God’s first love


February 14, 2016 (published in the Fort Bend Herald)

We love because God first loved us (1 John 4:19)

“Love’s a word I never throw around.” Those are the lyrics to a Robert Earl Keen song, words appropriate for this Valentine’s Day. It might come with roses, chocolate, or a card, but no doubt this Valentine’s day is a day when many of us will say the words: I love you.

We say this to friends and family members. We say it and mean it differently when we say it to our spouse. That word of love is a word we never throw around. We might say we “love” convertible cars, but isn’t this different from when we speak of the love of God? It must be different when God says the word, when he says he loves us.

C.S. Lewis wrote a famous book titled The Four Loves. In his book, he identifies four different types of love. We can have affection or love for the things or the people who are familiar to us. We often have this love for our pets. I have no doubt that my parishioner mourns the death of her cat because she loved her companion.

Lewis says the second kind of love is the love we share with friends. The Greek word for this love is philia. It’s the love found between family members and true friends. We can think of Philadelphia, the city of brotherly love.

The third kind of love is the “Valentine’s Day” love; it is the romantic love. Eros is the kind of love we experience when we say we are “in love” with another person.

But there’s a fourth kind of love that originates from no other place than the heart of God. The fourth and most important kind of love is “agape” love. This love comes from God, and it is fully revealed to us in Jesus Christ.

Agape is the kind of love we don’t simply share with our significant other on Valentine’s Day. It is the love we have received in Christ and therefore the love we can’t help to share with others. It’s when the floodgates open and the unconditional love of God flows through us, those who have first been loved.

In his book Grace in Community, Jim McNeely writes, “As God loves each of us, we recognize and join in the spirit of that love. We forgive. We persist. We bless when there is no blessing in return. We impart favor upon another. We give without counting the cost. We understand that the other beloveds in our circle may sin against us, and we hold none of it against one another. We are not asked to love apart from God. Love is from God.”

While it is a day for love, let us consider joining in the spirit of that love we call the love of God. This would be the “no strings attached” love we have from God, the kind of love that is truly gift, the kind of love we can share because God first loved us.

The fly fishing community

The young man working in the fly shop pulled out a map and showed me exactly where to go to find the fish.  “Take this exit,” he said, “You’ll find a good spot under the bridge.  The fish seem to be really active in the afternoon.  Here, use this fly.  The fish are all over it.  Have fun!”  It was more than just good customer service from the young man.  

My wife, somewhat of an outside observer, has noticed a certain quality about this fly fishing community of which I am a part.  “Everybody is friendly and helpful.  Everybody’s willing to share,” she recently remarked.  Sure, there are a few exceptions.  Some will keep their secrets and protect “their” fishing holes.  But for the most part, those of us in the fly fishing community know the harvest is plentiful, and the fishers are few.  

Most of us in this fly fishing community share a certain posture toward our mutual interest.  We have a certain perspective.  The fish are not ours.  We enjoy this sport.  And there is plenty to go around.    

The fly fishing community has its own pulse; I’d venture to say the fly fishing community is a live organism, just like the church.  We fly fishers wake up, and we make the community come alive.  We’re on the water.  We’re in the shops sharing stories and advice.  And like most in the community, I know that what we do is a gift.  I get to fish.  I get to be a part of this recreation.  I’m not entitled, but I am invited to partake in this gift.  There’s a reverence, a humility, and an honesty about what’s “mine” and what is given.  I can’t help to see this parallel the truth to be found in the church.  When the baptized Christian is honest with himself, he knows his life is not his own, but his life here, now, the life to come, all of it is a gift.  It’s a certain posture and perspective.  For the baptized Christian, his life, his money, his children, his work, it’s all gift.  All of it.  

Such a posture can only evoke joy.  To believe that you didn’t get what you deserve, well, yes, that will breed resentment.  But to fly fish, and to live for that matter, knowing that all we are and all we have is gift, that puts us in a different place.  It gives us a different posture and perspective.  So what if I don’t catch as many fish as I did the day before?  So what if I lose the big one?  In The Compleat Angler, Izaak Walton says, “You cannot lose what you never had.”  The baptized Christian can be sure of one thing: all is gift, all is grace.  The Good News is that we really can’t lose.  I’ve seen my fellow fly fisherman smile and laugh when the fish gets away.  It’s his posture, his perspective.  He can enjoy life, the gift of it, because nothing got away.  

