Morning Courage

Every morning he is there, lights on when the rest of the world is dark, shuttling to and fro, chopping and mixing and spicing, preparing for the day before him. He is both proprietor and cook of a small café here in town. I pass him by each morning on my quotidian walk, a pane of glass separating the cold of the new day from the welcoming warmth of a cherished gathering space infused with the smells of breakfast. His establishment is not open yet. Patrons have yet to arrive, that is, if they do at all. The disease is still with us, and most people remain justifiably cautious, choosing to munch cereal at home rather than risk blending their breath with that of others. I knock on the frosted window and wave. He looks up from his work and gives me a smile and nod. There is a certain inexorable courage in my friend’s diurnal routine. In the very face of pandemic, he continues to prepare for guests who may or may not arrive. Despite his fears, he continues to chop and mix and spice, every morning.

Persistence seems to be a quality in humans that God honors. Jesus says, “Ask and you’ll get; seek and you’ll find; knock and the door will open.” The implication in Jesus’ words is that those who ask and seek and knock will do so repeatedly, that is, every day. The getting and finding and opening rarely occurs on account of a one time effort, no matter how faithful or Herculean. There’s another story in the Bible of a healing at a pool called Bethesda in Jerusalem. It was to this pool that multitudes of sick, blind and lame people would come. They had the belief that the first person to step into water after the pool had been “stirred” would be healed of their particular infirmity. There was a man who had come to the pool each day for thirty-eight years in the hope of being healed. Of the hundreds of people who had gathered about the pool, it was this man whom Jesus chose to heal. It takes courage to seek and ask and knock, and the picture of one doing so for thirty-eight years is one that inspires.

This is the same courage that I witness in the lives of other friends who gather each morning for prayer. They come to say much the same words and to express many of the same concerns as those who have done the same for a thousand years. They come to listen for the still small voice of a God that they cannot see. Some come full of faith, full of energy, full of hope. Others come despite their lack of the very same. Perhaps they come out of a desire to be in community. Or is it just obligation, and does it really matter? For what matters most is that they come. Such persistence is courageous, no matter the conscious or unconscious motives. It is courage, morning courage.

Courage is doing what needs to be done regardless of the consequences. It is preparing for the feast, even if no one comes. It is staying by the pool even if one is not chosen that day. It is saying one’s prayers, even if those prayers remain unanswered. For the most part, none of us understands the ways of God or the timing of God. We walk with only partial sight, trusting in the beneficent presence and patient guidance of the Spirit within. Morning courage is asking even when an answer doesn’t immediately come. It is seeking even when finding the right path means running into ten thousand deadends first. It is knocking, persistent knocking, even when one must stand by an unopened door for a long, long time.

It is my belief that finally, if we are able to practice such morning and afternoon and evening and nighttime courage, we will realize that God has been doing the same for much longer than we can ask or imagine. Our morning courage is simply a derivation of the Great Courage of the everliving and everloving God, the One who is faithful, ever faithful. God has been asking that we might say yes to God’s love; seeking that we might allow ourselves to be found; knocking that the door to our hearts and souls may be opened. So this day, may you take courage, morning courage, and know that your courage is met by that of God. God has been asking and seeking and knocking, chopping and mixing and spicing, preparing for a great feast on the off-chance that today you and I might arrive to partake.

~Father Art

Trading Up or Trading Down

I walk with my dog Bernie every morning, and every morning he plays the game of Trading Up. Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the game. For my dog, it goes something like this… he will come upon some object that is lying on the sidewalk or in a snowbank or in the middle of the street or at the base of a trash can (his favorite place), and he will pick it up in his mouth. I understand that a good and responsible dog owner would take whatever object he has newly acquired out of his mouth immediately, but to do so would require me to take off my mittens, “convince” Bernie that the object is not good for him, and then when the convincing doesn’t work, to wrestle the object out of his chops. Frankly, I’ve made peace with the truth that I am not a good and responsible dog owner, and so, I allow Bernie to continue the walk with his newly acquired treasure. Okay, let’s say Bernie has picked up a chunk of disgusting ice that has fallen from the rear wheel well of some passing truck. He will carry the ice until he comes across something that he deems better, for example, a McDonald’s french fry holder. His first option is to carry both the ice and the french fry holder, but when he realizes that his mouth is not large enough for both, he chooses the one that he deems more valuable, in this case, the McDonald’s french fry holder. Bernie will continue this game for the entire walk, and usually by the time we arrive back at the house, he will attempt entry with whatever “superior” object to which he has traded up. At least half the time, said superlative object is road kill.

