Lord's Prayer altar

Sermon: (The Lord’s) Prayer

Proper 12

Hosea 1:2-10; Psalm 85; Colossians 2:6-15, (16-19); Luke 11:1-13

I spent most of the last week in Alexandria wrapping up my formal employment at Virginia Seminary. Among the many joys of being with my colleagues one last time was learning that a book project I’d been rooting for is moving forward.

The book is a biography of one of my spiritual role models, a brilliant and holy man named Mark Dyer. Bishop Mark dined with kings and lived in monasteries and studied obscure theologians. But he was also, as they say, the kind of guy you could have a beer with.

Bishop Mark was incredibly kind but not afraid to let you know he disagreed with you. He was “in love with the life” of Benedictine religious community, but he was still excited by the prospect of a visit to Universal’s Harry Potter theme park.

And over the course of maybe ten conversations, he taught me more about Christian living than probably anyone except my parents.

Like all great spiritual teachers, Bishop Dyer knew how to help people cut through the clutter of their life to address the things that really matter. He told me that he spent his life trying to convince people that Christianity and especially prayer should be simple.

Not easy. But simple.

I think of Bishop Mark and of this point when I hear passages of scripture like today’s reading from Luke’s gospel. “Lord, teach us to pray,” a disciple asks. That sounds like the kind of complicated question you better buckle in for.

Yet Jesus’s primary answer is just 42 words:

When you pray, say: ‘Father, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come. Give us each day our daily bread. And forgive us our sins, for we ourselves forgive everyone indebted to us. And do not bring us to the time of trial.’

Besides advice on prayer, this is simple, direct, concrete theology. Jesus tells us we should address God as someone who will care for us, someone who wants a relationship. He reminds us that this God is holy and is actively working to bring about a better world.

He challenges us to depend on God for our needs—especially the daily inspiration to choose reconciled life with our neighbor. And he gives us permission to be honest about the fears we face.

That’s it. Nothing about how often to pray or for how long. Nothing much about fancy prayer techniques or precise formulas. Nothing about what happens if we don’t do it, nor much about what happens if we do. Though he does tell us in parables that God will listen and respond by giving the good gifts we ask for.

Indeed, if Bishop Mark were here, I think he’d tell us it’s no coincidence that the only real commentary in this passage involves this issue of being honest with God and ourselves about what we want and need.

I love Jesus’s first illustration: a friend knocks on our window late at night and shouts in that he needs to borrow some bread. “Sorry dude! Kids are in bed, candles are out, not gonna happen.”

But Jesus knows what we know: we’re not gonna leave our friend hanging, especially if that friend is persistent about it.

God won’t leave us hanging either. We don’t know what form our answered prayers will take, but we can be sure that God is listening and will respond, even if that response is just the strength to make it through another day. I think the more honest we are about our needs, the more likely we are to notice when God answers our prayers.

I remember seeing Mark after a long and painful summer. I told him about the poor decisions I’d made and all the bad habits I’d fallen into. “How’s your prayer life?” he asked. I gave him some answer that basically boiled down to “it’s complicated,” and his reply was that it shouldn’t be.

“Your first prayer in the morning should be for yourself,” he said. “Tell God how you’re feeling and what you want. Don’t hold anything back. Think about the psalms—the people who offered those prayers didn’t withhold a single negative thought. God is big enough to handle whatever anger or sadness or fear you might be dealing with.” God is big enough to handle it.

At a time when negative feelings seem to drive our public discourse, I can’t help but wonder how different our world might be if we first brought our anger, sadness, and fear to our discourse with God.

I think this simple and honest approach to prayer gets to the core of why we do it in the first place. We shouldn’t pray because we think it’s our duty. We shouldn’t pray because we think God wants to be buttered up before responding to our pleas.

We should pray to consciously invite God into our lives. Whatever else we add, it should help us feel close to God, dependent on God, loved by God. The living Christ is already pleased to live within you by the power of the Holy Spirit. Prayer should help you remember and celebrate this reality.

