A Meditation on Epiphany

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland on Sunday 22 January 2017.
Third Sunday after Epiphany
s: Isaiah 9:1-4, 1 Corinthians 1:10-18, Matthew 4:12-23)

If Advent is the season of coming, of expectant hope and waiting, then it seems one could call Epiphany the season of arrival. Not arrival in the sense of an ending, but arrival in the sense of an opening. The first act after the prologue.

We have heard the story of a people in a desert longing for a redeemer. We have questioned and worked our way through the ancient prophecies. We have celebrated Christ’s incarnation and dwelt on its implications for Mary and Joseph, for us today and for all of humanity. We have sung and prayed to “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” and we have finally arrived now to Epiphany, this season of joy. A season to celebrate the long-expected who has begun to work the unexpected.

Epiphany. It is often tradition that we remember and meditate on the arrival of the magi, Christ’s baptism and his first miracle. In their own way, each of these events speak of an arrival. Those stories may span decades in the pages of Scripture, but they signal to us that the first act has begun, the story is afoot and that we had best keep up, because already things are already not how we would have expected them to be.

The reading in Matthew echoes Isaiah’s prophecy telling us that the people there who have dwelt in darkness, ravaged by the invasions of the Assyrians from the north would receive specially the blessings of the Messiah. And so Jesus went to this region to begin his ministry. Matthew makes special note, “Galilee of the Gentiles”, a hint to us that already Jesus has a vision grander than that of the only the Jewish people.

By beginning his ministry in Galilee, an area home to many gentiles, we see the realities of what Epiphany means playing out in the life of Jesus. Here in the first chapters of his ministry, Jesus is already taking powerful action to communicate the unexpected.

That faith in the Messiah, hope in the redemption of that which has been broken, is not hope for only a single people. Redemption does not belong to only the Jewish people, it is a joy to be anticipated and lived-out for all.

In the tradition I grew up, the deep truths of this season were often passed over. I find it a shame that we often forget to make room in our hearts for Epiphany. We celebrate this season as a reminder that God is big enough for us all. Certainly, let us not forget the importance of the story’s prologue as proclaimed by Advent and Christmas, but we cannot stop asking ourselves, how will God show up in the unexpected? God’s bigness is not a questions we must put to Him, but a question we must put to ourselves. It is us, rather than he, who places limitations on our expectations. This season, more than almost any other, sets the stage for a theme that will continue to echo throughout the entire Gospel narrative.

From the beginning, we see this theme of epiphany. In today’s Gospel reading, Jesus called-out to his first disciples: Peter, Andrew, James and John. It is not clear to us what inspired these men to drop their fishing and follow Jesus, but I have to believe that much of what they saw and understood at that time is also what we see in our own learning to follow Christ. They were willing to embark upon the unexpected. Regardless of why they put down those nets, they could not have known what would follow. They stepped out in faith. Their acceptance of Jesus’ call was less their moment of salvation as it was the first of many actions, that like the disciples, we must continue to take in faith, actions that will bring us greater depth and understanding to our knowledge of Epiphany.

In this same way, it is also appropriate then that this is the week set aside for Christian Unity. The prayers throughout this week should also be for us a constant reminder that this journey of faith is larger than our own conceptions of it. It is easy for us to get buried in our own traditions and liturgies, our own way of doing things that either feel or have become “right” in ways that are defined more by our own comfort than by the Gospel. Epiphany begs us to see things differently. Remember the wise men, those foreigners who came from the east. Even before Christ grew up and could begin his ministry, God was making it clear that new pathways of his grace and favour would be opened to the world. It was not Mary or Joseph or even the shepherds that brought forth those outsiders, it was He who set the stars in motion.

God is opening his doors to the outsiders, he is healing the broken, he is making the old new, as has always been his business. And how beautiful it is when this work takes place within his Church. May it only continue and flourish.

Pray, then, that those who could not break bread together may do so once more. Pray that in the breaking of bread our brokenness may be mended. Pray that in the pouring out of wine we may pour ourselves out for our brothers and sisters.

This is Paul’s admonition in his letter to the Corinthians. Why is there division? Why has the person who baptized you become more important than the Name into which you were baptized? I think sometimes we can distance ourselves from this letter because our problems feel so different. They feel so big and important in comparison to these ancient and petty arguments.nBut what has changed?

When the creeds of our denominations become more important than the name of Christ, we fall into the same trap and the cross of Christ loses its power in our lives.

We need unity same as the Corinthians, and Epiphany helps us see that larger picture. If gentiles were welcome to the manger, how much more should the Church welcome one another to our shared table, the same wellspring of faith, hope and love and the same cross that is the power of God to us who are being saved?

