Questions When Planning Remote Liturgies

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Those of us in the business of planning liturgies, ceremonies, and rituals find ourselves in a brand new moment. Never before have we been asked to curate liturgies across time and space through digital technology at the current scale. As an Episcopal priest and a school chaplain, I have been asked by many people in many different settings how we can create meaningful liturgies in the midst of this pandemic. 

What follows are the guiding questions I have used to plan and brainstorm liturgies for my communities. I hope they can be a jumping-off point as we all navigate this new world. 

First, some definitions and a disclaimer. 

Liturgy is often translated as “the work of the people”. This is true in one sense of the word, but in a deeper sense liturgies are rituals that “embody a way of being in the world”. (Farwell, James. The Liturgy Explained. pg. 11)

In the Christian church, liturgies often revolve around sacraments such as baptism and the Eucharist. In a broader sense, our communities carry out liturgies for a wide variety of purposes. Graduation is a liturgy. School orientation is a liturgy. Family traditions around holidays and birthdays are liturgies. For the sake of this article, I am using liturgy to mean any communal event that points to or embodies a way of being in the world. Adapting the common definition of a sacrament, these community liturgies bring about the thing to which they point. For example, nothing magical happens at the graduation ceremony but through the words and actions carried out liturgically, the seniors transition from student to graduate and alumni. 

So how do we plan these liturgies at this particular moment in time? First, a disclaimer. Any liturgy performed in the midst of a worldwide pandemic will be – necessarily – different from any other version of the liturgy. What’s more, any liturgy adapted to an online context will have to be different. When we start out on the road to plan an event for our communities we must give up any notion that the event will be the same (or in some cases even vaguely similar) as it has been in years past. The poet David Whyte wrote a line that has stuck with me in this time, “Give up all the other worlds except the one to which you belong.” We would love for things to be normal but they are not. The sooner we accept that our liturgies will not be “normal” we can get to the meaningful work of curating these events. 

From here I will list questions that will be helpful when planning liturgies. I have added some commentary to each one. My hope is that these can serve as jumping-off points for context-specific conversations in your own community. 

What does the liturgy represent or communicate? 

Why do you hold this ceremony? What purpose does it serve? What message is communicated? This is not a moment to do things because we always do them. This is a moment to only do those things that are vital in some way to the culture and being of a community. 

Figuring out the core message or meaning in a liturgy first will help as you begin to plan the logistics of the event. Is this a life-cycle marker like a graduation or a coming-of-age ceremony? Is this a moment for individual recognition like an awards banquet? Is this a gathering for prayer and spiritual connection? It is fundamental at the outset to know the “why” behind your liturgy. 

What is the heart of the ceremony? 

What is the main thing? What is the thing people are looking forward to or the thing they will remember? For graduation, this could be the receiving of a diploma and walking across the stage. For an award banquet, it could be the speech by a trusted mentor in recognition of the student. For a family gathering, it could be seeing the faces of those you love.  

Before you can plan a liturgy you need to figure out what the vital components are – what can we not do without? What is the core of this gathering? This is a moment to strip away nonessentials. A rambling hours-long event works (though does it really?) in person but will not work online. How can you bring the heart of the ceremony into sharp focus? 

Can this liturgy be translated to a remote or distance context? If not, what is a new way to mark this moment? 

Once you have isolated the core of the liturgy you have to ask the hard but necessary question. Can we do this online or remotely? An unflinching answer to this question will save everyone a lot of time and stress. Is it possible or advisable to do this ceremony online? 

The next step is key! If it is not possible to translate the liturgy to this new context, what is a new way to mark this moment? We will have to create new ways of being community and marking communal moments in this time. We will have to come up with a whole new framework for many of our ceremonies and liturgies. The good news is that we will not be isolated forever. The better news is that the ways that we innovate right now will help us to do the work of community in the future. 

I have not given you details or logistics, but my hope is that these questions can help you reframe and reimagine our communal gatherings. My liturgy professor was fond of saying that the space always when we hosting a liturgy or gathering. This is doubly true now. The space always wins and our current space is spread out around the world, across town and across time. While many things have changed, the need for connection and communal marking of time has not changed. My hope is that we can emerge from this moment with a renewed sense of the value, depth, and possibility of our liturgies and our communities. 

