April and everything after…

The other day as I was walking around in The School of Theology I walked past my open box.  Our open boxes are the places where we can pass public information, books, papers, etc. to one another at the school  The seminary also places things for us in the boxes also.  In my box on this particular day was a rather large stack of white card stock and some envelopes.  They were my graduation invitations.  As I sit down now and think about it, I have about four more weeks of class here at The School of Theology and a little over 8 weeks left on God’s Holy Mountain.  What happened?  Where did it go?

Those two questions are the same questions I seem to have been asking myself since the first semester ended here back in December of 2013.  Time moves slowly here, but quickly all at once.  I suspect some kind of temporal vortex may be at work, but I digress.  Time here has been so rich, so wonderful…and so fleeting, and there’s been scarcely enough time to say everything that needs to be said and to see everything that needs to be seen.  And so here we are, at the end of all things at Sewanee for me, and there’s still so much left unsaid and undone.

I want to be clear for those of you reading this that I’m not altogether sad about it.  There are relationships that I have built here over the last 3 years that will go on forever, I hope. And there are others that will probably drift into obscurity; it is what it is, neither good or bad.  But this time, these people, and this place have left an indelible mark on me that cannot and will not fade over time.  It has been at Sewanee that I have most clearly heard the voice of God calling in the night.  Calling me to come off of God’s Holy Mountain and back into the world that so badly needs to hear of the Love of Jesus.  Back into a world that is so filled with injustice and oppression that the only way we’ll be able to stem its tide is by working together towards the culmination of love.  This is a love and a task that we cannot possibly do on our own, but only together and through the power of God.  It has been here at Sewanee that I have learned what ministry truly looks like, and I am so glad to know it.

On April 23, 2016 Colleen and I will be married and will begin our lives together as husband and wife.  On May 6, 2016 I will graduate from The School of Theology with a Masters of Divinity, duly prepared for a life in God’s Service.  My ordination to the transitional diaconate has been set for May 14, 2016 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and so my ordained ministry will begin.  At some point Colleen and I will move to the place where we will be serving, but that’s not information I can announce or produce at this time.

Writers always ask themselves, I believe, the question about when something is done.  After writing here for the last few years, I can say that My Side of God’s Holy Mountain has been told the best was that I could tell it.  Is it complete?  Probably not.  Is it enough?  Most definitely.  Will I write another blog?  I don’t know.  A phrase commended unto me by my bishop to not be afraid of when I didn’t have the answer.

It has been a joy traveling with you all down this road.  It has been a joy reflecting on my discernment and my development with you.  Thank you so much for your kind attention and your poignant feedback over these last many years.  To keep up with my ongoing shenanigans you can look here.  SO until we meet again friends,

May the road rise with you,
May the wind be always at your back,
May the sun shine warm upon your face,
May the rain fall soft upon your fields,
and until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of her hand.

Peace and blessings to you all.

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ChurchCo

Disclaimer:  This post is not a commentary on the liturgy, theology, practices, or beliefs of those who attend Venue Church; I am utterly ignorant to the goings on there and refuse to make statements about their beliefs, practices, theology, or liturgy.

I was driving home tonight from Eucharist at Chapel of the Apostles at the seminary listening to my favorite Country station, okay it’s the only country station I get.  As I’m driving and trying to avoid running over the undergrads walking out into traffic, I catch the snippet of an ad that’s talking about “packing the Mack” and give-aways and free parking, and something about Easter.  In the excitement that was contained in the very professional wrestling “SUNDAY, SUNDAY, SUNDAY” kind of advertisement, I wasn’t sure what it was that I was listening to, but I was pretty sure I was going to end up being disturbed in the end.

Color me disturbed:

Screen Shot 2016-02-25 at 10.47.58 PM

So I came home and decided to do a little sleuthing around to see what I had really heard on the radio.  Using the keywords that I could remember from the advert I was able to do a simple google search and came up with venue church’s website (we’ll revisit that name shortly).  On their splash page along with the page for small group signups, worship auditions, and a link to listen to their service online was the screen that I captured above.

Yup, it was the print version of the radio advert that I had heard on my way home from church.

