Of puppies and missionaries …

This column was written for and ran on EpiscopalCafe.com on 21 April 2012.

We have a new addition in our household, a giant-pawed Great Dane puppy named Julian.

Julian at 10 weeks, right, with her Cavalier King Charles "brother" Gabriel.

She came into our lives recently as a 10-week-old, gangly, runt-of-the-litter, Brindle-colored baby and immediately wriggled her way into our hearts and minds.

Watching her adjust to her new surroundings, with three new people and two new dogs (who are, as they constantly remind us, Not. Amused.) reminds me of missionaries and the adjustments they go through when they arrive in a new land.

Just as missionaries need to leave behind all whom they love to live with new people, whom hopefully they will come to love, Julian had to leave behind her sire and dam and three brothers, as well as the breeders.

Just as missionaries have to learn to live in new housing situations (sometimes mud huts, sometimes tents, sometimes very Western-style apartments), Julian has had to learn to live in our house, which is very different from the farm where she was bred and spent the first 10 weeks of her life.

Just as missionaries need to learn a new language, with all of its colloquialisms, Julian is learning her own new language: “Come. Out. Sit. Down. Off. No bite. Leave it. No. Good girl!” It is not easy for missionaries or puppies to untangle the nuances of new languages.

You go into a new place, and everything is new: the people; the food; the customs; the language. It doesn’t matter if you are a missionary or a puppy, there’s still a lot of learning going on, and every day is a day of discovery.

Her first night with us, Julian did what most every puppy does when it was time to go to bed: She cried. She sat in her crate, with blankets and toys, and whimpering and cried for a long, long, long time. Eventually, she slept, mainly because she was so very tired.

My first night as a missionary in Sudan? I cried as well. Even though I had worked like the dickens to get to Sudan, even though I really, really wanted to be there, I still cried. Everything was new and foreign and I was so very far from all that I knew and loved. Like Julian, I cried myself to sleep that night. (And did so again when I moved to Haiti, four years later.)

No matter how hard you try, as a new person in a new place, you make mistakes. You go to the wrong places, say the wrong things, do the wrong things at the wrong time. Anyone who has had a puppy knows that puppies do all that – and more – all the time. Missionaries and puppies are constantly learning, constantly striving, constantly attempting to please, to fit in, to not be seen as an “outsider” who doesn’t belong there.

Julian at 6 months ... still growing.

Every day is a day of discovery and adventure, of new things to do, new people to meet. Every day also presents new opportunities to make mistakes, to get lost, to realize that what you “know” may only be what you thought you knew.

The more I watch this Great Dane puppy, the more I see my life as a missionary. Things that scared me at first, or that seemed too hard to do, became so normal that they stopped meriting a mention.

Julian grows at an astonishing rate. Where once she was the same size as the 10-year-old spaniels, she now towers over them. Where once she was confused and timid, she is now confident and bold. She still stumbles around a bit – she’s growing into her body, we like to say – but she stumbles a lot more boldly than when she first arrived. She knows she is loved and cared for, which gives her the confidence to go forth into the world, seeking new adventures, new friends, new challenges.

My life as a missionary was much the same. There was constant growth (not physically; I’d already grown into my body). I, too, was timid at first, and made lots of mistakes, not understanding what was happening to me or around me. But the longer I stayed, the more I learned, the bolder I became, and as I grew bolder, I was more willing to even more new things.

Yep, welcoming Julian into my life has made me realize: Missionaries could learn a lot from watching a puppy. Their lives are, more than I ever realized, so very similar.

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Side effects of crestor

Luke 24:36b-38

Jesus doesn’t pull any punches, does he?

The Risen Lord, by He Qi

Here the disciples are, deep in shock and mourning because their Teacher, their Lord, the man they thought was their Savior, is dead … and two of their group are telling them this fantastical story about how they met the Risen Lord on the road to Emmaus, and boom! There’s Jesus … right … in … front … of … them!

Good Lord, they thought they were seeing a ghost!

How can this be?!

They saw (although from a distance) Jesus die on the cross!

They saw (again, from a distance) Jesus’ body laid in a tomb!