For more information, check out the work of Priya Parker including her book, The Art of Gathering, and her new podcast, Together Apart.

 

Pandemic Grief

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We are all grieving.

With the closures, cancellations, and confusion about the future, we are all in a state of grief.

In a previous post, I outlined my theory that the human condition is one of grief with grief defined as the emotional reaction to loss or change.

I developed an image to illustrate the impact of grief when our expectations or hopes are suddenly changed.

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When I wrote that piece a few weeks ago, I could not have known the situation we would find ourselves in with the pandemic spread of COVID-19. Nor could I have predicted the pandemic spread of grief.

We are all grieving.

Some of us are grieving canceled plans and dashed hopes. Some are grieving financial losses and insecurity. Some of us are grieving for the sick and those who have died. Some are grieving for the sense of control that exists in times of normalcy.

So what are we to do with this pandemic grief?

My advice is the same advice I give to anyone who finds themselves caught under grief’s riptide: feel it.

Write down what you are feeling. Talk to a trusted family member or friend. Express the emotions as they come to you.

This is a weird moment in the life of the world. Nothing like this has ever happened, at least not in modern times. It is okay to not be okay, but if you don’t express the full constellation of what you are feeling those emotions will express themselves on their own terms in their own time.

Here is something I have learned in my life and ministry: grief waits.

It will wait to be felt.

You will find yourself crying in your car in the grocery store parking lot or lashing out over something mundane or minor. You will feel a weight build on your shoulders over days and weeks.

Grief also connects with or triggers previous grief. The dramatic and sudden loss we have all experienced in the last two weeks has no doubt brought up other times in your life when you felt a sudden and dramatic loss.

At the beginning of the outbreak in America our dog, Jackson died. I found myself in the veterinarian’s office sobbing much like I did after my parents died. It was as though the death of my beloved companion tapped into a well of grief that always exists deep in my soul.

The grief that has come with this pandemic has probably tapped into your own well of grief. You may find yourself feeling what might seem like a disproportionate level of grief in this moment. Once you see that grief compounds and waits, it becomes clear.

This brings me to my second piece of advice: be gentle with yourself.

As I said above, this is an unprecedented moment in modern human history. It is okay to not be okay. It is okay to not understand what you are feeling. It is okay to be grateful and scared – at the same time. It is okay to feel whatever you feel.

The key at this moment to hold everything loosely. To watch your feelings as they arise and float away.  No feeling is forever or final but you must feel what you feel.

We are all grieving. The path we were walking has been interrupted. The work now is to accept the new path we find ourselves traveling. To mourn what has been lost and look with clear eyes to the road in front of us.

God is still God.

God is with us here on this new road.

God is more present to us than we are to ourselves.

God is for us – even now in this new moment.

May you feel what your are feeling. May you hold it all loosely. May you be gentle with yourself and those around you.

May we all hold each other’s grief until the way becomes clear.

 

 

 

 

A Theory of Grief

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I have a theory that I have been kicking around for a while.

If you have ever had an in-depth conversation with me there is a good chance that you’ve heard that my favorite topic of conversation is grief and death.

By favorite, of course, I don’t mean that I enjoy grief or death. Instead, I think grief and death are the most important (and prevalent) forces in our daily lives and most people avoid talking about them at all costs.

My theory is quite simple: everyone is grieving all the time.

Every person is in an almost constant state of grief. I would even go as far as to say that grief is the basic human condition.

We often assume that grief is the emotional response to the death of a loved one. This is one place that grief is very common. However, by definition, grief is so much more.

Grief is the emotional reaction to loss or change.

That’s it.

All of the emotions that come up with you lose something or experience change are considered grief.

Traffic made you late for a meeting? Grief.

The restaurant is out of your favorite menu item? Grief.

You fear for the future of our climate? Grief.

Your spouse or friend has different plans? Grief.

You see your kids growing up in an increasingly confusing world? Grief.

We are all grieving all the time.

When I was a hospital chaplain in seminary I drew up a diagram to help me explain grief.

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Gwin’s Theory of Grief (illustrated)

The solid line shows the trajectory of a life. The dotted line represents our plans, hopes, and aspirations. The horizontal line is the moment of interruption: the death, diagnosis, firing, divorce, traffic jam, etc.

