Tuesday, January 17, 2017

England and the Piercing (in the Best Way) of My Heart

After a glorious week in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire, exploring places throughout the Midlands and along the coast, I have most definitely discovered one thing.

My English roots, that at first seemed separated from me by a great divide of generations and centuries, are in fact very much near the surface.

It was hard to explain throughout my life why I felt such a pull to England; I had never before visited and thus had nothing upon which to draw for a sufficient answer. But the feeling was there nonetheless. There was something about this place that was calling to me, not audibly or on the surface but in an internal, very deep way. It would have been very easy to chalk it up to a desire to experience the history of the place, to wander through villages and castles and soak up the stories of the men and women who shaped this nation. I could have pointed and said that I wanted to go because that is the place where Richard III met his fate or a site where the Vikings camped on their expeditions across the Europe. This first week, I have been truly blessed to experience a bit of that history, to stand gazing at the Magna Carta and to walk through a medieval village abandoned long ago and now tucked quietly and largely forgotten in a valley in the Moors.

But beyond that, deeper than that, I have experienced in the many opportunities for worship with my friend Trudy that my calling to this place has been – all along – a deeply spiritual one.

As an American and an Episcopalian, I still find myself amazed that I am a member of a denomination that stretches back more than two centuries. Certainly I am very aware that it grew from the Church of England, but that connection for me was more a historical rather than spiritual one – something to read about in my church history courses and simply think, “Oh, that’s quite nice. We come from a great tradition and we owe them a lot.” But to have an opportunity to explore those roots, to worship in places that – as Trudy jokingly but very accurately reminds me – “are older than your country,” is much more powerful indeed. A connection that before now was somehow missing has now been made in an extremely powerful and emotional way.

I was reading a newly-written Lenten reflection about Mary, the mother of Jesus, reminding us that she had been told that because of who her son was, her heart would be pierced. That is a very apt way of explaining the feelings I have had with worship this week: my heart has been pierced. Before being alarmed, it is not a painful piercing, the type Mary experienced. This is a piercing that has made my heart full, a piercing that has injected me with something utterly beautiful and almost completely indescribable.

Hearing the majestic sounds of a choir singing Choral Evensong in the darkened Peterborough Cathedral in the way that it has been done for centuries. Sitting in the ruins of Whitby Abbey and reading Celtic mid-day prayer in a place where for nearly 1,500 years men and women prayed and devoted their lives to nothing more than loving God and living God, the only sounds being their voices and the crashing off the waves in the North Sea. Joining with three other people in the cold choir stalls of a 12th century Norman Church for a service of Holy Eucharist, stripped away of everything except the words and the elements – and despite those absent parts finding it to be one of the most meaningful Eucharists I have ever attended. And hearing my friend, herself following the call of God into a new vocation and soon to be ordained a priest in the church, read the Gospel and have her voice and those words echo in the space and then slowly fade and blend into the ancient and communal memory of the countless voices of those proclaiming God’s word since time immemorial.

For me, there is a distinction between having roots and being rooted. My roots are in rural Virginia, in the countryside resting in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains. There, too, are the roots of my personal faith journey, in the Episcopal churches I attended in my youth. But I have now seen – have now experienced – have now lived – the realization that I am rooted in a church, in a faith, that stretches across the ocean and into cathedrals and parishes, hidden villages and ruined abbeys. I have not been reminded that I am rooted downward; experiencing God in this new way has very much shown me that I am rooted inwardly, held in place by the prayers and voices and worship of saints and ordinary worshipers.

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Reflections from the Brigg Road: One Sunday in North Lincolnshire

(Following attendance at two services in two different parishes in the Diocese of Lincoln this morning, I was asked to write a reflection on my experiences. This is the text of that reflection.)

One, a market town with a population of roughly 5,600 along the River Ancholme. The other, a tiny village numbering slightly more than 450 within the boundary of a larger agricultural parish. In the first, a service of Holy Eucharist was held in a recently-renovated church hall equipped with lighting and heat, kitchen facilities and running water. In the second, a similar service took place in a 12th century Norman church with no electricity, no lights, no heat and no running water. For those at the former, there is only the passing question of whether to hang coats and scarves in the entryway or on the backs of their chairs. Those at the latter need not ask; there, the question is instead how many layers of cloaks and clothing are needed to insulate against the cold.