I’ve been a Christian since I was eight.  I spent a majority of that time in the Baptist church and became an Episcopalian about 12 years ago now.  However, in 30 years of life, I cannot recall ever seeing an ad for a church quite like this ad.  Give-aways?  Free Parking?  What gives?

Now, don’t get me wrong, I get the appeal of this carnival style approach to drawing people in.  It’s flashy, exciting, intriguing, and people get something out of it in the end.  My only issue is the fact that I thought this was what church was supposed to be anyway.  Maybe not flashy, but certainly exciting, intriguing, and hopefully people take something away from the service.  It may not be an Oprah’s favorite things kind of take away something, but I think that at its heart people walking out with more than they came with is the point of good worship, or have I missed something?

I’m alarmed because now it seems that we have to promise someone something material in order to get them to come to church.  People have to be lured into a worship setting with the promise of free parking and free stuff in order to get them to encounter Jesus?  When did it become that case that the gospel was not enough to draw people in?

But maybe it still is.

I’ve seen the gospel presented in countless ways, but the most transformative way i’ve seen it presented is with love and without expectation.  When people are approached with the gospel of Jesus in the way that Jesus did it they seem to pay more attention to it.  They seem to feel more comfortable approaching Jesus with questions and skepticism.  When we dress Jesus up in neon flashing lights, door prizes, and what not, we’re missing the point.  Of course the great commission calls us to go out and to share the gospel with all people, and yes we should do that, but I don’t think that luring them in with promises of commercial goods is the way to do it.  It cheapens the message of the gospel.  It says, whether it means to or not, “Jesus isn’t enough to get you to come to the church, so we’ll give you a prize if you do.”  The person who hears this message automatically assumes that the prize is the point instead of Jesus.   Looking at the advert above, I can’t see Jesus anywhere in there.  Looks like a party to me.

“I came that they might have life and have it more abundantly.”

“He who drinks of the living water will never be thirsty again.”

“I go to prepare a place for you that where I am you may also be.”

When did these words lose their power to draw people in?  When did we forget that the words of Jesus are enough for us and that we can share those words with courage and love and leave all the flashiness behind.  The feast of Easter is meant to celebrate the risen life of Christ.  It is meant to remind us of what we have placed our hope in and to remind us that death and sin do not have the final words on us.  It was not meant to be an occasion when we handed out free toasters at the door.  People are craving tangible signs of God’s grace; why can’t we give the world the sacraments?  Our outward and visible signs of the inward and spiritual graces of God could cure this hunger. Signs like Baptism, Eucharist, Reconciliation, confirmation, Ordination (for some), Marriage (for ALL people), and yes even burial are signs to the world that God loves us and cares for us.  Or have we lost these things and the power that they have.

God, I hope not.

Ash Wednesday

Have you ever seen it Aragorn? The White Tower of Ecthelion, glimmering like a spike of pearl and silver. Its banners caught high in the morning breeze. Have you ever been called home by the clear ringing of silver trumpets?”

“Come home”, Isaiah calls to us.  “Come home.”  Come away from all your needless and selfish toil and return to the place that you know, the place that you call home.  All these wanderings that have forced you to eat the pods that you cast before swine have left you alone in your dust, and have left you as used up and worthless as the ash that you now repent it, the ash which you yourself are made of.

Do you not know that it is God who has called you out of your captivity, and God himself who now calls after you, seeking your face?  It is God who stands on the brow of the hill watching and waiting for your return, the return of his beloved, his chosen one.

Yes, you were foolish and did things against this perfect union between God and man.  Yes you have sinned against God and your neighbor and did things which have made you unclean.  You have taken advantage of those who were vulnerable or made altars to your own vanity and worshipped there day and night; the hurt you have caused The LORD your God is great, but the harm and hardship you have cast upon your neighbor is greater.  And this sin cries out against you even more loudly.

But listen to the calling of the trumpets that are now blown for you, and begin to see in a mirror darkly your great transgression.  Leave the works of your own hands and realize that you are the work of the hands that formed the heavens and the earth. The one you have wronged longs to take you in his arms again.  The one whom you have spat upon longs to gird himself in a towel, wash your feet and make you whole again.

