About djgrieser

I have been Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Madison, WI since 2009. I'm passionate about Jesus Christ and about connecting our faith and tradition with 21st century culture. I'm also very active in advocating for our homeless neighbors.

God in Proof, God in Prayer: A Sermon for Proper 12, Year A

Proper 12, Year A

July 27, 2014

“The Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words.”

Right now I’m reading a book by Nathan Schneider called God in Proof. I first encountered Schneider’s writing some years ago through the website he began with some other young writers called “Killing the Buddha.” It’s hard to describe in a few words what they’re trying to do with the site, but at its core is the quest of young people, millennials, to explore questions of faith and spirituality in our modern world. Continue reading

Eye-popping irony: conference on re-imagining the Episcopal Church at National Cathedral

So, the Task force on Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC, to insiders) has invited Episcopalians to a one day conference on October 7.


It will be held at the Washington National Cathedral.

Holding such an event at the very heart of the power and privilege of American culture and civil religion speaks volumes. It’s incredibly difficult for people to imagine an alternative vision of the church in such a setting.

Perhaps the restructuring process will be successful but if conference organizers and members of the task force are blind to the symbolic power of choices like where to hold such events, I fear they are also going to be blind to possible directions the Holy Spirit might be leading us.

Having the event in Detroit, for example, would send a very different message.

Rowan Williams on prayer

Some kinds of instruction in prayer used to say at the beginning, “Put yourself in the presence of God.” But I often wonder whether it would be more helpful to say, “Put yourself in the place of Jesus.” It sounds appallingly ambitious, even presumptuous, but that is actually what the New Testament suggests we do. Jesus speaks to God for us, but we speak to God in him. You may say what you want—but he is speaking to the Father, gazing into the depths of the Father’s love. And as you understand Jesus better, as you grow up a little in your faith, then what you want to say gradually shifts a bit more into alignment with what he is always saying to the Father, in his eternal love for the eternal love out of which his own life streams forth.

That, in a nutshell, is prayer—letting Jesus pray in you and beginning that lengthy and often very tough process by which our selfish thoughts and ideals and hopes are gradually aligned with his eternal action, just as, in his own earthly life, his human fears and hopes and desires and emotions are put into the context of his love for the Father, woven into his eternal relation with the Father—even in that moment of supreme pain and mental agony that he endures the night before his death.

Rowan Williams writing on Origen and prayer in the Christian Century

Evidence that supportive religious denominations have a positive effect on gay youth

The Wisconsin State Journal reports on a study conducted by Dr. Maurice Gattis of UW Madison that shows gay youth involved in gay-affirming religious communities have fewer “depressive symptoms” from discrimination than other gay youth:

pecifically, gay college students in the study who were affiliated with gay-affirming religious denominations suffered fewer “depressive symptoms” related to discrimination than their gay counterparts who are secular or who were affiliated with denominations opposed to same-sex marriage.

Remarkably, this was true for all groups; that is to say, gays in “gay-affirming” denominations scored better on the survey than did secular gays.

For the Episcopal Church, one caveat: for the purposes of this study “gay-affirming” was defined by the denomination’s stand on same-sex marriage.

Groaning in despair and hope: A Sermon for Proper 9, Year A

I’m not sure that there’s been a week in recent years where the news from across the world has put me in as deep despair about humanity as this one. The apparent shooting down of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 over the Ukraine; the senseless, never-ending violence in Israel and Gaza with photos of the deaths of Palestinian children and Israelis sitting in lawn chairs cheering the airstrikes; from Iraq, scenes of the destruction of the Christian heritage in Mosul and an announcement that Christians there must convert, pay a tax, or be killed; on our own border with Mexico, the ongoing human tragedy of thousands of refugees suffering while opponents of immigration spout hate-filled slogans. Everywhere one looks, divisions seem to be widening, problems becoming more intractable. We seem to be on an endless spiral downward with little hope for a better future. The dystopian visions of Hunger Games and other fantasy fiction become more plausible with every passing day. Continue reading

The latest on the “spiritual but not religious”

Mark Oppenheimer in today’s New York times:

At the very least, we might conclude that “spiritual but not religious” isn’t necessarily vague or wishy-washy. It’s not nothing, although it may risk being everything.

Little new here, although Oppenheimer uses Courtney Bender’s and Linda Mercadante’s work to stress that the “nones” (as they’re often called) can be both communal in orientation and theologically sophisticated.

Rowan Williams on reading and interpreting scripture

Things get difficult if you hold that the Bible is only a human product; but they also get difficult when the Bible is treated only as a set of timeless instructions from God, irrespective of the actual process by which the texts arose. The Bible needs to be read, prayerfully and discerningly, in the company of as many other believers as possible, so that we can learn some wisdom from each other as to what exactly God does want to tell us. Hearing the truth in Scripture means expecting the Holy Spirit to be at work both in the text and in the community that reads it.

From an interview with Jonathan Merritt. More here

How Housing First works in Boston: providing permanent housing for the chronically homeless

A story on the transformation at Pine Street Inn, Boston’s largest provider of shelter for the homeless. Under the leadership of Executive Director Lyndia Downie, Pine Street now manages more beds in homes than in shelters:

What Downie saw years ago was buried in a trove of data she scoured: 5 percent of the homeless population took up more than half of the beds at Pine Street on any given night.

