ON ORANGE TICKETS, UMBRELLAS, AND OBSTRUCTED VIEWS
IS THE POPE CATHOLIC?
“Our relationship with Christ is personal but not private. We are not isolated and we are not Christians on an individual basis. Our Christian identity is to belong.” Pope Francis
On my bright orange ticket for the Audience With the Pope on June 25th, the bold print revealed just who he thought I was: REPARTO SPECIALE. That’s right, O Ye of Bleacher-Seats Status. I was a SPECIAL GUEST. At the Vatican. With the Pope. Obviously, I am a Very Important Priest.
The poparazzi’s cameras were ashutter as we strutted through St. Peter’s Square, all 12 of us in clerical collars, some in full black or purple cassocks, sporting the coolest of Italian accessories such as shades and hats. The Vatican Security detail, upon realizing the caliber character dictated by our ticket color, parted the rope turn after turn.
Once we got to our clerical club-level seating, we realized that only one small section separated us from His Holiness, the section reserved for the UN Peacekeeping Force from Argentina and more cardinals than you’d find at Busch Stadium in St. Louis. A dapper man in a fully-tailed tuxedo showed us to our section. I chose a row with a clear sight line of the pontiff’s pulpit, congratulating myself further when the entire next row over got bumped for a bunch of Colombian nuns.
Out in the square, the Pope in his Popemobile greeted all his fans as the Swiss Guard Band played a set list much more festive than pompous. Finally, to the cheers of the faithful, he ascended the steps and sat in his chair.
Or, at least I assume he sat in his chair. While I had a clear view of the pulpit, I had forgotten that the pope doesn’t speak from a pulpit. He speaks from a chair, a chair which was entirely obstructed from my view. Hey Father Genius, ever heard of the term Ex Cathedra which literally means “from the chair?” What is the Italian word for dumbass?
So, during the entirety of the Pope’s inspiring message to the world, sitting within fifty feet, I managed to steal one glimpse of his notes and caught two hand waves as he emphasized a pastoral point. My chair wasn’t nearly as prestigiously positioned as I had thought. And as it turned out, I was exactly where I needed to be.
It started raining. There were very few umbrellas in sight. But the Italian lady sitting next to me happened to have one. She spoke no English but grabbed me by my clerical collar and pulled me close. I leaned in to her and smiled, protected from the downpour.
Ultimately, that’s exactly what the Pope had to say that day. His sermon was about how we are all in this together, from the back row to the corporate suite, from the VIP up front to the vendor at the very back who sold me a Pope Bobblehead. The Pope said that there is a distinct catholicity, a broad and inclusive universality to our faith that connects us and brings us closer, regardless of who we are, where we come from, what color our ticket is, and what language we speak. The church is one big umbrella that reaches out and gives us all a respite from the storm.
So, in fact, as a Christian, I am special indeed. My orange ticket did not reveal that truth. The obstructed view and the umbrella did.More
GIVE ME A BREAK!
(No, Really, I Need A Break)
“On the seventh day God rested from all his work.” Genesis 3:2
I do pretty well at keeping the 10 commandments. I haven’t murdered anyone lately. No stealing or adultery. Occasionally, I will covet my neighbor’s motorcycle and boat, until I remember the maintenance required and I quickly become utterly content! However, there is one commandment that gives me fits – Honor the Sabbath. That is, intentionally take time to rest and renew, to recharge the spiritual batteries and spend time with God – reading, reflecting, communing. Workaholism is the one addiction that seems to be passed down in my family. There’s a corollary commandment I should also mention – Do not make an idol of anything. Our culture has idolized “busyness,” “hard work,” and “productivity,” to the point that keeping the Sabbath has been banished to the corner of unpardonable sins.
The Sabbath principle is not about saying “no” to important work that needs to be done, or to volunteer opportunities to which we may be called (especially in a “small” church trying to make a “big” difference). It is about saying “yes” to carving out space in our schedules for other priorities that feed the soul and make God proud.