Grief is not a phase or thing to be gotten through. Grief is a new reality, a new path. No matter how far away you get from the interruption you can still find yourself looking back with the pang of grief. The sharp tinge may decrease over time but it is always there.

Grief is what happens when we find ourselves walking a path we had not planned. Grief is all of the emotion that emerges as we gaze longingly at the path we can never walk; the life we can never live.

Healing comes not when we “get over” what has happened, but when we ground ourselves in the present moment. Though it may not be what we envisioned, this moment is where we actually are. This moment is where God is present to us – not as we wish it were but as it actually is.

Nothing ever goes as planned. It seems like life is constantly serving up evidence that we are not in control. We are constantly losing things and people. Every time we finally feel like we are on solid ground the tectonic plates of our lives shift again.

We are constantly grieving because things are constantly changing.

I talk about grief and death a lot because I have felt a lot of grief in my own life but I am not a special case: Everyone is walking around carrying a burden of grief most of the time. In fact, if we could see the depths of grief and pain many people walk around with we would kneel down and weep.

One of my goals for 2020 is to write more about grief and how this theory of grief can change how you interact with yourself and with those around you. I’ve got some big dreams for taking this message to a world saturated in grief. I would love for y’all to come along and help spread the word.

When we acknowledge what we are feeling and put a name to it we can learn to work with it instead of against it. We can welcome our grief as a natural response to the ever-changing world outside and inside our own heads.

In times of acute stress and anxiety in the community, the Dean of my seminary would say “Be gentle with yourselves”. That message applies to all of us as we navigate a grieving world as grieving people.

Be gentle with yourself.

Your life (or day or hour) has not gone how you planned. You find yourself on a path you did not intend to walk. God is with you on this path – at this moment – right here.

Crying During The Nutcracker: Grief and the Holidays

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This time of year is hard for everyone.

The breakneck speed of life these days makes even normal tasks seem more difficult. Add to it the pressures of the holiday season and you have a recipe for overwhelm and burnout.

For many people, there is a layer on top of all of these pressures: grief.

No one is immune from grief. In fact, I would argue (and will be doing some graduate work on the thesis) that grief is the fundamental human condition.  

Never is this reality more evident than the holidays: memories of family traditions come flooding back with the opening notes of a Christmas carol or the images of that favorite Christmas movie. Preparations for the holidays dredge up long forgotten losses.

For me, the flood of emotions came back as I sat in a church pew and listened to the Lessons and Carols program of a local boarding school. As the middle school orchestra played a selection from The Nutcracker, I was transported immediately to my childhood trips to The Kennedy Center to see the production.

Every year my parents would dress my brother and me in our finest suits and drive us from Charlottesville to Washington D.C. to see the ballet performance of the Christmas classic. In the time between visits to The Kennedy Center, I would watch the VHS copy of The Nutcracker starring Macaulay Culkin.

When the middle school orchestra pulled their bows across their mistuned strings and played the first notes of the Overture I was washed over with the sweet, sharp pangs of grief.

I remembered Christmas mornings and birthday parties. I remembered days home sick in bed and days spent playing in the snow. I remembered where I was when I heard that my mom had died. I remembered what the fake grass at her graveside felt like as it crunched under my eight-year-old feet. I remembered what it felt like when I was told my father had died. I remembered standing alone and realizing that I didn’t know what to do without him.

All of this came back in the time it took a preteen orchestra to struggle through Tchaikovsky.

The holidays can be a minefield of grief: around every corner, there are memories and emotions and deep joys and deep pains waiting to reemerge.

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This is only a problem if grief is a problem.

You see, grief is not something to get through. It is not an easy process with a clear start and finish date. Grief is a state that emerges after any loss, no matter how big or small.

The reality of grief is that it is always with you, just under the surface. At the holidays, the facade that our daily routine offers fades away and we see our situation for what it really is: we are always grieving and this is not a problem.

When the wave of grief crashed over me in that church pew I sat there and felt it. I listened to the music and was transported through the sadness and pain and joy. When the songs were over and the evening done, I still grieved the loss of my parents – as I will every holiday season.

