Finding our Balance

It is the end of September, and there is a chill in the air.  Summer is giving up her last gasps, and already the docks on White Bear Lake are beginning to be pulled back onto shore for their winter repose. While each cooler day brings fewer and fewer boats to the lake, I am stubbornly refusing to hang up my paddleboard.  I have had a splendid summer of paddling, venturing out onto the lake and around Manitou Island early most mornings and many evenings.  On the summer night of the Buck Moon, several friends and I were paddling on the lake until midnight!  

By this time of the year, I have found my sea legs, but it certainly wasn’t always the case.  In mid-May, at the beginning of the paddling season, my balance on the board was rather sketchy, and waves caused by wind and wake resulted in several unintended full-immersion baptisms!  Now, however, no amount of unsettled water can topple me from my paddleboard.  As a result of many hours spent on the board over the course of the summer, I have found my balance.

The days in which we are currently living feel to me as so many stormy waves.  The nagging pandemic, national and local politics, tempestuous weather all over the world, raging inflation… all of these have combined to rock our lives, and this is to say nothing of the everyday personal and familial trials that just go along with being a living, breathing human being.  So, how do we maintain our balance and stay healthy and joyful as we engage our days?

Throughout the years, faithful women and men have established and passed on a reliable set of spiritual practices that have helped people maintain a healthy balance to their lives. Indeed, when referring to the early Jesus-followers who had their own very stormy waters to navigate, the author of the book of Acts says that “they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” (Acts 2:42).  That’s a pretty good formula: formation, fellowship, worship, and prayer.  And not coincidentally, that’s a pretty good description for what we do at St. John’s every Sunday!

Finding our own spiritual sea-legs, however, doesn’t happen with just one Sunday morning of formation, fellowship, worship and prayer.  Just as I found balance on my paddleboard through a daily regime of paddling, our faith becomes strong and fruitful when it happens by regularly coming together and engaging in such practices.  Church can truly be that place where we find our balance and find ways to live abundantly, joyfully, and lovingly in a chaotic world.

~Father Art

Letting Go

The Annual Rummage Sale at St. John’s is quickly upon us. This has become a noted event in the life of our parish for a number of reasons, and each year it raises money that is used for purposes that are beyond the scope of our annual budget.  It is also an opportunity for us to take stock of the stuff of our lives and to throw out that which we no longer need or want. I have come to appreciate and to take advantage of the opportunity.

Discerning what to donate and what to keep is always a challenge, and like many of you, there has been more than one occasion when I have donated something only to need it just a few days after I have let it go.  Nonetheless, the discipline of annually evaluating what possessions I choose to carry with me on my life’s journey is something that I have come to deeply value.

We actually need so very little, don’t we?  Food, shelter, clothing… that’s about it. And there are certainly other things that add much to our lives.  For example, my life would be much diminished without books or recorded music or a canoe. A car, while not absolutely necessary, certainly provides a convenience upon which I have become all but utterly dependent.  Nevertheless, so much of what finds its way into our homes adds little to the quality of our lives and actually steals much of our life energy.  And it is that which we are invited to release.

The Bible tells the story of Jesus sending his disciples out to proclaim the good news to surrounding communities and to minister in much the same way that he himself had been ministering. When sending them out, Jesus instructs them to “carry no purse or bag or sandals.” Eugene Peterson’s Message translation puts it this way: “Travel light. Comb and toothbrush and no extra luggage.”  The implication is that if you run into something that you need, God or other generous people will provide.  By traveling light, we get into the practice of trusting God and relying on other people. Further, both the wisdom of others and our own experience tell us that trust in God and interdependence with others is a good thing.  Upon their return, the disciples give a report on how it went to trust in God and rely on others. “Then Jesus said, “When I sent you out and told you to travel light, to take only the bare necessities, did you get along all right? “Certainly,” they said, “we got along just fine.” (Luke 22:35)

Still, it’s hard to let go.  I know.  It’s hard for me, and my hunch is that it’s hard for you too. But if we are willing to take the risk to release some of the material things from our lives that are adding little value, we will learn once again that God never fails to provide. And we learn that most people are genuinely good and generous.  In times such as these when so much seems uncertain and mean, those are good lessons to learn. Ultimately, letting go of material things is an excellent practice for us as we learn to release the whole of our lives into God’s loving and never-failing hands.