A few months ago my family asked me to join them for a Mediterranean cruise to celebrate my niece Jenni’s graduation from dental school. Despite the fact that I had not joined on a family vacation in 20 years, I still said no! I came up with my usual excuses: 1) I can’t afford it; 2) I have too much to do at St. Michael’s; and 3) My new book will have just come out, so you know I’ll be busy. Then one day, I was sitting with my spiritual director (note to self – sometimes the best motto is “Don’t just do something, sit there!”) when I realized what a crock of idolatry I had erected. I was about to reject a rare opportunity to spend quality time with my family; see some special places including Ephesus, Corinth, and Rhodes; and celebrate a momentous occasion with people I hold dear. I changed my mind and said YES! As it turned out, the timing perfectly aligned with an opportunity to realize a long-held dream to take a course at the Anglican Institute in Rome – it begins the very day we arrive back in port. See what happens when you observe Sabbath and get your priorities straight. For two and half weeks I will be fed socially and spiritually!
The Sabbath principle is an important one for our spiritual growth, as individuals and as a community. God took time off. So should we.More
THE PROOF OF THE BEER IS IN THE DRINKING OR THANKS FOR BEING YOU
“I could hardly function at work today after staying up till 2:00 a.m. last night reading The Beer Drinker’s Guide to God. Thanks for being YOU and for sharing YOURSELF with the rest of us!”
A Bishop in the Episcopal Church
“John the Baptizer came fasting and you called him crazy. I came feasting and you called me a lush. Opinion polls don’t count for much, do they? The proof of the pudding is in the eating.”
Jesus, Luke 7:33-34 (The Message Translation)
The only stories that I can tell with any sense of authenticity are my own. And the only stories that you can tell with any sense of authenticity are your own. We are uniquely made, yet in all of our storied and gloried uniqueness, we actually reflect the divine image. We are all different. God made us that way. And that makes for a much more interesting story, not to mention interesting life.
John the Baptist was not Jesus. And Jesus was not John the Baptist. Yet neither was immune to the critics. The same people who complained that John fasted complained that Jesus feasted. The same folks who thought John’s asceticism was nuts, thought that Jesus’ indulgence was offensive.
But Jesus understood clearly that you cannot please everyone and that God does not ask us to please anyone – except the One who made us and knows us best. In the Kingdom of God, opinion polls don’t count for much. The proof the pudding is in the eating. And the proof of the beer is in the drinking. Whether you prefer one to the other is beside the point.
Being yourself and living out your own unique calling as a singular child of God like no one else is precisely the point of the spiritual life. Henry David Thoreau observed: “I should not talk so much about myself if there were anybody else whom I know as well. Unfortunately, I am confined to this theme by the narrowness of my experience. Moreover, I require of every writer, first and last, a simple and sincere account of his own life, and not merely what he has heard of other men’s lives.”
Fortunately for all of us, Thoreau lived and wrote what he knew from his own experience. Criticize him if you want, but he was Thoreau and for him, that was enough. I believe that when he got to heaven, God did not ask him “Why were you not Shakespeare or Yeats or Charles Schultz or that actor who portrays the most interesting man in the world in those beer commercials!?” Nope, God asked simply “Were you Henry David Thoreau?” If the answer was yes, the response was “Come on in and have a beer.”
The best compliment I have received thus far about my new book came from a Midwestern bishop the day after it was released. He said simply: thank you for being you, and for sharing yourself with the rest of us. I can’t imagine higher praise. So allow me to say to each one reading this particular story and my unusual take on the spiritual life: Thank you for being you. Ultimately, that is all that God requires of each of us.More
“I should like a great lake of finest ale for the King of Kings.” St. Bridget of Kildare
“Beer is proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy.” Benjamin Franklin
I have a new book coming out on May 6th. It’s about two of my favorite subjects: God and Beer. It’s titled The Beer Drinker’s Guide to God: The Whole and Holy Truth About Lager, Loving, and Living (Simon and Schuster/Howard Books). Doing research for this book was as much fun as research can be!
