November 30, 2017

How I finally ended up in Kansas

The following essay was judged a Finalist entry in the Poetry Unites Kansas contest held earlier this year for essays on poetry. Of about eighty entries received, this was selected in the top six by the jury. Four Finalists were selected to become short subjects for the remarkable filmmaker Ewa Zadrynska, and this documentary had its premiere on November 28 as part of the Uhlig LLC Distinguished Speaker Series. The film demonstrates the resilience and depth of faith possessed by these Kansans as they move through their daily routines, and the impact that poetic verses have had on their imaginations and hearts.

Being a part of this contest has shown me once again that you don't have to be a poet to love poetry – or at the very least, to interact with it enough to be moved by it every now and again. When it's good, it speaks down into the heart of the human condition.

I am grateful for editorial assistance from Julie Goldberg Springer, Michael McFarland, and Lorienne Schwenk; and for the presence of mind of Mark Uhlig to bring this movement to Kansas.


           In my mother’s hometown of Waldron, Kansas (population 11), Main Street terminates at the Oklahoma state line. My father’s people were from Offerle (population 199) and later Dodge City, whose population was simply too much for my child’s mind to count or imagine.
            Neither here nor there, I came into the world a landlocked Oklahoman by birth and rearing, but willed myself to one day become an official Kansan.
            On maps, my ten-year-old fingers traced the road veins north and west, Oklahoma to Waldron to Offerle to Dodge, willing these places to coagulate into some sense of origin out of which a calling for life might arise. I pored over these slight geographies until they poured themselves into me – and determined that what my parents had lacked in foresight and planning by moving us south, I would one day recapture by design.
            Much of early adult life was lived in places that made mocking circles around Kansas: Oklahoma, with its beckoning north border; Colorado, its eastern plains sloping home; Texas and Iowa, at a pronounced distance. Even in my niche work as an Episcopal priest, I tried to come to the place I wanted to call home, sending letters of application to altars in Newton and Lawrence and Edwardsville, always being turned back for some good reason, some slice of incomprehensible providence.
            In the spring, from adulthood on, as I danced around Kansas, there was Robert Bly. Every March, his poem “Waking from Sleep” expressed its need to be re-read. I went and unearthed it, and still do, and always will. Perhaps this ritual is an attempt to recapture the time I first read it, when I was 25 and working on my life, and the work deeply spoke into my need for purpose on a day I happened to have been prepared to receive such a homily.
            In the poem, Bly conjures a microcosmic world that lives in human blood – a harbor in spring, shaking off frost and chill, of “navies setting forth” every morning. He shows us bodies putting down books, emerging from winter’s cocoon, compelled by natural forces into the morning sun and deeper possibility, to exploits and jeopardies out beyond the sea line. He implicates us (“Now we sing”) and liberates us (“our master has left us”). With beautiful economy, he begs us to gamble on something like adventure, something like forgetfulness about the past.
            Through years of ministry, in prayer, in leading, in study, in preparing and delivering messages, I have been exhorted to attain to the status of the beginner’s mind – that emptied place of relative innocence in the heart out of which all new growth might flow. Ministry, like reconciliation, like forgiveness, is the act of consistently re-beginning, having almost forgotten something critical. The life of faith is the daily acquisition of a fresh heart – in St. Paul’s words, becoming “a new creature.”
            Bly tacks that same course. He offers both absolute absolution and fiery sermonics. I read “Waking from Sleep” and I know two things: all is well, and it’s time to get up and do something. He pushes me out the door for my own good. It’s fine ministry by an old soul – renewed, aging again, but still ever renewing.
            Now that I live and serve at last in Kansas, this poem calls me to work in another way: as the consecration of midlife, house-holding, wisdom-building. This too is adventure even if it looks like inertia from the outside. For in every transition is a hallowing and a pulsation of the new, and a letting-go of old winter things.