They’ve been in hiding for three days – three days! – because they know the Romans are really good at rounding up “known associates” and hanging them on crosses, too – just to teach the rabble a little lesson, don’t you know …

And, boom!

There’s Jesus, standing right in front of them!

And how does he comfort them?

But telling them, in essence: Your turn!

You are the witnesses, he says, to all these extraordinary things that happened when I was with you.

And you are the witnesses to the fact that here I am with you now, raised from the dead.

I’m not a ghost, he says, not a dream.

I am risen!

And now it’s your turn …

So go on. Get out of here. Go tell the story.

You.

And you.

And you.

You are the witnesses.

And I, the Risen Lord, am counting on you.

• • •

I am confident this is not what the disciples wanted to hear.

When you get right down to it, they have never been the ones to do all the work, have they?

After all, Jesus performed the miracles.

Jesus preached.

Jesus taught.

Jesus healed.

And now he’s telling them it’s their turn?

Their turn to tell the story, to witness to all they had seen and heard and learned and experienced?

Their turn to perform miracles?

Their turn to preach?

To teach?

To heal?

Them?!?!?

• • •

For us sitting here, 2,000 years after the fact, this sounds like a no-brainer, I know.

It’s easy for us to say, “Yeah, c’mon, disciples, go do your job! Go tell the story!”

And it’s just as easy for us to say, “Well, we know they did, because if they hadn’t, we wouldn’t be sitting here today. So good job, disciples!”

It is easy for us to say all that, and to sit back with a bit of satisfaction and perhaps even some smugness.

“Yep, those disciples. Didn’t get it at first, but man, when the Risen Lord challenged them, they finally got it, finally did what Jesus told them to do. A bit slow out of the blocks at first, but after that, yep, they did a good job, don’t you think?”

And then, of course, we can walk away from all that.

Because the job is done, right?

It’s over with, right?

My friends, the good news is that indeed, the disciples did  get over their shock, they did tell the story, and as a result, we are here today.

Sounds like the end of the story, doesn’t it?

Alas, I am here today to tell you:

No it is not the end of the story.

It’s just the beginning.

Sir Winston Churchill

As Winston Churchill said at the end of the Battle of Britain, “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is the end of the beginning.”

And at the end of the beginning, it is now our turn.

Our turn to be the witnesses.

Our turn to tell the story.

Our turn to perform the miracles – to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, proclaim the good news that God indeed does love us … to make the blind see and the deaf hear and the lame walk and the mute sing with joy!

Our turn to teach and preach and tell the story.

Make no mistake, my friends.

The Risen Lord is not just talking to the disciples 2,000 years ago.

He is talking … to us.

Because we are the witnesses.

Now I know that a lot of people these days – perhaps even some of us sitting right here today – are not interested in preaching and teaching about the Good News of God in Christ Jesus. We are not interested in going throughout the world and proclaiming, “Alleluia! Christ is risen! The Lord is risen indeed!”

Not outside the doors of this church, at any rate.

But we really do not have a choice in this, do we?

Because Jesus, because the Risen Lord, the one we are here celebrating this very day, has given us our marching orders.

He is saying to us, right here, right now:

You are my witnesses.

So go on … go tell the story!

You.

And you.

And you!

• • •

Let’s do a little experiment.

Let’s figure out a way for you … for each of you … for each of us … to tell the story.

(Warning Number One: This is a little lesson in evangelism, which is part of mission, which is the very reason for which God created us. As Jesus said, “What are you afraid of?” It’s just a little evangelism …)

(Warning Number Two: I’ll tell you about that in a minute.)

Do you see these flowers here?

These are pansies.

Cute little things, aren’t they?

Harbingers of spring …

You see them all the time, all over the place.

Hardy little buggers, aren’t they?

I bet you did not know that in addition to being pretty, you can eat them.

Yes, you can.

You can pull the flowers right off the stem and eat them.

Mmmm, mmmm, good, as the commercial says.

(eat … eat … eat)

(Warning Number Two revisited: Before you go outside and starting pulling up flowers to eat, know this: You can’t eat most of them. Make sure you’re eating pansies, OK? Nothing else …)[1]

Now … if one of you were to call someone who is not at church today to witness the preacher standing in the pulpit eating pansies and told that someone that the preacher indeed did stand in the pulpit and eat pansies … do you think that person would believe you?

