Last week you all were kind to allow me to attend the annual North American Deans Conference, that yearly gathering of cathedral deans from the United States and Canada. This year we met in Miami. Dean Doug McCaleb of Trinity Cathedral was a most gracious host, and I had a fantastic time. The collective deans discussed historic churches and the way that beautiful old buildings can still be effective tools for growing the church and spreading the Good News of God in Christ. I love being with my fellow deans. They are a colleague group who understands the particular quirks, challenges, and joys of cathedral ministry. We broke bread together. We prayed together. And for lunch one day, we went on a cruise.
Though we are still in the Easter season, today’s first reading (Acts 2:42-47) fast-forwards in the biblical narrative to the other side of Pentecost. It’s been a whirlwind time for the followers of Jesus. The heights and depths they’ve experienced in the past few weeks have been tumultuous. One day not long ago, if you’d asked the twelve apostles what the future looked like, they’d have charted a path for you with more or less certain expectations. They had a sense of where Jesus was leading them and their role in that future. But then Holy Week happened; and Easter; and the Ascension of Jesus; and the selection of Judas Iscariot’s replacement; and the arrival of the Holy Spirit on Pentecost. All the disciples’ plans have been upended, and things have been moving at a pace that has prevented them from redefining their reality. They no longer know their own storyline.
Other than a one hour Mississippi River tour on the old Memphis Queen paddleboat during my childhood, I’ve never been on a cruise. And so, as at the Deans’ Conference I didn’t really know what to expect. The deans boarded this particular ship for this particular cruise line—we’ll call it Circus Cruises—and stepped into a seven story high central atrium. From that first split second on board, my senses were bombarded. Music blared. Lights flashed. Everything was gilded. Uniformed staff handed out drinks as they directed us to the elevators.
I stepped off the elevator several decks later to be confronted with a series of huge, widow-sized digital picture frames. Photos of various previous passengers flashed in the frames. Some wore Hawaiian shirts. Others wore faux historic costumes, as if they were antebellum socialites or Golden Age Hollywood stars. And in front of the digital frames were a dozen large advertisements, seeking to entice me to have my photo taken. The placards asked, “How will you tell your story?”
That is the question faced by the disciples after the earthly Jesus has left them. They are without definition. Jesus had offered them a path, a Way, but now it is up to them to decide whether it will be their Way, whether Jesus’ story will become their own. To choose Jesus’ Way would require setting aside other stories: stories of ambition, inward indulgence, peaceful anonymity, and more.
The disciples could return to their homes and resume the old way of life they’d known before they encountered Jesus, a life at least of predictability. They could seek a new messiah, one who better fulfills their expectations of a hero who will cast off the yoke of the Roman Empire and bring them glory. They could reinvent themselves entirely, settling in a new place with a new identity.
But they choose to tell none of these stories. In the Acts reading today, the twelve apostles and the other followers of Jesus choose to continue, to carry on, to walk the path of Jesus’ story. The Book of Acts tells us, “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” The disciples choose to define themselves—irrevocably and forever, in their own hearts and publicly in their society—as Christians. They decide to embrace and endure everything that comes with that storyline, both the challenge and the promise.
Back on Circus Cruises, as my eyes and ears adjusted to my surroundings on the ship, I realized all that glitters is not gold. The ship was tattered and worn. Even the gilding was clearly a thin façade. The ship was a glitzy, make-believe reality, just like those digital photos that could render me Sam Houston or Humphrey Bogart or anyone else I wanted to be other than me. And my eyes were repeatedly drawn to those ubiquitous advertisements: How will you tell your story? Just as it was for the disciples, that is our question, too.
One other thing about the ship on which I had lunch. It lever left port. We ate, walked the gilded halls, and passed through the Lido Deck with its shallow pools, but we never moved. I took a cruise that didn’t go anywhere, and, somehow, that was emblematic of the experience, too.
The cruise ship—at least that cruise ship on Circus Cruises; it’s the only one I’ve experienced, and I speak of no others—is an icon of the story our culture encourages us to tell: Be anyone other than yourself. Wear a disguise. Slap on a veneer of glitz and polish to hide your flaws. Bombard the senses with lights and sound to provide further distraction from any other storyline. And if that story doesn’t work out, swipe the digital screen clear and be someone else. It’s our modern version of Jay Gatsby. People on the Lido Deck might even swoon as we walk by.
But in our culture as on that cruise ship, all that glitters isn’t gold. The veneer, the lights, the sounds, the frenetic changes in identity, cannot long hide the tattered dinginess of it all, or the fact that the ship isn’t moving. In that way of living—in that story—there is no growth, no enlightenment, no movement toward God. Just glitter; no gold.
But we are not on that boat today. We are in this one, this ark, this church. There is no veneer here. The wood is solid. The polished brass is pure. The baptismal pool is spiritually deep. And the storyline is forever. But there are also no disguises here. We are called to be who we truly are, with our warts and flaws as honest and prominent as all the rest, because they are truer to the story than our Jay Gatsby smile.
We are called here out of the frenetic storylines our world gives us, out of the ever-changing digital frames and into an identity that endures. This story comes with challenge, just as it comes with promise. It requires that we set aside ambition, and inward indulgence, and sometimes quiet anonymity in favor of courage, self-sacrifice, service, and love. In this story we devote ourselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread together, and to prayer.
And this ship moves. It leaves the safe harbor and travels into the very mystery of God, which sometimes we experience as a tranquil lagoon but other times as a whirlpool, upending us just when we’ve gained our sea legs.
There is no better tale to tell. There is no greater adventure. Your page is ready to turn, and the next one is at present blank paper. The world’s Circus Cruise has plenty of storylines from which to choose. Jesus has but one. How will you tell your story?