I know this passage is about the Lord’s Prayer, but let me tell one last story about Bishop Mark and the psalms.

“When you’re reading the psalms,” he said, “just stop when you hear that verse where God seems to be speaking right to you, right in the place where you are today. Wherever it connects, just stop and sit with it, even if you’re praying in church.”

He told me that he’d at first had a problem with this advice when he received it from his novice master, the senior monk supervising his formation: “But what if we all stopped at the same time when we’re singing the psalm together?” Mark asked. His master replied, “Oh, wouldn’t that be wonderful.”

The final measure of our prayers isn’t their beauty or their length or even their regularity. It’s their ability to bring us close to God, to make God real for us wherever we are, present in and among the many real challenges we face each day.

Honesty and vulnerability are all that’s required. Words? Very much optional. But especially on the days when you’re at a loss for them, remember Jesus taught us a simple prayer that has everything we need.

Photo credit: “Lord’s Prayer” by Ryan Stavely via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Stained glass image

Starting grad school (and a newsletter)

Pentecost feels like a good day to announce what I believe has been a Spirit-led discernment process:

In September, I will start full-time Ed.D. studies (that’s doctorate in education) in the Communications, Media, & Learning Technologies Design Program at Teachers College, Columbia University. I’ll miss being the digital missioner in the CMT@VTS, but I look forward to ongoing collaboration on several e-Formation initiatives.

There are too many people to thank for me to even make a go of it here. But I can’t not mention the person who envisioned and nurtured this vocation the last four years: Lisa Kimball. To say I couldn’t have done it without her would be an unpardonable understatement. Thanks, boss, for literally everything.

If you want to keep up with what I’m doing and continue to get resource suggestions, e-learning commentary, and of course podcast rhapsodizing, please subscribe to this new newsletter. My ‪#‎vtsdigimin‬ students inspired me to put it together.

I take very seriously my responsibility to share what I’m learning with the church, so don’t be shy with suggestions or requests.

Syrian refugees waiting for a train

Sermon: Imagination and empathy in the season of the Incarnation

Second Sunday after Christmas

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

Audio | Text:

Happy second Sunday after Christmas. The prayer book says we are in the season of the Incarnation, but I prefer to think of these days between Christmas and Epiphany as the season of imagination.

I believe our primary job as disciples is to claim the Christian story as our own, to learn to find our strength and our hope in the great saga of God’s loving relationship with the world. If that’s true, then there is no better time to practice than when we gather around the manger and marvel at the Christ child.

You see, I have a hard time imagining myself in the place of, say, Paul, making courageous and unpopular speeches before hostile crowds and rulers. I make a lousy imaginary Peter, afraid to drop everything and follow a teacher who challenges me to let go.

When I read the story of Jonah running away from God, that one immediately resonates. But my imagination has thus far not been dexterous enough to find a proper analogy to being swallowed and regurgitated by a giant fish.

But it’s Christmas time, and let me tell you I have played this role of a shepherd. I’m 32 years old and don’t have children. That means if you call me up and say you want me to come meet your new baby this weekend, even this evening? I am all in.

Even if we’re not that close, even if you send a messenger instead, the answer is “yes, I would love to stop by and meet your baby.” If it’s OK with you, it’s more than OK with me. Gloria in excelsis. Demos gracias a Dios.

I don’t really mean to be flippant here. When I held my godson at his baptism, I understood that he was not the savior of the world. But holding a baby, even just beholding, especially a newborn? I don’t think there’s any surer route to contemplating the mystery and the miracle of God at work in the world, or of the saving power of love.

I don’t know exactly what it would be like to look at a child in a manger and somehow to know he was God’s only begotten son. But I think I can imagine it, and I think this season is special because we’re invited to try.

Of course, as we all know, imagination is also dangerous, biblical imagination perhaps most of all. Not every story is shepherds keeping watch by night, or calling us each by name, or opening wide the gates of the sheepfold.

And in years when we have two Sundays before Epiphany, we’re forced to grapple with this sad fact faster than you can say “We Three Kings.”

