Epiphany: Seeing the world a new way

magiceyeDo you remember Magic Eye?

It was a 3-D photo craze in the 1990’s, repeated flat patterns which at first glance seemed to have no real meaning BUT when you looked at them long enough, in a certain way, SUDDENLY a hidden image would appear.

I was never particularly good with Magic Eye pictures and would stand, shaking my head, squinting and making faces while my family would say: “Don’t you SEE IT?  It’s RIGHT THERE!”

But sometimes….

I DID see it.  There was a shift in reality and what I had perceived as flat changed into a robust image, jumping out of the page.

Oh, I get it!  I see it now!


We use the word in the secular sense to refer to mean: (1) a usually sudden manifestation or perception of the essential nature or meaning of something (2) an intuitive grasp of reality through something (as an event) usually simple and striking (3) an illuminating discovery, realization, or disclosure, (4) a revealing scene or moment.

It’s like the time you can’t quite figure out a problem from math class.  It just doesn’t make sense.  You can’t see how to solve it.

Then suddenly, the gears turn in your head.  Things fall into place.  And the solution is right there in front of you, as plain as day. Easy peasy.

In the church year we are now celebrating the season of Epiphany, which means for us the manifestation or revealing or disclosure of Jesus Christ to the world.  There are several specific public events through which Jesus was made known: his birth, his baptism, his first miracle at the wedding at Cana.  In the church year, we celebrate the coming of the Magi at Epiphany.  The wise men brought gifts to Jesus.  In some countries, children receive gifts on January 6 rather than December 25 in memory of the gifts the wise men brought.  Their tribute is a forerunner of the day when all people will acknowledge Jesus as Lord and Savior and a reminder of the response we ourselves should make to Christ.

The word “epiphany” has to do with revelation and enlightenment, but I think it also carries an element of surprise.  We are caught off guard a bit because the answer we had been trying so hard to find is ultimately something that seems so simple.  How could we have missed it before?

Certainly, those at Jesus’ birth who had been searching sacred text and waiting so long for a coming Savior and Lord were surprised.  How could a tiny baby born in a manger be both human and divine, here to save us and redeem the world?  And yet, there it is.  God’s answer, right in front of us.

Today is a first day back to school, back to work after the holidays. For many of us, that’s a little stressful.  You might be feeling just a little fragmented, just a little bit like one of those Magic Eye images.  If that’s the case, look around very carefully today.  Pay close attention and you will see Jesus, walking with you this day and always.  Happy Epiphany!


What I Did On My Spring Break Mission Trip

National Cathedral I recently spent spring break on a mission trip to Washington DC with seven other intrepid team members from the USF Chapel Center and the Episcopal Diocese of Southwest Florida.  We drove a small diocesan bus up from Tampa, Florida, stopping overnight at Honey Creek Episcopal Conference Center in Georgia on the way up and back, camping out at Virginia Theological Seminary and later in downtown DC, six nights total on the road.

I’m not sure if “mission trip” is exactly the right term for our adventure, though we faced many of the trials and tribulations commonly known to mission teams, living and working together in close quarters with other folks who, prior to the road trip, may have been relative strangers.  “Pilgrimage” is another possibility, I suppose, but most folks have a general idea of what a “mission trip” is.  They tend to be impressed when you say you spent spring break on a mission trip.

The first question they ask is usually: “Oh!  Where did you go?”  (And the typical response: “Washington DC? Cool!”) 

 The next question that follows is, of course, “So, what were you working on there?”

The answer to that question is a bit more complicated.

The whole idea for going to DC came last fall when one of our students asked if we might take a trip up to see the National Cathedral.

I replied:  “Great idea!  I love the National Cathedral!  Let’s do it!”

Of course we couldn’t spend our whole trip just on that one site.  What else should we do?  Well, one thought was that a trip to our nation’s capitol could perhaps include a look at advocacy, specifically:

  • What (if anything) does the Episcopal Church do to advocate and support specific legislative action? 
  • What (if anything) should we be doing in our local parishes to support and influence public policies?
  • All those candidates that I voted for (or not) during the election: what (if anything) are they doing now that they are in public office? 

So, in addition to a visit to the National Cathedral, we scheduled a visit to the Episcopal Church Office of Government Relations.  (You didn’t know we had one?  More about that later….)  We contacted our locally elected legislators and were able to schedule an appointment with Rep Dennis Ross, or at least with his staff member.