At the Church of St. John the Evangelist in Brigg, you could hear the words of the Liturgy spoken by the congregation of 40. For the four seated in the choir of the Church of All Saints in Cadney, you were also able to see your words, each prayer and each “Amen!” hanging in the air as the breath escaped the lungs and froze in the chilled air.

Two parishes separated by just 2.9 miles – not even five minutes in a car – yet seemingly coming from two different worlds. How, then, could anyone ever compare worship in a modern space, with music and lights, with a service that has been stripped of all except the words, in a space lit only by candles and whatever shines through the windows? What do these two churches have in common?

Quite simply, the love of God, the love of worship and the sacredness of fellowship. Despite being in each for only a brief  time, I could feel the strong presence of God in the midst of these gatherings and see it reflected on many, many faces. In both places, there is a strong tie binding them together, even beyond  simply being present as members of the congregations. And for  both, I experienced that their true warmth comes not from central  heating or bundling up in coats and scarves, but from the welcome they extend to the stranger and the love they share with one  another.

I found myself on the receiving end of many smiles, handshakes and brief conversations in Brigg, engaging with those who took it upon themselves to seek me out as a visitor and make me feel welcome. I heard stories of life in Brigg and of why St. John and its life in community have made the town identifiable as a home in a much deeper way than any post code or street address. One even told me of how he derives so much joy in sharing his gifts with others in community theater productions.

The same was true with my visit in Cadney. Despite being a much smaller congregation, I was accepted not for simply being someone visiting from the United States for a day, but instead as a beloved member of their community, kneeling as family at the altar in a shared act of worship. I was brought into conversation with everyone, being asked about my home and about what I have found  to be the most impactful moments during my time in England. I was even privileged to share in the joyful expectation of one who, as he said, was looking forward to getting back home after the service to join with family and friends in celebrating a beloved grandchild’s 16th birthday.

My journey down Brigg Road revealed much. For all of the stark differences I expected to find, one thing was made clear. This was a journey between two brackets bounding a shared story. St. John and All Saints are joined by much more than simply being two parts of the Benefice of St. John the Evangelist. They are joined in the strength of and joy in their worship. They are joined in what as I witnessed as a living out of Matthew 25:35: "I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me." And they are joined forever as companions on the journey through this life and as faces of those seeking to serve God in all persons, truly loving their neighbors - and their visitors - as themselves.

Sunday, August 14, 2016

A Modern Seminarian Reflects on the Ministry of a Martyr

Jonathan Myrick Daniels was the future of the Church. A seminarian at the Episcopal Theological School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, he was in 1965 just one year from graduation and embarking on his vocation in the ordained ministry. But the times in which he lived were anything but ordinary, and in the face of continued oppression of blacks - the denying of voting rights or equality of any kind, from opportunities for better jobs to access to better housing - something happened.

In those extra-ordinary times, Daniels took an extraordinary step: he left what could have been an easy and comfortable time at ETS and voluntarily joined thousands of others - black and white, young and old, ordained and laity, rich and poor, known and unknown - on the front lines of the Civil Rights Movement. In the final year of his life, he put his seminary studies on hold and devoted his time and energy to fighting for equality in Alabama. He took part in the voting rights struggle in Selma. He worked for the integration of St. Paul's Episcopal Church in that city - the church where, 31 years later, I would be married. He lived in the Selma homes of the very men, women and children who were enduring the worst segregation and injustice imaginable. And he joined in protests against stores in Fort Deposit, Alabama that were operating under strict "Whites Only" policies. Sadly, it was this final act of non-violent protest that resulted in his death in the most violent of ways.

Now, 51 years later, I myself am a seminarian. I am less than one year from graduation from Virginia Theological Seminary and (God willing and the people consenting) taking the next big steps into the vocation of ordained ministry. But even with the passage of time, and while things have improved somewhat, you need only open the newspaper or turn on the television news to see that we as a country still have a long way to go. Housing and economic inequality still burdens far too many individuals and families. Too many men, women and children still face segregation and racial inequality. Too many lives are being lost to the bullets and gunfire that ravage cities and towns across this country. We are losing far too many of our young people to violence, and far too many of those sworn to protect us are falling in the line of duty.