~Father Art

This Church is Your Church

There is a well known, well loved song that has become embedded in the hearts and minds and lives of many Americans.  Woody Guthrie’s This Land is Your Land has been taught to children for decades and remains an all-time favorite, sung in homes, schools, and even churches.  It is often brought out on patriotic occasions and used for public celebrations of our nation.  

In This Land is Your Land, Guthrie’s words express his great love for America and an abiding hope for its future.  But his words also call America to look deep and address some profound injustices and inequities that he both saw and had personally experienced.  Most of us aren’t familiar with this part of his intended message because the verses that address Guthrie’s perceived ills of America were dropped out.  I know that when I learned the words to This Land is Your Land, I never learned the following verses:

As I went walking I saw a sign there 

And on the sign it said “No Trespassing.” 

But on the other side it didn’t say nothing, 

That side was made for you and me. 

In the squares of the city, in the shadow of the steeple, 

By the relief office I seen my people; 

As they stood there hungry, I stood there asking 

Is this land made for you and me? 

The words that strike hardest for me are “in the shadow of the steeple.” Guthrie is talking about the church; he’s talking about us. What Guthrie is saying is that in the shadow of the steeple, people are in need.  His implied question and challenge is: what is the church going to do about it.  This Church is Your Church. This Church is My Church.  What are we going to do about all those about us, both in White Bear Lake and way beyond, that are in such desperate need.

On September 11th, we will be celebrating our Parish Homecoming.  The day will be filled with vibrant worship, renewed friendships, great food.  At our Parish Homecoming we will be celebrating God’s Spirit in our midst and reminded of the great love that God has shown us through Christ Jesus. But we will also be challenged to open our eyes and our hearts and our lives to see and embrace and love those on the margins, those in need.  We will be reminded that the Way of Jesus is one of sacrificial and inclusive love for all.  

The church that I want to be a part of is a church that lives a life that looks like that of Jesus, a church made for you and me and a whole host of other folks who look and think and live very differently from you and me. When Jesus paints word pictures of what the Kingdom of God looks like, it’s vibrant and diverse and surprising. My hope is that St. John’s may be a reflection of that robust Kingdom that Jesus describes.

Guthrie’s last verse goes like this:

Nobody living can ever stop me, 

As I go walking that freedom highway; 

Nobody living can ever make me turn back 

This land was made for you and me.

Those are pretty good words for our church to live by.  This Church is Your Church.  Come and be a part of creating Your Church to be a freedom highway for all.

~Father Art

If you want to hear a rendition of This Land Is Your Land with all the verses, here is Bruce Springsteen singing it in 1985: This Land is Your Land

Coming Home

I spent the year after I graduated from college in England serving as a parish youth worker at Christ Church on the Isle of Dogs in the East End of London. It was a marvelous year full of both challenge and discovery, and it was on the Isle of Dogs that I first entertained the notion of becoming a priest in God’s Church.

It was also, however, a difficult year in that I was far from home with little contact from family and friends.  This was in the mid-80’s, before the time of email and cell phones. I remember spending much of my free time writing letters to loved ones back home, and I recall the immense joy I had in receiving a letter.  It was difficult because, in short, I was homesick.

As that first Christmas away from home came closer, my siblings suggested that I consider coming back for the holidays. This was an expensive proposition, but we pooled our money and made it happen. My parents had no knowledge of our plans, and as I surprised my mother at the front door of our family home, I was greeted with shock and tearful joy.  I, too, felt the overwhelming emotions of being home again.

The coming home feelings of my Christmas experience so many years ago is one shared by many.  Returning for the holidays, embracing family, reconnecting with old friends, recounting shared memories… these are all part and parcel of what it means to come home.  And it is in coming home that we are reminded that we belong, that we matter, that the family is incomplete without our presence.  

Our faith boldly claims that if we wander away, God will seek us out and draw us home once again.  The Bible is chock full of homecoming stories, and I can’t help but believe that coming home is central to our life in Christ.  Coming home is key to a reconciled and resurrected life.

On Sunday, September 11th, our church family will be having a “Parish Homecoming.”  We are encouraging all members of our church family to come back home, to return to church, to reconnect with your parish family, to share memories, to catch up with those you haven’t seen for a long time.  If you’ve been away, know that we miss you and that we are incomplete without you.  At our Parish Homecoming, we will be worshiping together, sharing a meal, playing games, and just enjoying each others’ presence. If you’ve been away for a while, this is the perfect time to come back again, an opportune time to come home. 

