintances listing reasons they are thankful.

Thanksgiving.  Or, as I often think of it, the secular holiday I approve of.

I approve of the chance to focus on giving thanks.  I approve of being encouraged, as a country, as one of the richest countries in the world, to take a day (or, as my Twitter and Facebook friends are, more)  and consider all that we have which is beloved and good.  This is no easy task, as the things that we are, and should be, thankful for can easily get overlooked in the busy-ness of life.

Yet, as a priest and an individual, I always approach this season with more than a little hesitation.  While there is a rightness to being asked to consider all that we have, as a country and as individuals, there is danger in how this conversation happens.

There are things in our lives, all of our lives, that we may not and should not be thankful for.  Issues of money, health, family, work, and other things that are struggles, burdens, and torturous.  It may seem like we are doing better at hearing this truth, right now in the midst of Occupy Wall Street and with the recent New York Times article on the ‘Near Poor.’  I’m not so sure.

We may be on the cusp of beginning a societal conversation about some of the economic issues that create persistent inequalities for our neighbors and ourselves.  Or we may not.  We don’t know yet.

But a societal conversation is not the same as learning to speak the truth of the broken, weak, and sometimes just destroyed parts of our own lives.  There are truths about debt, about illness, about personal and family secrets that are hard to share, hard to expose to close family and beloved friends, much less the world.

This Thanksgiving, let us give thanks.  Let us give deep and genuine thanks for all of the beloved and good aspects of our lives.  Let us rejoice and celebrate wholeheartedly.  May that only be the beginning of a conversation about the reality of our lives.

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