Five decades after our black brothers and sisters were given equal rights, what should be the joyful shouts of modern-day equality are sadly silent. In the 1960s, Jonathan Daniels recognized that black lives matter, and he followed a personal journey in answer to a call from Dr. King to work for an understanding of that fact. Today, parts of this nation still struggle with understanding that black lives do matter. They do not matter to the exclusion of any other segment of this nation's population, despite what some think when they see banners and social media hash tags. Black lives matter because they have been - and sadly, continue to be - demeaned and offered fewer opportunities to achieve their American dream. Black lives matter because they are the lives of the men, women and children who have been ignored. Black lives matter because when one part of our body is hurt, the entire body suffers. And when our brothers and sisters suffer continued subjugation and victimization, the entire body of humanity is hurt.

In the midst of all of this, the pain and grief that still holds this nation in its terrible grip, I think about Jonathan Myrick Daniels. I think about the man and the priest. I think about that time when as a young man of 26 he was the future of the Church. And as I reflect on the tragedy of his death, I rejoice in the fact that he wasn't just the future of the Church. He was - and is - the Church. To look at the example of Daniels' life is to look at what the Church that I love stands for. Loving all, and praying for our enemies. Respecting the dignity of every human being. Working to ensure that those without are given opportunities to live their lives with. Seeing that the face of God isn't reflected in the faces of a select few, but is seen in the faces of all of God's children.

I think about Jonathan Daniels and how God was reflected in his face. I think about the courage he displayed and the life he led. And I pray that I can emulate his work and continue what he started - being one small part of the best of what the Church is and what it can be in the future.

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Who are Our Neighbors? Just Look Around...

A Sermon Preached at St. George's Episcopal Church, Arlington, Virginia
The Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 10, 2017
Gospel Reading - Luke 10:25-37

Who is my neighbor?

When this unnamed lawyer posed this question to Jesus, I don’t think he had any idea what he was opening himself up for. And certainly the Gospel writer may not have known just how important this parable would become to generations of Christians around the world. On the surface, this question – like many others posed to and by Jesus during his ministry – seems like it would have a simple answer. But it doesn’t. Our neighbors are ones we think of often – and in recent days, we have thought of our neighbors not out of a sense of curiosity, but out of a feeling of pain and loss.   

Several years ago, our youngest daughter was upset when one of her neighborhood playmates moved to another part of town. As she was talking to me about it, she asked, “Will she still be our neighbor?” I said that they would – and she seemed relieved. Two years ago, she and her sister both felt the heartache of having a friend with whom they had grown up in the church move out of state. Our youngest again asked, “Are we still neighbors, even though they live in Alabama now?” I said that we were – and again, you could see the relief on her face.

For our children, being a neighbor is something related to distance. In their minds, the greater concern is about where you live – whether it’s two blocks up the street or 12 hours down the interstate. Often, that’s true for a lot of people. We often think of neighbors as those we see regularly – at the community picnic or out mowing their lawns on Saturday morning or walking down the sidewalk with the kids on a cool evening. It’s a comforting thing, really – walking out the front door in the morning and seeing some folks headed to work and others headed to the bus stop. Those can be moments of stability, of reassurance.

But being a neighbor is also about relationship – who we are to one another rather than where we are in relation to one another. More importantly, it’s about how we are to one another, and that was ultimately the point of the parable shared by Jesus in today’s Gospel reading. The neighbor – in this case, a Samaritan, part of a group that often found itself cast to the margins in the Israel of Jesus’ day – was the one who saw someone in need and stopped to care for him. It didn’t matter that they were from different segments of society. In his response, we see that the Samaritan didn’t see himself as a Samaritan, but as a human being – and in this moment on this lonely wilderness road, he didn’t see the man lying wounded as a Jewish traveler in need of help, but as a fellow human in trouble.

What’s truly remarkable is that the Samaritan didn’t just offer immediate help; he provided ongoing care. He demonstrated a love that wasn’t offered just out of a sense of obligation; it was a love that was extravagant. He binds his wounds and pours oil and wine on them. He gives up his seat so that the injured man will not have to walk. He takes him to an inn and pays in advance for his care. He even announces he will pass back through and pay for any care above and beyond the money he has already provided.

