Be Transformed

We gaze into the face of God by having the courage to face the transforming gaze of Jesus Christ. I realized this during a visit several years ago to St. Catherine’s Monastery in Egypt. St. Catherine’s is one the world’s oldest monasteries—we’re talking sixth-century here.

St. Catherine’s Monastery, Sinai Peninsula, Egypt

It’s located in the Sinai desert, close to where Moses stood barefoot in front of the burning bush. Look up, and you will see Mt. Sinai on the top of which Moses received the Ten Commandments and the Law. Just over there, if you squint, you can see where God’s people worshipped the golden calf.

My group and I arrived at the monastery at sunrise. As I looked up at the mountains surrounding the monastery, I noticed little lights flickering in the distance. I asked our guide about the lights, and he explained that monks still live in the caves carved into the mountainside. The lights are fires to keep them warm at night.

They spend their days praying, studying the Bible and praying some more. That’s what type of place this is—it’s official name is the Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mt. Sinai. This is the site where God walked by Moses in the first reading that we heard today, where God still walks today.

We knocked on the ancient monastery door and we waited . . . and we waited some more . . . and we began to wonder if it would be rude to knock a second time.

Finally, we heard shuffling feet. The door creaked open and a monk right out of central casting stepped outside wearing long black robes. He had a black hat on and a long grey beard. He looked at us. We looked at him. There was an awkward pause, and then he said: “Welcome to St. Catherine’s. I’m from Detroit. Where are you from in the States?”

God has a great sense of humor. We had traveled thousands of miles, through Israel, Jordan, Egypt, the Sinai desert . . . we had come all that way to meet a monk from Detroit.

We learned that our friend from Detroit had an important responsibility. Get this: his job in the monastery was to scan the ancient Biblical manuscripts in their library—some of the rarest copies of the New Testament in existence—into digital files that would be posted on the internet for all to study and enjoy. The work was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Archimandrite Justin Sinaites, Librarian at St. Catherine’s Monastery, a.k.a. The Monk from Detroit

We also had the gift of seeing the icons in the monasteries’ collection, which is the most important collection of such paintings in the world. One of them is known as the Sinai Christ.

Sinai Christ
The Sinai Christ, St. Catherine’s Monastery, Egypt

What you notice most about this arresting portrait are Jesus’s eyes, and here I follow the interpretation of Tilden Edwards, an Episcopal priest.

One of the eyes (on the left-hand side) looks at you with gentle compassion, as if to say: “Come to me all you who are and weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.” When you gaze into that eye, you see a kindly shepherd who forgives you when you go astray from the flock, who picks you up when you fall and dusts you off.

The other eye is different. It burns with a passionate intensity. It’s a gaze that seeks to impart the transforming power of God to change us into someone who burns with wholeness and abundant life.

There’s nothing lukewarm about the other eye, nothing half-way. This is a vision of Jesus who wants all of us, body, mind and spirit, to be transformed by the fierce love of God.

Or as St. Paul writes so memorably in his letter to the Romans: “Don’t be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.”

We need to hear this message today with open ears and hearts. If there was ever a time not be conformed to this world, this is the time. Today, God is calling us to have the courage to face the transforming gaze of Jesus Christ.

We first witness our hunger to see God face-to-face in our reading today from Exodus.

Moses wants to see God face-to-face so that all mystery is dispelled, all faith is rendered unnecessary. Isn’t that what this story is about? Moses is tired of having faith in God. He wants evidence, incontrovertible proof that God is real and has called the people of Israel to be God’s special people.

“Are you with us or not, God?” he wonders. How many times have you asked a question like that lately? With Moses, we cry out, “God, show us your Glory,” the fullness of your presence. We’re tired of having faith, of this assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen, of taking your word for it. We want to know for sure that you are real and involved in our lives.

There’s just one problem: no one can see God and live. Or maybe another way to say it is that no one can see God and remain the same. Any encounter with God, even if it’s just a partial glimpse of God’s back, radically transforms our lives.

And so God shields Moses in the cleft of a rock—just like those monks in their caves by St. Catherine’s monastery—to protect him from seeing God face-to-face.

The take-away for us is that there is always, even on the most God-trodden places on earth like Mt. Sinai, something about God that is mysterious . . . unknown . . . left to faith rather than complete certainty.

