Oct 17, 2016

Journey to Jordan: Trap Eucharist?

I thought it might be anticlimactic. I mean, after you've celebrated the Eucharist along the banks of the Jordan River near the site of Jesus's own baptism, coming home to do the same old thing on Sunday morning with the regular crowd had the potential to feel rather...pedestrian. Right?

Throw in an acute case of jet lag and the whole morning felt like a cruel slog. The sleepless 12-hour flight from Jordan to New York; the three-hour layover at JFK; the flight into Logan; the 45-minute cab ride home to Hingham that got me in at 12:30 am local time; and God-only-knows about my internal clock.

In football they refer to such situations as "trap games." After getting hyped up to play a top-ranked opponent, there's a natural letdown when you face a mediocre team the following week. So much energy and preparation has been put into defeating the valiant foe, that teams -- even outstanding ones -- often become vulnerable in their next game.

Hauling myself out of bed on Sunday morning had all the trappings of a "trap Eucharist." It was something I just, frankly, wanted to "get through" rather than celebrate. I was happy to go through the motions at St. John's but was in the mindset of 'let's just get this over with so I can go catch up on some sleep.'

But standing at the altar was exactly the moment the Holy Spirit arrived to put me in my place. Once
again. Because far from feeling anticlimactic, my experience at the Jordan with my fellow Episco-pilgrims only enhanced my experience at home. As the heavens opened up when Jesus was baptized with the Spirit descending like a dove, it did feel as if the heavens had opened up in the sanctuary in which I stood.

Suddenly, I was celebrating the Eucharist not just with a church full of fellow spiritual travelers in Hingham but with Christians everywhere across the world, with the fullness of the communion of saints in heaven, with Jesus himself as the chief celebrant.

I'm not sure what others experienced yesterday morning, but that's where my heart and mind and soul were. Transported from the place where Christianity began to the altar at which I serve with people who seek to follow Jesus in their own lives and in their own ways.

Through God's grace, the experience was the opposite of anticlimactic. It was transcendent. And I was, like C.S. Lewis, "surprised by joy."

As a priest, there are days when you're distracted or "not feeling it" while at the altar. But then there are moments of transformation and tangible communion with God. The good news is that it's not up to us -- you learn that pretty quickly as a newly ordained priest. The whole "making the transcendent happen?" That's above our pay grade. That's the Holy Spirit doing its thing.

I trust that someone in the congregation is having a transcendent experience even when I'm not -- that the heavens are breaking open for someone. And that's the gift and beauty of invoking God's spirit in the midst of the worshipping community. Resurrection moments happen often when we least expect them. And it was good to be reminded of this, once again, on Sunday morning.

Oct 13, 2016

Journey to Jordan: Wading in the Water

Altar set-up along the Jordan River.
Q: “So, would you be available to celebrate the eucharist for us at Jesus’ baptismal site at the Jordan River?” 

A: “Um, I’m pretty sure I can squeeze that into my busy Jordanian schedule.”

That’s basically how it happened that I was privileged to offer the eucharist for our merry band of seven Episcopal pilgrims on the banks of the Jordan. 

Besides a priest and people, you don’t need much to celebrate Communion. Well, the Holy Spirit, but that's not something you can confine to a carry-on bag. But I tried to be at least somewhat prepared for this moment.

I brought a small communion kit with me from home along with a simple white stole. The stole belonged to the Rev. Ed Allen, a retired priest and parishioner I buried earlier this year. I wanted to bring a piece of this man along with me, a person whose passion for the Civil Rights Movement, got him arrested in Torrance, California, as a young cleric. Somehow I think Ed would have appreciated being along for this particular ride.

The Rev. Rosalind Hughes leading the Thanksgiving Over the Water.
I called an audible on the communion kit when we visited the Holy Land Institute for the Deaf in the town of Salt a few days earlier. To support the ministry of this special place, an Anglican mission and the only school of its kind in the Middle East, I purchased a small clay chalice and a mosaic plate made by the children. So the small silver chalice and paten stayed in my suitcase for the trip to the baptism site, known as Bethany Beyond the Jordan.

Of course we also needed bread and wine. Joe Thoma, our group leader, secured some local wine at dinner the evening before our foray and ceremoniously poured it into a small Perrier bottle. Rosalind Hughes, the other priest in our group, took a piece of pita bread from breakfast at our hotel that morning and miraculously produced a ziplock bag. Suddenly we were prepared to do what Jesus asked us to do in his memory, albeit in one of the holiest sites in Christianity.

