Confession of an Episcopal hunter

Covey of quailTonight my son and I had quail for dinner.  I marinated the birds in olive oil and rosemary, added a dash of lime juice, and baked at 425 degrees.  We ate like kings.

These quail were wild birds.  I shot them myself during an afternoon with Dr. Jill Carroll, tromping across several hundred acres of South Texas grass fields—a glorious piece of God’s good creation.

I’m a hunter.  I haven’t always been.  I was raised in rural Arkansas, where during duck season it was not unusual for high school classmates to arrive at the opening bell sleepy-eyed in coveralls after having already spent two hours in a duck blind.  Many boys had killed their first deer by age eight.  (Indeed, I have several Arkansas nephews who have accomplished exactly that feat.)  I went duck hunting once or twice as a boy.  It was always frigid outside, and the ducks always seemed too high in the air to shoot.  I was cured of hunting by the time I reached sixth grade.

But then in 2007 I moved to Roanoke, Virginia, and soon my good friend and parishioner, Robert Brailsford, invited me to dove hunt with him.  On Labor Day weekend, we drove to a cut corn field in Franklin County, and in the span of four hours I was hooked.  (It helped that I hit the first bird at which I took aim, which was—so far—the highlight of my hunting career.)

I loved all of it: The camaraderie; the extended time outdoors without email or cell phone, time in which to pray and count one’s blessings; the excitement when a flight of birds crossed the field; and the respect I felt for the canny dove that knew when to veer and dip to avoid being hit (in my case, most of the dove).Quail hunt, January 2012

I dove hunted each fall after that.  Then in 2012 another friend and parishioner, Chris Moore, took me quail and pheasant hunting, which had the added benefit of constant movement.  I returned from that hunt with the realization that I was no longer someone who enjoyed hunting; I’d become a hunter.

The country rock band Drive-By Truckers talk about “the duality of the Southern thing.”  I experience that sometimes-conflicted conundrum in many different manifestations, including when I reflect upon my identity as a hunter.  On the one hand, I am a progressive-leaning Episcopal priest who advocates reasonable gun control, the stewardship of God’s earth, the good care of God’s creatures, and peaceable living.  On the other hand, I am a shotgun-owning wing shooter who admittedly thrills when I hit my mark.

Quail hunt, October 2013 (Texas)I navigate “the duality of the Southern thing” in this case—and I offer this as explanation, not as excuse—by acknowledging that I am a carnivore.  I consume meat, including the birds I hunt.  And after viewing the films “Fast Food Nation” and “Food, Inc.,” I trust with confidence that the birds I kill and consume have lived as God hopes and intends compared to the mass-produced, bioengineered, engorged chickens, cows, and pigs that are conveniently packaged in cellophane at Kroger and HEB.  It seems to me there is integrity in being vegan; there is integrity in buying one’s meat from free range, grass-feed farmers; and there is integrity in being a hunter who eats what he shoots and doesn’t shoot more than he will eat.

I will admit that I experience intermittent ambivalence about hunting.  But then again, I’m fond of saying (and I believe) that doubt is first-cousin of faith, while certainty is faith’s opposite.  And it is surely true that in the field I feel as close to God as I do anywhere but the sacred space of the church.

Persistence

I ran track in high school.  Specifically, I ran the two hundred meter race.  I wasn’t the fastest sprinter by any stretch of the imagination, but I could run a respectable race and a respectable leg on the relay team.  My teammate Shannon West, on the other hand, could smoke the track.  He could sprint; he could hurdle; he could high jump, and our coach took full advantage of Shannon’s athletic talents.  But at a track meet in Newport, Arkansas one fine spring afternoon, Coach Carter made a simple mathematical error.  He entered Shannon in more events than the rules allowed.  It wasn’t until the runners were called to the blocks for the four hundred meter race—that’s a full lap around the track—that Coach realized his mistake.  If Shannon ran the four hundred, which would put him over the event limit, his results in every event in which he’d participated would be declared void.  That couldn’t be allowed to happen, and so two minutes before the starting pistol for the four hundred meters was fired, Coach Carter looked at me and said, “Barkley, you’re running this race.”

Me, during my only attempt to run the four hundred meter race.

Me, during my only attempt to run the four hundred meter race.

Never in my life had I run the four hundred meters.  I was conditioned to run a sprint merely half as long, and every runner in this room already knows how this story ends.   The pistol fired, and I took off like a bullet at the two hundred meter pace to which I was accustomed.  I rounded the first curve, and for the first time in my life—in my life—I was winning!  Not only that, I was winning by twenty yards.  “This is awesome,” I thought, “I should have been running this race all along!”