This holds true even when we gaze into the eyes of Jesus Christ. Think of the Pharisees and Herodians in our Gospel story. They’re not in the cleft of a rock. They’re out in the open in the Jerusalem temple looking Jesus in the eye, and he is looking at them with passionate intensity, a gaze that seeks to transform rather than comfort them.

The Pharisees are religious authorities. The Herodians are our equivalent of a political party. Both groups, which under normal circumstances would be opposed to each other, find common ground in opposing Jesus, who teaches and lives with an authority that isn’t of this world.

They seek to entrap him, first with false flattery. The irony is that their flattery is entirely true. Jesus is sincere. He teaches the truth. He shows deference to one and he’s impartial. Every human being is worthy of his gaze.

But there’s something about the radiant light of Christ that causes us to hide in the cleft of the rock and to wear masks of hypocrisy. Jesus inquires: “Why do you put me to the test, you hypocrites?”

The test is this: if Jesus says it’s lawful religiously-speaking to pay taxes, then he will be considered an oppressor of his own people. The taxes on Jews living under the yoke of the Roman Empire were heavy and kept many people poor.

If he says that taxes aren’t legal, then he could be charged with sedition and punished by the Roman authorities. Jesus refuses to take their bait.

He knows that this isn’t a debate about taxes. Ultimately, it’s about how conformed we are to the world. The Pharisees and Herodians are utterly conformed to the world. Jesus is challenging them and us to be transformed by the renewing of our minds by having the courage to face his transforming gaze.

Every aspect of our lives can be changed when we look at Jesus face-to-face: our use of time and money, our care of God’s creation, our vocation and how we offer up our gifts for the common good. God wants all of you and me: body, mind and spirit.

I’d like to close today with a real-life example of someone who has had the courage to face the transforming gaze of Jesus. His name is Dr. Thomas Andrew, and he’s a 60-year-old medical examiner in New Hampshire.

In recent years, Dr. Andrew’s office has been completely overwhelmed by the opioid epidemic. He can barely keep up with the work of examining the bodies of those who have lost their lives to addiction.

dr thomas andrew
Photo: Todd Heisler, The New York Times

“It’s almost as if the Visigoths are at the gates, and the gates are starting to crumble,” explains Dr. Andrew. “I’m not an alarmist by nature, but this is not overhyped. It has completely overwhelmed us.” Read the full story here

This is exactly where you and I can witness the difference that faith makes in life, the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. Rather than giving into despair or resignation, or further conforming to the ways of this world, Dr. Andrew is going back to school, divinity school to be exact.

He hears God calling him to serve as a deacon in the Methodist Church and a counselor to families whose loved ones have fallen victim to addiction. He wants to do everything he can to offer up his time and talents so that far fewer people end up on the medical examiner’s table.

To make a change like that, to step out in faith, takes real courage. There’s nothing lukewarm, nothing half-way about such a move. That’s the gift that God wants to give us today: courage to act boldly.

May we have the courage to explore new vocations and creative use of our gifts. May we not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of our minds.

As we pray before the Sinai Christ, the Christ in Detroit or the Christ in our own backyard, may we all have the courage to face the transforming gaze of Jesus Christ and render all we are—body, mind and spirit—to God who loves us fiercely.

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, FL, on October 22, 2017.







Pour Out Your Abundance

“Pour upon us the abundance of your mercy,” we prayed together in the beginning of the service. Pour upon us . . . abundance . . . mercy. Good words, good themes for a difficult week.

As we gather today to worship God, we’re deeply aware of our need for God’s mercy. We’re mindful of those whose lives were cruelly taken last Sunday night during the concert in Las Vegas and those who are re-building their lives after hurricanes. Many of us come here today exhausted by the political storms that divide our nation.

Today, I want you to open up—body, mind and spirit—to God’s healing power. I pray that you will meet Jesus in God’s Word, Sacrament and in the faces and lives of each other. I hope you will breathe deeply of the Holy Spirit, the Divine Comforter who is as close to us as our next breath.

In the parable that Jesus tells us today—a story as haunted by violence as our own world—we hear the good news that God seeks to pour out the abundance of God’s mercy on us. In a world so often stunted by scarcity, our God shares with us an abundant harvest.