As we heard just a minute ago, our story this morning actually fast forwards slightly: “After the wise men had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.”

So much for “all is calm, all is bright.” Too quickly, this becomes a story of violence in the streets, of fear and bereavement for too many.

Even our fortunate holy family does not get off easy. We can well imagine the impact of their secretive travel to a strange land. On the long road to Egypt, and in the difficult months that followed, I wonder what Mary and Joseph would have thought about. How they made sense of their plight. How those reflections would have shaped their future identity as a family.

We might imagine Joseph thinking about his namesake, the Joseph of the Book of Genesis, who was first left for dead and then sold into slavery before coming to prominence and power in Egypt.

That Joseph was quick to point out how his whole misadventure-turned-deliverance was intended by God for good. Those parallels could have been some comfort to a young refugee couple doing the best they could for their son.

Turning back to the text, we notice even the family’s return is plagued by uncertainty and displacement. Because of still another unjust leader taking power and best avoided, the family receives another dream, sets off on another journey, and settles not in Judea, as they seem to have planned, but in Galilee.

Luke tells this story differently, of course, and we’ll never know how things really went down for the holy family. But whether or not they spent time as refugees in Egypt, they seem, like many poor people, to have had some kind of itinerant existence, an existence these gospel authors are trying to get us thinking about.

And if we let our imaginations continue to doodle in between the lines of their narratives, it isn’t hard to picture these experiences as fundamental building blocks of Jesus’ later character and teachings.

I wonder, might the story of a family encounter on the dangerous road have served as a kind of experiential first draft for Jesus’s parable of the Good Samaritan?

I wonder, might growing up in a family with a refugee consciousness have opened Jesus to the kinds of socially transgressive exchanges he was always having—with foreigners, with single women, with children?

I wonder, might that same ethos have set Jesus on his own wandering, itinerant path? After all, he could have become a more place-bound guru like John the Baptist, or a refined city slicker like Paul. He seems to have preferred the road.

I wonder if distant memories of hunger on the road might have made Jesus the teacher of crowds all the more insistent on feeding them before their long journeys home.

Here’s what I’m getting at: Might we imagine today that Jesus’ family experience shaped his imagination, his ability to look with love and compassion on those he met? And might we use this occasion for committing ourselves to that same empathetic curiosity and caring?

The year we have just begun will be another year of grappling with how to welcome the stranger, how to offer safe refuge and generous hospitality to those who, like Mary and Joseph, fled terrifying violence and now seek a safe and humane place to raise their children.

We live in New York City, and this is an election year, and the violence in places like Syria, El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala shows no signs of stopping. The question isn’t going away just because it resists easy answers.

What I do know is this: the power of imagination is essential to our flourishing together.

We might begin by imagining ourselves in Mary and Joseph’s shoes, or what passed for shoes in their time. With God’s help, we might continue by imagining ourselves in an overloaded ship on dangerous waters, or what will pass for a ship when the reality at home becomes sufficiently terrifying.

With God’s help, we might learn about the work of those already serving refugees here and abroad, like Episcopal Migration Ministries and the UN Refugee Agency. We might explore where we fit into this important work.

Most audaciously of all, we might imagine that a tiny baby in Bethlehem two thousand years ago has the power to inspire us to loving actions large and small, including actions that make life a little more bearable for families like his.

Image credit: Syrian Refugees in Vienna by Josh Zakary via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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#DigiWriMo post: One world, one life in The Digital Cathedral

I’m participating, as I’m able, in Digital Writing Month (#DigiWriMo). Drafting some sections for an upcoming book chapter (with Lisa Kimball) on digital media for ministry felt like a great way to honor the spirit of that endeavor and still get some work done.

In other words: this is a draft.

Allow me to make a bold prediction. When practical theologians interested in ministry and technology look back on the first few decades of the twenty-first century, they will talk about the time before and the time after Keith Anderson’s The Digital Cathedral: Networked Ministry in a Wireless World.