The truth is that most people who come through Pine Street are there because of a temporary crisis.

They often just need a place to stay for a few days. But Downie began to imagine what would happen if Pine Street focused on that 5 percent — the people who live on the street for months or years.

Few people thought her idea would work. These street people didn’t want help.

Not true. A year after moving into a Pine Street home — where they also receive counseling — 96 percent of the chronically homeless are still there.

Conversations about marriage

Marriage is highly contested in our culture in the twenty-first century. We fight about marriage equality and worry about changing marriage patterns. With a divorce rate around 45%, increasing rates of couples living together, and close connections between poverty and children born to unwed mothers, the challenges presented by changing marriage patterns have important social consequences. Some of the dramatic changes in marriage practice in the last half century include:

  • In 1960, 2/3 of all adults in their twenties were married; in 2008, only 26% were
  • 65% of all couples live together before getting married
  • marriage is much more common among college-educated and economically stable people than among the less-educated and less-affluent
  • 90% of young adults think they need to be completely financially independent before marriage

All data from material provided by the Task Force on Marriage. More info here.

In the Episcopal Church, our General Convention 2012 called for a Task Force to study the theology of marriage. As part of its work, it has invited dioceses, parishes, and interested individuals to engage in conversations about marriage. We will be holding such a conversation on July 31 at St. Luke’s here in Madison.

The impetus for the task force came in part from the discussion about same-sex blessings and the trial rite that uses language of blessing, stops short of calling it marriage, yet is being used in many places where gay marriage is legal.

The Celebration and Blessing of a Marriage in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer is the product of its age and shows some signs of its historical context. With the use of two different rites in the church, and the oft-repeated statement made that the trial rite would be appropriate for use with heterosexual couples, there is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding marriage in the church.

For myself, one of the most important issues around marriage is my role as officiant. I am increasingly uncomfortable serving as an agent of the state and as an enabler of the marriage-industrial complex. What might an Episcopal rite, theology, and practice of marriage look like if neither of those factors were involved? It seems to me that the marriage rite is increasingly “divorced” from the practice of marriage. As a church we’re not very successful at doing “all in our power to uphold these two persons in their marriage” as we promise during the rite, and we’re even less successful in help couples who are struggling with their relationships.

A recent study explores the relationship between religious involvement and marriage among young adults:

Nominally religious young adults are in a vulnerable position: they are religious enough to be pushed into early marriage, for instance, but, lacking the social support mediated by an in-the-flesh religious congregation, they don’t reap the benefits of involvement in a religious community. Instead, religion may become a source of conflict.

More here

People may not come to church but they’ll come to a bowling alley: Random thoughts and links on sacred space

The quotation comes from the pastor of a church in Birmingham AL:

People may not want to come to a church, but they’ll come to a bowling alley. People have needs other than spiritual needs. There’s a need for safe, clean, uplifting, family-oriented entertainment.”

Read it all here

Laura Ortberg Turner reflects on the sacrality of different churches which she has attended:

The church I attend now is two thousand miles away. We take communion every week, walking down squeaky hardwood floors—all one hundred twenty of us—past stained glass windows, toward the giant cross behind the stage. The smells and history and personality of this building shape my experience of worship, too. The strong wine a regular testament to the shock of the resurrection; the pews an invitation to sit close to the people I don’t know but already love; the constant, drafty chill a reminder of the building’s history in a city where everything else seems new. There is a sense in the room that we are surrounded by people who are not there, and if I don’t quite mean ghosts. I also don’t mean just those who are alive and present. It is full of that great cloud of witnesses that has filled the sanctuary for a century before us.

Steve Swayne ponders the differences between what he labels “stadium” and “sanctuary” culture. Thinking about the way people milled around a college commencement ceremony, he connected that behavior with “stadium” culture. He much prefers “sanctuary” culture.

And beyond lower blood pressure and better health outcomes, sanctuary culture at its best forces us to see and hear more of the world around us. It helps us to see and hear that world better. And if the history of lectures and libraries and liturgies shows us anything, the deliberation inherent in sanctuary culture, more than the carnivalesque nature of stadium culture, holds the key to make our world better than it is today.

Just a couple of quick observations about that. First, I’m not sure that “lectures” participate in “sanctuary” culture, or that they have for thirty years. I remember a class at Harvard for which I was a Teaching Fellow in 1987. The class enrolled almost 1000 undergraduates and we often remarked that the room was never quiet. Students were always coming and going.

And the idea that people sit quietly in church or concert halls is a relatively recent phenomenon as well. Pews only came on the scene in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries and we know from sermons throughout the preceding history of Christianity that preachers complained bitterly that their congregations were milling about, coming in and out, engaging in conversations (even transacting business deals).

And I wonder what Swayne would think about the phenomenon of Social Media Sunday?

At the same time, physical space does shape us profoundly and helps to form us as human beings and as Christians. Worshiping in something that looks very much like an auditorium or movie theater invites behavior appropriate to those places.