First Anniversary as Palmer’s “Number 6”

One year ago tonight, during the Celebration of a New Ministry, I signed the original parish register for Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church in Houston, Texas, a rather imposing book that goes back to 1929, as its Sixth Rector. I did so in the presence of the Rt. Rev. C. Andrew Doyle, Bishop of Texas, and family and friends and members of the congregation. I wrote about that experience in a post titled “Number 6 Signs In,” which is worth taking a moment to read if for no other reason than to watch the opening sequence from the 1960s British TV series called “The Prisoner.”

Parish Register 2

Our guest preacher for that occasion was the Rev. John Maxwell Kerr, who retired at the end of last year as the Episcopal Chaplain to the faculty, students, and staff at the College of William & Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. Father Kerr viewed his ministry there as encompassing everyone, not just Episcopalians or students. For his service to that community and “loving spirit” toward those of faith and non-faith alike, Father Kerr received the Sullivan Award at the 2014 Commencement.

Born in Scotland, Father Kerr is a graduate of the Universities of Toronto, Leeds, and Nottingham. After graduation, he served a Short Service Commission in the Royal Canadian Air Force as a Flying Officer. He has taught chemistry, physics, logic, and theology in various academic settings in the United Kingdom and the United States.

He was ordained Deacon and Priest in Oxford Diocese in the Church of England 38 years ago, serving his title as Curate to the Rector and Queen’s Chaplain in Windsor in Oxford Diocese. Father Kerr was one of the founders and second Warden of the Society of Ordained Scientists. He is an active member of the North American Province of the Society. He also has a great sense of humor as evidenced by this photograph at the Fabergé exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

Kerr Photo

Here is what he had to say at my official institution as the parish’s Sixth Rector:

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend John Maxwell Kerr, BASc, MSc, PhD, DipTh
The Celebration of a New Ministry, September 30, 2014

Jesus said, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide.” (John 15:16)

It is, it really is, the greatest possible privilege to have been invited here to preach this evening.

Palmer Memorial Church has called the wise and energetic Neil Willard to be your new Rector: how very astute of you!

The church called, and Neil accepted, and with very considerable joy. But thanks be to God, somewhat earlier in his life, our Lord Jesus Christ chose Neil and he responded. Our Lord appointed Neil that he should go, spatially, from North Carolina, to South Carolina, to Virginia, to Minneapolis, and now to what is called in these here parts, “the Great State of Texas.”

So what wisdom might we need to hear and take to heart this evening?


Christ will make you into the sort of priest that Christ is calling you to be.

Christ chooses us and, in anybody’s ministry new or old, Christ leads us and accompanies us every step of the way, thanks be to God, or nothing we might try to do could possibly abide or bear fruit.

Christ will make you into the sort of priest that Christ is calling you to be.

But how are we to know?

Ask. Question. Enquire. Scrutinize. Examine. Cross-examine. And then listen. Just Listen. To God. To the people. To children.

This was said to me just before my ordination in Oxford all those years ago, by a Brother of the Society of St John the Evangelist. It remains true for Bishop Doyle, and it is true for Neil. And it’s true for all the other diocesan clergy who are here. Christ will make you into the sort of priest, or deacon, Christ is calling you to be. Christ chooses us, not the other way ‘round, as we heard in St John’s Gospel, and then Christ tells us to go, to go to the place to which our Lord will call us and set us to work at being spiritually-fruitful ministers. But being called is not instant one-stop shopping, in fact it is rather more like becoming married.

Ministry is like becoming married. In marriage, there’s a celebration of a new relationship, an exchange of rings, a certificate (suitable for framing). But nobody just “gets married,” as if the wedding ceremony is the beginning and the end of it: many of us know better. It is a faithful life-long journey together and it starts long before that sacramental celebration of a new relationship in church. Our legacy drawn from the marriages of our parents and grandparents, is the inheritance we bring to marriage, before a couple has even met. But in marriage, God takes these years of preparation and makes something entirely new.

The same is true with New Ministry.

Letter of Institution

Neil has been in the wings preparing for fulfilling God’s call to serve Christ here for all his life. Not explicitly but nevertheless in the providence of God becoming the priest Christ is calling him to be here, in this place. After this ceremony in church, it will take time: there will follow the task of growing into the covenant of becoming the Church Christ is calling you to be together.