In the book, I address a number of modern heresies such as 1. Religious truth does not contain the whole truth; 2. God is not funny; and 3. The spiritual life is a solo pursuit. A heresy is simply half the truth parading as the whole, and a lot of what is advocated in the name of religion and spirituality these days seems to be half-truth. So, in the book, I tell the “rest of the story.” I reveal the “whole and holy truth” about life and the quest to serve God as real human beings. I call attention to God’s sense of humor and the understanding that solemnity and spiritual awareness have nothing in common. And I advocate on behalf of a spirituality that is connected – to our fellow travelers, to all of God’s good creation, and to life outside the church doors. For the profane can be as inspiring as the profound, the secular as revelatory as the sacred – and ultimately God hallows all of it.
I’m a storyteller. So, ultimately, this is a book of stories. I weave together real-life experiences from my day job (and sometimes night job) as a parish priest, my travels around the world, my conversations with interesting people, and my evenings in a colorful bar in Marfa, Texas – Padre’s, which I own. I reflect on life lessons learned from baseball, Las Vegas, the Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders, Miss Hawaii, and my own mother. In the midst of these adventures what emerges is the importance of the qualities of generosity, openness, sacrifice, and transformation. And no, I did not make anything up!
But what most people really want to know about the new book is simply this: “Am I in it?!” Yes, you are in it. Not necessarily by name. But I give thanks to the good people who have walked with me, prayed with me, laughed with me and encouraged me along the way. You have supported my somewhat unique ministry to the world. I give thanks for my dogs, my friends, my family, and my faith community. But you’re also “in it” in another way. In the prologue to the book, I suggest a simple and enlightening test to reveal whether someone is a godly person, inspired by the spirit of God. It’s called the Beer Test. If a person is one with whom you’d like to share a beverage, one with whom you’d like to sit down and share stories over a cold beer (or root beer), the chances are good that such a one is indeed anointed by the Creator and on the path toward true spiritual enlightenment. If you are reading this, it is quite likely you fall into this category. So, I raise a toast to you. Because I’d raise a toast with you!More
“There is no life – no life without its hunger. Each restless heart beats so imperfectly. But when you come and I am filled with wonder, Sometimes, I think I glimpse eternity.” You Raise Me Up
“We can’t save them all – but we have to try.” Sokchea Eng Evslin
His name is Sinbad. He had me at sin. And even more so at bad! These are two topics about which I am one of the world’s leading authorities.
Just a few weeks ago, a new friend of mine and his wife (Luke and Sokchea) found an old, scared, scarred, tired, hungry, abandoned dog wandering near their home here on the island of Kauai. He was disabled and had difficulty moving and even sitting. His tail was tucked firmly between his legs. He shook with fear as Luke approached him. They discovered that he was microchipped and registered as Sinbad. When they called the humans who held his papers, they denied that they knew him. “We don’t have a dog” is all they would say. He was scheduled to be put down by the Humane Society during Passion Week. After all, they have 100 good, healthy dogs waiting to be adopted. Surely, no one would want a dog with such physical and psychological challenges. His photo was perhaps the saddest looking one I have ever seen—head drooping, eyes down, shoulders hunched: the pain and fear were palpable.
At first the Humane Society told me Sinbad was “unavailable.” Then Luke convinced them to let me see him. As I walked in to the grassy yard, he immediately assumed his “signature position” – crouched and cowering, lest I had come to do harm, which he no doubt had experienced often in his life. Eventually, he warmed up and came over to give me a sniff and a kiss. His tail, though firmly in the downward dog position, started to wag. He was dragging his back legs, and I could tell that he would be a challenging dog to adopt. So I adopted him.
My dog Nawiliwili Nelson, my girlfriend Monica, and I picked him up on Good Friday, a day that thought it had dibs on death and unhappy endings. It’s a day marked by fear, denial, betrayal, and ugliness. Yet eventually it is really about sacrifice, commitment, forgiveness, and unconditional love. These are the qualities of faith that bring us back to life, even when things look bleak, forlorn, and hopeless. I am sure that on the original Good Friday, Jesus must have thought at least once: “I can’t save them all – but I have to try.”
