Priesting from the Between

What follows is a talk I recently gave at a conference in Dallas. 

I. Ministering from the Middle: the Dangers of Priesthood.

I want to begin today with a quick story, a story about my wife Bouquet and my 15-year old daughter Bella. That’s right: Bella is 15 years old, which means that she is in the throes of puberty, right in the middle of those glorious teenage years.

In all seriousness, she is a wonderful, blossoming, young woman, full of love, humility, and kindness. And yet, there is one area of real disagreement with her mother: piano lessons. After about eleven straight years of nonstop piano lessons, Bella really wants to quit piano lessons. There’s only one problem: her mother / my wife.

Her mother / my wife … who is also my best friend, my closest advocate, and … someone with whom I don’t really look forward to crossing swords. And yet, I also see where Bella is coming from. And so, here I am, caught in the middle.

And speaking of being caught in the middle, that’s actually a feeling / position that I’m fairly well acquainted with. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m a middle child, but I always seem to find myself … in the middle. When I was a church planter in urban Austin in the early “aughts,” I found myself in the middle of the “Mother Church” / “Sending Church” on the one hand, and the church plant—that rag tag group of misfits who were newcomers and outsiders to the tradition—on the other. So many messy issues. From the point of view of the Mother Church: “why do the kids cry in church so often?” “When will these new members finally start carrying their weight financially?” … And from the perspective of the church plant community: “Why are the elders so cold and standoffish? Why won’t they let us do such and such? Why are they so uptight and controlling?”

And by the way it’s pretty much the same in my current role. About 21 months ago Christ Church in Tyler, Texas opened the doors of a second campus, a second worshipping community called “Christ Church South.” Last fall over 30 adults were confirmed / received by the Bishop. A year before that, almost none of them could spell “Episcopalian.” The issues between the “established community” of Christ Church in Downtown Tyler on the one hand, and Christ Church South (the second campus) on the other are quite similar to the issues and dynamics I experienced in Austin … and once again I find myself smack dab, right in the middle. More often than not I see both sides. I get both sides. And I find myself called—in the sense of vocation—to mediate and to minister from the between.

And while I do have the conviction that, all things being equal, I need to support my wife over my daughter, and that that should be my “default position,” nevertheless I’d be lying if I denied that, well, I usually feel caught in the middle.

And, by the way, I am not complaining. Because you see, this position of “in between” is exactly where a priest is supposed to be situated. Biblically, it is the vocation of the prophet to stand above the people, to proclaim a message from God on high. In contrast to this, it is the special calling the priest to stand in between the people and God, and to advocate (through prayer) for the people, with dirt on one’s hands, in deep solidarity with the people.

Now I said I’m not complaining … but in all seriousness and candidness, well, the fact is that it is not easy, ministering from the middle, mediating from the between.

Another example of finding myself in the middle has to do with the sexual / identity gender wars which are raging in our culture and also in our Church (the Episcopal Church). At Christ Church South we have recently “lost” folks—folks have left the church community, both because we are (supposedly) too liberal and because we are (supposedly) too conservative. For some, we are too liberal because most folks in the community—including me at times—are openly critical of Trump, and we are too conservative b/c the leadership of Christ Church in Tyler—including myself—refuse to perform gay marriages.

And my first point today is that this position of being in the middle, ministering from the between … it’s dangerous, is it not? I mean, it’s so easy to lose ppl on both sides … or perhaps more importantly, it’s so easy to fear losing ppl on both sides.

And yet, I am convinced—at least in my better moments, perhaps my more sober[1] moments—that this kind of community—a community that mediates from the middle—is what the world truly needs.

Two quick caveats, BTW.

  1. By “middle,” I don’t mean “moderate”. I don’t think that Jesus or any of the apostles were simply moderates, and for me personally the thought of being moderate makes me wanna throw up in my mouth a little bit. By “middle,” or “in the between” or “from the between,”[2] I mean:
    1. a neither-nor position
    2. a both and position
    3. a tertium quid position that is “off the map/spectrum”
    4. a position able to hold different people / factions / parties together. Able to hold them together, or at least to hold out hope of holding them together.
  2. Secondly, there is a resonance here with what it means to be embodied, as in the body of Christ. Super briefly, did you know that for the Greeks, sight is primary; for the Hebrews hearing is primary; but for the Christians, touch is primary?
    1. Aristotle on how touch proves the soul;
    2. Christianity and touch, b/c of the Eucharist.

This way of ministering from the middle, priesting from the between, is not only difficult, it is also painful. My experience is that it is painful in similar ways that marriage is painful.

And yet, our world is (literally) dying for non-ideological community. You see, the Body of Christ is between “love of one’s own” (like Polemarchus in Book II of Plato’s Republic, or like the tribalism of Donald Trump) on the one hand, and ideological pseudo-community on the other. By ideological pseudo-community I mean something like a political party (where ppl hang out together b/c they agree on some positions), or something like a country club (the causes of association which sociologists can describe). But, as Peter Leithart argues in Against Christianity, the church is not like that at all—not like either of those forms of pseudo-community. Rather, it is like marriage and family.

Speaking of marriage, here’s a question for those of you who are married: do you always agree with your spouse? Do I always agree with my wife? She might say “We need to put our children in public schools,” and I might say, “No: we need to put them in Christian schools.” What if this disagreement turns out to be intractable? Do I then have right to look and her and say “I’m out”? Is it a faithful option for me to be like, “My way or the highway.” No, its not. Not, at least, if my marriage is to be a Christian one.

See, I think that the Church is like that. And that is the way I try to be a priest: to model that, to foster that, to allow God to bring that about. And no one said it would be easy.

And one of the reasons it isn’t easy is because this is the path which resists the temptation of control. As Sarah Coakley writes in her book God, Sexuality, and the Self (in a riff on John Milbank), “theology is the discourse of unmastery.”