The harvest is plentiful, and the fishers are few.  If I’ve learned anything since being brought into this community, I’ve learned that the rivers are full of fish.  I’ve missed lots of strikes.  I’ve had fish snub my fly.  I’ve had to cast and cast before catching a fish.  With years of this experience, I recently learned that the Eagle River holds two thousand trout per mile.  So, there are plenty of trout in the river.  Yes, it takes the right fly.  Yes, it takes the right cast.  The true fly fisherman knows the precision required, but he also knows there are plenty of fish to be caught.  It’s not a matter of scarcity that would only make one anxious.  There are plenty of fish in the river.  For the baptized Christian, we know this much: we have plenty available to us.  In his ministry, Jesus was determined to defeat the myth of scarcity.  He multiplied the loaves and fishes.  He told Peter that he could forgive far more than he first thought.  Jesus gives us much now and even more in the life to come.  We have plenty to enjoy and plenty to steward.  Jesus promises to the baptized Christian that he may have life, and have it abundant.  

The other day I hooked into a beautiful rainbow trout.  I saw the fish rise.  I matched the hatch.  With an accurate and careful cast, I put the fly in front of the fish, and he took it.  My friend across the river celebrated with me.  He crossed the river so he could take a picture.  Later that afternoon, we stopped by the fly shop and showed the picture to others.  We all gathered around the iPhone photo.  We all could appreciate the fish.  Everybody was happy for me, with me.  And I told them exactly where I caught the fish.  I showed them the fly I used.  Maybe one of them went out the next day and discovered such similar joy.  I hope so.  There is plenty to go around.

The creek-side of the church

This past Sunday when my family and I arrived at the Episcopal Church in Vail, we sat in a pew on the left side of the nave.  People pick their seats in church for all sorts of reasons.  Some want a better view of the pulpit or the altar.  We were not so pious.  We picked the left side because it’s the “creek-side” of the church.  Just outside the open window we could see and hear the flow of the water I had fished the night before.  

It was only after we sat down in our pew when I noticed there would be a baptism in the morning’s service.  So, there we sat, between the creek and the font, a perfect image for us baptized Christians bringing one more child into the fold.

The creek, outside the windows of the church, it represents the world for what it is to God.  It’s the world God created.  It’s the world that is broken.  It’s the world God entered in Christ.  And lest we forget that Christ was baptized, in this world.  Whenever we contemplate our baptism, we might first consider Christ’s baptism.  Without a fine linen or a sterling shell, Jesus was immersed in a river, the muddy Jordan river.  No doubt baptism is about the cleansing of our sins.  It is a rite of purity, but what about the fact that Jesus was baptized, immersed in the muddy Jordan River?

I’ve been asked on more than one occasion, “Why was Jesus baptized?”  It’s a good question.  I’ve asked it myself.  If he was without sin, if Jesus was (is) perfect, why did he need to be baptized?  And that likely misses the point.  Jesus didn’t need to be baptized.  We needed the saving.  We’re the ones who muddied the waters, and God decided in Christ that he would immerse himself in those waters.  He came down from heaven.  He became human.  Jesus immersed himself in our humanity so an exchange might occur, so that we could be baptized into his likeness.  St. Paul says it, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”  Jesus wasn’t baptized for his sake, but ours, for our salvation.

So, when I look out the “creek-side” of the church, I’m reminded of who we are as baptized Christians.  We don’t look out the window with a “privileged” status.  We look out the window knowing where we came from and to where we are sent.  Rowan Williams says, “The gathering of baptized people is therefore not a convocation of those who are privileged, elite and separate, but of those who have accepted what it means to be in the heart of a needy, contaminated, messy world.  To put it another way, you don’t go down into the waters of the Jordan without stirring up a great deal of mud!”

We sat in between the creek and the font.  While sitting “creek-side”, we are also here to know and tell exactly how and why Christ came up from waters.  We are to bring others to the font.  We have a call to bring others into the fold of God’s saving grace, and baptism is the beginning of such a life for each and every one of us.  I recently read of a brilliant description for the church.  Alexander Schmemann speaks of the church as the Pascha, the passage, the passage from “this world” into the Kingdom of God.  The church, the baptized body congregates and brings others into the fold so we can go from the “creek-side” and into that place where our sins no longer define us.  We have a passage, a way forward.  We move or better yet God has moved us to become children of light and heirs of the kingdom.  

