Friday, December 2, 2016

Between-the-Bayous Musings

The first week of Advent brought the celebration of 6 years of St. Mark's Between-the-Bayous, and a farewell to the weekly worship life of that community. As I wrote on their Facebook event for that celebration, the life of that church shaped me and my ministry, it taught me to be out in the community. I couldn't be at that particular celebration because Trinity by the Sea was doing a labyrinth on the beach.

I probably should have written and posted this blog last week, before the big celebration, but this week will have to do.

After meeting for about 6 months for conversation, planning, searching for a place to meet, St. Mark's Between the Bayous had it's first night of Eucharistic worship at Block 7, a wine bar and restaurant near the intersection of Washington Ave and Shepherd St in Houston, TX. Pittman McGehee, Sr. was a big part of those early conversations, and his book the Invisible Church remains an important text in my learning about spirituality. We imagined what a local, organic, and sustainable Episcopal community would look like. How could local artists and musicians help us to bring new life and deeper understanding of the story and mystery of the church as we received them? We sought to be a community that invited people into conversation, and shared Christ's love, rather than one that sought to enforce right doctrine and dogma of the church. We hoped to move toward the experience and trust side of belief, rather than thinking of belief as agreeing with a set of statements.

With a chalice and locally made bread, the Bible, and handful of songs we'd learned or written, we launched. We had the perfect location in a growing and changing neighborhood in Houston. We bought a glass of port, and had our first worship service wiht about 45 people who wanted to be there to support the launch. Then we got kicked out. There was a miscommunication between the owners, so we were even more nomadic than we even thought we would be. We sought to use borrowed or rented space, and when we lost our perfect spot, we received the grace of hospitality from Roni McMurtrey. She invited us to use her gallery as a temporary location. There we got to interact with new art each month. There my son Eli was baptized with his Bayou buddy Samuel (immersed in a 5 gallon tub that sometimes held beer, but that night held the waters of baptism.) At McMurtrey gallery,
we developed our worship style learning from other communities like St Gregory's, San Francisco, and St. Lydia's, New York City. We used paperless music, gathered and developed by All Saints' Company, and even hosted a couple of their Music that Makes Community events. It fit well with our simple style, focused on conversation between people, rather than focus on a text. We used the ordering of worship from the Book of Common prayer, rather than reading directly from it. From the Order for Celebrating Eucharist, we developed seven phases of our worship: Gather, Center, Reflect, Offer, Feast, Respond, Send-out. While McMurtrey gallery was not in the neighborhood we were targeting, it was a great incubator for us.

We found a more permanent residence at MECA, Multicultural Education and Counseling through the Arts. We rented an old classroom there, and started to find ways to connect with our neighborhood. Through this time, the BtB was completely funded through St. Mark's. While at MECA, I started exploring fundraising outside the church to help support the community. Our first Good Friday at MECA, we did a tree planting in collaboration with Trees for Houston, and in the process of planting new life, discovered an old root-base that was left-over from Hurricane Ike. We asked if we could make something out of it, and with Murray Powell's and Marvin --- 's expertise in woodworking, cut out a beautiful altar with a simple glass top. Our altar was a new living symbol for the community. It was the tree of life. It rooted us in the Ground of Being. The first week of having a glass top, I noticed condensation gathering. Though it looked dead, it was still living, breathing out moisture.

Liberty Station was a pub near MECA, and that became a place we met for a monthly movie night,
and occasionally had worship there. The owner Charles Bishop was welcoming, and it was another step in getting connected with our neighborhood. During this time, we also collaborated with Houston Baptist University to do a film series at MECA. We also collaborated wiht a Comedy Improv group. Our schedules didn't overlap, and they helped with the rent. A win-win. With that relatively new partnership, we started looking for a more visible location--MECA was tucked back in the neighborhood, and we wanted to be in more prominent location. In 2012, I moved to Port Aransas to be the vicar of Trinity by the Sea, and Eric Hungerford became the priest missioner of St. Mark's to work with BtB.