Nowhere do I fear losing control more than with the issue of gay marriage in the church. Nowhere am I tempted to try to re-assert my own control of the situation than when it comes to issues around homosexuality and homosexuals in the church. If I do nothing else here at this conference, perhaps the Holy Spirit is prompting me to make that specific confession. Gay issues scare the beJeezus out of me.

II. Ministering from the Middle: the Desire of the Priesthood.

And that leads me to my next point: not just the danger of the priesthood, but the desire of the priesthood. Not just the danger of the priesthood, but the allurement of the priesthood.

Because you see, when I confess this fear in my life, well, fear is an emotion. It is what premodern thinkers, including folks like Jonathan Edwards, would call an affection.

And rather than be in denial about such feelings and emotions and issues of the heart and passions, I actually believe God wants me to lead with them.

I’ve been an ordained presbyter in the church for almost two decades, and during that entire time when people come up to me on the street and ask, “Why did you decide to become a pastor?” my stock answer has always been, “Because I love books, and I love people.” But more recently I have been realizing that the priesthood, for me, is such a gift b/c it allows me to lead with the heart.

Here’s another confession for you. If I’m honest, I have to admit that I’ve always wanted ppl to think that I’m smart. Sadly for me, then, the one consistent piece of feedback I’ve always received as a priest is not “Father Matt, you are so smart.” Unfortunately for me, people just don’t very often tell me I’m super intelligent. But what they do tell me—this is consistent over a period of two decades—is that I’m passionate.

Being a priest is great becaus it allows one to lead with the heart. There aren’t very many other careers / vocations[3] that allow you to lead with the heart. But the priesthood does. Thanks be to God. What a reason to rejoice!

After all, CS Lewis says that the Faith is more “caught than taught” (that’s why he speaks of “the good infection.”) Aidan Kavanaugh says that the liturgy is not something that one learns, but rather that one is seduced into. This is why in our Episcopal College Community in Tyler, our ministry to University students, in our leadership meetings we talk about how we want to go “like this.” We want to live lives out of which the aroma of Christ wafts. We want our community to be on which smells like the body and blood of Christ.

Now, if I’m right about the priority of desire,[4] then one implication is that dead orthodoxy is not an option; it is to be avoided at all costs, like the plague.

OK, well how can we be orthodox w/o being dead? Well, I agree with Sarah Coakley’s answer: by contemplation. (Mysticism: the conviction that God wants us to experience God.)

… Prayer … is the chief context in which the irreducible threeness of God becomes humanly apparent to the Christian. It does so because—as one ceases to set the agenda and allows room for God to be God—the sense of the human impossibility of prayer becomes more intense (Rom 8:26), and drives one to comprehend the necessity for God’s own prior activity in it. Strictly speaking, it is not I who autonomously prays, but God (the HS) who prays in me, and so answers the eternal call of the “Father,” drawing me by various painful degrees into the newly expanded life of “Sonship.” There is, then, an inherent reflexivity in the divine, a ceaseless outgoing and return of the desiring God; and insofar as I welcome and receive this reflexivity, I find that it is the HS who “interrupts” my human monologue to a (supposedly) monadic God; it is the HS who finally thereby causes me to see God no longer as patriarchal threat but as infinite tenderness; but it is also the HS who first painfully darkens my prior certainties, enflames and checks my own desires, and so invites me ever more deeply into the life of redemption in Christ. In short, it is this “reflexivity in God” this Holy Spirit, that makes incarnate life possible.–Sarah Coakley, God, Sexuality, and the Self, 42.

See, because contemplation leads us to lose control, it means that we become vulnerable. (Notice I did not say “exhibitionist.”)

  1. The priority of mythos (b/c it is correlated with desire, as CSL teaches in MBF).

A final point about contemplation / mysticism. Mysticism means not just that there is something beyond the physical, but also that the supernatural (which means “beyond the physical”) is more real. [rings of Saturn photo: now more than ever, the truth of neoplatonim just became much more plausible.] Paul Tyson, Returning to Reality.

Put the whole thing a different way. We’ve been discussing the issue of desire. You know what the best word for desire is? Thumos. This is Plato’s favorite term for desire. But it is not a desire for external goods, or bodily goods (like when your leg itches and you scratch it, or the desire for food & drink). No: thumos is the desire for … something else.

Thumos is the desire to belong; the desire to be wanted; the desire for relational intimacy.

Sally Field Oscar Award speech (1985, Places in the Heart):

“I want to say thank you to you. I have not had an orthodox career, and more than anything I’ve wanted your respect. The first time I won an Oscar I did not feel it, but this time I feel it. And I can’t deny the fact that you like me. Right now. You like me!”

And the crowd just goes crazy with applause. The kind of applause that Sally Field deeply deeply craves. The kind of applause that she, in this very speech, is admitting that she craves. 

Each one of us has what I call a “thumatic sweet spot,” where we desire and long to be touched. Not physically, of course, but spiritually.

And of course, thumos can also be warped & twisted. Our thumatic sweet spot can become an idol.

For an alcoholic, the thumatic sweet spot is not just romancing that first drink, but actually getting smashed. For an egomaniac narcissist, it is hearing words of affirmation all the time. For our Schnorkie* Janie, it is getting her belly rubbed while I make eye contact with her and say, “Good girl.”

But here’s the deal: the thumatic sweet spot is not bad. It’s how God made us. CS Lewis talks about it his essay “The Inner Ring.” In that essay he describes our need to “be one of the essential people” and “to be on the inside.”

What Sarah Coakley is saying in God, Sexuality, and the Self is that contemplative prayer is a way—I think she would say it is THE way—to satisfy one’s thumatic sweet spot. And I totally agree with her.

Each one of us has a “desire beneath the desire.” Beneath the alcoholic’s desire to change the way she feels through drink, she desires God. Beneath the narcisist’s desire to be affirmed and stroked all the time is his desire for God.

And this leads me to my third and final point (in addition to the danger of the priesthood and the desire of the priesthood): the open-endedness of the priesthood.

See, the priest gets to engage ppl in a process of satisfying their desire beneath the desire.

