Haiku Friday: End of School

Memorial Day weekend not only marks the unofficial beginning of summer but also announces that the end of school will soon arrive if it hasn’t already done so. My youngest son will still be in pre-K next year, but he’s so excited that in the fall he’ll finally be at the same school as his brother, who just finished first grade. My wife and I are grateful that both of them love school. Yet, like most kids, they’re really excited about the freedom to play outside and in our community pools during the summertime. That freedom to play develops and nurtures a creative imagination.

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The end of school is this week’s haiku theme. You can write your short poem about college or professional degrees, receiving a high school diploma, the transition from elementary school to middle school, excitement about — or perhaps a dread of — summer camp, the freedom to play, the non-freedom of a new job, etc. All you have to do is to put your thoughts into one verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Here’s mine:

As school days wind down,
“What are we going to do?”
fills kids’ and moms’ minds.

Texas Tuesday: Houston Flooding

As you have probably read or heard in the news today, we’ve had more than a little rain in Houston. Here’s one of the many crazy and scary photos from last night:

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Twitter has been an interesting way for me to see things through the eyes of others. For example, @theneener tweeted these two comparative photos of Brays Bayou:

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These words from the Book of Common Prayer can be your own words this evening as you remember and pray for those in the City of Houston and in other regions of Texas who have been affected by these terrifying storms and high water — some losing family members and loved ones, some losing the use of their homes, others stressed by the loss of their vehicles and, therefore, part of their paychecks if they have no other reliable transportation to their various places of employment:

Gracious God, the comfort of all who sorrow, the strength of all who suffer: Let the cry of those in misery and need come to you, that they may find your mercy present with them in all their afflictions; and give us, we pray, the strength to serve them for the sake of him who suffered for us, your Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Haiku Friday: Books and Bishop Whipple

Both the house that we sold last year in Minnesota and the Rectory (i.e., church-owned house) where we now live in Texas have a lot of built-in book shelves. Some of the books on those shelves are just for fun and just for me. Others are there to help me think about biblical narratives and human nature and culture as I write sermons. But there are also books that simply remind me of the past, of my ethnic or spiritual heritage, of those who have gone before me, of the people and theology and ideas that have shaped the world around me and the ground beneath me.

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For example, the book on the far right in this photograph, Lights and Shadows of a Long Episcopate, is the autobiography of the Rt. Rev. Henry Benjamin Whipple. He was the first bishop of the Episcopal Church in Minnesota, arriving there at the end of 1859. Bishop Whipple was a strong and too often solitary advocate for the rights of Native Americans. In 1862, he appealed to President Abraham Lincoln to spare the lives of 303 Dakota warriors who had been condemned to death after the end of the Dakota War. As Bishop Whipple wrote to United States Senator Henry Rice:

We cannot hang men by the hundreds. . . . The leaders must be punished, but we cannot afford by any wanton cruelty to purchase a longer Indian war — nor by injustice in other matters to purchase the wrath of God.

President Lincoln personally reviewed each case and granted reprieves to 265 of the condemned men. Nevertheless, to this day, the public hanging of the remaining 38 Dakota warriors on St. Stephen’s Day, December 26, 1862, in Mankato, Minnesota, remains the largest mass execution in the history of the United States.

I actually have two copies of Lights and Shadows of a Long Episcopate. The one pictured above belonged to the Rt. Rev. Frederick Warren Putnam, Jr. He was born in Minnesota and would eventually serve as the first bishop of the Navajoland Area Mission of the Episcopal Church, which was created in 1978. Bishop Putnam also served as an interim rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Edina, Minnesota, where I was the Rector from 2007 to 2014. He died in Edina, on my birthday, soon after I arrived there. Needless to say, that book is more than just a book to me.

So let’s write haiku about books and the stories they tell, whether to everyone or only to us. Or you can write a haiku about Bishop Whipple and others like him who have the courage to advocate for those who do not have a voice, even when doing so is extremely unpopular. Your one verse of poetry only needs five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line.

Lights and Shadows speaks
to me — both through the author
and through the owner.