June 22, 2017

Living the long obedience – an ordination sermon

Sermon for Ordinations
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
June 17, 2017
Grace Episcopal Cathedral, Topeka, Kansas

In the name of God and of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the Good Shepherd,
 Our just and true North Star,
 The Standard-Bearer and Perfecter of Our Faith: Amen.

To Clay, Bianca, Diane, Katie, Mike, Mark, and Greg; and to their spouses and families;
 To Bishop Smith, graciously serving this day;
 To Dean Lipscomb and Grace Cathedral, our hosts;
 To all the Clergy and all the People, whatever your age, whatever your station;
 To the good people of this diocese and beyond;
 To our friends and partners in ministry
 Showing forth all the wild manifestations
   Of the deep and abiding love of God:
     Welcome, and Greetings, and Peace, in Christ’s holy name and through his work.

This day and this time have been set aside
 For unapologetic and unabashed ordinations to the diaconate and to the priesthood –
 Set aside, because these people have been set aside –
 Set aside for particular and curious forms of ministry
   That have come to be defined and shaped by centuries
     Of contemplation, prayer, and sweat;
   By martyrs’ blood and workers’ toil, by the councils of the church, and by Holy Scripture.
For the mission of God, for the compelling call of Christ, and for you,
 These have worked and studied and written and prayed and wrestled with angels.
All of them, for a period of years.

They have submitted to the hammer and chisel of the ordination process, the endless God-talk,
 The councils and committees and paperwork,
 Relentless testing by examiners of all kinds.
And it comes to this: a warm Saturday morning in June,
 And all that stands between you and the hands of Bishop Smith on your heads
 ... Is a preacher from Oklahoma with a Southern Baptist background ...

We have heard just now the words of Christ as he has enjoined his friends
 To follow these simple-but-almost-impossible instructions:
 The greatest among you is the one who has the greatest humility, he says;
   The one who serves the table is greater than the one who sits at the table.
 And I, Jesus says – I am one such servant.
 And so, he seems to say; the implication seems to be – If we would be like him, ...

For as much as we try to follow him, Jesus will flummox us
 By consistently turning the world upside-down
   And reversing every expectation people have about what it means to be fulfilled.
And this is what awaits these blessed followers of Jesus:
 Bitter disappointment – a blow to the ego every day –
 The dismantling of the false-self system,
   And – and! – the joy of following Our Lord to the cross, and the grave, and beyond.

For proof, I beg you to consult the prophet Isaiah.
I don’t know why we don’t keep on reading from chapter 6 at these Ordinations: it’s a disservice.
Well, I do know why, but I think it’d be instructive this morning to do it anyway.
“In the year that King Uzziah died,” et cetera, et cetera;
   One, two, skip a few;
     “Then I heard the voice of the Lord saying,
       ‘Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?’ And I said, ‘Here am I; send me!’”
We heard that part. We always hear that part. Beautiful. All set. Done and done.
No? No. There are clarifying instructions, Isaiah:
It contines: And [Isaiah] said, “Here am I; send me!”
 And [the Lord] said, “Go and say to this people:
 ‘Keep listening, but do not comprehend; keep looking, but do not understand.’
 ‘Make the mind of this people dull, [Isaiah], and stop their ears, and shut their eyes,
     So that they may not look with their eyes, and listen with their ears,
       And comprehend with their minds, and turn and be healed.”
Then [Isaiah] said, “How long, O Lord?” [Good question!] And [the Lord] said:
 “Until cities lie waste without inhabitant, and houses without people,
     And the land is utterly desolate;
   Until the Lord sends everyone far away, and vast is the emptiness in the midst of the land.
 “Even if a tenth part remain in it, it will be burned again, like a [tree]
     Whose stump remains standing when it is felled. The holy seed is its stump.”

Isaiah has just been caught up in the majesty of the moment.
He has volunteered to bring the glorious word of the Lord
 About a nation in need of righteous judgment and restoration.
Sounds great! His tongue is cleansed; he’s ready to go.
But, as it turns out, his full commission is –
 Go and speak this word, and keep on speaking it until the people can’t hear it anymore;
   And keep on, keep on, Isaiah, ‘til you’re blue in the face, until there’s nothing left to speak to,
     Until the whole thing is as dead as a tree stump;
        And from that dead thing, Isaiah, the seed of something beautiful will be born.