Epiphanies are not planned. How do we organize in advance something defined as a “moment of sudden and great realization”. I would encourage us all this week to meditate on those ways in which God is speaking to us differently than in those ways we would normally expect. Where and how is he working to bring us together: as a church, as a country, as a world and as a race? Epiphany as a season of the liturgical year is certainly planned in advance, but we should not let it be something we only commemorate. Let us live into and practice arriving to the realities of this Gospel theme, so that we too may become fishers of men baptized in the name of Christ.



Becoming Belief

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland on Sunday 10 July 2016.

(Readings: Deuteronomy 30:9-14 & Colossians 1:1-14)

“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer.”

In processing this Sunday’s readings set forth in the Lectionary I am struck by the nature of the commands issued to God’s people found in both passages. We hear strong reminders about about bearing fruit, increasing in the knowledge of God, keeping the commandments, as well as the blessings that will follow.

In conjunction with these readings, I was also particularly struck by the collect set forth in the Episcopal Church. They pray this week that we may “know and understand what things [we] ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them.”

In the reformed protestent tradition in which I grew up, these passages and this language of what we “ought to do” can cause some strife. In many circles people grow wary of what they perceive to be requirements in our faith, and it can even create something of an unwritten desire to separate our theology from our practical lives.

The theology sometimes goes that God’s grace and redemptive power is sufficient to “save us” and assure our place in the afterlife, but the practical implications of this theology cautions us against feeling the need to “work” for this grace. Once we are freely given forgiveness, our job simply becomes to tell others about it as well. This is certainly right and true, but any further attachments can and do trigger debates about what we perceive to be the tensions between law-and-gospel or faith-and-works.

Belief requires no action, we say.

Belief is the Apostle’s Creed. Belief is the Sinner’s Prayer. Belief is the cognizant and active mental processes of agreeing with a statement or a creed. If belief need be more than these intellectual affirmations, we become frightened because suddenly we can no longer control it. Belief becomes dangerous.

Such a stance causes us to find this “ought to do” language frightening. We are afraid to couple Jesus with something else. But conversely, I have discovered a lack of this language in our daily lives to be the most frightening. It is not a matter of coupling Christ with some other power, but rather a matter of us opening ourselves to daily ask, what now? What ought we to do? What is our reaction to what we have been given?

Belief is so much more. Belief is dangerous. Belief is loving the outcasts. Belief is enacting change. Belief is giving hope. Belief is confession. Belief is a willingness to be weak. Belief is not being afraid of joy. Belief is breaking bread. Belief is messy.

Jesus always coupled belief with tangible realities. He asked and answered, what ought we to do? Although we did not read it, in today’s Gospel a lawyer asked Jesus what he had to do to inherit eternal life. Jesus asked him to quote the Law, to love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself. And when the man asked, “who is my neighbor?” Jesus gave us that famed parable of the Good Samaritan.

Belief must translate into practical and powerful kingdom-oriented living.

This is part of what I believe the author of Deuteronomy is trying to get across. The Law has just been given, all the do-and-do-nots, all the requirements, and he is asking now, what are you going to do with this? How is it going to affect your life? He emphasizes the point, this is not something you have to sail across the sea to find. The truth of it is already in your heart and in your mind. Go now and live it out.

This whole conversation of the law is a foreshadowing to what the New Testament authors find in Christ. There are echoes of the Deuteronomy passage in Colossians: you have heard and understood the Truth, what now are you going to do with it?

At the end of the Colossians passage Paul writes, “He has delivered us from the domain of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.” This does not mark the end of something, it marks the beginning. In this great welcoming to the kingdom, we are invited to join Christ. We are invited to ask, what is next? How do we advance this kingdom, not just by telling others about it, but by embodying it? By becoming it?

In this broken, broken world, comfortable belief and creeds and assurances of an afterlife are simply not enough. We have been given the power to bring healing and hope, and if we are not asking ourselves at every corner of our daily lives how we can be that hope and healing, then we have missed something important. It is not a matter misunderstanding Jesus’ forgiveness and free gift and attaching to it certain additional requirements; it is a matter of being Jesus’ forgiveness and free gift to others.

Our story, our song in the Christian life should and must be framed by the practical realities of asking the question, what ought we to do, because we are the lens through with others are empowered to find faith and belief.

It is not a matter of separating work and faith, or law and gospel, and figuring out to which we are accountable, but rather it is the much more freeing matter of taking on Christ’s identity in our own lives, to live and breath and become the Truth that has been written on our hears and on our minds. It is the continued asking, what is next?