So, know you are valued and loved.  Know that you belong.  Know that our parish family is not the same without your presence.  And come home.  

~Father Art

Practice the Better

It has been a hot week in White Bear Lake with little rain and only the scant promise of such in the days to come.  Our friends in Europe and other parts of the world are experiencing record temperatures, historic fires, droughts.  The trendlines are clear, the scientists are right, climate change is real and here.  What is historic today will be commonplace and seasonable in the not too distant future.

And yet the political machines of the world in whatever form or shape they may come, seem unable or unwilling to take on this issue (or most other substantial issues) with any serious intent.  It is all so discouraging and overwhelming, leading to unending commentary by most of us on what could be done, what should be done.  And so, most often what happens is that sides are drawn, words are said, egos are bruised, and little gets accomplished.

Richard Rohr, a Franciscan spiritual teacher, has said, “the best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.”  I think that may be the key to a way forward.  Less drawing of sides, fewer words, a greater attempt to understand the other.  And then, actually doing something.  The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better.

Isn’t that what we’re about as the People of God?  Wasn’t much of Jesus’ own earthly ministry precisely that?  And if this “practice of the better” resulted in reconciling the world to God, doesn’t Christ invite us into the same work?  Isn’t at least part of what it means to walk in the Way of Christ allowing God to heal up what is broken in our lives and then doing what we may to do the same?  Or at least isn’t that what and who we are when we’re at our best?

What if we, as the people of St. John in the Wilderness, were known as those folk who “practice the better?” What if our fellow townsfolk described us as those strange and wonderful people who, day by day, week after week, year upon year, practice the better?  Perhaps the most courageous and faithful and effective thing that we as followers of Jesus may do today is simply to practice the better by rolling up our sleeves, by getting our hands first dirty, then blistered, and eventually calloused, by not giving up, and by doggedly doing something for the sake of this beautiful but broken world.

~Father Art  

Working Out Our Own Salvation

In the second chapter of his letter to the Philippians, the apostle Paul says to his readers, “Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed… continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act in order to fulfill his good purpose. (Phil. 2:12).”  The “obedience” to which Paul refers is not an obedience to him, that is, to Paul himself, but rather an obedience to God. Paul is not one more despot seeking to amass and execute power as is the nature of so many in human history.  Rather Paul is a disciple of Jesus, seeking to reimagine and reinvent his life as an imitation of Jesus himself, and he is an apostle of Jesus, seeking to point others to reimagine and reinvent their lives as well. Paul recognized that it was the privilege and obligation of all believers to figure out how to live a faithful life.  He did his best to provide instruction, encouragement, sometimes admonishment to those entrusted to his care, but he recognized that, at the end of the day, he was powerless to force anybody to live a certain way.  And that is why he tells his readers that it was their responsibility to “work out [their] own salvation with fear and trembling.”

The approach that the Episcopal Church takes in our own instruction is similar to that of Paul. Deacons make promises to be faithful in prayer and the study of Holy Scripture.  They vow “to make Christ and his redemptive love known” to the communities in which they live.  Priests make promises at our ordinations to study the Holy Scriptures and to seek knowledge of other “such things” as to make us stronger and more able ministers of Christ.  Priests are called to proclaim by word and deed the Gospel of Jesus Christ.  Finally, Bishops are called “to guard the faith, unity, and discipline of the Church,” and to do so in such a manner that their “joy will be to follow him who came, not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many.”  In all of this work, it is implicit that the ordained leaders of the Episcopal Church, like Paul, provide their people with instruction, encouragement and, sometimes, a gentle kick in the rear in the ways of love as made manifest through the life of Jesus. Just as Paul exhorted the early Church to obey God with their lives, so do leaders in today’s Church exhort the modern Church to do the same.

But in the final analysis, it is the responsibility of each believer to take the instruction of its leaders and to work out their own salvation with fear and trembling. There is nothing in the dictates of the Episcopal Church that require a person to agree with or abide by the instruction of its leaders.  Our church encourages dialogue and faithful engagement with all issues and concerns that face our lives and world.  Our church provides wide theological parameters within which lively conversation and disagreement are tolerated and even cheered. Our Church trusts that in such conversation, the Spirit of God moves and speaks, and as a result, the will of God for our lives becomes more clear.

As I and others preach and teach at St. John’s, we will continue to do our best to interpret Holy Scripture and proclaim the Way of Christ.  We do so, however, trusting that all of you will do your own part to listen to the Spirit of God and to work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.