I stood up from the pew and walked out of the church to go about my life, surrounded and supported by the people I love but see no more.

The holidays are hard for everyone because everyone is grieving: people they’ve lost, childhoods that are gone, opportunities and hopes that will never come true. We grieve the ideal Christmas dinner that we can’t cook or the perfect family photo that we can’t take. We grieve the person we wanted to be but can no longer become. We grieve our plans for the day that fall apart with the unexpected phone call from home.

There is a good chance you are grieving this holiday because grief is a fact of life and the holidays bring this fact to the surface.

My prayer is that you find time to sit with it, to listen to the music and let it wash over you. When the song is over, get up and keep walking.

Grief is only a problem if grief is a problem.

 

The Feast of St. Aidan: Wandering Evangelism

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From Forward Movement:

Today the church remembers Aidan, 651, and Cuthbert, 687, Bishops of Lindisfarne.

Aidan provides us with a strong example that actions often speak louder than words and the best kind of Christian evangelism is that which proceeds from godly and charitable living. Trained at Iona, Scotland, Aidan was already revered as a compassionate and learned monk when King Oswald of Northumbria invited him to help with the evangelization of Northern England.

Aidan joyfully responded and began the work by founding a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne. This monastery soon became a center for missionary and charitable activities throughout England and Scotland. The monks of Lindisfarne followed the old Celtic rites and practices, but Aidan had traveled widely on the continent and was able to familiarize them with the practices of the Roman Church, thus preparing his people for things to come.

Aidan trained a whole generation of Christian leaders for the English church. Included among them were numerous bishops and saints. Perhaps the highest compliment paid to Aidan was that of the Venerable Bede (see May 25) who wrote that Aidan “taught no otherwise than he and his followers lived; for he neither sought nor loved anything of this world, but delighted in distributing to the poor whatsoever was given him by the kings or rich men of the world.”

May we take delight in doing your work, O Christ. Amen.

Aidan is remembered for wandering the English countryside, speaking to commoner and nobleman alike. He is remembered for climbing the ecclesial ladder while keeping his eyes firmly fixed on the least and the lost.

The witness of Aidan is powerful in 2017.

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This is why we named the young adult intentional community in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia The Aidan Community.

The days of top-down evangelism or mission as a disguise for institutional advancement are over. They do not work anymore (and some would argue they never did).

What works now is relationship – Aidan’s wandering evangelism. We are called to journey with those who do not know Christ; to hear their story and share our own. We are called to connect their story with the story of God.

The Good News of God’s redemption spreads like wildfire when it is presented with passion and joy, like St. Aidan.

The work of relationship is slow and messy. There are not five easy steps or guaranteed deliverables. Walking with people will leave your feet sore and dirty, but there is a chance that your hearts will burn as Christ journeys with you.

May we follow the example of St. Aidan today and every day. May we take delight in doing the work of Christ.

 

 

The Tyranny of ‘Best’

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“The enemy of the best is the good.”

This phrase is often used to describe the problem of settling for something ‘good’ when the ‘best’ option is available. The thinking goes: people settle for something that is good enough instead of working towards the best thing.

I have been a slave to this type of thinking, but recently I’ve come to realize how misplaced and idolatrous it can be.

There is a common myth in American culture that the best is best. We study Amazon reviews before buying something, just to make sure we are getting the best shower mat or blender or alarm clock or pair of pants. We compare cars before buying to make sure we are getting the best deal with the best options.

Please don’t misunderstand, this can be a good thing, but we have carried this line of thinking into all aspects of life.

We don’t settle on our weekend plans with one friend just in case they are not the best plans we’re presented with. We keep the door open for a different friend to present a different, better plan.

We don’t settle on the one person to marry because we are not sure that they are the best person for us.

We get antsy after a few months in a job because we are worried that it might not be the best job for us.

This is true in the Church as well. Missiologist Michael Frost said, “No one is more transient than American pastors, like rocks with no moss.”

The problem with all of this is that it forces us to spend a bulk of our time holding our breath, waiting for the best thing to arrive. Our lives pass us by while we impatiently wait for the next best thing.

That’s why I reverse that common phrase:

The enemy of the good is the best.

The goal of life is not the best. The goal of life is enough.

