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A Sad week

Last week my mother suffered a stroke. She is doing ok and beginning the long road of rehab and recovery. Jennifer and I spent Friday and Saturday in Hattiesburg with Mom, visiting when allowed to (she was in ICU then). I am so blessed to be part of my family, my four brothers and their wives and children as well as my own kids, especially during challenging times. My daughter Mackenzie left work and drove to Hattiesburg from the coast of Mississippi as soon as she heard. She is a Neuro Nurse Practitioner and has dealt primarily with stroke patients her entire medical career. She was a huge help explaining things to Mom and the rest of us. Having Jennifer there with her medical knowledge and love for my mom made a huge difference also. She made sure mom’s care team was on the job and doing what they needed to be doing.

I returned Monday for a quick visit as she was settling into the rehab floor. My brothers and I mapped out a game plan for the coming weeks. My mother is 85 and other than giving birth to her 5 sons, she had never been admitted to a hospital before!

Sunday morning I was back at St. Simon’s when I received the terrible news that my friend and colleague, the Reverend Chuck Culpepper, had died very unexpectedly the night before. If you are on Facebook you can go to his page, now set up as a tribute site, and read hundreds of heartfelt comments about Chuck, his ministry, his laughter, his love of all God’s children and his amazing ability to make anyone, especially young people, understand they too are beloved of God. Chuck was currently serving as Rector of St. Luke’s in Brandon, MS and Vicar of St. Alexis in Jackson, MS. He had just finished a camp session at Camp Bratton-Green. Chuck was a legend as a camp director and as a spiritual director for Happening and Vocare. His deep and incredible involvement in youth and young adult ministries in the Diocese of Mississippi has helped shaped the lives of literally thousands of young people in the diocese, including all three of my children. He will be deeply missed, please pray for Chuck, his wife Katherine and son Andy, and all of us who grieve his loss.

Chuck was 69 and as one of the Facebook posts said, he was always the youngest person in the room. I loved hanging out in the back right corner of the main conference room at Gray Center during Clergy Conference, where Chuck always sat. He not only was hilarious, he was also brilliant. You could count on him making really insightful comments while always championing those in need. Serving others was a core part of his life and something he lived daily, not just something he talked about.

As a fairly newly ordained priest I was sent by my bishop, along with several other clergy from our diocese, to attend a conference at Camp Allen, the Diocese of Texas’ conference center. Chuck offered to room with me. We flew from Jackson to Dallas, along with the late Reverend Hunter Isaacs. In Dallas we were to catch a flight to Houston and drive the short way from there to Camp Allen. However, the airplane for the last leg had mechanical issues and we kept getting delayed and delayed and delayed. We missed the window to arrive in time for the opening service and dinner and the 3 of us decided to rent a car and drive from Dallas to Camp Allen, about 3 ½ hour drive I think. The only car they had available was a purple PT Cruiser, so off we went, leaving Dallas about midnight. We stopped along the way at a gas station in a sketchy area, and we were quite the sight, three priests in our purple Cruiser. Hunter, very unintentionally, kept us in stitches the whole trip. Chuck’s laughter was very contagious, and we just made fun of the whole situation on the entire drive. Hunter was rooming with someone he didn’t know and was terrified he would wake his roomie up coming in so late. The next morning, he arrived at breakfast (we had all three had maybe 2 hours sleep) with a knot on his head. He had entered his room and dared not turn on a light so as not to bother his roomie, tripped over an end table and hit his head, fumbled around and got a light on to see how injured he was and realized then – no roommate was there! Chuck and I laughed about that, and the really accidentally comical things Hunter said the entire trip, for years after. I know this is a “you had to be there” kind of story, but it has replayed in my mind ever since hearing the sad news. Those memories allow me to hear Chuck’s laughter again and again, his easy going nature and quick smile seared into my memories. Good lord we will miss this man!

I pray I can be half the priest he was; I can say he taught me a lot about this vocation, and I am forever grateful for his influence on my children and my son-in-law, John Dreyfus. May light perpetual shine upon him, I look forward to the day when I hear that laugh again.