So how now can we embody our belief? How can we live out that which we affirm in the creeds and in the prayers to craft it into the tangible blessings of others? Not to justify ourselves, not to add to the Gospel, or to give contribution to our salvation, but rather to reflect and imagine and help create a world in which Christ’s Kingdom is lived out through us? High ideals. But in prayer let us reflect together on what it means to bear and harvest fruit in this new kingdom.

I leave you with the rest of today’s collect, “O Lord, mercifully receive the prayers of your people who call upon you, and grant that they may know and understand what things they ought to do, and also may have grace and power faithfully to accomplish them; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.”


Declaring the Joy of Confession

Homily delivered to the English Church in Villars, Switzerland. Sunday 6 March 2016

This Sunday is sometimes given the name Laetare Sunday, meaning “Rejoicing Sunday.”

Here, we have arrived to the mid-point of Lent. As a Church we look back to the somber reminder of our human mortality a few weeks previous manifested in the ashen mark, “remember that dust you are and to dust you will return.” But we also look forward to the arrival of Palm Sunday and Passion Week when our collective cries of, “Hosannah” and then “Crucify Him”, are mingled together like water and wine. In the middle of this season, we know where we have come from and we know where we are going.

So why, four weeks into this lenten journey, does a “rejoicing” Sunday appear on our doorstep?

This would not, on first glance, appear to be a season of rejoicing. This isn’t how it works, many would want to say. Lent is a somber time. It is a time of penance, of fasting. It is an opportunity to confess and recognize the depravity of a misdirected humanity. It is here with ashes on our head that we confess our sins to a big and angry God so as not to be smashed on judgement day. We need to escape hell; we need to go to heaven, and our faithful penance helps the cause.

This is too often Lent’s reputation. To non-believers it would appear the perfect example as to why humanity has evolved beyond a religion for the weak, and even to many believers, Lent is a mark of stale tradition and a voiceless, shackled religion that has no authority in our modern age.

Laetare Sunday, however, flips this caricature on it’s head. Here, in the middle of Lent, we are reminded that the fundamental joy of the Gospel cannot be escaped. To preach the Gospel is to preach joy. To preach confession is to preach forgiveness. To preach fasting is to preach feasting. To preach Lent is to preach rejoicing.

Lent asks us to put on a certain veil, much how a church’s crosses and icons are veiled during the upcoming Passion Week. But this shrouding does not take away from the reality in which we live. If anything, even more attention is called to its true nature. The somber shroud of Lent “veils” the Gospel’s joy for a time, but doing so only serves to magnify it. The deep joy cannot be covered completely, and at every, single turn Lent proclaims this joy, and Laetare Sunday is simply the recognition of this present reality.

The scripture readings for today echo this stance. They demonstrate for us the inherent joy in God’s redemption plan, and how even when this mission appears shrouded, God is at work in the dirty business of a broken humanity. In the profound and powerful pattern of confession and forgiveness, God empowers his people, in joy, to declare that forgiveness to one another.

This is the crux of our lessons today: a God-breathed joy that brings forgiveness and redemption carried forward in the work of his people. Yes, there is quite often tension between the old life and the new. But it is through these tensions that we are given the opportunity to step more and more fully into God’s redemptive work.

Let me repeat the words of St. Paul to the Corinthians (II Corinthians 5:16-21), “All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting us to the message of reconciliation. Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us.”

This message is a far cry from how one may view a religious confession, and I’m not trying to make a depressing straw-man of the Lenten season, but if we walk through this time focusing on the confessions and the ashes, dwelling on the veil itself rather than the glory behind it, we miss the underlying joy that is born through a season of honest confession. I titled this message, “Declaring the Joy of Confession.” And here, Paul is doing precisely that; he is calling God’s people to a magnificent, beautiful reconciliation. The reconciled become co-laborers in the great story of redemption. We are given the ministry, and then given the authority to declare reconciliation to others, to bring them also into the story.

At the end of our prayers of confession in a typical service, the priest normally stands and declares forgiveness over the congregation. This is not out of a mystical, priestly magic. The priest simply speaks aloud a declaration given in power through Christ to all believers. It is an invitation.

We can expand on the joy of this declaration seen in Paul’s letter more practically in our next reading, the parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:1-3, 11-32). I have to say, it’s an intimidating task to be given scripture lessons that include this story. This has become a beloved classic of world culture. Countless sermons, books, paintings, and every other expressive medium have been inspired at one time or another to this parable; it is that powerful. That resonant with the human story.

We all know the story, and having just read it again, we are given the opportunity to dwell on how such a simple story is so densely packed with the beauty of confession, forgiveness, and redemption. But what really struck me in reading the parable again this week, viewing it now through “Lent-tinted” glasses, was the very end.