In this 2015 collection of ministry field reporting, Anderson developed a compelling and relevant metaphor to elucidate the following principle:

Digital spaces and practices infuse or supplement physical spaces and practices.

Anderson was certainly not the first or only digital ministry practitioner to free us from the paradigm of “virtual” ministry in a separate “cyberspace.” Meredith Gould dedicated a chapter to the subject in her 2013 Social Media Gospel helpfully titled “Virtual Community Is Real Community” (ch. 6). And before that, Elizabeth Drescher’s analysis of our modern cultural “habitus” in Tweet If You ♥ Jesus stressed that our patterns of life use technology to integrate, rather than separate, the various spheres of our lives.

So this non-binary conception was already instilled among those active in conversations about digital media ministry. What’s so helpful about Digital Cathedral is that it teaches this idea with an appeal to a deeply entrenched and familiar community ministry model: the cathedral.

A cathedral is connected to its neighborhood or village by an intricate and essential web of relational, cultural, and physical connections. Cathedrals blur the line between member and non-member, believer and non-believer, sacred and secular. Cathedrals offer a very old and very flexible way of being church, a way of being church that will become more and more essential as the cultural patterns created by the Baby Boom (which gave birth to the “program” era of church) continue to wane. Cathedrals create a public space for honest theological reflection and conversation. So does the Web.

Anderson’s point is that technology allows us to live as ministers in a way that more closely resembles the patterns of a cathedral canon than it does the role of pastor/chaplain/program manager/cruise director to a discrete congregation. Integrating digital practices allow us to be more public, present, playful ministers. [This needs to be fleshed out better.]

In other words, The Digital Cathedral invited us into an era in which we think less about the technology and more about the ministry. We have a long way to go. Hence chapters (here: blog posts) like this one.

Man with 3D printer

Learning from libraries

There’s a great article in the New York Times today about public libraries retooling as “stuff-braries,” places to learn the guitar, borrow some snow shoes, or connect to a 3D printer.

As per usual with such articles, I found it hard to not read the whole thing by substituting “libraries” with “churches” and considering the implications. Consider this sentence:

“[Libraries] realized that the way you best serve your community is to look like them,” Professor Lankes said. “For some, that means 3-D printers. For others, it means fishing rods.”

Or this one:

The economic downturn forced many public libraries, especially in urban areas, to close branches, curtail hours and cut staff even as demand for their services by job seekers increased. To make up the difference, many libraries turned to foundations, private donors, friend groups and corporations for support.

Or this one:

The move toward electronic content has given us an opportunity to re-evaluate our physical spaces and enhance our role as a community hub.

What can churches learn from libraries, especially as both aging cornerstones of American institutional life make sense of, and common cause with, the Maker Movement?

Read the whole thing here.

Image credit: “Fab Lab Exeter Library” by Devon Libraries via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0).

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Simple DIY standing desk specs

Online and off-, a couple people have asked about my simple DIY standing desk setup in our new apartment. I thought maybe the most efficient way to answer the questions would be to share here how I did it.

My main criterion was that I didn’t want to commit to always standing. So whatever was to bring my computer(s) up to “elbows perpendicular” height, it needed to be lightweight and flexible.

I spent a lot of time at IKEA. What I came up with was a shoe rack. I didn’t know that’s what it was until I read the tag, but apparently this thing is very recognizable as a shoe rack. So if that bothers you, well, there’s that.

Anyway, I love it. I put a clipboard next to the computer to give myself a place to write, set my water bottle, etc. I hate clutter, so I rarely use the second shelf, but I can imagine it being useful at some point, for books or whatever. Also, I think this solution is more permeable to the breeze from my fan (on top of plastic drawers next to the desk) than a traditional shelf would be. Bonus.

(Obviously, all this begs a question about whether an object of the supplemental shelf’s/rack’s height, plus the height of the desk, will bring the keyboard to the right height for your body. Bring a tape measure and a schematic of your existing desk with you.

Here again is a link to a helpful diagram from Fast Company. Notice that a USB keyboard on the shoe rack connected to the “mantel” computer [see below] would get the elbow angle and the neck angle about right. I should probably get on that.)