Of course, this game of Trading Up is one which humans play also. Much of the time, many of us play this game of desiring and seeking that which we do not have. This yearning for what we do not have leads to dissatisfaction with what we do have. Further, if and when we do actually acquire that for which we yearn, we usually quickly tire of it, desiring and seeking something else which we deem more valuable. And so it goes. We do it with clothes. We do it with cars. We do it with houses. We do it with jobs. We even do it with our relationships. And rarely does this game of Trading Up satisfy.

William Wordsworth, the renowned 19th century English romantic poet, writes, “The world is too much with us, late and soon, getting and spending we lay waste our powers.” Wordsworth lived at a time of the industrial revolution when many people traded up for the bright and shiny objects of their new society, all the while sacrificing their connection with nature and God. Wordsworth describes the game as a colossal “waste of our powers.”

All the great religions, including Christianity, speak to the futility and waste of playing this game of trading up. Indeed, the incarnation of Jesus may be interpreted as the direct opposite. The apostle Paul writes that Jesus “emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born of human likeness”. If anything, this is a game of “trading down”! It is in humbling himself “to the point of death, even death on the cross” that Jesus establishes the way of life and salvation. And as followers of Christ, this is the way we are called to journey as well.

Lent is a time for subtraction, of self-emptying. During Lent we are given the opportunity to discover once again that we are loved and belong just as we are and with just what we have, not as the world tells us we should be or as the world tells us we should have. So this Lent, may we refrain from laying waste our powers. May we choose the Way of Christ, and leave Trading Up to the dogs.

~Father Art

The Work of the People

The word liturgy literally means “work of the people.” And in my book, work entails participation.

One of the most beautiful aspects of our Episcopal liturgy is that it is highly participative. Sure there are those times when we are encouraged to sit and listen to others, but for the most part, our worship entails kneeling and sitting and standing, reading and responding and receiving. So much of the Episcopal liturgy is a remembering of what God has done for us in Christ, and remembering, when done best, is more than a mind game. It necessitates the participation of our hearts and bodies and minds and souls.

And that is one reason why, for many of us Episcopalians, this time of “corona-tide” has been so difficult. We are used to participating in our liturgy rather than just watching somebody else on a computer screen execute the liturgy on our behalf. Don’t get me wrong… those of us who have been faithfully leading our livestream worship for these past many months have been doing our level best, and something is definitely better than nothing. There has, however, been something missing, and that missing piece has been the “work of the people,” that is, the participation of all of you.

There will come a time in the not too distant future when we will have the opportunity to be back in church together, saying our prayers, singing our hymns, greeting one another in the name of our Lord and Savior Jesus… but not yet. At St. John’s we are committed to doing the very best we can to keep everybody safe, and for now, that means that we are going to keep the doors of our church shut. Some of you have already been vaccinated, and it is so very tempting to fling open the doors of the church. To do so, however, would be premature. We have waited this long, and I am asking that you remain patient for just a little while longer. Our efforts to be faithful in our worship will continue unabated, however, online. I am hoping that these “virtual” services may increasingly become “works of the people” by increased participation from all of you.

