Category Archives: Discipleship

Helping Youth Find Their Voice

EYE bannerLast week I was immersed in a gathering of over 1,000 Episcopalians (800 of them high school youth) from over 80 dioceses including Taiwan, Honduras, the Dominican Republic and the continental United States. It was a time of joy-filled worship, music, fun, learning, and growing in discipleship. While this was the largest gathering of Episcopal youth, the triennial EYE (Episcopal Youth Event) just touches the tip of the iceberg of all the young people who call the Episcopal Church home.

How can we engage all those who don’t have access to diocesan youth programs, let alone the experiences and connections made on the campus of Villanova last week?

The theme of #EYE14  was “Marked for Mission.” Each participant received a book, Marked for Mission (Morehouse, 2014), that Bronwyn Clark Skov and I put together, sharing the voices of young people and how they live out the Baptismal Covenant, the Five Marks, and lifelong learning. It put in their hands some reflections about what it means to be marked as Christ’s own forever – and how to take that out into the world.

Stephanie Spellers preached at the opening Eucharist. Lessons included the call of Samuel and Jesus feeding the 5,000. She charged everyone present to “Find your voice, feel that love, and then spread it around.”

How do we in our congregations help youth find their voice? How do we empower them, then step out of the way and let them lead? EYE was an example (albeit on a large scale) how our communities can do this. Give them leadership roles. Ask what they want. Listen. Be present and supportive. Let go of your authority. Listen.

What if we allowed youth to mentor us?

I’ll be posting more of my reflections in the days to come with some thoughts on how we might do just that.

What’s YOUR Theology of Confirmation?

Adult-Confirmation

With the spring 2014 release of Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Theologies of Confirmation for the 21st Century, I’ve been making a lot of presentations about the rite of Confirmation in the Episcopal Church and helping people think about what their own “theology” about this rite that always seems to be in search of a meaning. This past week I was privileged to offer a workshop (twice) at the Episcopal Youth Event (#EYE14) held on the Villanova campus outside Philadelphia.

It was great to have conversations in which high school youth and adults (lay leaders, clergy and bishops) were present to discuss each of our experiences of confirmation. And the experiences are varied. After some time travel reviewing where the rites of baptism, first communion, and confirmation came from we can begin to understand how our own history and experience fits in the big picture. And why parents may feel the way they do about having their teen “done” before it’s “too late.”

View my presentation slides, EYEConfirmationWorkshop to get a taste of the history and reflection questions for group conversations. More details of the history can be read in Signed, Sealed, Delivered (Morehouse, 2014).

If you’re interested in what Episcopal resources are available for using in preparation of youth or adults to renew their Baptismal Covenant, here is my EYE2014ConfirmationWorkshopHandout, along with some links to a few dioceses that have guidelines for confirmation.

Add your thoughts on Facebook at Confirming Episcopalians!

There is also a Lily Foundation funded study underway with the Episcopal Church, the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church, Methodist Church, and Evangelical Church of the USA. Learn more at The Confirmation Project.

It’s a conversation we should ALL be having!

Fire in My Bones

A sermon preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Wilton, CT on The Third Sunday after Pentecost – Proper 7, Year A (June 22, 2014)

FireInBonesJeremiah 20:7-13 ~ Psalm 69 ~ Romans 6:1b-11 ~ Matthew 10:24-39

Fire in the bones. Have you ever believed in something so strongly, or have been in a conversation with someone who has a different opinion than you, that you’ve felt the heat rise within in you? Perhaps you’ve held it in, not fully releasing your feelings in fear of spewing out harsh words or creating a breach in the relationship that would be irreparable. Even if you have entered the fray fully, your heart is racing long after the exchange is over.

All of today’s readings remind us of the cost of discipleship. The biblical narrative in the Old and New Testament are filled with stories about the choices we have. Over and over again the people of God – including us – are given choices of life over death. Metaphorically, physically, and spiritually.

In the place of death, the resources for life are mediated to us in ways we rarely understand. Biblical faith is the bet that the narratives we are given, from such sources as Jeremiah, the psalms, and Jesus’ teachings, gives us better futures than the narrative of the powers and principalities that surround us. God’s dream of reconciliation and restoration are visible all around us. We are given an invitation to join in the crusade to follow a new life that is counter-cultural.

