Friday, April 24, 2015

More on Post-Chaplinesque and Old Man Me....

What I am doing here?

Part of it is the messy existential stuff of a newly retired man, looking back to make summary statements what happened and what it meant, and finding to his surprise that looking at old and incomplete ideas lead on to new and inconclusive beginnings.

So, to start on a much smaller scale: clarifying the frequent use I make of Chaplain, Chaplinesque and Post-Chaplinesque.

I started using Chaplinesque as the name for my blog on an autumn afternoon in 2005 when I began ministering as a chaplain at La Trobe University, Melbourne and I noticed the sign outside our stairway: “Chaplin’s Office.” I took that sign as a sign when I began blogging about what my ministry looked like at that time and place. So much of it still stands true:

Chaplinesque. My spell-checker even recognises it as an anomaly, though it offers no alternative or definition. Googling brings: “reminiscent of Charlie Chaplin, the English comedian who walked, danced, marauded through the world cinema from the 1900s to post WWII, the shabby tramp who made light of politics and pretension, aspirations and art.” 

So maybe that is close to my mode as a chaplain here in the northern region of Melbourne in the autumn of 2005: a clown as well as a cultural critic, someone who’s spent time being alternately amused and terrified by the depth of pretension and hollowness in the modern world, but aiming towards some greater clarity, integrity and freedom. 

I see myself as a teacher and minister of the parables: highlighting and exploring the biblical tales that Jesus tells to remind us who and whose we are; as well as helping others in their own moments of choice and chance when life – or God - drops a direct question in the midst of history, identity, or community and says, “So, where do you find me here?” 

I have worked well there because I have been there too: sustained struggles in my own history have taken time but it has often turned out that the raw material of my own life made me a better companion and minister for others going through the same or similar territory. I am convinced that God can use every experience in moving towards a new creation, and so can we!

So sometimes I think I work as a minister simply because it gives me such great pleasure: to talk and pray and play with people while offering them a safe place to consider their relationship and response to what God and life may be asking of them. It is a joy and delight as well as an awesome responsibility. 

In looking back I think the various definitions of Chaplin and Chaplain here constellate in the exercise of a ministry of support and presence aiming to help to represent new visions and revisions that come as we relate and respond to life in all its amazing array of choice and chance.

But the most personal definition of chaplain or minister comes before I ever joined a church. Because, for me, the place for family gathering and learning, for seasonal celebration and education, was the local tennis club. So the primary model I carry on ministry is the teaching professional tennis pro and the swim coach. I mean those men and women who give lessons, made room for meetings and meals, offered opportunities to work on basic strokes, footwork and follow-through with how we jumped into the pool and played the game was at the centre of it all. It was never stated but it turns out that my model of faithful intentional ministry and sacerdotal priesthood owes much to this framework.

This isn’t as far out as it might seem. Thomas Merton, when asked about the Mass at the occasion of his ordination to the priesthood, said it was a kind of ballet. If that worked for him then I feel much more at ease with my own image of a tennis club as a kind of sacramental and liturgical  space where we learn to “live and move and have our being”  in a graceful and intentional process of patterning that help us understand the “countless ways God uses material things to reach out to creation".

Now to return to about educational chaplaincy: with some years as a student, chaplain, staff member and occasional teacher in tertiary education, I have been both a product of and a participant in campus ministry. In the early years of the process several Anglican (Episcopal) chaplains, one Unitarian professor, and a Jesuit lecturer each modelled a model of continuing pilgrimage where heart, mind and wit could connect the deep wisdom of the church with daily life and contemporary issues:

The chaplains and teachers I knew in University and Seminary changed my life and my way of faith, how I followed Jesus, by offering a ministry of continuing reflective models in the daily context, the duties and delights, of their personal lives and professions. Their witness integrating theory and practice, exploring images and ideals and insights, opened me a to a friendly community of searchers and scholars, giving me my own options for visions and actions and plans in building my own life. They were also surprisingly countercultural in the mainstream of higher education in the United States.