Some of those opposed to church will say, “I don’t want to go to church.  It’s just a bunch of two-faced hypocrites.”  To which I might now say, “You’re exactly right.  We are a bunch of two-faced hypocrites.  By the grace of God, we are sinners and we are saints.  And that’s why we go to church.”  We are not going to say anything about ourselves that isn’t true.  We are a people in need.  We’re a people in need of forgiveness and a new life.  We need a do-over.  And we can’t save ourselves.  We can’t make ourselves become the righteousness of God.  So, we have a God who got in the muddy river with us; he went down and brought us up with him.  We confess the faith of Christ crucified, proclaim his resurrection, and share in his eternal priesthood.

An aquatic people

I can’t stop thinking about the Bajau people.  Mindlessly channel surfing, I accidentally disovered these unusual people on the BBC.  But I’ve been thinking about them ever since.  These people, these “sea gypsies” have adapted their way of life counter to the way we were made to survive; these people literally live on and in the water.

My family and I arrived in Colorado earlier in the week having spent the week of the 4th of July with family.  We have arrived to a place where I feel fully alive.  I love the water, the kind of water that is fresh and flows with life.  It was also my intention to spend this time reflecting on baptism, but not that one act performed upon me and that which I now do for others.  Something, likely the very God in whom I’m baptized, was pulling me into a time in which I might reflect on the fullness of baptism, maybe more accurately described as the life we have in baptism.

So, I stumbled upon a BBC program about an aquatic people, a people who have adapted their life, and made their existence on and in the water.  They “hunt” for fish, walking on the sea floor, able to hold their breath for up to five minutes.  Their eyes have better focus under water than above.  Some of the Bajau people will even get “land sick” when they set foot on dry land.

What about us?  What about those of us who are baptized?  Aren’t we living on and in the water, the water that was set apart for baptism?  

In my time here in Colorado, I am reading books that would challenge any baptized Christian to reflect more deeply on the life we have in baptism.  One priest-scholar made the point.  It’s not about the certificate, he said.  It’s not just about the certificate.  It’s not just about that “one” day, and we have a certificate to prove it; then we needed to get on with the rest of our life.  

Something must change because of the act upon us.  Baptism was never intended to be an “add-on” to our lives.  That’s why we speak of ourselves as new people.  That’s why we speak of being reborn.  

Baptism is the act that makes us into an “aquatic” people.  We can see more clearly with our eyes “under water.”  Much can be said about the Christian worldview that comes into focus at baptism, this principal act of our identity.  It’s the point at which God speaks the truth about us, our world, and our place in the world God so loved.  

We are an aquatic people.  We’ve been immersed, baptized into the death and resurrection of Christ.   This is our way of life.  This is the beginning of all our days.  

We thank you, Father, for the water of Baptism.  In it we are buried with Christ in his death.  By it we share in his resurrection.  Through it we are reborn by the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

¿Puedo sacar una foto?

The other day I was struck by my learning and Oliver’s learning.  At the moment, I’m focused on Spanish.  I spend my time in the classroom learning Spanish or using my “skills” to pay the bus fare.  Oliver spends his days learning English (and Spanish).  I’m learning certain words for the first time.  I’m also rememebering some of what I first learned in high school.  Oliver is learning certain English words for the first time, important words.  He is also remembering words he learned in Mrs. Alderson’s class just last month.

Languages are learned, possibly learned quite well through immersion.  That’s the main reason we decided to spend these two and a half weeks in Costa Rica.  We’ve been immersed in the language, and the words have become flesh.  We converse with the locals, and we know the words more fully.  Immersion.  

The same is true of the Gospel, the Word made flesh.  Such words have been revealed to us by Christ, words like faith, hope, and love; the word “forgiveness” fleshed out by our Lord, Jesus.  And it continues, the learning.  We teach these words to our children.  They learn such important words for the first time, words like faith, hope, and love.  They learn to say, “I forgive you.”  We adults must be reminded of these words, just like I have had to recall such words from my Spanish classes in high school.