Two weeks ago I was privileged to spend several hours with Walter Brueggemann, an Old Testament biblical scholar who is a prolific writer and I believe a contemporary prophet for our times. He speaks of two narratives in Holy Scripture – the narrative of Pharaoh, in which God’s people are enslaved to always produce more bricks. Pharaoh is a symbol of greed, wealth, accumulation and always wanting more – bigger and better. The Hebrews slave away to help him build his empire and are forced to make bricks with less – less clay, less straw, less, less, less while still needing to create more, more, more – bigger, bigger pyramids. All for the god of the empire.

Let’s skip several hundred years to the time when these same Hebrew people (who had been freed, but “recaptured”) are living in exile in Babylonia). This time it is Jeremiah who speaks to the “Pharaoh” narrative. The people have again strayed from YHWH, and Jeremiah receives his call from God to speak out. We hear his  voice crying out against war, poverty, hunger, labor, and crime – against King Zedekiah’s enticements and power. Jeremiah’s audience is plagued with self-interest tangled up in issues of justice. Peace is confused with national security. Hearing God’s truth is difficult amidst the clamor of fear and greed. Our psalmist feels this also. Feeling abandoned and alone, we hear a cry for help to the Lord. Psalm 69 is a song of lament, in which the psalmist prays for deliverance from persecution and taunts – even from family members and friends.

For the cost of following YHWH is going against the status quo. Going against the powers that dominate the culture of self-preservation, the accumulation of things that comfort us and protect us from being vulnerable to those who are not like us.

Jesus offers a new narrative. It is a challenging one. Jesus says he came to bring a sword – but certainly he doesn’t mean we should go out there and stir up trouble. This is the same person who later (in Matthew 26:52) tells his disciples to put away their swords. Speaking God’s truth has a tendency to stir things up. Jesus’ words in today’s reading ring more of a readiness in the face of resistance than they do of preemptive strikes against an enemy. It’s a call to put some fire in our belly. Jesus calls us to make a decision – will you really follow me? Will you take up your cross and follow me? Will you be my disciple?

In our Christian tradition we have many examples of those we took up their cross and followed Jesus. There are many early Christian martyrs and stories from missionaries about those who suffered for their faith. A more contemporary example is of a man who was raised in an Orthodox Jewish family. When he fell in love with the daughter of a Methodist minister and became a Christian, his family said “Shiva,” mourned his “death,” and never had contact with him again. Grandparents, cousins, his whole extended family, were lost to this man. That was the price he paid for becoming a Christian. That wasn’t a real death, but for that man, it felt like a death.

As a people baptized, we have signed onto a new narrative. It’s a narrative that is rooted in compassion, God’s reconciling love, and reparation. Brueggemann says that we are given new bread in the wilderness – in the story of the Exodus and in the story of Jesus. Do we want Pharoah’s bread of anxiety, scarcity, violence, and oppression of wanting more, more, more? The bread that God gives us defies the ideology of accumulation and monopoly. He says,

“The bread of Pharaoh never nourishes. Beware the bread of the Pharisees – beware of the junk food.”

If you recall, the bread in the wilderness of the Exodus came in the form of “manna” to the people of God. When the people started to accumulate it because they feared they would not have enough, it went bad. Manna is the bread of life – it is the bread we receive each Sunday as we gather at this table. That little wafer, that little piece of bread – it is enough.

Our Eucharist is a giving of thanks for what is given to us in the wilderness in which we live. It calls us away from Pharaoh, Herod, the Pharisees, and the things that keep us slaves to the powers that be. Jesus’ performance of abundance scared the willies out of the society of scarcity in his time. He was executed because he was the enemy of the totalizing narrative of Pharaoh. Every time we come to the table we are defying the principalities of our society that tells us we need more, we need better, and we need to protect what we have. We don’t need more bread. This is the food for the world in the hope that the world does not need to starve like Pharaoh wants to starve people who do not produce.

Being a Christian means that we believe that only God can claim the kind of power over others that so many – emperors, dictators, the family patriarch “master” who owned his family (wife, children, and slaves) – desire to control us with. And to follow that path of discipleship is costly. It was in Jeremiah’s time, Jesus’ and Paul’s time, and certainly in our own time.

Oscar Romero, the Catholic Archbishop of El Salvador assassinated in 1980 said,

“Those who, in the biblical phrase, would save their lives – that is, those who want to get along, who don’t want commitments, who don’t want to get into problems, who want to stay outside of a situation that demands the involvement of all of us – they will lose their lives. What a terrible thing to have lived quite comfortably, with no suffering, not getting involved in problems, quite tranquil, quite settled, with good connections politically, economically, socially – lacking nothing having everything. To what good? They will lose their lives.”