I find that we celebrate a new ministry in the same spirit of apprehension and hope and joy as we do a new marriage. But there is this: Neil, we are assured that Christ is calling you to enter this covenant with your people in your new ministry in this place. And Christ says, keep on going!

Well, suppose you are not a minister, new or old, not married. What then? What’s this got to do with you? Exactly the same principle holds for the Vestry of Palmer Memorial Church. And it holds for this congregation: we all are called to become, over time, in a covenant of faith and love, the people of God Christ is calling us to be.

We are celebrating a new ministry for Neil among you tonight. It will be a new and renewed ministry tomorrow morning, and new every day after that. God says,

Behold, I make all things new.

And God, being Church of England, says it just like that.


Now comes the interesting bit. We priests may, up to a point, choose the place where we may exercise our ministry: we may choose a parish or be chosen by a parish, and move about in space from diocese to diocese, from church to church, but what we are not free to choose is the unique time in which we are called to serve our Lord. Our God is the creator of time and space: the historical epoch with its unique challenges and threats and yes, moral issues in which we are born and live and have our being, is not ours to choose. Cometh the hour, cometh the man (or woman), we trust. We cannot choose that hour: time is God’s independent variable and time is the fire in which we all burn.

Out there on Highway 59, we are free to choose to speed up (except in rush hour), or slow down, or to overtake another car, or to slip off onto an exit ramp.


We move into God’s future at one second per second. Never faster than anyone else, never slower: we may never stop. We move into God’s future at exactly one second per second.

Christ calls us to become his people in holy covenant, a church community. That’s what Christ is creating here, this evening. But our common growth into fruition takes time. Isn’t that a breath-taking thought? The fresh, exciting wind from God’s future is already blowing in our faces, full of strange and wonderful fragrances. God’s future: that’s where we are all going. All must go: there is no turning back. It’s probably best not to walk into God’s future looking backwards into the dusty past.

Now it’s time to go forward and get down to work! New Ministry, like Old Ministry, is worth celebrating tonight. It will still be worth celebrating, together, in the weeks and months and years to come, even as it lurches and swoops and soars and goes into a spin and is, at times, frankly all a bit much. We are all in it for the long haul. Christ tells us, calls us, appoints us to go wherever we go in space: but Christ calls us to go where we must in time: forward.

Although Neil’s name is on the Order of Service, this celebration is for a shared ministry in the Spirit. Therefore, there is one more matter to address.


Neil’s call to this ministry has been affirmed by Bishop Doyle and by the Vestry. But just before Neil saddles up and gallops off in all directions at once, as you might like him to do, we need to pause.

Terribly difficult, this galloping off in all directions at once, by the way. Tried it myself once. Complete disaster.

That’s why I would just like to pass along a piece of the best advice I have ever been given.

By an Anglican nun: a Mother Superior in fact, the formidable Mother Mary Clare of the Sisters of the Love of God in Oxford.

I was a frantically-busy new priest but also trying to make a success of a new academic appointment as a Professor. So, I showed up at the Convent exhausted, and asked MMC to help me with prayer.

So what did Mother Mary Clare have to offer? What wise words did she say? What might everybody here need to hear her say before life gets too busy in all this new ministry?

She looked at me and smiled, as Mothers Superior do, and said,

You know what you need to do, Kerr? You need just to go and take a spiritual sunbathe in the love of God.

What holy wisdom. Christ is calling us to sabbath rest too: no sabbath rest, no bearing fruit that will abide. When it all becomes too much, remember Mother Mary Clare, and go and take a spiritual sunbathe in the love of God.

Christ will make you, Neil, into the priest Christ is calling you to be and is now and always will be doing so. Any time you need to remember what that should feel like, go and take a spiritual sunbathe in the love of God. You’ll find Christ waiting for you there. Such is the blessing of Eternity.


God bless us all.


Haiku Friday: Picnics

Last week there was a teddy bear themed picnic for our youngest son’s pre-k class. The courtyard at his school was all decked out for this event. It was simply adorable.