Texas Tuesday: EHF

Recently I had the honor of being elected to the Board of the new Episcopal Health Foundation (EHF), which is dedicated to advancing community health within the 57 counties of the Episcopal Diocese of Texas and will award approximately $9 million in grants during 2015. I think about medical care each day that I arrive at my church, which is located directly across the street from the Texas Medical Center, the largest medical center in the world. I think about our human frailty when the doors of the church are opened onto Main Street in Houston at the end of the liturgy on Good Friday, exposing the contrast between the silence inside and the sirens outside.

So I’m looking forward to this adventure with EHF, both as a member of its board and as an Episcopalian in this region who has promised in the Baptismal Covenant to “seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving [my] neighbor as [myself].”

Haiku Friday: The Blues

Blues legend B.B. King, “The Chairman of the Board” to generations of musicians, died yesterday at the age of 89. With his mother dead and his father gone, this son of sharecroppers in rural Mississippi was on his own as a teenager. King would eventually be married and divorced twice. Several years after the end of the second marriage, he responded with his most famous recording, “The Thrill Is Gone.”

It seems appropriate for the blues to be our haiku theme this week. All you have to do is to write about the blues in one verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Here’s mine:

Perseverance and
pain sang out through his wailing
guitar named Lucille.

Texas Tuesday: The Bishop Visits Palmer

The Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of Texas, visited Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church last Sunday to confirm and pray for some of our youth and adults who made a public affirmation of their faith or who, having already made a public affirmation of their faith, were received into the Episcopal Church from another tradition. He also preached an interesting sermon entitled “Mother’s Day Is Complicated,” which is worth a few minutes of your time to ponder as you reflect on your relationships.

Confirmation, Spring 2015

At the end of this liturgy, having prayed for those who needed our prayers and our words of welcome, having gathered around the Lord’s Table to give thanks for it all, and having received the gift of Holy Communion, the Bishop offered a blessing that included the words of Phillips Brooks. Better known as the author of the words to the Christmas carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” Brooks was the Rector of Trinity Episcopal Church in Boston after the Civil War before serving briefly as the Bishop of Massachusetts. He was also one of the greatest preachers in America in the 19th century. In a sermon entitled “Going up to Jerusalem,” Brooks wrote these words, the first paragraph of which Bishop Doyle adapted slightly to use as his blessing:

O, do not pray for easy lives. Pray to be stronger men [and women]! Do not pray for tasks equal to your powers. Pray for powers equal to your tasks! Then the doing of your work shall be no miracle. But you shall be a miracle. Every day you shall wonder at yourself, at the richness of life which has come in you by the grace of God. . . .

May God let us all first see our Jerusalem and then attain it. What is that prayer but the great prayer of our Collect in the Prayer Book — that by his holy inspiration we may think those things that are good, and by his merciful guiding may perform the same, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Haiku Friday: Moms

This Sunday is Mother’s Day in the United States. It’s one of those tricky, Hallmark-shaped holidays, that evokes a wide range of emotions for a variety of people. For many, it’s a heart-warming celebration with their families as children and spouses treat the mothers in their midst with special attention. For others, it’s a painful reminder of children lost or never conceived, or of mothers who died too young or whose love didn’t run deep enough. So Mother’s Day reflects our true humanity.

Nevertheless, most of us have had either a mother remembered fondly or someone else in our lives who stepped into that motherly role, nurturing us, encouraging us, comforting us, inspiring us. Here’s a photo of my boys with the hero in our family:

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This week’s haiku theme is mothers, whatever that happens to mean for you, good or bad. Describe your thoughts in one verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Here’s mine:

She loves them even
when she doesn’t understand
all the Star Wars things.

Breaking Through the Glass Wall

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Easter V, May 3, 2015

[The Ethiopian eunuch] had come to Jerusalem to worship and was returning home; seated in his chariot, he was reading the prophet Isaiah. Then the Spirit said to Philip, “Go over to this chariot and join it.” (Acts 8:27-29)

Before she retired, my mother, who has a nursing degree, worked as the office manager for four OB-GYN doctors in High Point, North Carolina. Once in a blue moon, I’d get to ride along in the car with her as she drove to work and hang out at the doctors’ office. But the most interesting part for me, each time, came on the way there. I’d put my face against the car window, anticipating something that we’d always pass by. It was the Bentley dealership on Main Street.

