The New Year offers many of us a time to think about what we really want in our lives. It brings new hopes and desires to our attention as we set our intentions for who we want to be in the year ahead. The desire to do or be something new, to start fresh or even start all over again, is often the first step in a renewed spiritual journey.
As Christians we believe that everyone is already on a spiritual journey, but sometimes something happens that reminds us to take stock of where we are on that path. The New Year is often this kind of catalyst. As St. Benedict said, “Always we begin again,” acknowledging that we can start again as many times as we need to as we move deeper into relationship with God–God will be there by our side every time.
This year I encourage you to take the next step of going deeper in relationship with God by tending to your own spiritual vitality. Regardless of whether you’ve never thought about having a “relationship with God” (that sounded weird to me for a long time) or you have a steady faith and a regular habit of spiritual practice (something I’m still striving toward), we all begin again when we chose to grow in our relationship with God. So don’t worry about where you are as you start, but instead think about where you want to be and how you want to get there.
Here’s an exercise to help:
Take 15 minutes and write down all of your thoughts about what a vibrant and life-giving spiritual life might look like. Draw a picture or write in colored markers! Make your vision come to life as you imagine what would be included if your spiritual life was really meaningful to you. What would it feel like? What practices would make it come to life? Grab some supplies, set a timer, and capture as much as you can on your page for at least 15 minutes.
What comes up for you as you do this exercise? What does a vibrant spiritual life look like? What do you want to help with your journey? Share your thoughts with us in the comments or get in touch. It’s what we’re here for.
One of the topics that has come up, related to our Rule of Life, is the idea of cultivating friendship with Jesus through spiritual practice. Our seminarian, Megan Allen, took a deep dive into what the Gospel of John says about friendship and wrote this piece to share with the Incarnation community. Thank you, Megan, for your thoughtful reflection and scholarship. – Brin
A couple of weeks ago some of my classmates put together a contemplative evening prayer service that focused on the foot washing story found in John 13:1-17. They led us through an Ignatian style meditation that helps you to imagine that you are right in the middle of what is happening – paying close attention to the kinds of things you hear, smell, and see as the story unfolds around you. As I sat in the stillness of the space between readers, imagining myself in the story, I found myself absorbed by the words “love” and “friendship,” which we had just studied while exploring the Gospel of John in our Bible course at the seminary. I thought to myself, “I love Jesus, but would I call myself a friend of Jesus?” Before I had a chance to probe the dark crevasses of my mind, the next reader began, and the service continued. But this question has yet to leave me, what does it mean to be a friend of Jesus?
New Testament scholar Gail O’Day reminds us that “[f]riendship is a socially embedded phenomenon, and as the social fabric of a culture shifts, so does the understanding of the role and place of friendship in society.” Today, the term friendship tends to be used arbitrarily, to denote affection. But for people living in the first century, friendship was serious business. The “language of friendship provided language for talking about the construction of a [particular] community of like-minded people informed by a particular set of teachings.” For the community that John’s gospel was written for, known as the Johannine community, friendship was understood through Hellenistic moral philosophy that was informed and actualized in the life and death of Jesus.
John’s Gospel gives love of friendship a central place in 15:12-14: “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. You are my friends if you do what I command you” (vv.12-14). These three verses pack a pretty big punch when it comes to understanding friendship for the Johannine community. When Jesus speaks “to lay down one’s life,” it is typically associated with his death. A closer look at the Greek shows us that the phrase “to lay down” can also be read as, “to be open” or “to open one’s self” – like an open book on a table. And the Greek word psuchē, often translated as life, shows something a little different too. Psuchē can also be translated as inner life or soul. But what does it mean “to open one’s soul” for their friends?
Throughout the gospel, Jesus shows his disciples that “opening one’s soul” is the ultimate embodiment of friendship. Jesus essentially is telling his disciples that the greatest love, the kind of love he embodied, brings its whole self to relationships, both with others and God. When I think about this kind of Johannine love and our community, I think about the sharing of our spiritual autobiographies. When we each intentionally, despite the risk, “open our souls” to each other. A simple way to think about who is a friend in the Gospel of John is to think of the statement, “I value what you value.” This reminds me so much of Incarnation’s commitment to our shared values of God’s goodness, deep connection, sacramental community, spiritual growth, and creativity. When Jesus calls his disciples friends, he is inviting them into an intimate relationship with the Divine through the embodiment of shared values – “if you value what I value” you will do what I command you” (v.14).
