Holy Asides
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June 5, 2015, 9:55 PM

Grinding Gravel (and Mud) in Kansas

This is the first of two reflections on my ride in the Dirty Kanza 200.


Many of you know that this past weekend I rode in The Dirty Kanza 200, a grueling 200-mile gravel road race in Emporia, Kansas. My preparations for this event began several months ago. Since the start of the year, I had already put 1000 miles on the bike I would be riding. Some were long rides to get me used to the bike position. Some were shorter rides over difficult gravel and stone terrain. And a couple were intense Ultra Cross races that improved my bike handling skills and gave me a glimpse into the difficulty that awaited me in Kansas. 


I came into the Dirty Kanza with 2 goals. The first was to survive and finish. The 2-checkpoints and finish time cutoffs were based on an average of riding at a pace just under 10 MPH. Considering that the highest rate of finishers was only 48% in any of the previous nine races, this was a reasonable goal. The second, more lofty goal, was to achieve the “Race the Sun Award.” This award is given to the riders that complete the race before sunset, 8:42 PM. This means completing the race in 14 hrs and 42 minutes. However, that goal vanished about 45 minutes after the 6:00 AM start time.


After several years of drought conditions in Kansas, there had been weeks of rain leading up to the race. This created a course much muddier, and with many more water crossings, than normal. After only nine miles of riding, everyone had dismounted and was carrying their bike through three miles of unrideable mud. This took about an hour, which basically annihilated any hope that I had of finishing before sunset. That was bad news, but the good news was that I could focus solely on my first goal... to just finish. 


In order to finish, I needed to do four things: keep eating and drinking, ride steadily at an aerobic heartrate, overcome the obstacles that would come my way, and be lucky. There is nothing particularly exciting about continually eating Clif Bars, peanut butter sandwiches, and sucking down Gatorade in order to keep up my energy.  And while being lucky was obviously out of my control, it was certainly necessary as I witnessed bikes jammed so full of mud that they could not even move. Generally the sharp rocks of the Flint Hills cause a never-ending barrage of flat tires (of which there were still many), but broken chains and demolished drivetrains seemed to cause the most destruction this year. One of the riders from our cycling club in McDonough had to withdraw at mile 32 with a rear derailleur that was ripped from his bike. For the most part I was lucky, not that this saved me from having to overcome several obstacles throughout the day or from the physical toll of riding 200 miles (minus the ones that I walked carrying my bike through the mud or over streams).


If hauling my bike through three miles of mud was the first obstacle, the second was a direct result of that fact. Somewhere buried in that mud is the screw to my cleat. Without that screw I could not unclip from the pedals, resulting in me falling over into the next muddy section and having to remove my shoe, and finally, after much work, I dislodged it from the pedals. But now I could no longer clip back into the pedals, which made it much harder to pedal, especially up hills. So I rode this way for 50 miles, until I could replace the screw (actually, the entire cleat) at mile 77, the first checkpoint. About 30 miles before the second checkpoint, I got my only flat tire of the day when a rock got kicked up from the rider in front of me. I hit that rock dead on and the sealant from my tubeless tires started spewing everywhere. I was able to fix it with only a little drama. I had both a pump and CO2 cartridges. The pump adapter for the tube valves was back in my truck (rending the pump useless).  I used one of the CO2 cartridges to see if I could reseal the tire (which I couldn't), and the last one to inflate the spare tube. So for the next 30 miles, I had to ride a little less aggressively (and be lucky) in order to avoid another flat.


Of course, the largest obstacle was just riding. The biggest difference of riding on gravel, versus riding on the road, is the constant attention that is needed. You are always watching for the rocks, ruts, and other objects that may cause a flat or crash. So I needed to keep riding. To keep moving. To stay focused. To ignore the pain in my legs, my back, my ummm…you know. I had reached the final checkpoint at nearly the same time as I had hoped to finish the race. I still had 43 miles to go, and the remainder of this ride would be in the dark, illuminated only by the light attached to my handlebars and the blinking red lights of the riders in front of me. In order to help me keep focused, I created a new goal: finish before midnight. I started to push a little harder, to move a little quicker. I watched the miles slowly tick down on my bike computer. Soon I could see the lights of the city. Then I could hear the music of the block party. Finally I could feel that I was back on pavement. It was only a mile or so to the finish. And then, there it was in front of me: the runway into the finish, with a crowd of spectators cheering me in. And I crossed the line at 12:03 AM. Not quite midnight, but I wasn’t too devastated. After 18 hrs (and three minutes) of riding 200 miles through the Flint Hills of Kansas, I had done it!!! I was beat and exhausted, but not so tired that I didn’t take my finisher sticker and immediately apply it to my truck’s rear window—I had achieved my goal of completing the Dirty Kanza 200, and it felt great!!!