Another name for this abundance is spiritual treasure. These are the moments of our lives when we know that God is with us. When we recall them, they strengthen our faith, fill us with hope, build up our resilience and propel us to act and witness in the world to our faith.

Every person has a reserve of spiritual treasure from which to draw, and in the coming week, my hope is that you will spend some time thinking about your treasure. When have you been on holy ground? When have you sensed that God was especially close to you? Where have you glimpsed the abundant harvest of God in the vineyard of ordinary life?

Here’s a personal example. It involves my very first sermon, which I offered to 30 souls at the Church of St. Luke-in-the-Fields in New York City, my internship parish during seminary. As I prepared for that sermon, I was terrified. Who was I, in my twenties with just a year of seminary under my belt, to be preaching to anyone?

I spent the better part of the week leading up to the sermon doubting myself and my ability to preach. But then, out of the blue, I remembered a moment from childhood. This is what I mean by spiritual treasure.

When I was in middle school, I was asked by my parents to read Scripture at a memorial service for my grandfather. I don’t remember the Scripture. I was asked spur of the moment, so I didn’t have any time to prepare. I just got up and read from the Bible as best as I could. As I read the Scripture publicly, God poured out abundant mercy on me. It was overwhelming but not scary.

I felt like God was using me as an instrument to communicate a message to comfort my family. I could see it in their eyes after I finished reading. God’s Word had given them real hope.

I couldn’t describe it then with words, but what I realized that day was the power and authority of the Gospel message, a message that is communicated through individuals for the building up of the whole community.

Some of the finest readings of Scripture I’ve ever heard have been right here in this church, many of them by our youth lectors. As our young people read with skill, conviction and understanding, God’s Word comes alive. We’ve all felt it.

“You can be twelve-years-old and bring God’s Word alive just by reading it well. What matters most is the Gospel itself.” That’s what I told myself as I prepared for the sermon.

But I still was a nervous wreck. After the opening procession, I looked out over the congregation and couldn’t believe my eyes. I literally did a double-take. One of the 30 souls in attendance, sitting in the back of the church, happened to be Frank Griswold, the Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church.

frank griswold
The Most Rev. Frank T. Griswold

My first response was something like this: “This is going to be a disaster. You’re going to make a fool of yourself in front of the Presiding Bishop.” But then I heard a different voice: “This is about the Gospel, not you. Just preach and trust in me.”

And so that’s what I did. At the door, Bishop Griswold poured out the abundance of God’s mercy on me. He encouraged me, shook my hand and went on his way.

Spiritual treasure: that’s what these moments are. Occasions when God has poured out the abundance of God’s mercy on us, when we’ve experienced God’s goodness first-hand. When we recall this abundant treasure, our faith is strengthened, we’re filled with joy, our resilience is built up and we’re called by God to act.

Every one of you has spiritual treasure to share. Moments, experiences, occasions when God has come close, when Jesus has walked by your side, when the Holy Spirit has warmed your heart. Every child of God made in God’s image is a royal treasury. Sometimes that spiritual treasure is buried by doubt, pain, greed, pride, or just plain forgetfulness . . . but it’s still there.

That’s the thing to remember. No one or nothing can rob us of that treasure even if it’s buried. In the church, we can help each other recover buried treasure as we worship, study God’s Word and apply it to our lives, enjoy each other’s company and serve others in the name of Christ.

Listening to each other is crucial. Last Sunday, fifteen new members joined St. John’s. During the New Member’s Class, each person shared their story. It’s amazing what spiritual treasure we recovered in that brief time.

We experienced God as we ministered with the sick in a hospital or with the dying in hospice care. We met Jesus through church music or by walking the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail in Spain. We discovered the treasure of finally finding a church where we’re truly welcome, where we could prepare for the birth of our first child, where we could put our faith into action, where we could grow spiritually during retirement.

Here’s a refrain that we heard often: “When I got to St. John’s, I felt at home.”

In the news, sometimes you see listings of the world’s wealthiest people, billionaires many times over. Don’t pay any attention to those lists. They don’t measure what’s most important. The wealthiest person in the world is sitting right next to you in the pew. They’re a royal treasury. God has poured the abundance of God’s mercy upon them and upon us all, and we’re called by God today to pour out that treasure upon others.