For me the very best part of the priesthood is that we get to come alongside others and lead them in this journey. We get to lead them, serve them, and submit to them. It is a journey of danger and a journey of desire. But the good news is that it is a journey into God. And that means that it is open-ended.

III. Ministering from the Middle: the Open-Endedness of the Priesthood (CONCLUSION)

This journey into God, this way of being Christians and human on the way … It’s more like an itinerary and less like a map. A life lived between origin and destination. One more story for you. Story about Burt & Ricky. [story abt danger, desire, & open-endedness]

  • I already mentioned that some ppl left Christ Church South b/c I am not prepared to perform gay marriages.
  • Well, Burt is a real leader in our community. Confirmed last fall; has found real community at CCS. He has found a family. His life has been transformed by Christ-in-community in ways that I don’t have time to discuss.
  • But here’s the deal: Burt’s brother is a married gay man. His mother is a married lesbian. Right now, he is struggling, b/c he wants to bring them to our church. He wants to share with them what he has found.
  • But he is worried that the church is not a safe space for them.
  • So what am I doing about this? Here’s what I’m doing: I invited Burt to read the Coakley book with Ricky, another friend of mine who is probably “orthodox” on gay issues, but also super open tempermentally, the kind of friend who immediately makes you feel safe.
  • Now, here’s my point: I do not know how this is going to end. Will Burt leave the church? Will I change my mind on gay marriage? Will there be totally different alternative that I cannot know imagine? All of those are real options.

See, in some ways, the situation is unworkable and intractable. But as we heard from Justin Welby last night, what do we do in situations that unworkable and intractable? 

We allow ourselves to be transformed. And, see, there’s the open-ended part, and there’s the contemplation part. Because what are we being transformed into?

We are being transformed into God, and that, friends, is a journey that never ends.


[1] By sober here I don’t mean “abstinent wrt to alcohol.”

[2] And this language of “the between” comes from an Irish catholic philosopher named William Desmond, whom I highly recommend.

[3] No, I’m not saying that “vocation” and “career” are synonymous.

[4] And that’s what I’ve been trying to convince you of for the last few minutes: the priority of desire, that in some sense, desire is more important, or more fundamental than reason. “What the heart desires, the will chooses, and the mind justifies or rationalizes.”

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Rite of Reconciliation: a Revival

This article (written by me) was published in the Crucifer, the semi-monthly newsletter of my parish, Christ Church (Tyler).

On page 446 of the beloved Book of Common Prayer, we read that “The ministry of reconciliation, which has been committed by Christ to his Church, is exercised through the care each Christian has for others…. The Reconciliation of a Penitent [the official name of the rite under discussion] is available for all who desire it.”

Further, on page 317 of the same Book of Common Prayer, we read:

And if, in your preparation [for Holy Communion] you need help and counsel then go and open your grief to a discreet and understanding priest, and confess your sins, that you may receive the benefit of absolution, and spiritual counsel and advice, to the removal of scrupal and doubt, the assurance of pardon, and the strengthening of your faith.

My experience as an Episcopal priest over the last eight years of ordained ministry in this church is that precious few parishioners in our Episcopal parishes makes use of this resource in the BCP, to their detriment. After all, as the Anglican dictum goes, “All may; some should; none must.”

And yet, my main point in this super brief Crucifer article is a “report” of sorts from the ground, from the “trenches.” Over the past several months, we here at Christ Church have seen the number of Confessions (to a priest) skyrocket. We are seeing “revival” of sorts of the Rite of Reconciliation. It is so very encouraging.

Most encouraging of all? On average the folks making use of this rite are under age 30. Thanks be to God! May this encouraging sign for the future only increase and continue.

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Yearning for Justice

This morning (Monday, February 19, 2018) is one of those mornings when my head is still spinning from the previous Sunday, that is, yesterday. You could say “my head is still spinning” or “my brain is fried.” You see, the work of pastoral ministry, the privilege to serve in this way, is as precious a gift as I can imagine. And yet, it is A LOT of work (blood, sweat, and tears)! Five services yesterday, scores of conversations / “life stories” with individual folks, two sermons, untold needs of people texting & messaging (some of whom are truly in dire straits). A wise priest once told me, in all seriousness, that a typical Sunday of active pastoral ministry is the equivalent of a 40-hour work week. What a joy, and what a burden. Throw into the mix the joyful responsibility of daddyhood and husbandom, and truly, it makes one’s head spin.

I suppose one reason for my heightened sense of being stretched today is the intensity of this past week: not just Ash Wednesday, but Diocesan Council (Thursday through Saturday, in beautiful Waco, Texas).

Ah, Diocesan Council.

I can tell you that, for me, every year this gathering is mainly an encouragement. I love seeing friends new and old. I (usually) love hearing the Bishop’s vision. Often Council is something of a mixed bag, though, and I suppose this year was no exception, for I witnessed, yet again, a tendency to reduce to the role of a priest (or, indeed, a Christian) to that of a “Social Justice Warrior” (SJW).

And yet, justice is a huge part of what we are called to as the Body of Christ. After a long day of Council presentations geared toward motivating us clergy and lay leaders to engage in social justice warfare (along the lines of community organizing and “Black Lives Matter”) I found myself sitting around the dinner table with trusted allies in ministry. One colleague wisely reminded us that, in the New Testament, the term for “justice” is the same exact term as that of “righteousness.” In the other words, in the mind of the apostles, there is no distinction between “righteousness” and “justice.” This is a truth which progressive SJW’s would do well to heed.

And yet, the kind of racial reconciliation on display at Council truly stirs up a deep yearning for justice within me. It is what my church planting (and yes, community organizing) work in Austin during my 30’s was all about. It is why, together with key leaders of Christ Church, I cannot give up on working with the Episcopal Health Foundation’s office of Congregational Engagement to bring holistic justice to Smith County, fraught with challenges though this work be.