Just as the Father runs outside to the prodigal son, he comes outside also to his faithful son; he goes out and meets the faithful where he is: in his anger, in his frustration, in his feeling of rejection. For many, I think this is also Lent. We are invited to be honest and angry with God. In the midst of confession and penance we are given the freedom to question and doubt and react to the pain of brokenness that is all around us, even if that pain and suffering finds it source in our own selfish desires. God comes outside to us and He listens.

But then, when the Father speaks in response, you can just hear the joy brimming over, “Son, you don’t understand. You are with me all the time, and everything that is mine is yours —but this is a wonderful time, and we had to celebrate. The brother of yours was dead, and he’s alive! He was lost, and he’s found!”

We aren’t told how the story ends, but I have to believe the son comes back inside. We don’t hear the faithful son’s confession; we don’t witness the confrontation of pain against joy, but I have to believe it happens. Just as Paul’s words invite us to participate in reconciliation, so the Father invites the faithful son to be part of the redemption process. He is saying in effect, “Come back inside. You have co-laboured with me in the fields, but co-labour with me now in the redemption of your brother. Let us both declare the joy of his confession. Let us share in it and celebrate!”

This celebration of the Prodigal Son also exemplifies for us another inescapable theme of the Lenten journey, and one that is tied quite closely to our readings this week: food and feasting.

In the Joshua reading (Joshua 5:9-12), God ends his regular manna delivery to the people of Israel. But far from being a “reigning-in” of the Lord’s favour, it is a powerful extension of his grace. For years He has fed the people from his hand. Food has literally appeared for them in the morning dew reminding Israel that in the same way the sun rises, the Lord provides. The two became inseparable. So how does God in ending the manna fit into our Lenten journey? How does it help us declare the joy to be found in this season of confession?

Because in this way, the Lord has invited his people to co-labour with him. He has promised this land for generations, he has delivered it, and now he invites his beloved to feast on its bounty. Each Sunday throughout Lent we break our fasting in order that we too may feast on God’s grace.

God’s end-goal was never manna. Manna was itself the forty years of fasting. It is the complete dependence on God for sustenance, for life and food. But by growing and eating the produce of the promised land, God declares over Israel that they are to labour with him. This isn’t because God has grown lazy of feeding and nurturing, or that he wants Israel to “make it on their own.” Far from it. God is calling Israel, as his calling us, into a life abundant where we labour to create with the Creator.

When we break our fast at the Lord’s Table, when we celebrate the Eucharist, at all times, but especially during Lent, we do three things. We look back to a God who sustains his people during their times of fasting. We look in the present to a God who hears our confession, forgives and gives us joy. And we look forward to a God who invites us to join him in the work of redemption, the work of feast-making. In the same way He forgives, we forgive. In the same way He feeds, we feed. In the same way He rejoices in creation, we rejoice to create.

The Jesus who was criticized for eating with sinners and tax collectors is the Jesus who prepares a banquet for the prodigal son, and invites the faithful son to join him in the feasting. The Jesus who was broken for humanity is the Jesus who invites us to feast on him, even in our fasting. It is this Jesus who declares over us the joy of confession, and enables us to do the same for others.

This is the message of Laetare Sunday. This is the message of Lent. We are invited into confession. We are invited to examine ourselves and to wrestle with the pain of our sin and the pain of those moments when we have ’lost all faith in humanity’. But this is not the end. As we dip our heads back down these next few weeks into the most somber season of the Church Calendar, do not forget the joy. In your fast, do not forget the feast. The veil of Lent is the gateway; the veil prepares our hearts to confession and to see the joy that is to come. We stand now halfway in the valley of Lent, but we look upward to the hill of the Cross, and then we look a little further.

We see there joy like the first glimmer of light before dawn. It is faint, and we know there is more pain through which we must first walk. But the light there, it is enough, and it is worth rejoicing in every, single day, because that light is the inheritance in which we now live.


Dear Friends,

The mist has gathered thickly against my windows. A lonely street light glows deep orange through the night. This and the stillness are tell-tale reminders of the place I now call home. My chalet is warm and the candles burn bright even as fog blankets the mountain. Autumn has arrived with its shades of deep orange and a creeping darkness that runs boundless now about the world. While this beloved of all seasons is marked by a certain fullness, this particular space of writing and creative breathing has remained obviously devoid of any color, any breath, and any words. Perhaps less so to you, but for me it has been a quiet burning at the back of the mind like a loss you don’t know how to deal with, so you try and bury it.