That’s the message of our readings, especially Jesus’ parable about a vineyard entrusted to violent tenants. The key to this story is that it’s harvest time. We can’t lose sight of God’s abundance in the vineyard. But as Jesus proclaims elsewhere in Scripture, the harvest may be plentiful, but the laborers are few.

They’re few because the tenants―meaning the religious leaders listening to Jesus’ story―consider the vineyard their possession rather than God’s creation. And even though it’s harvest time and the grapes are abundant, they insist on seeing the vineyard as a place of scarcity.

Forgiveness is rationed to the worthy. Mercy is doled out to those who’ve earned it. Grace is spared for those who’ve followed all the rules. There just isn’t enough of God’s love to go around in this vineyard. But Jesus shows us that this vineyard is a place of abundance, not scarcity. In God’s harvest, there’s enough for everyone.

As fellow workers in the vineyard, we’re called to stewardship, not possession. We come into this world with nothing, and we will leave this world with absolutely nothing except the spiritual treasure that God has poured upon us.

I was reminded of this idea of spiritual treasure by one of the living saints of the church, Claude Payne. He’s the retired Bishop of Texas and at age 85, he’s just getting started. We spoke on the phone this week.

During our conversation, he shared with me some of his spiritual treasure. When he was in middle school, his rector invited him to join the flower delivery ministry at his church just like we have here at St. John’s. Volunteers take the altar flowers and, after worship, arrange them and then deliver flowers to sick and homebound members.

One Easter Day, Payne knocked on the door of an elderly woman who lived by herself. When she found out that he was delivering flowers on behalf of the church, her face changed. It was like she was suddenly filled with God’s light. In her expression, Payne could glimpse God’s abundant mercy.

If you think about it, he didn’t do much. He drove over to the woman’s house with his parents. He knocked on her door and smiled. He told her through his very presence that her church loved and valued her. Yet, the change in her expression when she received the flowers stayed with Bishop Payne for life; that moment became part of his spiritual treasure.

He had forgotten about this memory until recently. It was buried treasure. He had never realized how important it was to his life and ministry, but it was there all along. How many moments like this have you had in your own life?

You and I can help each other discover that treasure. In prayer and worship, in sharing and listening to each other’s stories, in simple acts of service like delivering flowers, in our financial stewardship, we can pour out the abundance of God’s mercy on each other.

Carol and I tithe to St. John’s. It’s the first gift we make each month. We made a capital campaign pledge that stretched us. We’ve included a planned gift in our wills for the St. John’s Foundation, a gift that we hope will not be realized anytime soon.

We’ve made those commitments not out of duty or obligation, but of joy and gratitude for God’s abundant mercy in our lives. It truly is a joy to give when you see the impact of this church on our lives and the lives of our children.

When our sons are serving at Grace Mission or in Cuba, or bringing home sharp tools from the Man Cave at the St. John’s Market, or carrying the cross as acolytes in worship services, I know that they, in their own way, are building up spiritual treasure.

Treasure like this is what matters most. Moments of God’s abundance in our lives strengthen our faith, fill us with hope, build up our resilience and propel us to share God’s abundance with others.

As you leave here today and go out into the world, remember that the harvest is indeed plentiful. May God bless us and give us courage as we continue to work side-by-side in the vineyard.

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee, Florida, on October 8, 2017

The Art of Losing

Earlier this week, my son asked me one of those questions that gives you pause as a parent, even if you’re a father who also happens to be a priest.

“Dad,” he wondered. “Is the world coming to an end?”

How many of you have asked that question recently? Storms and hurricanes of Biblical proportions affecting so many in our area and the world. Earthquakes shaking Mexico.

Leaders on the world stage resorting to playground name-calling, men with nuclear codes and powerful weapons that truly could end the world.

“Is the world coming to an end?” Not a far-fetched question to be asking ourselves these days.

We don’t need to follow the news to know that we are, in the words of our opening prayer, “placed among things that are passing away.”

This week, we lost two saints of the church: Fr. Harry Douglas and Charlotte Watkins.

Fr. Harry, better known here at St. John’s as the “Voice of God,” is an irreplaceable child of God who shared Christ-like love with so many people through the years.

He served this church, along with his friend, Lee Graham, like a modern-day Moses during a time when we wandered in the wilderness.