I know I must be a challenging human to be adopted by God. To be loved and cared for. To be lifted up when I fall. To be fed when I am hungry. To be carried when I cannot carry on. That is why I love Sinbad. That is why, even on Good Friday, I know that Easter will come.More
WHOLLY JESUS! OR WHERE IS DOLLY PARTON WHEN YOU NEED HER?
“You’d be surprised how much it costs to look this cheap.” Dolly Parton
The Miniature Sicilian donkey is the perfect mascot for Palm Sunday: The Sunday of the Passion. The MSD, after all, is that rare combination of cuddliness and affection with a bit of donkey attitude thrown in for good measure. The endearing face is balanced by a dark cross emblazoned on its back. My friend Suzanne McCord used to supply us with a steady stream of these bad boys (and good girls) for every Palm Sunday procession at St James Church in Austin. My personal favorite was a particularly good-natured donkey by the name of Dolly Parton. It made perfect spiritual sense to have Dolly Parton lead the Palm Sunday procession. After all, this is a day that takes you from the playful poking of palm fronds by those engaged in the liturgical version of “The Wave,” all the way to the stark realities of isolation, betrayal, and suffering as the same celebratory crowd turns into an angry mob shouting “Let him be crucified!” At the end of this most schizophrenic service, one is left to wonder: “Uh, what just happened?”
Jesus happened. Life happened. The whole and holy truth happened and was revealed. And we got a rare glimpse of how it really works. What we have traditionally called “Holy Week” – that sacred time from Palm Sunday to Good Friday to Easter – should probably be called “Wholly Week.” It is the entire unsettling story of how we human beings are transformed and reborn – even how we die and are resurrected.
What else would you expect from a man who said the most confusing and conflicting things? Here are a few examples: “Those who lose their lives will find them”; but “Those who find their lives will lose them”; and “If you want to be the greatest, be the servant of all”; and “It is more blessed to give than to receive”; but “If you want to receive what really matters, give everything away”; and “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you and bless those who curse you”; but “Father forgive them for they are clueless”; and “My grace is free but count the cost”; and, finally, “The way I see it, if you want the rainbow, you gotta put up with the rain” (oops, I think that was Dolly Parton who said that last one). But you get the point. What’s cheap is costly. What’s costly is cheap. Or something like that.
In other words, what is holy is wholly. And what is wholly is holy. And that’s the truth – according to Jesus. And to Dolly.More
“But a Samaritan while traveling came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion.” Luke 10:33
We live in a big world with big problems. But we serve a big God who has given us big hearts, big visions, and big resources. Indeed, it’s complicated to address sustainable, positive change in the world. But it starts with our wanting to be changed and wanting to change things – it starts with our being deeply moved, touched, and stirred from within.
Years ago when I was a Youth Minister, I took a select group of 12 students to New York City. They called themselves “Youth for Justice.” The plan was, first of all, to increase our compassion, to “have our hearts broken by the things that break the heart of God.” We knew that would be the motivation that mattered. The various versions of the story of the Good Samaritan describe what happened within the Samaritan as he saw the man in need: “he was moved with pity;” “he felt deeply sorry for him;” and “his heart went out to the man.” That’s where all good works, ministry, and mission begin – deeply within – as we are moved and motivated.
My students felt it. I could see it in their eyes. Mission accomplished. They were willing to give the gloves off their hands and the shirts off their backs and the cash in their wallets to any homeless person in need. They were willing to spend long, chilly days working hard in a Habitat for Humanity Project on the Lower Eastside. Then things got complicated, interesting, frustrating, and transformative.
My friend Jeff Krehbiel, now Senior Pastor of Church of the Pilgrims in Washington D.C., told our young, impressionable group that now it was time for them to start asking the hard questions, such as “Why are there so many people lying by the side of the road, so desperately in need in our world?” Not an easy question with simple answers. But to ask such questions is to go deeper, to begin to explore all kinds of issues related to systemic justice and sustainable change. On our trip we merely skimmed the surface. But it has forever changed the way we think about making a difference.
