Pepperoni and Grapefruit

My father died this week.  I received the news from my brother on Monday morning.  He had tried to text me in the middle of the night, closer to the time of my father’s death, but for some reason the text didn’t get through. And so my week began with the news that a man whom I respected, emulated, loved… had died.

I can’t say that it came as a shock.  My dad had been ailing for a long time, victim to Alzheimer’s. I put on a brave face, stiffened my jaw, and got about the business of helping my siblings make all the decisions and plans necessary when the cornerstone of one’s family is removed and the family must somehow remain standing. 

As the priest in the family, it was left to me to work with the clergy and staff of my parent’s church and plan out the funeral liturgy.  For most of Monday, emails poured into my inbox, texts made my phone ding every few minutes, phone calls were incessant.  I can’t actually remember if I said my prayers on Monday, but I don’t think I did. In the zombie busyness of my day, on the very day that my father died, this priest forgot to say his prayers.  Wow.

I’m a pretty active guy, but I spent most of Monday alone, in my office, in my chair, in my grief. I took a break to feed my cats and to walk the dog; that was about the extent of moving my body. It wasn’t until 8pm that I realized I hadn’t really eaten anything all day. Surprisingly, I wasn’t hungry. And although I had moved my body so little all day long, I was exhausted; too exhausted to cook.  I ordered a Domino’s pizza: the deal of the day, a large pizza with one topping for $7.99.  I chose pepperoni.

I’m not sure what grief is supposed to look like. As I’ve walked alongside others in their grief, it has taken on all shapes and forms and hues and tones. 

I’m not sure what grief is supposed to look like, but for me, it looks like a priest

exhausted, 

forgetful of his prayers, 

consuming three-fourths of $7.99 pizza.

As I write this, it’s Wednesday night, and I’m doing a bit better.  I’ve been able to get some things done in the last couple of days.  I’ve been eating better too.  But I’m still really sad, and I’m not sure that sadness will go away anytime soon.  I’m not sure I want it to.  

Life is a mixed deal, isn’t it? Light and dark, abundance and scarcity, joy and grief, life and death… all blended together.  And somehow, the love of God, too, is in the mix.  And somehow, too, despite the pain and loss and emptiness, it all seems as a gift.  Even in the deep darkness of my grief, somehow I feel upheld, somehow I feel even loved.  Somehow, even in the midst of my grief, life seems worthwhile.

Tomorrow is a new day; the fourth one of my life without my dad. No doubt, my grief will still be close, but there’s a peace as well. I believe that peace is a God-given thing. And instead of leftover pizza for breakfast, I think I’ll have a grapefruit.

~Father Art

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It’s All About Jesus

Tomorrow night is Christmas Eve, and I have been spending much of my time this week reflecting upon what to say about an event that occurred over two thousand years ago. It’s a crazy story with audacious claims about a God that loves so deeply, so broadly, so recklessly as to enter the world as a frail human baby.  It’s a story of God’s use of human scandal (a pregnant fiancée and a fleeing immigrant family) to facilitate a plan of salvation for the entire world.  It’s a story about an angel announcing the good news of the baby’s birth to the least powerful and most vulnerable of human society, the shepherds, and commissioning those same shepherds to be the first evangelists. 

I have preached on the same story every year (except two… one when I had the flu and the other when our services were canceled due to a covid scare) for over thirty years.  One would think that I would have a pretty good idea of what to say.  The story, however, is so paradoxically simple yet profound that preaching about it is not as easy as one might think.

As I was recounting my struggle to a friend, he said, “Just tell them about Jesus.”  And he followed up that statement with, “because you know, Art, it really is just all about Jesus.”

And so, that’s what I will do on Christmas Eve: tell folks about Jesus.  And that’s what I will do on Christmas Day: tell folks about Jesus.  The day after Christmas, I’ll be doing the same thing: telling folks about Jesus.  And the day after that, and the day after that.  And I hope that’s what you will be doing with your days too because, as simple and as profound as the story may be, it really is all about Jesus.

O holy Child of Bethlehem,

Descend to us, we pray;

Cast out our sin and enter in,

Be born in us today.

We hear the Christmas angels

The great glad tidings tell;

O come to us, abide with us

Our Lord Emmanuel!

(words by Phillips Brooks, 1835-1893)

~Father Art

Come Darkness! Come Light!

Mid-December and we are quickly approaching the longest night of the year.  Despite the attempt of the creators of daylight savings time to adjust the hours of the day to increase the amount of workable light, we all know that the actual hours of light have become fewer. The truth of the matter is that we are spending more of our lives in darkness in these mid-December days than at any other time of the year.

This increased time spent in the darkness leads many of us to reflect upon the dark times in our lives. All of us experience darkness: times of loss, grief, suffering, depression, despair, doubt. The natural darkness of these winter days serves only to accentuate and bring to mind and heart the many darknesses we have experienced in our lives.  Darkness can be disconcerting and uncomfortable, and many of us have the impulse to search for and flee into any light that we are able to find.

Of course, our experience of darkness is not unique to us.  It is part of the human condition, and women and men of all ages have experienced the same.  Throughout the Bible we read of the many darknesses and periods of despair in people’s lives.  Moses in the desert.  Joseph in jail.  Jonah in the belly of the big fish.  Daniel in the lion’s den.  Jesus in the tomb.  Paul in prison.  If you are experiencing despair, depression, or doubt in these cold winter days, well, you are in good company. All of the great ones in the Bible are right there with you in the darkness.