Jesus often tells stories and shares lessons of what it means to give extravagantly from our love. Does someone sue for your shirt? Give them your cloak, too. Love your enemies. Learn from the vineyard owner who paid the last hired as much as the first. Watch the joyful giving of the father who throws an elaborate banquet and gives all he has to a son who had abandoned his home, his family and his heritage. In each of these instances, just as we see in today’s Gospel, people act as they do towards others – towards their neighbors – not because they have to, but because they want to.

Over the past few weeks, these lessons of extravagant love have been lost in the echo of the senseless deaths that have taken place around the country. Orlando. Baton Rouge. Falcon Heights. Dallas. A list of communities growing longer, seemingly by the day, in which dreams of living as neighbors have been shattered by the reality of gunfire. Some of the tragedies, like Orlando, are of such a large scale that the names themselves are lost in an endless stream of the photos of the dead. Others, such as those we’ve witnessed this week, result in our learning the names of those taken.

Philando Castile. Alton Sterling. Brent Thompson. Patrick Zamarripa. Michael Krol. Lorne Ahrens. Michael Smith.

Every one a life cut tragically short. Every one a neighbor - separated from us by distance, yes, but joined with us as part of God's creation.

A roll call of senseless loss – and from these losses, an ever-increasing sense of anxiety and tension. Rather than feeling like the Samaritan who offers help and healing, these days have left me feeling like the one who was beaten and abandoned on the side of the road. And for all of the emotion I have been feeling, it in no way comes close to the hurt, anger, grief and marginalization being felt and expressed by the families and friends of the young black men, police officers and perpetrators who lost their lives this week.

So in the midst of this tragedy, as witnesses to the racism, fear, hostility and division that still hold the country in its terrible grip, we are all undoubtedly trying to find something. Where, we ask, is the good news?

I want you to do something. Turn and look at the person next to you, or behind you. Don’t say anything – just look.

There is the good news. The faces of the people next to us – our friends and family, our guests, our fellow St. Georgians – are the collective face of the good news we are seeking. Yours are the faces of those welcoming the stranger, comforting the poor, reaching out to the marginalized. It is your hands that throw open the doors of this place and extend an invitation to the world, and it is your desire to take the church beyond these four walls that offers a glimpse of humanity’s best to those who have only experienced its worst.

One of my heroes, the civil rights leader and current congressman John Lewis, gave one of the most powerful statements I have ever heard. He said, “We must learn to live together as brothers and sisters. If not, we will perish as fools.” The people of this city, this nation, this world are all brothers and sisters. We may have different beliefs, different traditions, and different languages, and we may live with different goals and dreams. But at the end of the day, we are all part of the same creation.

Who are our neighbors? As a writer of a commentary on this passage wrote, “Love … must know no limits of race and ask no enquiry. Who needs me is my neighbor. Whom at the given time and place I can help with my active love, they are my neighbor and I am theirs.”


Saturday, March 26, 2016

We are the Nails: A Good Friday Sermon

A Sermon Preached at Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Delaplane, Virginia
Good Friday, March 25, 2016
Gospel reading - John 18:1-19:42

In the name of one God, the Father who created us, the Son who sacrificed for us, and the Holy Spirit that strengthens and sustains us. Amen.

The lectionary from which we take our Lessons and Gospel readings throughout the church year provides preachers with some outstanding material. We get to experience anew the beauty and wonder of the creation of this Earth and the universe in which we find ourselves. We can rejoice with the Israelites as they at long last, after 40 years of wandering and struggling in the wilderness, reach the Promised Land.

There are the spectacular moments such as when Jesus taps 12 ordinary men – fisherman and tax collectors – to leave their nets and counting tables and follow him to do extraordinary things. And we can see through the eyes of those whom Jesus fed and healed and freed from the possession of demons and the dark hopelessness of their lives.

Without question, the Bible is filled with stories of wonder, beauty and magnificence. But it is also full of moments of hardship and tragedy and obstacles that seemingly cannot be overcome. And that is where we find ourselves this evening, at the close of the day on which we recall and reflect on the ultimate sacrifice that Jesus made for each of us: the sacrifice of himself.

The passion narrative that we just heard is powerful and dark and – for many – extremely emotional. And for me, that’s a great challenge as I stand in the pulpit: how does one preach on good news when faced with such a painful moment?

Throughout his ministry, and especially the week between Palm Sunday and today, Jesus was followed by large crowds. An untold number of people crowded around him as he rode on the back of a donkey through the gates of Jerusalem.

