The Society of Campus Ministers

Church Super Bowl

I got to preach on Easter this year. Easter sermons are somewhat treacherous, as like Christmas sermons, they can become a Greatest Hits of everything the preacher would like you to remember, on the chance they won’t see you again until the next big holiday.  Or, you can go to the other extreme: to make […]

Everything on One Day

Last year, the parish administrator and I coined a new term: Holy Week-ing.  This describes, as little else does, the phenomenon well known to church staff and clergy–that during times of high liturgical stress, everything and everyone chooses this particular moment to have a crisis.  People get ill, people die, copiers break, organs implode, weird occurances […]

Love the Fish: A Wedding Homily for Sarah & Tony

A rabbi had a friend who remarked, over a shared dinner of fish, how much he loved fish. The rabbi looked at his friend. “You love fish, huh? You loved the fish so much you took it from the river, boiled it, and ate it. You don’t love fish. You love yourself. You love how fish makes you feel.” 
Tony and Sarah, I give you the secret you already know to the fullness of joy in your marriage: love the fish. Love one another.
Some important clarifications before we go on: 1) you, of course, are not fish, and 2) the rabbi was not necessarily endorsing a vegan lifestyle. For our purposes today, let’s call it a metaphor. Love the fish. Love one another.
How will you know when you are loving the fish? That you are loving each other for more than how the other makes you feel or meets your needs? I am not asking this question rhetorically, because I know you both well, have come to count you good friends, and I know that this question is one you already cherish and already live. This question is one you are ready and prepared to answer with your lives, even when you don’t have all the answers in your life. Sarah, Tony, your generous, self-giving love for each other and the world around you is obvious and evident and inspiring and, yeah, sure, a work in progress, and yes, also, a thing for which all of us today in this space thank the living God. For such a love is surely God’s good gift.
For their part, Sarah and Tony tell me to tell the rest of you that they blame you for imparting this self-giving love to them. To ask them, the love to which they are committing today is their partaking in a gift they steward because of the love and example of a great cloud of witnesses of which each of you is a treasured part. A great cloud of witnesses, seen and unseen, has made this love real for them. 
I do not know how you taught Tony and Sarah by your lives to love the fish, but if I had to guess, I would guess that it was by imitating your giving and forgiving. Learning through your lives generosity and forgiveness; sharing the space of life with you as you gave of yourself and received gifts from others with humility and grace. You taught them to love the fish, too, when you forgave others and received forgiveness in turn, when you saw and named that you had grieved another person, and in that moment you put your love for that person above yourself. 
These two ways of being, generosity and forgiveness, which are really one way of being, are twin lights that illumine the love of God in this world and they reside near the hearts of all those who know that the love of God knows them. So generosity and forgiveness name the love of Christ that invests in another’s flourishing, even at the cost of other lives you might have lived instead.
And that’s marriage, right? And certainly parenthood. Not unlike monastic life, marriage is choosing to surrender choices and so to let go of other lives we might have lived. The good and unexpected news is that there is freedom and joy in choosing fewer choices. But the freedom of fewer choices doesn’t come in marriage’s being easy (spoiler alert: it isn’t), but freedom and joy come in learning to trust that the number of choices in our lives is not the most important thing about our lives. The freedom of fewer choices is the freedom of knowing God’s love and coming to trust, more and more and together, your identity as beloved of God with all your life. So, years from now, don’t just reread the Song of Songs nostalgically as a story into which you both rightly inserted yourselves on your wedding day. But read it frequently, yes, as a picture of your love for each other, but also as a picture of God’s love for each of you and both of you together. Read the parts we didn’t read today, and let it make you blush. Remember that the same Jesus who says, “You did not choose me, but I chose you” is the Jesus who springs for fancy wine at the end of the party. And who delights in you both and who shares your joy today.
Sarah and Tony, continue to let the love of the Winemaker be the source of your own. Let his love challenge and delight you. Let the cup of this table continue to sustain you in the good work of loving each other and others.
Finally, a different rabbi also had some friends over for a shared meal, a different meal, a breakfast of fish on the beach, and he remarked, over breakfast, how much he loved them, how much he loved his friends. He held out his wounded hands and breathed God’s peace and forgiveness on them. “Love one another,” he had told them days before, “Just as I have loved you.”

