2016

Gratitude

Rogier van der Weyden.  Mary's Tears, detail from Descent from the Cross  (circa 1399)   from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN

Rogier van der Weyden. Mary's Tears, detail from Descent from the Cross (circa 1399) from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN

BY REV. TOMMY WILLIAMS, SENIOR PASTOR

I’ll close the Summer Together blog posts with some poignant notes from Marilynne Robinson in the voice of John Ames in Gilead.

“There are two occasions when the sacred beauty of creation becomes dazzlingly apparent, and they occur together. One is when we feel our mortal insufficiency to the world, and the other is when we feel the world’s mortal insufficiency to us” (245). Your thoughts?

Augustine said, “The Lord loves each of us as an only child,” and that has to be true, Ames affirms. “He will wipe the tears from all faces. It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.”

The word that jumps off the pages toward the close of the book is –- gratitude. Gratitude for those closest to him, gratitude in the realism of his life and death, gratitude for what will come for him and those he loves.

What are you grateful for? Maybe we could be intentional about expressing our gratitude not in spite of reality, but in the very middle of it.

It is wholly insufficient to capture this masterful work in a few short blog posts or to encapsulate two international trips and a poignant film in June. My hope has been that they have spurred our thinking in faithful ways and that it has in some small part, bound us together once again. That is, after all, the root of religion. Ligion means to be bound together, as in ligament, and re, of course, to do it again. To be bound together again and again is something for which I am grateful.

Mysterious trust

"Angel Statue" by Louise Docker from Sydney, Australia, via Wikimedia Commons

"Angel Statue" by Louise Docker from Sydney, Australia, via Wikimedia Commons

BY REV. TOMMY WILLIAMS, SENIOR PASTOR

At one point in Gilead, John Ames shares a summary of a sermon given on the story of Hagar and Ishmael and compared it with the story of Abraham going off with son Issac to sacrifice him, as he thought God wanted him to do (p. 128–129). These are strange, mysterious and even troubling stories. In each case, Ames says, Abraham was being asked to sacrifice his sons. In each case, angels are sent to intervene and rescue the child.

There are many directions you can go with his sermon but Ames’ point is this –- we are often asked to send our beloved ones out into wildernesses of many kinds –- the school hallway, the college dorm, the new job or marriage. Or, I think of the elderly neighbor whose own children are long gone from his household but who walks his dog and enjoys the play of children outdoors in his path. He sees them grow and move farther into the wilderness of life.

Throughout the book we're reading this month, we hear Ames ruminating at his late stage of life.

What season of life do you find yourself?

Who or what are you being asked to send out into life’s wilderness?

What is it requiring of you spiritually?

We entrust our beloved ones to the care of others. We entrust them to God. I don’t have a fleshed out theology of angelic beings. But, I have found myself lately praying for angels to come to my children’s school and keep watch.

How big is your God?

Marilynne Robinson offers good theological questions through Rev. Ames in Gilead. On page 179, Ames is musing about the nature of God and existence and comes against a wall. To “prove” this is like trying to build a ladder to the moon. “It seems that it should be possible, until you stop to consider the nature of the problem.”

“Don’t look for proofs,” he concludes. “Don’t bother with them at all. They are never sufficient to the question, and they’re always a little impertinent… because they claim for God a place within our conceptual grasp.”

Samuel Coleridge said, “Christianity is a life, not a doctrine.” And yet, before that loaded word is easily dismissed, I wonder what ways doctrines (understandings of a particular faith tradition) are helpful or limited?

In what ways does Jesus both give us concept and context for knowing God and in what ways does Jesus deepen the mystery of knowing God?

I think Jesus does both. What do you think?

A conversation about beauty

BY REV. TOMMY WILLIAMS

“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” someone famously said. John Ames, Gilead’s main character, expresses two observations early in the book about beauty.

Is beauty something you notice more when you are dying like Ames? Is it something that can be awakened or reawakened in us in other moments? I hope so.

Worship in every place for me displays the beauty of God. I have worshipped in grand sanctuaries like at St. Paul’s, as well as house churches, warehouses and neighborhood churches. I’ve been in small chapels and in settings where the languages spoken were not my native tongue. In each, the beauty of God is on exhibit.

Even as Ames muses that he “doesn’t know what is beautiful anymore,” he names two experiences (p. 5) that are very different and each beautiful to him.