They undoubtedly hung on his every word as he spent his final days preaching and speaking against the corruption of the authorities of the Temple and the Roman occupiers. And as we know from his trial, a large crowd gathered to cry for the release of Barabbas and the condemnation of Jesus to death.

Despite the near-constant presence of crowds, however, the Gospel reading for today only identifies a few people gathered at the foot of the cross: three women, including Jesus’ mother; the anonymous beloved disciple; and some soldiers – far fewer than were at the arrest in Gethsemane, for I think in the mind of the authorities it would have been much easier to try and escape a garden than to escape the cross.

But I think that the same crowds that had rejoiced at his arrival and then condemned him to death were also there on this day. And I think they were standing off to the side, watching the nails being driven into Jesus’ wrists and feet, listening as he cried out to his Father, and looking on silently as he drew his last breath.

Yes, I think the crowd was at the cross – but I think they were feeling shame, and embarrassment, and fear. After following his ministry and sharing in his journey, they were now uncomfortable and quiet and afraid. They had to have been wondering, “What have we done?”

In these last hours, they had discovered for themselves the limits of just how far they were willing to follow Jesus. They followed him to the cross, but they were not at the cross.

And somewhere deep inside, I think that as they listened to the sound of the hammer, they may have even thought to themselves, “We are the nails.”

How often in our own lives might we ourselves have been nails, being driven into others through our words and actions? Perhaps there have been words spoken in haste and anger, without consideration for the feelings of those receiving them. Maybe we allowed ourselves to forget someone else who might need a bit of love or attention at a particular moment in their own life, sacrificing our work as disciples for something we thought was more important.

There may have even been a time when we have felt the nails being driven into us as the priorities and distractions of our lives step in and separate us a bit from the God who loves us. The stress of making sure there’s enough in the bank to pay the bills. Wondering if a damaged relationship with a treasured friend can be mended. A health issue that, despite doctors’ visits and constant treatment, won’t seem to go away. Times when everyday life brings sadness and fear rather than joy and hopeful expectation.

In our own journeys, there are individual moments when we may find ourselves standing a distance away from the cross. And these are the times when we see glimpses of the good news. For it is in these moments that we have the opportunity to take Jesus down from that cross.

In opposition to that crowd 2,000 years ago that clamored for the crucifixion of Jesus and then stood by as the nails were driven in, we have a chance to un-nail Christ – and in so doing, to free ourselves to be un-nailed and redeemed by Jesus.

Sometimes when I am working on sermons, I will take time to look at various icons on the Gospel readings and see how different artists portrayed these events. While working on this one, I ran across a photograph of an icon from an Orthodox Church in Town and Country, Missouri. In this instance, the artist had depicted the moment when Jesus was taken down from the cross. This rendering shows the women and the beloved disciple had been joined by others – several other people, in fact, who were carefully and lovingly taking him down.

In the artist’s mind, where did these people come from? There’s no way of knowing. We just heard that, with Pilate’s permission, Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus took the body – but I don’t think they did it alone. There’s no proof for this, but I can’t help but wonder if some from the crowd – perhaps two or three men and women – experienced something that brought them from standing near the cross over to the foot of the cross, to bring down the body of the one sacrificed for their sins. Two or three more joined with a small group that removed the nails, embraced the body, and wrapped it for burial.

We are this small group. On this Good Friday, and throughout the year, we can take out the nails and bring Jesus down from the cross – and in so doing, open ourselves to the healing that we can and do receive from him.

I often think of Henri Nouwen, who himself struggled with his own understanding of what this day means. As he wrote, "Jesus was broken on the cross. He lived his suffering and death not as an evil to avoid at all costs, but as a mission to embrace. We too are broken. We live with broken bodies, broken hearts, broken minds or broken spirits. We suffer from broken relationships. How can we live our brokenness? Jesus invites us to embrace our brokenness as he embraced the cross and live it as part of our mission. He asks us not to reject our brokenness as a curse from God that reminds us of our sinfulness but to accept it and put it under God's blessing for our purification and sanctification. Thus our brokenness can become a gateway to new life."

Let us remove the nails from ourselves and others. Let us be the ones who takes Jesus down off the cross. And let us allow our brokenness to be healed, so that we ourselves may be agents of healing.