God promises enough – our daily bread. Jesus calls us to ‘perfection’ which can be understood as completion.

We are called to wholeness; not to be the ‘best’ but to be the person that God has called us to be.

I find myself drawn to thinking about the ‘next’ thing. What job is next? Where will we move next? What is the next step?

Perhaps God is calling me to be where my feet are – to be here.

Perhaps the next step is to do my work today; to do the next, right thing and trust God.

The enemy of a good life is the illusion that there is a “best life” just waiting down the road.

 

The Sign of Jonas

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“The sign Jesus promised to the generation that did not understand Him was the ‘sign of Jonas the prophet’ – that is, the sign of His own resurrection. The life of every monk, of every priest, of every Christian is signed with the sign of Jonas, because we all live by the power of Christ’s resurrection. But I feel that my own life is especially sealed with this great sign, which baptism and monastic profession and priestly ordination have burned into the roots of my being, because like Jonas himself I find myself traveling toward my destiny in the belly of a paradox.”

These words mark the first page of The Sign of Jonas by Thomas Merton. The book is a collection of Merton’s journals during his first six years as a monk at the Abbey of Our Lady of Gethsemani in Kentucky.

I am preparing to travel to West Park, New York, to retreat at the Holy Cross Monastery for the week. Fr. Louis, as Thomas Merton was known at Gethsemani, will be my companion as I read The Sign of Jonas.

During my retreat at Holy Cross, I will be received as an Associate of Holy Cross, which is the culmination of a six-month process of discernment.

Thomas Merton entered the monastery in 1941. Over the almost thirty years he spent in the monastery, American society and the wider world changed dramatically. Social and political norms were overthrown; wars of varying size and intensity raged around the world. Everything was unraveling at the seams.

History repeats and human beings don’t change, so 2017 looks much like Merton’s days.

Somehow, in the midst of the pain and suffering of the world, Merton found peace in the monastery. He did not avoid the world, constant letters and correspondence kept him apprised of the goings on in society. Merton sought the better thing, to sit still and be with God.

My draw to the monastery and to following the Rule of Life as an Associate is a draw to an ordered interior life, to a deeper connection with God, to a commitment to seek “the better thing” in the midst of a legion of disordered desires.

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I will travel to Holy Cross – a day’s train ride – to pray and be silent. I go on retreat not to avoid the pain of the world or the chaos in which we find ourselves, but to be rooted in the love and peace of Christ.

I will bring the pain and chaos with me and turn it over to God.

I will pray for guidance in this moment. What is the role of a priest in America right now? What is the role of the Church? How can I witness to the power of the resurrection in this time and place?

I will pray for the peace of God, “which is no peace”.

And I will pray for you.

Join me on retreat, in whatever way you can. In your morning prayer time or afternoon walk, ask God what you are called to do in this moment.

These are chaotic times, but we have saints who have gone before us who are interceding on our behalf.

Fr. Louis, pray for us.

“My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.” -Thomas Merton, Thoughts in Solitude

 

Tattoos and blessings

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To celebrate and commemorate my recent ordination to the Episcopal priesthood, I got a tattoo.

Not the norm, I know. Most folks take a silent retreat or read a classic religious text. Instead, I sat for two and a half hours while an artist went to work on my arm.

Full disclosure: this was not my first tattoo, but my wife tells me that it will be my last.

I began to meet with the artist and go through drawings several weeks ago. The tattoo is inspired by an icon of the Harrowing of Hell that was written by Wayne Hajos. In the icon, Jesus is standing on the broken gates of Hell and pulling Adam out of his tomb by his wrist. John the Baptist stands by and points the way to Christ, even in Hell.

The image is powerful for many reasons. What resonates most for me is the idea of God’s grace being the motivating factor for salvation. Adam is being pulled by his wrist – he is not doing anything.

The fact that John the Baptist is preparing the way of the Lord, even in Hell, gives me hope for the wilderness situations in our world today.

In our final meeting before scheduling a date for the actual tattoo, the tattoo artist confessed something to me. This man, gritty with every inch of skin covered in ink, said, “I am not religious at all. I am a fairly passionate atheist. I never do religious tattoos, as a matter of principle, but there is something about you and this tattoo. I don’t know what it is, but I feel like I will be giving you something and you will be giving me something. I don’t know man, I feel like I’m getting something out of this.”