When you read this article, I’ll be headed to Africa on a similar journey. I’ll be on an Episcopal Relief and Development Pilgrimage in Ghana and then on to a personal pilgrimage in South Africa. I’m going to Africa because, deep within my heart, I have felt moved to learn, act, explore, participate, and do what I can to make the world a better place, in the name of our Loving God. But beyond my motivation comes the hard part, the deeper questions. How does ERD work with the people of a place, in partnership, to alleviate hunger and increase the food supply, to promote health and fight disease, to create economic opportunities and strengthen local communities, and to respond to disasters and help rebuild? I read nine books in preparation for my adventure, and I know I merely skimmed the surface. But I want to learn more, to share what I learn, and to make a deeper, more profound difference in the world.
I know it’s complicated. But sustainable change can happen. And it still starts with compassion.More
STICKS AND STONES CAN ONLY BREAK MY BONES, BUT UNEXPECTED EMAILS CAN SEND ME REELING
“You cut me deep, Shrek. You cut me real deep just now.” Donkey
“Call upon me in the day of trouble: I will deliver you, and you shall honor me.” Psalm 50:15
The day started well. The roosters held off until 4 a.m. My dog had stayed on his side of the bed, butt facing away from my face. I did not step on a centipede or any other living forms on my way to the bathroom. I grabbed a cup of Kona coffee, went online, and finally found the out-of-print book I had been searching for—an autographed copy! In my early morning enthusiasm, I emailed my friend on Facebook to ask for her mailing address. I was excited to send her this gift, written by a wise mentor of mine who had recently passed away, a volume that affirmed a particular passion and calling that she shared with my author friend.
Her email response sent me reeling. She could not accept this gift, she explained, because I had deeply offended her with something I had said. Furthermore, I was to stay away from a mutual friend, reasoning that my intentions toward her were destructive and self-serving. While I am pretty aware of myself and those times when I fail and fall as a human, in this case her assessment was completely inaccurate. I was absolutely stunned, even sickened, that someone for whom I felt nothing but kindness and connection, could possibly have such a negative and troubling impression of me. I am aware—after many years as a priest and human being—that such attacks frequently have more to do with that person’s issues and wounds than anything I might have done. Still, it hurts!
About the only prayer I could come up with at the time was short and unsweet and not found in the Book of Common Prayer. It went something like “WTF! You have got to be kidding me!” For a brief moment, a host of unhelpful doubts began to descend—about my life, calling, convictions, humanity, faith, and gifts.
And then I got the most extraordinary gift – via email on Facebook no less!
Just a few minutes after the message of doom, a young youth minister and missionary in Romania wrote the following message to me: “Hello Father Bill! Just wanted to say that I have been in need of inspiration lately and I have been reading your blog and listening to your sermons—just wanted to encourage you—they are great! I love the one where you sang about being in God’s Army. I might have even laughed out loud and had to explain to a friend that I am not crazy just listening to something funny. …. Anyway, just wanted to say that your sermons are great and so is the blog—keep it coming! God bless.”
This particular message came as a profound moment of grace and affirmation when I needed it most. It was one of those reminders that God has always got my back. If we’re living life like we ought, we will not please everyone all the time. We will sometimes be misunderstood, and our efforts will be unappreciated. But our attempts to please God will always be pleasing to God. And sometimes that is enough to get us through to the next day.
“People are often unreasonable, illogical, and self-centered; forgive them anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfish, ulterior motives; be kind anyway.
If you are successful, you will win some false friends and some true enemies; succeed anyway.
If you are honest and frank, people may cheat you; be honest and frank anyway.
What you spend years building, someone could destroy overnight; build anyway.
If you find serenity and happiness, they may be jealous; be happy anyway.
The good you do today, people will often forget tomorrow; do good anyway.
Give the world the best you have, and it may never be enough; give the world the best you’ve got anyway.
You see, in the final analysis, it is between you and God; it was never between you and them anyway.”