You could think Isaiah’s mission is to facilitate futility – to hasten nothingness into being.
It’s dark, right? But don’t miss the image: the stump is also the seed.

Still, for Isaiah ... what a bummer. It’s a huge let-down!
It’s the old bait-and-switch! He signed up for A and has to do B.
He’s just accepted a lifetime appointment to the lowest place,
 Delivering very good news to those who need to hear it, yes,
   But also, very bad news to those about to be weighed out on the cosmic scales of justice.
He will effectively be waiting tables from now on, and serving – not being served.
And for what?
Only, it seems, to help carve out a little space where the Word of the Lord can take root.
He probably won’t live long enough to even see it happen.
But that just has to be enough ...

At some critical, inevitable moment, expectations will undergo reversal.
Dissatisfaction will come creeping in.
Dissatisfaction with your call can only be tempered by humility –
 Serving from the lowest place, steeped in daily prayer and wide-eyed experience.
Isaiah’s anger and frustration about his place in life
 Will only be leavened by the knowledge that he has been placed on earth to do this work,
   And that just has to be sufficient.
The sacrifice is just part of the deal.
His ministry, and all our ministries, are uniquely cruciform in nature.

So naturally enough, here’s where the ego steps in,
 And gets deeply reactive and anxious, and panics!
This is not what I signed up for! I’ve made a terrible misake! Surely there’s some way out of this!
And Christ-followers will scratch about, searching frantically for a loophole.
Temptations to buck the call will come.

In 2017 especially, there are at least four kinds of temptations or varieties or ways
 To buck the call when the ego rises up – whether or not we do church work.
Let’s remember that when Satan left Jesus at the end of his period of temptation,
 It was “until a more opportune time.”
Perhaps, as fellow followers of Christ, 2017 is our “more opportune time.”
So let’s be bold Episcopalians and call these temptations, Devils.

The first is the Devil of Constant Busyness.
All-time companion of clergy.
Grotesque, looong checklists; emails to respond to; ideas to develop. A never-finished-ness.
Creeping dissatisfaction with whatever place we happen to occupy at the moment:
 Belief that whatever the next place is, surely it’s better than this one.
The lie is that my worth is measured by my output.
To use an ancient theological term, this is baloney.
That’s the Devil of Constant Busyness.

The second devil is the Devil of Instant Competence.
“Yes, I do remember that conversation, and I have an immediate reaction to it!”
“Yes, I have Google in my pocket,
   And no, there’s no excuse for not having all the facts right away,
   As well as all the interpretations of those facts.
   To hell with letting it simmer to make it better;
     To hell with admitting if there’s something we don’t know.”
The lie is that my worth is derived by what I know, with my head –
   What I can recite standing before you right now, all the facts, all at once, all in one place.
This lie is that my worth is not derived
 By who I am, already, simply created, in the sight and in the hands of the Living Lord Jesus.
The Devil of Instant Competence.

The third devil is a Contentment with a Lack of Joy.
God made us, God loves us, God made us to delight in God and for God to delight in us –
 We forget this at our peril, at our own cost.
Life is meant to be lived, not merely trudged through.
When we clergy forget these facts, it turns our ministries colorless.
Banish the lie! Be joyful in the Lord, and not merely a survivor.
The Devil of the Lack of Joy.

The fourth devil, in 2017, is the hardest to name and the slipperiest to conquer.
It is what I’ll call the Devil of Believing Only In My Narrative.
We may preach the evils of the fragmentation and alienation of our society;
 We may believe we are deeply connected to one another in certain ways;
 But in other ways we are all susceptible; we all know this one, only too well.
We may be listening to each other, nodding our heads,
 Trying to get out of God’s way, but it’s hard.
In the end, I’m sorry, but I just know I’m right.
This lie is straightforward, and seductive: I stand to gain nothing from ever being wrong:
 So I’m right because I’m right.
My views are correct because someone backed me up on Twitter;
 I’m right because that magazine article said so; I know I’m on the right side of history;
   My story beats yours, my opinions are better than yours,
     And very soon I’ll set everything straight,
       Or, better yet, just keep it to my self – my unassailable, airtight self,
         Where it can stay clean.
The Devil of Believing Only In My Own Narrative.