Morning Prayer 01/04/19

Saying morning prayer this morning via sunrise as our power was out, I was struck by the familiar words of the 2nd Song of Isaiah:

Isaiah 55:6-11

Seek the Lord while he wills to be found; *
call upon him when he draws near.
Let the wicked forsake their ways *
and the evil ones their thoughts;
And let them turn to the Lord, and he will have compassion, *
and to our God, for he will richly pardon.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, *
nor your ways my ways, says the Lord.
For as the heavens are higher than the earth, *
so are my ways higher than your ways, 
and my thoughts than your thoughts.
For as rain and snow fall from the heavens *
and return not again, but water the earth,
Bringing forth life and giving growth, *
seed for sowing and bread for eating,
So is my word that goes forth from my mouth; *
it will not return to me empty;
But it will accomplish that which I have purposed, *
and prosper in that for which I sent it.

I guess I am still on the “New Year” theme, but this reminder that God’s thoughts are not our thoughts nor God’s ways our ways helps, I think, to ground us in this new year, reminding us we are not God, despite our every attempt to be so, and neither is anyone else, despite their attempts to convince us otherwise. We can be co-creators with God by being open to how God can use us to “accomplish that which I have purposed”. But we constantly need to check ourselves – is this for God’s purposes or for our own selfish needs?

How will you allow God to be God in your life this year? How can this Biblical reminder impact how you live and how you pray?

Evening Prayer Jan 1, 2019

A new year begins yet again, resolutions will be made and broken, the 24 hour news cycle will continue to beat on our brains and worry our souls, commercials will continue to convince us our life is incomplete without the latest and greatest widgets. The beat goes on, as they say.

What will we do differently? Eat less carbs, exercise more, drink more water and less alcohol? All good goals of course. Let me suggest something, however. Pray. Pray more. Pray often. Figure out the best way that works for you – daily offices of course being my suggested practice but I know that does not work for everyone. Pray. Pray first and pray last. Then the rest of it finds a proper place in your life and your priorities.

It works. Pray for me to do the same.

Today is the Feast of the Holy Name, when Jesus was brought to the temple 8 days after birth to be circumcised and named. We used to call this the Feast of the Circumcision, but people got a bit queasy about that title. It is also the first day of 2019 of course. May your year be blessed with joy and grace. If I can pray for you, please let me know.

The Collect for today:

Eternal Father, you gave to your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.

Plant in every heart….

Holy Land Final Day

Unfortunately this post was delayed and I don’t have pictures to add. You will see why if you read to the end….

After our free day, our final day in the Holy Land was packed (as usual). We began the day on the Mt. of Olives where we visited the place where Jesus ascended to heaven 40 days after he was resurrected. On this site is also a church dedicated to where Jesus taught the disciples the Lord’s Prayer. On the walls all around the church are beautiful renditions of the prayer in over 100 languages.

From the Mt. of Olives you get a spectacular view of the Old City of Jerusalem, the walls, the Temple Mount, the Dome of the Rock and many of the places we had already visited. There is also an ancient and huge Jewish cemetery and our guide gave us a lot of information on how Jewish burials had been done over the centuries. We actually saw some stone workers creating a new grave tomb for someone.

From there we walked to the Garden of Gethsemane and the Church of All Nations. This is holy ground, folks. In the garden are olive trees which are older than 2000 years, “if these trees could talk”. We do know this is the actual spot of the garden where Jesus prayed “not my will but thine be done”. The Church of all Nations is beautiful and a very spiritual place. Inside you can pray and touch a slab of rock, purported to be the very spot where Jesus had knelt in the garden while the disciples could not stay awake “one hour”. It was here of course where our Lord was arrested after Judas betrayed him.

We then walked the path down from the garden along the way Jesus would have ridden the donkey from the Mt. of Olives into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday. WAY COOL. We met our bus at the bottom of the road and drove into the Old City, entering Mt Zion. There we were able to see the place believed to be the Upper Room where the Last Supper took place and perhaps Pentecost happened as well. There is not a lot to it, it has been a variety of things over the years, including a mosque. Under it is the Tomb of King David, a large rock with an ancient tombstone attributed to David, but no bones were ever found there. The space is divided between men and women and there are Orthodox Jews (both genders) praying there around the clock.