Another possibility for our trip was the opportunity to learn more about the Episcopal church and explore different some of the different ways we worship.  We soon added to our agenda:

  • A visit to Virginia Theological Seminary, including a campus tour, interview with a current student about VTS and the Episcopal Service Corps, and participation in Morning Prayer at the seminary
  • Participation in “Street Church”, a ministry of the Church of the Epiphany in DC
  • Attending Evensong at the National Cathedral
  • A visit to The Potter’s House, a ministry of the Church of the Saviour

At this point in the planning process, the daily agenda was filling up and yet I still had the nagging feeling that unless there was a service project this just wouldn’t qualify as a mission trip.  I started contacting social service organizations in Washington, only to find that most already had all the volunteers they needed for the days we would be in town.  After quite a few polite rejections, an email reply came from Lucy, volunteer coordinator at A Wider Circle, saying they could happily use our group’s help at their nonprofit on Wednesday afternoon.  What started out as a simple work detail there for us actually became an insightful look into a well defined service philosophy and an inspiring example of the impact one person can have to change lives and help build God’s kingdom.  (More about that later, too…..)

Perhaps not your standard mission trip.  (As one person said to me, “So, you’re not doing, like, REAL mission work on this trip, are you?”)

However, we learned a lot about our Church and ourselves.  We met some amazing people who are quietly working to change the world and bring in God’s Kingdom.   We experienced some Kingdom living.  And I think we brought a bit of that vision back with us.

Perhaps the real mission work we did on this trip was inside our own hearts and minds.

And our real service is just beginning….

Spiritual But Not Religious? (Part 2)

A recent cartoon in our local paper depicted a man in full bishop vestment, miter perched on his head, merrily pushing a lawn mower across his front lawn.  The caption read: “Herschel mows the lawn religiously every Saturday.” The humor, of course, comes from the incongruous juxtaposition of two very different definitions of the word religious: the religiously routine task of mowing the lawn being performed in garb usually reserved for highly ceremonial, religious occasions.  It’s a simple joke but perhaps it’s worth considering the meaning of spiritual practices religiously done. 

Our recent young adult retreat was entitled “Spiritual But Not Religious?” and offered participants a chance to explore both what it means to be spiritual and what it means to be religious.  How do we practice spirituality?  (And if it is something that we “practice,” does commitment to the habit become more important than the practice itself?)  Why do some people resist the idea of being “religious” and why is conformity to the “spiritual” practices found in organized religion often seen as “uncool” in our culture?

In our discussion at the retreat, attempts to define spirituality elicited images of peace, harmony, awareness, mindfulness, and the sense of connecting to something greater than ourselves.  This experience of being calm, centered and well-ordered usually comes through the framework or guide of spiritual practice, a practice not left to chance or whim but developed through habit or discipline.  Spiritual practices mentioned by the group included prayer, meditation, and studying scriptures–practices commonly found, not surprisingly, in organized religious services. 

Of course, just going to church doesn’t make you either spiritual or religious.  You’ve probably heard the old one-liner that sitting in church doesn’t make you a Christian any more than sitting in your garage will turn you into a car.  Many Spiritual-But-Not-Religious folks would assert that you can certainly feel more spiritual in solitude, communing with nature (or the golf course) on a beautiful morning.  So what’s the point of corporate worship?

First of all–like it or not–human beings are social animals, made for community in general and specifically for life in the God’s communal household.  Most active church members will describe “church” in terms of their experience of congregational support and fellowship.  It is rather amazing to consider that Sunday morning (or Saturday evening) worship is one of the few experiences left in our society in which all generations come together under the same roof for the common purpose of study, song, and prayer.  In church families, as in our biological families, we grow through mutually expressed support and nurturing.  

And, just as in our biological families, we also grow through the occasional friction of rubbing elbows with other members of the congregation who differ from us in their outlooks and opinions.  It is relatively easy to feel spiritually warm and fuzzy about your fellow-man (or woman) in the abstract, but you learn more about Christian behavior by dealing with the curmudgeon grumbling in the next pew or the fussy child wiggling in the seat behind.   We learn about forgiveness and grace by giving it, usually after we have also received more than our share of the same.

The Church provides us with the opportunity to learn and grow with others, developing our spiritual practices within a larger structure guided through history and tradition by the Holy Spirit.  One member of our retreat group referred to the framework of “checks and balances” the Church offers us as we daily decide how to live our lives.  No, the Church won’t have all the answers all the time, but there is a larger picture for me here, a kingdom view of God’s relationship with his people through time and space, and that enlarges my circle of understanding beyond my own ego-centered self.