My first thought was snarky, as it tends to be. I thought, “Well yes, I’m paying you. You are getting something out of this.” As I left the tattoo shop and got into my car, however, I realized what he was saying. He couldn’t put his finger on it. He didn’t have the formal theological language to describe what was happening. He was saying that in coming into contact with the story of Christ, he was receiving a blessing.

I doubt he would call it that, but that’s what it was. The story of Christ and the notion of God’s grace was presented to him in a way he understood, in a tattoo, and he let it in.

Does this mean he will drop what he’s doing and run the nearest church? Unlikely.

But perhaps his heart was “strangely warmed”.

On Sunday, I celebrated my first Eucharist. To be precise, I celebrated the three services at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Roanoke.

It was a beautiful day filled with many beautiful moments. I did wear the chasuble backwards for the first service and there was a medical emergency in the late service that involved moving the whole congregation to the chapel while the ambulance arrived.

But in the midst of all of that chaos, I felt a profound peace.

The children’s choirs sang at one of the morning services, which snapped the whole day into perspective. The first time that I wore a robe in church was as a member of the children’s choir at the Church of Our Savior in Charlottesville. Now, decades later, I stood by as the children’s choir sang, wearing the robes of a priest.

“You are getting something and I am getting something.”  

That morning as I placed my hand on the head of each person with their arms crossed over their chest and pronounced something that has been true since their birth, that they are blessed, I understood what the tattoo artist meant.

They were receiving a blessing, true, but I was also receiving the blessing of following the call of God.

I trusted that God was calling me into the priesthood and have received the incredibly blessing of being able to proclaim the Good News of God and to preside over Christ’s Holy Table.

I received the blessing of being able to stand in front of the people of God and assure them that God’s forgiveness reaches them as well.

I received the blessing of being able to look out into an over-crowded chapel full of people, displaced from their normal worship space, and declare that God is indeed with them, at that moment and always.

That is the secret of ministry. It is not a top down arrangement. It is not a one-way service.

Jesus was onto something when he told his disciples to be servants of all. It is in serving and giving of yourself that you get everything you could ever need.

It is in giving that we receive.

To the tattoo artist and the children’s choir I say, thank you for blessing me as I begin the incredible journey that will be my life as a priest.

 

Five Reasons I Shouldn’t Get Ordained

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This coming weekend (God-willing), I will be ordained as a priest in the Episcopal Church. The service that will take place on Saturday is the culmination of years of discernment, academic study, and prayer. So you might be surprised to read the title of this blog, but read on and you will discover the five reasons that it makes no sense whatsoever for me to get ordained.

Millennials Don’t Like Commitment

As a twenty-something, I am used to being told that I don’t value commitment or “traditional” ways of doing things. The journalists and baby boomers sure do know what they’re talking about. I am so commitment averse that I have already made vows to my wife and will soon make vows to the Church. Am I the norm? Maybe not. But you can’t write off an entire generation because your neighbor’s adult son lives in the basement.

Is this too harsh? Perhaps.

In my ordination service I will promise to commit myself to the trust and responsibility of being a priest. I will promise to read and study the Holy Scriptures, administer the Sacraments, and to persevere in prayer. It is a level of commitment unlike any other.

Millennials like me aren’t steering clear of commitment. We are steering toward commitment to things greater than ourselves. Our commitment to traditional careers or life paths may be drying up, but our commitment to community service and pursuits that honor our whole being has never been stronger.

The Church is Dying

The Church Decline Industrial Complex is big and loud. People are making their names (and careers) on the idea the Church is dying, but when you say the Church is dying, you need to clarify what you mean. Nadia Bolz-Weber recently said that if you mean that you think that people will no longer gather in the name of the Triune God, break bread, and remember the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then yes – the Church is dying. But if you mean anything else, you are not talking about the Church dying. Perhaps the way we’ve organized congregational life doesn’t work anymore. Perhaps the way we see ourselves in relation to the rest of the world is not helpful. Perhaps the way we interact with those who disagree, especially other Anglicans and Christians, is no longer useful.