Amen.

An Interactive Way of the Cross on the Campus of UW-Madison

A prayer walk for the University of Wisconsin-Madison, bringing prayer and local history together, using the stations of the cross and prayers from the Episcopal Book of Occasional Services, 2003. Each location has been matched with prayers from the BO…

The Impossible Possibility of Faith: Bearing the Cross that Feels Light

A particularly important (and beautiful) passage from Rowan Williams’ Silence & Honeycakes, which I’m re-reading with friends this Lent.

Jesus says in Matthew 11:30 that his yoke is easy…but we can hardly forget that he also tells us to pick up and carry the cross. To see – to feel – the cross as a light load is the impossible possibility of faith: letting our best-loved pictures of ourselves and our achievements die, trying to live without the protections we are used to, feels like hell, most of the time. But the real hell is never to be able to rest from the labours of self-defence. It is only very slowly indeed that we come to see why the bearing of the cross is a deliverance, not a sentence; why the desert fathers and mothers could combine relentless penance with confidence and compassion.

A friend shared the following video with me the other day, and it powerfully captures what Williams calls resting from the labors of self-defense. Crucially, Christians are called to recognize the ways our labors of self-defense often take the shape of violence toward our neighbors. In other words, I think it is a profound mistake to hear Manning’s words as purely private. To confess self-defense is to confess how we daily embody our mistrust of God in our relationships one another and others. There is such truth and mercy in the Lord’s Prayer when the petition for daily bread, trusting God for the “just enough for today” (à la manna in the wilderness), is immediately followed by a petition for forgiveness.

On telling the truth

The Samaritan Woman at the well is one of my favorite stories.  There’s the foreign woman, who talks to Jesus, and is welcomed, and runs and tells the good news–in one little story, you get a blue print of most of the great gospel stories. In 2017, however, there’s this one lines that juts out. […]

Refugees, Sanctuary, & the Church in 2017


This is a resource post, which means I promise fill it with what I hope are useful links for you. It also means that the post will be even better if you share additional resources in the comments below! 

My first sustained attention to the concept of “sanctuary” probably came with the release of the 1996 Disney film The Hunchback of Notre Dame when I was fifteen years old. I had been raised, though, in an Anglo-Catholic tradition that emphasized the absoluteness of the confessional’s confidentiality, which seemed to me to be consistent with the concept. Still, even multiple film viewings didn’t mask the incompleteness of my education.

I start with Quasimodo because, with the return of the sanctuary movement in 2017, my recent experience in conversation with local leaders is that many of us carry a heart for the work while simultaneously carrying holes in our knowledge of the movement and so also what we’re getting ourselves into. There’s good news here. Presbyterian minister John Fife didn’t know what he was doing, either, when he started the sanctuary movement in the early 1980s. As it turns out, sanctuary means lots of things. As it turns out, caring and showing up to the conversation is a good enough place to start.

But history helps. Which is why I can’t commend enough two short podcast episodes from 99% Invisible:

99% Invisible is a podcast “about all the thought that goes into the things we don’t think about — the unnoticed architecture and design that shape our world.” The show has been criticized by some for departing from its stated mission to produce these two episodes, which is a fascinating and, I contend, misguided critique. For surely the political involvement of the United States in the governing of other countries constitutes “unnoticed architecture and design” that shapes our world. Which is why the history helps.

History is also what John Fife and his peers turned to when they began the sanctuary movement. They turned to the Underground Railroad movement of the early and mid 19th century in which Christians (and especially Quakers) were also instrumental as a template for their work. Just as the podcasts above provide a helpful history when considering the sanctuary efforts of 2017, history helps as Christians continue to grapple with the legacy of slavery. An excruciating documentary I can’t recommend highly enough in this regard is 13th, which documents the constitutional transition from slavery to the systemic incarceration of African-Americans in the United States. 