~Father Art 

Power in the Word

This coming Sunday, in order to commemorate the Fourth of July, we will be having a different sort of worship experience at St. John’s.  We call it “Speeches and Songs in Celebration of Independence Day.”  In place of the Old Testament and New Testament lessons, we will have readings from our shared American history that have been impactful and which express, either explicitly or implicitly, vital Christian themes.  Our readings will be from Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Emma Lazarus, Anna Howard Shaw, and Martin Luther King, Jr..  Each informed by their faith, each in their own way, each in their own time, proclaimed their understanding of how the Kingdom of God might find its way into the common life of the people of the United States of America.

There is power in the spoken (or written) word – power to create, power to confront, power to transform.  Whether an important speech delivered or an intimate poem recited, the spoken word has the ability to move its hearers to a different place, to help readers see the world and their lives differently. The spoken word can make anew that which is broken or incomplete.  Yes, there is power, real power, in the word.

That is one reason why we come to church on Sunday mornings.  We come to hear and be transformed by the Word of God.  The Bible is an account of human beings’ relationship with God.  Through prayerful listening, reading and study of the Bible, we come to have a clearer understanding of who God is and what God’s dream for his creation looks like.  We gain insight into how we might deal with other people and live faithfully.  The Bible is both sublimely inspirational and amazingly practical.  

As we allow our lives to be shaped by God and God’s word, we experience the flow of God’s grace and mercy.  We gain the courage to become the people God intends and to do the often difficult work that God has called us to do.  And further, as we allow the words of the Bible to permeate our minds and hearts, we actually encounter the living Christ who lives in and among us.  Yes, in reading the word of God, we come face to face with the Word of God, that is, the living Christ.

There is power in the word.  There is power in the Word.  May the words of our celebrated forebears move us on this holiday weekend.  May the words of Holy Scripture inspire us.  And may the Word of God, the living Christ, transform us into the people of God’s dreams.

~Father Art

For Freedom Christ has Set Us Free

Rector’s Reflection

06.23.22

Independence Day is just around the corner.  It is the occasion when we remember and celebrate the birth of our nation, that point in our national history when men and women sacrificed so much for the sake of freedom and a chance at a new kind of future.  Since that time we have learned that freedom is ever-expanding and must be constantly and earnestly pursued.  True freedom is to be cherished and takes great effort to maintain.  But what exactly is this freedom for which so many give so much?

As followers of Jesus, at least part of our understanding of freedom comes from the teachings of the Bible. In his letter to the church in Galatia, the apostle Paul writes that “it is for freedom that Christ has set us free. (Gal. 5:1)”. The corresponding themes of bondage and freedom are central to Paul’s theology. Indeed, for Paul, the whole reason for Jesus’ birth, life, and especially death is that the world, including all of us, might be free.  But again, what exactly is this freedom for which Jesus lived and died?

Real freedom is always grounded in God’s love, and most parts of God’s creation do an admirable job of manifesting this love simply by fully being that part of creation that God has created them to be. A rock manifests God’s love by simply and fully being a rock.  A bumblebee manifests God’s love by simply and fully being a bumblebee.  It is only human beings who seem unable or unwilling to be, simply and fully, the human beings that God has created us to be.  And so the authentic human journey of freedom is not about becoming something extraordinary, but rather, by becoming, quite simply, who we were created to be. Because of sin, this has proven to be exceptionally difficult for us.

Jesus teaches us the way forward to freedom.  The way forward always entails love… receiving love and giving love.  When we allow our lives to be free-flowing conduits of love, we become more human, more free.  As we become more free, freedom itself is unleashed.  In his living and in his dying, Jesus was a river of love.  By immersing ourselves in that river of love, we become agents of freedom just as Jesus was an agent of freedom.

For freedom Christ has set us free.  Receive Jesus’ gift of freedom.  Let that freedom flow through your life. And let freedom reign for all eternity!

~Father Art

Priesthood of All Believers

Last Sunday I had the opportunity and great joy to announce that Kate Maxwell and Aron Kramer are joining our clergy team at St. John’s.  Kate has discerned a call to continue at St. John’s as our Associate Priest.  In this capacity, Kate will preach and teach and serve at the altar, lead a newly formed Liturgical Planning Team, help coordinate adult Christian formation, coordinate and provide training for a new lay-led pastoral support network called Community of Hope, and a host of other duties.  Aron will be among us as a Priest in Residence, assisting with liturgical leadership, teaching, and engaging in other ministries as he is interested and willing (he does have a full time job elsewhere!).  We are so incredibly blessed to have such gifted and giving servants among us, and I am personally grateful for their presence and assistance.