The challenge then was getting all the stuff that was formerly at the back of my desk, stuff I wanted to actually look at or have easy access to, to somewhere where I could still see/grab them while standing with the shoe rack in place. For that I used a single long shelf (and brackets) like a mantel, plus a couple of those square-ish mini-shelves (upper left, lower right). Yes, the latter are a pain to install.

The last touch was a couple work lamps to improve video recording and conference call lighting. With really bright bulbs it gets a little hot, so again, I’m grateful for the fan-permeable setup. You can see two in the photo, and I have a third clamped to the futon behind me to get a little three-point lighting effect. (I realize now that I should have turned that one on for the photo above.)

A great unanticipated side effect of this setup is that the second computer up on the mantel is at a good angle for participating in web calls or shooting videos using QuickTime on the MacBook.  Usually I open up email, a music player, etc. on that machine, so I’m less tempted to putz with them. And again, if you look at the Fast Company illustration, that height is apparently where your monitor should be anyway.

Oh, and I stand on a chair pad. I hear there are fancy mats you can get too.

Here’s a shopping list for everything but the desk itself. Total cost, including the three sets of lamps and bulbs, is $123.77. Without them it’s $66.95.

Shopping List (or on Pinterest)

*For some reason, Google took me to the page for IKEA Kuwait for this one, so you’ll see if you follow the link that this shelf costs 6 Kuwaiti Dinar.

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St. Peter's VBS

Moses says: Learn by (re)living

Proper 17, Year B

(Deuteronomy 4:1-2, 6-9; Psalm 15; James 1:17-27; Mark 7:1-8, 14-15, 21-23)

Preached at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church in the Bronx on August 30, 2105.

Audio | Text:

It’s Friday evening at about 6:10 pm. We’ve reached the play’s penultimate scene, which apparently not all of the cast has seen.

“Fr. Kyle, is that a llama?” a girl of six or seven asks me.

“Well, Zury, I think it’s supposed to be the golden calf, but it looks like a llama to me.”

If I’m also looking a little shaggy and haggard to you this morning, it’s because I’ve been in the desert all week, just like that golden calf. I’ve been helping with a Vacation Bible School aka VBS, and our story was, as you might have figured, the life of Moses.

My wife is the new curate at St. Peter’s in Port Chester, and taking the lead on el Campamento Biblico de Verano was one of her first big projects. And as it happens, my day job is at a seminary teaching and learning resource center, and one of our specialties is supporting VBS planning for congregations all over the country.

So my boss gave me permission to go on what I started calling a “VBS ridealong,” a chance to help out, observe, and take a few craft and game ideas through “play testing” in a real congregation.

To be honest, I was a little nervous at first about our theme. We had a very wide range of ages, as well as wide variation in the language skills and preferences of both participants and volunteers.

I didn’t relish the thought of describing some of the more grisly Plagues of Egypt to a six-year-old, or trying to do so in my still laughably basic Spanish. One prominent VBS leader says that the theme of any such program is “I love you and God loves you and that’s the way it should be.”

So I figured we’d have some explaining to do regarding, in order of appearance, Hebrew infants thrown in the Nile, the plague of the the firstborn, and dead Egyptians on the Red Sea shore. This story has a lot of unlovely details.

But it’s safe to say that I was very wrong. Yes, there are ways to tell the story with integrity to a child of any age, and, yes, our tendency to over-sanitize the Bible does more harm than good. But to understand what really brought me around on teaching Moses at VBS, we should have a listen once again to Moses’ words for us on this, the 14th Sunday after Pentecost.

In the opening chapters of the Book of Deuteronomy, Moses is reminding his fellow Hebrews how far they have made it: from slaves in Egypt to fugitives on the run, from wanderers in the desert to receivers of the law to—almost immediately—transgressors of that law. And did he mention wanderers in the desert?