Finally, it is why I’ve been so deeply encouraged by a recent development within our college ministry, which I would like to share with you, dear reader. Thanks to one deeply engaged leader in our parish, the leadership of our Episcopal College Community recently had a ground-breaking lunch with a leader of Texas College (among others). Then, this past Friday, Ian Hyde (our Christ Church College Missioner) along with Mr. Uriah Johnson (one of our gifted lay leaders, involved as both a youth mentor and a college mentor), met again with this Texas College representative, along with one of her local leaders. So, now, the ball is rolling with Texas College, a historically black college here in Tyler. God willing, this will bear fruit, resulting in many Kingdom centered relationships of love with our neighbors in North Tyler.

If that happens (and I’m full of biblical hope that it will), it will be an answer to a long and passionately held yearning for justice, indeed.

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Reverencing the Altar: Why?

Why do we reverence the altar?

Why, in “liturgical churches,” do we bow in front of, or before, the altar (which is also a table) of God, upon which the Body and Blood of Christ are given to God’s people?

One of the greatest joys of my life personally is the opportunity to share the sacramental-way-of-being-Christian with folks who have never known. With folks who have never been exposed to the life of a Eucharistic community which centers itself on the sacramentalism by which God puts his life into us (as CS Lewis says).

Why do we reverence the altar?

Much of the time, when it comes to questions like this, there is no single correct answer. With the liturgy things are not always systematically black & white.

And yet, for me there are two reasons why we bow (or genuflect) before the altar. One is metaphysical and the other is practical.

The metaphysical reason is that we are bowing before the King of the Universe, who is present at the altar. How is he present at the altar? He is present at the altar in a sacramental way. This is true when the Body and Blood of Christ are on the altar; it is true when the people of God are surrounding the altar; most of all (in my opinion) it is true because of the aumbry or tabernacle, in which the consecrated elements are kept for later use. and which is located somewhere behind (or sometimes to the side) of the altar.

Interestingly, Christ Church South does not have an aumbry. That is OK; we are one church on two campuses, and Christ Church Downtown does have an aumbry. So, in my sacramental imagination, when I bow before the altar at Christ Church South (say, on a Thursday afternoon when I am in the worship space getting tasks done), I am actually bowing in the presence of the aumbry at Christ Church Downtown. This is something like what Charles Williams would call metaphysical co-inherence.

Secondly, however, reverencing the altar is practical. This is just as important as the metaphysical reason for bowing or genuflecting. It serves as a reminder, which seeps down into my “muscle memory” and my bones, that I need not be in a hurry. Because of Christ and the Gospel, I can rest. I can pause and give thanks. Every bow is like a little prayer. In a world in which time is both insanely scarce and efficiently commodified, this practice or habit is like a miniature “mental vacation” (to borrow a phrase from Fr. Thomas Keating). For me, it’s a little taste of leisure.

Those are my reasons for reverencing the altar. The last thing to be said is that some Episcopalians (brothers & sisters in my own church) never reverence the altar. And that is OK. Here as elsewhere, the Anglican dictum “all may, some should, and none must” is apropos.

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“Heals over Head”–Fr. Greg Boyle

We are all part of a movement to put first things recognizably first. This movement is about heals over head. It is far easier for [an organization] to compile of menu of services … than it is to create a community of tenderness, a community so loving and so welcoming that everyone feels like they are wearing a parachute. A place, a geography, where we all decide to make a decision to live in each others’ hearts.—Father Greg Boyle, Founder & Director, Homeboy Industries.

I’ve heard plenty of speeches in my day, but the words above constitute what is for me perhaps the most moving “oratory experience” I’ve ever had.

This speech was the culmination, or the final plenary event, of a two-day conference at Homeboy Industries in Los Angeles which I had the honor and joy of attending this past week, together with two dear friends, D.G. Montalvo and David Dickerson. We were attending this event at the invitation of the Episcopal Health Foundation of the Diocese of Texas, in hopes that it would benefit us here at Christ Church as we partner with the E.H.F. in hopes of increasing the holistic peace and justice of our community.

Allow me to unpack the most salient phrases in the snippet above. First, “recognizably first.” When Fr. Greg uttered these words, it “cut me to the quick.” In other words, I became deeply convicted of the need, not just to state that justice is a priority for us at Christ Church (including Christ Church South), but to make that priority recognizable, visible, clear. It must be obvious to anyone who visits us on Sunday morning that we are a community where Christ binds us together: not class, not race, not affinity.

Second, “heals over head.” I could talk about this one for hours. A huge part of my “spiritual / intellectual biography” is the issue of “reason vs. desire”: which is privileged? For Aristotle it is reason’s job to discipline the human being’s passions and desires. And yet, Christian Neoplatonism responds (I’m painting with insanely broad brush strokes here) by pointing to a “higher” kind of desire which, in turn, woos, summons, and directs reason itself. Father Greg is clearly one who affirms the priority of desire / feeling / passion over reason. Hence, “heals over head.” In the same vein he stresses that “a community tenderness is harder [and more important] than a menu of services.” In other words, for Fr. Greg, nothing can be more important than love (which, after all, is a kind of desire). Nothing can be more important than relationship, intimacy, “living in each others’ hearts.” This is the foundation of Homeboy. Good thing, too, since this is also the foundation of the Kingdom of God.

Last phrase to unpack: “parachutes [instead of backpacks].” Father Greg’s goal is to make the “homies” among whom he lives and works feel like they are wearing parachutes, and not backpacks. At first I was not sure what he meant by this. It was either David or DG who helped me “get it.” A parachute softens one’s landing; a burdensome backpack, in contrast, only weighs one down all the more. The goal here is to facilitate a soft landing, for any homie who is falling to the ground. Soft landings, instead of crashing & burning.

How is this facility accomplished? Only by a community which put first things recognizably first. Only by a community in which the members truly live in each others’ hearts. Only by a community of tenderness which privileges healing over headiness, and gives people parachutes and not heavy burdens of condemnation.