For a long time it was business, then travel, then life-changing decisions, then transition. Yes, these are all the kinds of things the best write about daily, and with vigor. But my small self, I was distracted by these life events that lapped against my feet like an immense ocean. I like to think I was running through those waves without a care to the wind, amazed and staring at their vastness. I was living them. Realizing them. And while I may regret no book of scribbled notes, I do not regret my lack of postings here. When I began these musings years ago I swore against a blog that apologized incessantly for its silence. And I don’t apologize now. What I can do, friends, is start again.

This is now the story of a boy who has fallen in love with a girl. It is the story of that boy who adventured with her on big ships in blue oceans, on long drives through frozen corn fields, and in the many mysteries of a quiet evening together. It is a continuing, beautiful adventure. And a fun story at that.

This is now the story of a boy who returned with his family on a long-dreamed of vacation to a country he loves, and how while there for a month made the decision to take a job and settle himself in the village where his grandfather was born. He is living life now in that village, missing the girl, but under the same mountain’s shadow as where his grandfather grew up.

This is now the story of a boy learning to love from afar and live in the present. The story of a boy who chased his dream, caught it, and is now learning how to live it. Dreams are easy to dream, but living one is a different, challenging, beautiful affair that shows him something new to learn every day.

Growing older, this task to write and record here becomes more difficult. Little things that were once new and novel have become almost common. I can no longer count with ease my flights across the Atlantic. The shrinking of this sea is a practical blessing and an artistic curse. In some ways I am glad that every dimension of another culture no longer gives me pause; this can become exhausting. But the trap here is to stop trying the locked doors. Many of my same questions, the same tensions, continue on as always: how do you keep walking through life with those you love while so far away, and yet embrace the world as it is in front of you?

Already these months have allowed me to explore such questions in new ways. To realize new facets and open perspectives on life I hadn’t before. Living this dream has given me more than ever the chance to seek grace in every step and walk forward in the confidence of things yet unseen. There have been moments of lonely desperation, but for each dark night of the soul there have been many more gentle evenings of overwhelming beauty: friends, community, and quiet peace turn up in exciting and unlooked for places. This grace continues to amaze me, and I pray that chasing after it is a reality of which I never tire.

We climbed and scrambled over rocks and steep, old cow paths until we reached the ridge line. Out of breath I looked back at one of my best friends who had come to visit for the weekend. He covered his eyes so as not to spoil the view, but just before tumbling off the cliff edge he looked, and we saw together a sea of clouds that had filled the valley like nothing I had experienced before. In that stunning moment of autumn color and raw, awesome beauty, all the dreams, all the questions, all the sureties and all the doubts converged into a single moment of complete silence and contentment. It is good, I realized, it is all good.

And so we go,


Morning Coffee Memories

I made espresso today; the kind that you pour into hot milk afterwards and watch it swirl around in the glass like a small storm before turning the dark shot into a soft cream color. I think the milk was almost sour, but I drank it regardless. The drink was on my mind when I woke up and I couldn’t have begun the day otherwise. It brought me back to long summer mornings in Bern when I first tasted stormy milk-diluted espresso, days I wouldn’t sit down to coffee until after my (au pair) kids had been pushed through the door to school dressed in square backpacks and yellow reflector vests.

I thought back to the coffee maker, a welcoming drone after the cacophony of small voices yelling German I didn’t understand. I remembered the feel of the slate counter top and the way summer light filtered through the old pane window. The floor was cool under my bare feet, and even though you could hear the traffic on Kirchenfeldstrasse, the porch that overlooked the garden was a perfect oasis in which to pass the morning in book and coffee.

Bern was a long time ago, but the sights and smells linger. It’s funny how things like coffee come back to mind years later. It is less often memories than it is such vague impressions that evoke that unexpected emotion. I think that’s why long-lost smells get us; they are more footprint than memory. People like me long for these little reminders. They are tokens of past lives given voice in the present. Patterns that may have at one point been looked on with stagnant loathing are redeemed in the mind’s eye and given new appreciation.

The Bern of memory may be sunlit and garden-filled now, but the pattern of children-then-coffee was certainly not always of romance novel quality. There were many days I hated that pattern; it seemed repetitive and useless. I questioned my purpose and life’s trajectory. I missed my friends and family. I had to wear winter jackets in June and drag screaming children onto bright red trams filled with silent Swiss strangers who had no time for weepy children. I would sometimes even ride the train alone at night to distant towns and drink beer I didn’t like. I was on an adventure, but I was lonely.