Jeremiah diagnosed the distribution of wealth as a major contributor to the evils of his society. He accused the politicians of misplaced alliances chosen for short-term prosperity rather than long-term security. It does sound familiar. But not clear.

And we, as inheritors of the new life in Christ, are challenged daily to give up the things of this world that hold us back in order to live the resurrected life. We are assured that we will not be alone in following Jesus. As Matthew states, “God’s loving care for every sparrow that falls will be even greater for each of them.” And God’s love will abide with us beyond this world, if only we turned our back on Pharaoh and followed Jesus.

What will give us the resolve to speak with Jeremiahs’ confidence?

What will it take for us to take up our cross and follow Jesus?

Readiness for this kind of discipleship requires a fair amount of fire in the bones.

Where is your passion?

Where is God calling you?

Where is the fire in your bones?

Truth in Advocacy

A sermon given at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church in Wilton, CT on May 25, 2014 (Sixth Sunday of Easter)

Acts of the Apostles 17:22-31 + 1 Peter 3:13-22 + John 14:15-21

spiritThe last six weeks of my father’s life were not pleasant. He was shuffled between the hospital, a rehab facility, and numerous doctors and therapists. He was not capable of making his own decisions and was confused by the chances and changes that were rapidly accelerating into his waning life. My role as daughter changed; I became his advocate to make sure he was fed and received the dignity he was due in his last days. And my role didn’t go away after his death; I realized I needed to ramp up my activism for him so that others did not need to suffer the way he did. My advocacy became a principle of justice.

We all advocate for that which we believe in. We go to bat for our children to make sure they have health care and the best education. We put our money and efforts in causes we believe in – whether it is a candidate running for political office, a community organization or charity such as Habitat for Humanity or finding homes for abandoned dogs. We speak out to the injustices we see around us through writing letters, attending hearings, signing petitions – for equal pay, environmental issues, human rights.

Every one needs an advocate at some point in their life. And we are often called upon to serve in that role, at expected and unexpected times. Advocates are important to those who are helpless and voiceless.

Have you ever wished you had someone to advocate for you when no one else stepped forward in your time of need?

As all of our readings today remind us – we DO have an advocate! It’s not the advocate we think about in our day-to-day life. And I would guess it is not one we call upon when we are in need. Yes, we may cry out, “God help me!” but this advocate is present to us at all times and in all places, whether we ask for it or not.

As our Easter season begins to come to a close, our lectionary texts shift focus from the resurrection of Jesus to the presence of the Spirit as the mode of the Risen One’s continuing engagement with the community of faith. This week we have the promise of an Advocate that is called the “Spirit of Truth.” We might call it the “Coming of the Advocate” season.

On Thursday we celebrate the Feast of the Ascension, forty days after the Resurrection. Jesus will depart from us, being elevated to sit “at the right hand of the Father” as stated in our creeds. Ten days later – June 8th this year – we will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost when the focus falls directly on the presence of the Holy Spirit, that completion of God as Creator and God as Redeemer in Jesus, to make the Trinity. That holy mystery of three-in-one, one-in-three, which we then celebrate the Sunday after Pentecost. So we are entering a very theological and non-scientific time in the life of our church calendar.

And this human Jesus prepares to depart from his disciples, he does not leave his followers orphaned. Through the Holy Spirit, Jesus comes to abide with his disciples of every generation. As Pentecost draws near, we are reminded that the risen Christ dwells in each of us as the Spirit of Truth. We receive this Spirit in baptism and prayer that in our gathering at the Eucharistic table the Spirit will transform us to be the body of the risen Christ in the world.

In the midst of this shifting of seasons, it is fitting that this Saturday we will participate in the Rite of Confirmation with Christ & Holy Trinity – Westport, Emmanuel Church – Weston, and St. Mark’s – Bridgeport here at St. Matthew’s. Bishop Jim Curry will join us as we gather to support those who will make a public affirmation of their faith and commitment to the responsibilities of their Baptism and receive the laying-on-of-hands. We will be reaffirming our belief in the one Body and one Spirit, one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism.  We will be proclaiming our faith publicly, albeit within the four walls of a church.