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Lent: Commending the (Anglican) Faith

One part of my Christian journey which I have not spoken of very much ocurred as my tenure as an evangelical Presbyterian minister was drawing to a close. As much as I loved and still love that tradition, I knew that I needed to make a change. Why? Because with every fiber of my being I longed for a church which was more mysterious, more beautiful, more sacramental.

And so it is that, over a period of about a year, I had lunch with a priest in the Orthodox Church (a former Methodist minister). During that time I was exploring this ancient way of faith, which is so different from the church I grew up in, so different (you might say), from “your grandma’s church,” that it is barely recognizable.

To put it a different way, when you worship in an Orthodox church, it is almost like you are on another planet, in a different reality, in a different dimension. The worship is just so utterly foreign. From the perspective of a native Texan who grew up Baptist, it seems more like Hinduism than it does like “First Baptist.”

Therein lay its attraction. As the church in American & in the West continues its free fall of decline, I firmly believe that what people crave and long for is mystery. Something different from their normal, everyday experience. (Hence the sadness and pitifulness of the efforts of some churches to make their worship “relevant for modern people.” Yuck!) This is why so many people in western culture, for the last few decades now, have been flocking to Eastern religions, and even the popularity of yoga fits into this trend. Sadly, so many folks nowadays are totally ignorant of the historical rootedness, within Christianity, of “eastern” practices such as contemplation and mysticism.

Even though I ultimately opted for Anglicanism over Orthodoxy, these instincts have stayed with me, and this is where the liturgical and sacramental life of the church is such a gift for people today.

Nowhere is this more true or pertinent than in the liturgical seasons of the church year, and in particular during Lent. And this brings me to the main point of this Crucifer article: what a joy it is to witness the epiphanies which occur when “newcomers” discover our sacramental and liturgical life. When they discover it, begin to practice it, and go deeper into it. (The desire to see more of this kind of discovery is why we themed our college ministry, several years ago, “A New Way of Being Christian that is Very, Very Old.”)

Thanks be to God that dozens of individuals and families, right now, are coming to experience and appreciate and love the practice of Lent, that so many new folks attended our Ash Wednesday services this year, that over 30 adults at Christ Church South have expressed interest in Confirmation Preparation in the Fall, etc.

It is a joy to commend the Anglican Way to a culture which simply does not know. I remain convinced, today more than ever, that what our fragmenting culture needs, at the deepest level, is a connection to Jesus Christ which is stable, grounded, beautiful, communal, sacramental, and mysterious.

“A new way of being Christian that is very, very old!”

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Month 3 of Mission: Progress (& Great Teammates)

As we enter into our third full month of mission and ministry at Christ Church South, I’d like to give you an update on how I see things developing. I have two main points in this article: one about progress and another great leadership.

First, progress. I will never forget the first five Sundays at Christ Church South: the two soft launches the grand opening, Christmas Eve pageant & Christmas Day, and then New Years Day. Five weeks of craziness! Holy craziness, for sure, but craziness nonetheless.

Back then I did not even know how to turn on the lights. (I’m being serious here: the “stage lighting” for the altar, pulpit, and lectern in pretty important, and I did not know how to operate those lights for the first month and a half of CCS’ life. Kind of a problem when multiple people approach you & ask, “Fr. Matt, you’re in charge here, right? Can you help us turn on the stage lighting?”!)

I’m thankful to say that we have made all sorts of progress, by the grace of God. Everything from operating manuals for various pieces of technology, to a well-thought out customary for our acolytes, to best practices for baptisms, to managing the flow of traffic at the altar rail, to how best to host a reception in the Great Hall, details concerning our newcomer ministry. Every single, week, we make progress.

We are even in the process of creating a Christ Church South Wedding Customary, which will be seamlessly consistent with our Christ Church Downtown Wedding Customary. There are three weddings in our Christ Church South community coming down the pike! (Note: we will not have funerals at CCS for the time being, since we do not have a good space for receptions.) Have you ever heard the maxim, “Progress not perfection”? Much wisdom there. As long as we can improve our game every week, I am very happy!

Second, though, I want to mention the Christ Church South Ministry Council. This is a group of about 10 or so saints who are truly rolling up their sleeves, making huge sacrifices, and engaging in this ministry at the deepest level, in all areas. We had a “regrouping meeting” about a week ago on a Sunday after church. I just wanted to touch base with them, encourage them, thank them, and give them an opportunity to air any grievances with me.

At that meeting I was shocked. Not only were these dear “lay-priests” not burnt out & exhausted, they didn’t even have any major “grievances!” As a matter of fact, they were all super encouraged by what God is doing in our midst. They are having the time of their lives, and they are thankful!

Is their work hard and costly? They would certainly say that it is. But they would also say that it is well worth every second this labor of love.

Thanks be to God!

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Month one (of Mission)

No Nerd Alert on this One! Normal People are encouraged to read! (-:

Have you ever seen the film Saving Private Ryan? The opening scene is pretty unforgettable (even if quite violent). For several minutes, what the viewer sees is a non-stop barrage of bullets in slow-motion, being fired by Nazi machine guns on a Normandy beach on D-Day in World War II. The bullets are coming at the American soldiers, seemingly from every direction, and it is all that the Allied soldiers can do just to keep pushing forward, attempting to “dodge the bullets,” hoping somehow to emerge unscathed or at least still breathing.

At the risk of sounding melodramatic, this is kind of how I felt (if only a little bit) about month one of Christ Church South. After two soft launches, a Grand Opening, a Christmas Pageant, a Christmas Day Eucharist, and a New Years Day service—all in a building that was previously untouched and unused—I (quite literally) still do not know how to turn the lights on! (At least not in every room!)

I realize that sounds strange, but it is true enough. There were so many “moving parts,” so many untested procedures, so many potential issues, so many unanswered questions, so many partially trained acolytes, so many new visitors whose names were not yet known … at times it did feel a bit chaotic.

And yet, we made it! And it was most assuredly a Holy Chaos, for many, many people tasted the Kingdom of God and the love of Christ in a new way.

