Tuesday, December 23, 2014

The Light is Coming...

Merry Christmas from Father Prime!!  Here's hoping you and yours have a very blessed Feast of the Nativity!  Do you want to know my favorite version of the Christmas story?  Here it is:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it."
John 1: 1-5

There is no manger. No cattle. No star. No shepherds. There's not even Mary and Joseph. For the writer of the Gospel of John there is only the Word. For the good news of John's whole Gospel, and the good news of this Christmas Day is summed up in this passage we just heard:  The Word through which all things came into being loved us so much, that it became human, taking on our fragility, our sadness, our joys. In this Christmas story there is only the Word, Jesus.

This, I'm not ashamed to admit, is my favorite Christmas story.  Because while the manger and the cattle and Mary and Joseph add something special, something we all can relate to, this story is not concerned with anything except this: the Word of God became human. Nothing else matters. And with this action God has changed the course of history; humanity and God are reconciled. Our story has become God's story, and vice versa.

John's Christmas story echoes the creation story in Genesis.  Just as God breaks through the darkness of chaos and says, "Let there be light," here the Logos, the Word, is the Light, the Light of all people, the Light of life, and it shines in the darkness. Jesus shines in the darkness. That is the Christmas message: the light of the world has stepped out into the world.

It is a world that we know can be a very dark place.  Notice that John does not say that the light comes to destroy the darkness, to dispel it.  The light merely shines in the darkness. But the good news John gives us this Christmas story is that Jesus, the light, is right there in the middle of the darkness, shining, standing beside us, holding our hand through whatever life may throw at us. And the darkness, John says, does not and will not overtake the light. There will always be darkness in the world.  The darkness of Isis in Syria and Iraq.  The darkness of racial tension and violent acts against young black men in Missouri, Staten Island, and Cleveland.  The darkness of young gay and lesbian men and women who end their lives because they are bullied and tormented because of who they are.  The darkness of hatred and violence in our Lord’s homeland.  Yes, there will always be darkness.  But the good news in the Christmas story given to us by the Fourth Gospel is that the darkness cannot and will not ever win.  Not ever!  It may not feel that way most of the time, but no amount of darkness in this world can destroy the Light of God, the Light of Christ.  Because the Christ Light, the everlasting light, the light that burned during those first moments of Genesis, has come into the world, and through his life, his death, and his resurrection, the powers of hell have vanished, death has lost its sting, and all things, including the darkness, are reconciled to God.

Christ comes into our world so that that same light might shine in us, that we may share that light with friend and stronger alike. Can you imagine a world where each of us knew with certainty that the Christ light shines in us?  Can you imagine a world where we actually treated others as though the Christ light shines in them too, especially those who have never been told that such a light is in them? There's a story about an old monk whose monastery was run down.  The community was splintered, and he didn’t know what to do.  So he visited an old rabbi, said to be the wisest man in the village. The monk asked the rabbi for guidance, some kind of help to save the monastery.  The rabbi's response:  the Messiah is in your midst.  The old monk was shocked.  He took the news back to his brothers.  Not knowing which of them could be the Messiah, the brothers treated each other, and everyone that visited that old monastery, as though each was Christ himself.  And the community thrived.  I suspect that that is the Christmas hope, that the same light that broke through the darkness may be the light we let shine in our own lives, the light that we actively seek out in the face of the Other, whoever that may be.  And each year on this day that hope returns.  It is the hope that that light may be born anew in us, so that we may transform this darkened world.

Jesus Christ, the Word of God, the light of the world, has come to earth so that we may all know the love of God, so that we may share that love with the world.  Emmanuel. God with us. Still with us. So come, let us adore him. Let us adore the light of the world. Let us adore the light that shines in the darkness, the light that shines in you, me, and them. Come, let us adore him. Christ the Lord. 