Letting Go: An Easter Miracle
“Do not hold on to me” Jesus, to Mary Magdalene, Easter morning
“Don’t you know things can change?” Wilson Phillips, Hold On
I completely get it. When a life preserver is in reach of those who feel like they’re going under, they hold on for dear life. It wasn’t just a big hug that Mary was attempting to give to a Risen Jesus; it was an attempt to recreate a hopeful reality that once was, rather than embrace an unforeseen alternative that might be. She liked how things were—not perfect, but the best she had known, or at least could imagine, at the time. And you have to think she was hoping they could pick up where they had left off, that things could go back to how they had been before the cruel reality of crucifixion. Jesus surprises her by telling her to let go. It’s not that he doesn’t love her dearly; in fact, it is because of his great love that he startles her into relinquishing her hold on him. Things have changed, and so should she. Resurrection, in this case, means that she has to let go of what was so that he, and she, can be raised to a new life of unanticipated possibility.
Christ is risen! But what about you? Most of us find some comfort in staying put in the dank, dark tomb of disappointment. Perhaps we wagered on love and lost. Or maybe we got hurt along the way and turned inward. Or maybe our dreams turned too quickly to disillusionment? Why venture out and take a chance that it might happen again? It seems sadly reassuring to settle in for some long-term groveling in the darkness. The sunlight just beyond and outside might illuminate something we’d just as soon stayed hidden, if not buried. It is easier to deny that which remains in the dark.
The good news of Easter is that it is possible to let go—of a hurt that never healed, a grudge that was never settled, a dysfunctional relationship that keeps one down, an addiction that has power over us because we withhold the fight of our life, a bad habit, an unhealthy behavior, or a terminal complacency to settle for something we know to be less than life for fear that the alternative could turn out to be much worse. The Easter season is brought to you by the word “CHANGE.” Stasis, paralysis, same old same old, contentment, mediocrity, boredom, and all the other “been there done that” attitudes that hold us back and keep us under are now targeted for removal in the same way the stone was rolled away on Easter morning.
You can’t keep a good man, or a good woman, down, unless they choose to hold on to the pre-Easter reality, which wasn’t all we thought it was anyway. The good old days were not that good. And the days ahead are filled with promise and potential. Let go. Move on. Be resurrected. Ascend. It happened once. It can happen again. Even to you.More
“We are here to dream great dreams, have great hopes and carry out a master plan for our lives.”
Malcolm Miner, Healing and the Abundant Life
This is the most challenging reflection I have written in recent memory. It took much longer to write than your average tribute to a good man – probably because Father Malcolm Miner was not an average man! The most difficult part about remembering Malcolm is figuring out what not to remember about Malcolm: his was a rich, interesting, challenging and inspiring life. He was a musician, writer, teacher, healer, and preacher. He lived and ministered in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, California, Alaska, and Hawaii. He wrote three books. He served as the Executive Director of the United Way in Alaska. He lost a wife to cancer. He fathered a child at age 53. He found true love at age 67. He rode a motorcycle until he was 88. He preached, prayed, and presided until the end. He was universal in his outlook and bold in his conviction. He laughed and made us laugh. He left this world with a smile on his face. He was a kind of spiritual father to me, a Hawaiian kahuna and kapuna. I will never forget him. So, knowing that I’ll be preaching about his insights for the rest of the Easter season, if not the rest of my life, here’s a start to the lessons I learned from Malcolm:
Malcolm preached his first sermon, at age 18, on Easter Day. He died on the day after Easter. His ongoing message to us is really an Easter message, one of life, death, and new beginnings. But why not let Malcolm have the last word? After all, he’s used to it!
“The ‘new you’ is an exciting person, one who never stops having dreams and aspirations. The ‘new you’ is in reality the ‘original you,’ one clearly stamped in the image of God and strengthened by learning experiences in the ‘school of life’ but now alive with a new self-awareness. Whether you are a ‘new you’ or the old one revitalized, it does not matter. What matters is your future. There is still much to be done. You have more potential than you can ever possibly realize. It is time to open the doors and let it happen. Remember, this is the day which the Lord has made. Let us step forward and rejoice in it!” (Healing and the Abundant Life 104)More