I knew that the first month of launching Christ Church South would be intense. No surprise there. More difficult to anticipate was how wonderful it would be. How all the “troops” would perform tirelessly and with grace (way too many to name!). How satisfying it would be to preach in a new venue. How so many visitors would come as a result of the big sign, of the emerging building, and of personal invitation. (I am certain that we have had over sixty visiting household units so far.)

And now … now, comes the real moment that I have been waiting for. For now, it is time to do the real work. Now that we have successfully launched (by the grace of God), our true labor begins. The real work of the Gospel. The mundane, day to day activity of the body of Christ.

Praying with the saints. Encouraging the sheep. Unleashing many gifts. Empowering leadership. Giving away power. Inviting the outsiders in. Making disciples. Teaching. Preaching. Baptizing. Celebrating. Singing. Kneeling. Bowing.

Truly, all of that is what I have been waiting for. And the reality is, it is anything but mundane, for it satisfies the deepest longings of the human heart, and it is, by the power of the Holy Spirit, ultimately unstoppable.

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Ministry, Margin, & Gleaning

The Old Testament from Last Sunday (the 5th Sunday of Easter) struck me deeply.

Here is a common experience for this preacher: after having spent (on Saturday and very early Sunday morning) hours of study, prayer, thought, and rhetorical preparation for my sermon in the 11:05 Epiphany Eucharist, I find myself sitting in the chancel pew in the Christ Church nave at the 7:30 Eucharist on Sunday morning. I’ve been focusing intently on my sermon, with its particular emphases rooted in a particular text, but now it is time to worship the Living God.

The faithful lay reader begins with the Old Testament lesson, and I begin to notice a different theme, a different image, a different tone than the one(s) I have been pounding home in my own sermon prep. Even though it often barely registers the first time through, this is the first nudge from the Holy Spirit that God is way bigger than I forgetfully assume. Then Father David (or Father Keith) mounts the pulpit. A typical experience is that those faint images from the lay reader’s voice–which had barely registered–are then handled deftly and persuasively by the preacher, and I am left undone. Often times tears begin to roll down my face.

I had been focusing on X, but it was Y which the Holy Spirit wanted to press into my bones. It is not that X was bad or unworthy; it is simply that God is bigger than my heart/mind, and I that am not in control.

I don’t remember what X was for me last Sunday; but I do remember Y.

Y was: gleaning. From Leviticus 19.

When you reap the harvest of your land, you shall not reap to the very edges of your field, or gather the gleanings of your harvest. You shall not strip your vineyard bare, or gather the fallen grapes of your vineyard; you shall leave them for the poor and the alien. I am the LORD your God.

What are the ways I tend to “strip the vineyard bare?” What are the ways I forget about margin? The margin which allows me to work less, which allows others to thrive? I think about my car, my body, my family, my ministry.

I don’t want to romanticize ancient Israel’s practice of gleaning, and I am still prayerfully listening to what this might mean. But I do want to become so mature in Christ (Eph. 4:13) that I have some good stuff left over. That I am not continually “spent,” so that others can enjoy. That I remember that while hard work is good, it is not ultimate. My hard work is an act of obedience and worship, but at the end of the day, God must grant the harvest. God must make things grow. God must make everything OK.

Not reaping to the edges of our metaphorical (or literal) fields is an action, a little ritual, which reminds us that our hard work, our astute planning, our laborious attention, is penultimate at best.

Maybe the Pentateuch knows that for most of us, “workaholism” is a bigger danger than laziness, or that we have a tendency to oscillate between the two, or that most of us assume the paradigm of “working for our salvation.” And so it wisely gives us a golden mean for which to strive: not too little work, and not too much.

May God help me, and all of us, to become more like an ancient Israelite in this way, and less like a 21st century, capitalist-individualist American. May God help me, and all of us, to practice in our lives the ancient wisdom of gleaning.

 

 

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Faith becoming Sight

I have been meditating lately on Psalm 48:8: “As we have heard, so have we seen, in the city of our God.”

You see, faith is a “hearing thing”: it comes to us, as St. Paul reminds us in Romans 10:17, “by hearing.” His reminder that “we walk by faith and not by sight” (2 Cor 5:7) confirms the same point. Yet even though all this is true, and even though the book of Hebrews reminds us that “faith … is the conviction of things unseen,” nevertheless Psalm 48:8 presents us with the opposite perspective.

Yes, faith is a “hearing thing,” and, yes, we are called to walk by faith and not by sight. Nevertheless Psalm 48:8 reminds us that, in addition to all that, God desires that the contents of our faith also become visible. “As we have heard, so have we seen” means that the oracles of God, the promises of God, have now become manifest in the “real world,” the world of our sense perception, laid bare for all to see, to the glory of God. There is a time and a place for this, too. The heart of a Christian longs to see the things of faith become visible. The follower of Christ longs for the Kingdom of God—the reign of God—to become palpably present in the daily lives of men, women, and boys and girls. When this happens, faith has “become sight;” the word of God has become visible, palpable, seen.

I want to point to two examples of “faith becoming sight.” The first is Promise Academy, located in the building of New Days Community Church in North Tyler, near the corner of Broadway and Gentry. At this brand new school, in its very first year, the promises of God and the longing of God’s people are becoming visible. Here, at Promise Academy, hope is being provided for a handful of little ones (right now, the school only consists of Kindergarten; God willing, first grade will be added next year). At this school, a small number of mainly black and Hispanic kindergartners are learning how they are fearfully and wonderfully made, how God’s ways are the best ways, how trust and obedience in the God who loves them will bear fruit in their lives. All this is becoming visible: in their facial expressions, in the life of their families, in the physical beauty and orderliness of their lives (both in the classroom and out).[*]

My second example is a very different one, but one no less breathtaking: Christ Church South. The groundbreaking ceremony we experienced last week … this, too, is an example of “faith becoming sight:” a new Temple for the worship of God is being erected right in front of us! A new House of Prayer for all people and for a burgeoning community of friends in faith is being raised up, for all the world to see. Not only is God’s creation being transfigured from glory to glory, but sacred, sacramental space is being consecrated and set apart. Fr. David’s “message” at the perimeter of the construction sight “nailed it:” just imagine how many generations of lives will be impacted for the cause of Christ and the sake of the Kingdom.