And now, finally, forty years later, they are preparing to become inheritors of God’s promised gift to Abraham: the land of Canaan, a place to build houses and plant crops and live a settled life with countless offspring. Indeed, part of the reason for this Deutero-nomion, this second book of law, is that the people would now need guidelines that governed an entirely different lifestyle and pattern of relationship with God, self, neighbor, and the environment.

But notice that Moses isn’t here obsessing over new rules or old ones. Sure, he’s reminding the people to follow those rules, but he’s more concerned with the story of how his people received them and what they mean:

You must observe them diligently, [he says,] for this will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people!’ For what other great nation has a god so near to it as the LORD our God is whenever we call to him?

Here the law is a sign of God’s covenant with the people, of God’s closeness to them. This is Torah: God’s direction, God’s instruction. And not primarily because punishment will be doled out to transgressors but because these teachings are designed to foster justice and mercy and most importantly the giving and receiving of love.

Now here’s the really cool part. Moses continues,

take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children.

He says don’t forget the things that your eyes have seen. Not: don’t forget what you’ve been told.

So in his final pep talk, Moses is saying “Take particular care to remember what we’ve been through.” He knows that that will be Israel’s best hope: not to be mere keepers of the law but to be stewards of the story, the story they lived together as a people.

If you’ve been fortunate enough to attend a Passover Seder, you’ll recognize this principle immediately.

Why do we eat the Matzah? participants ask. Why do we eat the bitter herbs? Because our people left Egypt in a hurry, before their bread could rise. Because the lives of our people were made bitter at the hands of Pharaoh.

The experience of eating and drinking and praying and singing along with the story is an attempt to capture it in its fullness years later, to tie its contours to sensations and circumstances that are accessible to us today.

And that’s what experiences like Vacation Bible School or camping ministries are so good at. They immerse us in the story in ways we will never forget. Moses knows how important that immersion is, so it seems fitting to borrow his teaching style to tell his story.

This week we touched the desert sand and sang “Go Down, Moses” and pretended to be the frogs of the second plague and raced to make bricks for Pharaoh’s building projects and, because we couldn’t resist, brought marshmallow hailstones down on those same buildings with homemade catapults. (That’s plague #7 if you’re keeping score in your pews.)

On Friday I even realized that our portable water slide and ice cream day were basically the promised land.

To borrow the well-known phrase from today’s Epistle lesson, this kind of teaching and learning made the people of that St. Peter’s “doers of the word, and not merely hearers.”

Now, I haven’t had the pleasure of spending an intensive week getting to know this St. Peter’s. But just a glance at your website shows me that you practice many hands-on ministries that help teach members and neighbors of any age that “you love them and that God loves them and that that’s the way it should be.”

We can say it until we’re blue in the face, but it’s ministries like your Love Ktichen, Love Closet, Love Pantry, and Cephas Arts Program that make this love incarnate, that help us see and serve the Christ in one another.

So here’s my challenge for you … and for me as well. In the so-called “program year” ahead, let’s be on the lookout for even more chances to bring to life the captivating story that is the love of Jesus Christ set loose in the world.

Maybe that means more hands-on, active learning in our Christian formation gatherings and experiences. Maybe that means volunteering in an outreach program if it’s been a while for you, or seeking out a new way to serve. Maybe that means telling someone a part of your faith story, and showing them how that story is shaping your life in concrete ways.

As Franciscan Richard Rohr put it in his email meditation this week, quoting Pope Paul VI, “The world will no longer believe teachers unless they are first of all witnesses.” I think that’s basically what Moses is telling us today.

“Take care and watch yourselves closely, so as neither to forget the things that your eyes have seen nor to let them slip from your mind all the days of your life; make them known to your children and your children’s children,” and, I hasten to add, to everyone one you meet.

How and Why

How & Why: Big questions in the spiritual life

Proper 15, Year B

(Proverbs 9:1-6; Psalm 34:9-14; Ephesians 5:15-20; John 6:51-58)

Audio | Text:

I’m an engineer by training, which means I’m fascinated by how things work. HOW can be a big question, a noble question. HOW can set us at fascinating tasks, send us on great quests.