My time there taught me about inviting people to share their gifts as part of worship and otherwise. It taught me about welcoming people into a community, and blessing them on their way. It taught me about being out in the community, and to think creatively about how and where church meets. It was also, I realize now, a time of discernment for me. Eli was born not long after we started worshipping, and he certainly changed my perspective. Some deep stirring in my soul began to shake me loose, and led me to Port Aransas. It led me to move out and try fundraising; it led me to commit to leave St. Mark's. It even led me to turn down some great opportunities for next ministries that came from the Diocese of Texas. All of those decisions are somewhat illogical, and the moves away from Between the Bayous, St. Mark's, and the Diocese of
Texas weren't easy decisions to make. It was because of those communities, and my mentors, that I was able to start listening to the voice of God speaking in my soul. I found my way to a geography, a community, and a church that fits so well, it seems we were made for each other--that we had been prepared for to join in ministry back in 2012. When I could not attend the 6th Anniversary Celebration, it led me not only to reflect on my time there, and my journey with them, it also led me to reflect on how BtB is still alive in me and my ministry, how it shaped me to be who I am as priest. As Between the Bayous evolves, I am grateful for all the support I was given, and the community has been given; a missional community seeking to be church in new and creative ways. A missional community that helped "keep the story alive and the mystery present," as Pittman taught us. A community that the rest of the church is learning from, and will continue to learn from as we grow and evolve to bear the love of Christ to the world, and follow the whispers of the Holy Spirit, guiding us onward.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

What's the meaning of this?

I've just about O.D.'d on news in the last couple of days. I watched Tuesday night (Wednesday morning) until Donald Trump made his acceptance speech. I watched PBS because they make an effort to get a variety of voices and perspectives in the conversation. I was personally surprised that we elected Trump as president of our country. I saw a couple of the debates, but didn't see any of the political ads. Watching a celebrity and reality TV star rise to the White House seemed surreal to me, yet, here we are. It's our reality. 
I'm reminded of advice from a couple of my mentors over the years as I listen to people who are excited about the outcome, and people who are devastated by the outcome. During seminary our small group was struggling with something, and one of my professors, Kate Sonderegger asked us, "What is the spiritual learning?" I resisted that question. I just wanted to be upset by whatever I was facing. I wanted to lash out, not seek meaning. 

A more recent mentor, Jim Hollis, has related to me the difference between "eastern thinking" and "western thinking" in this little parable: When people in the west have a car accident, we look to see who caused the accident; we ask, "Who's fault is this?" People in the east in a car accident may ask the question, "For what purpose have we been brought together in this way?" In short, it is a story about seeking meaning in life. What is the meaning? What is seeking to be understood by this situation, whatever it may be? 

I find it difficult to understand how Donald Trump has become president, especially because of the way he has spoken about women, minority ethnic groups, immigrants, and people of religions other than Christian (and perhaps even a narrow group of an American brand of Christianity.) My Christian, Episcopal tradition teaches me to seek Christ in all persons, and to respect the dignity of every human being, so alarms go off in my heart whenever people, especially leaders, make comments that go so directly against the understanding that of all humanity is created in the image of God. (That includes seeing Donald Trump as one of God's children, as I was reminded.)

My fear at this time is that some will use what President-elect Donald Trump said about people who are non-white-straight-male as permission to intimidate, bully, and do violence to God's children they view as "other." Part of my own meaning-seeking quest is to acknowledge my place of privilege, since I happened to be born a straight white American male, and consider how to help dismantle the systems of hatred, bigotry, and exclusion that come from our fear of the "other."  

The greatest "other" we encounter is God. God beyond all knowing; God in the mystery; God showing up in the stranger, the needy, the sick, the hungry; God emerging from these moments of confusion and discord; God who will lead us to the peace which passes understanding; God who created us all. I just quickly glanced at facebook and saw posts of graffiti swastikas and hate rallies on a college campus; these are not imagined fears. Instead of attacking what we see as "other" it is an opportunity to discover a new dimension of God's image revealed in humanity. 

The reality is we have elected Donald Trump as our president. So what does that mean for us as individuals? What does it mean for us as a nation that we have elected (if not by a popular majority, certainly by the balance of the electoral college) him? What is seeking to be understood? Do we have the capacity to seek the spiritual meaning? And as we discover the meaning, will it shape who we are as we move forward? 

Thursday, November 3, 2016

forget Quirinius

Originally Published in the Port Aransas South Jetty Newspaper

Remember Quirinius? He was so powerful in his day; Governor of Syria during the first Census under Emperor Augustus. And surely you remember Augustus! The Emperors were like gods in their day. The most powerful, the highest office, the eyes of the world were on them.