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

On Ministry of Presence

Years ago I served as a hospice chaplain, and often we would toss around the term "Ministry of Presence" to describe one of our visits.  Considering that I was on a nursing home team, meaning that I would generally be visiting folks who didn't even know I was in the room, this was a standard response.  Most of the time I said that I exercised Ministry of Presence whenever I walked into a room to find a non-responsive patient and read some Scripture and left after 10 minutes.  That sounded like Ministry of Presence to me.

But as I have continued in my call and have dealt with all of the expectations of ministry--most of which are self-inflicted--I have struggled with this term.  As a colleague once asked, "How do we actually know if we are doing our jobs?"  That's a damn good question.  And in the end, we don't have any barometer for figuring that out, not like crunching quarterly numbers or having a review from a superior.

And so the first time I heard the term Ministry of Presence, I thought it was just something that we throw around when we've run out of other options; after all, as the minister, aren't I expected to have the right answer?  Aren't I expected to fix people of their emotional and spiritual problems?  If someone asks me how well I'm doing my job, shouldn't I be able to quote them all the people whose lives I have very clearly impacted?

That, it seems, is not how ministry works.  Worrying about whether or not I am making a difference is like my own version of Luther's Terrified Conscience.  Luther worried over and over again about whether or not he was saved, concluding that we are ultimately saved only by the grace of God.  If we worried about how we might save ourselves, Luther said, we would never be satisfied.  And the same, I've discovered, holds true for my constant worry about whether or not I'm actually being an effective minister.  But do you know who really taught me that?

This little girl.  Casey has been with me through most of my journey in ministry.  She accompanied me to seminary in New York--and boy, does she have stories?!--and she goes with me to my current church each day.  One day, after we came home from what was a really tough day, I sat on the edge of my bed, feeling defeated and beaten up and worrying about whether or not I was really doing my job.

And then she walked in.  She sat about five feet away from me, neither wagging her tail, nor pawing at me.  She didn't make a sound, simply sitting there, looking at me.  After about 30 seconds of just looking into each other's eyes, I finally figured it out.  THIS is what Ministry of Presence is about.  It's not about being able to fix someone's problems, nor is it about having all the right answers.  It's about just being right there, letting the Other know that they are loved.  Casey sat there, looking at me, and while she didn't say anything, I knew what she was trying to convey:  it's ok, brother, I love you.

Sometimes that's all it takes.  Being Christ to someone else often means simply giving them a shoulder or a hand.  Often it means not even having a word to say.  Often that's all God asks of us, to just be there for someone, and not necessarily to do something for them.

Too many times I see church leaders who are so concerned with DOING, rather than BEING.  When we focus on doing we get overwhelmed, we start to worry about whether we're doing enough, and we get stressed and burn out.  When we focus on being we are more attentive to the needs of the Other, and we can create a space where the Other feels cared for and loved.  Casey doesn't bother with doing, and that's why she's such a great pastor.  As one of my seminary professors once said, "Your dog is the most centered being on this campus."  Can't argue with that!

Casey knows who she is and is content with just being who she is.  What would happen if we were like that?  What would happen if we were more focused on being, rather than doing? Not only would we be less stressed, but we would be more authentic, with ourselves and with the Other.

So I hope you have the opportunity, especially in this quiet season of Advent, to exercise Ministry of Presence.  I hope that you have the chance to remind someone that they are loved, not by some quantitative measure, but just by being there and being who you are.  In the meantime, I will continue to hold up my dog as my greatest inspiration for what ministry really looks like, hoping I can be the kind of pastor that Casey is.

Casey exercising her Ministry of Presence to a UK student during Finals Week.


Monday, December 8, 2014

A Christian Response

You’ll notice that the tagline for this blog is “Wishing & working for a world transformed.”  While that tagline works well with the title of this blog (Father Prime) and comes from the first line of issue #1 of Marvel’s Transformers comic that debuted 30 years ago (“It is a world transformed…”), I sincerely wish that it were a world transformed.  And the past two weeks have shown why. 