There are a number of ways to participate in an online service of worship. First of all, instead of just watching the service of worship, we encourage you to download the bulletin to the service (for a copy of the online bulletin visit our Online Worship page on the St. John’s website – you will find it under the link to the service itself) and fully participate just as you would if you were in church. Say “And also with you,” “Thanks be to God,” “Holy, holy, holy…”. Sing the hymns. Do the Episcopalian calisthenics of sitting and kneeling and standing. I realize that it may be strange to do so in your own home, but it’s really not as strange as you may think. God is still watching and listening and receiving our expressions of praise and thanksgiving and dedication. I would also encourage you to use the chat function on Facebook or YouTube to greet one another, to make comments about the sermon, to say “Amen” when the Spirit strikes you. Liturgy is a time of connection not just with God, but with your friends as well. The chat function is a great way to do that.

In addition, please know that we also offer daily worship throughout the week in different formats. Throughout the season of Lent, Morning Prayer will be offered Tuesday and Thursday morning at 8:00 am via Google Meet, and every weekday at 7:30 am via Facebook Live (Note: you do not need a Facebook account to view a Facebook Live event). And Compline is offered every evening at 8:30 pm via Google Meet. These services will be offered without a sermon or time for discussion, but the Google Meet format does allow for direct interaction with those others who are worshipping. For Google Meet login information, visit our Online Worship page on the St. John’s website.

Worship is not something that the clergy or worship team do on behalf of the parish. It is something that we do together. Liturgy truly is the “work of the people.” Many thanks to those of you who have been participating so faithfully. If you haven’t, give it a try. It’s not as weird as you may think. And it is my belief that God smiles when “the work of the people” truly is the work of the people.

~Father Art

The Upside-Down Kingdom of God

There’s a piece of equipment called an inversion table that I use every morning to help my back. I lock my ankles into this contraption, lean back against the backboard, lift my hands above my head, and magically, the whole table inverts and puts me in an upside-down position. For about a week when I first started using the inversion table, I had difficulty becoming accustomed to it. The feeling of being upside down and the pressure of blood rushing to my head led to a sense of disorientation and discomfort. The jury’s still out on whether the thing actually helps my back, but I will say that, with repeated use, I have come to enjoy the sensation of being upside down. Strangely, I think that my time on the inversion table has also helped me understand the Kingdom of God in a new way.

The apocryphal writing known as the Acts of Peter, written in the latter half of the 2nd century, asserts that “unless you make what is right left, and what is left right, what is above into what is below, and what is behind into what is in front, you will not learn to know the Kingdom.” Regardless of the overall orthodoxy of the Acts of Peter, I think that it’s author got that part correct. The Kingdom that Jesus describes in his teachings and in which he ushers through his death and resurrection is an upside-down sort of thing. One has only to read Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount (or Sermon on the Plain in the Gospel of Luke) to see just how counter cultural is the Kingdom of God. “Then [Jesus] looked up at his disciples and said: ‘Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. ‘Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. ‘Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. (Luke 6:20f.)”.

What? The poor and the hungry and the sad are those who are blessed? Could Jesus really have said that? I mean, how messed up is that? That’s not how we live at all! That’s not what I was taught in school! That’s not the American dream! That’s all upside-down! And whether we like it or not, that is the Kingdom of God.

There have been many, many sacrifices that we have had to make in this last year. Few, if any of us, wish for this period of Covid-19 to last any longer than it absolutely must. I must say, however, that in some ways, we have been given the opportunity this past year to live into the Kingdom of God in ways that I am unsure we would have done otherwise. For example, consider the roll-out of the vaccine. Our culture usually values the young and strong. Our culture usually values the wealthy over the poor. The vaccine, however, is being given first to the old and weak. Great efforts are being made to ensure that the poor and the rich are treated equally. Sure, there is and always will be a way for the young and strong and rich to game the system, but in general, without us even knowing it, we have been behaving in accordance with the rules of the Kingdom of God! With the rollout of the vaccine, the table has been inverted. Everything has become upside down. We are prioritizing the elderly over the young. We are treating the poor with dignity. And in the midst of all the tragedy and sadness and death that Covid has brought, the Kingdom of God has somehow found a way.