May 18, 2015, 8:22 PM

Pentecost: Release from the Captivity of Confusion

One of the theological insights of the coming of the Holy Spirit on the Feast of Pentecost is the reversal of Babel—that event where God confused the languages of those attempting to build a tower and make a name for themselves. On Pentecost, when the Spirit lighted upon the disciples, they began to speak in other tongues. As a result, many heard the gospel of Jesus Christ in their own language. However, it is not the restoration of language that is primary—it is understanding. In Babel, they ceased to understand one another, so they gave up. On Pentecost, the Spirit gave understanding to the people as they heard the message proclaimed. This is an important distinction, primarily because of the role of the Holy Spirit in the life of the Church and the believer. God sent the Spirit to unite us in Christ, to reveal the truth of the Kingdom of God, and to equip us with the ability to proclaim that truth to the world.


Jacques Ellul writes about this distinction in The Meaning of the City, explaining the great city of Babylon as the culmination and foretelling of what had begun in Babel. Moreover, he defines the conquest of Israel, the destruction of the Temple, and the exile of God’s chosen people by Babylon as a natural result of misunderstanding. “Israel captive in Babylon is in no sense comparable to the captivity in Egypt. It did not mark the people in the same way. One is a shadow of sin. The other is confusion. Two different captivities of the Church.” 


These "two different captivities" are a brilliant observation, because it defines so much of the struggle and difficulty that exists within the Church, and in the relationship between the Church and the world. Much of our theological energy is spent on defining the captivity of Sin. The death of Jesus atoned for the Sin of the World; and his resurrection from the dead on Easter morning released us from this captivity once and for all. This is the message of grace and salvation—of life everlasting. But, without the Spirit of God, we are still captive to confusion and misunderstanding. The Holy Spirit brings wisdom, reveals truth, and enables us to grow into the likeness of Christ. The Spirit restores not only the ability of our understanding, but the purpose of our understanding.


When the builders of Babel ceased to understand one another, they gave up—they abandoned their purpose and vision, and then went their own way. This was Israel’s sin that led them into captivity. They were to be the light to the Nations. They were to live as God’s covenant people, keep the commandments, and care for the poor and weak. Instead, they failed to understand that role and were sent into exile. The Spirit of God unites and unifies us in our purpose. Rather than going our own way, we are brought together for the glory of revealing the grace and love of Jesus Christ. We are brought together for a common purpose of bringing the revelation of who God is to a world that is still captive, not only to sin, but to confusion. This makes discerning a common vision for our parish (and for the Church world-wide) all the more important. Because, how will the world understand our message and purpose if we are confused ourselves? 


This Pentecost Sunday, let us come and rejoice in the Spirit that has set us free from the captivity of confusion and misunderstanding. Let us continually be filled with the Holy Spirit, that we may be united in our vision and purpose of who we are as God’s Royal Priesthood, and that through the Spirit we may bring the understanding of the grace and glory of Jesus Christ to all we encounter.

May 7, 2015, 2:38 PM

Reflections from the Spotlight

It has been my long-standing belief, in regard to the topic of “Church-Politics”, that the parish is the only level where true discussion occurs. This is partly because there are not just a series of one-sided speeches, as there are at Diocesan and National conventions, and partly because there is no vote that will occur at the end of a “discussion”.  However, I believe it’s primarily because we continue to come to the altar together week after week. It’s easier to disagree and engage in real conversation when you are part of a diverse but committed community. This is the exact point that Marc Dunkelman addresses in his book, The Vanishing Neighbor. The author establishes how, throughout much of the nation, we are now missing “middle-ring relationships.” We have intensified our “inner-ring relationships” with our immediate family and close friends, as well as our “outer-ring relationships” of social media “friends”.  Yet our common everyday interactions with neighbors and acquaintances continue to diminish. These are the very relationships that make us thoughtful and compassionate. Moreover, they are the relationships that emphasize the village, township, and melting pot mentality that we, as a nation, have historically been so proud of.