Much of my time in class is spent in conversation with my teacher.  And Runia has now shared with me that if I were to plant a church in Costa Rica, she would be my first member!  Every day I carry with me my English/Spanish Book of Common Prayer.  A couple of days ago, Runia asked what prayers we say with our children at bedtime.  We have a few in our home.  Some nights, we sing the doxology.  Our children say prayers they’ve learned in school.  One of our favorites is a prayer found in our Episcopal Prayer Book.  So, in responding to her question, I shared the prayer with Runia.  She too was moved by such words or learning such a language.  She said she’d like to say that prayer with her family.    

“¿Puedo sacar una foto?” she asked.  

“¡Claro que si!” I replied.

A language learned.  A language to share.  That’s the beauty of the Word made flesh.


I love this place.


Yesterday Oliver felt compelled to tell us what he thinks about Costa Rica.  Unsolicitedly, while the four of us were waiting for a taxi, Oliver looked up at Mommy and said, “I love this place.”  During our two and a half weeks in Costa Rica, I had hoped to spend quality time with my family and strengthen my Spanish-speaking skills, and on this fifth day in the country, I love this “place” too.

We now have a routine to our day.  The roosters begin the day at 4:30am.  We begin our day at 5:30am.  Oliver decides to kindly reply to the roosters, and then all of us are up for the day.  We have breakfast together, and I then walk to my school for my class that begins at 7am.  Mi maestra se llama Runia.  Please see the picture of my “classroom.”  Runia and I spend much of our time in conversation; she asks me questions about my day, about Texas, about my family, about the church.  Runia does not speak English, so all of our conversations are in Spanish.  It has been a pleasure to teach Runia about the Episcopal Church.  Runia is Roman Catholic, and she is fascinated with my being a priest and married, etc.  A couple of days ago, I taught Runia about “el siglo dieciseis” (the 16th century) when the Reformation gave birth to different denominations and expressions of catholic Christianity.  All of this in Spanish.

In my class, I have not only begun to strengthen my Spanish-speaking skills, but I have learned to slow down, to listen, to choose the right words.  In Oliver’s words, I love this “place.”  Sabbatical is about slowing down, and this time coupled with my current environment has allowed me to be more observant, to hear things my children say, to laugh at the things we do together.  Runia is a very good teacher.  She is very patient with me.  She will sit with her hands folded on the table and simply smile at me until I can think of the word I’d like to use next.  In the evenings, my family and I talk about the one thing we want to do together after my class the next day.  Do we want to swim?  Go to the beach?  Go to the butterfly garden?  I love this place.  

When I return to my work at St. Mark’s, I plan to bring home what I’ve learned in this place.  Not only do I hope to apply my Spanish-speaking skills, but I hope to be more patient, not to rush, to choose my words wisely, to listen, to be more aware of my surroundings and those with whom I live and move and have my being.  Thank you, Runia … Usted es buena maestra! 

Stop Signs

Stop Sign

Saturday, May 30, 2015

Don’t run.  That’s what the sign said.  Bears and mountain lions have as much of a claim on Big Bend National Park as we humans do, and if one human happens to encounter one of these permanent residents, the hiker is advised not to run, but to stop, and stand his ground.

It’s been a full first week of my sabbatical.  After church this past Sunday, Sarah, the children, and I drove out of the St. Mark’s parking lot, and since then, I have been traveling across Texas for much of the past week.  I’ve been to San Antonio, Floresville, Big Bend National Park, Marathon, Alpine, and Marfa.  Lots of driving, but I have had plenty of opportunities to stop.

Luckily, I did not have to stand my ground in front of a mountain lion, but over the course of the past week, I have had the good fortune to stop.  I have visited with family, friends, met people on my hikes.  I reconnected with an old friend from high school.  I stopped by his house in San Antonio and enjoyed a couple of beers on his front porch.  It was good to see his wife and two sons.  Apparently, his youngest is now talking and talking back.

It’s been good to stop, to be, to stand still.

Before I accepted the gift of a sabbatical, I would say I can pause.  I usually do.  I like to stay busy, fill my day with meaningful ministry, and I can pause in my day.  I can pause for a moment, only to hit the “unpause” button and get back to my work.  On more than one occasion in the past week, I have truly stopped.  I have stood still.