For all these chaplaincies were embedded in large institutions with their own well-known signs and markers; for an academic calendar can offer as serious a liturgy as the church year for its people — providing seasons of planting and harvesting, casting seed and gathering seed together. Academe might not have a well-defined or celebrated sacramental system as the church defines it, but it does offer, at the best of times, a refined and systematic way, often derived from Christian tradition, of learning from and living into the crises and choices which life brings. These pregnant questions are the places where we learn to live our lives, and this is where we can also meet the ministry of parables that Jesus shared with his community of followers

A parable, as I understand it, tells a story, produces a narrative that asks the listener a question they must answer in a way consistent with all components of his or her life: a parable demands that we answer with all that we have and all that we are. In doing so it aims to break apart the often separate nature of how we see reality and open us to consider our lives as integral whole, as a vibrant experience shared with and reflective of the spectrum of the life we share within the widening circles of family, neighbour, friend, enemy, stranger and God. The chaplains I met in my long sojourn In education helped me respond to God and life more fully because of their ministry.

The other model for Chaplain I want to consider more about is one that Carl Dudley writes about in his classic, Making the Small Church Effective. For him, the “chaplaincy model” in ministry refers to a particular style of small “family” parish with an average Sunday attendance under fifty. Here the cleric presides at regular liturgical occasions and serves as personal chaplain to the gathered congregation as needed in the traditional road of baptism, confirmation (with the encouraging of a youth group), marriage, more baptisms, house blessings, hospital visits, home communions, and all the business of ageing and dying which lead  to the funeral service and final sendoff.

Now this parish model of chaplaincy is well-known, traditional, often a vital and valuable ministry, and much good can be seen in churches that live and work like this. But this kind of community can sometimes turn into places where local customs and received traditions become the primary focus to the detriment of the communities larger spiritual health: hence the tired but true joke about the Anglican tendency to offer unchanging veneration to relatively  unimportant things: “Change that light bulb?  My grandfather donated that lightbulb!”

In a world where present chaos and fast-changing futures shake the foundations of everyday life, a comfortable chaplaincy can do valuable work. The strength of customary liturgical services in their regular times and places offer both hope and peace: there is a very good reason that the Holy Spirit is called the comforter! But the breadth of Scripture and tradition tells us that earthquakes and fires can also signal the advent of the spirit as much as the still small voice, that those chaotic surprising times can also be avenues for spiritual grace and growth. And if this call to confront chaos while looking for grace is a true aspect of our pilgrimage as followers of Jesus, when the ministry of the church must balance between (and here I creatively misquote the letter of James), both “comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.”

If we tend to look for God’s presence only on those occasions worn smooth by long custom and cherished tradition, then we can miss the very surprising places where Jesus often shows up. For it is in the times of tempest and trial, both in the Gospels as well as in the deepest traditions of the church gathering over the last two thousand years, where God can both call and challenge us to encounter a wild grace in a newborn world. Those can be the surprising places where the Holy Spirit blows away our old certainties with unexpected life and new beginnings.

This wide Christian way commits us to encounter the God of glory and grace in both cherished traditional practices as well as in newborn and unforeseen opportunities of ministry which the traditions of the cherished family church and chaplaincy can overlook. But it is these unsought for opportunities which often turn to be the very crossroad where we are offered the dangerous and ever new opportunity of connecting with the resurrected Jesus.

So even if a cherished ancestor bequeathed that special luminescence as a signpost of their own their spiritual journey, it turns out that light bulbs have changed in the last few years, to say nothing of the 140 years since Thomas Edison patented incandescent bulbs in the 1880s. And if we aim to share the light of Christ we might need to review current theories and practice of optics. This doesn’t mean we need to leave the past behind. I know one church, not far from where I live now, that cherishes the kerosene lamps hanging in the sanctuary, and makes sure they burn brightly for special occasions when family and friends of the original community gather to celebrate special occasions, even while the viability of that beloved building is under consideration by the larger parish of which it is now a part.

So one of the questions is this: if Jesus calls us to be a light to the world, how do we let our little light  shine today? Is the family style parish with its chaplaincy model of ordained ministry, does the model found on higher education call us, or should we all take up our racquets and convene on the court? Which model is the one we need to follow, or is there a better way?

Saturday, April 04, 2015

Easter 2015

The selection from the gospel we just heard is from Mark, the earliest one. Later additions add more words and definitive conclusions but this first record has an abrupt quality which witness something of critical importance about the chaos that comes when we're confronted with the possibility that life is both bigger and better than we might have thought before. Mark makes us see how very strange this whole story is.

Do not be alarmed; you are looking for Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He has been raised; he is not here. Look, there is the place they laid him. But go, tell his disciples and Peter that he is going ahead of you to Galilee; there you will see him, just as he told you.” So they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.