If Fr. Harry was Moses, then Charlotte Watkins was Miriam, a woman of strong faith who founded, along with other visionaries, Church of the Advent here in Tallahassee.

A caring, beautiful soul, I will remember Charlotte as a gardener. She lived a couple of blocks away from me, and when I walked by her home, I often saw her out among her flowers and plants, tilling the soil like we’re called to do in the Book of Genesis.

In Charlotte and Fr. Harry, we’ve lost two pillars of the church and our community. We grieve their loss and the loss of so much in this transitory life:

The death of a loved one or of an important relationship . . . the loss of a sense of vocation or being treated like a valued employee at your place of work . . . the loss of faith or security.

The poet, Elizabeth Bishop, knew all about loss. She even called it an art form. Here’s a couple of stanzas from One Art:

“The art of losing isn’t hard to master; so many things seem filled with the intent to be lost that their loss is no disaster. Lose something every day. Accept the fluster of lost door keys, the hour badly spent. The art of losing isn’t hard to master.”

Elizabeth Bishop

Except that it is. Bishop knew it. We know it. As hard as writing a masterful poem, as hard as living with loss. Losing is hard for all of us in this world in which we’re placed among things that are passing away.

But our opening prayer doesn’t stop there. Even as we’re placed among things that are passing away, we can hold fast to that which endures.

That’s the question that I want for us to reflect on today. What can we count on to endure forever? What can we hold fast to?

This week, as I pondered these questions and my son’s query about the end of the world, I thought first of a great hymn by Charles Wesley: Love divine, all loves excelling. The final stanza goes like this:

“Finish then thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be; let us see thy great salvation perfectly restored in thee: changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place, till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love and praise.”

Wonder, love and praise: you could do a lot worse than beginning with those three in your list of things that will endure, of things we can hold fast to.

Let’s begin with wonder, with awe, with the people of Israel learning in the wilderness the art of losing. They’ve lost their homes and their Crock Pots brimming with Sunday roasts. They’ve misplaced their sense of self-sufficiency, and, on the way . . . they’ve also lost the chains of their slavery.

God’s people forget about their slavery in Egypt now that they’re struggling to live in the wilderness.

Immediately, they cry out: “God, take us now. We can’t live like this. Bring us back to Egypt, where we at least had food and shelter and Crock Pots but had lost all sense of living in a sacred world, a place of enchantment with soil so holy that our brother, Moses, took off his shoes in a spirit of awe.

What if the wilderness that God’s people find themselves in—perhaps the very same wilderness in which we find ourselves living in today—is a school in wonderment, a testing ground to learn the art of losing so that we can gain those things that truly endure?

And so we hunger. Hunger for freedom. Hunger for justice. Hunger for reconciliation. Hunger for peace.

And rather than relying on the bread we store up in our cupboards and bank accounts we learn, sometimes the hard way, to rely on manna from heaven, from water flowing from the rocks that litter the landscape of our lives.

As adults, we know that we can’t get completely lost in child-like wonder and imaginative play. We’ve lost that gift.

But we can, as people of faith, receive from the hand of God a “second naivete,” a new creative spirit that makes it possible to look at the world and the people around us with wonder, with awe, with profound gratitude.

This is what it means for us to be born again, to experience second birth.

In our reading today, Moses and Aaron tell all the Israelites: “In the evening you shall know that it was the Lord who brought you out of the land of Egypt, and in the morning you shall see the glory of the Lord.”

In this re-enchanted world, in the morning and the evening, you will take off your shoes in reverence. God is present wherever you turn.

There is new freedom. All of creation glows with holiness, and in the faces and lives of each other you see God’s glory. Nothing, no one is disposable, for God loves and cares for all of creation, which is a sacred mystery.

How would a vision like this change how you view the people close to you? The child or grandchild you help get ready for school, the co-worker down the hall, the spouse who brings you coffee in the morning, the plants and trees in your backyard or the park just down the road . . . all of them aglow with God’s glory.

That’s what the wilderness is for: to master the art of losing, to know what we can let go of in this world of things that pass away and to learn to hold fast to that which will endure.

Things like wonder, and don’t forget about love, a word so common that’s it’s hard for it to mean much to us. But that word gets to the heart of our life in the Living God in whom we live and move and have our being. To live in God is to live a life full to overflowing with loving relationships.