So, in 2016, former Nixon domestic policy chief John Ehrlichman said in an interview with Harper’s writer Dan Baum

We knew we could make it illegal to be either against the way or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about drugs? Of course we did.

The sanctuary movement was similarly subjected to the interest of the government, which enlisted informants to pose as sanctuary volunteers who recorded meetings and even worship services as evidence later used to indict leaders of the movement. In the trials that followed, prosecutors successfully filed court motions that disallowed the defense from presenting arguments about, among other things, the enforcement of immigration law and religious freedom. Maybe read that sentence again. Most fundamentally, it was refugees from Guatemala and El Salvador, countries whose dictators were propped up by the U.S. government as part of Cold War posturing, who were being denied access to this country under existing asylum laws (because to do would require formal acknowledgement of evils enacted by the governments the U.S. was propping up). It is impossible to separate questions of justice from questions of design.

_____

When I was called to be the chaplain at the St. Francis House Episcopal Student Center in 2012, I knew I was stepping into a rich history of pronounced social awareness and activism. My predecessors transformed the Episcopal Center into a medical clinic for protesters during the Vietnam War resistance, for which the University of Wisconsin-Madison was something of an epicenter.

Charley Taylor, speaking at SFH’s 100th anniversary event in October, 2015. For more on Madison and the Vietnam War, check out the stellar documentary The War at Home.
In the 1980s, too, St. Francis House provided sanctuary to refugees of Guatemala and El Salvador, with families sharing rooms and spaces traditional reserved for students. When people talk about the sanctuary movement today, it is usually this historical moment to which they refer, when the Christian community openly challenged the federal government’s enforcement of asylum laws. 
Like many churches, St. Francis House has changed since 1980. Not in its commitment to justice or the service of Christ in all persons, but as an institution, as a building, even. As the university landscape is always changing and evolving, so too with us. The rooms refugee families inhabited in the 1980s were torn down some years ago to make room for the adjacent student apartment building. It was a brilliant and visionary move to maintain an Anglican/Episcopal presence at the University of Wisconsin, and the change of space will not prevent St. Francis House from carrying the sanctuary mantel again in 2017, but the change does mean that carrying the mantel will not look exactly like it did, and not just for St. Francis House. In 2017, sanctuary is not just a movement among churches. Cities, counties, and other institutional structures also claim the commitment. So the imagination will be new, and that is good and right. But that the imagination will be new does not mean that we must start from scratch. The history of the designs of injustice and their resistance (and sometimes faithful defiance) are there for us. They are our conversation partners and our cheerleaders in the work ahead. We should keep their stories close and cherish the chapters we have the privilege of living. 

The Wisdom of Moonstruck

I’ve been a fan of the playwright John Patrick Shanley for years now.  He wrote the screenplay for Moonstruck; he also wrote the play Doubt.  His Twitter presence is both strange and profound, in turns. I like the way he writes, because he manages to find the mystical in ordinary people and circumstances, and then make […]

Lent & Learning How to Die


Today we begin the season of Lent. Here, on day one, we stand forty days, give or take, from the earliest, most ancient holy days of the Christian church: days that remember the death and resurrection of Jesus – Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. When we say that Christians are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, we are also saying that Christians are baptized into those ancient days and, therefore, into God’s time. So Lent is the season by which Christians remember our baptism and rediscover our place in God’s story.

Contrary to prevailing narratives, Lent (or Christianity, for that matter) is not about self-improvement or becoming better people. Lent is about learning how to die. That makes the preacher’s task on a college campus difficult because, God willing, none of you are dying anytime soon. In fact, you are in the middle of establishing personal and professional identities through which you will experience the bulk of your life to come.

Your personal and professional development matters; it is full of loving gifts from God to be lifted back up in love to God, but none of them matter as much as, or apart from, the identity God first gives you through the waters of baptism. So Lent is not about disparaging your other vocations; it is about lifting up this first one, sometimes digging it out from the bottom of the pile or retrieving it from out of the dustbin, so that you can see all the others by its light. Lent is remembering that, no matter what else life holds, you are never less or more than the child dearly loved by the living God whose Son’s life, death, and resurrection make it possible for you to lose your life in love without fear, for the glory of God and the building up of God’s people.