Most likely not.

I’m fairly certain this is not happening in a lot of churches this morning.

So if one of you were to call that one person and tell that person about what I’m doing, that person most likely would think you were doing nothing but telling a fantastical story.

You might even scare that person (who would be wondering, I assure you, not about me, but about you and your sanity).

Now, what if two of you were to tell the same story to the same person?

Do you think that person might believe two of you?

No?

Well, what if say, 10 of you were to tell the story … the exact … same … story?

That person might … or might not … believe you.

But … what if everyday here were to call that one person who is not here, and told the exact same story?

Would that person believe you then?

And what if all of you were to tell everyone you met … today, tomorrow, Tuesday, Wednesday … that your preacher stood in the pulpit and ate pansies?

Wouldn’t that be a great story to tell?

Wouldn’t that be a whole lot easier story to tell than just walking up to a friend (or heaven forfend, a stranger) and saying, “Listen, let me tell you about Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord”?

Wouldn’t you rather go up to a friend, or heaven forfend, a stranger, and say, “You’re never gonna believe what happened in church this morning? The preacher stood in the pulpit and ate pansies”? Doesn’t that make for a much easier story to tell?

Because then folks are going to ask you, “Where do you go to church?” And you can answer, “I go to St. Martin’s … you know, over on Jamestown road … right near the place that serves breakfast, lunch and antiques.”

And doesn’t it then give you the opening to tell the rest of the story?

I’m telling you:

Jesus doesn’t pull any punches.

The Risen Lord is standing right here in our midst, and telling us, in no uncertain terms:

You are my witnesses.

So go!

Go tell the story!

If that makes you nervous, fear not.

You can start by telling them about pansies in the pulpit first.

Heck, if you want, you can even eat some pansies yourself.

I guarantee you, people will listen.

So remember:

It’s our turn.

We are the witnesses.

And we’ve got one heck of a great story to tell.

Amen.

Sermon preached on the Third Sunday of Easter, 22 April 2012, Year B, at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church, Williamsburg, Va.



[1] Yes, you can eat other flowers. I know this. But for the purposes of talking to folks in the pew in church, the warning is simple: If it’s not a pansy, do not eat it!

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Provera side effects

Matthew 17:1-9

Icon of the Transfiguration by Andrei Rublev (1405), now located in the Moscow Annunciation Cathedral

When Peter and James and John went up the mountain with Jesus that long-ago-but-memorable day, they literally had no idea what was about to happen.

 

They thought they were going to pray. After all, that’s what Jesus regularly did, and so for them, this was just another day following their teacher and Lord.

But, really: They had no idea what was in store.

Up they go, and boom! Jesus is transfigured right in front of them! His face shines like the sun, his clothes are dazzling white, and right there stand Moses and Elijah, chatting with Jesus!

You know that was a surprise. You know this was not on their agenda for the day. (Take a walk with Jesus? Check. Climb the mountain? Check. See Jesus transfigured? Huh?)

But the surprises didn’t stop there.

Because just as Peter in his great excitement was babbling away – “Lord, this is great! Let me make three little houses for you …” (perhaps to fix Jesus, Moses and Elijah in that moment?), just as he was reacting as only Peter could react, God spoke.

Now remember:

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God speaks to people all the time.

But in the New Testament, in the Gospels, God only speaks a few times (one of them being up on that mountain, when God interrupts Peter to proclaim Jesus as God’s son, the beloved, with whom God is most pleased).

In the Hebrew Scriptures, God commands all the time (often on a mountain – remember Moses and the 10 Commandments?)

But in the New Testament, God only commands once.[1]

Only one time – right here, right on the mountaintop – does God issue a commandment:

Akouete![2] Listen to him!

Like the commandments of old, this is not a suggestion. This is not God saying, “Hey, you know, when you’ve got a moment, I’d really like it if you’d pay attention … but only if you want to.”

This is not God throwing a hissy fit like a little kid who’s trying to win an argument on the playground and whining: Listen to me!