There, behind a facade of glass, several Bentley and Rolls Royce motor cars were guaranteed to be on full display, brightly illuminated. And even though that’s as close as I ever got to a Rolls Royce, it was still a bit of a thrill, a brief glimpse at something very much out of the ordinary for a young boy from a nearby small town.

In today’s reading from the Book of Acts, Philip, who was one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, has a similar experience. He wasn’t, however, walking down Main Street in High Point and oddly seeing a Rolls Royce. Rather, he was walking down a road in the wilderness between Jerusalem and Gaza. And what he sees there on the way is a chariot, not at arms’ length, behind glass, but up close and personal. The person of power and privilege in the chariot is an Ethiopian eunuch, a court official of the Ethiopian queen, “in charge of her entire treasury.”[1] I’ll bet his robes were rather nice, too, especially compared to what Philip was probably wearing.

This would have been like hiking along a remote dirt road in West Texas and being surprised by the sight of a fully-charged Tesla parked off to the side. And sitting inside the Tesla is someone who turns out to be not only a person of color and a sexual minority but also the personal assistant of Mexican billionaire Carlos Slim. The whole thing is actually pretty bizarre, long before you get to the part at the end about Philip vanishing, whatever that means. It would make a strange movie on the big screen, as though you had become lost on the road to the Twilight Zone. And yet, this entire scene — all of it — is somehow directed by the Spirit, by the mysterious presence of God at work in the world around us.

Our text tells us that Philip had been sent to travel south on that road by an angel, a messenger from God. And when he sees the Ethiopian eunuch reading the words of the prophet Isaiah from a scroll, the Spirit tells Philip to go over to the chariot. He had been reading about “a lamb silent before its shearer” that was humiliated and slaughtered and denied justice.[2] Philip asks him if he understands the meaning of those words. The Ethiopian eunuch replies, “How can I, unless someone guides me?”[3] And that’s when Philip, perhaps to his astonishment, is invited to climb into the chariot and sit down beside this exotic stranger from a distant land.

Philip talks to him about the good news of Jesus, who died innocently at the hands of religious and political leaders before being raised from the dead and vindicated by God.  In Jesus, God suffers like we do. In Jesus, God embraces not only our suffering but us too. And then things get even weirder. While they’re traveling in the chariot through the wilderness, the Ethiopian eunuch spots something. He says, “Look, here is water! What is to prevent me from being baptized?”[4] Well, actually, lots of things — things that many, many people, perhaps including Philip, would have said prevent him absolutely, in the name of God, from being baptized.

Author Rachel Held Evans has made her own journey through the wilderness that has brought her into the Episcopal Church, not out of but with her evangelical identity. In her newest book Searching for Sunday, which describes that journey of faith, she reflects at one point on this encounter between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch. Pondering his question about baptism, she writes:

We don’t know how long that question, brimming with such childlike joy it wrenches the heart, hung vulnerable as a drop of water in the desert air. At another time in his life, Philip might have pointed to the eunuch’s ethnicity, or his anatomy, or his inability to gain access to the ceremonial baths that made a person clean. But instead, with no additional conversation between the travelers, the chariot lumbered to a halt and Philip baptized the eunuch in the first body of water the two could find. It might have been a river, or it might have been a puddle in the road.

Philip got out of God’s way. He remembered that what makes the gospel offensive isn’t who it keeps out, but who it lets in. Nothing could prevent the eunuch from being baptized, for the mountains of obstruction had been plowed down, the rocky hills had been made smooth, and God had cleared a path. There was holy water everywhere.[5]

There are several things that are amazing to me about this whole story. The first is the devotion of this Ethiopian eunuch. He’s an outsider who’s interested in Judaism, as evidenced by the fact that he had gone up to Jerusalem to worship. We might be tempted to think of him as the first Gentile convert to Christianity. But that distinction goes to someone else in the pages of scripture, Cornelius the Centurian, who appears a couple of chapters later in the Book of Acts.[6]

So the Ethiopian eunuch is treated here more like a Jewish convert to Christianity. And his devotion is remarkable in light of the fact that the Old Testament Book of Deuteronomy, for example, strictly forbids a man who has been sexually mutilated from joining the assembly of the Lord and, presumably, from entering the inner courts of the temple.[7] He was too profane to be allowed to get too close. And yet he eagerly sought this God whose presence he could only experience from a distance and whose representatives ensured that he knew his place there on the outside.