If you are older and have received or will soon receive your vaccination, say a prayer of thanksgiving that the Kingdom of God has come near. If you are younger and have been asked to wait to receive your vaccination, be patient and know that by allowing others to go ahead, you too are living in the Kingdom prepared for us by and through Christ. I realize that it doesn’t seem natural. It seems that everything has gone all topsy-turvy. We may be disoriented, inconvenienced, or in some discomfort. And if we are, be at peace. That feeling of discomfort is our first clue that the table has turned and that the Upside-Down Kingdom of God has come near.

~Father Art

Buddha’s Last Instruction

“Make of yourself a light,”

said the Buddha,

Before he died.

This is the first line of a splendid poem by Mary Oliver, the renowned American poet. Through the remainder of the poem she imagines the Buddha’s last minutes of life interspersed with a description of the rising of the sun.

An old man, he lay down

Between two sala trees,

And he might have said anything,

Knowing it was his final hour.

Imagining my own last minutes of life here on earth, I wonder what my last words will be. If I were to condense any wisdom that I have gleaned over the years of my life into one sentence, what would it be?

Slowly, beneath the branches,

He raised his head.

He looked into the faces of that frightened crowd.

I am not sure that I can do much better than the Buddha with his words of exhortation to “make of yourself a light.” Or those of Jesus, who, close to the time of his own death and after he had humbly and scandalously washed his disciples feet, proclaims: “A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

Make of yourself a light. Love one another. Simple, direct words containing a lifetime of wisdom and sacrifice. These final gifts bestowed unto us by the wisest of the wise… do we hear them? Will we heed them?

All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into beingin him was life, and the life was the light of all people.The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. (John 1:3-5)

~Father Art

Rector’s Address

Each year in January, our parish, along with Episcopal congregations across the world, gather together to reflect upon the past year and set the stage for ministry in the upcoming one. The year just passed has been an extraordinarily difficult one for human beings across the globe. As I write this address, more than two million people have perished as a result of COVID-19. As the pandemic began, few of us realized what we were in for. At the church, we began the practice of ringing our church bell each day at 5:00pm for those who had died in the state of Minnesota on account of the virus. When we began the practice, we would ring the bell one time for every soul lost. As this new year commenced and the vaccine began to be administered, I deemed it a suitable time to conclude the ringing. On December 31st, we rang the bell one time for every 200 lives lost. In the state of Minnesota alone, almost 6000 people have died of COVID-19. By this time, most, if not all of us, know somebody who has contracted, or even perished from, the virus. All of our lives have been impacted, and the life of our parish has as well.

In addition to this, the year just passed has had an inordinate amount of racial tension. A certain amount of disquiet is useful in helping us identify issues that have been eating us up from within. Our nation continues to deal with the parasitic disease of racism, and the murder of George Floyd at the hands of Minnesota police forced us to confront just how little we have travelled down the road of reconciliation and justice. Here at St. John’s, a significant group of us gathered twice a month to discuss issues of race and bias, particularly as they have affected our own experience. I realize that these discussions have been happening also around many dinner tables, and often these critical conversations are being initiated by the younger members of our families. Despite the uncomfortable nature of these conversations, it has been a good thing to bring it into the light. It is my prayer that as we enter into a new year, these conversations will continue both in our families and in our parish family.  

And finally, the year just passed has been replete with political drama as we participated in the quadrennial work of electing a president and other officials to lead us for the next span of time. It has been a contentious year with strong opinions and often uncharitable words spoken on all sides of the political divide. As with our conversation regarding race, some of the discussion has been helpful, but so much of the conversation has been utterly divisive. As rector, I have tried to find a proper balance of tending to the issues of justice to which the call of Jesus demands us address, while also recognizing that solutions to unjust conditions come in many forms. We have lost a few parishioners here at St. John’s on account of the political unrest, and I have been saddened by their departure. We have also gained members as many people want their church to speak to the issues of the day. Our Presiding Bishop has reminded us that as leaders of the Church, we must do our best in the public arena to remain politically neutral, but as followers of Jesus, we cannot and must not ever be morally neutral. God’s ways and will must be discerned and spoken to the best of our abilities. I and all others who have preached and taught from the place of authority at St. John’s have sought to do this while recognizing the vast difference of political opinion.

