Jan 10, 2022

In Good Faith: In the Footsteps of Holiness

In my January In Good Faith column, I write about an encounter (sort of) with the beloved Archbishop Desmond Tutu and the inspiration of walking on hallowed ground. 

In the Footsteps of Holiness

One of the things I cherish about visiting hallowed ground is that sense of walking in the

footsteps of those who exist in our minds as larger-than-life figures.

As a kid growing up in Baltimore, I once toured the dugout and clubhouse of the old Memorial Stadium. As a young Orioles fan, walking the same ground as Jim Palmer, Eddie Murray, and Cal Ripken was awe inspiring. As an adult, I had a similar experience sitting in the Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. Being in the physical space where her gentle, yet iron-willed courage played out was incredibly moving to me.

It was in this vein that I learned of another such encounter, one fueled by love and justice. In the days after Archbishop Desmond Tutu died, I was reminded that he once officiated a wedding at the parish I serve. This remarkable and holy man had walked down our aisle and stood at our altar. He had gazed upon our stained glass windows and stood in our Memorial Garden. 

In the days following Bishop Tutu’s death we, along with churches throughout the world, rang bells at St. John’s to offer thanks for his extraordinary witness to the demands of justice and the reconciling power of love. The groom from that 1999 wedding day joined us for a time of prayer and reflection.

Stewart Ting Chong served on Tutu’s staff for seven years during the apartheid era in South Africa. For Stewart, Bishop Tutu was more than a global icon, he was a friend, mentor, and confidant. In reflecting on his friend, he wrote, “There was, for me, no one braver, more outspoken in the defense of the oppressed, the persecuted, and the discriminated, and no one more prayerfully contemplative than the Arch.” 

Several years ago, I was privileged to travel with a group from our parish to visit South Africa. We visited the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg, toured Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was imprisoned for 18 years, and learned about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission work of Bishop Tutu.

This transformative, inspiring, and heart breaking pilgrimage was made even more poignant when I learned of Bishop Tutu’s connection to St. John’s. Somehow the experiences we shared during that time, which continue to resonate, were made that much more real by the knowledge that the archbishop had, for a brief time, joined us on our journey.

As Stewart also wrote in the hours after the bells tolled in honor of his friend, “The Archbishop’s death is not the end of the battle he waged for goodness. It is the beginning for each one of us who holds his name in high esteem. Discrimination, injustice, persecution and oppression will not end unless we pick up his mantle of righteousness and call to account those who continue to tarnish the ideals that he had so faithfully strived to achieve. Let us find our voice and speak out against oppression. Let us speak out against the injustices inflicted on communities around the world. Let us hold accountable those who plunder the coffers intended to help the weak, hungry, and destitute. And let us put the words we speak into action with righteous indignation and leave this world a better and kinder place for the generations that follow. Let us pledge to continue his work.”

To which all we can do is say, “Amen.” And then get to work.

Dec 19, 2021

In Good Faith: The Mess of Christmas

In the Christmas edition of my In Good Faith column, I write about the messiness of that first Christmas and how it keeps the messes in our own lives - and the world - in perspective. 

The Mess of Christmas

I have nothing against dainty, hand-painted porcelain nativity sets that sit atop mantlepieces in well-appointed homes. Many of them are quite beautiful, especially when accompanied by stockings hung by the chimney with care. And if they draw us into contemplation of the story of Jesus’ birth, I’m definitely on Team Porcelain Nativity Set.

The only problem with them is when they lead us into the temptation of sentimentalizing Christmas. In other words, this time of year should be full of precious moments, but it shouldn’t be all about Precious Moments.

This year, in particular, feels less than precious. Covid is again running rampant, there’s great uncertainty as to how to safely gather at home and in churches, supply chain issues are disrupting our best-laid plans, and everyone is exhausted by the prospect of a third straight year of pandemic living. 

The good news is that our current state of chaos has a lot more in common with the first Christmas than any hand-crafted nativity set. After all, giving birth is messy business! And it must have been particularly stressful to go into labor in a place so far away from family and friends. Not to mention the conditions: cows and sheep are dirty and wander all over the place; shepherds generally need a shower; and angels are terrifying.