This is God in all of God’s glory – remember Jesus’ shining face and dazzling clothes? Remember Moses? Remember Elijah? This is God on high booming out (because you know God wasn’t namby-pamby here):

Akouete! Listen to him!

Not “Listen to me,” but “Listen to him.

If ever you have wondered whether Jesus was the real thing … if ever you wondered – and many have – whether perhaps we got it all wrong, that perhaps Jesus is more of a prophet and less the Son of God … now’s the time to pay attention.

Because right now, in this moment, on this mountaintop, God is making it crystal clear:

This is my son.

He is my beloved.

And you had better for darned tootin’ listen to him!

• • •

For the last eight years, the non-profit organization StoryCorps has been collecting the stories of Americans “of all backgrounds and beliefs.”[3] The stories are great; I listen to them on NPR’s Morning Edition every Friday. But to me, what’s more important than the stories themselves is the idea behind StoryCorps:

Listening, StoryCorps proclaims, is an act of love.

Listening … is … an act … of love.

That’s important for us to remember, because, you see, we are created in love. Remember, we are not necessary to God. God is necessary to us, but we are not necessary to God, because God was before we were, and God will be after we are, so we cannot possibly be necessary to God. So God must have wanted us. God must have desired us into being. God must have loved us into being. So we were created in love.

And this command, Akouete? Listen to him?

This command is our blueprint for how we are to live in the image of God in which we are created. It is our blueprint for how we are to love.

I have something to tell you ... will you listen?

If we want to be faithful servants of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, if we really want to live our lives as God would have us live them, we … need … to … listen … to … Jesus.

Listening is how we love.

When we listen, we are loving God.

When we listen, we are loving our neighbors as ourselves.

When we listen, we are loving our neighbors as Jesus loves us.

The great 20th-century theologian Paul Tillich once proclaimed that “The first duty of love is to listen.”[4] That duty comes from God’s direct command, not through prophets and apostles, but from God on high to the actual witnesses – Peter and James and John, who heard God speak to them, who heard God say to them, Akouete!

And now, today, on this last Sunday of Epiphany, with Lent beginning in just three days, God is speaking to us.

God is commanding us: Akouete! Listen to him!

And if we are wise, if we are caring, if we are faithful, we will listen.

For when we listen and are wise, we can see what is happening around us, and figure out what God wants us to do about it.

When we listen and are caring, we can build the relationships God is calling us to build, with God’s beloved children.

When we listen and are faithful, then … and only then … can we follow in Jesus’ footsteps.

What it all boils down to is this:

Listening is an act of love … so listen up!

We already know what Jesus wants us to do … because he’s already told us. But sometimes, we need to listen again, because sometimes, once is not enough.

So what is it that Jesus wants us to do?

Feed the hungry. Give water to the thirsty. Make the blind see … the deaf hear … the mute speak … the lame leap for joy.

When we listen to Jesus, what do we hear him saying to us?

Live lives of love.

Live lives of wild … radical … inexplicable  … never-ending … love.

This is our mission in life, my friends. This is why God created us: to go into the world and love … just as God loves us … wildly, radically, inexplicably, eternally.

But … we say … but … this is hard! How are we supposed to love like this? We don’t know what to do? (And yes, all of us say this, all the time … because loving like this really is hard and we really do need a set of directions, we really want to see a blueprint before we begin.)

The good news is, God already has told us what to do and how we are to do it. God has already given us the directions and shown us the blueprint.

Step one: We listen.

As a missionary – I served for five years overseas on your behalf (all Appointed Missionaries represent the entire Episcopal Church, not just our own dioceses, which means that I was your missionary) – I can tell you that listening is key to serving.

Listening is how we learn of other's needs, desires, joys and sorrows.

Wherever I have served, particularly as a missionary – in Kenya, Sudan, Haiti, Honduras, Appalachia or Pine Ridge, in homeless shelters and food pantries, with poor, inner city residents and rich suburbanites – I have learned that when I listen to the people of God, I hear the voice of God. I hear Jesus’ commandment to love.

And this call I hear?

It’s not just mine. It’s a call to all of us – because all of us are God’s missionaries in God’s very good creation.

