Sunday, May 29, 2011

What I did on my summer vacation...

"So, do you have some sort of goal to your time in London?  Something you're studying or working towards?"  The fellow asking the question was wearing a black clerical outfit and white collar, sitting on a children's playground with me in Regent's Park in the heart of London.  He was about my age, but I wasn't sure if I should call him father.  "Well, we're actually here to go to church," was my response.  Which is what we had just done at his church. 
This morning the family and I left our flat an hour before the worship service began.  Even though we're probably only four miles away from the parish where we were heading, we made it there with only moments to spare.  We were going to worship with some friends living in London, to get a taste of their particular approach to a Sunday gathering.  Since Easter, 5 Sundays ago (!), I have visited a charismatic congregation pastored by a friend back in Indy, snuck in the back of Trinity to hear my friend Tim preach, and last Sunday we went to an evening "cafe church" here in London. 
This morning, though, it was high church for us.  Literal bells and literal smells.  When the procession came in during the opening hymn, the ancient cathedral-like space was filled with incense and smoke from the censer being swung about by the person heading the line.  Jack hollered out, "No fire Mommy!  No fire!"  We tried to explain the reference to the prayers of God's people going up before the throne in Revelation 5, but he was having none of it.
Ang and the kids departed after the first song, and I was left to worship in a company of saints truly reminiscent of the heavenly throng in Revelation.  Every tongue, nation, and tribe were represented there, or at least as many as could be numbered among the 75 or so of us sitting on folding chairs, repeating the words of the Creed, the Lord's Prayer, and the Eucharistic liturgy.  While the outward form of what happened this morning was rather different than what folks at Trinity might be used to -- priests in full vestments, singing accompanied by organ and trombone (!), an 8 minute homily (some of you are already wanting to visit this parish, aren't you?), and the ever-present haze and scent of the incense -- the Spirit in the place felt instantly like home.  Gathered here to remember God in the midst of a city where it's very easy to forget Him, was truly a company of saints.  Not the kinds of saints you'd name a parish after.  But people who, by believing in the Good News of what God has done for the world in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection, have been made holy, and are thereby made worthy of the saintly title.  The hunched over octogenarian fellow who hit me with his cane while sitting down.  The dignified West African mom pushing her son in his wheelchair to be first to take communion.  The couple Ang and my age who traded off holding their wiggling child so they could respectively sing then read the Scripture at the lectern.  This morning the prayers of these people went up like incense before the throne of God.  This morning Christ was present as we shared in His body and blood together in communion (though Jack shouted out, as Ang carried him up the aisle, "No people, Mommy!  No people!). This morning our warbling voices singing words of Gospel truth rang out the doors of the old church building, out onto the streets of Camden, maybe even drowning for a moment the pop tunes being played over the sound system of the Sainsbury's supermarket immediately adjacent.
And this is why we've come to London.  Yes, we're enjoying one of the world's great cities.  We're drinking in the sights, relishing the food, moving to the pulsing rhythms of a place with so much life.  But we're mostly here to be with God's people.  To see what He's up to over here.  To learn what we can, and maybe nick an idea or two for our community back in Indy.  And that sounds pretty good to me.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

London flat 1

London 2

London 3

Time Change

You know you're in a different place when you have no idea what time it "really" is.  Or when you can't find punctuation keys on your computer keyboard (I just spent a full minute searching for the " key -- they have it on the opposite side of the keyboard).
We arrived last night (or this morning, or who knows when) after a surprisingly and graciously quick and uneventful flight from Chicago to Heathrow.  Lola and Sophia were stars -- thanks to Ang for going against my better judgment and downloading "Never Say Never," which kept them diverted for at least two hours.  Jack was also a trooper, managing to take a decent nap, be occupied by various trinkets and snacks, and only launch 3 objects into the rows ahead of us.  Our flightmates were all good sports.
We were greeted at the airport by an old family friend who is based out of London.  He helped us navigate the train, then a taxi back to our flat.  The neighborhood, apartment, and overall experience thus far have surpassed anything we'd hoped for.  Our friend told us we're in a "posh" place in a "posh" neighborhood (Posh was the Spice Girl who seemed to be pretty wealthy, so I think that's a positive adjective).
The kids went to bed straight off (3 bedrooms in the heart of London!!!  Thank you Lilly Endowment!!!), Ang and I drifted off just a bit later.  I think that was 3a.m. London time.  I woke up ready to go at 7:30a.m. but the family has slept on.  The floors of this two-story flat (can a flat have two stories?) are pretty creaky, so I've tried to stay still as best as possible to let everyone else rest.
In addition to the friend who fetched us at Heathrow, Liz Kauffman happens to be in London today playing a show.  She's an international pop star :) !  We hope to have her by for tea before she leaves tomorrow.  And our dearly missed Kendall and Erina Ludwig are also here, so we hope they'll help us navigate in the days ahead.  Tonight we plan to attend an evening service at an Anglican church called St. Luke's.  I've been in contact with their vicar, and I'm not sure if he should refer to me likewise, or as rector, the right reverend, or as dude.  I'll sort out my title and get back to you.
So that's a bulletpoint update on our current status.  It's a sunny day in the 60s outside, so I hope the fam wakes up soon so we can venture out of our lodging, down the street to Kensington Gardens, and into the first day of what we trust will be a true adventure.
Miss you all.  And if you're a Trinity-attender, be sure to make it to today's gathering.  Liz Kauffman's husband Mike, in addition to daddying Moses and Atlas in her absence, will be preaching this morning.  Mike always makes me cry.  In a good way.  Hope he has the same effect on you too.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