O Isaiah, O Prophet of the Most High, are we in the ballpark today?
Were you ever tempted like this?
What, if anything, can be done about it –
 Other than to say: this is our time.
 We fight the temptations we fight. We remain steadfast.
And this is our responsibility until it passes to someone else.
Meanwhile, God gives us what we need to be faithful.

Ordinands, would you stand please? ...

Greg, Mark, Mike, Katie, Diane, Bianca, and Clay:
 Each of you is on the crust of a grand adventure.
My strongest prayer is that you trust daily
 That what God has given you to meet this task will be sufficient;
 That what Christ died to give to each of you, and us, his Church, will not be forgotten.
Banish these devils, these temptations, as the Spirit has given ability;
 Lean on one another and all of us for support;
   Show us something new and wonderful;
     Lead us to new and important understandings of where and why we do this work.
And do all these things with joy, with lightness, with purpose.

God give you strength. Amen.

April 11, 2017

Sermon for Tuesday of Holy Week 2017

Sermon for Year A, Tuesday in Holy Week
By The Rev. Torey Lightcap
April 11, 2017
Grace Cathedral, Topeka, Kansas
Mark 11:15-19

As the Gospel of Mark attests, any person who would disrupt
 The normal flow of trading and commerce –
 The exchanging of goods and services and money –
 That person becomes an unfortunate and ripe target for execution by the state.
Whoever would do that in the forecourts and courts of the Temple,
   Where foreign money is exchanged, and animals for sacrifice are bought and sold –
     A hive of hustle and industry –
 Whoever would interrupt that scene would become an object of easy derision.
And Jesus, unmistakably, is someone who absolutely fits that profile.

And, all the more: anyone who has spent the last three years
 Tweaking the noses of the chief priests, the elders, and the scribes –
   All up and down the countryside, and in towns and synagogues, at every chance –
 Insulting the maintainers of conventional religion –
   Anyone who has made it his business to upbraid and critique these in-groups
       For their hypocrisy –
     All the more is he a target –
       Because he has become a burr in the saddle, a source of confusion to the system,
       Who creates disillusionment, who sows a rebellious spirit,
         And who needs to be removed.
And Jesus, invoking the name of God as he does it, is absolutely that man.

I have long believed that up until Jesus turns the tables in the Temple,
 He is merely a problem – an irritant, and a rabble-rouser.
But after he turns the tables and tips the scales,
 And says that this house of prayer has become a den of thieves,
   (Combining Isaiah and Jeremiah in one breath, ...)
 Then all pretense and need of a reason to get rid of him is removed.
It’s no longer an obstacle. They’re on to the next step. They now have what they need.
He is no longer a problem to be solved; he has become the Scapegoat.

In short, I believe that what has Jesus nailed to a cross in only a few days’ time for us
 Is this same act – cleansing the Temple.
Because in doing that, he doesn’t just cause momentary inconvenience,
 And we probably should not imagine that any of what he “cleanses” remains “clean”
   For more than a few minutes –
     Indeed, no longer than it takes to turn the tables back over
       And for everyone to move back in and start trading again.
That “cleanness” is a temporary state.

The real issue – the permanent issue – is,
 He shows the chief priests and the elders and the scribes who they really are,
   What they’ve become. The traders, too, and the money-changers.
He implicates the system and those who participate in it.