Then, as we reached the second curve, something happened.  It was as if the track surface melted into an oozy glue that sucked at my shoes.  At the same time, my lungs felt as if I’d inhaled World War I-era mustard gas.  My world suddenly shifted into slow motion.  Nobody else’s did.  Every other runner passed me.  Every one.  I hadn’t paced myself for endurance.  I’d run a full-out sprint when the four hundred meters notoriously calls for something different.  I ran entirely out of steam, and the race passed me by.

Think back, if you will, to the Gospel text two weeks ago.  Then, the disciples said to Jesus, “Increase our faith,” and Jesus responded to them by redefining the very concept of faith.  Faith, Jesus taught two weeks ago, is a commitment to do the work of God, and what’s more, to do that work first in our lives, before tending to our own needs, wants, and desires.

I suggested two weeks ago that that’s a difficult message for twenty-first century Americans to hear.  It goes against our cultural grain.  We have, regardless of ideology, a strong libertarian streak that makes it difficult to put anything or anyone else before our own wants and certainly our own needs.  And it’s even more difficult to put someone as ethereal and elusive as God at the front of the line.

Surely, it can happen that we encounter something that inspires our faith and leads us to change our priorities.  We see a person in need, or we read a moving story in the newspaper, or we hear a rousing sermon.  (A preacher can always hope.)  And the result may be that we engage the work of God with renewed gusto.  We fire out of the racing blocks at a sprint.  But if we’re honest, we’ll admit that, usually, we quickly run out of steam, spent and worn out by the time we turn the second curve.  And sooner rather than later, the notion of faith as an actual, daily commitment to God’s vision for the world subsides into the mist.

The widow and the unjust judge

The widow and the unjust judge

Which is why Jesus gives us today’s odd little parable.  There is a judge who is corrupt, lazy or both.  His docket is full, but he does not mete out justice.  Those who already have power and influence fare well in his court.  The trampled masses who exist on the margins of society leave no better off than they were when they approached his bench.

One day a widow enters the judge’s courtroom.  It’s important to note that widows in Jesus’ day had no influence or power.  They had no legal standing, and every day their well-being was contingent upon the favor of others.  Their very existence depended on those with power protecting them justly.

Such a widow enters the courtroom of the judge today and asks for justice.  He ignores her.  So she comes back tomorrow.  He ignores her.  So she comes back the following day, and the day after that, and the day after that.  She returns every day for weeks, and finally the judge relents, not because he has a change of heart, but because she is steady, and she is persistent.  The judge says to himself, “Though I have no fear of God and no respect for anyone, I’ll grant this widow justice because she’s wearing me out.”

The parable reminds me of a man I knew in Roanoke named Ray, who bagged groceries at the Kroger and attended Sunday evening church at St. John’s where I served. One of my favorite people, Ray grew up in Queens, New York.  He moved to Virginia several years ago when he decided he couldn’t stand the city any longer.   He’d budgeted enough travel money to ride the Greyhound as far as Roanoke, and thus he stayed.  Ray once told me the best day of his life was when he served as a ball boy for the New York Yankees.  “How’d that come about?” I asked.

"Hey Ralph!  When you gonna let me be ball boy?"

“Hey Ralph! When you gonna let me be ball boy?”

It turns out, every afternoon for an entire spring Ray positioned himself at the entrance where Yankee’s manager Ralph Houk entered the stadium.  And every day for an entire spring Ray asked—even taunted—Houk, “Hey, Ralph!  When are you going to let me be the ball boy?  Hey, Ralph!  When are you going to let me be the ball boy?”  Every afternoon.  All spring.  Until, you guessed it, a twelve-year-old kid from Queens found himself wearing a Yankee’s uniform and holding the bat for Bobby Murcer.

What does this parable add to Jesus’ ongoing definition of faith?  It tells us that the inspired moment, the mountaintop spiritual experience, the heart-in-the throat that comes from the hearing a powerful word are only the beginning of faith, and if we respond to them too erratically, with too much initial force, with front-end-loaded energy, we risk exhausting that faith before it is able to further grace in the world.

This is hard for us to hear.  We live in a society of five minute news cycles, one hundred-forty character Tweets, and reality TV shows in which you get voted off the island if you don’t accomplish something new every week.  We are conditioned to expect immediate gratification, and when we don’t, we lose heart and interest.  But our error is in thinking that faith is mostly about us at all.  Surely, God grants us experiences of inspiration and, indeed, saving grace.  God reminds us that we are loved.  God reveals to us beauty and gives us peace.  But God’s project of redemption is for the whole world, and God redeems us so that we can be co-operators in that project.  God doesn’t save us for our own sake.  Salvation isn’t indulgent in that way.  God saves us so that we can be God’s runners, and it’s a marathon not a sprint.  That may not be flashy or romantic, but it’s what will, with God’s help, save the world.