One is the sound of his wife singing to their child as he listens from the other room. He can’t make out what song she is singing but “it sounds beautiful to me, but she laughs when I say that.” I guess beauty doesn’t need corroboration. Maybe it really is in the eye (or ear!) of the beholder.

The next one Ames witnesses and claims is two young “rascally fellows” who work in a local mechanical garage. They are joking and leaning against the side of the garage as they go back and forth with each other laughing. He has no idea what they are talking about but the scene is “beautiful” to him. Laughter takes us over, he says, and letting it be unleashed is a beautiful thing to watch.

Are you awake to the beauty of God around you? Are you watching for the varied ways it shows up in the world and in our lives? 

To Write something

BY REV. TOMMY WILLIAMS

Throughout the month of August, I invite you to read Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. This powerful novel is addressed in the first person through the voice of John Ames, an elderly pastor who is dying. He writes to his son in poignant ways about his own relationships with his father and grandfather, his enculturation in a life of ministry, and now his musings on what his son is inheriting.

In some ways, it reminds me of TaNehisi Coates’ style in Between the World and Me, a fairly new book from father to son about the experience of being black in America. While the center of these fathers' letters to their sons is different, each are dosed with lament, melancholy, and wonder about what will become of the life of the next generation.

Is journaling or letter-writing a practice for you? It can be a spiritual practice of reflection and reconciliation. Writing something to God, to oneself, or to those you love can be a transformative exercise.

Consider doing that this month, asking:

  • Where have I come from?
  • How has it shaped my worldview?
  • How is it shaping the worldview of those I love and care for?
  • How might a Christ-centered worldview impact my own?

Centuries ago

Holyrood Abbey, May 1996, via Wikimedia Commons user: Marco2000

Holyrood Abbey, May 1996, via Wikimedia Commons user: Marco2000

BY REV. TOMMY WILLIAMS, SENIOR PASTOR

Today marks the end of our virtual pilgrimages to Bolivia and Scotland. Thank you for traveling with me this month. We'll close the July blog series with a final reflection from Scotland.

Back in 2008, one place my family and I visited was the ancient Holyrood (Holy Cross) Abbey

It was an active congregation until the 17th century and is now a shell of itself--literally. I remember well walking inside the walls that remain and imagining the prayers said by faithful ones centuries ago. The Abbey sits on the grounds of the British Monarch’s Scottish residence. I wonder -- what prayers were said for the monarchs who visited there over the centuries?

What prayers would be said now in Scotland and throughout the United Kingdom, in light of England’s withdrawal from the European Union?

What prayers should we pray during this time of global change?

Let us join our voices with those of the past and remain committed to a life of prayer, believing that our prayers are themselves an act of vocation.

How apparent is our faith?

On my trip to Bolivia, I was fortunate to visit Emmanuel Church, our partner in Cochabamba, where our team from St. Paul's Youth has been serving this month. My memories are of it as a place alive!

Spiritual vitality. Children everywhere. Committed adults. A rich spiritual life amidst many communal challenges. Their faith was acute, very easy to identify--and the fruits of their life were evident before us--as we moved about the Emmanuel Church. Their witness of faith was palpable.

How apparent is our faith in speech and action?

Their ministries were very real for me. Whether through sewing or study, each was understood as an outgrowth of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

This reminds me to always understand that the roots of our work at St. Paul’s are from this same gospel. In contrast, a quote from Dietrich Bonhoeffer is helpful here. He writes his observations about a church in New York City he visited in the 1920s:

"They preach about virtually everything; only one thing is not addressed, or is addressed so rarely that I have as yet been unable to hear it, namely, the gospel of Jesus Christ... So what stands in place of the Christian message? An ethical and social idealism borne by a faith in progress that--who knows how?--claims the right to call itself 'Christian'. And in the place of the church as the congregation of believers in Christ there stands the church as a social corporation. Anyone who has seen the weekly program of one of the large New York churches, with their daily, indeed almost hourly events, teas, lectures, concerts, charity events, opportunities for sports, games, bowling, dancing for every age group...

[Bonhoeffer continues] ... anyone who has become acquainted with the embarrassing nervousness with which the pastor lobbies for membership--that person can well assess the character of such a church... In order to balance out the feeling of inner emptiness that arises now and then (and partly also to refill the church's treasury), some congregations will if possible engage an evangelist for a 'revival' once a year. The church is really no longer the place where the congregation hears and preaches God's word, but rather the place where one acquires secondary significance as a social entity for this or that purpose" (Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931, pg. 313-14).