Teddy Bear Picnic

Ben with a Teddy BearBen had a great time and brought with him, naturally, a stuffed bear from home to share in the fun. As you can see, pretzels were one of his favorite things to eat at this picnic. But what about you? What kind of foods do you enjoy most at a picnic? Then there’s all the stuff that makes the setting just right — blankets, fancy baskets with nice plates or just a big cooler with Chinet. You also have to decide where to spread out those blankets, and watch out for the ants! So that’s our theme for writing haiku this week — picnics and all the things, both good and bad, associated with them.

Say something about those things in a verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. This is mine:

No deviled eggs at
St. Mark’s teddy bear picnic.
Don’t worry — pretzels!

Haiku Friday: Letters to the Editor

Last month someone in Pearland, Texas, posted a photo on social media that was taken of a woman during a worship service. She asked if the dress the other woman was wearing was appropriate for church. That question not only exploded all over Facebook but was also highlighted on the online version of the Houston Chronicle.


My wife decided to write a letter to the editor about all of this, including the way the Chronicle decided to handle it. Since her letter was never published, I offer it here:

To the Editor of the Chronicle:

I am writing in reference to the article titled “Pearland woman asks if dress is too sexy for church,” which ran on August 27, 2015. The article described a photo which was reportedly taken in a Pearland church and then widely disseminated on social media with a survey about whether the woman who was the subject of the photo was dressed appropriately for church. The woman who shared, and presumably took, the photo, was not the subject in question. Rather, she was asking about someone else’s attire. The article featured the photo in question.

Instead of asking the questions of why this photo was distributed so widely, and why it has captured our collective attention, the Chronicle instead polled its readers about whether the woman’s dress was appropriate church attire.

I see several problems with this approach. Instead of asking the questions of why someone’s dress is appropriate, I would have liked the Chronicle to examine why one worshipper’s attire is important or even relevant to other worshippers’ experience, much less how it might be relevant to your general reading audience. Furthermore, the piece makes the Chronicle an active participant in the shaming culture surrounding women’s dress.

I believe that all people should be welcome in church, regardless of their appearance. I believe that we are made in the image of God. I believe that church should not be a place of shaming or gossip, but a place of inclusion, love, welcome, and peace.

On that note, I invite your readers to come sit by me at church on Sunday, at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. We welcome all, in the name of Jesus, who welcomed the broken, fallen, messy outcasts.

Carrie Willard

I’m proud of Carrie for taking the risk of sharing with others what she believes about the community that gathers in the name of Jesus. It’s not usually what is portrayed in the media or in the loud, angry voices that bully and belittle others.

Maybe you have always wanted to write a letter to the editor about some profound issue or dangerous potholes or even pesky raccoons. This is your chance to express that serious or silly thought in haiku.  Create your one verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Then share it here. Of course, you’re also more than welcome to share your thoughts in either haiku or old fashioned prose about the notion of ecclesiastical fashion police:

They sat with Jesus —
tax collectors and sinners.
He welcomes us still.

Haiku Friday: Remembering 9/11

On September 11, 2001, I lived in Williamsburg, Virginia, and served as an Associate Rector at historic Bruton Parish Episcopal Church. We had our weekly staff meeting that morning and even finished proofing the bulletins before the clergy piled into a car and drove to the house of the college chaplain to watch the news there, hoping that doing so would make us less confused about what was happening. But that was not to be the case, and we saw the rest of the events of that terrible day unfold before us on live television. Perhaps you did too.


Share your own memory here in one verse with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Mine comes from the days that followed 9/11, when there was no commercial air traffic. The silence was eerie. Yet, in a region of the country with a heavy military presence, it wasn’t completely silent:

The skies were empty,
except for Lear jets marked with
stars — the generals.

Texas Tuesday: Boots at Camp Allen

Camp Allen is the camp and conference center for the Episcopal Diocese of Texas and is located about one hour northwest of the City of Houston. The Willards were there over the Labor Day weekend for family camp. For us, that time away included fishing in a lake, a nature hike in the woods, and an amazing presentation about raptors by Houston Audubon. It also included a hayride and . . . cowboy boots!


Haiku Friday: Ice Cream

This morning my wife and I drove together to school with our boys and dropped them off there. On the way back home, we happened to find ourselves behind this Blue Bell Ice Cream delivery truck. Blue Bell has an intense, patriotic-like following here in the Lone Star State. Although not one of the faithful, I admire the devotion.