All this in a contemporary world wracked by division, addiction, and heartache. A sign of visible hope, a leading indicator of Gospel victory. By the grace of God alone.

“As we have heard, so have we seen, in the city of our God.”

 

[*] To learn more about Promise Academy, please visit http://promisetyler.org/

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Dog Collar in the Classroom

This morning is a typical morning for me. For three and a half years now I have been rising from my cozy bed (which I share with a snuggly friend) at around 5:00 AM, gathering up my strength and heading westward down I-20 for Dallas. As I sit in the Starbucks in Terrell at 6AM this morning, I wonder what Tylerites I might run into. About half the time—I’m here every Tuesday and Thursday, without fail—I will see a friend from the Rose City in this highly caffeinated place.

And when they see me they are sometimes taken back. “Father Matt,” they say, “I almost did not recognize you: I’m not sure I’ve ever seen you without the collar.”

Ah, the collar; usually we clergy call it the “dog collar.” It is one of the true joys of serving as an ordained minister in this Church. As I Presbyterian minister (which I was for almost a decade) I rarely if ever wore one. A few people have asked me over the years “What does it mean?” to which I reply that it is an ancient symbol that reminds us of our slavery to Christ, that we wear the yoke of this slavery daily on our bodies.

And yet, I almost never wear my collar in Big D. (when I pose as a scholar every Tuesday and Thursday). Why not? Several reasons: first, I am not in my “parish:” there are tons of other Episcopal priests in Dallas, and I am content to let them bear that visible burden. Second, though, I use this time to “roll incognito,” to take a break of being a public, institutional servant of Christ, instead choosing to withdraw into a more anonymous mode. I cannot lie: these windows when I am “off duty” as a priest have been a real gift these past three and a half years. Day in and day out (on Tuesdays and Thursdays) I study and read and write for hours on end in solitude, knowing that the exigencies of pastoral ministry lie dozens of miles away to the east, just over the Smith County line. (It is an oft forgotten fact that even smart phones are equipped with “off” buttons.)

In terms of my doctoral coursework, however, I am beginning to see the light at the end of that tunnel, for, incredibly, my degree audit form indicates that my class requirements are almost complete, which is one reason I have begun to focus on that other requirement (though less formal) for the PhD student in the humanities: teaching college courses. Thanks be to God, I learned yesterday that I will be teaching 20 – 40 freshmen at the University of Texas at Tyler in an introduction to philosophy class this coming spring semester.

Should I wear my dog collar in the classroom? Even though I can make an argument in both directions, I do intend to do so. (I asked the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences if that would be OK, and he said he has no opinion, and there are no official policies concerning this.) Why? For the inverse reasons why I do not wear it in Dallas. At UT Tyler I will be in the parish. There are no other Episcopal churches or ministers who can lay claim to that mission field called UT Tyler any more than I can. And since I will be in Tyler, I will be “on duty.”

Last but not least, I will channel the power of that symbol as I stand before those wet-behind-the-ears freshmen, for I remember what it’s like to sit where they sit. I remember what it is like to be at the big university, away from mom & dad, wondering what in the world is true, what is worth believing in, what is worth living for. And how in the world could I know? Was it even possible to know anything? My philosophy professors at that other U.T. in that other fair Texas city were not pastorally helpful to me, to say the least. Their goal, it seemed, was to dismantle my faith by any means necessary.

I do not intend to proselytize these students as I give them their first gourmet sampling of the philosophical spread next semester; that would be irresponsible and inauthentic. Instead, I will let this ancient symbol of Christ speak for itself.

 

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Kool-Aid Institutional & Familial

For many traditional Episcopalians confirmation is somewhat normal. It is a familiar event, a familiar notion, a familiar thought. It is just something that one does in the course of one’s normal life. It is mainstream.

Indeed, what a blessing that for many this is the case. And yet for whole other large swaths of contemporary culture, nothing could be more bizarre and foreign than participating in a “special worship service” in which a man dressed in flamboyant robes with a pointy hat that looks like something from a comic book lays hands on you and claims to have brought you into …

… into what? Into an institution?

Now, I happen to believe that institutions are a good thing. Without institutions life unravels. Without institutions individuals are left exposed to the potentially oppressive manipulations of state power. Institutions are among the “mediating connections” that bind people together in society. All of this is very “meet and right.”

And yet, the specific characteristic that leaves many in our day with an anti-institutional taste in their mouths is that, all too often, the true motive for institutional activity is mere self-preservation. Why have a meeting? Why have a membership drive? Why raise money? Simply to promote the institution and its survival.

And so it is that, when scores of new friends from all across Tyler & East Texas (most of whom are “young” by Episcopal Church standards) have entered into the hallowed halls of Christ Church over the last three or four years to see what has been going on here, they are confronted by many and diverse aspects of an institutional life that it is foreign. There is a foreign hierarchy. There is a foreign vocabulary. There is a foreign, maze-like building. There are foreign gestures and traditions. There is a foreign ethos and culture. All of these foreign dimensions teeter on the brink of reinforcing the suspicion that one has just entered into … the bowels of an institutional monster.

And yet, there is so much more. You see, my mind is blown that people are “drinking our Kool-Aid.” But what they are drinking is not so much the new hierarchy and tradition and gestures. I do believe in all of that fantastic stuff, and I am confident that, over time, they will, too. But the main thing that folks are imbibing is not a new institution but a new family.

A new family that sticks together. A new family that is messy. A new family that is honest. A new family that does not agree on everything, but is absolutely committed to doing life together. A new family in which Christ is loved & served but not forced onto people. A new family where believing follows belonging.