Saturday, November 28, 2015

Art Dogmatics: Pollock and Rothko

For this one man - it is as if the framework is now filled out and burst through - is the Son of God who is one with God the Father and is Himself God. - Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics IV.1.

No one could have been more surprised than me when a visit earlier this week to the National Gallery of Art led to an outstanding spoken meditation on theology, liturgy and modern art. At the outset I have to say that, as much as I love art, the initial surprise arose when I discovered that I would in fact be interested in visiting the modern art exhibition - an era that I typically avoid in favor of the work done by anyone earlier than the early 20th century. Add to the mix that Trudy (a friend, fellow seminarian and ordinand from the Church of England studying this semester at Virginia Theological Seminary) had the specific goal of seeking out the works of Mark Rothko and Jackson Pollock, and this day was shaping up to be something that was far out of my usual comfort zone.

Pollock's "Lavender Mist Number 1" dominated the far wall in gallery G39, and while it was the second painting with which Trudy and I spent a great deal of time it was the one that seemed to dominate the conversation. The Barth quote found at the top of this post seems quite appropriate to this painting, as the two of us discussed how the busy-ness of the work - the chaos and rush of multiple images and impressions - seemed to be restrained by the thin metal frame surrounding it, just on the verge of bursting through. The National Gallery summary refers to the fact that there are no discernible focal points to this painting, and I think that contributed to its great attraction for me. As seminarians and (God willing) future priests in the Church of England and Episcopal Church, respectively, Trudy and I (and our many classmates and predecessors) are used to the process of discernment, of finding how God has been present and the Holy Spirit has been active throughout our journeys. Similarly, discernment is valuable in seeking out the hidden layers and meanings in artwork.

During our conversation, Trudy applied the wonderful phrase "beautiful chaos" to the Pollock painting - a very apropos description. The quick glance that I would have typically given this work would have revealed nothing more than a giant canvas of paint splatters and the occasional handprint. But there are things that appear - that are seemingly created - out of the chaos found here. At first glance, I saw a thin, pale line of coral color weaving throughout, something that immediately evoked thoughts of the Holy Spirit winding throughout all that occurs. I then saw handprints, presumably the handprints of Pollock (and a later check confirmed this) but, at the time, symbols of the hand of God on all that is in us and around us. Trudy mentioned some of the conversations held in her liturgics class about the mysteries of the liturgy and some of the chaos found there. In reflecting on that I have been considering how - as with the various aspects of the painting that appeared to me with each new glance - there are things that appear in each service, how something I may notice with the Eucharist one week may be replaced the very next by something I see in the face of a congregant during the recitation of the Creed.

And then there is the first of the two Rothko's which we explored, "Untitled 1955." Where the Pollock was chaotic, this is much more simple, unbounded by any constraint and flowing gently off the edges of the canvas. There is something very Trinitarian about it - three individual blocks of different colors and thicknesses, each maintaining their individuality but crucial to the overall unity of the piece. In considering it further, one might also see the ancient understanding of the three levels of creation: the heavens; the earth; and the underworld. It is orderly and held together by something greater and invisible, yet something that allows for the release of the tension of the solid blocks of color.

This visit is one prompting ongoing reflection, and it has certainly given me the opportunity to ponder anew what gifts can be found in art that I would historically have preferred to ignore. With apologies in advance to Trudy, I would like to close with this excerpt from her post:

'Do we need to understand the art to appreciate or enjoy it?' Standing there we realised that we do not. We can simply be in its presence and enjoy what we personally take from the painting, whether that is simply liking the look of it, appreciating all that went into it or finding something profound. Similarly with liturgy, we do not need to know the intricate details of everything that is going on. We can simply be in its presence. Just like modern art, it is multi-layered.

[Note: Trudy's full post on this experience and our reflections can be read here.]

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Riding the Waves on the Sea of Life: A Brief Homily

(Delivered by Matt Rhodes during the MedStar Washington Hospital Center Community Centering Moment, August 3, 2015.)

One of my all-time favorite novels is F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Great Gatsby.” For those of you who might not have read it, this book is set during the “Roaring Twenties,” a decadent era of extravagance in the years just prior to the onset of the Great Depression. It was a time when people lived for the moment and did not give a thought to what tomorrow may hold.

Of all the wonderfully crafted lines of this book, one of the most powerful is the very last one on the very last page: “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

Boats against the current.

