Thursday, May 26, 2011

Moving on to the Fifth Week of Easter

I’m pondering a midlife correction. I was inspired by a column in this week's Christian Century by Martin Copenhaver called, "In praise of an unbalanced life."

I’ve taught and preached for years about leading a balanced life. For several years the diocese had me come and do a presentation that I called Sabbathkeeping for the newly ordained clergy.

After reading Martin's thoughts, I’m rethinking this. Based on his words, I am no longer sure that Scripture tells us to live a balanced life or that Jesus lived a particularly balanced life. The metaphors that Martin uses are that keeping work/rest/play/study/worship balance is like seeing how long I can stand on one foot or how far I can walk with a tray full of glasses before dropping one of them and breaking it.

What we read about in Scripture and see Jesus doing is living fully into the rhythm of life. The Bible tells us to work six days each week and then to cease from working. Scripture sets days for feasting and other days for atonement, and many other days to live the ordinary.

What I see Jesus doing well over and over again, is being in rhythm, as he is fully present wherever he is, for as long as he needs to be. He spends an evening teaching his disciples five chapters worth of last things. Then he spends three or so hours on the cross, three days in the tomb, forty days meeting and greeting and eating post-resurrection, ten days of absence, before day fifty when come fire and wind on Pentecost.

It seems to me today-- to be on Jesus’ way, to live a Jesus life, to know the Jesus truth, to ask Jesus to help us do even greater things than he did--knowing he’ll say yes every time that we get our lives lined up with his--it won’t be about balancing on one foot. It will be about being in Jesus rhythm; it will be more like a dance than a balancing act.
Sometime awkward.
Sometimes slow.
Sometimes feeling alone.
Sometimes with a partner.
Sometimes all night long.
Something only tapping our feet.

There will be lots of dancing rooms--
Ballrooms and restrooms. Kitchens and closets. Gardens and offices.

As God would have it, this week I have an unexpected four day retreat at Camp Allen, our diocesan retreat center. Each week they schedule a "chaplain in residence," clergy or lay, to pray the daily office of Morning and Evening Prayer in All Saints Chapel. We are to be on call for other needs, but my experience has been that for an hour of liturgical prayer, I get twenty three hours of rest and recreation in a cabin by the lake. I've decided to take these four days and ponder living in rhythm rather than balance. As I left yesterday to travel here, I grabbed Macrina Wiederkehr's Seven Sacred Pauses: Living Mindfully through the Hours of the Day. I'm using it as my retreat guide these four days.

Balancing or dancing? Some of both? Or something brand new? I'll let you know.

Saturday, May 7, 2011

Third Week of Easter: From HP to St. Mary's to China

I've been pondering what I've been calling the quotidian [meaning ordinary, everyday, common place] Gospel. It is my experience that God is most spectacularly present in unspectacular moments. We had one of those spectacularly unspectacular encounters some time ago that I only found out about recently.

A member of the parish, Greg, was in Shanghai, China on business (for his company, Hewlitt-Pakard, a major employer at St. Mary's) earlier this year, and the man working closest with him was a Chinese man who was also a Christian. It’s still not a common thing in China to be a Christian, and recently the government has clamped down on open expressions of religion. As the man and Greg were talking about their faith, the man told Greg how he came to be a follower of Jesus.

A few years back, the man had traveled to Houston for a meeting at HP. He flew in Saturday for his Monday morning meeting, I guess to give time to recover from jet lag, and on Sunday morning he decided to get out of his hotel room and take a walk.

He took a long walk, I’d guess three or four miles, and was hot and thirsty and tired. He saw a building on the corner of Eldridge Parkway and Louetta, and decided to go inside for a drink and to call a cab to take him back to his hotel. The place of refreshment was St. Mary’s, the parish where Greg is a member.

When the man arrived, worship was going on. It was Sunday, after all. I don’t know which service or when or who was preaching. It doesn’t matter. I only know that he walked into our building and sat down in a worship service. During that service, this man, who did not know Jesus as his Lord and his Savior, in worship his eyes were opened. He said it all made sense for him. At worship, at St. Mary’s, he became a follower of Jesus Christ.

But there’s more. After church, he was moved by the warm welcome he got and the many kindnesses offered to him, a stranger. A Chinese stranger. In fact one member of the parish gave him a ride back to his hotel.

When the man returned to China, he was baptized and began a church in his home, which is how most Christians gather to meet in China. He has, in turn, introduced many others to his Lord and Saviour, Jesus, and they have become followers of Jesus and baptized.