This past Monday night (the one night I was home this past week), we went to Rudy’s for dinner, and I ran into an old friend, somebody I have not seen in years.  It was over a decade ago when Sidney taught me the art of building fly rods.  I spent the better part of a summer in Driftwood, Texas, where Sidney and I had many conversations over our meticulous work.  He’s now in another chapter of his life, and he was only in town for the night to visit his girlfriend.  Sidney met my son for the first time.  I met his girlfriend for the first time.  I didn’t pause the other night.  I stopped to talk with Sidney.

In his ministry, I imagine Jesus stopped more often than he paused from doing his work.  Many times, Jesus stopped, he stood still.  Before he healed blind Bartimaeus, Jesus stood still.  It was in a stopped moment when and where Jesus healed the man.  Jesus stopped at the bottom of the sycamore tree and looked up to see his beloved Zacchaeus.  Jesus didn’t pause only to get onto more important matters in his ministry.  His ministry was always with him, and so when he stopped, everything that was important to Jesus was already before him and with him.

A few days ago in Big Bend, I ate my brown-bag lunch at an elevation of 7,375 feet.  I could see all the way to Mexico from the highest cliffs of the Chisos Basin.  I only took fifteen minutes to eat, but I stopped to eat.  I haven’t done that in a while.  In the past week, I have stopped to listen, to visit, to see, to read, to write, to eat, to be.  Thank you, God.  Thank you for the signs; don’t run, but stop, and stand still.

Taking a Sabbatical (letter to the parish)

February 25, 2015

Dear St. Mark’s Family,

While the church year blesses us with us its seasons, so does life, and this summer I will welcome a new season in my life, a time of sabbatical.  I was ordained a priest on February 10, 2009, and since my arrival as your rector, our lay leadership at St. Mark’s has known there is a point at which I am to rest in my ordained ministry.  The time is now.  We certainly live in a “high-speed” society, and while it may seem countercultural to rest, our God isn’t like any other god.  Sabbath has always been God’s imperative, integral to the whole and holy life.  God commanded the Sabbath.  He told the people of Israel to work the land for six years, and in the seventh year, the people were to give the land its rest.  God rested on the seventh day of creation.  So, in this seventh year of my ordained ministry, I will take rest.

My sabbatical will begin on Monday, May 25, and I will be back in church on Sunday, August 23 for the Blessing of the Backpacks.  I have four goals for my season of sabbatical.  Firstly, I will seek to listen to our God, and I hope to go deeper in my spiritual life.  Secondly, I intend to reconnect with my family. I appreciate their support of me and my ministry, and I look forward to nurturing my relationships with Sarah, Eloise, and Oliver.  Thirdly, on a practical level, I will enroll in a Spanish immersion course and strengthen my Spanish-speaking skills.  Fourthly, after six solid and full years of preaching and teaching, I will compile some of my teachings and sermons with the intention of making my curriculum and writing available to a broader audience.

Our bishops encourage all the clergy to take sabbatical, and many of the clergy in our diocese integrate this discipline into the lifelong vocation we have as priests.  In leading by example, this past year our bishop took a sabbatical and in a recent diocesan publication, the bishop reflected on his experience.  It was a season of clarity and refreshment for him, and having learned more about himself and his life’s work, Bishop Doyle said, “We are to labor, but our God wants us to rest as well and to rest in him.  He wants to come and walk with us and to see our labors.  God wishes us to reflect about our work and to see and name that it is good.  God wants to engage in a conversation about the things done and left undone.”  I would hope for a similar experience, a chance to listen, rest, and return to you with a renewed understanding of my call as a priest in our church.

I appreciate the vestry’s support and their encouraging me to be faithful to this time in my ministry.  I am also grateful to those anonymous gifts, the funds from the diocese, and the financial support from a local non-profit entity.  These three sources of funds will make my sabbatical possible.  Most importantly, with the help of our vestry, our strong lay leadership, and the competent and capable supply clergy of our diocese, my responsibilities will be covered for the twelve weeks I am away from the parish.  More communication will be coming to you in the months ahead.  At this point, I thank you for your support, and I certainly encourage the whole parish to reflect on the discipline of Sabbath, for as Jesus said, Sabbath was made for us, it is a gift to be received.