I am speechless with the recent news out of Staten Island that the police who killed Eric Garner were not indicted.  No, I don’t have a dog in the fight, so to speak.  But as a Christian I believe that all humanity is united as children of God, that that’s what Jesus came to show us.  Eric Garner was my brother.  So was Michael Brown.  What I fail to understand is how anyone who calls him/herself a Christian cannot be outraged by the death of a brother or sister.  The only image that pops in my head is the image of Jesus standing there, watching his children kill each other, and weeping. 

Yet there is also something else that has been at play in my heart and mind in the wake of the recent news:  I am more and more acutely aware of my own privilege.  I’m a heterosexual, cisgender man.  I’m white.  I’m from a small mountain town where my family, while not wealthy, got by with relative comfort.  And while I was the only Episcopalian in my school and was sometimes mocked for it, I am a Christian and have been afforded all of the “benefits” that that label affords.  I have a comfortable job—I write this blog from a cozy chair on the third floor of our cathedral—and besides the bills for my phone and the house I rent, I have no great financial responsibilities.  Based on all of the labels that I carry, my life is really, really good.  So why care about low-income black men who are killed by police, or a Muslim teenager run over by a car displaying anti-Muslim rhetoric in Missouri, or a young gay boy who killed himself after endless bullying for being who God made him to be?  Why should I care?

Because that is what Jesus would have me do.  The wandering rabbi that I call my Lord did not look upon people with labels.  He ate with tax collectors and the worst kinds of sinners (Matthew 9: 10), he healed Gentiles, even those who he himself did not initially welcome (Mark 7: 27), and, when faced with an adulterous woman who should rightfully be stoned to death by the laws of her day, he called the one without sin to cast the first stone upon her (John 8: 7). 

Here’s the thing about being a Christian:  it’s about more than just Jesus!  Yes, Jesus is our Lord, and yes Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, but it is up to us to be Jesus’ hands, feet, and heart in the world right now!  The earthly form of Jesus of Nazareth is not walking through the door anytime soon, and so it is up to those of us who have the audacity to say that we are his followers to carry on what he set out.  The tired adage of What would Jesus do? is not enough.  That mindset leads us to say, “Sure, Jesus would do this.  But I can’t.”  If that’s the case, then maybe this Christianity thing isn’t for you.  If you cannot see the Other as your brother or sister, if you cannot bring yourself to care for the least of these, if you are satisfied with the economic and social disparities in this country, if you can’t take Jesus’ words seriously, then maybe you shouldn’t call yourself a Christian.  We look at the frustrations and sadnesses of our world and say, “It is the way it is.”  Jesus did the same thing in his time and said, “It doesn’t have to be this way.”  See the difference?

So what can Christians do?  Pray.  And work.  Saint Augustine of Hippo once said, “Pray as though everything depended upon God, work as though everything depended upon you.”  Pray for peace.  But when we are faced with the opportunity to act, we must act.  If Christians are not on the frontlines fighting for equality for our brothers and sisters, fighting for an end to the labels, an end to the disparities, then who will?! 

Maybe if enough of us did just that, showing the world that the kind of love shown to us by that baby whose birth we claim to honor in two weeks’ time, then maybe, just maybe, we really can transform this world. 

Until then, I leave you with this prayer from page 823 of the Book of Common Prayer.  It is the prayer that I used for the concluding collect of the Prayers of the People this past Sunday.

O God our Father, whose Son forgave his enemies while he was suffering shame and death:  Strengthen those who suffer for the sake of conscience, especially in Ferguson, Staten Island, and all areas of civil disparity; when they are accused, save them from speaking in hate; when they are rejected, save them from bitterness; when they are imprisoned, save them from despair; and to us your servants, give grace to respect their witness and to discern the truth, that our society may be cleaned and strengthened.  This we ask for the sake of Jesus Christ, our merciful and righteous Judge.  Amen.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Where I Found God

On Sunday a parishioner and I were talking about my “Call Story.”  She said that she just loved Call Stories, but we both noted that Episcopalians don’t often share them.  Well, here is mine.