Do you hear this remarkable story of one man’s own walk to Christ in an ordinary church on an ordinary Sunday with ordinary folks? Who somehow, simply in worship, had everything explained to him by the Spirit of Christ? God worked spectacularly through unspectacular worship--though can we say that any worship is ever unspectacular?

Do you know how unlikely it was that the man in China would then meet a man from Texas from the very church where he found Jesus? Who, except the Spirit, could have put together this Christian man in Shanghai, China with another Christian man from St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Cypress, Texas so that this story could be shared with the people of St. Mary's? To let us know, less we forget, that Christ is here with us. Right here. Right now. Especially spectacularly in the unspectacular.

There are so many pieces of grace in this story, but I believe the whole community of St. Mary's is part of this man’s journey with Christ to Christ, and every person he has brought to Christ in China. It may have simply been by our prayers or our smiles or our presence or our welcome or the shining brass or the tidy gardens. I don't know what the Holy Spirit used to open up the man's heart--so I only assume that all of those quotidian pieces were used spectacularly by God.

This means that without leaving Cypress, Texas, we at St. Mary's have become missionaries in China! The Holy Spirit wanted us to be sure that we know it-- that our life and ministry, on an ordinary Sunday, has touched lives in China in an extraordinary way.

It is our custom at St. Mary's, as a place of mentoring new clergy, to pray daily for the parishes where they go to serve after they leave us. This week we'll add a new worshiping community to our daily prayer---for our brothers and sisters in the house church in Shanghai.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Second Week of Easter: Looking backward, looking forward

I was struck with a paradigm shift on Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is usually a high attendance day at St. Mary's. It's the one Sunday when most of our regular attenders all show up on the same day. When I've looked at all those beloved folk gathered on the first day of Holy Week, I feel like I have a glimpse into what the possibility is for more ordinary Sundays.

But not this year. Palm Sunday was a pretty average day, attendance wise. There were quite a few regulars off at the MS 150, volleyball tournaments, and other outside activities. It was at that moment that I realized that the lures of the world had even reached into the Bible belt.

For some time, I've known that it takes about a month's time to see all of our faithful members. This was reinforced on a podcast I listened to last week that said that the trend is for active members to make it to Sunday worship once or twice a month on average.

I don't see this as necessarily a bad thing. Sure, I'm at church every Sunday minus four for vacation and another two for continuing education, but it means that folks in the parish are out in the real mission field. How can we in the parish help them be the presence of Christ when their activities in the world trump worship? How can we in the parish make sure they have opportunities to be spiritually nourished enough to be that presence of Christ? Of course this is not a new thing, but I think that we in the Church have to find better ways to connect church and places where we are being Church.

I was at book group, one of my favorite non-St. Mary's activities, several years back when we joined with another book group and met at a local book store to discuss the same book. I was definitely not there as a priest or a rector but as a woman who loves to read. However, in the midst of the conversation, somehow I was outed as the rector of the church on the corner. There was a lovely young mom there with nursing baby in tow, and she remarked that she had driven past St. Mary's a number of times and thought about trying it out. She wanted to get her children involved in regular church worship and was curious about St. Mary's. Another member of the group, a member of St. Mary's, but frankly, one that doesn't make it every Sunday, launched poetic into what a wonderful, welcoming place St. Mary's was and what a wonderful priest I was.

That family of six, several years later, is one of our most active families. They have brought so much wonderful stuff to St. Mary's by their participation--and I often think if I hadn't gone to book group that night that they might not be at St. Mary's. If I hadn't had a life outside St. Mary's, they might not have ever come. If that member of St. Mary's hadn't been there, too, to talk about her experience, they might not have ever given us a try.

Don't get me wrong. I want everyone who calls St. Mary's home to join us for worship every Sunday, but of course they won't. It is one reason that we have Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer six days a week--so if they can't come Sunday, they can connect with us at a more convenient time. But I pray about how we can empower them on those Sundays where they are off in the mission field--first by helping them be aware that they are in the mission field whenever they aren't at St. Mary's. That distraught dad standing next to them on the lacrosse field may need a praying, loving parish to help him have a little more of that peace that passes understanding. A kind word may be all that it takes for him to give us a try. No, we aren't the parish for everyone, but I'm pretty certain that we are the parish for an awful lot of folk that haven't had the courage to come and check us out. Our smile or invitation may be an answer to a prayer they don't even know they are praying.