And yet, despite all the messiness, despite everything not going according to plan, despite all the expectations not met, Christ our Savior was born. God entered the world in human form not into a state of perfection, but in the midst of a mess. I actually take great comfort in this. Because if Jesus himself arrived into a state of disarray, there’s hope for his entrance into our own often disordered lives. 

Of course, much of the messiness into which Jesus was born had more to do with the human condition than with the maelstrom around the manger. Because unlike that porcelain nativity set, we’re not shiny and perfect and set apart. Rather, we’re flawed and dented and set within the context of our broken humanity. The miracle of Christmas is that, despite our imperfections and the mess we make of things, Jesus still shows up to walk with us, to live with us, to love us.

Which means a more accurate nativity scene might be the PlayMobil version my kids had when they were young. The sheep were strewn all over the place, the Magi were replaced with Power Rangers, dinosaurs were involved, and this all took place not on a distant mantlepiece, but on the family room floor. Which feels like a more authentic version of how things unfolded on that long-ago night in Bethlehem — accessible, authentic, and messy.

Whatever we do or fail to get done this Christmas, remember that God will love us anyway. Whatever mess Jesus encounters when he arrives or whatever state of chaos we find ourselves in on December 25, he will love us anyway.

Hold on to that love, friends. And know that whatever mess we’ve made of things, and no matter how messy our world feels right now, God is right in the midst of it all.

Dec 8, 2021

Thirsty, and You Gave Me Drink

One of the two sermons I wrote for Thirsty, and You Gave Me Drink: Homilies and Reflections for Cycle C is bookended by homilies written by Jesuit superstars James Martin and Greg Boyle. The other is right next to one from Richard Rohr. This is pretty rarified spiritual air and it was an honor to be invited to contribute to this collection.

Even better, is that all the proceeds from this book go to support ministries that promote access to clean drinking water. I love this project, part of an ongoing series from Clear Faith Publishing called Homilists for the Homeless. All of the participants donate their submissions so that book sales help feed and support those in need here at home and around the world.

So...buy a copy or five! They make great Christmas gifts and provide inspiration throughout the coming year to complement the cycle of Sunday lectionary readings.

I'm grateful to Fran Szpylczyn for asking me to participate in this project. How do I know Fran? From Twitter, of course. See? Good things can come from the morass of social media!

Here are the four charities your purchase of Thirsty will support:

Thirst Project
Thirst Project is a non-profit organization that exists to end the global water crisis and the fact that over 785 million people on the planet do not have access to safe, clean water. They travel across the world to educate individuals about the global water crisis and challenge them to fundraise to build freshwater wells in developing nations and impoverished communities. They guarantee that 100% of all public donations go directly toward their well projects. Over the last decade, Thirst Project has raised more than $11 million, which has given over 500,000 people in thirteen countries safe, clean water for life. 

Water For People
Water For People envisions a world where every person has access to reliable and safe water and sanitation services. Water For People exists to promote the development of high-quality drinking water and sanitation services, accessible to all, and sustained by strong communities, businesses, and governments. They have impacted 1.54 million people with their sanitation services and created 2,436 permanent jobs through their work. 

charity: water
charity: water believes that sustainable work is locally led. Along with implementing community-owned water projects, their local partners help facilitate comprehensive water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programming to protect everyone’s long-term health. During the past fifteen years, they have funded over 79,000 water projects in 29 countries. 

Clean Water Fund
Clean Water Fund's mission is to develop strong grassroots environmental leadership and to bring together diverse constituencies to work cooperatively for changes that improve their lives, focused on health, consumer, environmental and community problems. Based in Washington, DC, Clean Water Fund operates locally staffed environmental and health protection programs serving communities in more than fifteen US states.

Dec 3, 2021

On Praying the Trisagion

During Advent, as part of the opening rite of our Sunday services, we sing or say the ancient prayer known as the Trisagion. The word is Greek for "thrice holy," a nod to both the Trinity and the fact that "Holy" does indeed appear three times.

Holy God
Holy and Mighty 
Holy Immortal One 
Have mercy upon us 

Most believe the prayer dates back to the 3rd or 4th centuries, but there is also a tradition that Nicodemus 

prayed these words as he took Jesus' body down from the cross with Joseph of Arimathea. It was also used regularly at the Council of Chalcedon in 451.