We walked through both the Armenian Quarter and the Jewish Quarter of the Old City. These are still residential areas with a lot of shops and people traffic. You can see where the have excavated the Roman Cardo, a wide boulevard which was a major market place in the Old City centuries ago.

We eventually came to the Western, or Wailing, Wall. You must go through a security checkpoint to reach the plaza where the wall is. This wall is not a part of the ancient temple, but rather what remains of a retaining wall built by Solomon as he built up the space the temple would be built upon on Mt. Moriah (where Abraham had gone to sacrifice Isaac). Still it is one of the holiest places for Jewish people (Christians too). The wall is separated into space for men and women with a fence between. Men must cover their heads at the wall. You have probably seen pictures and videos of people praying there and the custom is to write your own prayer requests on pieces of paper which you can leave in crevices in the wall. I did so, although my pictures of those prayers are gone now. Just know if I told you I would write a prayer for someone, I did. And of course most of mine were about my own family and Jennifer’s. It was quite a holy moment, I felt I was in a “thin place” as I prayed and felt the presence of God in a place where millions have come and offered prayers for centuries!

There were several Bar Mitzvahs taking place right at the wall and alas my videos of them (it was ok to video) are now gone, but how cool to have that ceremony in that place! The families and friends of the young boys were having a blast!

Next to the wall is an archeological park where we watched a film depicting what the temple area was like in Jesus’ time. They have done some very impressive excavation work there, you can see the remnants of an arch where the men could enter into the area of the temple where they could hand over the animals they were giving the priests for sacrifice. You can see steps, some of them ancient and some not as old (having been rebuilt over time but still centuries old) which led to the area the money changers would have been when Jesus turned their tables over and drove them and those selling animals out of the temple area. And there is now remnants of the ancient road Jesus definitely would have walked on as he was led to Pilate’s fortress on Good Friday.

We then had lunch at a beautiful spot overlooking the city on Mt. Scopus. From there we traveled to the Garden Tomb. The Garden Tomb is an alternative site which could possibly be where Calvary and Jesus’ tomb were. On a cliff overlooking the area, which the British still have authority over, you can see what definitely looks like a skull. It is also outside the old wall of the city (as Scripture says about Calvary). Unfortunately since my last trip, the huge skull face in the cliff wall has deteriorated a lot and doesn’t quite look as “face like” as it used to, but they have pictures dating back to 1900 where it clearly looks like a skull and you could see how the name “place of the skull” makes perfect sense. The Garden Tomb is in a garden of course, and evidence shows the are has been a garden since before Jesus’ time. A wonderful British guide taught us all this and showed us around, he was a retired British army chaplain who worked there a week a year, giving his time in service to the Garden Tomb. They have a tomb which, if this is the place, would have been pretty much how a tomb a rich man like Joseph of Arimathea would have had. There is a trough in front of the opening for a stone to be rolled in front of the entrance and they have such a stone near by. Inside is a large chamber where mourners could gather and to the right are two places where bodies would have been laid. It fits the Biblical description pretty well.

The Garden Tomb folks allowed us a private space for us to have Eucharist. This was a beautiful time as we sang, read the Gospel from when Jesus appeared in the garden to Mary Magdalene who thought at first he was a gardener, and shared Christ’s body and blood. Near us another group was doing the same and we joined in their singing during communion. Groups from all over the world were in their various places doing the same, all singing and praising God, it was quite moving. I blessed all the articles people had bought while on the trip as well as a beautiful new chalice and paten given to me by our guide which we used for communion of course. A very moving time, weeping was certainly involved!