Or perhaps consider this. Imagine yourself wading into the ocean, leaving the sand behind as you walk into ever deepening water. After enjoying the waves for a few minutes, you turn to walk back to the shore.

But you can’t. The harder you try to return, the more difficult the waves make that short journey. You want to go in, but the ocean tides are pulling you out. The more effort you exert, the more tired you become.

Each of these examples is a metaphor for how we find our lives sometimes. Just like a boat moving against a current or a tide that is pulling us in the opposite direction of where we want to go, how many times have we encountered a situation where it felt we were trying to move against the flow of something?

An illness for which we want a cure. A financial difficulty for which we need a solution. A clear sense of direction about a major life decision we must make. Like that person trying to walk in the ocean, we exert so much effort in trying to force a cure – a solution – an answer – that we exhaust ourselves.

Now imagine yourself back in the ocean – and next to you is a surfer. But unlike you, the surfer is taking a different approach to the waves.

Rather than going against the tide, instead of fighting against the waves, the surfer instead goes with them. On the longboard, the surfer waits for just the right moment, stands up, and rides the wave back in. Does this skill take practice? Yes. Does it require courage? Yes.

And perhaps most importantly, it requires the surfer to let go – to trust in the board and the waves and the ocean currents.

In our lives, the current we feel is God. Like the ocean moving towards the shore, God is guiding us towards a particular solution, a specific destination, to that one answer we are seeking. But like the casual wader being pummeled in the surf, how often do we find ourselves fighting him, choosing instead to try and make our own way, our own solution, our own cure?

I can tell you from personal experience that the end result of my trying to do it on my own was exhaustion, sadness, and an overwhelming sense of feeling beaten.

Rather than fighting the waves – rather than going against God – it is so much easier to go with him. Does it, like the surfer trusting in the longboard and the ocean, take courage? Absolutely. Sometimes, tapping into our faith is one of the hardest things we can do.

But once we have found that faith, once we have embraced the grace that God has extended to us – once we jump on top of that holy wave instead of trying to ride against it – the journey becomes much easier.

Will there still be times of difficulty? Without question. The best professional surfers still manage to wipe out from time to time. Even as we go about our lives today, here in this hospital and outside these walls, there will be moments of cross-currents – of sudden undertows and waves that knock us off balance and drag us away from our goal.

But in those instances, be calm – trust in the “board” that you have been given – and you will see that the most incredible thing happens: God will reach out his hand, pull you out of that treacherous water, and put you back on top of the wave.

All he asks is that we trust, that we have faith, and that we continue to ride that wave across the sea of life.


Saturday, July 11, 2015

Through God, All Things Are Possible: A Brief Homily

(Delivered by Matt Rhodes during the MedStar Washington Hospital Center Community Centering Moment, June 24, 2015.)

We are the tools of God.
Think about that for a moment. The God of infinite power; the God who created the smallest speck of dust and the grandest galaxy; the God who graced us with hearts to love, minds to reason, and hands to craft – that God needs each of us to complete some very important work.
Now I’m not saying that God’s power is limited, and we need to pick up the slack for him. Quite the contrary. We have been given the gift of this planet and the blessings of being joined on this journey by our fellow man – and it is up to us to care for this wondrous creation.
But doing so is difficult. Often the challenges appear daunting; sometimes, in fact, we may think they are impossible to overcome. How can we heal or care for the sick under our charge in this place? How can we ensure that all the hungry are fed and all the homeless housed? How can we end the violent acts man commits against man and nation against nation? What must we do to protect our fragile environment and ensure its survival for future generations?
Rather than stress over the enormity of these challenges, however, we need to focus on one simple fact.
We do not have to do any of this alone. Through God, all things are possible.
We already have been given all we need to accomplish these tasks. Our reason; our intellect; our skill; our creativity; our compassion; our love. Each of these is a tool in the toolbox with which God has blessed us to do these things. But using them requires instruction – careful guidance, a gentle hand showing us the way.
We do not have to walk that path by ourselves. Through God, all things are possible.
The late Harvard University professor and chaplain Peter Gomes reminded us of what to do in difficult times. As he wrote, “What is the response for calamity? Endurance. Don’t rush, don’t panic. What are we to do in calamitous times? We are to slow down. We are to inquire. We are to endure. Tribulation does not invite haste; it invites contemplation, reflection, perseverance, endurance.” Writing further on the recollection by ancient people of God’s work on their behalf, he continued, “They remember … how the Lord delivered them out of these troubles and helped them to endure and bear and eventually overcome them.”
So as you go out into your day, remember you do not walk alone. The difficult medical situations, the families experiencing fear and sadness, the stress and exhaustion of your individual challenges – you will not deal with them in a vacuum.
The solutions may be hard to find, the answers a challenge to see. But you have a companion, a guiding hand, an inspiration, a cheerleader.
For through God, all things are possible.