It can also really mess up a pleasant afternoon. If you’ve ever walked into a room in horror to find that your child, significant other, or coworker has taken something intricate apart—something you probably needed—you may have had an encounter with the implacable pull of HOW.

We are fascinated, many of us, with interconnections, mechanisms, lines of reasoning. The world is held together by these pieces and processes, and our God-given curiosity tells us there’s an underlying structure to it all and that to know that reason is, perhaps, in a small way, to know the mind of its Creator and Sustainer.

**

Of course, HOW can be a dangerous question. I’m a fan of science fiction and fantasy, and in these genres HOW is a tightrope. On the one hand, many of us are drawn to these stories because we want to know how these worlds work. The HBO series Game of Thrones and especially the books on which it’s based keep many of us riveted because they let us examine how the webs of influence in Westeros respond when one link in the political machine is strained, or cut, or removed altogether.

On the other hand, HOW can also be a distraction, or even a travesty. If you’re looking forward to the next round of Star Wars movies, you’re probably hoping for a little less HOW than in the much-maligned prequel of the early 2000s. I’m thinking in particular of the film’s relationship with “the Force,” the mystical energy that binds the Star Wars universe together and gives the Skywalkers their power.

I won’t bore you with the details if you don’t know them already, but the prequels reduced the power to control “the Force” to a simple blood test. The boy who would become Luke’s father had a count of little Force bacteria that was off the chart, apparently. And so to be selected as a Jedi Knight became not a matter of mystical discernment but basically a box that might be checked by the technician at the interstellar Lab Corps.

The point is, Star Wars fans’ questions about the Force are not HOW questions. They’re WHY questions: Why did Luke’s father turn from good to evil? Why does the Force seem to desire a kind of balance between light and darkness, good and evil? And, perhaps, why does the Force exist at all?

**

Jesus is a master of turning us toward the WHY. Many of the moments when he brings his opponents up short—or brings us up short—come from his keen insight about the WHY of a given situation. He knows that the person asking HOW is usually trying to justify himself, or trap Jesus in an intenable position, or turn a complex issue simple, or a simple one complex.

We see a typical example of this phenomenon when Jesus encounters the learned religious leaders in today’s passage. He’s claiming to be “the living bread that came down from heaven,” and they understandably want to know: “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?”

After all, it’s an audacious claim: eternal life bestowed, and the indwelling of one spirit in another. It’s also a truly strange one. It doesn’t add up for these anxious onlookers. They don’t see how it would work, or why they’d want it to, this eating of Jesus’ body. Which is fair enough, but also not the point.

Rather than even engage with their HOW-oriented thinking, Jesus keeps right on going with his teaching about WHY: “Those who eat my flesh and drink my blood have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day.” It’s like he’s saying “don’t ask how, just *think* of it, for a moment, what I’m offering.

As we’ve been exploring in the gospel readings these past few weeks, Jesus’ discourses on the Bread of Life are about who he is, who God is, how we depend on God, what God wants for us. They’re about the gift of grace, and the means of human flourishing. They’re not a HOW-to manual. They’re parables of WHY.

Why eat? Why follow? Why serve? Why love? These are the questions that animate our lives, and Jesus knows what we seldom admit to ourselves: that we get so bogged down in *how* to do these things that we lose touch with the reasons why we even embarked on the journey.

Or maybe we use our anxiety about how as an excuse not to ask why in the first place. Perhaps in a work meeting, or even a vestry meeting, you’ve seen a skeptical colleague shoot down an important idea with this often toxic question: “But how would that actually work?”

The worst is when it’s not even a question. The phrase “I don’t see how that would work” has an air of finality, especially when it comes from someone in power. Which is why it’s all the more remarkable that Jesus stood up so often and so successfully to the HOWs of the authorities.

**

Now, they’d revoke my engineer’s card if I stood up here and told you HOW wasn’t important. And I hope also my priest card as well.

Practicalities, matter. Jesus was a man of action as much as of reflection. God wants us not only to think big thoughts and dream big dreams but, as we prayed today in our collect, “to follow daily in the blessed steps of [Christ’s] most holy life.” We have to walk the walk, and that means knowing and taking the steps we need.