Leaving the Garden Tomb we browsed in the gift shop then headed for the bus, which had to be moved a few blocks up the street. Like at most places in Jerusalem you are constantly hounded by street vendors selling their wares, they are very loud and persistent to the point of annoyance. This whole trip I have stayed in the back of our group making sure know one gets separated or has any trouble. I constantly urge folks to keep up, pay attention, stay together, etc. The crowds at many of those holy sites are huge and it is very easy to get separated from your group but we managed well. Jennifer had setup a buddy system so no one was ever supposed to be alone and also helped us make sure we all got on the bus together. As we left the tomb, one of our group was missing her buddy so walked back up to the gift shop to look for him. As we all headed up the hill to the bus someone else reported she had returned to the group but when I got on the bus she was not there. Her buddy was. So I headed the several blocks back to the tomb area and found her, a little frazzled because she had no idea where the bus was. I was able to get her moving in the right direction and offer some comfort (it can be really scary to be all alone on a street corner in that city, with no idea where your group is!). I had my phone out along the way in case she had shown up on the bus and someone could notify me to come back. As we turned to walk up the hill we were confronted by a vendor, who acted VERY aggressively, shouting in my face, and I mean inches from my face, to buy his post cards. I was not in the mood for this and had to physically move him away from us. After taking about five more steps I reached in my jacket pocket for my phone and discovered it was gone! This is the only time the whole trip I had not zipped my jacket pocket up with the phone in it, and it was most likely due to the distraction of dealing with this guy. I told the person with me he took my phone and turned to chase after him and he was no where in site! I mean long gone. I believe he had an accomplice he reached into my jacket when the other guy confronted me. There was nothing to do but return to the bus. I was able to use Find my iPhone and you could see the last location was at a bus station around the corner as you return to the old city, in other words were thousands of people would be. I did all the things you do when this happens, including shutting the phone down. I discovered when we got back to Miami that my Apple Care plan does not cover “lost or stolen”, so a very expensive lesson learned the hard way! I am more upset about the last photos and videos (since we had very limited WiFi the whole trip, things were not uploaded to the cloud on a consistent basis, the last photos that were saved were from two days before). Once in Miami I was able to get a new phone, reluctantly having to pay off the stolen one first! UGH! Kind of ironic it would happen to me and very frustrating of course.

But this experience does not put a damper on this amazing, spiritual, miraculous time we all had! I will reflect more once back home on the whole trip, and of course all you poor St. Simon’s folks will be inundated with sermon stories about our adventure! Stay tuned for much more, and if you have been following along, thank you and God bless. Your prayers have meant so much to us all.

Holy Land Day 8

We headed to the Dead Sea this morning. First stop Qumran. This is where the Dead Sea scrolls were found. They have done wonderful excavation work of where the Essenes sect lived and worshipped. Much of the scrolls contained their rule of life, how they purified themselves several times a day, their prayer life and rules for common living. As our guide said, in some ways this was the first monastery in history. The Essenes has separated from the temple as they did not believe those Jews were strict enough in their obedience to the Law.

You can see the caves where the scrolls were found by a shepherd boy in 1946. There are many caves in the rocky Judean mountains.

On to Masada, the amazing fortress built by King Herod high on a cliff overlooking the Dead Sea. It is the site of the Jewish rebels last stand after the revolt in 66 -72 AD. That story is too much to type here but well worth looking up if you don’t know it. It was a palace and a fortress with an intricate water retention and delivery system as well as huge store rooms for food. You can still see much of the elaborate mosaic floors and the ingenious water system.

It was then time for some fun! We had lunch at the beach and then many of us floated on the Dead Sea. It’s hard to describe how weird that is! The group was having a blast, rubbing the mineral loaded mud on our skin and floating raftless on our backs.

Our last stop was Jericho, a surprise from our guide. We drove past the archaeological dig of what is known to be the oldest city ever uncovered – 10,000 years old! Yes it is where Joshua made the walls come down! We drove to a small lookout where you can see the Mount of Temptation, where Jesus was tempted by Satan after his baptism. There is a stunning Greek Orthodox monastery built into the mountainside and only accessible via cable car.

While there our guide arranged for a camel for many of the group to ride! It was a blast. Jennifer was probably the most excited, a real bucket list item for her!