Now, if (like me) you were baptized a longtime ago, you might not remember the words. But at your baptism, the Christian community invited the Holy Spirit to hover over the waters, and it was like a reenactment of the Spirit hovering over the waters back in the beginning, the book of Genesis, at creation. It was the same, but different. This time, the Spirit and the waters announced God’s new creation. Then the water found you and a voice spoke these words over you, “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” And later, “You are sealed by the Holy Spirit in Baptism and marked as Christ’s own forever.” And these words count more than all the awards you will ever accumulate and all of the failures you can possibly manage.

The question that drives Lent is what trusting God’s love for us and our neighbors above everything else, even our best accomplishments, goodness, and deserving, can mean. So Lent is about learning to die.

A dear friend of mine, Evelyn, spent the last of her eighty-plus years in an assisted living center. Though she would occasionally lament that the view through her window never seemed to change much, she was, on the whole, an infectiously positive woman. “I am thankful!” she would say every time I’d visit. She was thankful for her family, which included her church family, and all that her eighty-plus years on this earth had meant. More than anything, she was thankful for God. One day, though, Evelyn carried a sadness into our visit. I asked her about it. “I am thankful,” she said, “and I have had to give up so much. I am thankful for my family, but I don’t see my family as much as I’d like to. I am thankful for my memory, but I can’t remember as much as I want to.” Then she pointed to a ball of yarn and two needles. “My eyes are dim and my fingers hurt. I can’t knit. And I loved to knit.” She pointed around the room at her handiwork. It was true, knitting everywhere. “Tell me,” she said. “Why would he take that from me? I think I am ready to die; I am not afraid to die. But why would God take that from me?”

Baptism reminds us that, just as Jesus was stripped at his earthly end, we too will be stripped. Sooner or later, there will be a day when strength and memory fail, when even the assurance that we have made a difference in the world might not make a difference to us. At that moment, will we have lost our worth before God? Through the waters of baptism, the Spirit cries, “No! God forbid!” And neither have those you do not recognize as worthy of love lost their worth before God by our negligence and self-interest: those with dementia and mental challenges, those we exploit for personal gain in this country and across the globe, the obviously unsuccessful, the prisoner, the outcast. Stand with these and you will discover the gift of God’s love without condition, the Spirit’s breath and mercy. In this light, as it claims God’s love, baptism is the gift of dying before your death.

So a world-renowned author went to a spiritual friend and said she was having a hard time deciding what to give up for Lent. She had no obvious vices, and was loathe to take on meaningless spiritual busywork. After a thoughtful silence, the friend asked the author, “What if you gave up reading?”

I don’t know if she did, but there was likewise once a wealthy man who stood before Jesus and said that he, too, had no obvious vices. After a thoughtful silence, Jesus asked, “What if you gave up your wealth?”

I wonder, if Jesus wanted to tug this Lent on an equivalent thread of trust in your life, questioning that which you have come to rely on as a primary basis of your identity, a sign of your goodness and deserving, of a worth that has taken the place of your baptism, what question would Jesus ask you? Would you be willing to pull on that thread this Lent, if it could mean the emergence of a renewed trust in God?

Lent is about losing everything we thought made us the wonderful people we are until there is nothing left but God’s love for us and the call to trust God’s love and mercy to the end. Such a trust will involve turning from some actions toward new ones, because we will be given the gift of seeing how many of our actions toward each other are different ways of protecting ourselves from the need to trust God. This is one reason why you cannot do Lent by yourself, because trust of God and love of others belong to the same equation. You can measure the one by the other. Trust in God goes with generosity and vulnerability toward the outcast and stranger. So Christians learn trust together and discover that trusting God turns us into God’s gifts for each other and gives glory to God. Like Israel’s wanderings in the wilderness, Lent will call us to walk with God together, because the Christian life is not about impressing God by moral performance, being good, but trusting God, sharing communion with God and all those God loves, forever and to the end, in ways that become our thanks and praise.

Amen.