A society of five minute news cycles, 140-character Tweets, and reality TV shows in which you get voted off the island if you don't accomplish something new every week.

A society of five minute news cycles, 140-character Tweets, and reality TV shows in which you get voted off the island if you don’t accomplish something new every week.

Where are the present-day models for the slow-going, dogged, persistent faith that Jesus describes today?  This past week the Faith & Society Seminar which I facilitate read Martin Luther King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”  King, who wrote the letter on scraps of paper while languishing in a sweltering jail cell on the trumped-up charge of parading without a permit, says, “We must come to see that human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability.  It comes through the tireless efforts and persistent work of men [and women] willing to be co-workers with God.”  Martin Luther King surely knew this in his own life, work, and ultimate sacrifice.

Dr. King can be a daunting model of faith, so let me offer you another, simpler one much closer to home.  Melissa Elenbaas is a UPS driver here in Houston.  She is a working woman, expected by her employer to deliver her packages accurately and on time, which she diligently does.  Melissa’s route takes her daily through the Fifth Ward, where (among other endemic problems) there is a chronic problem of abandoned, neglected, and abused dogs.  Some years ago, unable to turn a blind eye to the suffering of God’s creatures, Melissa became a foster owner for the organization Forgotten Dogs of the Fifth Ward, taking in dogs that are often near death.  Two months ago Melissa found an emaciated and mange-ridden, half-grown dog she named “Mira.”  Mira looked so awful that most people wouldn’t dare approach her, much less take her into their arms and their homes.  Except for Melissa, who embraced her without a second thought.  Melissa wasn’t sure Mira would live.  Nursing her to health was difficult and laborious, especially for someone who works long, hard hours and lives alone.  But Melissa is committed to this work.  It is Gospel work, and at our St. Francis Day blessing two Sundays ago Melissa brought a glossy, healthy, and incredibly happy Mira to be blessed by a priest.  And the priest was so taken by Melissa’s persistent faith that he and his family have adopted Mira as the newest Thompson.

Mira Thompson

Mira Thompson

The promise of Jesus’ parable today is that God is not like that corrupt judge.  The world may be.  The world may ignore our labors and our entreaties, yielding only because we refuse to give up the race.  But not God.  God will rush quickly to our aid, if we’ll dig in for his work.  God will strengthen us as God strengthened Martin Luther King, as God strengthens a UPS driver in the 5th Ward.  The promise is that God will be with us as we run the marathon.  And the promise is that, through our persistence and God’s grace, we people of good will can prevail.  In other words of Dr. King, the arc of God’s moral universe is indeed long, but it surely bends toward justice.  We can prevail.  The only question is, will we?  When the Lord returns, will he find such faith?

Second Nature

On January 15, 2009, the plane took off at 3:25 p.m. into clear skies from LaGuardia en route to Charlotte.  By 3:27 the plane had risen to 3,200 feet—that’s not very high—and was over a densely populated area of the Bronx when a flock of Canada geese flew headlong into its nosecone.  In a split second the windscreen turned dark brown, and both engines sucked in birds.  Passengers heard very loud bangs, and exhaust was seen streaming from the engines.  Thirty-six seconds later, the captain radioed back to LaGuardia that both engines had failed.  He was returning to the airport.  But seconds after that, the captain assessed that he had neither the altitude nor the time to make it.  “We can’t do it,” he calmly reported, “We’re gonna be in the Hudson.”

The time between collision with the birds and impact with the water was less than three minutes.  In that span, the captain accomplished all of the following:  Within three seconds of the bird strike, he took control of the airplane from his co-pilot.  He considered returning to LaGuardia; identified and ruled out Teterboro, New Jersey, as an alternative airport at which to land; evaluated the pros and cons of landing on the New Jersey Turnpike; decided to land on the Hudson River; and positioned the wings and nose just precisely so, so that the large jet was neither somersaulted end-over-end nor sucked under the current upon impact.USAIR 1549 1

At the same time all of this macro-level deliberation was going on, the captain also had to shut down the engines, set the right speed so that the plane could glide as long as possible, override the autopilot and flight management system, and make a sharp left-hand turn so the plane could land with the flow of the river rather than against it.  He did this using only the battery-operated systems and emergency generator, and remember all of this—from the impact with the geese to splashdown—occurred in approximately the amount of time I’ve been preaching this sermon.

As soon as the plane touched down on the river the evacuation began, and the captain walked the aisle repeatedly making sure that all passengers were safely off the airplane before he himself disembarked.  All 155 people on board escaped with only a few minor injuries.

