UPON THIS ROCK
Fr. Stephen's monthly blog posts are listed here. Click on a title to read.
Abbreviations cause a stir!
Growing up, it didn’t bother me at all; it was just another part of the symbols of our culture which was then still arguably Christian. In the south, we were still thumbing our nose at the oppressive Supreme Court ban on prayer in school. We still had blue laws restricting retail sales on Sunday. Those were the good ol’ days! But “X-mas” had not become as scandalous amongst the faithful as it has become today.
In fact it didn’t really bother me until some protestant radio pastor told me it should. “They’re taking ‘Christ’ out of Christmas!” was the battle cry. With the shifting of our culture through the 60s, 70s, and 80s, secularism became more aggressive against the religious traditions of our society. “Xmas” became one of many battlefields for traditionalists to defend (along with manger scenes on city squares and “Christmas” gift exchanges, and “Christmas” concerts in our public schools).
Well the joke is actually on the secularists and our excitable fundamentalist brethren. They should read their ancient history a little more closely. The “X” in “Xmas” is actually a Christian symbol. It has been in use at least from the third century (A.D.) when Constantine painted it on his shield and went out conquering in this sign. Constantine actually inherited the symbol from existing customs. In the 16th Century (1500s) "X" was mass produced with the advent of the printing press. “Xmas” was more frequently used as an abbreviation for Christmas.
“X” is the Greek letter Chi (pronounced kai) and is the first letter of the word Christos (Xristos). Christos is the phonetic form where we receive the title “Christ” (Anointed One). “X” therefore had for centuries come to abbreviate Xianity, Xians, and Xmas, xtc. So, as troubling as it has become for the Faithful to see “X-mas,” it’s important to understand this symbol’s origins are as innocent as rendering United States of America thusly: USA.
Examples include Alpha and Omega and Chi and Rho. The former represents Jesus Christ as the Beginning and the End of all things. (Alpha is the beginning of the Greek alphabet, and Omega being the end.) The latter, “Chi and Rho” are simply the first two letters of Christos. Perhaps if we abbreviated Christmas thusly “XRmas,” we would be less offended.
Now the point of this article is not to deny that the Christian religion is losing its favor in our society. In fact I agree that we have turned a corner in America in which secular values (even good values) have supplanted the principles of Xianity on which western culture and our nation were founded. I lament this truth. Yet the issue for me is that we as Christians need to be more familiar with our own heritage as Xians and we need to understand that the words “Xmas” or “Christmas” are not what will bring a person to the saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.
As you read this, remember, we Christians are in the Advent Season (what I also call the shopping season.)
We are to bear Christ whether it’s Christmas or New Year’s, or the Fourth of July. Be mindful of your Faithful obligation to worship God and be a disciple of Christ whether it’s Christmas, or Easter, or the 11th Sunday after Pentecost?
How to Avoid Temptation
"Lead us not into temptation' often means, among other things, 'Deny me those gratifying invitations, those highly interesting contacts, that participation in the brilliant movements of our age, which I so often, at such risk, desire."
--C.S. Lewis-Reflections on the Psalms
Who doesn't appreciate being in the limelight or at least on the side of the limelight? Who doesn't want to sidle up-to an important figure, a senator? a bishop? a movie star? baseball hero? Taylor Swift?
To say, "I've met someone famous" or more especially, to be the friend of someone famous is alluring.
You know, I met Brene' Brown once. I watched her checking into a room at Camp Allen carrying luggage and extra pillows like everyone else. She's become famous due to her important and extensive research and analysis on the topic of shame. Her books are helpful and have become best sellers. She's even in cahoots with Oprah. And I met her once! (crickets)
There's nothing more annoying than a name dropper.
Let me simply be content with who I am and with what I have in life. Let me be what God has made me, let me have what God has given me. So this also goes with cutting edge podcasts and the like. I've hosted my own podcast for several years now. I've posted over two-hundred sermons over 4 1/2 years. I don't have much of a following of listeners.
Was I tempted to become a short-sermon sensation? Admittedly, "Yes!" I had hoped that my sermons would somehow capture people's imagination and they would share and share my podcast until my site went viral. The same goes for my blog. But it too has a trickle of readers.