While at the young adult retreat, we went outside just before dark to walk the Dayspring labyrinth.  The labyrinth design in the pavers was very faint in the rapidly fading light, requiring all our concentration and even just a bit of imagination to discern the path.  Mosquitoes swarmed around us, buzzing ears and biting ankles.  I was having a hard time trying to meditate while swatting at bugs and peripherally keeping my fellows in view, not only so that I wouldn’t run anyone over but also to follow their lead in finding my way.  It was not a particularly “spiritual” experience until we returned to our cabin and one member of our group commented that our labyrinth walk was a good analogy for church itself.

There we were, each person trudging back and forth, each concentrating intently on his or her own steps.  To an outsider, the scene would have been almost nonsensical, just a collection of seemingly unrelated and rather self-absorbed people, moving randomly about in an open space.  Perhaps to an outsider, this is how church appears.  But a closer look reveals the pattern, the outline that shows us the Way to follow.  As believers we are within the circle of the Church which provides the guidelines for a common path in a collective journey.  And even though we are all at different points on that trip at any given time, it is a journey that will ultimately bring us all safely home. 


Calling, Vocation, & Choosing the Smaller Box

For a very long time, I resisted reading Barbara Brown Taylor’s Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith, not because I don’t like her writing but rather because I’ve always been a huge fan.  I discovered her published collections of sermons (Gospel Medicine, Home By Another Way, Bread of Angels) years ago and found them to be engaging and imaginative,  always helping me to see familiar scripture in a new light.  I suppose I always hoped I’d have the opportunity to hear Rev Taylor preach in person: I was saddened to learn that she had left her pulpit and lovely small town church, that she had in fact left the Church.

When a student from the Chapel Center noticed my copy of the book and commented that it had been recommended to him as he explored a possible calling to the ministry, I was a little surprised.  “Leaving church” seemed like an odd choice for a potential seminary student, I thought, and as I continued to read I began to look for what the author might have to say on the subject of vocation and call.

The book is divided into three parts: Finding, Losing, Keeping.  The opening section tells the story of Rev Taylor’s call to ministry:

“If you talk to most clergy long enough, you can usually pinpoint the moment when they first received a call to ministry.  Nine times out of ten, it did not come straight from God.  Instead, it came from a grandmother, a father, a sick sibling, a wounded bird.  Sometimes the call came with spoken words, such as, ‘You’re good at this,’ or ‘I need your help badly.’  Other times the words arose inside, such as, ‘This needs fixing and I think I know how.'”

She recounts the advice she was given in her discernment journey and the decision to “choose a smaller box:”

“‘As a lay person, you can serve God no matter what you do for a living, and you can reach out to people who will never set foot inside a church.  Once you are ordained, that is going to change.  Every layer of responsibility you add is going to narrow your ministry, so think hard before you choose a smaller box.'”

I suppose the smaller box image bothered me a bit.  As the author described her call, there is an increasing sense of burden and heaviness.  In fact, at her ordination she is almost overcome with the sensation of weight as hands are laid on her in the service. 

I wondered about that.

I certainly don’t discount the difficulty or necessity of narrowing your vocational focus. Commitment and dedication necessitate the choice to limit one’s freedom.  Consider, for example, a professional musician who chooses the “smaller box” of self discipline in a life dedicated to performance preparation.  It is hard work–no doubt about it– but there is ultimately “deep gladness” in the music making, joy in doing and being what God created you to do and be. 

Frederick Beuchner says of vocation that “the place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s great hunger meet.”  Finding the vocation for which you are divinely fashioned and which serves God’s kingdom should allow you to say with the poet: “What I do is me: for that I came.” Perhaps I would rather see Leaving Church as a cautionary tale of burnout than of a calling found and lost.  The privilege of actually discovering your vocation is just too great a gift for me to think otherwise.

Of the many students on today’s college campuses, there are surely some who do know what their calling is and have already felt that tug toward vocation, always knowing “what they wanted to be when they grow up.”  But there are also many many more students who do not know or, worse, are only following what others expect from them in terms of career paths and life choices.  As a society we tend to emphasize “making a living” at the expense of “making a life.”  (The two should not be mutually exclusive.)  An important role for campus ministry is being present for students as they seek to discover what it is that God has purposed for them.  Not a smaller box but a deeper gladness.