Your thoughts?

An outward-facing cathedral

St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh by dun_deagh via Wikimedia Commons

St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Edinburgh by dun_deagh via Wikimedia Commons

BY REV. TOMMY WILLIAMS, SENIOR PASTOR

St. Mary’s Cathedral was completed in 1879 and is now the center for the Anglican Church in Scotland. Of course, Christian life in Edinburgh endured for centuries beforehand, as cathedrals and church life moved between Catholicism, Presbyterianism, and the Anglican Communion. Each of those Christian traditions are alive and well today in Scotland.

I believe some 20th-century history of St. Mary’s Cathedral life is instructive for our life as a “cathedral for the city” of Houston. 

  1. The Cathedral was known for starting new congregations in and around the city. They started six new ones in their first 20 years.
  2. They established several houses of hospitality for laborers at low rent costs.
  3. They continued their faithful rhythm of worship even during times of war.
  4. They were involved in the sharing of the faith during very trying post-war times.

During some periods, they were without electricity and continued with the very services and liturgies that our choir will be singing this week.

What other ways could we be an outward-facing “cathedral for our city"?

How has worship nurtured your life in dark times? 

Prayer for Black Lives

BY PHUC LUU, St. Paul's member and Director of Education, projectCURATE

When will the senseless shootings stop?
When will we put down our weapons
and see ourselves in each other?
When will we see your image in every life?
When will we embrace each as sister and brother, lovers and friends?

Lord, hear our prayer.

We are not against white people,
but we are for the victims, men and women of color.

We are not against government or police,
but we are for the protection of the innocent.

We are not against all lives,
but we are for the particular lives that have been made disposable,
to be feared, and to be used,
The lives of the ones who were slain.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Bring us peace,
Your kinship and compassion,
Your mercy and grace,
The politics of your reign,
The unity of your persons,
The holiness of your differences,
Your love for your creation,
In all its color and beauty
Stop the division.
Lord, make us one.

Lord, hear our prayer.

Daily song, daily prayer

The Williams family in England, 2008

The Williams family in England, 2008

BY REV. TOMMY WILLIAMS, SENIOR PASTOR

In the summer of 2008, my family and I engaged in a pastoral exchange, trading places with a Methodist pastor in Manchester, England. I served for five weeks as pastor for a circuit of churches in the city.

During our time there, I had the opportunity to travel twice to Edinburgh, Scotland, where St. Paul’s Choir will be in residence at the Cathedral of St. Mary. Take a virtual tour of the Cathedral.

Mark your calendars to join our choir in prayer as they sing daily choral services in the Anglican tradition there at St. Mary's (July 11–18). And do check out Dr. Bill Kerley's blog as he too explores sacred spaces in Scotland.

Reminders of Christ's presence

Christ of Peace in Bolivia

Christ of Peace in Bolivia

BY REV. TOMMY WILLIAMS, SENIOR PASTOR

In November of 2001, as a pastoral intern at St. Paul’s, I was a part of a Bolivian mission team that served in Cochabamba and other villages for about 10 days.

St. Paul's UMC has well over 15 years as a partner congregation with Emmanuel Luz de Vida church and other Methodist congregations. One of our pastors, Rev. Nataly Negrete, is a native Bolivian. Missionaries Wilson and Nora Boots called Bolivia home for many years, and they now live full time in Houston.

Nearly every year we have sent a team. In just a few days time, on July 6, another team will depart for Bolivia and return again on July 18.

On my particular visit there, one holy site that struck me was the Cristo de la Concordia (Christ of Peace). It is over 112 feet tall. To stand underneath it is to be enveloped in the outstretched arms of Jesus.

I wonder what it feels like to live in Cochabamba under its watchful presence. Standing at its feet, for me, was a humbling experience, as it should be.

What reminders are around you of Christ’s presence? Do you have icons, Bibles, or other symbols around your home, car, place of work, that remind you of God’s presence with you?

If not, what sort of symbolic reminders could you integrate into your daily life?

Reckoning with loss

BY REV. TOMMY WILLIAMS, SENIOR PASTOR

In the big Olympic gold medal game ("Of Miracles and Men") there is a power struggle taking place between two teams. The Soviet players reflecting on their loss say, “Can you imagine going from glory to disgrace in an instant?”