I shall refrain from reviewing the grim details of the recent unpleasantness that led to approximately 8 million gallons of ice cream from Blue Bell being pulled from the shelves of stores earlier this year. But the company has apparently recovered from that setback, so the great ice cream famine anno Domini 2015 is now over in Texas.

That story of a triumphal reentry into grocery store freezers explains why my wife and I heard others joyfully honking the horns of their vehicles to celebrate Blue Bell and saw them sticking their arms out of the windows of their cars and dramatically waving at the driver of this delivery truck. It was crazy, and it made me smile.

photo 1

Ice cream does that. It brings a smile to the faces of most people. It brings to mind, perhaps, happy memories of childhood and making a mess of things and absolutely delighting in every moment of doing so. I can’t think of a better theme for today’s haiku at the beginning of the weekend that marks the unofficial end of summer. So delight in writing your one verse about ice cream with five syllables in the first line, seven syllables in the second line, and five syllables in the third line. Here’s mine:

Ben smiles and giggles
and paints his face, too, when he
eats chocolate ice cream.

Texas Tuesday: Sermon Text

Below is a larger photo of the same stained glass window that I used to illustrate the sermon “Learning to Pray in Glorious Technicolor.” When I preached that sermon, I pointed to the round stained glass window that’s above the altar at Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church. But this is the one that faces me whenever I sit in the chair of the preacher in the chancel area. I love that because of the quote at the bottom from the end of the thirteenth chapter of First Corinthians: “And now abideth faith, hope, love, these three: but the greatest of these is love.” So the preacher there is never without a sermon text if she or he will only look up to be reminded of those words.


Learning to Pray in Glorious Technicolor

Palmer Memorial Episcopal Church, Houston, Texas
The Reverend Neil Alan Willard, M.Div.
Proper 16, August 23, 2015

“Pray in the Spirit at all times . . . and always persevere in supplication for all the saints.” (Ephesians 6:18)

photo-3I love to come into this church when the sunlight is streaming through these windows, illuminating and intensifying the colors of the stained glass. It’s the vivid red and blue colors that capture my attention. But you’ll notice that it’s mostly the blue stained glass that dominates these scenes. That’s what makes them come alive and ignite our imaginations.

Several years ago I learned something about that color in particular that I’m still trying to comprehend. It turns out that “seeing” blue in the world — thinking about it and talking about it — is something that I take for granted, and so do you. As language evolves in a culture and moves beyond words for black and white, red is without exception the first prismatic color to be named and added to the vocabulary. It’s not only the color of blood but also the easiest color for human beings to create artificially and, therefore, to use in art and design.

419fkMJSuYL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Not so with blue. It’s added much later, if at all, as a language grows and expands. It’s also rare in nature and very difficult to produce. These insights come from Guy Deutscher’s Through the Looking Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages. One of the fascinating stories in that book is about William Gladstone in 1858, at the age of forty-nine, a decade before he would become the prime minister of Great Britain. That’s when his more than seventeen hundred page, three volume study of the poetry of the Iliad and the Odyssey was published.

Gladstone was a man of deep faith for whom the words of Homer, the famous poet of ancient Greece, were the next best thing to the words of the Bible. At the end of his last volume, there’s an odd chapter called “Homer’s perception and use of color.” There Gladstone notes the curious fact that Homer, who was only blind according to legends, refers to the wine-dark sea and violet wool and green honey. But here’s the strangest part. Gladstone also notes that something is missing. He writes that:

Homer had before him the most perfect example of blue. Yet he never once so describes the sky. His sky is starry, or broad, or great, or iron, or copper; but it is never blue.[1]

Blue is also missing in other ancient poetry. In the fall of 1867, an Orthodox Jew and philologist named Lazarus Geiger addressed a gathering of natural scientists in Frankfurt, Germany. He described at one point a remarkable fact about poems from ancient India in Vedic Sanskrit. Listen to one of the things he noticed about them:

These hymns of more than ten thousand lines, are brimming with descriptions of the heavens. Scarcely any subject is evoked more frequently. The sun and reddening dawn’s play of color, cloud and lightening, the air and the ether, all of these are unfolded before us over and over again, in splendor and vivid fullness. But there is only one thing that no one would ever learn from those ancient songs who did not already know it, and that is that the sky is blue.[2]

You and I, and nearly everyone else we know, assume that across the centuries and throughout the world there’s a timeless question a child will eventually ask a parent:

Daddy, Daddy, DA-DEEEEE!