Mountaintop experiences: St Timothy’s Outreach Center, Irvine, KY

Our intrepid mission team left for KY last Monday aboard a brightly colored Hispanic ministry bus.  Such a vehicle at first seemed overly spacious for such a small group; however, we planned to carry some of our groceries.  Plus towels and bed sheets.  Also pillows. And, after a quick peek at the week’s weather forecast, jackets and sweatshirts instead of Florida shorts and tank tops. 

Basically, by the time we left predawn the bus looked like we were scrambling for an emergency evacuation.

Mapquest set the total driving time at 13.5 hours but Mapquest does not take into account a lunch break (Subway), supper break (Cracker Barrel, of course!), and multiple gas&potty stops. It was a long day but as the terrain gradually became mountainous and the temperatures continued to dip cooler, I was excited.  I had lived in south central Kentucky for fourteen years and was seeing more and more that was familiar as we  approached the state border.  I was also hearing more and more that was familiar with each and every conversation at rest stops, to the point that, when we finally pulled into Irvine’s Walmart just before midnight, I walked into the store and thought: “I’m home!”

We actually still had miles to go, of course, even from Walmart.  St Timothy Outreach Center sits high up on Barnes Mountain. The midnight climb up the mountain was somewhat less daunting than the next morning’s ride, when we could see how sheer the drop was below us!  The first building pictured on the right was our home for the week and featured dorm style rooms with bunk beds, a large kitchen and common room.  For our group, it was a comfortable base camp for meals, hot showers and lodging.

The second picture is a newer log cabin, still under construction, located behind the first building.  It promises to be a beautiful house for future visiting teams.

Our host for the week was Fr Bryant Kibler, who is the Priest-In-Charge at St Timothy’s as well as serving a parish of his own and working in diocesan administration.  We found Fr Bryant to be, quite honestly, rather amazing.  Every morning he would gather our crew in a big truck with an even bigger van attached.  After transporting us to a job site (no small feat on narrow muddy roads and driveways!), he would divvy up the various duties, keeping us all busy, teaching the less construction savvy of us the tricks of the trade, and jumping in to do the more skilled jobs as needed.  During our lunch break, our team ate while Fr Bryant gave us a fascinating overview of Kentucky history and culture. 

Work at St Timothy’s varies according to the time of year and the size and skills of the group.  We were fortunate enough to be working inside during a week that was unseasonably rainy and cold.  We were able to continue painting and flooring that had been started in a house currently occupied but without electricity or running water.  We also repaired the floor and painted a room in our new friend Manfred’s house.

A community meal is served at St Timothy’s on Tuesday night.  Local children gathered for games and pizza.  Kids are, of course,  pretty much kids wherever you go, from the vivacious, giggly preteen girls to a pair of young brothers, very shy, who would not play skittles with the rest of us but watched very closely and later went back to play the game on their own.

The trip home went more quickly and efficiently than Monday’s long ride.  The people I’d met and the work we had shared have stayed with me. I carried the joy of the journey with me back into my work place this week. 

“Did you have a good vacation?” I was asked.

The best! 

Mission trips & God’s foolishness

The USF Chapel Center mission trip is just a few weeks away!

It’s a funny thing about mission trips.  If you’ve not been on one, the idea may seem to you—as it did to me at one time—perhaps a little foolish.  After all, I’m not a carpenter, plumber, electrician, or of any other profession that would be at all useful at a building site.  So, what’s the point in me traveling cross country for a service project?   Wouldn’t the cause be better served if I opened my checkbook rather than packed my suitcase?

On the other hand, once you have been on a mission trip, you see things differently.  Usually there is something about the experience that opens your heart and just stays with you.

My first real mission trip was traveling several years ago to New Orleans during the summer.  Our church crew worked with Episcopal Relief and Development on a variety of houses in the 9th Ward and nearby neighborhoods.   It had been quite some time since Katrina but the remains of the destruction and the enormity of the recovery work still ahead was overwhelming.  We spend our first work day mucking out debris from a house that had been destroyed twice–first by water and later by fire.  By the end of the day we were exhausted, filthy, hot and very thirsty.

We stopped on the way back to our lodgings to gas up the van and went into the store to buy cold drinks.  Two well dressed African American women ahead of us in the line at the cash register sized us up with a glance as we waited.  They finished paying for their purchase and before heading out the door, turned around to us and said simply:

“Thank you for the work you are doing here.  Thank you for coming to our city.  God bless you.”