To grasp this, go no further than the Holy Trinity. Our God is a community of loving relationships, three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, who love each other, who move in a dance of humble self-giving.

I had a chance, a while back, to visit with Fr. Harry and his wife, LiAnne at their home. By that time, Fr. Harry was more or less bound to his bed. As I sat by his bedside and talked with him, he shared with me that he spent a lot of time each day thinking about God. Ever the theologian, he was still puzzling about God and wondering.

We both had a good laugh when he shared with me that he was still composing sermons, preaching to the angels and archangels and whomever would listen.

But mostly, he connected with God in unceasing prayer. In this world of things that pass away, he was holding fast to his relationship with our Triune God, to his relationships with his family members and friends. Those relationships, held together by love, are the things that truly endure.

When you leave here today, I want you to be mindful of your relationships at home and work, with neighbors close by or far away. Consider all of them a foretaste of the relationships to come when we will live eternally with God and each other, lost in wonder, love and praise.

That’s the note I want to end on today: praise. Because that why you’re here today. To praise God. To offer up your life and labors, your body, mind and soul to the One who doesn’t pass away, to the One whose love and mercy endure forever.

We can praise God by ourselves, but the fascinating thing is that God assembles us to praise God together. God won’t rest until we rest in God as a community.

We see that in our Gospel reading today. This is a parable about a God who won’t rest until we’re all working side-by-side in the vineyard serving and praising God.

God goes out looking for laborers at sunup, 9 o’clock, noon, three and five o’clock. Every time God goes out, God finds people standing around.

God asks one group: “Why are you standing here idle all day?” They answer: “Because no one hired us.” He said: “You also go into the vineyard.”

No one is disposable. God desires everyone to go into the vineyard to labor, to work side-by-side, to praise God.

This story was on my heart as I met for the very first time with our strategic planning team this week. We already have a theme: the very appropriately-named Fruits of the Vineyard.

You might remember that our plan six years ago, a Spirit-led dream that we fully lived into, was called Visioning the Vineyard.

You can have confidence in the team of more than twenty committed lay leaders and staff members, which includes two high school students and two college students.

Over the summer, the team worked their way through a reading packet, some of which had to do with the fastest growing segment in American society: the None’s, as in those who claim no religious affiliation.

Many of these individuals were once part of religious communities but found them to be places consumed by power, greed or divisive issues. In short: wilderness places devoid of God.

Here’s the thing: God, in God’s gracious generosity, wants all of us working in the vineyard and praising God together.

And so while I have no idea where we’re heading with our next strategic plan—that’s something that you and I and the strategic planning team will discern together over the next year—this much I do know: the plan will have special concern for those standing idle outside the vineyard.

Church should be a place where we encounter the living God and grow closer to our neighbors, a community where we can practice the art of losing ourselves in wonder, love and praise. Fr. Harry and Charlotte knew that and they lived it faithfully day-by-day.

Which brings me back to my son’s question. It took me all week, but I think I finally have an answer to his question:

Yes, the world is ending. Every day we are placed among things that pass away, and we grieve those losses. They break our hearts because our hearts are filled to overflowing with love. Yet, we are not to be anxious or fearful, because we can through faith hold on to what endures: to wonder, love and praise of a God who will never let us go.

A sermon preached at St. John’s Episcopal Church, Tallahassee on Sunday, September 24, 2017.






Peaks, Valleys and Surfing in Hawaii

Our sons (and the Holy Spirit) were right: Hawaii was the perfect sabbatical destination for our whole family. We ascended Mauna Kea, a volcano down which people snow ski, yes, snow ski in Hawaii, only to go to the beach later that same day. The peak  is at more than 13,000 ft., accessible only by 4-wheel-drive vehicle. Since we had a minivan, we played it safe–cue groans of disappointment from our sons–and stayed at 9,000 ft. at the Visitor Center. The stars that night were absolutely stunning. It was like being in a planetarium on steroids. This is the area that is home to the finest astronomical observatories in the world. While there, the words of the prophet Amos came to mind:

Seek him who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning, and darkens the day into night; who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the surface of the earth. The Lord is his name. (5:8)

Other peaks included the Waimea Canyon (think Grand Canyon in Hawaii) and the Na Pali Coast on the island of Kauai. This was our view from a hike that turned into a wonderfully muddy quagmire with a lot of slips, falls and laughter at each other’s expense. All that blue meeting the clouds is the Pacific Ocean:

Now for the valleys. I won’t easily forget our mule ride through Waipi’o Valley, a remote area on Hawaii’s Big Island in which many of Hawaii’s former kings are buried. This sacred area is now home to a small community of people who brave a dirt road that descends into the valley at a 25% gradient. We also trekked through lava fields in order to reach this vantage point, where we were truly present at the creation. Here, at Volcano National Park, lava falls into sea, forming new land in real time.