But this is how life goes. Our days are strung together in patterns of white christmas lights that glow under the summer’s cresent moon. They are beautiful together. But when you walk along that strand day by day the replicate bulbs seem useless, tired. We have slogans for these things: the forest for the trees, another day another dollar. Part of growing up, I realize, is learning to love the repetitive pattern itself.

In this present day west of the Atlantic Ocean, warm temperatures stretch ever deeper into Chapel Hill nights, a tell-tale sign that summer’s heat is on fast approach. As the university empties before humidity climbs higher than student grades, I find myself here much longer than intended when I first turned right into McCauley Street’s historic district. But sometimes, the places we visit have a frustrating propensity to become home; we fall in love with places and people. Sure enough, after three years I’m a tar heel.

I certainly dream of other places to live; I need steep mountains and deep lakes in my life. And that time will come. But there is something about this Hill that gets in your blood. Hot, sticky days give way to warm nights and warm nights give way to colored trees and cool evenings that leave the imagination to linger back hundreds of years beneath the old Davie Poplar. Even in the summer calm there is a passion about this place, a shared vision between people who give a unique flavor of life to this microcosm of the North Carolina piedmont.

But just as in Switzerland, I have to push and strain against the ubiquitous lie that when each beautiful Carolina morning is strung together over months and years the individual days somehow become less significant. On the contrary, they only grow. Patterns give life and depth to our individual days even when it may take the sight of coffee and milk storming together to resurface that realization; life is in the details, the nitty-gritty of the everyday. These daily struggles, repetitive acts, and small victories may make us long nostalgically again for days that have passed into memory. But it is only at this point we realize the memories we long for were so often built from these patterns.

As I make a packing list for my final departure from the Arena, the days have certainly strung together into patterns. Sometimes the routine got the best of me. I wished to be elsewhere, engaged in anything else but homework and washing dishes that weren’t mine. I even remembered screaming children on Swiss trams with a hint of nostalgia. But that happened when I took the lie with the hook, because the pattern of life on McCauley Street and in Chapel Hill has been lived in full, slowly built day after every day. The back porch alone stands in testament:

It has been the back porch of solitary breakfasts, autumn-flavored coffees, hot hammock-swinging afternoons with books and ginger soda, candlelit dinners and bottles of wine that empty long before the conversation, parties of strange house guests and red solo cups, quiet evenings and full moons, a safe place to put arms around a brother in tears, bonding over gin and tonics and soft music that makes everyone pause and cry and laugh in their souls because life in that moment is just too beautiful, reunions and farewells, old stories told over again, pipe smoke and campfires, big bunches with neighbors, homework and a table strewn with unfinished research, paint-covered friends laughing in a golden April afternoon, reflection and prayer, post-workout water chugging, a post-beakup punching bag that hangs by a chain from the latticework, cheap Halloween costumes and endless photos, good whiskey, bad whiskey, metal bowls left outside to measure the chance of cancelled school snow flake by snow flake, shared hopes amidst confusing and uncertain futures, 3am conversations that bring angry neighbors yelling, sing-along-songs and readings from Moby Dick, but most of all it has been the back porch of life’s patterns, days that string together into months and years that mean something deeper than all the individual memories ever could alone.

And so I leave the Arena and its back porch with the knowledge that one day any number of sights or smells, like the espresso and creamy milk of Bern, may remind me of those small moments that bring clarity and simple beauty to a life replete with pattern and structure, and that while sometimes mundane, builds a life more beautiful and full and worth remembering than I ever could have imagined.

Reflections on Lent: Renewal in the Desert

In learning to celebrate my faith within the traditions of the church calendar, the season of Lent has always been one more difficult for me to grasp. In Advent I knew clearly what to look for, what to expect in the coming Christ child. I entered into this mystery of what was and what is to come with a certain joy, an almost hard-wired expectation that comes after years of childhood Christmas celebrations.

Lent, however, plunges deep. I must reckon less with the beautiful metaphors of Christmastime than with the darkness twisted within my broken human flesh. In Advent we wait expectantly with the innocence of the children, but in Lent we wait in the wilderness of a broken world. We wait with a God who also wanders in a desert.

With the burnt remains of last year’s palm fronds we are marked in ash. Uneven and imperfect streaks across our foreheads remind us of our depravity. Our dust. Our death.

This is why I struggled along Lent’s path of self-denial. Where do we find hope in these practices? Where do we find renewal? Where are we called to the hopeful preparation that so presently undergirds the rest of the church year in the good news of the Gospel?

What finally allowed me to enter into Lent was when I realized this season is not unique in the church calendar’s otherwise prominent flavor of redemption and renewal. Lent does not somehow forget the joy and peace of the Gospel and replace it with an overly glorified sense of narcissistic asceticism and self-loathing.