While the Trisagion is central to the liturgies of Orthodox Christianity, it plays an important role in the West as well. In addition to use during Advent or Lent, these words are prayed on Good Friday, both during the Reproaches and between stops of the Stations of the Cross. The Trisagion is also incorporated into the anthem In the Midst of Life, said on Holy Saturday.

Sanctus Deus 
Sanctus Fortis 
Sanctus Immortalis 
Miserere nobis

In the Eucharistic liturgy, we also hear echoes of this "thrice holy" in the Sanctus (Holy, Holy, Holy). This refrain is deeply embedded in Scripture (Isaiah 6:3, Revelation 4:8).

All of which is simply background to suggest that you use the Trisagion in your Advent devotions this year. Consider memorizing it and using these words as a mantra throughout the season. There's no right or wrong way to pray the Trisagion, but it does help to first commit it to memory (it's short!). I find it helpful to say the words silently or aloud at various points in the day, as a reminder of God's presence.

Ἅγιος ὁ Θεός 
Ἅγιος ἰσχυρός 
Ἅγιος ἀθάνατος 
ἐλέησον ἡμᾶς

It's also helpful to set aside a few moments each day to reflect more deeply upon the words. Speak each phrase slowly and then sit with it awhile. What images come to mind for you? What feelings does it evoke? You may even want to jot a few down. 

The hope is that this simple but profound devotion will draw you ever nearer to the heart of the Holy One. Which, in the end, is what this season of expectation is all about.

Nov 23, 2021

In Good Faith: Stuffed With Gratitude

In the Thanksgiving edition of my In Good Faith column, I write about carbs and why this year feels especially filled with gratitude.

Stuffed with Gratitude

It’s finally happening. After years of conformity, our family has at last spoken the silent part out

loud: we don’t love turkey. I mean, we all think it’s “fine.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with it. For years, we’ve gamely forked a bit of white and/or dark meat onto our plates, passed the platter, and politely asked someone to please pass the gravy. But shouldn’t the Super Bowl of feasts arouse culinary excitement and anticipation, rather than a humdrum feels-like-any-other-Thursday vibe?

“But it’s tradition!” you say. Well actually, if you’ll permit me a moment of mansplaining, there was no turkey served at the first Thanksgiving. The predominant dish was freshly killed deer, and there was also a boatload of Cod, which makes sense given the location. Lobster too, apparently, and I’d be happy to fully honor our heritage and go that route, if only everyone in my family ate lobster. And it wasn’t clocking in at $15 a pound. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. Our family isn’t comprised of a bunch of unenthusiastic tradition thwarters. We all love the Thanksgiving side dishes and, of course, the pies. Personally, I’m all about the carbs. The mashed potatoes, the stuffing, the cornbread. Bring. It. On. And I don’t care how low-brow it is, I always insist on Stove Top stuffing. Go ahead and make your fancy stuffing — I’ll probably have some of that too. As long as I get my annual allotment of Stove Top, I’m happy.

Food preferences aside, this year, more than anything, is about the people. We know it’s supposed to be about the people, but food and football often serve as helpful distractions to our respective dysfunctional families. The distasteful political commentary, the old family wounds, the painful shadow and ensuing shame of perfectionism. 

Yet after last year’s Thanksgiving, which left many among us feeling isolated and distanced from family, this year feels different. Yes, we’re still living in the midst of a global pandemic, but vaccines and boosters have allowed us to gather more safely. Nothing is without risk these days, but the mental health benefits of in-person gatherings, with proper precautions taken, are well documented. We need one another, and it is a good and joyful thing to gather together.

As you do so, please remember our Native American siblings for whom this day is remembered less as a day of gratitude and more as a day of mourning. Those feelings of isolation and distance which we felt last year are experienced every year by indigenous people throughout this nation. This doesn’t mean we shouldn’t gather and feast, but it does mean approaching the table with historical perspective and the awareness that our actions have consequences. Giving thanks to God and being grateful for the bounty that surrounds us can and should incorporate the tears of those who mourn. Which only adds depth and realism to our day of gratitude. 

Of course, family being family, it took forever to agree on a substitute main dish. All sorts of proposals were floated from Cornish hen to filet mignon to Chicken McNuggets. In the end, we all agreed on the ultimate comfort food: homemade chicken pot pie. I can live with that. So hold the turkey; but please do pass the carbs.