What if we were to publicly affirm our beliefs in the public arena, like Paul and Peter did? Our confirmands (and we) face a world much like the world of Paul. He faced the challenge of proclaiming the gospel to Greeks who know nothing of either Jewish or Christian tradition. Reaffirming our faith is committing to be partners in advocacy with the Spirit; to be the voice of Jesus for those who need to hear the Good News.

We live in a society that doesn’t talk about such things openly. We read about “nones” and “spiritual but not religious” in the news. In reading the faith statements of our confirmands, I am always struck by their hesitancy, which is very age-appropriate, to commit to this belief system of a three-in-one God. Bishop Curry will prayer over them for the Holy Spirit to strengthen and empower them to be faithful servants of the Gospel. As they continue go forth, my prayer is that they will continue to be bold in proclaiming their faith beyond these walls.

For Peter, our Christian beliefs and behavior are to be a matter of public record, just as our baptism is. I think Peter would like our confirmation service. In some regards it is safe – the real world is beyond our doors and as Christians, we are faced with all of the temptations that pull us away from our Baptismal Promises: sin, racism, brokenness, greed, and isolation.

But we are giving a glimpse of the truth today that shows us the way. God has given us the gift of love through the death and resurrection of Jesus, and such love creates a life and world God intended from the very beginning. The Spirit is the Advocate that brings the truth of that love and life to people in this time after Easter, which makes faith possible. Jesus glorifies God, and the Spirit glorifies Jesus. Both of them bear witness to the truth and expose us to the sin of the world – all those things which we promise to fight against in our Baptismal Covenant.

How we act and what we do matters to God. We need to be able to respond creatively to the challenges we face as Christians in today’s world. We need to be Paul in the 21st century.

Being strengthened by the Holy Spirit, we CAN be advocates for one another, knowing we are not alone. We CAN proclaim by word and example the Good News of God in Christ. We CAN seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbors as ourselves. We CAN strive for justice and peace among all people. We CAN respect the dignity of every human being. We can’t do it alone. We need each other for support. We need to gather regularly together to be fed with spiritual food, prayer, teaching, and fellowship.

As Christians, our call is to be an advocate for God.

Jean Vanier has asked, “How can we live and love as [Jesus] did, except through the mysterious gift and power which he gives through his Spirit, so that we become his face, his hands, his heart and body?”

We are given this “truth” from the reality that is God, in whom we live and move and have our being.

Springtime is for . . . Confirmation (among other things)

Alleluia! He is risen! The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!

confirmationFor many congregations, the time is drawing near when the bishop will make his or her annual visitation to confirm all those young people who have been preparing for confirmation. Classes were probably held during the Lenten season (or hopefully have been since September), so things are winding up. Perhaps those who were baptized at the Easter Vigil will be presented for confirmation, but most likely youth are finishing up their classes, writing their faith statements or letters to their bishop, and parents are planning the party to be held after the big event.

The Sunday after the rite of Confirmation is celebrated, most of those newly confirmed will be sleeping in, as well as their parents and siblings. The Sunday after a confirmation is often like the Sunday after Easter. “Low Sunday” in church-speak. Hopefully, they will be back in a few weeks, but as is the case in so many families, confirmation is one of those rituals that brings parents back to church to have their child “get done.” And for confirmation, that will mean they’ve been “signed, sealed, and delivered” into adulthood. Their rite of passage. Their graduation from faith formation. The parental responsibility of “bringing up their child in the Christian faith” has been accomplished.

For those who know me personally, you know I’m pretty passionate about this topic. Who (and how) we prepare youth for confirmation, and how we connect with parents about their role in this “mature decision” and lifelong commitment, is something I believe we (the Church = clergy, educators, vestries, parents, congregations) need to address. We need to have conversations about our own experiences and what we believe the role confirmation has in the life of today’s teens as well as what it means to a congregation. If we had a better understanding of why we feel the way we do about confirmation, I believe we would be “doing it” differently.

SignedSealedDeliveredI felt so strongly about this, I invited a group of colleagues in the Episcopal Church to contribute to a book that was recently published. Signed, Sealed, Delivered: Theologies of Confirmation for the 21st Century offers a historical perspective of how this rite came to be (liturgically, sacramentally, and theologically), essays from bishops, priests, scholars, and Christian formation leaders, and a discussion guide for small groups and congregations to share their own theology of confirmation.

I invite you to read the book (via print or for your e-reader). Join in the conversation – here or on the book’s Facebook page. In the coming week’s I’ll be posting some reactions and resources.

What is YOUR theology of confirmation?