As we were planning our worship, it seemed appropriate to do the readings appointed for the Baptism of our Lord and also to renew our own baptismal covenants. Neva Rae Fox read the passage from Isaiah and Rosalind led us through our baptismal vows. 

We then took the few steps into the Jordan itself where she blessed the water — water that changed the course of history; water that has been blessed in its use by John the Baptist and by countless generations of Christians. 
Offering a brief word about the nature of baptism.

Rosalind and I then sprinkled our fellow pilgrims and one another with this water with branches I procured from a bush near the traditional site of Jesus’ baptism. It quickly became clear that a mere sprinkling wasn’t enough and we began splashing one another with the water of renewed relationship with the divine. 

After exchanging the Peace and singing "On Jordan's Bank the Baptist's Cry," we took bread and wine, blessed and broke it and shared it among ourselves, in remembrance of Jesus.

Renewing our baptismal covenants and sharing the eucharist along the banks of the Jordan was indescribable really. As I reflect upon what it was like to do so at the ground zero of our faith, snippets return to me in a dream-like sequence. And it serves as a reminder that while baptism is a once-and-for-all, indelible moment that defines, seals, and marks us as Christ’s own forever, it also points to the future. 

In our baptismal vows we answer two sets of questions. One set begins, "Do you believe...?" The other set asks, "Will you...?" Do you believe allows us to proclaim our faith. Will you offers us the chance to look forward. We continue to persevere, and proclaim, and seek, and serve, and respect. 

Episco-Pilgrims: Rosalind Hughes, Hannah Wilder, Heidi Shott,
Tim Schenck, Neva Rae Fox, Joe Thoma, Lynette Wilson
This is the promise of baptism — that relationship with God is always extended. Ours is to respond and repent and refresh and remember that Jesus Christ is the source and spring of our salvation.

Oct 11, 2016

Journey to Jordan: Finding Mount Nebo

Sunset over the Dead Sea 
On Monday our merry band of pilgrims journeyed to the top of Mount Nebo, the Biblical site where Moses was offered a panoramic view of the Promised Land. And indeed from the pinnacle you could glimpse the Dead Sea, Jericho, and the Sea of Galilee.

Moses, of course, despite being the emancipator, leader, and great prophet of the Israelites, never made it to the "land flowing with milk and honey." While the exact location is unknown, tradition holds that Moses was buried on Mount Nebo.

At one level, this feels like such a raw deal. Moses led his people out of bondage in Egypt through the waters of the Red Sea, handed down the 10 Commandments, and put up with their kvetching for 40 years of wandering in the desert. If anyone deserved to taste the fruits of his holy labors, surely it was Moses. But in the end, all he get is a glimpse of the Promised Land; a "look but don't touch" moment.

But at another level, the story of Moses on Mount Nebo is not merely a story of unrequited promise and death. It is a powerful moment of continued covenant between God and God's people. Because, while Moses does not make the final journey himself, his people do. Mount Nebo is also the site of the transfer of leadership from Moses to Joshua. Joshua takes up the mantle of Moses and the relationship between the Israelites and God continues. Covenant transcends the individual. And this is the power of Mount Nebo.
Pointing to the Promised Land

Approaching the ultimate Scriptural "scenic overlook" was indeed like walking on holy ground. As we approached this site, the sun was just beginning to set over the Dead Sea, a gentle breeze was blowing, it was quiet. I felt the presence of the prophet and reveled in unbroken relationship with the God of the covenant.

Mount Nebo is a place pregnant with promise. But it's promise on God's terms, not our own. And I'm reminded of the saying about our posture towards prayer: "Is it my plan for God or God's plan for me?" It remains a question worth reflecting upon.

Oct 8, 2016

Jordan Pilgrimage: When Pigs Fly

On a beautiful day in Jordan, my fellow pilgrims and I toured two Biblical sites, some ancient ruins, and worshipped at the Anglican Church of the Redeemer in Amman.

One of the things I've been so taken with here is that these ancient sites are not given the Graceland treatment. Let me explain. After college a group of us decided we needed to make another sort of pilgrimage, to see another sort of King, so we road tripped down to Memphis. What struck me, besides the whole remarkable cult of Elvis, was that every single display from the car collection to his airplanes to the Graceland mansion itself, led directly into a gift shop. Where else could you find "Love Me Tender Shampoo?"

The sites we've encountered so far in Jordan are completely un-commercialized. An American businessman would be horrified at the lost attempt to "monetize" these holy sites. At the Jabbok river, the site where Jacob wrestled an angel, there was no entry fee and barely even a sign. You couldn't purchase pens in the shape of a "hip socket" or plastic cups that read "Jacob" until they're filled up at which point they miraculously change to "Israel."