Honestly though. I am grateful for what I have. I have God! my family, and St. Peter's. Who could ask for anything more?
Ohhh! Writer’s block… Something like a brick wall exists between my mind and my fingers as I type.
We’re balancing a lot at St. Peter’s right now. Y’all have been so patient. We have been so patient waiting for roofing to start and finalizing plans for mold clean up. I’ve learned a new phrase, “Brenham Time.” You become spoiled, when you are used to contractors bidding for a job and getting right back to you in Houston. It takes longer to start projects or even to schedule them. I’m learning the slower pace, and it’s okay.
Coupled with Stewardship and Vestry elections, staffing changes, and really important pastoral duties, I’m sitting here thinking, “What do I write.” I want to say something positive, holy, inspirational, spiritual. And nothing comes out of my fingers.
Then I remember. Pray, Pray, Pray. Everything starts with prayer. Everything! Prayer is a conversation. It is a conversation between God and me, between God and you, between God and us. And God initiated the conversation.
Think about this:
In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth. And the earth was without form, and void; and darkness was upon the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters. And God said, Let there be light: and there was light. Genesis 1.1-3
The very first act of prayer God speaks and light and life begins. He started the conversation in the beginning. He still speaks to us today. If you don’t hear him through all the white noise and distractions of your daily life I suggest that you stop what you’re doing right now and talk to him. Put down the pens, keyboards, schedules, and expectations, and talk to God.
You don’t have to use religious words to talk to God, just tell him what’s on your mind. Tell him you wish things would go a little faster, but you’re willing to wait. Tell him you wish some things would slow down; Tell him you wish things weren’t as difficult as they seem to be. Just talk to him. Or just stop and say, “Our Father who art in heaven…”
So I prayed, and all of this came out. Oh! And, we need folks to step up for vestry. Don’t wait to be asked. And we need to increase our revenue…please speak with God about that.
But wait! There's more!
Oh! My! Goodness!
There is so much to tell you. Normally I hope for a spiritual teaching in this newsletter, but there is a lot of logistical activity currently going on at St. Peter's.
I hope you know by now that I am comfortable answering questions transparently about what happens around St. Peter's, but in contrast I shy away from repeating the same information over and over again when we don't have new information.
Specifically this relates to our building clean up. I want to let you all know that we are still working on gathering estimates for necessary mold cleaning. Charles S. is doing a great job coordinating these efforts. As mentioned before this process is slowed down by the schedules of out-of-town remediation companies, busy roofers, and insurance adjusters. (Bless their hearts)
As of the writing of this article 9/13/19 we expect for the roof work to begin in one-and-1/2 weeks. This work is fully covered by insurance. A secondary remediation company will do roof and ceiling evaluations and then provide us with estimates of time and costs. One domino has to fall before the other can begin to move and it's not clear yet what support we'll have from insurance.
So currently we are learning: to be patient.
It's ironic; patience was the unforeseen lesson in our Pathfinder Community Bible study on Thursday evening at Pioneer BBQ. Acts chapter 1.1-11 (take a look) : After Jesus ascends into heaven the disciples find themselves waiting again for the Holy Spirit to come. Waiting, Waiting, Waiting. I promise! Things are happening; it just takes time.
Of course we're all keenly aware of saying farewell to Linda Patterson after a fruitful tenure of leadership in our parish. We will say goodbye (God be with ye) to her and the family on September 29th as her last Sunday; please stay for the reception after church to offer love and support.
Because music is so important to our life together we have begun planning the transition to an interim music director. And I have requested the vestry to affirm a search committee to help me identify a person called as our next director.
Please offer your prayers for these times we are in. God is very good to us, and he is going to reveal great things for St. Peter's!
Glad to be home!
It is so refreshing to be home in Brenham! With the craziness of summer behind me I'm ready to hit the academic year head on at St. Peter's. I'll be leading Foundations Class beginning September 8th in the Parish Hall. And we have so many other things coming up in this season for youth and children. I have asked Pam Knebel to work alongside us with our children and youth ministry. She is excited to serve in this capacity. I hope this year will be a really good year for St. Peter's!
