Cathedral of St. James South Bend Francis of Assisi Garrison Keillor Henri Nouwen Ignatius of Loyola Julian of Norwich Meister Eckhart St. Anne's Episcopal Church

The Episcopal Church Saved My Life, Mister

You’ve heard people say this: “Your book saved my life, Mister.” Garrison Keillor has written a great short story with the same name about a reader who meets the author of a life-saving (for him) book. Sometimes people’s lives are moved to change or transformation by a book, a film or other form of artistic expression. What is it about art that reaches down inside and mixes it up for us? I think it is because art speaks wordlessly to deeper things our hearts and minds recognize and to which they respond.

I ventured into the Episcopal Church with serious intent twenty-five years ago. Life had become a train-wreck for me, and only God could pull me through–at least that was my hope then. Good thing to hope in God at that time, because God acted. In the love I experienced from others, God touched me profoundly. When I felt most alone and unlovable God brought accepting, loving friends into my life and proved to me otherwise.

Earlier I mentioned art and its power to transform. When done well, liturgical worship becomes transformational art (this isn’t coming out right!), not JUST or ONLY art, for it is Good News–Gospel! But liturgical worship moved me profoundly those early days in my becoming Episcopalian; something in the way in which we worship speaks profoundly deep within me, and I sense and find God in liturgy in ways that I never experienced God before. I still do.

Looking back twenty-five years, not much in my life seemed headed in a positive direction nor did I feel much to live for. Things felt fatally bad for me then. I lost 15 lbs in two weeks. Slept most of the time. Cried way too much. The only thing that I felt I had going for me was that my mother needed me to drive her around–Dad had just died in January and she simply didn’t feel like driving anymore that winter and spring of 1984–and that I had started going to the Episcopal Church, St. Anne’s Episcopal Church, in Warsaw, Indiana. Through entering that community, God touched me in a new way. I had been a “Christian” my whole life, for as long as I could remember, but at St. Anne’s (and later at the Cathedral of St. James, in South Bend) the love of God touched me like God had never touched me before. I felt as if I had come back to life: resurrected, sort of.

For the past twenty-five years, half of my entire life up to now, I have been feeling pretty blessed beyond belief. I believe it comes from my desire to try to follow in the footsteps of Jesus. I have never done this perfectly, but feel I am getting more proficient at it, all these years later. I know this sounds weird, but I have discovered that He helps me with it. I get better at it when I ask Jesus for help with it. The same is true for all who aspire to be his disciple. When we ask, He helps us. Makes sense when you think about it; all good teachers do this kind if thing, help their students who ask for help.

I have found good teachers in the Episcopal Church, as well, and have read and learned from the lives of saints: Francis of Assisi, Meister Eckhart, Julian of Norwich, Ignatius of Loyola, Henri Nouwen, to name a few. The wisdom gained from these lives, these disciples of Jesus had never been tapped for me before, and I still drink deeply from them. Anglicanism has brought me a sense of swimming in the river of Church history–of salvation history–like no other church had before. From these currents I find much to strengthen and inform my own walk in Christ. Oh, not to mention the heavy emphasis on scripture reading in our worship; never before have I spent as much time in the Gospels as I have since joining the Episcopal Church. And guess what? I know Jesus better! There is actually more to the New Testament than the writings of Paul. Go figure.

So this Easter, I want to say thank you again to God for bringing me this way, screaming and kicking and fighting–and being a knucklehead at times. Thanks for your patience, God. I give thanks because since you haven’t given up on me, it makes it easier for me to not give up on myself. We human beings are so quick to chuck ourselves under the bus with criticism, yet God’s love abides. I’m getting that finally, and applying it toward myself. Less of knucklehead on that one these days.

And joy! The Episcopal Church is the first church in which I ever experienced holy joy in being at church and worshiping with others. Joy in fellowship, joy at coffee hour. Or maybe that’s just me, and the way it hits me being in this freedom that God’s grace provides and gives. Holy freedom. What a life transforming concept. Like… resurrection. And art. May my life be holy art, Lord, crafted in your image with thanksgiving for this freedom.

Alleluia! Christ is risen, indeed! And so am I, Alleluia!

Bishop Kirk Smith Episcopal Diocese of Arizona Ignatius of Loyola Jesuit Order National Cathedral

What’s a Canon to the Ordinary? One Year Later.

It strikes me as almost inconceivable that one year has passed since my leaving Greenville, South Carolina, and St. James Episcopal Church, to join the staff of Bishop Kirk Smith in the Episcopal Diocese of Arizona, but today marks that anniversary. My, that year seems to have gone quickly, and in many respects it has. But on the other hand, it has been a slow, deliberate process of settling into this ministry, learning the dynamics of diocesan leadership and how to serve as the bishop’s chief clergy assistant. What a rewarding year and life changing, growing experience.