The biblical witness, however, is that God is Lord of both the light and the darkness.  There is not a dark place in which we may find ourselves that God is not also there.  Furthermore, God is not just present, but rather, gives us the strength and courage to make our way in the darkness.  Make no mistake, the darkness will still be there, but, as the writer of the Gospel of John says, “the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overwhelm it.”  Christ, the Light of the living God, shines in our darkness, and no matter how dark the darkness of our lives, the Light continues to shine forth and show us the path forward.  Darkness and light: they are both of God, and may lead us to a more abiding and life-giving trust in the Source and Creator of all.

Wendell Berry writes of this in his poem To Know the Dark.

To go in the dark with a light is to know the light.

To know the dark, go dark. Go without sight,

and find that the dark, too, blooms and sings,

and is traveled by dark feet and dark wings.

Our God is the God of both darkness and light.  And so, with courage and bold confidence, we proclaim, Come Darkness!  Come Light!  May God bless you and keep you in these dark days of December.

~Father Art

Claiming, Connecting, Committing

The Celebrant addresses the congregation, saying

Will you who witness these vows do all in your power to support Sonny in his life in Christ?

People

We will.

These words are part of the liturgy of Baptism in the Book of Common Prayer.  And I have begun this week’s reflection with these words because this coming Sunday, Sonny Russel Howe, the beautiful son of Maggie DeSmet and Nick Howe, will be baptized at St. John in the Wilderness Church.

Most of us are familiar with the story of Jesus coming to John in a wilderness area to be baptized.  By being baptized, Jesus was: claiming the great truth that he was loved and accepted as part of God’s family, connecting himself to all of God’s people and God’s creation, and committing himself to a particular kind of life dedicated to extending God’s dream to the four corners of the earth.  Claiming, Connecting, Committing…  What was true for Jesus remains true for all of us as well.  

Claiming

We claim that we are God’s children, loved and accepted just as we are.  We are bold in our proclamation that despite the fact that we regularly fall short of God’s dream for our lives, God continues to love us.  There is not a place we can go where God will not seek us out.  There is not a thing that we can do that extinguishes God’s inclusion of us.  We are God’s children, forever, period. Paul Tillich, a great 20th century American theologian, described faith simply as “accepting the fact that you are accepted.”  In baptism we claim our identity.

Connecting

As God’s children, we recognize that it is not just us who are claimed, but God has claimed all human beings. All are God’s children, and as such, all are our brothers and sisters. Baptism is this recognition that we are connected to each other and to all of creation.  We are family.  We are responsible to and responsible for each other.  As such, the Church is simply a community of folks who have come to understand that we are intimately and eternally connected to God and to each other.  In baptism we publicly live into our connection with God and each other.

Committing

And finally, as God’s children intimately and eternally connected to one another, we commit our lives to extending God’s kingdom into the world so that anybody who does not know or who has forgotten about God’s great love, may experience it. Baptism is an opportunity for us to commit or to recommit to God’s plan for love in the world.

Claiming, Connecting, Committing… That’s what Jesus did at his baptism.  That’s what all of us who are baptized did at our baptisms. That’s what the parents and godparents of Sonny will be doing at Sonny’s baptism this Sunday.  And when asked whether we’ll support Sonny in this bold and grace-filled new life of claiming, connecting and committing, may we all respond with ardent and robust voices…  

We will! 

~Father Art 

Turbo Boosted by Worship

I grew up at a time when all the best toys and games that have ever been created were brand spankin’ new.  Okay, I may be somewhat biased here, but who can deny that Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, Etch-a-Sketch, Operation, and MouseTrap were among the most exceptional! But the toy with which my brother and I played the longest was our set of Hot Wheels. We spent hours laying out the orange track in our basement, creating huge jumps and loop da loops, and finding ways to propel our cars faster and faster without these same cars careening off the track.

After we had had our set for a couple of years, we discovered an accessory that totally revolutionized our Hot Wheels experience.  That accessory was the Turbo Booster! I’m not exactly sure whether Mattel, the toy manufacturer, actually referred to it as the Turbo Booster, but we did because it was the coolest thing ever!  The Turbo Booster was placed at some point in the track where the cars would naturally be slowing down.  As the cars entered the battery-driven Turbo Booster, two little rubberized wheels would grab the car, accelerate the car, and send it shooting down the next span of track. Our Hot Wheels race track creations were revolutionized by the Turbo Booster.

Each Sunday, we Christians are encouraged to come to church for worship. For me, worship is akin to the Turbo Booster in its ability to grab us, motivate us, and propel us back into the world and into our lives.  I don’t know about you, but by the time Sunday rolls around each week, I am plum worn out.  Our lives can often be difficult, the world can be exhausting, and if we lack something to keep us going, we may become worn-out and bitter, unable to receive and extend the abundant life that God has in store for us.

But, ah, worship!  When done well, it connects us to both God and each other.  It reminds us of who God is, who we are, and how very much God loves each and every one of us.  Our worship is an expression of gratitude for all that God has afforded us, and when we give everything we are into our worship, God is glorified.  And beyond all that is the ability of worship to propel us back into the world.  Our deacon speaks for all of us when she says, “Our worship is over; now our service begins.  Let us go forth into the world, rejoicing in the power of the Spirit!”

For two more Sundays, we will be offering an Instructed Eucharist at our 10am service. It is our hope that as we learn more about its theology and practice, our worship will become more robust and pleasing to God.  And having given our all in worship, our hope is that we may all be turbo boosted agents of God’s love in this beautiful but broken world.

~Father Art 

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