Ask me why, of all the memorable experiences we had that week, that one exchange with  strangers remains especially with me and I cannot give you an easy answer.  Perhaps it is God’s foolishness that we head out again and again to mission trips, knowing that there is really little we can do to help in some situations but knowing it’s important that we try.

It’s not just the work we do on the mission trip but our presence for others there that lets them know they have not been forgotten.  It’s not just the experience of a short summer trip but the witness we carry back to our own community as we share stories again and again of what we have seen and experienced.

There are lots of web options now for finding volunteer work and mission opportunities.  The following are mostly from an excellent recent issue of US News & World Report (Nov 2010) focusing on public service:

Episcopal Relief & Development

Catholic Charities USA

Samaritan’s Purse

Global Volunteers

Charity Guide

Volunteer Match

HandsOn Network

Urban Ministry

Christian Volunteering

So, what about the foolishness of mission trips?

Just remember….

“God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength.”
– 1 Corinthians 1:25

More to come.  Thanks for reading!

Jazz in the Liturgy & More: Canterbury House at University of Michigan

Recently I reviewed Better Get It In Your Soul: What Liturgists Can Learn from Jazz, a new resource on creativity in worship written by Reid Hamilton and Stephen Rush, chaplain and music faculty advisor at Canterbury House at University of Michigan.  I was delighted with the book, wanted to learn more, and consequently contacted the authors, who were every bit as gracious and welcoming as their book had led me to expect.  The following is from my phone interview with Fr Reid, as well as information gleaned from the Canterbury House website, which is a great introduction to their people and programs.  The CH mission statement summarizes pretty well what they are all about:

  • A progressive alternative for Christians and other spiritual seekers
  • Devoted to the spiritual growth of the students, faculty and staff at the UofM
  • Committed to integrating the intellectual, spiritual, emotional and socially responsible dimensions of student life and culture
  • Dedicated to finding God without twisting arms or sacrificing reason
  • Combining new artistic expressions with ancient wisdom and tradition
  • Friendly to lesbians, gays, bisexuals, and transgendered people
  • A student organization and a ministry of the Episcopal Church

There are plenty of opportunities to get involved with social justice at CH.  Service projects include:  Casa Materna, a home and educational resource for expectant mothers in Matagalpa, Nicaragua;  Episcopal Relief & Development disaster relief work; and Brewing Hope, a fair trade coffee partnership.  A fundraiser is currently underway to help rebuild Holy Trinity Cathedral in Port-au-Prince.  Mass services frequently honor specific saints of the church, commemorating social activists and raising awareness within the U of M community.

It is in the area of music, as you might expect, that CH is really unique.  They are fortunate enough to have a full time chaplain—few Episcopal campus programs do—and are therefore able to provide both a jazz mass on Sunday night and either an Evensong or Taize service on Wednesday. The Chapel is heavily utilized by music students for senior recitals, as well as providing a quiet spot for piano practice. Typically six concerts are scheduled each semester: these are ticketed events whose proceeds are used to pay the musicians.  Fr Reid said that some students who come to concerts later come back for church services; others may come only for the concerts.  The music itself is a ministry and that is reason enough to do it.

What impressed me in my conversation with Fr Reid was the wisdom of finding that “one thing.” (Remember Jack Palance’s advice to Billy Crystal in City Slickers?)  Among all the various activities expected of a college church, perhaps what we need to do is to find that one ministry which, as Hamilton and Rush have said of music, “resonates” with your campus community.  Decide who you will be and what makes you unique.

Of course, the next step in establishing your identity is getting the word out to others.  Fr Reid said that it had been very helpful at CH to invest in creating a distinct and easily recognizeable logo.  That image has been used consistently for everything associated with CH: letterhead, brochures, posters, tee-shirts, and even–and I love this one–temporary tattoos!  (How about that for “branding”?)

The door is open at Canterbury House at U of M:

If you are exploring your faith, creating your ethic, looking for a safe place to ask hard questions, need a welcoming and open community, like new and interesting art and music, or are wondering how you can make a difference in the world, then Canterbury House is ready for you.  The atmosphere is relaxed, the worship is informal and accessible, and the teapot is on the stove….Come and be involved, be challenged, be fed, be comforted, or just be! We are happy to see you.”

More to come!  Thanks for reading!

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