Recapping last summer, St. Peter's goes all out for kids in our major programs. Creative Arts Camp, Diocesan Music Camp, and the summer lunch programs feed the stomachs and more importantly the souls of the Brenham Community and beyond. I'm so proud of the work done by our coordinators, Beth A., Linda P., and Brenda Sq., and all of you who volunteer. You're amazing, and I'm so glad to be a part of these ministries!
On the personal note my family finished up our 50 states family vacations. We visited our last five states and we found our country is full of wonders and wonderful people. Upon returning we went back to work at Camp Allen directing summer camp for 5th and 6th grade youth. And finally, Michael Courtney, Steve Schultz, Neal Squyres, and I visited the Anglican Diocese of Cuernavaca to immerse ourselves in Spanish language courses. I hope that having some language skills will help us communicate with folks that God sends our way who need blessings from the church.
Changing gears: Of course while all these things have been going on our wardens Mike Redman and Charles Schubert have been gathering information regarding the need to clean our building. At the beginning of the summer we found potential mold issues in our classroom space and subsequently in the the church. Mold can be very disruptive to health for people depending on the level of allergic reaction. With the help of Randy P. And Jeff A. we have taken some actions to improve air quality involving dehumidifiers and increase air conditioning. Charles has been gathering more information and has faithfully been balancing, conversations with the roofers, remediation companies, and our insurance company. Conversations with insurance often contribute to the length of this effort. But it is for the best.
A lot of what we are dealing with is typical differed maintenance. As you may know, overtime things tend to accumulate and we are at the point that we need to address these maintenance issues.
The blessing is that once we make these repairs we will know how to maintain our facility to prevent these types of issues in the future. I'm glad to be here now to encourage us through this work! The Lord has given us some tasks to do to put his house in order. We are up to the task with God's help. This year will be a great year for St. Peter's!
Merry Xmas, Xmas sale, Xmas lights, Xmas gifts, Xmas, Xmas, Xmas!!! Looking back, my mind cannot recall the time when I was first introduced to the icon “XMAS.” Whether it was a billboard sign in the 1970s advertising holiday sales or “Xmas” written on the cardboard boxes up in the attic containing our Christmas lights and fake tree, I only know that I recognized “X-mas” as something to do with Christmas.
What's troubling is that Xians continue to lose there understanding of ancient symbols that were intended to be reminders of our faith in Jesus Christ. In fact we are surrounded by these symbols that often go unnoticed. Or, if we notice, we don’t bother to ask what they mean.
We see other uses of alphabetic abbreviation on bibles and altars. Iota, Heta, and Sigma (Ihs). These are the first three letters in the Greek name of Jesus ( Ihsous; pronounced eeyay-soos) If you look close enough at some altars or processional crosses you’ll find this abbreviation.
The reality is that the only people that can take “Christ” out of the world are the people who bear Christ in the world. If Christ is taken out of Christmas it is because Christians have not properly put Christ into Christmas. If you and I do not bear Christ throughout the seasons of our lives then we will do little to change the lives of the people around us in this Christmas Season.
Tuesday, July 16, 2019
Well, we just returned from what could be the last of our family road trips. Back in 2011 the family discussed how many states we had visited together. The conversation led to setting the goal to visit all 50 states (as a family) before our youngest graduates high school.
Mission accomplished. This last road trip we traversed about 5,000 miles in the close comfort of our Ford Edge. Up to New England and back, when you spend that much time behind the wheel there is ample opportunity to think. Experiencing a little of every state I certainly have my favorites and my don't-need-to-go-back-there-again states. I have been surprised to find out how much I like some of the northern environments. The region around the Great Lakes, Detroit and Buffalo are cool, lush, and refreshing coming from the heat of Texas.
More so, I have found that I like the folks from all over. One-on-one most people are very helpful and friendly. It didn't matter what state you were in; you found people to talk to and enjoy brief conversations. I found this to be true in large cities as well as small towns. But I think the small town and small city environments were much more conducive to having meaningful experiences. The food of course is good all over especially when you're looking for the best eating an area has to offer.