All this has led me to believe that WHY and HOW are inextricably linked in the life of the Spirit. Perhaps Jesus is always asking us WHY because it’s easier for us to see God there. But God is just as present in the HOW.

A marriage is a leap of faith where we trust that the importance of the WHY will provide the HOW when we need it, that this love we have been given will abide amid the inevitable challenges and setbacks and it will be enough. The same goes for the choice of a field of study. Or a move to a new job or a new home.

A good friend of mine recently reminded me of the full extent of the connection between WHY and HOW in what feels, in my life at the moment, like a final frontier. That, of course, would be having kids.

I see so many friends whose lives seem to have been totally undone by the challenges of children: sleepless nights, cancelled vacations, trips to the emergency room. My knee-jerk annoyance at every potential nice dinner out that needs to be changed to a picnic lunch with rotating playground duty confronts me with an overwhelming sense of my own selfishness. I wonder HOW I will ever be up to this sacred duty.

Without my even asking the question, during a recent visit my friend Becky, one of those new parents, answered it:

I just didn’t know it was possible to have SO. MUCH. LOVE.

HOW turned out to have the same answer as WHY.

Perhaps the way of wisdom is little more than integrating these two questions, coming to trust our experiences of a savior who calls us to be with him (there’s the why) and then nourishes us throughout the journey (that’s the how).

So the next time Jesus throws the pharisees, or you, a curveball made of WHY, or you’re tempted to shoot down someone’s big idea with a hostile HOW, remember that in the issues that matter, the answers to these questions converge in a synthesis only God could orchestrate.

When a task seems too daunting, or a truth too strange or even too wonderful, like the flesh of a savior offering eternal life, remember this simple Q & A.

How? By the gift of grace. Why? Always, ultimately, for love.

Image credit: “How and Why” by Roadsidepictures via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

 

Clay bible figures

Sunday school students should be making things

The pro position of today’s Key Resources Point/Counterpoint gets to the core of my concerns about traditional Sunday school models:

My own education prioritized hands-on, project-based, interdisciplinary, student-empowered learning.

 

I wrote jingles and parodies as a participant in Odyssey of the Mind and Destination Imagination, months-long creative problem-solving competitions. I built towers and trebuchets out of nothing but ropes and poles as a Boy Scout.

 

I performed music and theater and produced big events as a member of garage bands and pit orchestras and student play festival teams. And I helped create monthly newspapers and a yearly literary magazine as a well-mentored student journalist.

 

At the same time all that was happening, and especially in the later years of it, my church was encouraging me to learn like this: by sitting in a room and talking.

Read the whole thing here.

Image credit: “Godly Play Resurrected” by Claire via Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Phineas and Ferb screenshot

Phineas and Ferb and other fictional creators

I’m still only a few episodes in, but I’m finding Luke Harrington’s observations about Phineas and Ferb to be right on the money. The show really does get at the jubilant and often frenetic spirit of creating things:

It’s not uncommon for the end of conflict to spell the end of a show’s appeal. (How many TV series have been killed dead when their central will-they-or-won’t-they couple finally got together?) But the opposite proved true with Phineas and Ferb: the more innocent and wide-eyed the show became, the more I found myself yearning to return to the Flynn-Fletchers’ backyard.

(Read more on Christ & Pop Culture. Hat tip to Wendy Barrie and Charlotte Greeson for the link.)

It’s ultimately kind of audacious to want to make things, especially on your own or on a small team. You have to have a little wide-eyed innocence, I think.

Are there other characters that capture for you something essential about the nature of the creative process?

Many of the characters in Sports Night come to mind for me, and I particular love William H. Macy’s pivotal “glass tubes” speech about being a role-player.

I also think this question is what animates some of the best scenes in music biopics, even if they’re probably more fiction than fact. (The scene in Ray, where Charles supposedly writes “What’d I Say?” on the spot is a great example.)

What fictional creators/creations inspire you?