This gentle master and loving friend who has taught you the way to love others as you are loved wants to remind you of the gentle paths that follow beside the still waters and lead to verdant pastures.  This savior, mighty and willing to liberate wants to show you the weak points in the yokes of enslavement so that you too might set the captive free.

Cancel their debts.  Fill their stomachs. Forgive their trespasses.  For the one who has done this for you demands nothing less from you.  The one who has commanded that these trumpets sing out to herald your return commands that you also light the beacon and show others the way home.

Unsolved Mysteries

This is a sermon I wrote for my homiletics course.  Enjoy!

Feast of the Transfiguration

Tyler Richards

Unsolved Mysteries

When I was kid I can remember sitting in my grandparents’ living room in their mobile home with my eyes glued to the tv.  Robert Stack would appear and preview the slate of stories that would be revealed on that night’s episode of, you guessed it, Unsolved Mysteries.  I can still remember the very 1980s graphics rolling across the screen and the macabre xylophonic synth music that accompanied the show’s opener.   Personally, I thought that Robert Stack was a creepy old man, but the stories that he told about criminal cases, lost loves, unexplained history, and the paranormal captivated me and led me to wonder what kind of unsolved mysteries were lurking around my little village in rural Alabama.  I  wanted so badly to phone in to the show and have our stories told on the air.  Needless to say, in the one-horse town that I grew up in, not much happened, except the local legend of a UFO that appeared over a neighboring town once, but we all knew that it was just a top-secret military aircraft.  Nothing much to say about that, really.

But today, consider if you will, a story of three Galilean fishermen turned followers of a radical religious fanatic from Nazareth.  One Jesus, purportedly born to a virgin in the city of David has brought three of his followers: Peter, the son of John, and James and John the sons of Zebedee, to a mountain side in the wilderness of Israel.  What unfolds next, cannot be explained.  Please remember that the stories you are about to hear are reconstructed from actual biblical testimony

“ I didn’t know what was going on.” Peter tells us, One minute were walking up a mountain with Jesus to pray.  The next thing we know Jesus is glowing like the sun and Moses and Elijah Show up.”

“Well, John and I just sat there dumbfounded”, James tells us.” There was Jesus in dazzling clothes, and Moses and Elijah were just….they were just standing there talking to him like…like they were old friends.”

“Yeah”, Peter interjects,” I offered the three of us guys to build houses for the three of them, and then the voice of God told me to pipe down and to pay attention to Jesus.  We never told anybody what happened that day.  It was only until years later after Jesus had died and rose again that we said anything.  Honestly it still leaves me shaking when i think about it.” Robert Stack and the creepy music would probably come back to the screen at this point and give a teaser to keep us from changing the channel during the commercial break, and we would be left wondering what was going to happen next.

The idea of Peter, James and John appearing on an episode of Unsolved Mysteries may be a little farfetched, but the transfiguration remains a mystery of the faith that we just can’t fully wrap our minds around.  Jesus at his prayers suddenly being transfigured is something that we can scarcely imagine, explain, or understand.  We are captivated, silenced, and left in awe of what can only be described as…a mystery.

The word “mystery” comes from a greek word that means, basically, mystery.  It all boils down to not being able to put into words that which we see before us.  Try as we might we cannot always articulate those profound moments in life when we recognize that something unexplainable has happened to us or around us. We try and we stumble around in our our verbal soup and still don’t really come up with anything that improves upon the silence. Because there are some things that cannot be captured with words, but only appreciated, and meditated on.

The Bible tells of strange and amazing things happen to people who go up the mountain.  In today’s gospel reading we’re reminded of Moses who received the Law from the hand of God when he went up the mountain.  We also have Elijah who heard the voice of God in the midst of the sound of silence during his time on the mountainside. Mountains are the intersection of the heavens and the earth and the place where God often chose to meet humanity face to face.