Lent, like Advent, is a season of preparation. Ash is placed onto our foreheads reminding us of our brokenness, but this ash also marks us. The mark of the cross speaks triumphantly of the work God is doing. He never forgets those who have been marked, those who have been called according to his Name.

Jesus went into the desert after baptism in preparation for his ministry. We, too, spend time in the desert. Even if the desert-time of our life does not conveniently coincide with the church calendar, we all know the feeling. The practice of Lent calls us to remember that feeling, that broken searching of human depravity. But as renewed Christians we walk in a lenten desert always framed against the reality and completed work of Christ.

Lent became powerful when I connected the implications of maintaining our weekly celebration of the Eucharist with the breaking of our fast each Sunday during Lent.

No desert, no mark of our mortality, no death can overcome the power of the empty tomb.

Every time we “take and eat” throughout the Sundays of Lent we embrace the beautiful paradox of our faith: In our fast we eat; in our thirst we drink. Jesus rejected bread in the desert because it was not the bread of the Father. But we, even in our ash-bearing, sin-confessing, self-denying state still taste the Bread of Life during Lent and cry out loudly, “Come quickly Lord Jesus!”

A Year in the Life

Years are big. A lot can fit into three hundred sixty-five rotations of our blue orb. Perhaps it’s where I’m at as a twenty-two year old, but life in my small corner of this spinning globe has been full. I like how we divide earth’s spin around the sun into years; it gives us humans the chance to take a collective sigh, to pause and reflect on all that has been crammed into this space. We stop and think on all that has been and what will be. In this reflection I have written of those themes that stayed afloat during the tides of my year, appearing again and again above the foamy surf. Here are just a few:

Dance at Weddings:

Weddings are one of those moments in which I believe the veil between life and eternity grows thin. For the briefest of moments we are able to see life on a new dimension in the joining of two to become one. Weddings and Communion are two events that consistently bring me to tears, and I don’t think this is coincidence. As in many such moments, this is a call to celebration. We are to rejoice with those who have made this covenant, who have entered into this singleness. This is a call to dance!

But for me this year dancing at weddings has meant much more than literal moves on a dance floor. Confession: I haven’t actually danced at all the weddings I attended this year. But regardless of the relationship I have to rhythm and my feet, this is a realization that to celebrate with our friends and with our families is something good and right to do. And even more so, we should celebrate when it does not directly benefit us. As a selfish person, I have found we are presented with two alternatives when something good happens to those we love: jealousy or celebration.

Upon someone’s engagement, award, opportunity for travel, or new job who hasn’t thought, “I wish that were me.” We all do it on some level. Millennial slang for this jealousy is euphemized as FOMO, or the Fear Of Missing Out, and it is a dangerous pattern. We are afraid of the opportunities we don’t have and the experiences we are never given the chance to remember. This is strangling to the good life.

A better alternative is to dance. To dance means to step out of your comfort zone and to be vulnerable, to be visible but also to be present in the goodness that is being celebrated all around you. This makes the act of dancing one of the best exercises for both the body and soul. I have learned to celebrate with my friends who marry, toast those with a new job, and listen to the stories of those who take a fun trip. The more willing I become to dance with those who experience something good in their lives, the more I become aware of the blessings and causes for celebration in my own. The veil grows thinner after each dance and I learn to better view life from eternity’s perspective.

Judge Judgements:

Many times this year I have made the same mistakes and committed the same sins. I have found myself in places or mindsets I swore to never be in again. It’s easy in these places to get frustrated not only in the shortcomings themselves, but in my own inability to conquer them. This deepens a spiral of deprecation sometimes directly related to my weakness, but also as a result of life’s messiness beyond my control.

But grace, I have learned this year, is not only God’s love saving us from brokenness; it is also the act of God freeing us to be broken. The longer I live, the more I believe God places us in situations where we are required to be weak. This doesn’t create space for me to judge myself and beat up on my inability to conquer, but rather it creates space to acknowledge God alone as the one who brings us up out of Egypt, out of our slavery. Many times this year I have prayed a prayer of thanksgiving that emphasizes this reality, “We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.”

Such an admission demands I do not give into failure while also demanding I look to the God who saves us to new life. I learned again and again this year that failure is part of life, but God’s redemption is something beyond it. When I look this next year into the mirror of self, the face there will not be my defining point of progress, good or bad; I belong to another.