The fall-out of the diminishment of these relationships is that we are becoming more and more isolated as a nation. Likewise, many have fallen through the societal cracks, as the government cannot keep up with meeting the needs that neighbors used to provide: from borrowing tools or a cup of sugar, to bringing meals to those less fortunate, to driving elderly neighbors to doctor appointments, to just checking in and dropping by regularly to make sure everything is OK.  This is not only why the Church, and specifically the parish, is so important, but also why our outreach to the community is vitally important. 


This morning, alongside the Lion’s Club, Chick-fil-A, and other local businesses and individuals, St. Joseph’s received the Spotlight Award from the Henry County Schools and Chamber of Commerce for our Partnership in Education with Walnut Creek Elementary School. It was a privilege and honor to be recognized for our ministry and passion that impacts the lives of children in our community through our parish volunteers, mentors, and Friday Friends. Presently, Friday Friends provides 41 underprivileged students, who rely upon the school meal program during the week, to have food over the weekend. Their backpacks are stuffed with food that our volunteers gather and collate during the week, including homemade treats. Additionally, they are given handwritten notes of encouragement that tell them they are loved and cared for. 


Next year McDonough Elementary is closing, and Walnut Creek will have 200-300 more kids enrolling. Already I have been asked by the school if we could handle 100 bags—more than double what we are doing presently. This is an interesting question. One that I do not know the answer to. At the moment my heart is bursting with pride for what Julie O’Neill and her team have accomplished, that I think we can do that and more. Because, I believe the question for us is not how many children can we feed over the weekend, but how else can we make an impact? Through tutoring and mentoring as several already are doing? Through an after-school ministry? Through reaching out to those who have been displaced from their homes? I think that these are questions we should prayerfully begin seeking answers to.


There are no easy answers to restoring the “middle-ring” relationships that once defined us, or how we are to meet the needs of everyone in our community. But it was wonderful to be surrounded by a myriad of businesses, churches, and individuals seeking to find creative and practical ways to do just that. And, I am honored that St. Joseph’s was recognized as one of them. May we continue to live out the call to reach out and be a light to the world around us.


April 20, 2015, 12:00 PM

Reflections on the Veneration of the Cross

In my initial post to this blog, I defined “Holy Asides” as something that is a prompting or movement of the Holy Spirit outside of the normal liturgical flow. As I was reflecting upon these past Holy Week and Easter services, it occurred to me that our liturgy has a couple of wonderful built-in Holy Asides: the Foot washing and the Stripping of the Altar on Maundy Thursday; the new fire and sudden shift from darkness to light at the Easter Vigil; and Veneration of the Cross on Good Friday.

The Veneration of the Cross has become one of the most meaningful aspects of worship for me, both personally and pastorally. On Good Friday we are met with a devastating number of images and themes about the cross, which bombard and overwhelm our senses and emotions. By the cross “[God] has made an instrument of shameful death to be for us the means of life.” (BCP, 220) The cross is simultaneously a source of shame and sacrifice, cruelty and love, pain and healing, defeat and victory. We experience the sacrifice of Christ, the torture and torment that he took upon himself for us and for our sins. We acknowledge his innocence and our guilt, while also understanding the new reality of forgiveness, grace, and healing offered to us. We are called to take up our cross in discipleship—that is to die to ourselves (and maybe just to die); and we are called to lay our burdens at the foot of the cross to relieve ourselves of the weight of sin. We wince at the pain and suffering that Jesus endured, while rejoicing that the cross has become the throne of the King of Kings, and it has brought forth the Kingdom of God. All of these feelings and thoughts swirl around, as I approach the cross… touch it… kiss it.