Throughout the gospel Jesus embodies his own teachings in a way that goes beyond philosophical moral possibility to an actual incarnated reality through his life and death. He lives boldly and speaks frankly both in public and in private, to his disciples and to those who challenge him, regardless of the risk. To be a friend of Jesus is to value what he values and to bring our full selves to our relationships and to God. I see this embodied love of friendship in our community at the Church of the Incarnation. And, with God’s help and faithful friends, we will all continue to grow in our friendship with Jesus.
December 1st marks the first Sunday of Advent. Advent, from the Latin word adventus, means ‘coming’ and was initially the translation of the Greek word parousia. Parousia, however, refers to Jesus’s second coming in power and glory rather than his first coming as a baby born in a manger among farm animals, which we celebrate at Christmas.
The four-week season of Advent now represents both a reminder of Jesus’s second coming and also a celebration of his first coming. With regard to both, Christians spend the season leading up to Christmas in a period of waiting, prayer, stillness, and sometimes fasting. This can be especially difficult in a season that is popularly characterized by rich foods and frenzied activities that are far from calm or restrained. But it is all the more reason to carve out a few minutes a day for some silence and prayer.
One of the most common ways to observe this season is by lighting candles, either on a traditional Advent Wreath, or just a single candle or votive. We created a short service of prayer that can be used when lighting your candle(s) during Advent, to help you find a bit of calm in your day and to recollect yourself in Christ amidst all the pressure to find your identity in your belongings and social engagements. We hope you will enjoy using this simple service during Advent in your own home and that it will bring you a greater sense of the hope we have in Christ.
Experience is at the heart of incarnation—being bodily creatures living in God’s creation as members of a vast community in which we interact on so many levels. We connect, we produce, we emote, we reason. We are invited into life.
By nature, I am a wanderer and a wonderer, thriving on experiencing the transcendent in the mundane. My head, and heart, are often in the clouds; I tend to live in my head much of the time. This is one of the main reasons I am a member of the Incarnation Community Building Team, and look forward to being a full-fledged parishioner of the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation when we begin public worship in 2020. This small and diverse group of people keeps me grounded and keeps my heart in the clouds. I’m also a writer and a poet; if I tend toward grandiosity in this reflection, please forgive and know that it comes from a place of joy in where God has brought me.
This past Sunday, we met as usual in the home of our vicar, the Rev. Brin Bon. Her husband hosted us since Brin was visiting family. One of our members led us in the Daily Office—Morning Prayer: Rite II from the Book of Common Prayer. We did a semi-brief scripture study on the lesson from the Gospel According to Luke; following our worship, one of the members shared her spiritual autobiography, which sparked further conversation about living a rule of life. Several members expressed gratitude for the rule that the Incarnation community has developed; it’s made a difference in the way they experience the spiritual and the secular parts of life.
For part of the time, I lay stretched out on the floor of the living room (it’s my favorite learning posture), listening to the others as they shared their thoughts on scripture. Yes, a part of me was using their words as stepping stones to the high, wild places, but in those particular moments I was also quite literally on the ground, enjoying the warmth found in a community such as Incarnation—a warmth that feels like an embrace of invisible arms or an enfolding of wings.
The conversation about a rule of life flowed into other subjects, especially when someone asked me how my writing was going—a very dangerous thing to do when there’s a time limit for the meeting. It’s like unleashing a dog in a park full of squirrels. The generosity of listening and conversation as I explored the possibilities of what I’m working on and a project I’d like to do, also gave me roots and a trellis on which to grow. Being in such a community of creative people is a gift beyond measure. Writing, for me, is a solitary activity that still requires a corporate space in which to germinate ideas and the soul—Incarnation is such a place.
Incarnation is at the heart of experiencing the spiritual together. Each of us, in this small yet growing community, is invited into the transcendent moments as we worship God and God’s incarnate son, Jesus Christ. You are invited, too, into this community of creativity and inspiration. Come, be rooted and grow with us.
This past Sunday our Incarnation House Church got real with a Bible study focusing on mortality and death. Jesus hand delivered us the topic during our Bible study on the gospel of Luke. In the passage, the Sadducees, a devout Jewish sect that practiced very holy living much like the Pharisees, try to trip Jesus up with a question about the resurrection from the dead. One major difference between the Sadducees and the Pharisees was that the Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection from the dead but the Pharisees did.
The Sadducee’s question sounds like the set-up to either a logic puzzle or an off-color joke: A man with six brothers dies leaving a widow but no children. His brother marries his wife and he dies, too, leaving no children. All seven brothers marry the woman, but none of them has any children… There is no punchline (you can, perhaps, supply your own), but the Sadducees go on to ask Jesus, “If all seven brothers and the poor woman who outlived them are supposed to be resurrected in the afterlife, who will the woman be married to then?”