We forget that. CS Lewis wrote we’ve sentimentalised Angels in so many Victorian pictures, made them look sweet and fuzzy like they're about to say “There, there”: where in most of their biblical appearances these messengers have to begin by saying, “Fear not”. And Mark’s witness opens up, shares the real terror and amazement you might feel when the walls of the world you’ve always lived in start falling down to show new larger horizons.

“Do not be alarmed.” You are looking for the man who has been murdered but he has been raised. He is not here, he is alive! For followers of Jesus who had just had their hearts broken, this just might break them again. Because you thought you had known a new hope, and you had seen that hope die.

Because you had seen this man one day early in his ministry and things had seemed to turn ‘round. He offered a way into the deepest mystery of life, past all the tired ways where we fail to meet life or each other and where we waste  time. Jesus seemed to come just in time, to speak a word, to be a way to get past all the dead ends in the world into something that was new -- both more holy, loving, open, and involved with flesh and blood and community and relationship. More life: new life.

But it all went wrong so fast and what you thought was the face of a new beginning turned into a tomb with a stone put ‘cross the way — and you witnessed it all: the betrayal by friends, the sham trial, the worst aspects of what we see on our televisions and computer screens every day, but showing up with such contrast, because this death-dealing happened to the liveliest person you had ever hoped to know.

The man shone with a clear hope that enabled you to see your life, path, ministry and meaning with open clarity and depth, an enlightening embrace extending out like a beam of light widening out to exclude nothing and nobody! Because this Jesus made it all new and it was like you saw the world through his bright eyes: all connected, cleaned up and clarified, everyone and everything somehow born again. But all that went dark and dead.

What do you do when hope dies? Where do you go when the ideals and ideas, the stuff, the breath, the face, that gave you joy, started your heart jumping, led you to live; when all that falls away, and you see the dead-on possibility that personal, social, corporate, religious, political, bureaucracy, mediocrity, evil, might just win after all?

After the speedy execution, the friends peeling off to their confused solitude, the rich man offering a resting place for the one who had seemed to be such a beginning. And now a few faithful women stand ready to honour the body that had held such promise, because there seems to be nowhere else to go from here.

And a little bit of peace comes, bitter and filled with resignation, starting to heal the hurt, starting to close the hole where such hope had filled your heart before. Because that’s what happens: after the pain, after the death throes, making peace, letting it go, cutting the losses and closing the door.

Women are much better than men about this wisdom, the strength that comes from mourning, the bittersweet acceptance of accepting defeat and death, but now these three women coming to the tomb to anoint their last hope are shocked and terrified to find that the door that had been so carefully closed has broken wide open.

“Do not be alarmed. He has been raised, he is not here.”  And if this is true, then who he was and what he did still stands, then hope lives, then we can live there, and then this dead end turns out to be a new beginning, where evil will not win and where we don’t have to be afraid of death — or life, for that matter — ever again. “And they went out and fled from the tomb, for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid.”

It turns out better, we know that. They tell Peter and the disciples, Jesus shows up and talks to Mary in another Gospel, he makes many appearances to the others,  up to and including Paul, even up to the present day, and Easter follows Easter for almost two thousand years and we have decorated chocolate eggs and I for one intend to eat too much lunch with friends followed by a good long nap. And, by Gods grace, I will make room to be amazed and hold a kind of holy fear at the possibility of his open grave, this open grace, and I encourage you to do the same.

Because if this is true then we (no matter who we are and no matter where we are on the way) can  build our lives anew with the faith that Jesus’ way of life will live, that right prevails, that forgiveness is the way of heaven, that death is not defeat and love will win. This is the almost unbelievable good news, that Christ is risen from the dead, and we must lift up our amazement and cast our fears away and rejoice,

So, to paraphrase St John Chrystostom in a sermon written some 1600 years ago:

First and last alike receive your reward; rich and poor, rejoice together! Sober and slothful, celebrate the day! You that have kept the fast, and you that have not, rejoice! For the Table is richly laden! [Therefore] Feast royally… Partake, of the cup of faith and enjoy all the riches of God’s goodness!

Let no one grieve at their poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed. Let no one can mourn that they have fallen again and again; for forgiveness has risen from the grave. Let no one fear death, for the Death of our Savior has set us free…. O death, where is thy sting?  O Hell, where is thy victory?

Christ is Risen, and death is annihilated! Christ is Risen, and evil is cast down! Christ is Risen, and angels rejoice! Christ is Risen, and life is liberated! [and God’s love will win]

To Him be Glory and Power forever and ever. Amen!