All of this is both classically Anglican / Episcopalian and “postmodern.” It is “a new way of being Christian that is very, very old.”

Our new members of Christ Church who confirmed last Sunday … for many of them they are joining not so much a new institution, but a new family.

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Bringing the Church to the World (Stations of the Cross)

Several years ago when I was on the church staff of a vibrant and growing Presbyterian church in Austin, I had the opportunity to join a small group in studying a powerful and thought-provoking book called Bringing the Church to the World. The author of this work, one of our most beloved and respected theologians / ministers / spiritual leaders, is the Anglican Bishop-scholar N.T. Wright.

The title of the book says it all. Wright’s vision for the Kingdom of God and its expansion is limited neither to a movement of solitary individuals who have a “personal relationship with Jesus,” nor to a political agenda for secular justice, but instead it has everything to do with a new kind of community. A community where justice and mercy are real. A community where broken sinners sacrificially serve one another out of love. A community that is ordered according to a biblical pattern. A community gathered under the Word-based Gospel of grace, centered on the ritual body and blood of Christ.

For more than a decade now, this has been my vision, too. I have started calling it the “bread-and-wine-community.” I believe that you, reader, are called to “do life” with your “bread-and-wine-community,” the one you gather with (and as) on Sunday, the Day of Resurrection, the first day of the week. These are the people whom, first and foremost, you live with, suffer with, serve with, and love with.

This is why Robert Finney, yet again, “made my day” the other day when he stormed into our office with a slightly frazzled facial expression that screamed, “Oh no … what have I just gotten myself into!?”

He proceeded to tell me about the leadership network meeting of Christian campus ministers he had attended earlier that day, where plans were made for to reach out to the university community at U.T. Tyler for Easter and Holy Week (to the extent that these evangelicals, bless their hearts, know what Holy Week is). The other campus ministers quickly made plans to share the gospel message with strangers by various means including the distribution of “Gospel tracts” which encourage people to make a decision for Christ, to give their lives to Christ.

Now I believe in evangelism. I have done street preaching (more than once) on college campuses, including here in Tyler. No question, God can use and has used tracts given to strangers (even outside the context of relationship) to bring new life.

And yet, Robert sensed the need for something deeper. Something more rooted in the ancient ways of the people of God. Something which fits out College Community motto: “a new way of being Christian that is very, very old.”

And so he volunteered to organize a Stations of the Cross exhibit on campus during Holy Week. This “makes my day” for all sorts of reasons. Not only is this practice rooted in the history and beauty – have you seen the icons which Christ Church uses for the Stations? – of the catholic church, but it “brings the church to the world.”  It takes a practice not of some individual but of the church and it invites people in. It allows people to “belong before they believe,” to “taste and see” that the Lord is good.

Please keep Robert, me, and our Epiphany college community in your prayers this season as we bring the church to the world, and invite people into a new way of being Christian that is very, very old.

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Golf and Frisbee Golf. And Church.

I have a certain affection for the East Porch at Willow Brook Country Club (thanks, Trey & Peyton!).

And yet, in my 41 years I have never really been much of a golfer.

I have, however, been thinking about golf today. Golf, and frisbee golf.

Let me back up and tell you a bit about my day. I spent a couple of hours this morning reading a book written by one of our speakers at this year’s Diocese of Texas Clergy Conference, a priest in the church who also teaches at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, named Dwight Zscheile (pronounced like “Shylie”).

People of the Way is a thought provoking and sobering book. In the first couple of chapters alone Zscheile brings out such useful concepts as:

–    The “vernacular principle,” according to which we Episcopalians should embrace our rich heritage of “translating the church’s life into the language of the people,” a principle which might lead me to adopt terms such as “schedule” instead of “rota.”
–    The “benefactor paradigm,” according to which “those with power, privileges, and resources do good works on behalf of others, yet retain their superior status.” This paradigm stands in direct opposition to the way of Jesus. Tim Keller describes an opposite approach, one in which “the essence of the Kingdom is the giving away of power,” an approach much closer to what Zscheile recommends in his book.
–    “Strategic, managerial solutions” which we hope will “solve the church’s problems.” Zscheile writes that “Strategy operates from a posture of strength to remake one’s surroundings according to one’s own needs and desires.” Such ways and means, Zscheile suggests, are a thing of the past.

Much of the book is a serious and intense grappling with the Episcopal Church’s struggle to deal with its loss of “the legacy of establishment,” the golden age of the Anglican Church in America, which climaxed in the mid 1960’s, during which the Episcopal Church commanded respect and wielded influence in the surrounding culture.

As such, the book grapples with the issue of class. Zscheile forthrightly admits that, in the church’s zeal for “equal rights” (the most recent example of which is the fight for “full inclusion” of LGBT folks) we are still more “classist” than ever.

And now, back to my modest thought(s) about (frisbee) golf.

On my five mile run today in Lindsey Park I ran past some Frisbee golfers, probably in their early 20’s. They looked like they were having fun, clad with tattooes, smoking I-don’t-want-to-know-what, laughing, and drinking cheep beer in tin cans.

And yet, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that, despite the class difference between them and the denizens of the WBCC East Porch, what the two classes have in common runs much deeper than that which divides. Yes, I am thinking about the imbibing of beer. (!) But much more than that, both groups have a longing for community, an urge to connect, and a need for love and acceptance.

Is it possible to do church, to make Eucharist, with both groups? For the love of God and the world, I hope and pray that it is!

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Church Planting (Episcopal Ruminations)

For a while I’ve been convinced that what the church planting edge of the Episcopal Church should do is become more “eastern orthodox.” The Episcopal Church needs to be “strangified” for newer generations. Hence, this.

And yet … please take 3 mins and watch this video. This is the kind of church plant that I find compelling and viable.

Why? B/c there is a strong, clear, passionate, authentic Gospel-driven vision which is being proclaimed & articulated boldly by gifted, intense leaders.

This is what we need, IMO.

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