The presence of the pandemic, racial unrest and political turmoil in this last year have all challenged the solidarity of our families and our communities. This unholy trinity has certainly been a challenge to our common life here at St. John’s. Back in late April and May as I and other parish leaders began to understand the severity of the pandemic, we took measures to reduce the hours of some parish staff and to increase the responsibilities of other staff. We felt this was necessary because the pandemic really did grossly alter the nature of our parish ministry, necessitating a correction. We also anticipated that with some parishioners losing their jobs and others being impacted by losses in their savings and stock portfolios, giving to the church would decline.  

Many of our fears, however, were not realized. Our parish has faithfully weathered what I believe to be the darkest days of the pandemic. Much to my surprise, giving to the parish was not diminished, but rather remained strong. At our Annual Meeting in January of 2020, the Vestry presented a financial plan that had a rather substantial deficit, but we have actually ended the year with greater income and less expense than expected with the fiscal year ending in the black. Our parish staff and our parishioners have been understanding and patient as we have shifted gears, attempted to find appropriate ways to be the hands and heart and mouth of Christ in our community, and engaged in new and different ways of ministering. Needless to say, it has been an immensely challenging time, but we have risen to the occasion and have emerged from 2020 in a strong position.

As we head into this coming year of life and ministry, we are taking our direction from our new bishop, Craig Loya. He has established four priorities for our common life in the Episcopal Church of Minnesota, these being: practiced discipleship, faithful innovation, justice, and vitality. We will live out these priorities here at St. John’s as we pray and grow and serve together. In particular, this year at St. John’s we will be putting extra emphasis on the first of the four ECMN priorities, that of practiced discipleship. It is our intention this year to dig deep, to learn how faithful followers of Jesus live their lives of faith, and to engage in these practices together.  

As rector, I am so very blessed to have Rick Todd and Margaret Thor and Kate Maxwell as my clergy colleagues. They are each of immense assistance to me. In addition, we have an incredibly strong staff who not only do their work with excellence, but are even cheerful in so doing.  Maureen Vruno, Mike Ferguson, Rona Pasch, Carrie Thomas, Megan Jahnke and Jake Malark are just the best in what they do, and our parish is being well served by their faithful ministry among us. I am also so grateful to the outgoing Vestry members, Al Bradley, Jason Knauss, and Gretchen Brunner. They were among those parish leaders who agreed to bring me on board as the new rector of St. John’s a couple of years ago and have continued to provide such strong leadership. In particular, Al Bradley, as a fellow ordained minister of the gospel, has become a favorite preacher here in the parish and has been especially helpful to me personally as I have discerned a variety of difficult issues. Thank you, Al. St. John’s has also been faithfully served by our wardens, Linda Carpenter and Karen Herrera. It is never easy work to be a warden of a parish. The work entails discerning needs and available resources, coming to the defense of the rector some times and at other times, reining him in, leading a gifted but altogether opinionated group of leaders. To do so in the context of such a challenging year has taken patience and care and strength. Again, St. John’s has been well served. Thank you, Linda and Karen.  Special thanks also to Andrew McClaren, our Treasurer and Angie Gordon, our Associate Treasurer. You have informed, instructed and provided guidance that has allowed the Vestry to make its decisions. Jeanne Thoemke has done the perennially unheralded work of Vestry Clerk with diligence, skill and exactitude.  Thank you Jeanne. And to those of you who will continue your ministries of leadership into 2021, I am so grateful. Finally, I remain eternally thankful for all of our parishioners and friends who have been so patient with us as we have tried new ways of ministry and have done our best to adjust to changing circumstances.  Truly, you have extended to us the support and grace that we needed to continue with joyful hearts.

It is my hope and expectation that in 2021, we will gather physically, once again, in our beloved church building. We, however, will not gather together in person until it is safe for us to do so. Until that time, I humbly ask that you remain patient, that you participate in our virtual offerings as much as is helpful to you, that you let us know of your needs, and that you continue to pray and reach out to each other. God is faithful, and will see us through these difficult days. That has always been the story of the relationship between God and humanity. God is faithful, ever faithful. May we place our trust and hope and lives in the hands of God who desires not only life, but abundant life.