It was just us and the incredible terrain that jumped off the page after re-reading the story in Genesis. A cool stream, a steep bank, and the mysterious presence of the divine.

Ditto with Gedara, one of the cities of the Decapolis and the site of Jesus' profound encounter with the Garasene demoniac. Remember that story from Mark's gospel? It's the one where Jesus commands the powerful demon to leave this tortured soul and enter into a herd of swine who promptly leap to their deaths off a cliff and into the Sea of Galilee. There's nary a "When Pigs Fly" Snack Bar.

The site accorded a stunning vista of the Sea of Galilee, Israel's Golan Heights, and a Syrian valley. As I commented when I posted a picture on Facebook earlier, the venue was basically "the Texarkana of the Middle East." But without the cheesy signage and souvenir shot glasses.

It is a gift to be here in this unadulterated Biblical land and I look forward to sharing some further stories, reflections, and photos along the way.



Oct 6, 2016

Journeying to Jordan (TODAY!)

Q: "So, what are you doing today?"

A: "Oh, not much. Just going to Jordan."

I literally just had this conversation at the coffee shop I frequent. I didn't mean to sound like a jerk but it's true. I'm traveling to Jordan TODAY. And it's finally sinking in how jazzed I am about journeying to the Middle East, a place I've never been before.

Why am I going? Partly because it's a free trip. Okay, almost entirely because it's a free trip (please don't use the word "junket" or "boondoggle"). But I was invited to go on the trip along with 27 other Christians as part of a Religious Media and Bloggers Tour hosted by the Jordanian Tourism Board.

Specifically, I'll be traveling with a group of eight Episcopalians -- mostly communications specialists and media who serve the Episcopal Church at either the national or diocesan levels. We'll do a number of outings/briefings with the entire group but we'll also split off to worship with fellow Anglicans and learn about specific ministries the Church is engaged with. Specifically, we'll worship at Redeemer Church in Amman which is part of the Episcopal Diocese of Jerusalem.

I'm most excited about visiting many of the Biblical sites. There are a lot more in Jordan than you'd think -- including the traditionally- accepted site of Jesus' baptism along the Jordan River. In fact, one other member of our group is an Episcopal priest, the Rev. Rosalind Hughes from Ohio. She put together a Biblical itinerary for members of her congregation to follow and I share it with you here because it's a fantastic overview. And I'm not big on reinventing wheels.

· Saturday, October 8: From the region of Gilead (Judges 10-11), we will travel to visit the traditional site of the miracle of the swine in the region of the Gadarenes (Matthew 8:28-34).

· Sunday, October 9: Amman is the capital of modern Jordan, and home to the ancient Ammonites (Judges 10-11). One of the cities of the Decapolis (10 cities; Mark 7:31-37), it is one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in the world. Jordan is also the second-largest (after Lebanon) host of refugees in the world. We will attend worship, and meet with ministries serving in the city.
Bethany Beyond the Jordan

· Monday, October 10: At the end of his Exodus and exile, Moses climbed Mount Nebo to look over the Jordan and see the land that the Israelites would settle; a land that he would never enter (Deuteronomy 34).

· Tuesday, October 11: Across the plains of Moab (see Ruth), Bethany-beyond-the-Jordan is the site of John's baptist ministry, and now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, a protected wilderness. From here, Elijah was taken up to heaven in chariots of fire (2 Kings 2:1-18), and here is where the baptism of Jesus is commemorated (John 1:19-34).

· Wednesday, October 12: In the land of Edom (the land of Esau, Jacob's twin; Genesis 36) lies the rose-red city of Petra, one of the seven wonders of the world. We will camp there overnight.

· Thursday, October 13: We will leave our desert hosts in the afternoon to travel to the Dead Sea.

· Friday, October 14: Mukawir, overlooking the Dead Sea, is the hilltop fortress where Herod Antipas had John imprisoned, until Salome and her mother schemed to have his head on a plate (Matthew 14:1-12).

· Saturday, October 15: Travel to New York City and then home to Hingham overnight in time for Sunday services.

I'll be sharing blog posts and pieces written by members of our entourage along with updates on my Facebook page and on Twitter @FatherTim, using the hashtag #HolyJordan. I hope some of you can virtually tag along!

Please keep me and the entire group in your prayers as I will remember all of you in mine.

And know that my deepest regret as I travel TODAY is that I'll be flying Royal Jordanian Airlines. How could they not name is Air Jordan?!