How's It Going?

"How's it going?"  That's a question people have been asking me a lot lately.  Not just in the existential sense, but specifically about the sabbatical.  "How are you enjoying the time?  What has God been saying?  What are you learning?"  My honest answer has been, "I'm glad to be resting."  Which I suppose is the goal of a sabbatical, right?  Resting from work.  Taking time to be quiet, to do things that are refreshing, to do nothing if I so choose.  Today marks three weeks since the beginning of my time off, and I'd say the main thing I've "learned" is that I was really tired.  Not tired of ministry.  Not tired of people.  Not tired of studying and teaching and encouraging others.  Just tired.  Of what?  If I'm honest, probably of making decisions.  Helping other people make decisions.  Helping a church community make decisions together.  My prayer is that these are not decisions I'm making on my own.  That these are decisions that God's Spirit -- speaking to me, speaking through God's people, speaking through circumstances -- is leading me to.  But even though (hopefully) these decisions are ultimately God's, the weight of each one can be draining.  And so it's been nice to get a break from them.
So I haven't been making many decisions lately.  Except about what book I'm going to read.  What restaurant I'm going to go to.  What movie to watch on Netflix.  Sounds pretty spiritual, right?
Actually, I'd say these are spiritual decisions.  Take the books I've been reading: they have refreshed my spirit.  They've reminded me of God's work in the world and in my life.  They've made me consider my response to God's work.  As I look at my reading list thus far, it seems a pretty random assortment.  Some theological issues I've wanted to pursue a bit more deeply (eschatology: "The Man of Sin" by Kim Riddlebarger; gender issues: "Finally Feminist" by John Stackhouse).  Some church history/cultural ruminations ("The Worldly Evangelicals" by Richard Quebedeaux).  Some pastoral issues ("Eros Redeemed" by John White).  Some prose examinations of other cultures ("The Good Earth" by Pearl S. Buck).  The book of the moment speaks to my situation in the weeks ahead, and is just good old fun reading.  "Paris to the Moon" is Adam Gopnik's reflection on five years of living in one of Europe's great cities with his wife and young son.  I initially wondered if we should have taken the family to France instead of England, but I'm pretty sure that would have been a bad decision: my one year of high school French would have only gotten us directions to the "bibliotheque."
I'm rested.  I'm doing a lot of reading.  I'm not making any big decisions.  Sounds like pretty standard sabbatical stuff, right?  Well, let me drop what for me has been a bombshell, the biggest learning moment of these last few weeks: it's hard to follow Jesus while on sabbatical.  "What do you mean?  Isn't the goal of this time to hear from God, to strengthen your relationship, to come back from the proverbial mountain with insights, new vision, and your face all but glowing from the Shekinah glory?"  Perhaps.  And maybe those things will come later.  But here's what I've been experiencing: when the hardest decision before me in a given day is whether to buy the new Fleet Foxes mp3 on's deal of the day, it's easy to fool myself into believing that I'm in charge.  That I don't really need God.  Which is so different from most of my life.  When I talk with someone who is wondering what to do with their life, how to heal from sins and wounds of the past, how to deal with a seemingly impossible relationship, I'm driven moment by moment to absolute reliance of God's Spirit.  When I sit across the table from you, when I walk the streets of Broad Ripple with you, or when I stand before you on a Sunday, and we discuss the big issues of our lives, of others' lives, of the world, I have little more to rely on than a perpetual repetition of Proverbs 3:5.  "Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding."  Ain't that the truth.  God is reliable, and I'm reminded of that when He comes through for me and you and our community again and again.  My understanding is not reliable and will buckle under the weight of reality every time.  But during an extended time of rest, of only making "small" decisions, it's been easy to live as this wasn't the case.  As though I'm in control.  As though I can direct my own life.  Well, I can't.  (And neither can you.)  Whether to buy an mp3, what book to read, and where to eat are all decisions that add up to a life.  And I need to consider these decisions just as prayerfully as my typical cry of "What would you have me teach Your people this Sunday?  What would you have me say to this broken person across the table?  How would you have our community best love this broken world in your name."  I need God's direction in every moment of my life.  Not just in seemingly "big, important" moments, but in each and every moment, no matter how seemingly trivial.
So can I ask something of you?  If you're wondering how to pray for me and my family, while I appreciate any words you might offer on our behalf for safe travel (we leave Saturday for London), for rest, for revelation, here's what I ask you pray for me: that I will rely on our loving Father like the little child that I am.  That I would let God truly be my King, and that in doing so, I would continue to see His Kingdom come, His will being done on earth as it is in heaven.  And that will be my prayer for you, for the community of Trinity, for our little corner of the Kingdom in Indianapolis.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