And so we go forth as the people of St. John in the Wilderness into 2021! May we do so as the heart and hands of Christ. May we do so faithfully and joyfully and full of hope. I am honored to be on this journey with you as a fellow pilgrim on the Way of Love. May God bless our lives and may our lives be a blessing unto God.

~Father Art

Going Through the Motions

We are now fully ensconced in the season of Epiphany. The Christmas trees and Christmas decorations in our homes have been carefully packed away for another year. The same has been done at church. If you have tuned into our live streamed Christmas services, you might have noticed that despite the fact that only a few of us have had access to the church in our efforts to stay safe in the midst of the pandemic, the chancel was nonetheless beautifully decorated with garland and the lovely ceramic nativity set. Steve Johnson and Harvey Caldwell have done this work. For another year, they have found the boxes of garland and nativity set figures in the bowels of the church and have placed them about the altar. They did this slowly through the weeks of Advent, placing items so that their arrival matched the readings for that particular week. The Shepherds with the sheep came, and then Mary and Joseph. The Baby Jesus didn’t arrive until Christmas Eve. As the Shepherds and sheep disappeared, the Wise Ones with their attending camels appeared. Now that we are fully into the season of Epiphany, the garland is back in the boxes; Mary and Joseph have returned to Nazareth and the Wise Ones back to their homes in the East (or at least as they sit in their cardboard boxes in the basement until next Advent, that is where I imagine they are).

Despite the pandemic, despite the fact that so few parishioners perhaps even noticed, Steve and Harvey went through the motions of preparing the church for the arrival of the Christ Child. I am quite positive that few noticed, but Harvey even carved a new wooden staff for the ceramic Joseph whose staff had gone missing. They went through the motions even though most of us probably didn’t even notice. Going through the motions. Much of our lives is just going through the motions.

The Bible tells the story of Mary Magdalene who, like Steve and Harvey, went through the motions. For two days after the crucifixion, Mary Magdalene weeps, but on the third day, she composes herself and does what is necessary for the preparation of a dead body. She assembles the necessary items for a proper anointing and proceeds to the place where Jesus’ body had been laid. Her intention is to anoint his body with the requisite spices. In her sadness and despair, she was going through the motions. But something happens at the grave; she encounters the living Jesus who calls her by name. Mary Magdalene becomes the first witness to the resurrected Christ, and in turn, becomes the first evangelist, telling the disciples of this great good news.

If she had not been about the business of doing the ordinary, expected thing of anointing the body of a loved one with spices, Mary would have missed the miracle. If she had not been going through the motions, Mary Magdalene would have missed the life-changing and history-altering encounter with the resurrected Jesus.

Sometimes, our lives seem to be little more than going through the motions. This is especially true during these days of the pandemic when many of us seem to do the same things and stay in the same places day after day after day. It is so easy to become discouraged by the mundane, ordinary rhythms of our lives as if our lives are being stolen from underneath our noses.

But God is close, so close to us. God is closer to us than our very breath. Never forget the story of Mary Magdalene. Never forget that God shows up most often as we are going about our everyday, ordinary lives. Never forget that the Spirit moves in the regular routines of our lives. Go through the motions and try to do so joyfully. Keep your eyes open because the God of life and love may just pull off a miracle right in front of us. And the next time you see Steve and Harvey… well, give them a pat on the back for going through the motions.

~Father Art

The Light of Christ

I did not anticipate nor do I particularly wish to write about the state of politics in our nation. I believe, however, that this week’s events necessitate comment and an attempt to see the events from a gospel perspective.

The events to which I refer, of course, are those of this past Wednesday, January 6th. In the Church year, January 6th is the Feast of the Epiphany, that occasion on which we celebrate the visitation of the Magi to the Christ Child. The Epiphany presents an opportunity for us to recognize that Jesus is the Light of God that came into the world to help people understand the very nature of God’s love. We recognize also that the Light of Christ lives and shines in the lives of those who are willing to live the Way of Love.