But as we add Kate and Aron to our amazing clergy team at St. John’s, I am also well aware of the fact that the church is truly firing on all cylinders only when all of our lay people claim their priesthood as well.  What?  Laity claiming their priesthood?  Father Art, you might need to head back to seminary to get straightened up!  Lay folks can’t be priests!  That can’t be right!  

Well, actually, yes it is.  The author of 2 Peter declares, “You also, as living stones, are being built up a spiritual house, a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ … But you are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, His own special people, that you may proclaim the praises of Him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:5-9).

Now, the author of 2 Peter was not writing to just priests; he was writing to the entire assembly and calling them the following: living stones, spiritual house, holy priesthood, chosen generation, royal priesthood, holy nation, his own special people. While the early Jesus-followers were just beginning to formulate their own structure for the emerging church, one thing was crystal clear… all believers share in the authority and power and work of the church.

We would do well to remember this truth, for what was true for the early emerging church is still valid for us today.  The Christian Church is comprised of a Priesthood of All Believers. While we raise up some to be bishops and some to be priests and some to be deacons, each with their particular type of ministry, the great truth remains that the authority and the power and the work of the Holy Spirit happens through us all.  And we all bear the responsibility to respond to the call, to claim our share of the work, and to help bring about the Kingdom of God here on earth as it is in heaven.

We do welcome Kate and Aron, and I am confident that they will each take their share of the work before us.  But Kate and Aron are joining not just the other clergy at St. John’s in this great work.  They are joining all of you, all of us, the Priesthood of All Believers, as we joyfully proclaim the good news of God’s love in word and deed.

~Father Art

There are No Words

The school shooting in Uvalde which took the lives of 19 children and 2 adults was heart wrenching to all who have hearts able to be stirred.  There have been many speeches in the aftermath of the horrific event, much political grandstanding, numerous thoughts and prayers, litanies, vigils, and, so far, very little action.  

It is absolutely true that God is with us in the midst of all the dark valleys in which we walk this life.  Disease, war, persecution, violence of all sorts, even a school shooting as awful and appalling as we have witnessed in Texas… God remains with us, never abandoning us, always offering us the courage and strength to go on.  The families of all the victims in Uvalde may take refuge in the loving arms and care of our ever loving and caring God.  All of this is true.   

And yet… these words of divine consolation seem just so lacking, insufficient, hollow.  There are no words that may be expressed that convey the depth of grief that the families in Uvalde are experiencing today.  There are no words that speak to the anger and frustration that so many of us are feeling at the inability of our leaders to employ strategies to curb the societal ill of gun violence.  There are no words that can bring back the lives lost.  There are just no words.

On occasions of such confusion and despair, in times when there are just no words, I look to the example of Jesus.  Throughout the mock trial that ultimately led to his crucifixion and, as his body hung upon the cross, Jesus spoke few words. Indeed, what more was there to say.  He had taught, healed, preached, consoled, counseled.  He had spent at least three years doing his best to speak publicly, truthfully and bravely about the peaceable Kingdom of God.  And yet, just as the words of the greatest of the Hebrew prophets and teachers had never been enough, Jesus’ words weren’t enough either. There are no words to truly express the brokenness of the human condition and no words to capture the fullness of God’s gracious response to that same brokenness.

Jesus’ giving of his life upon the cross did what words could not do.  Through his generous act of self-sacrifice, Jesus not only spoke to the state of human sin and God’s love, he did something about both. Through his death and subsequent resurrection, Jesus reconciled the world to God and opened a certain and sure path to abundant life.

Might we dare to follow Jesus’ example?  When there are no words, do we dare to live in self-sacrificial ways that the Kingdom of God may find its way into the brokenness of our world?  Might we be willing to sacrifice some of our well-entrenched ideologies in order to find a way forward?  Might we be willing to give up even a modicum of what we perceive as our rights that violence may be diminished and abundant life may ensue?

In the midst of a world in which gun violence has become a regular and almost accepted manifestation of human brokenness, words are simply not enough. Our thoughts and prayers are just not enough.  In a world in which there are no words to express the depth of pain and sadness and despair, followers of Jesus must live generously and sacrificially.  Words were never enough for Jesus; nor are words enough for us either.

~Father Art