However, it is not really my own interaction with the cross that has made this “holy aside” so important to me. It has been the experience of watching the congregation wrestle with that same flurry of emotions as they come forward. In some cases, it has been life-changing. During an ecumenical service on Good Friday, a local minister left the career path he was on at the foot of the cross, and began following in a new and radical way. Through those same ecumenical services, I have witnessed hundreds of people from a variety of denominations come forward: grandparents and grandchildren; husbands and wives; Methodists and Baptists. At our own services, I am privileged to be near the cross as the congregation comes forward, to see their faces, and to witness the overwhelming emotion of pain and sadness, with the glimmer of the Easter joy we know is coming soon (but not today).  This cross, two simple crossbeams of wood, is the throne of Christ. I suppose, then, that it should be no great revelation that encountering this throne would be one of the most powerful moments we experience in worship each year, reminding us again why this is indeed Good Friday.

March 17, 2015, 8:00 PM

A Victory Over Shame

The other day as I was driving out to Stone Mountain to get “free” service done on my car, I was re-listening to Brené Brown’s TED talks on YouTube. The focus of her talks are about “living wholeheartedly with vulnerability and without shame.” Shame is toxic. It is behind our fears, our self-doubt, and our insecurities. Underneath nearly every addiction will lie a pattern of shame, whereby we seek to disassociate from ourselves—with firm conviction that we are not (fill in the blank) enough. (Fill in the blank for yourself: good, smart, skinny, extraordinary, successful, etc.) Of course, even without an addiction, each of us goes through this same struggle day by day. Theologically speaking it is important to separate shame from guilt. We experience guilt when we have sinned through “our own fault: in thought and word and deed, in things done and left undone.” We confess those sins so that we are forgiven and restored to God’s grace. In short, guilt occurs when we do something that we know was a mistake. Shame, on the other hand, claims, “I am a mistake.” There is a world of difference. You and I are not mistakes. We have been created in the glorious image of God. We are children of light, set free from sin through the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. We know this (maybe), yet it’s a continuous daily struggle to overcome the reality that we are enough.


OK. So that’s the background. I am half-way through this TED talk when I arrive at the dealership and sit and wait for my car to be done. But of course I have my laptop and they have the internet, so I can work. I get an email from Kim Palmer, informing me that since we have begun emailing the blog out, the website hits have dramatically increased. This fact, was followed by a question, “Had I contacted the Diocese to add my blog to the sidebar of their e-newsletter?” Now, Kim was just inquiring if this was the reason the numbers were higher, but I heard this as a push to overcome my fear of contacting the Diocese. When I relayed my fears to Kim, she was gracious and encouraged me that my writing was pretty good and that I should be confident in sharing with others in the Diocese. But, this was not my fear. My fear was people (other priests mostly) saying to themselves, “Who does this guy think he is? Why should we be interested in what he has to say?” And my shame of that fear was so great, that rather than have to try to explain it—I quickly (before I chickened out) emailed Nan Ross at the Diocese and asked her if my blog could be included on the sidebar. Her immediate response was, “Absolutely.” Phew!


Now my car is finished, I am driving home and I pick up from where I left off on the TED talk. Brené Brown begins to describe that shame has two big lies. If you can get past one, then there is another just waiting for you. The first is that, “You’re not good enough” (or whatever your “fill in the blank” was). And if you can overcome that, the lie waiting for you is, “Who do you think you are? Look who’s too big for their britches.” This was my lie. I had overcome the first lie (over time) through plenty of positive support and feedback concerning my writing. But, the one always waiting for me was, “Who do you think you are? Who are you to contact the Diocese? Who are you to submit a journal article? Who are you that thinks he could be published?" This was such a gift from God to me. I realized that I had defeated shame!!! Well, at least this time, and with a little push. But, it was true. And while shame will always continue to creep in and seek to wage battle, I am at least more aware of the lies that shame tells. And, I pray that through God and the people who care about me, that I can continue to defeat shame (at least more than it defeats me) and day by day continue to live wholeheartedly. Because, as our entire Gospel message reminds us, “God so loved the world that He sent his only Son, that all who believe in him shall be saved.” That is, God so loved me! God so loved you! We are enough! May shame be vanquished from our lives—that we might live fully into God’s grace and glory.

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