Other highlights: a snorkeling party interrupted by an uninvited guest, an inquisitive tiger shark. Thank God that everyone got back to the boat safely. Hawaiian shave ice and Ahi tuna–I could eat that tuna every day of my life! And don’t forget about surfing (for me, the very first time).

I anticipated that I would be hopelessly bad at surfing. My balance and agility are generally embarrassing, two qualities that are important in surfing. Yet, through God’s grace and good instruction, I managed to catch serveral waves, as did all the Killeens. I was especially proud of Carol, who caught a wave and surfed immediately.

My instructor told me that when the waves were approaching, I was paddling too hard. I needed to relax and just go with the wave more. Think there might be any spiritual take-ways there? Here’s a photo of the Killeens after our lesson in Kona, where the Ironman triathlon is held each year:

Currently, I’m with my extended family in Spring Lake, NJ, after a brief retreat at Holy Cross Monastery in West Park, NY (right across the river from Hyde Park, where FDR’s home and library are located). Early in my ministry, I went for spiritual direction at the monastery with Br. Douglas Brown, who is now deceased. It meant a lot to me to be able to pay my respects and pray at Douglas’s place of burial, a columbarium niche in the monastery’s Founder’s Chapel. Also at the monastery was a large group of Episcopal young adults who were preparing for global missionary service. Their faith and enthusiasm were inspiring.

Spring Lake, also known in New Jersey circles humorously as the Irish Riviera–you will see more redheads on the beach here than anywhere else in the world!–is an old Victorian Jersey-shore town with very little in the way of attractions other than a boardwalk built by the WPA in the 1930s. It’s a special place for our family.

Now that folks live all over the country, it’s the place where we gather. It brings me such joy to see the boys having fun and making memories with their cousins. Last night, we went to the beach and watched several fireworks displays, as many towns along the coast were observing Independence Day.

I spent yesterday reading the Declaration of Independence, as well as David McCullough’s The American Spirit. “We mututally pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor . . .” Thank you, Thom. Jefferson! McCullough’s book is just what we need right now–I hope you’ll read it, too.

Next week, I head to a retreat center in Marriottsville, MD, for a seminar on contemplative spirituality for clergy offered by the Shalem Institute. More on this experience next week, which is my last stop before I return home to Tallahassee.

I miss y’all very much and am praying for you daily. This has been the opportunity of a lifetime for which we are so grateful.

Contemplative Action: Visting Catherine of Siena’s Home

A Friend Writes: in my last post, I wrote that the hills of Tuscany, up and down which my dad and I would be riding bicycles for a week, would be “gentle.” I was wrong. They were anything but gentle. In fact, they were really difficult. Some climbs were 5-6 miles long. My legs were not happy, but it did mean that we could eat whatever we wanted given all the calories we were burning. The Tuscan cuisine is second-to-none–everything is so fresh and delicious.

The Tuscan countryside, resplendent with olive trees and Chianti vineyards, was the most breathtaking place I’ve ever ridden. What a gift to be there with my father. Here is the town of Lecchi, population 80, where we stayed, and a photo of the landscape:

One of the best parts of the cycling tour of which we were a part was the opportunity to see some cultural sights. One day, our group of 12 traveled into the ancient city of Siena. This photo was taken just inside the city walls next to the church where Catherine of Siena worshipped.

Catherine (1347-80) lived quite a life. As a child, already she was recognized as a mystic. She became a Dominican nun known for  her visions and contemplative devotion. But she was also someone in whom Mary and Martha, contemplation and action, were fused together. She courageously attempted to broker peace among warring states in Italy. Her faith inspired her peacemaking and diplomacy. While in Siena, I prayed in Catherine’s home (now a church) and in the church in which her relics (including her skull!) are located. It was very powerful to just be still before the Lord in those holy places.