Theirs was the position of favorite and this loss on the biggest stage was devastating because of what it represented for their homeland.

How does it feel to have the tables turned on you? How have you reckoned with loss?

One of the players commented, “Maybe the gods deemed that day that the Americans deserved their own miracle on ice.”

It seems to me that this player was doing what we all do and that is to try to make meaning out of life. To make sense of something helps us to grapple with it. And then sometimes our own rationales don’t work or fit so we look beyond for that meaning.

In this same point in the film another Soviet player said, “We were watching them (the Americans) celebrate, looking deep down in our souls, what did we do wrong that we lost?”

What do you think about the theology inherent in the player’s statement?

Does God play that kind of role in our lives? If not, where do you experience God during celebration and loss?

Steadfast

BY REV. TOMMY WILLIAMS, SENIOR PASTOR

One thing that strikes me in “Of Miracles and Men” is the intense level of training undergone by and discipline required of the team. It isn’t surprising for a squad that excelled at this level to be so dedicated, but it is inspiring nonetheless. Throughout the film, we see the values of consistency, steadfastness, and rigorous commitment to their craft as key to their success.

Discipline and disciple come from the same root word. To be a disciple literally means to be an apprentice to a master. Being a Christian person means, then, to be an understudy (as would be said in the world of theatre and dance). A student to the one who is primary. 

What does the life of Christian discipleship look like for you right now?

Most of us go in ebbs and flows, but perhaps there are steadying disciplines that can be maintained or started this summer that can ground your life of faith.

The founder of the Methodist movement, John Wesley, understood these disciplines as means of grace – ways we connect to God. Prayer, worship, study, the sacraments of baptism and communion, acts of mercy and justice: these disciplines and others give strength for living a faithful life.

Whether we are on the “losing” side or the “winning” side, our relationship with God is rooted deeply enough to weather the loss or the success... and each one’s pressures.

What spiritual disciplines could you begin or restart this summer?

Cultivating love

Coach Tarasov and his players

Coach Tarasov and his players

BY TOMMY WILLIAMS, SENIOR PASTOR

We hear early in the film of the admiration the players had for their coach. The coach cultivated in them love, which was described in the film as “the strongest of feelings...and the most true” (watch video segment, 10:59-12:05).

How can we cultivate love in our households, in our neighborhoods, in our city, and world?

One way the movie hints toward doing this is that the level and intensity of training and discipline built them as a team together and increased their loyalty to one another.

They weren’t a perfect group of people. Their homeland was on the wrong side of the moral history in many ways. But, what can we learn from the players who lost this big game, about love and community? How is that translated into the life of faith?

"Everyone was against us..."

BY TOMMY WILLIAMS, SENIOR PASTOR

This month of June, I invite you to watch the EPSN film, “Of Miracles and Men." I hope you’ll reflect with me here in the comments section of these blog posts throughout our Summer Together.

“Everyone was against us…”

Many of the players from the Soviet team were interviewed for this movie. They were thought to be invincible, unbeatable, and yet they were also reviled as the team from behind the Iron Curtain in the middle of the Cold War.

Early on we hear one of the players say, “Everyone was against us for a certain reason – we were born in a certain place.”

What comes to mind for you when you hear this quote? Do we create caricatures or stereotype people depending on their places of origin?

Have you ever felt typecast because of where you come from?

Jesus was known for crossing boundaries of all kinds – into places like Samaria, into the homes of the despised, and with people otherwise scorned (LUKE 10:25-37 | LUKE 7:36-8:3)

Who is God leading you to befriend despite boundaries and place?

Overview of "Summer Together"

BY REV. TOMMY WILLIAMS

JUNE | Watch the ESPN 30 for 30 short film “Of Miracles and Men.” The historic American Olympic Hockey upset of the Soviet team during the 1980 games is the stuff of legend. This movie tells it from the losing side and chronicles the impact of the loss on the members of the famed Soviet squad. For us, we will explore the themes of shame, loss, faith and more.

JULY | Go with me (virtually) to Scotland where St. Paul’s Choir will be in residence at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Edinburgh. Even though I won’t be with them physically, it is a place I have spent some time. The interactive blog and video will be a virtual pilgrimage through holy Christian sites there. 

AUGUST | Finally, let’s read Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel Gilead. Its themes of community, family, and the legacies we leave, will be ripe for our reflections.