Twin Oaks Farm, Bedford, VA

The house in the picture above is called Twin Oaks.  Nestled underneath Sharp Top Mountain in Bedford, VA, it was the homestead of the Hatcher family.  The last of the Hatchers, Barbara, was a dear family friend, and when she passed away in 2004 she willed Twin Oaks to my Aunt Meredith, the oldest of the four Mitchell children.  And while Aunt Mere lived in Milwaukee, making it a daunting task to care for a farm, she accepted Barbara’s generous gift, and at Thanksgiving of 2004 Twin Oaks became the gathering place large-scale Mitchell get-togethers.

Two years later my dad and I returned to Twin Oaks, making it a tradition that this be the place for Thanksgivings every other year.  It was a regular family gathering, and while I was both excited and slightly anxious to begin my career as a baseball coach—I was working as assistant coach and assistant sports information director at Pikeville College—there wasn’t anything crazy going on in my personal life. 

And then it happened.  Aunt Mere asked me to do the prayer for Thanksgiving dinner, which was something I often did at family gatherings (most likely because I have no problem speaking in front of large crowds).  I closed my eyes and gave a routine blessing, making sure I did not mention Jesus for fear of offending any of the non-Christians that were around the table.  I don’t know what I said, but I remember the feeling that washed over me that afternoon.  It burned in my chest.  And it said to me, “This feels good, doesn’t it?  THIS is what you should be doing.”  I barely said a word at dinner.

After the meal I went outside, looking up at the mountains and saying over and over again, “Are you sure?”  I was a mix of frustration—“why didn’t you let me know this when I was in college?!”—and fear—“can I really do this?!”  I sat with those feelings all weekend, and when I returned to Wise County shared them with my priest.  And the rest is history. 

But this blog post is not so much about my Call Story as it is about Twin Oaks.  It is about all those places in our lives where we meet God in all of God’s crazy shapes and forms.  There has been something magical about Twin Oaks.  For starters, Aunt Mere, after learning that it was at Twin Oaks where I first felt “The Call,” somehow stumbled upon an 1892 edition of the Book of Common Prayer in the attic.  It was funny because so many Hatcher men had been ministers, but none of them were Episcopalian!  And as the years have gone by Twin Oaks has been a sanctuary, separated from the craziness of the world and free of television, cell phone reception, or internet (though this year wireless was available—not a good idea!).  Members of our family come to Twin Oaks and lay down all of the everyday problems that plague us in school or at work.  It refreshes us.  It binds us with Barbara’s family, as well as members of our own that are long gone.  It is a holy place.  It is a thin place.

This year the magic was palpable.  My cousin Maggie got engaged to her wonderful boyfriend Rob at Twin Oaks over the weekend.  And because she was the first grandchild to get engaged after the passing of our grandmother, she got to have our dear Mimi’s ring.  And as we gathered for dinner my dad played a cassette tape (remember those?!) of my great-grandfather singing hymns of thanks.  As the voice of one of my heroes filled the room singing “Bless This House” and “For the Beauty of the Earth,” I teared up.  I knew God was in that space.  God has always been in that space. 

It is likely that this was the last Thanksgiving that our family will spend at Twin Oaks.  Aunt Mere will be putting the house on the market, and the grandchildren will be scattering in even more directions in the coming months.  Times change.  But the love of family does not.  We may not see each other at Twin Oaks in the future, but there will be other thin places, other spots here and there where we feel the overpowering love of God and the love of family.  Who knows?  Perhaps our lives will be transformed in those spaces, as well.  Just as my life was transformed at Twin Oaks in 2006 and Maggie and Rob’s lives this year. 

 The Mitchell Family at Twin Oaks in 2013.

Everyone deserves a Twin Oaks.  Everyone deserves that place of nourishment, refreshment, peace, and love.  My family has been fortunate to call Twin Oaks such a place these past 10 years.  I don’t know what the new place will look like.  But wherever there is love, I know there God will be also.  So where is your Twin Oaks?  I hope that in the coming days and weeks you and those you love find yourselves there.  Maybe you’ll even run into God like I did!