How many of you are Episcopalians? Did you know that the legal name of our Church is the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of The Episcopal Church of the United States of America? That we made that change in 1821? And that we made that change in our name because we determined then that we were going to a Church that went out into the world and preached the Gospel, and if necessary (as St. Francis is reputed to have said) using words? Which means that all of us here are missionaries.

So all of us are sent forth into God’s world, not to speak, not to tell others what to do, not to be so all-fired certain that we are right and everyone else is … well, they’re just delusional!

No!

God tells us: Akouete! Listen to him!

Listen to Jesus as he tells us: Love your enemy. Tend the sick. Visit the prisoners. Bring joy to the sorrowful. Give courage to the fearful.  Feed the hungry and give water to the thirsty and sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf and voice to the mute and dancing to the lame!

Jesus has told us … in no uncertain terms … what he wants us to do. Jesus wants us to love!

And the first act, the first duty of love is to listen.

Not just to the people we love, not just to the people we know. No! We need to listen to each and every one of God’s beloved children, because God doesn’t discriminate. In God’s very good creation, there are no us’s and them’s. In God’s very good creation, no one gets voted off the island!

Only when we take the time to listen to God’s beloved children, only then do we hear their joys and sorrows, their dreams and disappointments, and their hopes and their desperate desire to know that they are loved, that they are the beloved.

Make no mistake, my friends:

God is speaking to us. God is on this mountaintop with us, right here, right now, and God is telling us – in every way possible – that our call is to love.

So listen up!

Amen.

A sermon preached on the Last Sunday of Epiphany, 6 March 2010, Year A, at St. Stephen’s, New Hartford, NY, and St. John’s, Whitesboro, NY.



[1] Brian P. Stoffregen Exegetical Notes at Crossmarks Christian Resources, Matthew 17:1-9, Transfiguration of our Lord, Last Sunday after the Epiphany, Year A,  http://www.crossmarks.com/brian/matt17x1.htm.

[2] Ibid.

[4] Paul Tillich, German-born American Protestant theologian (1886-1965), in a story about Tillich, as quoted in O Magazine, February 2004.

 

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Bringing and receiving gifts in Sudan

Earlier this week, we received a great report from South Sudan, soon to be the world’s newest nation, about The Episcopal Church’s missionaries who are serving there. Robin Denney, Larry Duffee, The Rev. Robert North and his wife, Karen, serve in South Sudan, teaching, training and witnessing to the South Sudanese, and in return, receiving the witness of the faithful people of Sudan. All of the missionaries say the same thing:

When you give, you receive.
The story, by Matthew Davies of Episcopal News Service and datelined, Juba, South Sudan, reads:
Throughout several decades of civil war, the Episcopal Church of Sudan kept 2,000 schools open, mostly under trees – a testament to its commitment to educating its people.

Episcopal Church missionary Robin Denney discusses her agricultural ministry in South Sudan with The Rev. David Copley, Mission Personnel Officer for The Episcopal Church. Photo by Matthew Davies.

Today, with 4 million members, the Episcopal Church accounts for almost half of the south’s population. It is one of the biggest social service providers in the country, and as such is strategically positioned to reach deep into the hearts of local communities.

For Robin Denney, development work is about the changing of hearts and minds, and through her service as an Episcopal Church missionary in Sudan she’s witnessed those transformations in abundance through the church’s ministry.

“You can’t just convince someone to change their behavior by telling them something or by giving them training,” she said. “It’s through discerning as a community where is God calling us that people’s hearts and minds are changed and that is the work of the church, and the church here has such a vision for development.”

Denney, of El Camino Real, and Larry Duffee, an Episcopal missionary from Virginia, have traded in their lives in the U.S. to share their gifts and play a small part in helping to rebuild South Sudan, just four months away from independence after voters in a January referendum almost unanimously chose to secede from the north.

Denney’s agricultural training and Duffee’s business and financial background are valuable assets for the South Sudanese, who are eager to learn the necessary skills that ultimately will lead to self-sufficiency in their nation, plagued by decades of civil war until the signing of a peace agreement in January 2005.

While serving in South Sudan, the missionaries have been teaching pastors and community leaders at Bishop Gwynne Theological College, an educational institution in Juba run by the Episcopal Church of Sudan.