The idea I want to stress here is that I have found that generally people all over the country are good. It's frustrating to see how divisive and unkind our politics are today. And before you say, it's "so-and-so's fault" I will say it's not the politicians that are fueling this. Now, anyone can sit behind a computer keyboard and disparage people with different thoughts on economic and political ideologies. People lob grenades at the other party's group with no sensitivity to nuance of belief. We label our political enemies as monolithic in thought without any desire to find common ground on different topics.
What I have discovered is in this environment whether it is an editorial page, newspaper, video media, and everyone's individual Facebook opinion, no one is actually listening to each other. Instead they are hurling insults and assaults against intellect and values.
Well all I have to say is this, I've met lots of regular Americans from all over, and I like them. I have zero desire to disparage them for their political ideologies (even if I do think an idea is ignorant). I'm much more interested in that person being in the Kingdom of God. Hopefully, when sin gets out of the way, God will use me for that purpose. I hope he will use you too.
Thursday, May 23, 2019
Be sure that the ins and outs of your individuality are no mystery to Him; and one day they will no longer be a mystery to you. The mold in which the key is made would be a strange thing, if you had never seen a key: and the key itself a strange thing if you had never seen a lock. Your soul has a curious shape because it is a hollow made to fit a particular swelling in the infinite contours of the Divine substance, or a key to unlock one of the doors in the house with many mansions. For it is not humanity in the abstract that is to be saved, but you--you, the individual reader, John Stubbs or Janet Smith. Blessed and fortunate creature, your eyes shall behold Him and not another's...Your place in heaven will seem to be made for you and you alone, because you were made for it--made for it stitch by stitch as a glove is made for a hand.
--from the Problem of Pain
I am made for heaven; is heaven made for me? If only I could wrap my mind around this concept both in mind and in heart. To think that my place in God's heaven is uniquely made for me is quite wonderful and almost unbelievable. To think that God loves me...considers me at all...speaks me into existence... Who am I that he should give one moment of eternity at all? No one; and yet I am someone because he says so.
What would it be like to love myself and think of myself the way he loves me and thinks of me? Knowing my own sins, I wouldn't die for me; yet he did. He died that I might live. He died to secure my uniquely fitted place in heaven. Here is the kicker; if I had been the only one on earth he still would have saved me. And you; if you were the only one...he still would have saved you.
If I had been the only sinner, God! The Creator of the Universe would have thought me worthy of redemption. Redemption at such a high cost! I wouldn't even die for me and yet Jesus has done just that.
Wednesday, April 24, 2019
I had a wonderful question asked of me the other day. It started with an acknowledgement of what I said in a sermon about our ability and the necessity to love others, especially those we don't like. Does that mean I have to love (insert the name of your least favorite political figure)?
Let's put Jesus' teaching and New Testament teaching into perspective. The Lord tells us to pray for our enemies and love those who hate us. Some of the epistles remind us to pray for the emperor and obey, as far as possible, the secular authority. Putting these teachings into the context of the biblical times and comparing the teachings to our modern times can really show us how shallow our obedience to God may be.
What do I mean? Well, it was imperial secular power which orders the death of Jesus. And it was imperial power that fueled the persecution of the early church that sent disciples of Jesus to the lions, to burning stakes, the sword, crucifixion, flogging, stoning, you name it. Christians have been and still are killed because they professed faith in Jesus Christ. At the same time Jesus' teaching and that of the New Testament commands obedience to secular authority when it does not conflict with God's law.
Christians are still being killed by oppressive secular authorities and are commanded to pray for them. And we wonder if we should "love" our political enemies in this country. What do you think?
Can you make an argument that your political adversaries are as hostile to our faith and to the church as Pilate, or Tiberius, or Diocletian, or Nero, or Stalin, or Pol pot? It's not likely. In any case the commandment from Jesus and subsequent scripture was to pray for these people. If you don't like or agree with that person...prayer that God will enlighten his or her heart, but pray for them. You will become more like Christ when you do this.
The point here is that as believers, we want for everyone to come to saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. If we are too busy defending our political positions against our political opponents then haven't we set politics up as our idol?
This has ramifications for praying for world leaders in church on Sundays. When there will be a political change of mayor, or governor, or president will that change affect your worship? When we change the names in the prayers of the people will you be upset that we pray for the other candidate? If it does affect your ability to worship then I encourage you to start praying for that person now. This is Jesus' command, "Pray for your enemies."