One characteristic of light is that it allows us to see that which, without its presence, might remain hidden. Light helps us to see things as they really are.

Since the presidential election on November 3rd, there have been a great number of untruths spoken; or rather it has been the same untruth spoken in various forms continuously. The untruth spoken has been that the current President of the United States, Donald J. Trump, was the actual victor in the election and that, somehow, someway, a grand conspiracy has been successful in granting the victory to Joe Biden. Evidence in support of this claim has been scant. When tested in courtrooms, numerous judges have heard the merits of the claim and have ruled against. And yet, that has not kept a small number of very prominent people from continuing to proclaim the untruth. Chief among those who have continued the propagation has been the President himself.

This past Wednesday, as the Congress was attempting to go about the constitutionally mandated process of certifying the ballots provided to them from each state, a large number of people believing the untruths told them, became enraged and sought an outlet for their anger. Barriers were breached, and the protesters turned insurrectionists stormed the Capitol building. A number of people were injured, four were killed. Across this nation and the world, shock and dismay were prevalent as the very symbol of our democracy was assaulted. The likes of what occurred on Wednesday has not been experienced in our country. January 6th will henceforth be remembered as a day of infamy.

What happened on Wednesday is not new to humanity, however. The efforts of the powerful to retain power has often led them to do outrageous and heinous acts. Indeed, the very story that is read on the Feast of the Epiphany is that of the Magi. In the story, King Herod, fearing that, somehow, someway, a baby boy born to a powerless Jewish woman could dethrone him, comes to the Wise Ones and tries to elicit their aid. “Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared.He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.

Of course Herod had no intention of worshipping. His intention was to kill a baby so that he might retain power. Herod’s conversation with the Magi must be held in secret because the plan that Herod hatches is based on an evil lie. The Magi are wise and courageous enough, however, to keep from being ensnared in Herod’s plan. The plan, nevertheless, is executed. True to form, the plan, based on untruth, results in violence and the death of many innocents. Untruth left unchecked will almost always result in violence of some sort. Untruth, when continuously declared and propagated and complicitly ascribed to is at the heart of darkness.

Into the darkness of a world of violence and untruths, Jesus is born. He comes as a light into the darkness. He comes as the Prince of Peace into a world of violence. He comes bearing life, not death. The Gospel of John tells us that “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” And this is certainly great good news, worthy of all the joy and merriment that we can muster. But there is something in these words of John that is very important to note… there is still darkness. John tells us the whole truth. God is not afraid of the darkness. God does something about the darkness. But there is still darkness. And if you’ve lived a few years in this world, you know the painful truth of that statement.

So, what are we to do? As those walking in the Way of Jesus, we are called to proclaim and live the great good news of hope and joy that the Light of God has invaded this old world of untruths and darkness and despair. And untruths and darkness and despair are no match for the Light of God. They cannot extinguish the light that Christ brings. Believe this truth. Proclaim the truth. Know this truth in the deepest parts of your heart and soul.

But know this also… there is still darkness, my friends. Herod was not the first to plummet into the mire of lies and violence and darkness. Our President won’t be the last to do so. And God is counting on us to carry the very same inextinguishable light of Christ into all corners of darkness on this earth. So gird up thy loins you Children of the Living God. Rise up, you Bearers of the Light. Pray and speak and organize and labor and persist and endure and try and try and try again… until all the world is ablaze with the Light and the Love of God!

~Father Art

Dancing with Christ

“All around you, people will be tiptoeing through life, just to arrive at death safely. But dear children, do not tiptoe. Run, hop, skip, or dance, just don’t tiptoe.”

Shane Claiborne

Finally, 2020 is coming to an end! It has been a very long year, indeed, replete with political drama, racial tension and unrest, and partisan political drama. Most folks with whom I speak are ready to start fresh with a new year and just forget about the one now ending. We have learned and become accustomed this year to taking extra precautions to safeguard our health and the health of others. We have been exposed in a very real way to the notion of putting the good of the community over our own self-interest. We have discovered new ways to give of ourselves and to look after our friends, families and neighbors. And as the urgent nature of the global situation has come to our front door, many of us have engaged in a more serious consideration of the deeper things of life.