A video report on the missionaries’ work is here.

The bishops of the Sudan church, under the leadership of Archbishop Daniel Deng Bul, have a vision, Denney explained — “that agriculture can really be the basis of a new economy” in South Sudan. “The land here is so fertile, it can be the breadbasket of Africa.”

Denney has lived and worked in South Sudan for just over two years. She has established an agriculture department for the Episcopal Church of Sudan and she takes her expertise to almost every diocese, offering workshops and hands-on experience, especially in more rural areas of South Sudan that are not experiencing the same level of growth and development as the capital, Juba.

In her first year, she worked primarily on training and preparing communities for agricultural projects and her second year saw those plans move towards implementation. The main farming projects are located in Eastern Equatoria, Yei, and Yonglei states, where the communities are now harvesting crops such as sorghum and sesame.

Most of the workers are volunteers and are learning new skills while simultaneously experimenting with new techniques to explore the yield potential of the land, Denney explained. “We realized that farmers are really interested in trying improved techniques if they can do it in a risk-free environment,” she said.

With that in mind, on one 10-acre farm in Panyikwara Abara half of the land was used to try out new techniques while the other half was cultivated with more traditional practices. “The improved techniques performed significantly better,” Denney said.

Last year, nine out of 10 officers who’d been involved in the projects had already implemented mulching (a protective cover placed over soil), and seven out of 10 had begun planting crops, Denney explained. She expects that number to be higher this year.

But her ministry comes with its share of challenges. In Jonglei, there has been a problem with flooding and insects this year. “Almost the entire sorghum crop everywhere else was destroyed,” she said. “Our farm was reduced in yield because of those problems, but we still produced over 107 sacks of sorghum, which is just over 10 tons, in a community that had nothing.”

Most of the food supply for South Sudan has until now come from the north and from neighboring countries, said John Augustino Lumori, acting provincial secretary for the Episcopal Church of Sudan. “So work such as Robin’s is essential for our agricultural sustainability to ensure we can have our own produce to provide the backbone of the country,” he said. “Our partnerships will enable us to be self-sufficient.”

Denney needs to ensure that when she leaves in April, there are sufficient people trained in the agricultural skills she has brought. So far, 11 diocesan agriculture officers have graduated from Bishop Gwynne Theological College and are now working in their local communities. Fifteen more graduates are expected to return to their dioceses later this year.

Denney’s ministry and friendship is greatly appreciated throughout South Sudan, as evidenced recently when a family in Panyikwara Abara named their newborn child Robinsida in her honor.

The Rev. Emmanuel Lomoro Eluzai, chaplain to the bishop in the Diocese of Ibba, has been one of Denney’s students at Bishop Gwynne Theological College for the past year. He said that education is critical for the stability and growth of South Sudan. Through Denney’s training, he’s learned valuable farming skills, such as rotating certain crops between different terrains each season to ensure that the soil is not starved of essential nutrients.

“During the war, many people did not go to school. That is why we need education now in Sudan, because without education there is no development,” he said.

Duffee initially had intended to stay in South Sudan for four months but soon realized that the task he’d set out to accomplish would not be possible in that timeframe. He now has lived in Juba for almost a year. But, he says, the most important goal for missionaries is to work themselves out of a job, “to get it to a point where I am no longer needed and they have no more use for me. That’s the ideal situation.”

As well as providing training, Duffee brings financial skills to the provincial office, where he has set up systems to enable regular accounting to the church’s international partners.

Duffee is anticipating the Episcopal Church of Sudan hiring a new person who can be trained to step into his role. “As long as I can be useful and as long as I am serving the role God called me for, then I’m glad to be here. If I’m sitting occupying a seat just because it’s nice to have someone from the West … then it’s time to go.”

To read the rest of the story, go here.

 

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Good news/bad news on missionaries

Titus Presler has an excellent commentary on the good and bad news about Episcopal missionaries. The good news: We, the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society, have missionaries in the field (yeah!). The bad news: Not so many, and the ones we have and are not well-supported.

As World Mission Sunday approaches (6 March), take a look at what Titus has to say, and think about what it means for The Episcopal Church to be a missionary society.

The column can be found here.

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