Monday, March 18, 2019
I think that if God forgives us we must forgive ourselves. Otherwise it is almost like setting up ourselves as a higher tribunal than Him.
--from a letter to Miss Breckridge, 19 April 1951 C.S. Lewis
Oh man! Perhaps my college chaplain read this quote form C. S. Lewis. When she said it, and the way she said it was like a slap in the face to me. "If you can't forgive others then you have made your standard higher than God's standard. It's also damning (literally) what God says about our lack of forgiveness, and worse, our unwillingness to forgive others.
The Lord says, "If you will not forgive, then your heavenly Father will not forgive you.
--Matthew 6: 15
An important word in that exchange is the word, will. It is an act of the will to forgive someone. It is an act of the will to forgive ourselves. It is not a feeling in your heart. Feelings are difficult to control. But the will is a decision you make. God has made the decision to forgive the reader of his or her sins. It is his will.
"I will forgive; or I will not forgive." You may not feel it. So it is important to say the words over and over again until your heart catches up to your mind. You may even have to ask God for the power to forgive.
Something else has to be said to the Christian; something should be said to the one who believes that she is a follower of Christ. You may say, "It is hard to forgive," or you may say, "Under my own power I can't forgive;" but the choice to say, "I will not forgive" is not yours to make. That is if you say, "Jesus is Lord." You must forgive; there is no room in heaven for a lack of grace. The death of Jesus on the cross is too costly to withhold from others the same grace he extends to you.
You must forgive the one who has wronged you. And at times you must forgive yourself. The highest standard God expects from us is to live up to his caliber of forgiveness.
I hope in this Lenten Season you will exercise forgiveness. Put it on like a garment. Forgive others; forgive yourself.
Wednesday, February 6, 2019
"Whenever we find that our religious life is making us feel that we are good--above all, that we are better than someone else--I think we may be sure that we are being acted on, not by God but by the devil. The real test of being in the presence of God is, that you either forget about yourself altogether or see yourself as a small, dirty object. It is better to forget about yourself altogether."
--C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity
It is better to forget about yourself altogether; I agree, but I have a problem with this principle. It's not that I regularly, or routinely, or even occasionally feel or think myself better than another person. Rather it's the opposite. Too often I don't feel or think of myself as worthy of God's Love. Whether it is the Love of God or Love of Neighbor that feels more frequently elusive. It's safe to say I have only felt worthy of my mother's love because a mother has to love you.
In contrast to this quote religion doesn't make me feel more self-righteous or better than another person. Instead it makes me feel more comfortable with God. Religion, Prayer, Scripture, Liturgy, the Sacrament bring me to normal. They bring me to peace with my sin and make me equal with my Neighbor. Religion brings me to the possibility of loveability. Actually that's not true.
Intellectually and practically I am already lovable; religion makes me aware of my loveability.
It is so frustrating to me how misunderstood the purpose of religion is to others. "The opioid of the masses" is not to control, though it has been used that way by priests and parents alike.
Religion is supposed to be a vessel; it is the vessel we use to navigate ourselves through this temporal world. Religion is the method that we plot our course into the depths of God's character. His love, his mercy, his forgiveness, his holiness, our obedience. Religion is the pathway that God has given us in Christ to seek him.
A few months ago I saw a man standing at the highway intersection with a sign that stated, "Jesus loves you; Religion doesn't."
Of course "religion doesn't." Religion isn't suppose to love you. Religion is how you love God and your neighbor in return.
Monday, January 14, 2019
The whole of life is a prayer--often one sided. Regrettably, it is more often than not, one-sided. For God is always present and we are the ones who step away. I have often described prayer as simply a conversation between God and a person.
When you and I pray we take time in our day to say the things we need to say to God: To adore him, to say thank you, to make our appeals, to ask for our needs and wants. It takes place when we are mindful of God.
On the other hand God is everywhere at every time. All he has is time; he has time to spend conversing with each of us. He has already constructed the earth, the elements, he has given us oxygen to breathe all-the-while we conduct our daily busyness with projects, activities, and agendas. Though he is always mindful of us we are distracted from considering our Maker and Provider.