It was into that context, with all eyes on Rome, God was born in Jesus Christ. His birth was not really even noticed by anyone outside his family, at the time. Except for a few foreign Magi who were paying close attention. But that's in Matthew's Gospel, and Quirinius is in Luke's. St. Luke seems to offer the governor's name as a time stamp, or to point out that things that seemed to be really important in their time were happening, but the focus of the Gospel moves far away from Augustus and Quirinius, and even past Jerusalem. The attention is on the Good News happening in Bethlehem, where something earth shaking was taking place. Something that would actually change the world forever, and leave Quirinius a forgotten name on a census.

I know this is a little early for Christmas, but it is an important reminder as our nation turns all its attention to who will reign in Washington DC, and anxiety rises as people put more and more energy into the next Emperor in our own day. I don't want to belittle the importance of elections and I encourage you to vote your conscience in the election, but as a religious person, remember it's not the most important thing.

Turn your attention, instead to what is truly important. Find where is God's presence being born into the world. Where is the Bethlehem of our own time? What is being missed? In the scale of eternity, there are much more important, and lasting matters that will be remembered beyond the name of a particular governor of a particular region.

photo from Episcopal News Service
I have a sense that one of those mostly unnoticed places that God is at work right now is in Standing Rock, North Dakota, where Native Americans, and religious people are standing up to protect their land against our government that has trampled so many treaties time and time again. Bishop Michael Curry, my Presiding Bishop, has invited the church to stand with the people protecting their land against an oil pipeline that will cross through their land and go under the Missouri River. While it has some environmental implications, it is mostly about honoring a trust that has been broken time and time again. My Bishop believes it is worth gathering as many people in Standing Rock as possible. He believes it is of spiritual importance, and as most things of spiritual importance, there is not a lot of media coverage, all eyes are on Washington D.C.

I may not be able to personally go to Standing Rock, but I want you to know about one instance where God is at work in the world; when all the attention is on the Quirinius of our day. Where do you find Good News, and where is God at work in your world? Find that, and you will be tuned into the Kingdom of God, instead of the temporal rulers of this world.

Thursday, October 27, 2016


Just a quick note about my quick trip to Camp Capers. It was good to catch up with fellow clergy, hear from our Bishops, and to be in such a beautiful place. I was on the summer staff at Camp Capers in 1998, but started going there a couple of years before with our Canterbury from SWT (That's a college ministry from what is now Texas State case you missed that.) On one our trips, probably to the college gathering we did each winter, a friend taught me how to fly fish. I was hooked. (haha) It was nice to get back on the Guadalupe and catch a few perch. I threw them all back, they had great meals for us... 

I also went for a nice run on the new property that is completely undeveloped. It is beautiful out there. It is more river-front property where they have some trails and take small groups to camp out during the summer. It is certainly a different feeling to be under a canopy of cypress and oaks, than to be in the wide open environment of our coast. I love both environs. 

Being in familiar places always brings back memories. I have a lot of good memories from Camp Capers with campers and friends. I also have memories of important conversations with clergy who mentored me, and helped me along my journey at that point in my life. It's a good thing to remember. 

Thursday, October 20, 2016

God's got the whole world....

originally published October's Trinity Day School Newsletter
Trinity by the Sea Day School is off and running! In chapel we are beginning at the beginning, the Genesis. We are taking it a few days at a time, and imagining what it was like when God created the Universe. The Creation Story of the Bible is a poem that uses parallelism to reflect on the amazing existence of the world as we know it. We get a double 1,2,3: The first three days God sets boundaries: light is separated from darkness, water above is separated from water below, seas are separated from land. (And God sees that it is good!) The next three follow the set pattern: sun, moon, and starts (Lights); birds (sky) and fish (sea); then animals (finally on land) and finally, the best-for-last, humanity (male and female,) The Hebrew people who first told that story did not have access to the science we have access to today,
by which we understand the universe to be 14 billions years old. There’s no date listed in Genesis, but trying to put a date on our creation story that misses the point. Bishop Hibbs told a group of us at the SWT Canterbury, “If you are asking “HOW”, turn to science, if you are asking “WHY”, turn to religion.” The WHY of creation is found in Genesis, and it is about the intention of God and the goodness of the creation, It is about God loving so much that the whole Cosmos was prepared for us to have a place to be. God looked at the whole creation and pronounced: “It is VERY GOOD! Just like we spend time preparing our homes for our children to live, just like we separate time aside from other responsibilities to be with our children, and just like we provide the best we can for them, so, the Genesis story teaches us: God has prepared the world for us. What a gift.