Friday, April 03, 2015

Good Friday sermon I wrote but did not use...

This weekend makes sixteen and a half years since my mother died. She passed away in California on October 4, the feast of St. Francis and the beginning of the Northern Autumn, at the age of 81, after a few years of chronic and increasing illness and disability. In many ways her end with a quick heart attack  was a release. But it was also a beginning, and, in a way I cannot quite describe, since her death our relationship has grown and I've learned things from her, and about her love for me as my mother, that I hadn't seen while she was still with me.

You wouldn’t know to look at me that I can be a perfectionist. But as a boy  — from the age of seven or eight —  every summer I would spend days at time practicing my diving at the local swimming pool; and it was very important to me than my mother saw me doing the perfect dive from the board. I could get quite nervous about it, starting to approach the end of the board and stopping and saying, “No let me try that again!” and she always waited and watched and told me I was wonderful. I didn't get consistently good grades in school either but when I got good comments on tests or written papers I would bring them home to her and she always shared my delight. Even when I was in my thirties I remember her coming to hear me preach at the Cathedral in San Francisco at a Sunday Evensong and being almost impatient for her praise: that I had done my best and that my best was good enough.

It was only after she died, looking back at the long years of laughter, good and quiet conversations, loud misunderstandings, tears and reconciliations, triumphs and tragedies, — all the intimate weaving that goes into any  deep relationship— : it was only in looking back at those years and taking some time that I realised that she didn't just love me when I was doing my best. She loved me all the time: when I was fearful, or undisciplined, or rebellious or just bad. When I was wasting time – and my God I wasted so much time! — her love was timeless, her patience was inexhaustible, her faith and hope and love for me knew no bounds. And I don't think I ever saw that, ever knew how true that was, until she had gone on.

When Jesus becomes flesh, enters into the human journey with each and every one of us, he does so to love us through all our days, and I think that is sometimes difficult to believe. Love that lasts not just in the love feasts or the healings, not just the joy on top of the mountains. but in the flat and falling times, in breakdowns as well as breakthroughs, when things don’t go well, in waste and void and fear of failure. In his human life Jesus presents a love that joins us in every gain or loss all the days of our lives.

I think that's why he's born as a fragile baby in an unimportant village somewhere on the other side whatever town looks to be the middle of nowhere for you. He comes to be nearer than our nearest neighbour, from, as Wystan Auden puts it, the “ranches of isolation and the busy griefs…, [to those] Raw towns that we believe and die in.”  Jesus Christ joins us in each and every  aspect of our lives and just as a mother feels for the children she has born, so the Lord has mercy, and love, and infinite compassion for the children whom he knows from the inside. Those children for whom, like a mother hen, he would spread his wings offering protection, compassion, and comfort in times of trouble, in any time, important and unimportant, feast and failure, good deed and disaster, in every moment of our living and our dying.

Jesus joins the human family to show us that God’s love can meet us in the real and final fragility of being flesh and blood. In Him we see love closer than our very breath, God’s breath in our lungs, God’s love in our life. Jesus joins us in our incomplete journey so that we may know our end in light of his living-dying-rising love.

So even when we come to the end of the story, to the ends of our lives, to the end of all the things we knew, even and especially when we don’t know what comes next, Jesus joins us to share the inside story all the way through. Jesus joins us in the end of all endings and into a new beginning where love will never end, where death will have no dominion. And in our deepest vulnerability Jesus unveils God’s love in the last place we would look.

This story we work though this week - when we hear the story of Jesus's entrance into Jerusalem, his trial, his passion and pain, his long trip to the tomb - is enough to break our heart. But if we let this story, this seed of God settle into our soul it can ripen to break open a new Hope, rise up in a surprising love that endures, for Jesus joins us in our incomplete journey with his unfinished love and is living proof that, as Dame Julian tells us: “all shall be well, and all show be well, and all manners of things shall be well,”

 Thomas Merton wrote a prayer such some years ago that I think Jesus might have prayed on a day like today. We might pray it too:

Lord God, I have no idea where I am going.
I do not see the road ahead of me.
I cannot know for certain where it will end.
Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that
I think I am following Your will does not mean that I am
actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please You
does in fact please you.
And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing.
I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire.
And I know that, if I do this, You will lead me by the right road,
though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore I will trust You always though I may seem to be lost
and in the shadow of death.
I will not fear, for You are ever with me,
and You will never leave me to face my perils alone.

In the name of Christ. Amen.