Sabbatical update: previously, I wrote that Carol, the boys and I would soon be heading to Hawaii. Some of you may have scratched your heads and said, “Wait a minute, I thought they were going to Italy and England.” Back in April, when we were still planing the sabbatical (and hadn’t booked anything yet), the Killeen boys called a family meeting. They patiently explained to us that while we (Mom and Dad) really wanted to go to Europe, they had something else in mind: learning to surf in Hawaii.

Carol and I almost fell out of our chairs. Going to Hawaii was about the farthest thing from our minds, but we immediately grasped that God was up to something. After months of plotting and planning and managing every little sabbatical detail, I think this was God’s way of saying: “Aloha. Chill out and rest in me rather than all of your plans.” We looked at each other, laughed very hard, and concluded: “I guess we’re going to Hawaii.” I write to you from the island of Kauai, which is astonishingly beautiful. More pictures and stories to come soon.

A Friend Writes

Welcome to this blog, which I’ve begun during sabbatical. I’ll get to the sabbatical in a moment, but first, an explanation of how I came up with my blog’s name.

I’m eternally grateful to all of my teachers, all of whom saw potential in me. I’m especially thankful for my English teachers, who taught me to think and write clearly.

In particular, I’m thinking today of Mrs. Aumiller and Mrs. Diesenhof, who taught me during my senior year at Ramsey High School in northern New Jersey. It’s fitting that I write to you today from Ramsey, where I’m staying with my parents prior to my trip to Italy with my father. More on that in a moment.

The best class that I took in high school was actually a class in English composition for freshman at Syracuse University. Through a special partnership with Syracuse, Ramsey High offered the class for college credit, which was much less important to me than the course content.

For homework, we were given my dream assignment: to read the New Yorker magazine. And not only read it: we were asked to write essays based on the Talk of the Town short essays in the front of the magazine. As readers of the New Yorker know, many of those essays begin with these words: “A friend writes . . .”

That phrase has stuck with me through the years. It assumes a closeness between writer and reader, a friendship, a relationship in which people desire the best for each other.

It’s in that spirit that I begin my blog. In writing this, I hope that in some small way my words will move, interest, and edify you, whom I consider a friend.

Sabbatical update: I’m a little over a month into a three-month sabbatical. So far, I’ve ridden my bicycle more in a month than I have in years. I’ve gone out into the country roads around Tallahassee for several 4-hour rides during which I’ve had a lot of time to think, listen and pray. On these rides, I’ve also been preparing for a bike tour in Tuscany, for which my dad and I depart today.

It’s been 10 years since the last bike tour that we completed together. We were both younger then and thought nothing of ascending and descending the Tour de France climbs in the French Alps. We’re both looking forward to the gentler hills of Tuscany, not to mention the famous cuisine, which we’ll be able to enjoy guilt-free after cycling all day! We’ll also have the opportunity to visit Siena. In the near future, you can expect a post about one of the church’s mystic leaders, Catherine of Siena. I hope to visit her home and the church dedicated in her name.

Other sabbatical news: I’ve enjoyed time with my family, especially on the weekends. Jazz Fest in New Orleans, where we saw Leon Bridges, Marc Broussard, Alabama Shakes and many other excellent artists, was so much fun. I also brought my son, Paul, to a soccer tournament near Tampa. His team brought home the championship trophy.

I’ve been reading a lot on the Desert Fathers and Mothers and contemplative spirituality, including: Rowan Williams, Silence and Honey Cakes. Henry Nouwen, The Way of the Heart. Annie Dillard, Teaching a Stone to Talk. John O’Donohue, Anam Cara. Fiction: Jonathan Saffran Foer, Here I Am. Making my way through Jonathan Franzen’s Purity. Poetry: reading St. John’s own Christine Poreba’s Rough Knowledge. Also, the Library of America’s Collected Poems of W.S. Merwin. I’m reading Merwin as I prepare to visit Hawaii for the first time with my family. The poet has lived on Maui for most of his life, and the natural beauty of that place informs his work. More on Hawaii in the next post.

Mostly, what I feel right now is gratitude. I’m so grateful for this opportunity to step back, breathe deeply, and open my mind, body and spirit to God’s renewing love and grace.