Biblical scholars have paused, and marveled at what is happening with the Lukan account of the transfiguration…and then have promptly tried to explain it away.  Every explanation under the sun has been given about what was going on here.  Some have gone as far to explain how this scene is actually a carry over from an esoteric text that talks about an angelic messiah figure coming to save humanity, but I digress.  It leaves me wondering why is it that we need to explain it.  Jesus turned the water into wine, raised Lazarus from the dead, and fed the 5000 with a few loaves of bread and a couple of sardines.  For all of these marvelous events, there is simply no explanation.  Instead of trying to embrace the silence that our minds are struck with, we, like Peter try to fill the void of our wonder with words that simply are not necessary.

We live in a time when all the great mysteries of the world seem to be explained by science.  We no longer believe that the world is flat or that the Earth is the center of the universe for that matter, although there are some people who believe that they are. Long gone are the days when we believed stars were holes in the fabric of the cosmos and what we see is the light of heaven shining through or that there were terrible sea monsters lurking at the edges of the maps.  Yes, science tells us that the world is round and shaped by tectonic forces and revolves around the sun.  We now understand that stars are actually balls of gases held together by gravity burning millions of light years away.  But it cannot tell us what any of that means.  We can explain the how of almost everything that happens under the sun, but we cannot always say why it happens.  What was it about Jesus’ prayer that day that caused him to become luminous before the eyes of those disciples?  Why did Elijah and Moses show up on that mountain with Jesus?  Why did the voice of God tell Peter to shut up and listen to Jesus, who wasn’t really saying anything?  We may not gain answers to the questions until we come to the fullness of time.  But in embracing the mystery, and harnessing the power of our own silence, we may well encounter the glory of God and experience true wonder and awe.

Perhaps the greatest mystery is not the transfiguration, but the incarnation itself.  Jesus being transfigured into a glorified form certainly serves as a major turning point in Luke’s gospel and in the lives of the disciples who were there to witness it, but it cannot rival the mystery of the word made flesh that we encounter from week to week in the breaking of the bread.  God himself coming among us to live and die as one of us.  Ultimately all of Jesus’ miracles, including the transfiguration point us back to this central mystery, this central turning point in the lives of all of us who believe.  Even though we cannot explain the why or the how, those of us who have a relationship with Jesus know that without the mystery of the word made flesh life as we know it would be less abundant.

This mystery, my friends, is what has drawn us God’s Holy Mountain, to this moment, in  time when we have been brought together to learn to serve God’s people, and it will be these fleeting days that we look back on as a mystery that helped to shape a new generation of Priests in God’s one holy catholic and apostolic church.  It is a mystery that we cannot fathom, a mystery that we cannot explain, but it is a shimmering moment in time that we will forever cherish as a moment that followed us off this mountain and continues to speak to our hearts.

The day I was confirmed into The Episcopal Church serves as a major turning point in my life.  That day, perhaps more than any other before it, is the day that cemented the person that I am today.  Before that day, I was someone who had experienced at least a dozen incidents of being “saved” in my quest for God.  Before that day I had jumped from one denomination to another searching for a home and and a vantage point where I might see the face of God.  Before then I had, at best, a shallow understanding of what it was to be a Christian.  I kneeled down that day as a person who was looking for a home, and I rose up that day feeling, for the first time in my life, that I finally found a dwelling place under the shadow of God’s wings. Right smack dab in the middle of the mystery of God.

State of the Communion

So…The Primates have just wrapped up their meeting at Lambeth and already the news is rolling around that The Episcopal Church is Dead in the water.  There are those who are saying that we’re a branch of the Anglican church that has been suspended because of our stance on same-sex marriage.

Please don’t read the headlines.  Here’s what was actually said:

  1. We gathered as Anglican Primates to pray and consider how we may preserve our unity in Christ given the ongoing deep differences that exist among us concerning our understanding of marriage.
  2. Recent developments in The Episcopal Church with respect to a change in their Canon on marriage represent a fundamental departure from the faith and teaching held by the majority of our Provinces on the doctrine of marriage. Possible developments in other Provinces could further exacerbate this situation.
  3. All of us acknowledge that these developments have caused further deep pain throughout our Communion.
  4. The traditional doctrine of the church in view of the teaching of Scripture, upholds marriage as between a man and a woman in faithful, lifelong union. The majority of those gathered reaffirm this teaching.
  5. In keeping with the consistent position of previous Primates’ meetings such unilateral actions on a matter of doctrine without Catholic unity is considered by many of us as a departure from the mutual accountability and interdependence implied through being in relationship with each other in the Anglican Communion.
  6. Such actions further impair our communion and create a deeper mistrust between us. This results in significant distance between us and places huge strains on the functioning of the Instruments of Communion and the ways in which we express our historic and ongoing relationships.
  7. It is our unanimous desire to walk together. However given the seriousness of these matters we formally acknowledge this distance by requiring that for a period of three years The Episcopal Church no longer represent us on ecumenical and interfaith bodies, should not be appointed or elected to an internal standing committee and that while participating in the internal bodies of the Anglican Communion, they will not take part in decision making on any issues pertaining to doctrine or polity.
  8. We have asked the Archbishop of Canterbury to appoint a Task Group to maintain conversation among ourselves with the intention of restoration of relationship, the rebuilding of mutual trust, healing the legacy of hurt, recognising the extent of our commonality and exploring our deep differences, ensuring they are held between us in the love and grace of Christ.

    So, what does all this mean.  Well, actually for The Episcopal Church as a body…not much.  The Anglican Communion cannot dismiss us as a denomination.  We’re just fine in that respect.  In fact the Anglican Communion can’t really dismiss any of the churches that are a part of it.  As it says on the website for the Anglican Communion

    “There is no Anglican central authority such as a pope. Each Church makes its own decisions in its own ways, guided by recommendations from the Lambeth Conference, Anglican Consultative Council, the Primates’ Meeting and the Archbishop of Canterbury.”

Further, We’ve been suspended from acting in any of the ways they have barred us from acting in for a number of years…nothing has changed there, now they’re just saying the suspension will last for 3 years.  That’s all.

A friend of mine who is a priest in the diocese of Long Island put it this way…
“Before everyone loses their minds –
1) TEC was already suspended from all ecumenical dialogue, so this actually changes little (except, actually, giving a fixed time for the suspension);
2) It will be read as a big victory for Gafcon – which is how they will sell it back home.
3) In reality, Gascon has agreed to be a part of the same church as gay affirming churches without getting ACNA recognised or TEC removed.”

For those of you playing the home game wondering who GAFCON is look here.

The Anglican Communion was set up as a cooperative between different Anglican Churches, but they have no power over what any of those churches do.  Not even the Archbishop of Canterbury can affect another see.  The communion meets, consults, and issues recommendations.  That’s all, really.

So what does this mean for the Episcopal Church.  Really…nothing.  As far as anyone can tell we are going to keep doing what we are doing and loving God and his people the way we think they should be loved, as if they are all the same.  Jesus’ message was pretty clear on that point. So don’t think we’re going anywhere.  We are The Episcopal Church, and as always, All are invited, all are welcome.

I’m angry

I’m not sure that angry is a completely honest representation of what I’m feeling.  To be more clear, I’m pissed off.  

Yesterday, as you all know, more people died in San Bernidino at the hands of armed assailants and all the government cares to do about it is to offer prayers.  Now, while I appreciate the prayers that are being offered, what I’m watching and waiting to see is the action that comes along with those prayers.  It is a right and a good and a joyful thing to pray about everything.  We’re commanded to do that, and for many of us it is a way of life.  However, if we are truly going to be “The body of Christ” then we have got to stop being couch potatoes and get out there and do something about all these things that we are praying to God about.  

The interesting thing about prayer is that it changes us.  There’s something that happens in the transaction between ourselves and God that allows us to be more us and allows us to be filled with God’s presence power and peace.  But for us the work only begins there.  You want the hungry to be fed?  Great, go pray about it, and then go feed those people.  You want change in your government?  Great, Ask God to convict the hearts and minds of those who walk the halls of power and then blow up the phones in their offices, or, better yet, make yourself known to their offices in a very visible way, by showing up in them and asking to speak with the people you elected.  

The problem that comes when we look at prayer as simply a passive process is that it excuses us from participating in the reality that we believe prayer shapes.  Its like asking God to help you lose weight and then opening another 12 pack of cokes and a box of oreos while you wait for the fat to melt away.  It just doesn’t work that way.  God will give you the strength to get up on that treadmill or to get under that barbell, but you have to put the work in too.  