He makes the Temple into a blank space, and then he holds up a metaphorical mirror.
He sweeps the Temple clean just long enough,
 And indicts them with his words,
   And they understand:
     They’re standing there, in the aftermath, thinking to themselves,
     This is true. He’s right. We really have allowed this place to be dishonored.
     We took “a house of prayer for all the nations” – the Lord’s house –
         And we turned it into a common business.
     We have attempted to monetize the holy.
     Jesus is right.
     Good Lord, he’s right. And we don’t like how that makes us feel. So let’s get him.
Honestly – isn’t that how it works?

That shouldn’t surprise anyone, though, should it?
It is the human condition to resist the truth when the truth is inconvenient to us,
 When it shows us some real side of our selves that we do not care to see,
    When it names something about our selves we don’t like, or that isn’t working.
Resisting the truth means pushing back, sometimes all the way, disproportionately, violently,
 Until we rest again comfortably in the ease and the warmth of our self-delusion.
Our myths abour our selves make us happy, and contented.
It’s a false and momentary contentment, but it’s still so much easier than amending our ways.

So today, in the Temple, he shows them a mirror,
 (He holds up a mirror to us),
   And by the end of this week
 They will have totally resisted and rejected it – shattered it, they think,
 And scattered it into a million bits of sharp crystal dust, lost on the wind.
People can only stand so much truth for so long.
Scapegoats get what’s coming, not what they deserve.

But now, square that, with this: that God in Jesus loves us desperately,
 And longs to be in the deepest relationship with us – to be friends, as John’s Gospel says;
   And, insofar as it be possible, for us to be – well, to say it plainly, to be happy.

Yet we are confused; we stumble around in the dark; we conveniently forget inconvenient facts.
We mistake expediency for true happiness in Christ;
 Or we mistake pleasure or esteem or power or privilege for true happiness in Christ.
We look everywhere but to this one, highly inconvenient source – the cross – for happiness.

All this is as true on Tuesday of Holy Week 2017 as it was on that first Holy Week.
Except one thing – this one thing that changes everything:
 No power on earth is strong enough to break that mirror.
The crucified Christ is still holding it up in the midst of his church, out in the world,
 Trying to get us to see the truth about ourselves.

Jesus is still out there, holding up that mirror to anyone who will stop long enough
 And really look into the glass to see the true state of things.

This isn’t just about the Temple, some building;
 It’s not just about doves and tables.
It’s about all the things we do that cheapen the name of God.
It’s about how we bend the image of God to suit our need and our convenience.
It’s about hollow religion that neatly fits the form and ticks all the boxes,
 But in the end is only the form, and not real worship.
It’s an indictment and a warning sign to all who would listen.

The prophet Joel understood all this: the worship of convenient idols and what it brought on.
He imagined the justice of God as a great sweep of invading locusts:

The earth quakes before them, the heavens tremble.
The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.
The Lord utters his voice at the head of his army; how vast is his host!
 Numberless are those who obey his command.
Truly the day of the Lord is great; terrible indeed – who can endure it?

Yet even now, says the Lord, return to me with all your heart,
 With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning; rend your hearts and not your clothing.
Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful,
 Slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing.
Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind...

My sisters and my brothers, this Holy Week – tonight –
 Let us rend our hearts and not our garments.
Let us heed the warning and pause before the mirror of Christ to take our true measure.
Let us amend our lives while the last few hours of Lent tick by –
 Amend our lives: The lives we live separately and the one life we live together, as the Church –
   Amend it all.
God’s name be praised, not cheapened.
And yes, it is completely inconvenient – the hardest thing we will ever do:
 To forgive, to change, to offer restitution, to know we’ll do better next time –
   Wherever our Lenten discernment has taken us.
And no, it does not resolve today, or tomorrow, or even on Maundy Thursday or Good Friday.
Or even after that.

It will be hard.
The road is long and it leads to Calvary.

To follow Christ is to abandon all preconceptions –
 To walk away from the self-delusion that I am really the one in control.
To follow Christ is to be emptied of all false and hollow religion
 For the worship of the one true God –
   As we say, “Not only with our lips, but in our lives.”
Truly, the hardest thing we’ll ever do.

Even so, remember – God loves us desperately in Christ,
 And we will not be left comfortless.