Friday, June 12, 2015

The Whisper of God: A Brief Homily

(Delivered by Matt Rhodes during the MedSTAR Washington Hospital Center Community Centering Moment on Friday, June 12, 2015.)

With the dawning of each day, we are presented with new opportunities to see God at work – in our lives and the lives of those around us. We see God reflected in the faces of patients and their families, in the doctors and nurses and support staff. We see God in every man, woman, and child. We see God in each magnificent part of nature.

On the metro, on the Beltway, in the crowded lanes of traffic and long lines at the supermarket – everywhere we look, we see God.

But how often, in the midst of our busy and rushed lives, do we stop looking for God and start listening for him?

Often, the perception we have of God’s voice has a very epic Hollywood feel to it. God announcing his presence from a pillar of fire. God speaking from a burning bush. God making a dramatic appearance in a dream.

How often have we dreamed of having our own dramatic encounter with God? Perhaps you or someone you know has. But others may have missed their moment because the chaos and noise within their lives has drowned out God’s voice. Car horns and telephones, arguments, screaming children, doorbells, news broadcasts, television announcers. The chaotic situations that bring people to this very building. There are many distractions that make hearing what is truly important a great challenge.

But in straining to listen for God’s voice over the noises of our hectic, over-scheduled lives, we miss those moments where God can truly speak to us.

We miss those moments where God whispers to us.

Think of a conversation you may have had where there is suddenly a gap when no words are spoken.

Sing your favorite song, and pay attention to that brief moment between verses.

When your eyes open in the morning, ponder that sliver of time before the first thought of the day enters your mind.

Even in something as automatic as breathing, notice the moment between one breath and the next.

It is in these sacred seconds, these moments of quiet, where you will hear that wonderfully blessed whisper – a whisper reminding you that you are loved, you are valued. A voice that says, “You are my beloved child.”

As you depart this morning and go about the business of your day, listen for the voice of God. Listen with your heart, and take notice of those instances of silence and be amazed when you discover it is not silence you are hearing after all.

It is God, whispering in your ear.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

A Simple Gesture for Our Pets Means So Much More

Shortly after 4:00 this morning, our beloved cat Smokey - a moody, temperamental, independent, but very loving lady who was just shy of turning 19 - passed away. After living a remarkably long life, it had become obvious in recent days that time was growing short for her. She had accomplished all she wanted (as much as any cat could want to accomplish in life), and more and more of her time was spent looking for quiet places to rest. My wife awakened me early to tell me the end was at hand, and together the two of us sat with her, stroked her fur, and held her as she quietly and gently slipped away.

In 45 years, this was the first time I had experienced death. I had not been with any of my family members who have died, and another much-loved pet who passed away last summer had chosen her moment when she was outside the house and away from us. Any death is a loss, as those of our pets have been for our family, but Smokey's has been particularly impactful. My wife and I first picked her up at the animal shelter on the day we returned from our honeymoon, and she has been with us every day since then. She has been as much a symbol of our marriage as our two children, marking the passing years, changing homes, and exciting developments in our lives.

In thinking about these deaths, though, I continue returning to something my wife did for each of our cats when we realized the end was near. In both instances, she took them to the bathtub, gave them each a long and careful bath, wrapped them in a towel, and held them close for as long as possible. In a way, these were much more than baths; they were expressions of love and her special way of anointing them.

Just as the three women went to the tomb that Easter Sunday to lovingly anoint the body of Jesus after his death, my wife lovingly took similar steps with our cats before theirs. Christ's time here was seemingly finished, but the love of Mary, Martha, and Mary extended far beyond that Friday at the cross. The simple gesture by my wife for our beloved pets demonstrated our love for them, a love that continues beyond their time with us.