I am committing myself to a Church that is in the resurrection business. The Church as the Body of Christ cannot die, because the Body of Christ died once and rose again. The Church in 2015 looks very different from the Church in 1915 or 1415 or 115. In the same way, the Church of the future will necessarily look very different from the Church today. I am committing myself to walk with and work in the Church in the ways that the Episcopal Church has received it. The Church is not dying and I am excited to help guide the Church of the future.

Putting Myself Under Authority

Right after publishing an article about how millennials hate commitment, many folks love to talk about how millennials don’t respect authority in the traditional way. Article after article about how to handle millennials in the workplace have been flying around the internet in the past few years. So it might seem odd for me to commit to “respect and be guided by the pastoral direction and leadership of [the] bishop”. Becoming a priest in a church whose name literally means overseer or Bishop (episkopos = overseer) is a whole different level of commitment to authority.

We are in an interesting moment in history when any form of authority is looked at with a skeptical eye. In the realm of religion and spirituality there is this feeling that each person’s experience is equal to every other’s. In the history of the Church, however, it has been recognized that certain people are given the trust and responsibility to watch over and guard the faith. It is comforting to know that there is a person, in the tradition of the apostles, making sure that I stay within the boundaries of the historic faith. In another interview, Nadia Bolz-Weber  said, “I realized [as] I was watching these TV preachers and I asked myself the question, like did they at the beginning of their ministry love the Gospel? Like did they have this intention to really spread this beautiful good news? And if so, what were all the steps it took to become what they are now? And like, you know what they don’t have? Bishops. They don’t have people looking over their shoulder to say, ‘Are you still on the Yellow Brick Road?'”

I need a Bishop to keep the boundaries intact, to give pastoral care to the pastors of the people, and to set the tone for the Church. I need a Bishop to make sure I am still on the Way.

Joining a Club With a Bad Track Record

The Church has a bad history. Sure, it has done many, many great things in the name of Christ, but it has likewise done many, many terrible things in that same name. Why would I join this team, knowing the history? Because the Church is made up of broken people who are susceptible to evil and sin just like anyone else. The Church must repent of the sins of the past and apologize where necessary. The Church must repent of the sin of slavery and racism and bigotry that has stained its past.

The real test, however, is not how we answer for sins of the past but how we handle the evil and sin of our day. The Church must look at what is going on in the world and ask where God is calling us. Whether it is the #blacklivesmatter movement or the Syrian refugee crisis, there are many things going on in the world that need the Church’s voice. In twenty years, will we be apologizing for not speaking up or putting our lives on the line for those in need or will we be standing together rejoicing at what the Holy Spirit has done through us?

This brings to mind the words of Martin Luther King Jr. in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, “In deep disappointment I have wept over the laxity of the church. But be assured that my tears have been tears of love. There can be no deep disappointment where there is not deep love. Yes, I love the church. How could I do otherwise? I am in the rather unique position of being the son, the grandson and the great grandson of preachers. Yes, I see the church as the body of Christ. But, oh! How we have blemished and scarred that body through social neglect and through fear of being nonconformists.”

I am excited to be a leader in the Church that is called to be nonconformists to the oppressive ways of the world and to conform ourselves, instead, to Christ.

Do They Know Who I Am?

This is the most personal reason why I shouldn’t get ordained. The mistakes that I have made and the trouble that I have caused other people in my life should surely disqualify me for this order. I am not cut out to be the pure and blameless example of the Christian life. And I don’t have to be.

I once heard an old priest say that he was called to ordained ministry because God didn’t trust him enough to be a lay person, that God wanted to keep him close.

A classmate in seminary said that a priest is not the shepherd of the flock because we already have a Great Shepherd. The priest is the sheep at the front of the flock that points the way to the shepherd.

My life experience is not the most pristine but it all points to the grace of God. My own experience has helped me see how helpless I am without the grace and guidance of God. Everything that I have experienced has prepared me to minister to God’s people and proclaim the Gospel.

Priests are called by God and their faith community to lead the people in prayer and to administer the Sacraments. They are not called to be other-worldly, super-human, or to float around on cloud of smug spirituality. Priests are people who have encountered the Living God in such a way that they must respond by giving themselves to the service of the Church and helping others to hear the Good News.