Build Altars:

After finishing the final exam of my college career I sat on the roof of my house with a couple friends and toasted to the completion of my studies. Later, we climbed down and headed to campus to sit in the quad’s winter grass. The sun began to settle behind the buildings that had been home for two and a half years while we sat with our backs to a leafless oak and smoked pipes. People gave us strange looks and we laughed. I talked about how it felt to walk out of my last class, and we thought on what the future might be like. But mostly we just had fun.

While simple, I find such moments to be of great importance. The ancients took time to construct with stone upon stone testaments to the goodness of God in their life, and while a beer and a pipe may not carry the same glory or reverence, pausing in some way to mark life’s milestones is a worthwhile practice I have come to appreciate this year. Like dancing at weddings, I believe it is good and right to take time either individually or corporately to mark and remember the events upon which a life is built and lived. This may take the form of a prayer, or a simple note scribbled in the margin of a journal. It may be a beer with friends, or a celebratory cigar; it may be a wedding filled with dancing.

Some people have grown apathetic and cynical towards the yearly process of New Years’ celebrations and resolutions while others have made it just another occasion to drink a lot under the pretense this imbibes meaning into anything. I disagree. The turning of the year is an important occasion to build one of these altars. Stones and mountaintops may not always be required, but I won’t discount the importance of physical, external makers to help us remember we do not walk alone. I enter this new year having taken several moments to pause with family and friends to build altars of words, thoughts and prayers in testament to God’s work in my life.

Chase Insecurity:

This was a year of many miles. I spent more hours on America’s roads this year than I may ever do again. My collection of memories, photos and stories speak many volumes and teach valuable lessons. I learned how much land and geography influence who we are and how we live while it passed by my window. I watched the sun set over the Grand Canyon and craned my neck back to see the Redwoods. I learned how to be a friend even when it’s tough because you’re inseparable in a car for days on days. Places like Chicago, Ft. Lauderdale, Denver, Boston, San Francisco and New York City all leave different tastes in my mouth, and I want to experience more of them all.

And that’s the thing, to travel is to be dissatisfied. You want more and you can’t quite go back. You abandon the security of home and launch out into an unknown world that is beautiful and tempting, good and dreadful, all at the same time. The night before a trip I often lay in the warmth of my comfortable bed and ask myself, “Why am I leaving again? Do I really want to go?” To travel in the kind of way that leaves a mark means to sleep on floors and in deserts. It means you lie in a hammock between the prowling eyes of wolves and share thin mattresses in motels open to drug dealers north of Las Vegas. It means you disagree over food prices and itineraries and speed limits. To travel is to chase insecurity. By contrast, when you chase security you get a job, buy new bed sheets, and drink good coffee. These are all great things I have also done this year, but I can’t replace the lessons learned on the road and in the cities I don’t know.

Every time I’m in my bed that night before thinking on some new adventure that begins at break of day, I remember one of my favorite songs by John Denver. For me he captures what could be called the “end goal” of this craziness that is not knowing where you will sleep that night. He talks about seeing a lot of sunshine, sleeping in the rain and spending a night or two all on his own. But all in all, it’s been a good life. And he enjoys now the chance to talk about these “poems, prayers and promises” around a fire with those he’s closest. They talk about what they believe in, dwell on how sweet it is to love someone, and how right it is to care.

When all my traveling is done, year after year, this is what I want. But remembering also that there is always more to do. Like the song continues, to do more than my mind has has ever known, like dance across the mountains on the moon.

Dwell in Beauty:

Trains rumbling through the night. Mountains that glow red in the morning. A bottle of wine between friends in conversation. To walk with a girl through midnight fog. The sound of cow bells. I have found it a worthwhile practice to pinpoint the small details in life I love. Make a list of them. These aren’t topics like career goals, bank statements or political ideals. Some moments matter simply because they are.

Find these moments in your life. I like to write, which I have found gives me a propensity to notice certain things, but you don’t have to be an artist, or a hipster, to stop and smell the roses. Read a good book and find that sentence which strikes the deepest chord. Maybe its motor oil in the morning? Even the way an office building catches afternoon light can redeem a long work day. Perhaps rainy days are not all bad?

When I try to see, smell, hear, taste and feel all that is around me, making note of it every now and then, life begins to glow. I can’t dance at weddings everyday. I don’t always grasp the widest implications of God’s grace. I can’t build an altar out of each moment. And I certainly can’t travel the world on a weekly basis. But these details of life are always here for the picking, and as I hope to realize life more fully each year, its these moments that stick in my memory and contain a taste of reality much larger than themselves; these are the lessons I learn every day.

“There are the stars–doing their old, old crisscross journeys in the sky. Only this one is straining away, straining away all the time to make something of itself. Strain’s so bad that every sixteen hours everybody lies down and gets a rest.” -Thornton Wilder, Our Town