There is no doubt that this year has been more challenging and fraught with sacrifice than any that most of us have experienced. Along with the immense difficulties and sacrifice, however, we have become stronger. For those of us who claim Jesus Christ and his way of living as the way for our own lives, this year has been a crash course in discipleship. Unknowingly, as we have spent so many of our days in our own homes either by ourselves or with our immediate families, we have been learning to run, hop, skip and dance the Way of Love. Jesus often suggested that the Kingdom of God is sneaky, and the Kingdom has snuck right into our very midst.

I am in complete agreement with Shane Claiborne as he warns us against tiptoeing through our lives, progressing each day in fear. Fear keeps us from experiencing God’s Kingdom. It restricts us from seeing and responding to those in need. Fear sucks the life right out of us. There is nothing about the life of Jesus that suggests that he was living it tentatively or in fear. Further, Jesus constantly exhorts his disciples to “fear not,” and we, modern disciples, should heed his exhortation as well.

 This does not mean that we should back away from the precautions that we have embraced for our own and others’ safety. Now, more than ever, we must be vigilant in the safety practices that we have learned and patient as the vaccines get disseminated. But it does mean that we should consider each day as another spectacular opportunity to embrace the life that God has given us and to partner with God in extending that life into the world. The needs of the world are immense, and Christ is counting on us to be his heart and hands in this community and beyond.

So, a toast to 2020… despite the challenges, the sadness, and the sacrifices of so many, thanks for making us a stronger people, prepared to let the love of God flow through our lives.. And a toast to 2021… may this year be one of great courage as we run, hop, skip, and dance with Christ.

~Father Art

Restless Hearts and Faithful God

O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,

That mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.

(Hymn 56)

A couple of months ago, a good friend from a previous parish died. It hit me rather hard, and for several weeks after his death, I found that I had less energy. My work, my life for goodness sake, seemed less interesting and engaging. While I resisted the temptation, I found that I just wanted to sleep. People told me that I looked tired, and as I looked in the mirror, I had to acknowledge that they were right.

At its core, grieving is really about loneliness. When someone for whom we have cared deeply dies, we just feel a little bit more alone. Perhaps it is preparation for the final loneliness of our own terminus. As a person of faith, I cognitively rejoice in my friend’s entry into the next chapter of life, believing that he is in fuller connection with the love and being of God. To be honest, though, my feelings are more pokey than my beliefs. My heart still “mourns in lonely exile.” I have lost a friend, and somehow it feels as if I have lost a chunk of myself in the process.

This sort of loneliness is odd. The truth is that I am far from alone. I have a family and friends. I am part of a parish community full of people that I care for and who care for me. My life is full of interesting and good things. I can’t quite come to terms with the loneliness that I am feeling.  

My hunch is that the lives of the ancient Israelites who longed for Emmanuel were full of good things as well. Certainly, they experienced difficult days, but I am confident that most also had families and friends and work and food and shelter. They had their faith and the many stories of their faithful God. And yet they yearned for a Messiah anyway.

It seems we are often yearning, always longing, never satisfied. Saint Augustine once said that “our souls are restless until they rest in [God].” Particular times when we are experiencing the loss of a loved one remind us of our restlessness, but I think that it is true all of the time. We may have people all about us and many close to us, and yet, we feel so separate and alone.

My friend is in a better place. I really do believe it. He is now without the pain and the struggle. He has entered a new kind of life in which loss itself is lost, where all is restored and all separation overcome. Those of us who are still living have yet to experience the fullness of the Kingdom that Jesus inaugurated, but our longing hearts bear witness to the sweetness that is to come. God promises that our mourning in lonely exile shall not persist because the exile itself has ended. We shall, indeed, come to understand with our hearts and minds and bodies the great truth that those who have died know already and fully… that all are in Christ, and Christ is in all, and no one is left in lonely exile.

~Father Art