In rereading my blog posts from last year, writing about when I started, I noticed that I failed to mention that I actually started this new ministry last year by flying to Washington, D.C. and attending the Gathering of Leaders conference (GOL) at National Cathedral. What a surreal experience that was—not the National Cathedral; I’ve been there before and love the opportunity to go any time that I can, and I wholeheartedly commend it to you.

What struck me as surreal was that on Sunday, September 30, 2007, I woke up as rector of St. James Episcopal Church, in Greenville, SC, and the next morning, I was no longer that priest, that rector that I had been for a little over seven years. No, on Monday morning, October 1, 2007, I woke up as the bishop’s Canon to the Ordinary in Arizona, would be representing him and the people of Arizona at this conference, and I wasn’t yet living there, and had only been there twice before, both times during the July and August just past.

It was all a little overwhelming, to be honest—surreal, in one sense of the word, “the irrational juxtaposition of images.” The image I had of myself didn’t match up with the image I had stepped into; I felt a little awkward at the GOL, because I didn’t feel like I knew what the Canon to the Ordinary did well enough to represent Arizona properly.

It didn’t matter; people understood I was brand new, and I relaxed a great deal. Then, on October 6, I arrived in Phoenix, and began my work in the diocese proper.

Now, one year later, I am more relaxed about this role and ministry position, and I have to tell you, I am having a wonderful time doing what I do and with those whom I work on a daily basis. Bishop Smith has assembled a top-flight staff of talented people committed to his vision for the diocese, and together, under his leadership, with the clergy and people of the Diocese of Arizona and with God’s help, we are working hard to bring it about, to spread the kingdom of God in this state.

For this, I give thanks to God. I thank God for the spiritual growth that has taken place in me; for the spiritual growth, maturity, and excited energy taking place in congregations with whom I have had the privilege of working; for bringing my family safely here and having them grow into a new life in the valley of the sun. I thank God for the amazing clergy that I have met in congregations located around the diocese, for the talented and dedicated lay leadership that serve in our churches, and for the many, many committed youth and young adults who want to grow in their relationship with Jesus and want to share his transforming love with others.

Much work remains to be done; I go to bed each night knowing that work will be there for me the next day, but I can leave it alone as needed for the sake of my family and my own health. I have personal goals of improved physical health and conditioning, and for spiritual growth and disciplines, goals toward which I take steps everyday and week—well, most days of the week.

Yet being here has shaped me, has challenged me, and has brought about growth in me in ways unexpected, and in ways I have been praying for over months, if not years. I am grateful for the opportunity to serve here, and for the blessings that have come our way—even amidst the challenges of resettling into a community where we knew no one. Sometimes, it is very lonely still.

Thank you, Bishop Smith for calling me; thank you to Chuck who asked me to consider this ministry; thank you God for asking more of me and my life, for that is really all I want to do—to serve as You would have me serve.

There is a prayer from the Ignation tradition (Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit Order) that has been a part of my personal prayers ever since I became an Episcopalian. It goes like this:

Wherever your glory be best served, whenever, however, there, then and in that state let me your servant be; only hide not from me your Divine Love. Help me to trust you to the uttermost. Teach me to serve you as you deserve; to give, and not to count the cost; to fight, and not to heed the wounds; to toil, and not to look for rest; to labor, and not ask for any reward save that of knowing I am doing your will. Amen.

In a nutshell, that’s what my walk with God is about for me. It’s about being that available to God, being responsive to God’s call, being responsible with my tasks given or assigned to me. It’s about knowing that I am doing God’s will. That’s the number one goal I ever hope to accomplish with my life.

How can we know that conclusively? I don’t know how you can know that, it might be different ways we know this from person to person. But one rule of thumb for me is asking: Do I have joy in what I am doing, even in the most difficult and menial tasks? Not joy as in “ha ha!” but the joy that comes in understanding that “this responsibility is yours to do; therefore, do it to the best of your ability.” When we rise to that task, and do it, there is joy there—at least for me there is. Some people might term it as job satisfaction, but I call it joy because I sense that I am doing this for God, to further God’s mission. What better use of my life could there be, really?

So if it means I drive eight hours round trip for an important two hour meeting with a congregation’s leadership in the middle, I have joy if that meeting goes well, and the parish and clergy find it was worth their time to attend and receive something of value from it. Yes, I did spend eight hours in the car, but look what they got in return—real benefit, a renewed purpose or sense of mission, the sense that the diocese knows and cares that they are there and supports them in their work and ministry. Great! Happy to do it to further the missio Dei—the mission of God—for this is what our bishop is about. Extending the mission of God in Arizona. And if that brings benefit to the Episcopal Church in Arizona, well that’s a nice benefit, as well.

It is this striving to do God’s mission first and foremost that we must attend to, while serving our Episcopalians, along with the unchurched who need to know of God’s love and care for them as much as any of us—and in these rough economic times, probably even more so.

It has been a great year here in Arizona, and I look forward to the personal growth and ministry opportunities that await me in the coming year. And actually, I feel that—as “Big Al” said in Scent Of A Woman—“I’m just getting warmed up!”