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Finding Joy

I have had the privilege to be in the presence of Bishop Desmond Tutu a few times, and I have heard the Dali Lama speak once. They beam with an inner light and the memory of being near them brings a smile to my face. I knew they were personal friends, and that they given lectures together, and I recently learned that they have co-authored a book about Joy. I can't wait to get my copy, and read what these two amazing spiritual teachers, who have lived lives wrought with persecution, have to teach us about joy. They are transforming lives around the world, as they themselves have been transformed.

I want to share this good news with the handful of you who read the Pastor's Pen column, because bad news seems to get more air time than good news.  (I'm ever grateful to our South Jetty for including so much good news!)

This is the season of harvest, and the season of reflecting on stewardship in many churches. I am inviting people, in some way, to do a self assessment of what percentage of time and energy they spend on their spiritual lives, and what percentage of their time and energy they spend on the heavy problems of the world that they can do nothing about. Our culture seems to be obsessed with worry and fear. Our favorite drug is to find new things to worry about and of which to be afraid. Some of us can't wait to turn on a screen to search for new things to worry about, and to stoke the furnace of fear.

I am not advocating ignoring the needs of the world. I am advocating for bringing a balance to life. We are fortunate, here in Port Aransas, to live surrounded by nature. As I write, I am sitting outside looking at the stars and I can hear the waves in the distance barely more audible than the nighttime insect chorus. In order to see and hear, I had to redirect my attention from the screen to the beauty all around me. I needed to be intentional.

What brings the balance to your own life? What spiritual practices do you incorporate to interrupt the 24 hour news cycle? How do you disconnect from media, and connect with your soul? How do you listen to good news; see the beauty all around you; connect with joy?

"The joy of the Lord is your strength." (Nehemiah 8:10) That joy shines through the Dali Lama and Bishop Tutu, giving them strength in spite of adversity. Part of the intention of writing their book together was to invite us to participate in finding joy. Practice joy. Turn toward joy. Whether it is through family and friends, or time in nature, or sitting in your favorite place of worship. Consider, in this bountiful season, what brings you joy. What percentage of your time are you committing to that? Is there a balance to your life that will move you a little closer to shining with an inner light so that others can also be inspired to seek joy?

Thursday, September 29, 2016

the resistance

I recently returned to a piece of music I've admired since Jr. High. There, among my cassettes of Nirvana and the Doors, was a recording of Carmina Burana. Now, years later, I've started listening to it and watching it with (son) Eli on YouTube. The lyrics are in Latin, so I found them with an English translation to read along with as we listen.

Then I started reading about Carl Orff, the composer. He wrote Carmina during the second World War in Nazi Germany. There are some critics who question his association with the Nazi regime. Further reading led me to find he had contact with members of the White Rose Resistance and that one of the characters in his works may have been inspired by Sophie Scholl, an active member in that resistance group.

I mentioned my rediscovery of Carmina to my analyst and he told me he was a fan, too. Then he relayed a story about Diedrich Bonhoeffer hearing Carmina Burana being played over a radio while he was a prisoner in a concentration camp, and it gave him hope.

I am not writing this to reveal a conclusion I've drawn from this brief journey that began with finding music I've been fascinated with for years, but to share this bizarre journey of discovery I am still following. I've watched Sophie Scholl, the movie, and while I have found my copy of Diedrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship to read, I will probably also watch a movie about Bonhoeffer's life.

Then the why question begins to nag at me: Why am I stumbling into all of this now? Again, no conclusions to share, just the joy of discovery, and the riches that come from curiosity. I am reminded of a recommendation made in the book The War of Art: when you discover an artist (or piece of music) you find out as much as you can about that, then find three people who inspire that artist, and go learn about them. Follow the trail, and see where it leads.

As I listen to Carmina, and reflect on my own writing, art, and music, I wonder about Orff, Scholl, and Bonhoeffer. I am grateful to be remembering them as I wonder if their work in the world is complete, and I hope to take some inspiration from them as I continue my own journey.