Jesus doesn’t suffer fools. He says that no one will be married in the afterlife but that we’ll be like angels. What he references but doesn’t say is that angels have no need to procreate, so they don’t need to be married. But Jesus goes one step further and points out that the Sadducees are wrong about resurrection because of this one thing: God declares himself to be the God of the living not the dead. And what’s the evidence for this? When God speaks to Moses out of the burning bush, he introduces himself as the God of his ancestors–of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If he is their God, they can’t be dead, which means they must be resurrected. Check and mate.
Jesus did not shy from talking about death the way we sometimes do. The more we don’t talk about death the more fearful it becomes. So we did what bold Christians do and we stared death in the face. No, we didn’t go skydiving together, we opened our prayer books and talked about our own funerals. One of the gifts of the Book of Common Prayer is that our prayers say exactly what we believe to be true about God and ourselves as God’s creation. In the case of death, we say these beautiful anthems at the very beginning of the burial service:
I am Resurrection and I am Life, says the Lord.
Whoever has faith in me shall have life,
even though he die.
And everyone who has life,
and has committed himself to me in faith,
shall not die for ever.
As for me, I know that my Redeemer lives
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth.
After my awaking, he will raise me up;
and in my body I shall see God.
I myself shall see, and my eyes behold him
who is my friend and not a stranger.
For none of us has life in himself,
and none becomes his own master when he dies.
For if we have life, we are alive in the Lord,
and if we die, we die in the Lord.
So, then, whether we live or die,
we are the Lord’s possession.
Happy from now on
are those who die in the Lord!
So it is, says the Spirit,
for they rest from their labors.
(Book of Common Prayer, p. 491)
What unfolded was a beautiful conversation about death, the afterlife, and the impossible thought of our resurrected bodies. We talked about theology and the Bible, and we made room for our fears, questions, and even doubts. What stands out to me is not the solace we find in our prayers but the depth of faith revealed in our questions.
What does it mean to be a church of spiritual depth? It means tackling the realities of life and death and taking seriously the anxieties that often accompany our faith. Two months ago this depth was the aspiration of a church not yet gathered, but week by week it becomes a reality. We may fear death even with the assurance of faith, but as a Christian community we never have to stand in that fear alone. Thanks be to God.
Over the first weekend in November, several members of the Incarnation community went on a pilgrimage with a couple of other Austin-area Episcopal churches to the US-Mexico border. It was a powerful and rich weekend of encounter, reflection, and transformation. Our primary job was to prepare food to serve to folks living in the new tent-city in Matamoros, just over the border from Brownsville, TX, which has grown from around 100 to upwards of 1000 asylum-seekers just in the last couple of months.
On Saturday, after learning about the Good Neighbor Settlement House and Team Brownsville–the two primary organizations who are serving the needs of the growing group in Matamoros and Brownsville–we got to work preparing a healthy and hot meal of black bean and chicken casserole for 600 people. A volunteer team from Trinity Methodist Church, here in Austin, made a similar casserole to get to the 1000 meals that, together, we served for dinner on Saturday. It being Dia de los Muertos while we were there, we also gave out a fair amount of candy to the kids who were joyfully running around the camp the whole time we were there. The children and their boundless and undeterred enthusiasm stood out amidst the otherwise dire situation that is happening because of changes in US migration policy in the last few months.
On Sunday morning we returned to Matamoros for the last time to celebrate Holy Eucharist with the folks living in the tent-camp, which was an especially moving experience of being united with each other in faith regardless of differences in language and country of origin. Many in our group were fluent Spanish speakers, but I am not, which made leading our worship service a clumsy and humbling experience, but one of grace and gratitude, nonetheless. I believe all of us would do it again in a heartbeat, and we spent the drive home talking about the next opportunity we might have to serve in Matamoros.
One of the practices the Incarnation Community Builders have been exploring is a Rule of Life, which is an 8-part pattern of living that helps us not just profess but live our faith. The practices of our Rule are:
daily scripture reading
daily confession of sin
regular service to the world
regular service to the church
keeping the sabbath
Over the weekend the Incarnation community formed itself around these anchor points, both among the group who remained and worshiped with our House Church and those who were on a pilgrimage of service and prayer. People ask me all the time, “How do you start a church?” This weekend illustrates the answer better than I could put into words. Simply put, we are building a church one person at a time by practicing now, on the small scale, what we aspire to offer for all of South Austin.