 

These are the top five reasons I should not get ordained. In spite of these things, God-willing and the people consenting, I will be ordained as a priest in Christ’s holy Church. I cannot do it on my own and I don’t have to. A classic hymn has been on my mind leading up to this day. The words of the chorus are a great way to close:

“I need thee, oh, I need thee;
Ev’ry hour I need thee!
Oh, bless me now, my Savior;
I come to thee!”

Unimpressed

Short Reads

The Bishop of Springfield caused quite the stir yesterday with a tweet about how unimpressed he was with the Official Youth Presence at General Convention. The tweet sparked many wonderful responses about the role of the Official Youth Presence and the impact it has had on clergy and lay people across the world.

The Bishop wrote a blog post responding to the controversy. At one point he issued what could be interpreted as an apology, saying, “I wish I hadn’t done it, but I did.”

This isn’t a direct response to those initial comments or the “apology”, but a post inspired by the sentiment.

The Bishop was unimpressed by the Official Youth Presence because they didn’t mention Jesus enough. He was also unimpressed because they were “annoyingly issue-oriented”.

There are two major issues with the Bishop’s comments. First, there is an assumption that the Official Youth Presence exists to impress. That assumption raises my blood pressure enough for me to write a separate post on it later.

The second assumption is that there is a bar of orthodoxy and Jesus’s-per-minute that people must adhere to in order to be considered credible. Tied to this assumption is the misplaced idea that without explicitly mentioning the name of Jesus, advocacy and service becomes “issue-oriented” instead of Christ-oriented.

That last assumption is also enough to merit a separate post, but let me say this one thing: If the Lord of the universe, the maker of heaven and earth, is relying on the vocabulary and word-choice of a group of youth, we are all in trouble.

Now I am not currently a “youth”, but I was once a “youth”, so I feel that I have the authority to speak from my experience. I also work as the Canon Missioner for Youth and Young Adults in the Diocese of Southwestern Virginia, which gives me a small amount of credibility when I say the following:

Youth are unimpressed with much of the leadership of the church. 

Youth are unimpressed by the paralyzingly “issue-oriented” leadership that can’t see Jesus in the world unless he is wearing a nametag.

Youth are unimpressed by leaders who require “litmus tests” for inclusion. It appears to me that Jesus had two litmus tests for those who would be his followers: love of God and love of neighbor.

Youth are unimpressed by the ostrich style of leadership that would rather bury its head in the sand than relearn what it means to be a Christian in a new time and place.

Youth are disappointed when the church they love turns on them while they are trying to serve it.

It is time for some of the leaders in the church to get the mitre out of their eyes and see that a group of youth VOLUNTEERING to come to a international church convention is a blessing before it is anything else. In a time when the church decline industrial complex is booming, the fact that youth are willing to give up two weeks of their summer to spend time with Bishops that are admittedly “unimpressed” with them is a testament to the youth and an indictment of the Bishops.

My final point is about formation in the church. If the youth do not have the language to articulate their faith, whose fault is that? We could listen to Paul’s letter to the Romans on this one: “…how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him?”

If the youth haven’t heard a clear proclamation of Jesus Christ in a way that is relevant and authentic, it can hardly be their fault if they lack the necessary language to articulate their faith.

My final advice to the church is to talk to the youth before you dismiss them. Talk to the youth who give up time in their increasingly busy schedules to volunteer and serve. Talk to the youth who defy the stereotypes about Millennials by believing in Jesus enough apply to be a part of an institutional church. Talk to the youth about what makes them come alive and how Jesus has impacted them personally before you write them off as “unimpressive”.

The youth that I have met and that I have the honor of working with are unimpressed with much in the world, but one thing is certain: they are impressed by Jesus, the One who has made enough of an impression on all of us to bring us into His Church to love God through one another.

 

UPDATE: I am grateful for Bishop Mark Bourlakas for his support of youth and youth ministry. Here is his statement:”I am so impressed with the commitment of the official Youth Presence here. It made me proud to be a bishop in the Church and in our Diocese where we have so many fun, talented and faithful young people committed to Jesus. Yesterday one of our own former DioSWVa youth, Grace Aheron, beautifully read the first reading at the Convention’s opening Eucharist.”