I also marvel at the reality that there’s more than one conversion taking place here. It’s not just the Ethiopian eunuch who’s being converted but also Philip. In her memoir entitled Pastrix, Lutheran pastor and certified forgiven-sinner Nadia Bolz-Weber writes about this mystery that speaks, I think, to all of us here today:

Perhaps Philip, in this conversation with a gender-transgressive foreigner — which consisted only of questions — learned what seeking the Lord really looked like, in a way that could only be learned from someone who did it in the face of so much opposition and rejection.[8]

“I started to think,” she writes,

. . . that maybe I couldn’t actually understand what it meant to follow Jesus unless I, too, had a stranger show me.[9]

Whether you agree with Nadia Bolz-Weber about Philip’s conversion, it’s clear from the text that God, not Philip, is behind everything that unfolds in this story. I don’t know about you, but I find it to be exceedingly good news that a miracle like this comes from God’s strength rather than my own. I simply pray that I will be led by the Spirit in the same way that Philip was led and that, most importantly, I’ll trust the one who’s leading me, with or without a fancy chariot, on this wilderness road.

The most astonishing thing of all, of course, is the truth that not only does the Ethiopian eunuch get brought into the household of God but also me . . . and you, and the person sitting next to you, and the man across the aisle whom you admire, and the woman several pews in front of you whom you honestly don’t think deserves to be here, and the babies who cry out the way that we really want to cry out to God ourselves, and the children who get restless and ask questions and have the kind of faith that God requires of all of us.

The Spirit has somehow brought us together in this place and time to follow Jesus together, even when it’s uncomfortable, even when we can’t comprehend the wideness of God’s mercy that embraces us and the whole world in arms of the Crucified One — all of us, Jew and Gentile, male and female, rich and poor, young and old, gay and straight, conservative and liberal, those with a faith that runs deep and those with hardly any faith at all.

The Spirit is at work in our midst in ways that we can barely believe to be true. And yet it is true, breaking through the glass wall that separates us, not from a Rolls Royce, but from one another. And for that, we can only say, “Thanks be to God.”

AMEN

BACK TO POST Acts 8:27.

BACK TO POST Acts 8:32-33.

BACK TO POST Acts 8:31.

BACK TO POST Acts 8:36.

BACK TO POST Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church (Nashville, Nelson Books, 2015) 39.

BACK TO POST Acts 10:1-48.

BACK TO POST Deuteronomy 23:1.

BACK TO POST Nadia Bolz-Weber, Pastrix: The Cranky, Beautiful Faith of a Sinner & Saint (New York: Jericho Books, 2013) 93.

BACK TO POST Bolz-Weber 93-94.

Wendell Berry: “Let others come.”

So this was my last view from the windows of the Rector’s study at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church in Edina, Minnesota, on Sunday afternoon, May 4, 2014. It was the last day that I stood at the Lord’s Table as the Rector of St. Stephen’s to give thanks to God with the people of that congregation. Afterwards, I took this photograph.

That particular moment, both the view and the occasion, brought to mind the words of a poem by Wendell Berry from his book Leavings. It’s one of many poems that come from his Sunday morning walks and observations of the world, but this one has fitting last words: “Let others come.” To that, I say, “Amen.” One year has now passed, and soon enough another priest will be called to sit there, overlooking Minnehaha Creek as it hugs the church and makes its way to the Mississippi River.

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In time a man disappears
from his lifelong fields, from
the streams he has walked beside,
from the woods where he sat and waited.
Thinking of this, he seems to
miss himself in those places
as if always he has been there,
watching for himself to return.
But first he must disappear,
and this he foresees with hope,
with thanks. Let others come.