A Life Less Intelligible

I have a lot of reading to do.  In addition to the books I've been waiting to get at during my sabbatical, I keep picking up new ones.  Last week I picked up Stanley Hauerwas’ new autobiography, "Hannah's Child."  Hauerwas is an interested character.  I remember first reading his book “Resident Aliens” (co-written with Will Willimon) and fuming at their descriptions of the tepid state of the church in America and their prescriptions for what to do to live faithfully to the gospel.  I fumed because what they call for seems, well, really hard.  They believe it's not only possible, but it’s our calling to be Christians – "little Christs."  Which is really hard.  And like Christ, will likely get us in trouble.  Or marginalized.  Or ignored.  Or maybe even killed.  They call for Christians to stop worshipping at the alter of relevancy, and to realize that the Gospel – while being the best news the world will ever know – will always seem foolish to those who do not believe.
On the second page of his memoir, Hauerwas makes a statement so profound that upon reading it I could go no further: I had to put the book down and have been chewing on it for several days now.  How does this hit you:
“I have tried to live a life I hope is unintelligible if the God we Christians worship does not exist.”
Do you get what he’s saying?  To an outsider, the way a Christian lives should be perplexing.  The way we spend our time, who we choose to live among and to give ourselves to.  The kind of work we put our hands to.  The way we do that work.  The way we hold (or don’t) the things of this world.
I’d like to think this is true of me.  I'd like to think I'm a radical.  Whether because I have given my life to the increasingly demeaned vocation of pastoral ministry.  Or because of the neighborhood I live in.  Or because of the car I drive.  I’d like folks to say, “Wow, that guy’s either really crazy or he’s on to something.”
I’d like to think my life is a challengingly prophetic witness to people in and out of the church.  But I know better.  I want success and comfort and accolades just as much as (if not more than) my friends and peers who’ve given their lives to pursuing money and status and the finer things.  I can just cloak my self-centered pursuits in ministerial garb.
This morning I write from beautiful St. Meinrad’s Archabbey and retreat center in Southern Indiana.  I began my day by attending mass in the airy and surprisingly bright cathedral where Eucharist has been celebrated daily for 150 years.  When I entered the room there were maybe 25 other folks sitting, kneeling, bowing and fidgeting, waiting for worship.  After 10 minutes of wondering when the thing would start, I heard from the far corner of the room a single voice: “They gave up everything that they might have God’s love in them.” (“That’s a beautiful thought,” I said to myself)  And then I heard a chorus of men’s voices, singing together, ringing out through the high arched ceilings of the cathedral, “They gave up everything…”
And in strode dozens of men, two by two, all in monastic habit, singing over and over those words.  “They gave up everything…”  There were ancient men, dragging their unwilling legs forward.  There were young men, scarcely old enough to vote.  There were some who were tall and dignified, others hunched over and hobbling forward.  Some were fit and athletic, others paunchy and well-fed.
And then we, the on-lookers, joined them in song: “They gave up everything,” we all sang.  Today is the feast of Sts. James the Less and Philip, so we were technically singing about those two first followers of our Lord.  But in that moment, I knew who I was singing about.  I was singing about these men who were now standing among us.  Men who had truly given up everything – wives, status, worldly goods, notoriety, their very names – that they might dedicate themselves to God, to prayer, to work for Him and His people.  Their lives are truly unintelligible if the Christian God does not exist.  But if this God exists, then maybe they have something to teach me.  To teach all of us.  Not that we all need to abandon the world and stay cloistered in a monastery.  These guys would be the first to say they have a specific call; the monastic life is not for everyone.  But what does it mean for ME to give up everything that's been given to me, that I might know nothing but Christ and Him crucified?  For me to truly hold loosely to the things of this world – my identity as a pastor, others' opinion of me, my personal comforts and desires? 
Reformer of the Reformed churches, Nicolaus Zinzendorf is known for his life’s mission statement: “Preach the Gospel.  Die.  Be forgotten.”  That’s my call.  And it makes no sense if the God I proclaim didn’t really love the world and send His only Son.  It makes no sense if those who believe in Him won’t really have everlasting life.  It makes no sense if He didn't speak the world into existence and won't make all things new on the last day.  But if He did and if He will, unintelligible as it may seem, this is the most obvious way to live my life.  God help me to do so.  And God help my unbelief.