When the people of Israel cried out to God to end their bondage in Egypt, God took action, by working through a human agent to bring about change.  When the time came for God to perfect the plan of salvation, he sent an incarnate Son to us to show us the way.  Those of us who are partakers of The Eucharist know that the bread and the wine become very real vessels of the grace and the love of God.  Incarnation is a pivitol aspect of our faith that we, frankly, have done a piss poor job of incarnating.  

So don’t tell people you’re praying for their relief and then do nothing to bring about change.  Don’t ask God to affect a change that you’re not willing to do some legwork on.  Our faith requires us to both pray and to work for change.  We have to be both Mary at the feet of Jesus and Martha working to serve Christ all at the same time.  Pray, yes for goodness sake pray your heart out to God; then stand up and walk.  Go and do those miracles and make changes that astonish the world.  Be the poeple that God has called us to be that way when people ask where is God in all this, they might see God working through the hands and feet of his people.  Make your faith mean something, and allow it to be more than simply lipservice.  

  

What Seminary has been like

On August 1, 2013 I took to my Facebook profile and posted a picture from Green’s View at Sewanee and captioned it “ I live here now.” After a rather harrowing experience of trying to get myself to Sewanee, and the gift of a borrowed Honda Element from Selina Drewry, I had finally arrived at the place that God had called me to be, seminary. I was quite sure that the next three years of my life were going to be the longest years. I was leaving so much behind. Some of that was bad and most of it was good, but the point is everything that I knew was behind me as I sat on the edge of that bluff that day, and the unknown stretched out in front of me like a great green blanket. Fast forward to now, December 2, 2015, and I cannot, for the life of me, figure out where the time went. I now have one final semester on God’s holy mountain to go and a whole host of opportunities opening up in front of me.
Henry Betak asked me a couple of months back if I would write a piece for The Canterbury Tales to talk about what seminary has been like. I admit, at the time I thought it would be a pretty easy piece to write. I mean, I’ve been here for the last little while it should be clear to me, right? But as I sat down at the keyboard to try and tackle the experience, it proved to be much more difficult.
Seminary is like stacking your faith up like a tower of blocks, pulling out the bits that don’t fit right until your tower falls over, and then having someone to help you rebuild that tower again. Seminary is like having mysteries of your faith unrolled before you only to discover that those mysteries were somehow deeper, grander, and more mysterious than you had originally imagined. Seminary is being alone in your kitchen doing your dishes and hearing the voice of God tell you how much you are loved. Seminary is late night cups of tea, pints of beer, and glasses of Gin and tonic while you talk about what brought you there, who you were before, and who you think you are becoming (which you’re probably wrong about). It’s holding friends who are weeping because the process of letting go of your life before seminary is hard. Its laughing till you cry at jokes that only make sense to the people you are here with. It’s falling in love with God all over again. It’s falling in love with a girl from Minnesota. Its leaving everything you know behind, again, to go and hold the hands of those who are sick, dying, and those who are grieving the dead, all while having no clue what to say to any of them. It’s coming back again and asking everyone how hospital chaplaincy was, over and over and over again. Seminary means that you discover parts of yourself you hate, love and are ambivalent about. It means embracing the adventure that is your faith and your ministry in a way that might not make sense to everyone. It’s sitting down at a keyboard, thinking about what the last couple of years have been, and finding that all of it is quite indescribable and that God is still, even after you’ve studied God, mysterious, beautiful, grace-filled and ever present.
I know more now than I did when I left Canterbury on July 31, 2013. I know more about who I am and who God is calling me to be, and who God’s people are calling me to be. I feel like I know more about God, but…I can’t really tell you what that is, aside from God loves us completely. He is madly in love with who we are, and where we’ve been and where we’re going, and he wants us to share that with the world. I think that this underlying ethic teaches us more than we could learn in 100 lifetimes. It’s certainly been enough to keep me busy at Sewanee; and its more than enough to call me off of that mountain and to spur me on to the next adventure. I’m praying you’ll come with me on that one too, my dear faithful friends.