(That’s how our oldest son used to introduce something very, very important.)


Yes, Rowan, I’m listening.

Well, umm, why is the sky blue?


Rowan could ask a question like that because he had been given the words to do so. But it turns out that in many cultures, past and present, blue is merely a shade of black or, more commonly, a shade of green. So that question about the color of the sky isn’t as obvious as we imagine it to be. We learn to talk about color in the world, and that affects the way we see the world and the way we experience it. I know it sounds crazy, but there’s a real sense in which you don’t “see” blue until you have a word for it.

A few minutes ago we heard a passage read from Ephesians, an ancient letter in the New Testament. It doesn’t talk about the color blue or any other color of the rainbow. But, like Homer, it does use language in an odd way that might be confusing. This passage borrows an image — the warrior garb of a Roman soldier — that would have been very familiar to the people who first heard these words in the first century. Ephesians uses that image as a metaphor for the Christian life in the midst of a hostile world. It’s an ironic use of language in which the hostility of the world is met with the gospel of peace.

We’re able to do this as Christians, not in the power of the soldier’s master, the Roman Emperor, but in the power of our master, the Lord Jesus Christ. One uses force to maintain a human empire, while the other uses love to extend a divine kingdom. And this is where we come to learn the language whose words brightly color that kingdom. One of the most important things we’re asked to do, through the strength of Christ’s presence, is to pray. We are to pray constantly, not only for ourselves but for “all the saints,” for all of you here today, for sisters and brothers in Christ throughout the world. Learning to pray in glorious Technicolor, however, doesn’t always happen in the life of a Christian the way that we think it does.

%22Color by Technicolor%22One night in the middle of a very cold Minnesota winter, when Rowan was three years old, my wife and I were sitting in the room next to his bedroom, and we heard him recite the Lord’s Prayer. Now I know what you’re thinking: He’s the son of a priest, so what’s the big deal about the fact that he knew the words of the Lord’s Prayer. The big deal is the fact that, at the time, we hadn’t taught him those words. He learned them in the pews of my last church, while supposedly “not paying attention” in worship. That’s where he overheard the language of love and began to see the world differently, in its full color. Now he and his little brother overhear that same language of love together in these pews. It will change the way they see things.

%22Not Paying Attention%22

Here’s how the pastor and poet Eugene Peterson explains that. He writes:

Unselfconsciously we acquire fluency in our mother tongue long before we enter a school, simply by being talked to and talking with our parents and siblings and the neighborhood children. When we keep company with Moses and his stories, David and his psalms, the preaching of Isaiah, our Lord himself in his parables and prayers, pastors and priests who lead us in the church’s common worship, singing hymns with Wesley and Watts, we are praying and learning to pray even when we aren’t aware of it.

. . . We are in a community, these baptized men and women, “the saints” whose names we know, brothers and sisters in Christ. Human relationships require alert and persevering maintenance. Begin with these saints, the people that in Christ you have the most in common with, and then move outwards. That many of them don’t behave or look the way we think saints should is no concern of ours. They are saints by virtue of the way God looks on and treats them.[3]

And that’s what happens here at Palmer as young and old alike are baptized in this font. We look on them as God looks at them. We call them saints and pray for them constantly to see in the world the brilliant colors of the glory of God. My hope is that you’ll also see in this world those those brilliant colors . . . today.


BACK TO POST William Gladstone, Studies on Homer and the Homeric Age, quoted by Guy Deutscher, Through the Looking Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (New York: Picador, 2010) 34.

BACK TO POST Lazarus Geiger, “On the Color Sense in Primitive Times and Its Evolution,” quoted by Guy Deutscher, Through the Looking Glass: Why the World Looks Different in Other Languages (New York: Picador, 2010) 42-43.

BACK TO POST Eugene H. Peterson, Practice Resurrection: A Conversation on Growing Up in Christ (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2010) 267.