In the daily moments of our lives we need only be mindful of his omnipresence to return to the conversation and find he has been there all along. How much greater our society would be if we are conscious of his presence! If each of us considered him walking next to our self and next to our neighbors in the world we certainly would behave differently. How much more godly would our world be if we allowed ourselves to recognize that God is all around us...always.
Friday, January 11, 2019
ANNUAL ADDRESS FROM THE RECTOR
January 27, 2019
Which is more important to you: protecting or starting a legacy? Do we hold on to the past at the expense of the future?
Reading over the history of St. Peter's I’ve been thinking about the things to which we dearly hold; Historic churches get into a rut by focusing all our attention on the preservation of things, buildings, baptismal fonts, chalices and patens.
These things steal our attention when what we need to do is focus on the future. Every congregation has multiple personalities…those whose memory includes the golden era, better times when we saw children running in the playground and lots of activity every day at the church. And another set of people constantly looking for change; they are people who seem to be willing to abandon the past for something unseen. And so, we have conflict between 1) those who believe that if we maintain the status quo we will be comfortable and 2) those who need variety or change. Which is right?
To find the answers to this question we need to look back sixty years. Sixty years ago, the old wooden clapboard church of St. Peter’s sat on Vulcan Street in downtown Brenham. The building was older and structurally unsound. The 290 bypass would be built around the city and so it made good sense to move the church to 2310 Airline Drive.
But do you think everyone agreed? Oh no! I can hear faithful people say, “St. Peter’s church has stood on Vulcan Street for 90 years; We have to stay here.” Some of you may be worried that I’m suggesting we move; I’m not suggesting that at all. What I want to point out is the mentality that gets us in a rut. Are you so afraid of losing what you have that you’re unwilling to risk for the unseen better future for St. Peter’s?
If it hadn't been for the courageous legacy-makers of St. Peter's past (Father Bird and his flock) we would still be on Vulcan Street in a dilapidated clap board historic church building. Or a rebuilt one that looks exactly like it. And it would have had that historic marker on the corner telling of its once proud history.
I spoke with Arthur Al Geick the other day, and back in the day Fr. Bird asked him to crawl up underneath that church building on Vulcan…Arthur Al is an engineer and he went down there to assess the state of the brick foundation piers. He got down on his hands and knees and crawled half way under the church with dirt and spiders all around. Before he got to deep in, he turned around came out and told Fr. Bird I’ve seen foundation and I’m not going any farther, and I’m probably not going inside the church either.
Most of the folks felt and saw the need for change. Our faithful legacy makers gave us the current location of St. Peter’s. We aren’t honoring them by preserving their legacy of our buildings and grounds. The way to honor their legacy is to have the same mentality that they had. They were willing to sacrifice what they had for the better future of St. Peter’s…that future is us.
So, we need to decide what our legacy is. Is our legacy only to preserve theirs? Or are we called to set forth a legacy and think of the next generation of Episcopal Christians who will be here for the 200th Anniversary of St. Peter’s?
Do you want a future for St. Peter's and are you willing to sacrifice personal needs for that future?
The future is out there in Brenham and Washington County. It's in the children to which we care in our children and youth programs. The future of St. Peter’s is not only our blood children and blood relationships. The future are children adopted into the St. Peter’s family. The future is the children of BTxLA—our music and arts program. The future is in the children to whom we give food in our outreach ministries.
But here is the problem…we don’t invite them…and we don’t build lasting relationships with them. We may service them food or give them a taste of great music, but we aren’t inviting them to become part of us.
I’ve heard this statement for many years as a priest and it hasn’t changed here in Brenham: “I’m sorry I wasn’t in church Sunday, I had out of town guests.” You know what I do when I have out of town guests…"I tell them to pack your church clothes; I’m going to church and you can come with me." It’s the best church in Brenham. We must love St. Peter’s so much that we can’t miss it. We must love St. Peter’s so much that we don’t want others to miss it.
St. Peter’s is a great church. It is the church I would choose if I were just moving into town, because you’re friendly, you’re faithful, you are generous. Let’s become inviting as well. When you see a new face invite them to coffee hour, when you see a new face invite them to help with our arts ministry to children, when you see a new face invite them to help in our food ministries,
When you see a new face invite them to worship with us.