The successful landing of USAir Flight 1549 has been called a miracle.  I’m sure the passengers on that plane felt that it was so.  How else can we explain Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger’s amazing accomplishment?

For an animated reenactment of the flight, click this video:

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“The apostles said to the Lord, ‘Increase our faith!’  The Lord replied, ‘If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, “Be uprooted and planted in the sea,” and it would obey you.’”

Jesus’ admonition must be a shock to the apostles.  The nature of their request—increase our faith—reveals that they believe themselves already to be faithful disciples.  It’s not faith they need; it’s more of it.  But Jesus responds that they have not faith even the size of a tiny mustard seed.  If they did, they could accomplish miracles.  They could, as Matthew and Mark tell this same story, move mountains.  Whatever it is the apostles possess, on its own it isn’t faith.

And what do they possess?  They surely have religious fervor.  They call upon Jesus whenever they are weak or afraid.  Each of these things is important in their—and our—relationship with God.  We might even say that each of these things is component of faith.

Yet, the remainder of our Gospel passage this morning breaks the concept of faith wide-open.  Jesus goes on to talk about a servant who does his master’s work fully and without hesitation before that servant tends to his own needs.  In other words, faith looks to God first, and the faithful person is one whose passion is to do God’s work first.   Faith is not merely proclaiming Jesus and not merely looking to him for personal solace and strength.  Faith is living for him first in all that we do.  It is that which the disciples fail to grasp.

Referring to moving mountains, Alan Culpepper says the point is “that faith enables God to work in a person’s life in ways that defy ordinary human experience.”[i]  And that faith is displayed when we put the work of God first, before our own ambitions, before our own desires, and even before our own needs.  But that’s a big change.  How can we begin?

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Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger

Captain Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger

When one reads more about Captain Sullenberger, one discovers some interesting things.  It turns out that Sully was obsessive about logging hours in the flight simulator, putting in far more time than required.  He once served on an NTSB investigative board that developed new emergency evacuation procedures for aircraft.  And crucially, he was trained—unlike the vast majority of commercial pilots—to fly gliders.  In other words, Captain Sullenberger had prepared himself for over thirty years for that six minute flight on January 15, 2009.

Nothing Sully did that morning came naturally.  By nature, he—like anyone—would have crashed that Airbus into the Bronx.  But through dedication and attention over years, Sully developed a second nature, one that kicked-in so that he didn’t panic, he didn’t freeze, he didn’t even have to pause and check the emergency manual.[ii]  He landed that plane like a pillow on a swiftly moving river.  I’d say that’s akin to moving mountains.  When asked on the television show “CBS This Morning” if he had confidence that January afternoon, Sully responded, “I just knew it was possible.”

Landing a plane in horrific circumstances; saving 155 lives without thought of one’s own; doing what for others would be impossible.  How did Sully know it was possible?  He had been formed, through discipline, in faith.

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We’re in the second week of our Every Member Canvass at Christ Church, and both the stories of Sully Sullenberger and Jesus’ apostles are apt.  Why should we exercise the faithful practice of pledging our financial resources to the church?  Precisely because it does not come naturally!  Taking the first five, seven, or ten percent of our paychecks and giving it back to God feels no more natural than landing a plane on the Hudson.  And yet, it is a crucial step in developing our second nature, the one by which we are remade into faithful people.

Are we like the apostles?  What do we think faith is?  Is it an IOU from God for some future reward?  Is it fortitude to get through life’s difficult circumstances?  In part, yes.  But remember Jesus’ words today: Primarily faith is the passion to put God’s work first in our lives.  It is the recognition that we are blessed for a purpose: so that we may be a blessing.

Faith that moves mountainsWe are challenged—as Jesus challenges the apostles—to see ourselves as God’s servants before all other things, including our ambition, our desires, and even our needs.  That’s an uncomfortable exercise for 21st Century Americans!  The first step in this new understanding is to take on practices and exercises that begin to form our second nature.  Sully got in the flight simulator and trained to fly gliders.  We must do those things that remind us what we are made for, disciplines that include carving out time for prayer, worship, service to others with our own hands and sweat, and the study of God’s word.

But because we are all—let’s be honest—so defined by our money, the first of these disciplines is to give away to God the first portion of the material things with which we are blessed.  Financial stewardship of the church is not just paying our dues or paying fee for service; it is a spiritual practice.  And when your pledges and mine are combined for the remarkable work of this Cathedral, we can begin to move mountains.

This is the month to begin.  I have faith that we will each give back to God faithfully, and that through the work of this place we will witness miracles.


[i] New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. IX, pg. 322.

[ii] This idea and the example of Captain Sullenberger are drawn from N.T. Wright’s book After You Believe.